Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Connolly & the Irish Financial Crisis

Whenever I think of the current financial crisis in Ireland I’m reminded of James Connolly. The taciturn Irishman born in Scotland rarely came to mind in the giddy, gauche years of the Celtic Tiger except as a vaguely disapproving figure whose economic theories had been shown to be not only wrong but ridiculous.

And yet, the “Irish Rebell” - as the song calls him - is back with a bang.

Connolly has often been misinterpreted; then again, he was a man for many seasons. Though often characterized as a nationalist martyr who was shot in a chair, he was in fact a self-educated union leader and theorist. His overriding fear was that the bosses or cartels would unite internationally to the detriment of the workers of each country.

Though he believed in a fair shake for business owners, he mistrusted human nature when spurred on by the acquisition of profit.

He was quite prescient in foreseeing the current Irish crisis and would have been appalled at its outcome and proposed solution.

Connolly, like many trade unionists of the early 20th Century, had a great love for humanity but was wary of its grasping nature. He agreed with his comrade, Big Jim Larkin, “that the great are only great because we are on our knees.” What worried him was what would happen when we arose and began to look out for number one.

The hunger for profit, rampant consumerism and abandonment of community in modern Ireland would have been his worst nightmare, topped only by the arrival of the international bosses dictating the terms of the country’s survival and very sovereignty.

We can ill afford to tut-tut here in the US for we came within an ace of allowing our own economic system to be destroyed by a rapacious financial community.

The only difference between us is the sheer size and scale of the US economy and, unlike Ireland, our banking system is not so intricately enmeshed in all our economic dealings. Thus, though we still have the stealth bombs of failed real estate loans locked within our system, we’re buying time for our banks, and insurance and mortgage companies to make more money so that they can ultimately swallow their losses. At least, that’s the hype, and perhaps the hope.

The sheer scale of the Irish banking system’s collusion in the creation of a real estate bubble is astounding.

Property prices escalated at a ridiculous rate – shacks in Wexford were being sold for a half-million Euros – and big money flooded the country in the ceaseless drive for profit. As over here, many families only got into the hunt late in the game when prices were already inflated.

When the bubble did burst they were left stranded, along with many speculators; the wise money, of course, saw it coming, took the profit and is now betting on the Euro depreciating. Connolly’s fear has come to pass.

Sean Citizen is left holding the baby and change is on the way. Mighty Fianna Fail will be decimated. No great loss in the grand scheme of things - it had long ago cast off its green cloak of nationalism and populism for the navy pinstripes of speculators and gombeen men.

But, as my granny used to say, “things could be worse, no one got kilt!” Feathers, however, financial and otherwise, have been ruffled. Still, community is back – if only that of suffering. And a great questioning of values has begun.

The Irish will bring their banking system to heel, learn and go on from this. We, on the other hand, will do Wall Street’s bidding and further dilute our recently enacted anemic financial reform bill. The cycle of bubble and bust will continue.

The captains and the kings will call the tune, we the pawns shall dance, and Connolly will shake his baffled and disapproving head.

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