Powerful quote from Adorno in this (itself excellent) Guardian piece about applying the Frankfurt School to the contemporary situation:
“The prospective fascist may long for the destruction of himself no less than for that of the adversaries, destruction being a substitute for his deepest and most inhibited desires … He realises that his solution is no solution, that in the long run it is doomed. Any keen observer could notice this feeling in Nazi Germany before the war broke out. Hopelessness seeks a desperate way out. Annihilation is the psychological substitute for the millennium – a day when the difference between the ego and the others, between poor and rich, between powerful and impotent, will be submerged in one great inarticulate unity. If no hope of true solidarity is held out to the masses, they may desperately stick to this negative substitute.”
I’ve always thought that the nihilism of punk (which at times drifted into Nazi imagery, if generally not unironically) was an expression of this same idea.
Paul Krugman recently provided an excellent response to that line of thinking in his New York Times column. It wasn’t aimed at Bruton, but was a general response to that line of thinking (and we have a lot of political leaders here in the USA who totally approve of it). Here’s what I find to be the most relevant passage:
if you look at United States history since World War II, you find that of the 10 presidents who preceded Barack Obama, seven left office with a debt ratio lower than when they came in. Who were the three exceptions? Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. So debt increases that didn’t arise either from war or from extraordinary financial crisis are entirely associated with hard-line conservative governments.
And there’s a reason for that association: U.S. conservatives have long followed a strategy of “starving the beast,” slashing taxes so as to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to pay for popular programs.
The funny thing is that right now these same hard-line conservatives declare that we must not run deficits in times of economic crisis. Why? Because, they say, politicians won’t do the right thing and pay down the debt in good times. And who are these irresponsible politicians they’re talking about? Why, themselves.
To me, it sounds like a fiscal version of the classic definition of chutzpah — namely, killing your parents, then demanding sympathy because you’re an orphan. Here we have conservatives telling us that we must tighten our belts despite mass unemployment, because otherwise future conservatives will keep running deficits once times improve.
Krugman’s column is carried by the Irish Times on the front page of its business supplement, below the fold, so I read that ;) I thought the chutzpah bit was particularly good.
It’s quite likely Bruton saw that too - I suppose the difference is that every Irish government since the late 1980s (the last time Ireland was in a serious recession) left office with a lower debt-to-GDP ratio than it started with; including his own government between 1994 and 1997 which lowered the ratio from 88.4% to 73.4% (see). Presumably he’s aware of that, which is why he referred to spending rather than paying down debt (or its relative erosion by growth).
But I also think it’s because the idea of ‘starving the beast’ hasn’t, at least up until now, had any currency in Ireland - even on the right. Without a large military and with historic economic underdevelopment, there was no ‘beast’ until the boom years allowed Ireland to do some catching up compared to European levels of public spending, although the boom-time economics also allowed the later governments to do so while keeping the tax take (as a percentage of GDP) below the European average, closer to the US level. And we did this while running budget surpluses and reducing our debt levels, conditions Europe sees as evidence of good fiscal housekeeping.
The ex-Taoiseach made a bit more of a splash today on Twitter with this:
Mr Bruton said: “I am not in agreement with President Higgins because it is not realistic nor moral to say that we’re not going to face difficult issues now, but instead we’re going to avoid them by borrowing money that our children or children’s’ children will have to pay.
“That is not moral, socially just or socialist. In fact it’s immoral.
“It’s anti-social for us to avoid our responsibilities and pass them on to the next generation. Yet that’s the cry of the opponents of austerity,” he said.
It’s not really surprising that conservatives manage to make the macroeconomics of austerity to be about the family; it’s another version of making government finances about household budgets. It’s a way of fitting radical actions within a narrow worldview, and painting any alternative as contrary to natural law and individual common sense: you wouldn’t spend more than you earn, or borrow money for your children to pay off, would you? Unless you’re a sociopathic monster with no conception of the common good, of course.
But government budgets don’t work like household ones (neither do debt-laden corporate ones, it seems) and the capacity of a government to raise taxes from an entire economy means that debt is paid off from its growth. The spectre of future impoverished generations relies on absence of growth - exactly what austerity is creating, and what its opponents want to avoid. But fundamentally the image of “our children’s children’s” takes no account of inflation, of technological, social or economic progress - a true conservative vision.
It also neglects to state whose children will be suffering most from this debt burden: the privately educated with access to the most profitable careers, or the underprivileged reliant on state services being progressively dismantled by ideological austerity? Or instead will it be a more equitable world where everyone’s children will have an equal opportunity to benefit from and contribute to our economy and society? In other words, ‘children’ is not a neutral image: it is a projection of the existing social order into a future shaped by current policies.
Now that the backlash to austerity is gathering momentum in political circles, conservatives are returning to attacking the economics of the alternative. Or at least the economists. I have a certain sympathy for Niall Ferguson’s self-admittedly stupid comment on Keynes: homophobia notwithstanding, he was riffing on a particular quote, the “in the long run, we’re all dead” to point out - however callously - that while we might be dead, our descendants aren’t. Assuming we have them, however - and that is where the conservative obsession with the traditional family re-emerges.
It’s not just that it excludes homosexuals and the childless by making not only marriage but also economics (the world as a household, remember) about procreation: it also suggests that since we are concerned for our own children, we are less concerned about those of others. Or about humanity in general. Of course parental instinct is a strong and admirable force, but in our divided world is it not better that it coexist with some more communal feeling, like empathy perhaps?
It doesn’t seem as if Bruton made the same error as Ferguson, although the substantial point of his argument above is the same, when criticising Keynes:
In an unusually pointed speech to an insurance event in Dublin yesterday, Mr Bruton – who now commands a reported six-figure salary as president of the Irish Financial Services Centre – went on to vilify John Maynard Keynes, the economist seen as the father of borrowing in tough times to create economic growth.
“The assumption that you can borrow more now because in the good times you can save a bit more is wrong. In politics the last thing people will consider is cutting spending in the good times.”
The error here is assuming that Keynes meant “cutting spending” rather than saving, or increasing spending at a reasonable rate. Ironically Bruton’s time as Taoiseach is usually contrasted favourably with the later years under Bertie Ahern (and Charlie McCreevy) in that respect; even still, with all the pro-cylical tax cuts and spending increases in the boom years Ireland - in common with other bailout countries - ran budgetary surpluses and paid down significant amounts of its debt (our parents’). That didn’t help, however, when our borrowing capacity was maxed out to save the banks and, with the collapse in tax revenues based on an unsustainable property-boom economy, the government switched to equally pro-cyclical austerity measures. And the only difference since Fine Gael came into power is that the tax measures have been less progressive and the attack on state spending more ideological: so really, Bruton, fuck your morals.