Monday, October 4, 2010

Black October

In these recessionary times, lots of numbers get thrown around. 34 billion to bail out Anglo-Irish Bank, Government deficit of 32%, unemployment rate of 13.7%. The problems we face are so much bigger than any one of us. Our country, like many others, teeters on the edge of financial abyss. We are witnessing one of the most defining moments in our history. But what can we do? Without our swollen wallets, we feel so powerless. The human consequence of our depleted economy has been to drain us dry of any semblance of hope. Television and radio seems to be offering an endless re-run of national despair. There's a lethargy in the air, a distinct atmosphere of paralysis. And yet, there is no better time to change the future. It's in these uncertain times that new attitudes and ideas can be woven into the public psyche. Now would be a worse time than ever to succumb to our doubts and fears.

A few weeks ago, I watched Harry Barry, a doctor who deals with mental health issues, warn of the dangers of the recession on our mental health. One of his observations centered around the notion that there is a tendency amongst many Irish people (and probably many others) to evaluate their personal worth on their level of employment. If this is true, which I suspect it is, imagine the battering our self-worth is taking in the current climate. What must we be telling ourselves? The collective stream of consciousness must be awash with a vile negativity. Such assertions correspond to a 24% rise in suicides in 2009 from 2008, representing the biggest ever surge in the national suicide rate.

Of course, as mentioned in a previous entry, we would be naive to think that a swift correction of our economic woe would alleviate us of this concern. It's probably more accurate to suggest that the financial crisis represents a triggering mechanism for self-doubt, a sentiment already well-nurtured before the current situation arose. Without a job, people may feel that they have lost their purpose, that they have become a dreg to society. The simple remedy would just be to go out and find something else. Not in this recession. International economist, Paul Krugman, warned in April 2009 that Ireland is really and truly without options until there is an international recovery. In October 2010, he seems vindicated. Without the constant stream of employment that flowed through the previous decade, people may find themselves in an unfamiliar state of idleness. When combined with various pressures, like putting food on the table and keeping up with mortgage payments, some people may find this stagnation too much.

The impact of the recession has been all the more dramatic because of the context of what went before. In 2005, The New York Times described this land as the 'Wild West of European Finance'. The idea seemed to be that Ireland's rapid economic growth had fostered the growth of a dangerous laissez-faire attitude toward the financial sector, on both public and governmental levels. But it didn't matter, questioning wasn't in fashion back then. The vast majority of us weren't interested in why we seemed to becoming so wealthy, only that we were. Alot Done, More to Do. That sounded more like it. The year before the collapse of the economy, we elected Fianna Fáil to their third consecutive reign in power. We really did believe that they were in steady control of all our fortunes. It wasn't until late 2008 and early 2009 that we realised just how ignorant we'd been. Our failure to properly regulate the banking industry, described by Thomas Jefferson as the most dangerous threat to liberty, left us sifting through the rubble of our previous prosperity.

Recently, the Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan, has been at pains to explain why we must sacrifice so much to ensure the confidence of international bondholders. Watching him on Prime Time a few weeks ago, I noticed how he dealt with a question on how he could justify public spending cutbacks to ordinary people who find themselves in desperate situations. In short, he didn't. Instead, he turned our attention to the national deficit. He saw it as more important to soften the blow of future cutbacks then to tend to the wounds of previous ones. This kind of diversion corresponds to a broader government strategy in recent weeks of trying to dissuade the pessimism now rife in the country.

Forward thinking. Turning the corner. If we pull together we can do it! Enough of all this Pessimism! National consensus! Come on get on that green jersey! We can have our economic independence!

And the bondholders can have all their money back. For what? Just so they can lend it all to some other maverick Government that will leave some other nation in peril? And so we can start blowing some other bubble that will eventually just burst again. Yes, it all makes perfect sense. For me, that has been the lasting impact that this recession will have. The absence of fairness and triumph of big business over the rest of society. Sometimes I wonder how we're supposed to retain any moral outlook in the shadow of what is happening. Our propping up of the very same institutions that landed us in this mess signals just how free we really are not. And don't be so quick to blame capitalism either. If the free-market was genuinely free, the banks would have been left to sink. But you wouldn't want to know what would happen then!

Therein, lies the real moral dilemma of the crisis. The banks and financial institutions have always championed the free-market. The less interference exercised by the State, the more
money there is to make. When the banks are benefiting from the free-market, the rest of us play along. We take out mortgages, borrow excessively and pay high interest rates. Yet, when the free-market no longer favours the banks, and exposes their gross levels of greed, they can hold the rest of us to ransom with the threat of their non-existence and the subsequent impact on our society. And so we comply. Banks are returned to the playing field of the free-market, their existence guaranteed by the state. For the rest of us, there is no half-time. Instead, we are left to run ourselves into the ground trying desperately to hang on to our futures. It's no wonder we get terms like 'patriotism' and 'consensus' thrown at us. If we are going to affect the future for the better, we cannot rely on it from the top down. Change has to come from the bottom up.

But do I really want to change this? Sure, if I was losing my home or getting jailed for falling behind on electricity payments, then I might get revolutionary. But do I really have the stomach to come up with credible alternatives to the way things work? Who am I to speak up anyway? I'll just keep my head down and hope that I can stay afloat. I'm sure neo-liberal economics will smile on me again. I might even get rich some day.

The rationale is strangely familiar. Caution, passivity, fear. Defensive coping mechanisms, repressing the difficulties we have with the world around us, in the meek hope that it might come good some day. The relationship between our collective and individual behaviors isn't so blurry. But what a bleak picture it is. It may not be just the recession that is vacating us of hope, it could also be our sheer inability to be anyway constructive about it. Just as we feel unmoved to confront our own personal fears, we are just apathetic about our collective problems. Does this explain the correlation of higher suicide rates and the continued descent into further financial trouble?

The truth is that there actually is so much we can do for ourselves. Broadly speaking, we can try
and ensure that we prevent, to the best of our ability, a similar situation in the future? This means education. Not an education that leads to degrees or doctorates, but one that empowers us as citizens. This means an individual responsibility to learn more about the world we live in. Economics would probably be a good place to start, since it bears such relevance to our existence. Personally, I was lazy about understanding economics because of the terminology involved. Now I can see that it is precisely such lazieness that allowed things to get as bad as they are. By taking that particular plunge, we can find out about things like Roosevelt's Glass-Steagall Act, enacted after the Wall Street crash to dissuade the fusion of investment and depositary banks, and to control financial speculation. By acting individually, we can also encourage the creation of stronger and more resilient communities. At a time when charities are over-run from the fallout from the economic collapse, there is so much we can do to contribute, and so many ways to do it. Our political system reflects how involved we are in it. If we have problems with the way the state is run, it is up to us to change it. That is the essence of a democracy. If there is no-one worth voting for, then spoil your vote. Let your voice be heard. No matter how small or seemingly irrelevant. If enough people agree with you, you'll eventually get a politician who listens.

If you're sighing at what you have just read, then I've beaten you to it. It's that 'doubt' problem again. I can't believe how 'preachy' I sometimes sound. I can't quite get used to idea of actually having something to say about all this. I've already visualised your eyes raising toward the heaven. What chance do I have of doing something when I carry all this baggage of fear. It's a problem I have with my perceptions. In Werner Herzog's film, Wheel Of Time, the Dalai Lama remarks how the centre of universe is at the subjective viewpoint of each individual person. Essentially, the world around us exists only as we are seeing it. This suggests that necessary abolition of commonly held inaccuracies. Learned inaccuracies. Take, for example the 'employment/self-worth' example mentioned earlier. If we choose to believe that we are worth no more than how much we are being paid, we are putting our lives in the hands of the fickle economy. Our existence is relegated to contingency on the self-serving whims of investors and bondholders. Is this a sane way to exist? Change won't come easy. But it starts within.

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