It’s TINA, stupid

19 November 2010 – Presseurop

In the coming weeks, if not months, the story you are likely to hear will be one of a plucky nation, emerging from a legacy of colonial oppression, poverty and mass emigration, whose rise to riches was as spectacular as its downfall. And there are no better masters of this narrative than the Irish themselves. On the day that experts from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary fund flew into Dublin to oversee Ireland’s economic affairs, the Irish Times leader lamented – “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be masters of our affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty”. The cause of this? “Having spent the last decade in a fog of intoxicating self-congratulation for our economic success, we now face the reality that it was illusory,” writes novelist Joseph O’Connor, in the Guardian. “Inept politicians, greedy bankers and property speculators have wrecked the certainties on which our recent notions of ourselves were founded.”

But is Ireland’s economic car crash a purely local phenomenon, one that can be attributed to its inept politicians and greedy speculators? Looking to the south-western fringe of Europe to Portugal, rumoured to be the next candidate to hand over the keys of economic sovereignty to the EC, ECB, IMF triumverate, then another narrative emerges. “Portugal’s problem is different,” writes the New York Times. “Its banks are not especially troubled, but the state itself has high debts and low growth, and the mound of both public and private debt is considerable.” If we add to this unfortunate duo the recent case of Greece, once accused of "ineradicable guile", clientelism and fraud by German weekly Focus, it is nonetheless surprising that three such highly distinctive destinies all lead to the exact same outcome – collapse, bailout, loss of sovereignty.

Everyone seems to have forgotten here a certain thing known as the “market”. Since the crisis of late 2007, as the government nationalised the appalling debts incurred by its toxic banks, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, along with his European counterparts, has chanted the endless mantra that this mystery god must be propitiated and placated, on the altar of which public sector provision and living standards must be sacrificed. However, three austerity budgets later (and an astonishing round of €15 billion cuts to come), the market, as unemployment and emigration soar, seems to be in no better a mood. Indeed, such is its wrath, as Irish debt yields went over the 9% mark last week, that much of the next generation of Irish endeavour will consist in paying off its usurious interest rates. Indeed, one could even suspect that it is to the market’s benefit that the Irish people be locked into such a mechanism which guarantees such future gains.

Why should an Irishman’s labour be worth less than that of a Frenchman’s, or a German’s? It should, you might argue, if you subscribe to the opinion that human endeavour must be subject to forces outside its control. And with a fatalism that borders on religiosity, the lacklustre leadership of our half a billion strong union are entirely of the same opinion. Adding to this heightened sense of the impersonal comes yesterday’s pronouncement from the European Commission and the ECB that the experts supervising Ireland’s budget do not need to have a public profile. From their point of view, it would seem, there is nothing shocking in the fact that the economic heart of a democratic society is now monitored by an anonymous administration.

It’s over twenty years ago that Margaret Thatcher pronounced the TINA doctrine, that there is no alternative to the market economy. It is obvious that this once had a liberational impulse in the context of Central and Eastern Europeans emerging from the dreary tyranny of Soviet tutelage, and one that can still have resonance to dynamic economies like Poland that benefit from historical and geographical ties to an ever solid Germany. But to an increasing number of Europeans, the impression must now be that the ineluctable will of the markets is an iron fist that throttles all hopes of personal fulfilment, progress and the good life. All talk of economic growth, after all, is useless, if there is no accompanying increase in civilisation. And no amount of excel charts positing growth can cancel out the sense that our civilisation is losing more than it is gaining.