Beneath the surface, desperation and despondency abound in parts that fairy stories simply cannot reach.
The bailout will soon be over. No longer will Ireland have to be subjected to the interference of external powers in its affairs. No more humiliating conditionalities imposed by mild-mannered Troika functionaries with a stern economic vision. Instead, thanks to the credit facilities supplied by KfW Entwicklungsbank, which is mostly owned by the German federal government, Ireland will become an especially crappy part of Germany.
One thing that the formal exit to the bailout means is that all those official mantras honed at PR firms, about the recovery of economic sovereignty, will have to be discarded. “Getting sovereignty back” was a highly effective alibi for all kind of social outrages, perpetrated by a government that had to maintain its claim to represent the Irish people while at the very same time enacting policies that destroyed Ireland’s social fabric: shovelling tens of billions in public money in the direction of wealthy bondholders while cutting services for people with disabilities. However, “getting sovereignty back” is very much a one trick pony. In the coming months, the institutional architecture of the European Union and the priorities of the financial markets will only serve to emphasise who the real Daddy is when it comes to fiscal policy, to say nothing of monetary policy.
Last month, answering questions in the Dáil (the Irish parliament) after yet another austerity budget, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, defended his government against criticism in precisely the same terms as he had done since taking office in 2011: the need to recover economic sovereignty by exiting the bailout. Getting sovereignty back was the main priority in what Kenny had called a ‘democratic revolution’ in 2011, in which the ruling right-wing Fianna Fáil party was decimated at the polls and replaced with a right-wing Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Such was the potency of this democratic revolution that both Kenny’s party Fine Gael and the Labour Party had already committed to the implementation in full of the Troika’s bailout programme in advance of taking office. As erstwhile IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had put it prior to the 2011 elections: “I’m confident that even if the opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are criticizing the government and the programme […], they understand the need to implement the programme.”
Curiously, when the government interrupted regular proceedings in the Dáil last Thursday to trumpet the exit from the bailout as a major victory, Enda Kenny made no mention of the usual stuff about economic sovereignty. His colleague, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, no stranger either to stressing how important the recovery of economic sovereignty was, gave a more circumspect assessment: “today’s decision to exit the bailout… restores us to a normal place among the eurozone countries… a normal member of the eurozone subject to the normal conditions of euro membership.”
In response to the government’s announcement, Ireland’s media was aflutter. ‘Significant signal of sovereignty restored in Dublin’ was the headline of an article by the Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins, suggesting that a signal can be something other than significant. ‘The time and place of the announcement’, in the Irish parliament, wrote Collins, was ‘to underline the message that the State’s sovereignty has been restored’. A message, and a signal, that bears little relation to reality.
There was much chewing over the ramifications of the drama in the political arena: was it good for Fine Gael? Was it good for Labour? Couldn’t Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, have been a bit more gracious in response? How come Goofy wears trousers and Pluto is naked: are there two different dog species in the Disney universe?
One of the success stories of Ireland’s bailout, from the ruling point of view, is the way the mediated spectacle of representation worked to enhance the legitimacy and inevitability of the policies introduced during the bailout. If the point of a bailout is to keep political conflict out of policy, Ireland’s media played a blinder in supporting the bailout. One can imagine a story in the Irish Times or Prime Time: ‘As Ireland’s entire population perishes this week in a nuclear holocaust, what are the implications for Fine Gael and for Enda Kenny as leader?’
I’m not quite sure how public opinion is going to be managed in this brave new era of “sovereignty regained”. On the surface that confronts us, it looks like the bailout exit is simply going to strengthen confidence in the parties of Ireland’s political establishment and the political possibilities they offer. But beneath the surface, desperation and despondency abound in parts that fairy stories simply cannot reach. Whatever way you choose to paint it, class war waged from above hurts, after all.
What I think is going to happen is a reprise of Smile or Die positivity, with phalanxes of mind experts and batallions of media psych police placing the emphasis on ‘Die’: a necessary operation, when the bond markets — and, whisper it, our gallant allies — will be listening to see if we really deserve our regained sovereignty. As for what has to be done against all this: there are any amount of abstract nouns and verbs that can be prescribed as a solution, and which will all have precisely zero effect, when divorced from the immediate concrete reality of people’s experiences. One idea, perhaps, might be to get people to open up about where it hurts, and how. Collective political diagnosis against the policing manuals of the atomised self. Or, if you like, democracy against capitalism.