Some of us wouldn’t have survived without the support of others, writes
The last few months have seen the best of us. I’m convinced of that. I’ve been gripped by an incredible sense of a community working together, everyone seeking to act in everyone else’s best interests. Closer together by staying apart has become a reality.
By doing it, we saved the health service, and we saved lives. We beat back the real fear, and the real possibility, that our health system would be over-run in the first few weeks of the pandemic. If we hadn’t taken concerted national action, if we hadn’t been willing to make sacrifices and put up with a lot of inconvenience, there wouldn’t have been beds in hospitals for people who needed them — never mind intensive care beds and the associate facilities. We did that.
It’s called social capital. Our families, our colleagues, our friends, our neighbourhoods. Our towns and villages. Our farmers and truck drivers and gardaí. The people on the front line and the people supporting them. It all worked together, in a strange indefinable way that made a big difference. From observation, I think we saw a lot more social capital at play than our neighbouring island. Now we’re beginning to come out of it, ever so slowly and (I hope) ever so carefully. We can do this — we’ve proved that already. So there’s nothing to be afraid of. Except, I guess, economics. And politics. Bad politics and poor economic choices are the only things that can damage the social capital that has seen us through this crisis so far. It has happened before.
You probably don’t remember Robert Putnam. He’s an American professor, who wrote a famous book called Bowling Alone. It’s written about America, of course. It’s about how all the networks and interactions have declined over the years, and about how America has become a more fractured and uglier place as a result.
“More Americans watch Friends than have friends nowadays” was one of Putnam’s expressions. I think it’s probably inarguable that the divisions that have beset America in recent years, especially the divisions around class and race, combined with the ugliest form of democratic leadership the world has ever seen, have conspired to make that situation a lot worse.
But America is not what I want to write about here today. Putnam came to Ireland some years ago, at the invitation of the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern — to talk about the importance of social capital.
In those days, Bertie was forever talking the talk about community and its importance, about how he wanted to “see communities at the centre of our debates”. This was back in the early 2000s. In almost exactly the same week that the taoiseach was welcoming Putnam to Dublin, his tánaiste, Mary Harney, was telling a conference of financiers that “we must press the case for an open, liberal Europe that has a low burden of tax and regulation on enterprise because that is the best way to secure employment and prosperity. That is what we are implementing in Ireland. It is also my priority in Europe.”
And in that very same couple of weeks, Bertie’s finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, had just passed a finance bill that enabled billions of euro in direct and indirect tax cuts, alongside the creation of an entirely new range of tax avoidance measures for the rich, and SSIAs for the middle classes.
I often wonder if, when the history of that period is written, we will focus in on those few weeks in the spring of 2001. When a leading American academic came to talk to us about the value of social capital and how fragile it was. And when an elected Irish government set about ripping it to shreds.
Because it was after that 2001 finance bill, and a general election a month or so later, that the supreme vulgarity of the Celtic Tiger began in earnest. Public spending shot through the roof. The tax base wasn’t just narrowed, it was hollowed out. The party began, and boy did we learn quickly how to live it up.
And we all lost our way, didn’t we? We invented this thing called drive-by poverty then, when we put a motorway through or around every disadvantaged community, so nobody had to see the poverty as they sped by in their current-year cars. We discovered materialism, and consumerism. We discovered me. My two holidays. My apartment on an obscure Greek island (or in Bulgaria!). My fee-paying school for my kids with their designer trainers. We learned how to look down on each other.
Then, as we know, it all came crashing down. Young people especially, who had never known anything but great expectations, suffered a lot in the crash. Many of us were bewildered and angry, resentful at what had been done to us. We punished the politicians who had brought us to that point. Just as harshly, we punished the politicians who rebuilt the economy after the collapse, because we blamed them for their resort to austerity.
Little by little though, a new sense of community was beginning to emerge from the wreckage. Throughout the bad times there was a growing sense of us rediscovering the value of neighbourhood and friendships and community responsibility. Some of us wouldn’t have survived without the support of others. Many of us have debts of friendship that can never be repaid as a result.
In a broad sense, we brought that lesson into the last general election. It may be hard to remember it even just a few months later, but that election, I think, demonstrated a strong desire by the people to put societal issues — healthcare, education — and the environment, front and centre of our politics. Although the numbers have given rise to confusion ever since, I believe it’s clear that was an election much more about society than economy. About how we use resources better.
Isn’t it funny when you think about it that it took a frightening and mysterious virus, one that was capable of doing terrible damage, to really lock our rediscovered sense of social capital in place. When we were called on to do it, in the face of a common enemy, we looked after each other.
Whatever government now comes together — and my heavens isn’t the pace excruciatingly slow — it must above all respect what we’ve been through and what we’ve learned. The sacrifices made by thousands of people demand and deserve that respect. If any policy maker thinks that another few years of austerity is just what the country needs, they couldn’t be more wrong. That would very quickly lead to a complete breakdown in the community solidarity that has got us through this.
Of course we need to be careful now, but we urgently and desperately need more investment in healthcare, childcare, education and better services for elderly people and people with disabilities. We didn’t come through a pandemic in order to see vulnerable people suffer even more at the end of it.
The message of the last election is still clear. It’s our society, stupid. The new taoiseach, whoever he is, had better not forget that.