Austerity is the new consumption and it can purify our greedy souls

GOD bless us every one this Christmas. We have much to be grateful for.

The human brain (to say nothing of TV news editors) can only handle so many major crises at a time.

Haven’t you noticed how the economic crisis has nudged out the obesity crisis, the global warming crisis and the ‘it’s a bit worrying but we’ve nothing else to talk about so we’ll call it a crisis’ crisis?

My New York friends even report that they welcome having something else to keep them awake at night apart from the threat of terrorist baddies attacking them.

At the same time, too much focus on one single issue means some of us tend to lose any sense of perspective — or history. The prize for the daftest comment I overheard in the past few weeks goes to a shopkeeper who shall remain nameless: “This recession: I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since the Famine, y’know.” Staggering. Think about it for half a second. If only their second homes were all that a million people lost in the 1840s.

It’s bad out there and, according to some indices, things have never been worse from the point of view of the State finances.

But it’s only a recession, a downturn, a correction. It does not require that we all go around under a special kind of credit crunch pall. It does not mean we have to cancel all parties and talk in hushed credit crunch tones.

It’s bad news for Jehovah’s Witnesses but the end of the world isn’t nigh — probably. In the really bad old days — the 1970s and 1980s — there weren’t myriad quangos out there to look after people’s non-material needs. They didn’t have budgets to cut.

Capitalism might be a dirty word at the moment but it’s at its indisputable best when it’s picking off the inefficient, the redundant and the outdated.

Recessions force efficiency and increasing efficiency is the only way our whole society — not just a few cunning individuals — gets richer by forcing business to raise its game.

In an ideal world, such pressure would be gradual and continuous. In the real world it comes from periods of harsh economic competition.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pretending the recession is a bundle of fun for anyone: far from it. People who are caught in the headwinds need to be supported by society as a whole.

There are other tangible downsides to downturns, too. Crime tends to soar; the world becomes an even more dangerous place as the misguided turn to extremists for answers.

But, at the same time, research also shows people tend to drink less, smoke fewer cigarettes and lose weight. They enrol in higher education and read more; the air is cleaner, the roads less crowded. People have more time to visit their elderly relatives and look after their children themselves. More generally, they have time to see beyond their own selfish concerns.

No politician’s rhetoric has captured the zeitgeist quite like Barack Obama’s: “We have faced difficult times before,” he told an interviewer last week, “times when our economic destiny seemed to be slipping out of our hands. And at each moment, we have risen to meet the challenge as one people united by a sense of common purpose.”

All hands to the parish pump is the kind of endeavour left and right alike can buy into, and not just in the US.

Whether it is justified on the green-leaning basis that our hunger for stuff is destroying the planet or the right-leaning notion that our materialism undermines family life and community relations, austerity is the new consumption.

This is recession as a moral good, a subtle nudge to attend to familial duty, live within our means, curb our excesses and generally purify our greedy consumerist souls.

With luck, we might even emerge from these dark times as a fairer and more just society.

Charles Dickens was right: it’s not about the money, Ebenezer. Those without any can remind themselves that the best things in life are free: love, conversation, landscape, friends, humour, kindness and a thousand other natural delights we barely notice because we have convinced ourselves we are “too busy”.

It would be naive to hope that the experience of financial hardship alone could spur anyone on to greater things. It takes character as well.

But the recession has at least exposed a nostalgia for the social relationships that enabled people to cope in days gone by: looking after each others’ children, helping out the neighbours, being self-reliant in the sense that one’s self-worth did not depend entirely on one’s so-called lifestyle.

Those who have refused to be thrifty for green reasons have found new reasons to rationalise.

At a more basic level, we don’t have to feel so bad about, say, not buying organic any more. Holidaying in Spain or even Ireland — instead of trekking across Brazil or flopping in Mauritius — is positively hip.

And it’s official: it is OK to drink instant coffee, to darn a sock and to have your shoes resoled. The kitchen will actually do for another year; those work surfaces don’t need to be titanium-plated after all. Haven’t you heard? Walking is the new shiatsu. Buying a Porsche isn’t to be envied any more: it’s to be pitied. Celebrity isn’t everything.

Above all, who would have guessed it? People can actually afford houses again. Imagine that!

Actually, though, as Keynes taught, the most important thing in a recession is for those with a few quid to keep spending it. So if you are one of the lucky ones who can absorb the economic shocks, there is good news: main street is full of bargains this Christmas. Go find!

I am, of course, only half-serious. For the majority of families, whose everyday life is determined more by the age-old imperative of getting by than by the frenzied juggling of expensive lifestyle choices, the odious “austerity is good” argument must seem bizarre.

DRIVING slowly to save petrol, making Lidl a way of life and having to rely on hand-me-downs isn’t really much fun if these economies are forced on you, not taken up as just yet another fad.

At the same time, wouldn’t it be fatalistic to assume that nothing good can come out of a time when people are thrown back on their own resources?

Families know instinctively, deep down, that the most reliable and precious capital we possess lies not in some financial market but within ourselves and other people.

And as real, tangible daily risks loom large over many of our livelihoods, maybe this will help us to put our postmodern fears of the hypothetical into some kind of context — environmental Armageddon, paedophiles behind every lamppost and the theoretical connection between giving children a bar of chocolate today and morbid obesity if they ever make it to the age of 40.

So if we rediscover our souls, not our credit cards, 2008 might yet turn out to have been the year when sanity crept back into our lives, when we stopped working and shopping till we dropped.

Just don’t expect incumbent governments to see things that way.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd