Shaping the future

A while back, I wrote about something I called “economism”, in a spurt of self-parodic buzzwordising. The cornerstone of this was that people had simply stopped viewing the Irish budget as a socio-economic document, and viewed it instead as an accounting exercise; and that only someone bound by a sociopathic devotion to ledger-sheet politics could possibly find Ireland’s economic policy defensible.

Back in 2008 and 2009, the cuts seemed to be inflicted as a result of desperate, bludgeoning, selfish incompetence. Just as Ireland had reacted to BoomTime (cue hollow laughter) by cutting as many taxes as it could, it responded to recession by cutting public services with quiet savagery. It became a simple truism that Ireland had been successful because it was A Good Place To Do Business, and very, very few voices even wanted to think any deeper than that. In much the same way that the Tories believe that the Private Sector will drive the UK’s growth once the state is rolled back, because – um – well that’s what business does, successive Irish governments believed it would naturally get out of this rut if we only kept cutting, because that’s how Celtic Tigers work.

If there’s a difference between the Fianna Fáil government and today’s Blueshirt-piloted brigade, it’s simply that Noonan, Kenny, Varadkar et al do what they do out of ideology rather than cronyism. Fine Gael have long styled themselves as the respectable, pro-business, small-state party who wear well-ironed suits. Fianna Fáil treated the IMF as enemies over whom they had failed to pull a fast one; interest rates on bailouts aside, Kenny sees them as partners. Shrinking the public sector and cutting back on Ireland’s excuse for a welfare state is something he’s more than happy to do. Eamon Gilmore, meanwhile, has apparently decided that it’s Frankfurt’s way after all.

It’s easy to think the indiscriminate butchering of Ireland’s social structures imprecise, but the cuts of the last four years have been very precise indeed. They have unerringly sought out the neediest, the weakest, the most powerless. They have never visited any financial hardship on the wealthy that has not first been visited on those with little or nothing. Every year, social welfare has been cut; community projects have been ravaged; health entitlements have been scaled back. Corporation tax and the top rate of tax are untouched.

The justification that is always given for these actions is to reduce Ireland’s budget deficit, and yet…

No, wait. Let’s spell things out. Ireland’s budget deficit is in the order of €18 billion. It has begun to shrink, but not by any serious amount, and to a triumphant fanfare that betrays the fervour of people who know they are wrong. And yet in 2009 the Irish government took the decision to close Combat Poverty, an organisation whose funding amounted to €5.5m or so per annum. What sort of impact did that €5.5m have on Ireland’s budget deficit, exactly? Let’s just remove the emotion from the equation, and look at the figures; who talks about the desperate need to balance the public finances and cuts a €5.5m project, while voluntarily repaying billions of the unsecured loans of defunct, non-systemic banks that have nothing to do with the State? For that matter, who point-blank refuses to consider even a 1% increase in an absurdly low corporation tax rate, or even to close off any of the loopholes in that tax rate, and then focuses on the chicken-feed of community employment schemes? Are these seriously meant to be financial measures?

The truth, of course, is that this is not about public finances; it is about shaping the future. It’s only if you accept that simple fact that the budget makes any sense at all. Once you do, of course, a number of things become switchblade-obvious.

Ireland’s budget has confirmed eloquently that who we have in government makes no real difference. Both Fine Gael and, loudly, Labour, were flushed into power while shouting about how they were going to change things. Michael Noonan called the bank bailouts an “obscenity” but has nonetheless happily continued bailing them out.

Last week saw an astonishing attack on the disabled, the introduction of a VAT hike that could tip thousands of families into poverty, and even – there’s something almost poetic about the historical irony of this – a ‘Household Charge’ that has yet to be widely decried for the poll tax it is. It has brought about the end of countless community employment schemes and projects. I use the word countless literally; no one appears to have collated just how many schemes have been terminated in the last couple of years (this was, of course, the sort of thing Combat Poverty used to do). The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope had children carrying fake headstones, each one representing a cancelled scheme. There were a lot of headstones. This has saved the state next to nothing.

In fact, let’s play the accounting game for a moment and forget the emotive specifics; just look at the headline figures. While the government blithely talks about ‘savings’ of €3.8bn, the truth is miles from this. Much of the money spent by the State comes in the form of wages; about half of it would immediately come back in taxes and levies anyway. Benefit payments are spent by those who receive them, and translate into VAT receipts. This is even before one factors in Leaving Cert Economics concepts like the multiplier effect. If the €3.8bn ‘savings’ knock close to a billion off the bill, the Government will have done better than anyone could reasonably expect. The notion that these ‘savings’ will close Ireland’s deficit is laughable, and the accounts of every government currently in the midst of austerity provide clear data to support this.

In fact… let’s stop using this word austerity. It is no longer enough. This is a very, very distinct and deliberate economic war.

It is born of many things. The radical individualism pioneered by Thatcher and embraced in this country – in particular – by the PDs, although it’s increasingly become a default cross-party position; this has led to the belief that those with the least are, in a basic and all-encapsulating way, to blame for their own misfortune. The gutting of production industries, be they manufacturing or agriculture, and the embracing of a service-based economy as a template for ‘success’. The pseudo-professionalisation of our workforce, resulting in huge swathes left behind and feeling unwanted. It was David Simon who put it clearest: there is 10% of our workforce that we no longer economically need.

When the revenue was flowing, the solution was simply one of containment: so long as budgets balanced, and those at the top continued to be treated and paid as natural emperors, the system was fine, and it didn’t matter what happened at the bottom. You only worry about pests once they begin to bother you.

This is not just about protecting the rich; about protecting the illusory system that sustains them; about refusing to puncture the belief-system of capitalism, the mantras of trickle-down and wealth-creators and ever-expanding growth. Last week closed with European leaders making a pact to preserve their mythologies; they formalise austerity rulings, based on nothing but dogma, that will inflict astonishing suffering on tens of millions of people. The only man to walk away was preserving his own mythology, about Britannia and the fundamental goodness of bankers.

Community schemes are being destroyed, not because of budgets, but to appeal to people who flatly believe that they should not exist. Enda Kenny says that Ireland must show we are prepared to pay our way. What he means is that we must show we are sufficiently cruel, sufficiently callous, sufficiently contemptuous of our people. Then, and only then, will we be a viable credit risk to the powerful.

To a small, influential coterie, this recession is not a hardship. It is an opportunity. They see a chance to remake the world in a dreamed of image, and they see an acceptable collateral. When people talk about resisting, and resistance, they use the only words left that are apt. {jathumbnailoff}