Enda Kenny’s ‘state of the nation’ speech last night was little more than a footnote to the more revealing and fundamental address that he delivered last month to an audience of EU officials, bankers and representatives of the ‘troika’. That speech was, tellingly, addressed not to the Irish people but to the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, and delivered not in Dublin, but in Berlin.
Kenny, Europe’s current poster boy for austerity, promised to do better – that is, to cut more, spend less and continue to use taxpayers’ money to protect and insulate European bankers and bondholders. ‘The Irish people are a proud people,’ Kenny gingerly told his audience. And lest anyone would confuse Ireland with Greece, proclaimed: ‘We work hard. We want to pay our way. We are grateful for the support of our partners in our hour of need.’ In others words: ‘Ireland is not Greece: We are the responsible ones. We will pay our debts. We will suffer and we will not complain.’
One of the most disturbing aspects of the crisis has been watching how this systematic capitalist crisis has been reconceived as a narrative of moral failure. Costas Douzinas has argued that the politics of neoliberalism takes economic and moralistic forms. Politics has become an activity resembling the market place, where policy is articulated by all knowing economists and the role of the state is to act as a ‘muscleman for the market’. Douzinas suggests that ‘Austerity and honesty, salary cuts and moral righteousness constitute the universal neoliberal recipe.’ In other words, economic punishment must match moral laxity or, to put it in Irish terms, we all partied and, therefore, we all must pay.
Any attempt to understand the problem or to pose alternatives to austerity and punishment are authoritatively dismissed as both uninformed and naïve. From Greece to Ireland, Portugal to Italy, the story is the same. None of the unprecedented economic measures are discussed or approved beyond a small number of government insiders and unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. Yet country after country is undergoing a wholesale restructuring, not just of the economy, but also of social and political life.
In recent discussions about the European project, it has become common to speak of a ‘democratic deficit’. This deficit has now become a full-scale crisis. To protect banks that lent to Ireland, Greece and other peripheral European states, and to shield local elites from unwelcome taxation, these countries must be stripped of their sovereignty as EU and IMF officials draft budgets, erode public services and sell off state assets. Democracy is replaced by a new buzzword, ‘governance’, which allows for the creation of the conditions necessary for capital accumulation without conceding power to the people.
None of the mainstream political parties across Europe are prepared to face up to the failure of capitalism as an economic model or to the crisis of democracy it has sparked. There is a growing consensus, symbolised by the strength of Global Occupy movement, that the system is not working and that now, more than ever, we need an alternative.