THERE is a chink of light and it is not an oncoming train. It is at least an irony and perhaps a pun that Ireland exited the bailout on Gaudete Sunday.
‘Gaudete’ meaning rejoice, comes from the first words of the Mass of that day; Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete/Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Enda Kenny played the preacher to perfection last Sunday night. It is eerily strange that as everything apparently changes, it really stays the same.
Long dark days always create a yearning for light. Priestly vestments, in traditions only recently discarded, were literally lightened. On that Sunday they changed from the penitential purple of Advent to a lighter rose colour that intimated The Light that would shortly come but was not yet to be seen.
Keen psychologists before the social sciences were conceived, wily churchmen understood that only so much penance could be stomached at a single sitting so to speak. There had to be a relief, an encouragement if sinful, slothful creatures were to persevere. The relic of that quaint custom is the rose-coloured candle lit on the last Sunday in the Advent wreath.
Politics and religion are essentially the same. They peddle hope. They require adherence to improbable stories and share a common narrative about making sacrifice for a greater good. They also offer a happy ending. Though usually that happiness is at an indeterminate date — not now. Postponed gratification, just the right balance between effort and reward and belief in ultimately unattainable ideals of perfection are the marks of both.
The problem for our late Celtic Tiger was not that it was an unsustainable economic model; it was morally unmaintainable. For the first time ever it was proposed, more by default than design, that gratification could be present not future tense. It offered both peace and prosperity and for a moment delivered both.
Satisfaction, however, never led to satiation. Once the taut rope of human desire had slackened, there was nothing left to want, except more. It is extraordinary how many lived right through the good old days, never enjoying any contentment. They were not the few ascetics who never partied from principle. Neither were they the poor, uneducated or unlucky who never had a chance to partake. No, it was the many more who suffered and anguished about status anxiety, keeping-up and getting-in. They were the real moral victims for whom gratification un-delayed was a scourge, not a solace. Shopping could not win them salvation.
Communism offers the closest parallel between politics and religion. This should not surprise. Karl Marx was steeped in the rabbinical culture of his forefathers The construct of Marxist revolution was remarkably akin to the religious salvation it supposedly supplanted. The revolution, an undefinable mythical tyranny exerted demands upon and offered hope to huddled masses that could never be realised or invigilated. Revolution like salvation was always work in progress, its fulfilment over the horizon. Best then, like wise virgins to keep watch for “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour“. Ultimately any sacrifice could be demanded and enforced in the name of a limitless good named and anointed by a revolutionary elite. Their status was priest-like in its power over doctrine and damnation.
As Ireland in our Taoiseach’s telling regains its economic sovereignty, give a care for the world’s last truly sovereign republic in North Korea. The purge and execution last week of the uncle of the dynastic leader Kim Jong Un was fittingly called “biblical” by Reuters. “The era and history will eternally record and never forget the shuddering crimes committed by Jang Song Thaek, the enemy of the party, revolution and people and heinous traitor to the nation” was the anathema poured upon the hapless uncle.
In studying the extremes we can better understand the norms. Kenny’s speech on Sunday was apparently free of artifice. It repeatedly addressed “you” or “your” 16 times in 931 words. “Jobs“, name-checked 10 times; and Ireland 11, got all the attention. But that analysis misses the point. “Your” “daily lives“, “sacrifices“, “patience and resilience” and “families” were extolled and contrasted with the “speculation and greed” that will “never again” “be allowed to threaten Ireland’s stability“. Our leader offered both absolution and accusation. He then enunciated a thin moral code “based on enterprise, not on speculation“.
The darkness of the deeds that brought us to this impasse was lightened momentarily by the consolation that our own sacrifices, biblical in scale, “are making a real difference”. Hope was offered that “Ireland is now moving in the right direction“. Of course that bounty remains over the horizon. For now, we have a sense of solidarity. We are on our way again. But where?
After interviewing University of Limerick economist Stephen Kinsella about the bailout exit on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last Friday morning, presenter Cathal Mac Coille tweeted that “easily the scariest remark” heard was Kinsella’s observation that “nothing is ever learnt for long”. Kinsella’s pessimism and Mac Coille’s fears are well founded. What is at issue is neither politics nor economics. It is ourselves.
Effective systems of governance do influence behaviour. Moral codes are nurtured not products of nature. They curb at least for a time misbehaviour. They can set norms that even in the breach act as standards and signposts. What struck me about Kenny’s speech was its knowingness. It knew enough about us to assuage our anger, calm our fears and excite our hopes. It offered just enough hope to be credible. It cast the horizon near enough to be visible and distant enough to require us to march on.
THERE was enough economic sense in what he said, and he enjoys enough credibility for it to be believed. What was wholly absent, because it has been completely abandoned, is the democratic revolution promised to underpin recovery. This is a recovery destined to bring us back to where we started, not a moral trajectory intended to move us forward.
Perhaps we can trust our leaders not to undo, for now, the good they have done. We cannot ultimately trust ourselves. Our leaders weakness is leaving intact a system of government notoriously prey to pressure and unaccountable to effective scrutiny. They cannot forgo what they are feasting on.
Our weakness is that our wish has been granted. Kinsella and Mac Coille are understandably appalled at the vista of our nascent recidivism. Kenny sees it too. The troika is gone, the bailout is over. But we ought to remember to be careful of what we have wished for. That old lesson is as old as King Midas. Everything he touched turned to gold, even his food and his daughter. A future based on enterprise, not speculation, isn’t a democratic revolution and it doesn’t offer much hope that hubris won’t again lead to nemesis.
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