It's not that the financial class doesn't care about you; it's that it can't, writes Nyder O'Leary.
There is, of course, something enduringly obnoxious about seeing an IBEC representative arguing gently that overtime on Sunday is outmoded. It’s also – and forgive me if I’m banging a familiar drum – knee-chewingly tedious. One has to wonder why IBEC are ever given media time, since it’s not like anything they say is ever a surprise. They are an employer’s group. They will argue for lower wages, lower taxes and fewer restrictions on business, because that’s what their vested interests demand. The appearance on Prime Time the other week was anything but a surprise.
But slagging off IBEC – a lobby group that has somehow passed itself off as an economic thinktank, at least in the way its pronouncements are habitually reported – is a bit too easy. Its upper echelons probably shrug off that kind of criticism regularly, and characterise it as the griping of people who just don’t understand how the system works.
Now I’ve no doubt that whoever-it-was who represented IBEC on Prime Time (I meant to note his name, but they all tend to blur together into a single entity called Gitty O’Pissface) would genuinely object to his organisation being characterised as a group of employers who will always argue to drive down costs for their own personal gain. From his point of view, IBEC are simply offering ways to regenerate a financial system that has broken. Once you’ve convinced yourself that you and your peers are the most critical part of a system, it’s a short leap to suggest that what’s good for you will automatically be good for everyone else. And when Gitty says, “of course workers’ rights are important” I have no doubt he genuinely believes this to be the case, he simply omits to state the obvious qualifier “…but not as important as us.”
In the same week, Adam Curtis’s new documentary, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, cast its eye over the financial crisis. Curtis is always on firm ground here, although it was a rare false step for the central thesis of his film to be as fudged as it was; while the film consistently talked about an ever-increasing reliance on computers, what it actually displayed was a slavish reliance – no, let’s call it what it was, a faith – in systems. The financial crisis has simply-
No, wait. Much of the discussion of Ireland’s economic situation, certainly since the election, has been a narrative of Ireland versus Europe. This isn’t a crazy approximation, since it’s the European Central Bank that is inflicting punitive rates of interest on Ireland; the overriding concern is for Us to get a better deal from Them, and this has sometimes spilled over into a warped worldview where Europe is entirely to blame for tiny Ireland’s situation. Certainly the ECB has hardly been a glorious partner, but any idea that Europe is to blame contains more than a smack of an eight year-old claiming it’s his mammy’s fault he ate all the biscuits, as she should have put them on a higher shelf.
Anyway: Ireland and Europe might be a satisfying strapline, and it has the added advantage of giving Ireland the status of underdog against a goliath that wants to drive Ireland to nothing. For example, it’s often been observed of late that Europe doesn’t care what happens to Ireland. However, the problem with this idea is the characterisation of Ireland and Europe as two monolithic blocks. If it’s Us and Them, then why is Patrick Honohan – the head of the Irish Central Bank, and surely one of Our most important players – also on the payroll of the ECB? Is he a traitor? Is he working for Them?
Well, yes, it’s just that the sides are misreported. This isn’t about Ireland and Europe at all. It’s about a financial class – one that’s almost unimaginably wealthy, isn’t interested in nation-states, and broadly controls the financial operations of more or less every country through the simple flow of capital – and everybody else. When Morgan Kelly described Honohan as slicing Brian Lenihan off at his ankles, his only mistake was in portraying their relationship as Finance Minister and “his” banking governor. Lenihan was, at least nominally, representing almost all of the Irish people (cue hollow laughter). Honohan’s interest was/is the same as the ECB’s; it’s in saving a financial system, and taking whatever measures necessary to do so. “Ireland” – this quaint national grouping, this tiny cultural hangover – just isn’t a consideration.
And yet, if that’s parachuting us into a world of Fucking Bankers, it’s worth remembering that – just like IBEC-man – one of those bankers would simply shrug, and tell us that we don’t understand. Ultimately, the Ollie Rehns and Patrick Honohans of this world have accepted exactly the same fallacy as an employer’s representative arguing fervently for wage cuts; they have convinced themselves that the system they safeguard is the best option for everyone. Once you accept that, literally anything becomes justifiable, and the walling-off of the Irish problem becomes more or less the only workable option. It isn’t that Europe doesn’t care about Ireland; it’s that Europe is run by a financial system that is designed not to care about Ireland, and that system must be preserved at all costs. Like the subjects of Curtis’s documentary, they’re in thrall to a system.
I’m unapologetic about referring to the financial class, even if it comes a little too close to the wealthy-people-gots-all-our-money argument. Because, while it’s fun, it simply isn’t true to say that the money’s gone because bankers paid it to themselves in bonuses. As wealthy as Seány might be, he didn’t pay himself €90 billion quid. People who work for the ECB may be pinstripe-rich, but they couldn’t sort out the Irish crisis by sticking their hands in their pockets. Bankers are overpaid, yes. But their pay levels are incidental.
So there is a financial class, but here’s what makes it so inhuman: it isn’t made up of people at all. It’s made up of systems; it’s a society of mutual funds and bond markets, a community of investment portfolios. These… characters, if we’re going to anthropomorphise them, are the people who only care about money and don’t care about Ireland. They deal in huge quantities of capital, some of which is released as pension payments, most of which is continually moving from market to market. Financiers don’t control the financial class, they work for it.
And they don’t care about Ireland. They can’t. That’s not what they were designed to do. Employment and well-being and livelihoods are important, but by definition they have to be sacrificed to the system. The system is all that really matters.
And so, the plans to dispense with increased pay for Sundays – a really noxious idea, an idea that almost uniformly hits people on tiny wages who work long, awkward hours – is necessary to get the system working. It’s a legitimate sacrifice, because any sacrifice is legitimate.
It was heartening on Prime Time to see Michael Taft comprehensively demolishing the economic justifications for the idea, and it was important that this happened. What he didn’t voice was a more visceral objection which matters as much: that this is, socially, a repulsive act. That any system that needs such a measure, that demands punitive measures on the working poor, isn’t a system worth saving.