I’ve been thinking about the size of the gap that has opened up between human suffering and politics as usual, which I think makes this crisis unlike anything we’ve had for quite a long time.
Albert Hirschman, in his classic 1970 book, suggested that there are three responses to failure in states, firms, and other organizations: exit, voice, and loyalty. If you are alienated enough, you leave (if you can). You can protest. Or you can stay and put up with it. But these are not mutually exclusive options. You might, for example, use the possibility of exit to amplify the power of protest (he thinks this applies to marriages as well as to states – nothing if not theoretically ambitious). Similarly, you might increase the effectiveness of protest, and delay the need for the exit option, by professions of loyalty.
I’m looking around me at the damage to the Irish social fabric caused by austerity measures to date, and wondering how to think about it, using these categories. Ireland is still a developed economy. But unemployment is now over 14 per cent, half of it is long-term, and it’s worst for young people. The domestic economy is below water, and emigration rates have surged. There are many forms of personal misery – the special needs children who can’t keep up at school because the budget for their personal assistants has been axed, the mental hospital patients who are to be moved into a locked ward for five weeks over Christmas because of staffing shortages, the formerly comfortably-off families seeking help from charities to keep afloat. We can see all the signs that economic activity is faltering – the rash of ‘To Let’ signs on office space, the closing-down sales on high streets and in shopping centres. We listen to the myriad stories told by family and friends of families trapped by unrepayable mortgages; of desperate small businesses running at a loss, hoping their accumulated reserves will buffer them until there is a recovery. We witness the increase in suicide rates, devastating for all affected.
People can put up with austerity for quite some time, if they believe it is necessary and unavoidable, and if they think that there will eventually be some improvement. But it’s becoming clearer that things are more complicated this time round.
We need the loans the Troika disburses, so our government has no choice about the size and scale of the austerity. More fiscal oversight is now on the cards, and it may well be a good idea in its own right. But the ECB is wrongly treating a gathering financial crisis as if were solely due to fiscal imbalances – treating consequence as cause. And our government is chained to the enormous rock of failed bank debt, which the ECB insisted needs to be repaid in full ‘to save the Euro’. Well, we’re sinking fast and it still hasn’t saved the Euro.
So what can we say about Hirschman’s threefold response options?
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