The Anglo Tapes. Why now? Why in this form? Is it not a bit strange how Ireland’s EU presidency is winding up and the government is no closer to concluding a retrospective ‘deal’ on costs incurred by the public as a consequence of the bank bailout, and tapes unexpectedly emerge that could have emerged at any time over the last few years but didn’t? Yes, it is strange. And no doubt there are other more interesting speculations that haven’t occurred to me. But at the same time, who cares?
I mean, there are always things going on behind the scenes. Governments lie all the time, and the current government is no exception. Similarly, businessmen conspire all the time behind the backs of the public. Though at first I was tempted, I am trying hard to see the point in divining the real nefarious motive to the publication of the Anglo Tapes. The Irish Independent works in step with nefarious motives all the time. It advocates policies that buoy the rich and immiserate the poor. So I could well believe that there is no new, ulterior motive on the part of those involved in producing the story and that they put it together because it was a great story and not because there are explicit political calculations involved in trying to bolster support for the government and Fine Gael in particular whilst softening Fianna Fáil’s cough. Maybe there are, but again, who cares?
I haven’t come across any coverage of the Anglo Tapes affair that has departed from the dominant political narrative of Ireland’s economic crisis: a situation borne of light-touch regulations, devious banking cabals, regulators asleep at the wheel, a public guilty of voting for unwise economic policies sold by auction politicians, a need for root and branch reform of institutions, and so on. The overall impression I get from the coverage is what I would have expected: bankers shafted the country, we let them do it, not least by voting for crooks, and now we have to pay up, which is too bad, and sure what else could you do, look how unimpressed Germany is with all this, we need more experts. So there is a drive to cement what already exists, rather than open things up to wider questions of what the public might need to do to end an existence at the mercy of predatory financial institutions.
A certain expression of discomfort and indeed outrage is allowed, encouraged even, but only in so far as it demonstrates the ultimate righteousness of continuing along the current path, towards intensified technocratic governance and the consolidated rule of finance capital. The other day I heard an interview with Fiscal Advisory Council member Donal Donovan, on the Marian Finucane show. He was promoting a new book, in which he and his co-author claim that the notion “we all partied” was largely true, because wide sectors of society benefited from the economic policies pursued during the boom years.
His interviewer was saying that this was drawing deeply outraged responses on the part of many listeners, who felt they had not done anything wrong and were now being made to pay the price. What interests me here is not the basis of his claim but the reflex action through which someone says “speak for yourself – I didn’t party”.
I think this is a reflex shaped by the same machinery that says the public must pay for private banking debt, the public is to blame, because “we as a society” acquiesced in such and such. This “it had nothing to do with me” response is often entirely in keeping, I think, with the drive towards the atomised individualism that is part and parcel of neoliberalism.
Taken in isolation, Thatcher’s words that “there is no such thing as society” appear not to apply to the burden of private banking debt placed on society, given that “we as a society” created the conditions for the thing to happen in the first instance. But Thatcher went on to say that “they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” So the “it had nothing to do with me!” reflex is one entirely in keeping with Thatcher’s vision of “individual men and women..and families”, a depoliticised landscape in which collective solidarities simply do not exist. Because the “it had nothing to do with me!” reflex also ensures a turn away from building alliances, from the sense of the public, or the people, as an autonomous body with a commitment to democratic equality. (It can also entail a claim to moral probity and sobriety: what the hell is wrong with a party anyway? What would life be without the occasional party? The point is that others partied and we have to spend decades cleaning up the vomit)
I think, then, that whatever the intent behind the publication of the tapes, the likely effect will be a deepened sense of atomised impotence rather than the spontaneous development of a public potency. I don’t believe that humiliation and degradation necessarily carries with it an emancipatory political response, cf. Hitler. Whilst anger can indeed be a motive force for democratic change, that doesn’t hold for every situation. Anger can be conditioned and redirected, in the interests of capital accumulation, at a few rotten apples, at faceless bureaucrats, at ‘the politicians’, at trade unions, ethnic minorities, marginalised communities, to name a few targets. So one urgent question would be how you break that power to condition anger, that power to channel it in ways that are destructive of democratic bonds, without falling prey to fatalism.