System failing society

A new collection of essays from Irish academics attempts to put our financial crisis into perspective, but there is still a palpable anger in the book over what was allowed to happen, writes Brian O’Grady

THERE are now more than a dozen books for sale covering the events that caused Ireland’s once booming economy to crash and sink beneath the waves of world recession.

Ever since the first economic icebergs were spotted in its path three years ago (and despite the many warnings of the risks that were there), the inability of government, business or state institutions to steer the economy clear of disaster has since provoked an inevitable fascination with what went wrong and what caused so much to be lost in so short a period.

While the books published to date have come from journalists, a property developer and a banker (with titles such as Snouts in the Trough, Wasters, People Who Fecked Up Ireland and Ship of Fools summing up the prevailing mood), this week another book joins the shelves, this time the views of academics.

Irish Business & Society Governing, Participating & Transforming in the 21st century, is the more sober title of the academics’ 31 essays, from contributors working in a range of disciplines and institutes across the country.

The book includes essays from economists, sociologists, and business academics on the issues that have lead to the current crisis; what might emerge from the wreckage; and what needs to change as a result. The chapters include essays on labour relations, social justice, economic development, Europe, white-collar crime, political corruption, careers and even spiritualism, from contributors, who include John McHale from NUI Galway; Niamh Brennan, chairperson of the Dublin Docklands Authority and UCD; and John Cullen of NUI Maynooth.

“Our purpose in putting the project together over the last two years was to address the very real problem in the relationship between business and society both here and internationally,” said Brendan O’Rourke, one of the book’s three editors. “As academics we need a reflective and analytical response to that and this is what we’re doing here, linking analytical focus with a multi-disciplinary approach.”

The book is intended for business students, but is also aimed at a broader readership interested in the issues that may enable businesses to function in society in a better way than they have to date.

In their introduction, the three editors equate the collapse of the capital markets in 2008 with the collapse of communism in the 1980s, so the premise behind the book is that the current economic system is failing society both nationally and internationally.

However, to identify the challenges facing business and society here, the book has had to focus on the factors that have created the current crisis and the issues that are likely to emerge out of it.

“What you probably don’t get in the other books on the economic crisis is the analytical focus; what you don’t get in ours is that narrative day-by-day account of what happened; but what you do get is a genuine attempt at facing the underlying problems,” said O’Rourke. “In using that academic discipline, it’s moving beyond being angry, it’s moving beyond a call to action. This book is about critical reflection.”

The multi-disciplinary nature of the book’s contributors, is intended to reflect the complexity of the problems facing society and to deter people from thinking “that there must surely be one best discipline to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of a business or societal issue. The contributors to this book provide an array of approaches from a variety of disciplines to examine and understand problems,” write the book’s editors, O’Rourke, John Hogan and Paul Donnelly.

While the ambition of the book is broad, many of the essays gravitate to the failures in policy that have lead to the banks’ collapse and the consequent economic implosion, unemployment and emigration. Given the many subjects and disciplines covered, this amounts to a great many failures at many levels, from policy and decision-making to governance, welfare, wealth distribution and political corruption.

Though academic essays may be couched in restrained argument and cross-references to other sources, as with anywhere else in Irish society it’s difficult to escape a certain fury among contributors at how events and policies were allowed to develop.

“The legacy of McCreevy’s approach [Minister for Finance from 1997-2004], which continues after his departure, was that the country found itself with no stabilising margin when the global recession struck in 2008. The country was then forced into destabilising fiscal contraction,” writes Frank Barry of TCD.

“Politicians and those who advise them are reluctant to face up to the reality that the external conditions that enabled the bureaucratic and property bubbles to develop have gone and will never return,” writes William Kingston.

Another of the editor’s contentions is that the fixation with business and entrepreneurial culture in the language being used by Government has helped introduce a short-term approach that has contributed to the collapse.

“Though a 2004 report [Enterprise Strategy Group 2004] did not manage to get the terms ‘enterprise ‘ or ‘entrepreneurial’ into its title,” writes Brendan O’Rourke. “Its pages are replete with the language of enterprise . . . there are ten recurrences of the word ‘enterprise’ in the 404-word letter submitting the report to the minister . . . and no use of the word ‘planning’. ‘Planning’ lost its dominance in the early 1970s,” he writes. “To discuss our future we need a common language about business and society.

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