Friday 22 February 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Power structure preserved in a crisis

It's a frightening time and the elite minority are doing nothing to find real solutions, writes Gene Kerrigan

FOR a while I couldn't recognise what it was about the Occupy Dame Street protesters that irritated me. Was it their naivety? Their arrogance? The way some of them imperiously dismiss the timidity of the rest of us, those they call 'the sheeple'? Then, I began to remember another time of social upheaval, when Dylan said the times, they were a-changing. And some of us grew beards for a while and wore peace signs, and marched for this and against that.

We were young, and naive -- and full of ourselves. And maybe that's what irritates some of us today. Idealism in the face of great power can seem like a conceited assertion of higher values. And, boy, were we conceited.

One wretchedness of ageing is a loss of that raw idealism. One benefit of ageing is that we can imagine how we must have seemed to our parents when we and Mr Dylan shook our fingers at them. "Don't criticise what you can't understand," we sang along with Bob, as we scorned those who had lived through a depression, decades of poverty and a world war that killed 50 million.

That mixture of idealism, ignorance and arrogance is probably necessary when you question great power, but a bit squirm-inducing.

Down at the Central Bank camp ground in Dame Street there's a prominent display of a long quote from Jack Kerouac, praising "the misfits, the rebels, the trouble-makers . . . Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do". The quote implicitly commends the "genius" of the protesters.

So, yeah, they're naive and they're arrogant and they're irritating -- but they're right.

Not about the genius stuff. But about the immensity of the crisis they confront. And about the fact that the road out of this crisis isn't paved with concessions to the people who got us into it. This thing hasn't been solved by ploughing tens of billions (borrowed in our name) into dead banks. It won't

be fixed by austerity budgets, they make the crisis worse. Either the world changes fundamentally, or it stays like this for a generation or two -- with increasing pain and instability, and with the danger of dark forces sprouting up. And the violence and even war they bring.

The alternative to radical change is unending lunacy. I awoke yesterday morning to the sound of the economics chap from RTE telling us that "the Irish taxpayer is going to have to put a further one-point-three billion into Irish Life & Permanent". The bit I loved was "going to have to". Like it's the natural order of things.

Last week, the State wanted to sell IL&P to the private sector, and failed miserably. The private sector offered in exchange, I'm told, an old Ford Fiesta and a ball of used chewing gum. The State, which has already spent €2.7bn propping up that shabby outfit, now "has to" spend another €1.3bn to keep it alive.

That's €4bn -- more than they're hitting us for in the coming Budget -- for a dead thing that we don't want and don't need.

In a world where government ministers see this as normal, and the media reports it as though it was just one of those things -- the most fanciful notions of the most extreme protesters seem quite sensible.

And there's hardly a day goes by without something of this nature happening. In January, to get the New Year off to a wonderful start, we'll pay €3bn more to unsecured bank bondholders, to make up to them for another private gamble that lost.

Meanwhile, the head of Coillte reckons he's worth €297,000, no pay cut; and the top lad from the ESB thinks it's a great sacrifice to take a cut from €468,000 to €400,000. Last week, AIB sighed at the self-sacrifice of limiting their new head honcho to a mere half a million a year.

Cowen, Ahern and Harney, among others, enjoy unfeasible pensions, though not at pension age. At 60, Mary McAleese trots off with a pension of €160,000 a year, after 14 years on the job, and after banking perhaps a couple of million from a flamboyant salary.

Pampering the elite while the vulnerable are kicked in the teeth isn't just unfair. These inequalities are markers of the fact that, over a 30-year period, the share of wealth going to the few increased immensely and the share of wealth going to the many was reduced.

This was made to seem OK by the fact that the overall level of wealth was increasing. Hey, monstrous inequality doesn't matter if we're all better off, right?

But as the wealth of the elites grew, it became clear there wasn't enough wealth going to the many to sustain the ever-increasing growth that the dance of greed demanded. So, cheap credit was arranged and the dance went on. And we're now choking on the accumulation of 30 years of credit -- and we can't tackle the crisis, because the elites insist that every last cent must be paid to every last bondholder, and that just isn't possible. Not with all the austerity in the world.

The lunacy continues. While Irish citizens have been taking a beating, the average pay of CEOs in the 21 largest companies rose by 46 per cent between 2007 and 2009.

And between 2009 and 2010, there was a 10 per cent increase (to 18,100) in the number of individuals in Ireland with net assets of over €1m -- not counting homes and luxury goods. (The figures are from Towards a Second Republic, by Peadar Kirby and Mary P Murphy.)

Another aspect of the insanity was seen last week, as the Kenny/Gilmore regime strained every sinew to squeeze an embattled Kevin Cardiff into a plush EU job. Personally, I don't care who gets the overpaid position. But the relentless efforts on behalf of a snug man, while the same politicians insist that the homeless too must make sacrifices, is part of the insistence that the nature of the power structure must remain undisturbed. One for all, and all for one -- the solidarity of the elites is impressive.

We could do with a little more of that, down at our level, and a little less of the "sheeple" insults. It might be more productive of the Occupy protesters to make links to the vulnerable who are bearing the brunt. Offer them support. They're not sheep, they're frightened.

The rest of us need the energy and self-assurance of the protesters. They in turn need our solidarity. In the US, retired police officers have warned against the militarisation of the police, and the resulting attacks on the Occupy protesters. That militarisation was seen here months ago, when gardai in battle dress batoned peaceful anti-tuition fee protesters sitting on the ground. This will continue, as the media turns a blind eye. Someone will get badly hurt, someone may die. And the State will find an individual cop to blame.

This once seemed like just another recession, but now great institutions totter. It's a frightening time. Bob was right about one thing, when he sang, "There's a battle outside and it's raging."

Sunday Independent

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