Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and Sense of Place in a Globalising Ireland, Finbarr Bradley and James J Kennelly, Blackhall, 366 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-1842181638
Recessions can be depressing, though we should be used to them by now. Certainly in my lifetime we seem to have had more of them than booms. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and who lived through the 1980s can only hope that the next decade will not be worse than those gloomy black-and-white days. I can hear the diehard Marxist pessimists calling out: “We told you so. Did you really believe the greedy bankers, property developers and marketeers? Did you really believe that the boom days of the Celtic Tiger would last forever?” It seems now that the Marxists were right: the Celtic Tiger was a brash young pup born with the seeds of its own destruction. Maybe the Marxists’ day has come. Maybe we have reached a new end to history. Maybe we are on the verge of a post-capitalist society. But if we are to avoid the endless cycles of boom and bust, if we believe that we have it within ourselves to transcend the conditions of our own existence, if we can create a Brave New World, how do we get there? Where do we begin?
The difference between this and previous recessions is that Ireland, like the rest of the world, has become more globalised. If there is an equity in globalisation it is that recession seems to hit all parts of the world simultaneously, if not equally. However, if we are to read the signs, it seems that the recession will run deep and last longer in Ireland. So what are we to do? Emigration is no longer the option it once was. In the long term, we could learn Polish and follow the Poles back home. But even if there is global recovery, even if the American gods still look kindly on us, even if the level of foreign direct investment returns to previous levels, will we be competitive enough to maintain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed? More importantly, is it time that we went back to the fundamental question posed by Marx and asked ourselves: is capitalism the only game in town. Is there no other way of taming the market economy except through the nation state? Is it possible even to raise such matters, to have some public debate and discussion, to try at least to think outside the capitalist box?
One innovative approach would be to try to think and act differently. We could develop a new self-belief in ourselves. We could begin with a new mantra that we are and always have been different, that we have ways of thinking, being and doing that we have accumulated through the centuries that, in fact, make us not just different but culturally superior to the rest of the West. If we could come to believe in this neo-nationalist rhetoric we just might, with one big leap forward, get ourselves out of this hole we are in. Instead then of becoming swamped by global cultural capitalism, we would develop a new sense of identity, a new pride of place, that would bring a new meaning to our lives, that would enable us to be more innovative and creative.
There is an attractive, almost inherent logic to the notion that as everyday life around the world becomes increasingly the same, not only will there be an equal and opposite cultural reaction to this sameness, in which the local and national will become more important, but that it will be those nations, and more importantly those communities, which bond and learn together, that will not just survive but thrive.
So in these days of doom there is something invigorating about following Bradley and Kennelly’s advice about the best way to get out of here. The authors of this book take the insides out of Irish culture and lay them out on the carcass of the Tiger. And, like the great seers of the past, they are reassuringly positive about the future. We have just to believe in ourselves, to persuade our political leaders to believe in what these new seers say, to follow their advice, and to develop new courageous and innovative policies based on cultivating Irish difference. To go forward, they argue, we must go back, back to our Irish cultural roots, to all those things that made us different in the past.
Bradley and Kennelly believe there is nothing new or original about this cultural leap forward. In fact the seeds of our future success were sown by our ancestors, the great men behind the Irish Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was people like Horace Plunkett – their favourite among a “small group of intellectuals, artists, social reformers and practical dreamers” – who created a new shared sense of identity about what it meant to be Irish. Local co-operatives were at the heart of Plunkett’s vision. Co-ops, in his view, were about building commercial success through building collaboration. They helped create a new sense of character based on efficiency, persistence, sobriety and punctuality.
For Bradley and Kennelly, if we want to return to the way we lived during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger, we will need to regain high levels of economic growth. One way to achieve this would be to continue to attract foreign direct investment by responding to the needs and interests of transnational corporations. However, if we are to avoid long-term dependency on these corporations, we will need to develop indigenous products and services that can be sold competitively on the global market. Bradley and Kennelly argue that the primary goal of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland should be to create a sustainable and successful learning society. The way to attain high productivity and competitiveness is to pay attention to culture, identity, emotions, instinct, intuition, meaning and sense of place – development issues that have been ignored in the past. If Ireland is to succeed in the global economy then, for the authors, we need to invest in those things which make us different. The task is to blend and adapt traditional aspects of our culture – our folklore, customs, language, sport, art and music – to the demands of the global market. We have to think nationally and locally but act globally. The cultural twist then is that for Ireland to become successful we have to go for a way of being in the world, a quality of life that is recognised and appreciated as being different, and that is seen as highly desirable. People around the world will buy our goods and services, will flock to our country, because our cultural difference is attractive. In other words, we are a small green island and we do things differently here.
What the leaders of the Irish Revival did, more than anything else, was to develop a sense of identity, of us being different from our colonial oppressors, and, most of all, a pride not just in all things Irish, but in the local. As Bradley and Kennelly point out, the GAA was probably the greatest success of all the ventures of the Irish Revival. In an age where soccer has become the global sport, the one thing that marks the Irish out as being different is their support for Gaelic games, not just in Ireland but around the world. And it is not just a national pride. What makes the GAA such a success is the sense of pride and sense of place it brings to local parish communities. If global success is to be based on cultivating difference then there is nothing finer than the fierce differences that surround local teams competing in GAA county championships.
But playing Gaelic games is not enough. When it comes to creating a long-lasting sense of belonging and identity, Bradley and Kennelly are convinced that we will have to revive the Irish language. They place enormous importance on the Irish language, arguing that through its use we have a better understanding of ourselves and that this self-understanding is the basis of good communication. When you know and understand yourself it is easier to understand and communicate with others. Moreover, they claim that, in global business, it is a disadvantage for us to use English since we lose the form of creative communication that has been at the centre of Irish cultural difference: we speak differently therefore we think differently. It is this creative communication which they suggest (quoting the IDA), “propelled Ireland into the knowledge society and made it one of today’s leading software producers”. However, as in the case of many other things the authors see as needing to be done, how exactly they are to be done is not made very clear. Given the enormous resources, time and effort that have been pumped into the Irish language, and given its steady decline, it is difficult to know how much more investment should be made in reviving it.
But for Bradley and Kennelly, Irish culture and tradition are just parts of a more complex endeavour. We need, they argue, to develop new types of learning organisations which, as well as training people to become highly rational, efficient and productive will also impress on them the value of personal growth, empowerment and emotional intelligence. If Ireland is to survive globally, we need to take a fresh look at our society. We need to create not just wealth, but a way of being that we value and cherish. We need to develop our infrastructure not just to facilitate transporting of goods, but in a way that facilitates community development. Those people who live, and often work voluntarily, in local communities need to be at the centre of community development. We need to change the traditionally held view that economic growth comes from innovation that emerges through the findings of intensive scientific research. The authors claim that sustainable innovation comes from people with multiple skill sets, being flexible and open and, most importantly, learning together. They emphasise the importance of tacit knowledge based on hunches, intuitions, inspirations and imaginings. These emerge from a culture of sharing and caring, of rooted sense of identity and belonging. Such a culture can only emerge within a holistic sustainable form of development in which caring for the environment becomes a core value.
Bradley and Kennelly are, however, very positive about the cultural diversity that has developed in Ireland with the recent increase in immigration. The more culture that is brought to the Irish melting pot the better. They are also in favour of David McWilliams’s call for the return to Ireland of some of the millions of the Irish diaspora around the world. The greater the cultural diversity, the greater the long-term sustainability of Irish business.
So how then can we create a learning society? The authors argue that there is a need for a rich educational experience at all levels, driven by self-discovery and exploration. They begin with the universities, where they say the importance accorded to research has displaced the former priority of teaching students to be critically reflective. Much of their concern, since they are from a business management background, is with reforming business education.
Students also need to learn across disciplines. They quote the theologian Enda McDonagh, who holds that “the pursuit of truth, beauty and the good is what gives meaning, value and purpose to university education”. Their ideal business programme would have studies fostering rooted Irish-global identity which would link in with studies in management innovation investment that would give rise to new sustainable business ventures. They have little or nothing to say about the rest of the third level sector and little to say about second level education except that there is a greater need for the type of physical, emotional, social and spiritual learning that has been developed in the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme.
Given that their goal is to develop a successful and sustainable learning society that is based on developing a rooted Irish-global identity, it is surprising that they do not give any attention to either, at one level, primary education and, at another, adult education and lifelong learning. If the success of Irish business is dependent on a new sense of identity and place, a new spirit of co-operation and a renewed appreciation of Irish culture and tradition, then it would seem that this new mindset would need to be developed at primary level and, just as importantly, would need to be fostered and developed by parents who have become equally committed to creating a brave new Ireland. If Irish people are to develop a new sense of understanding of who they are, a new appreciation of their difference, and this is to be the new base of economic success, then it is hardly sustainable that such learning would be confined to the universities and, particularly, to business schools within them. There is a need for a much broader understanding of a learning society that encompasses all Irish people. The question is when, where and how could such a movement be initiated?
Bradley and Kennelly are fond of mentioning the achievements of Finland and Denmark in developing successful economies rooted in a strong sense of national identity. However, one of the main reasons why these two societies have such vibrant senses of identity and belonging is that they put enormous resources into adult education and lifelong learning programmes. During the recession in the 1980s, when Denmark was cutting back on all other forms of public expenditure, it made the bold decision to increase funding for adult education. A new source of funding was made available for innovative programmes which would build the type of social capital that Bradley and Kennelly see as fundamental to cultivating difference.
But in order to compete in the global economic system, the Irish have to develop a stronger, deeper culture, a new sense of bonding and belonging, a new identity that is achieved through a cultivation and celebration of all things Irish. The problem, however, is that this cultivation of difference is not so much an end in itself, as a means towards economic success. It is not so much about developing a new way of being in the world, a new holistic, alternative lifestyle based on learning as about exploiting culture as if it were some kind of natural resource like oil or gas. Culture, in this interpretation, becomes a coat of convenience, a method for becoming globally successful. This is a kind of twist on the old Marxist argument that the economic base determines the ideological superstructure. The needs of business determine the culture we develop. Perhaps, they might argue, it is not a question of determination but, rather, a dynamic symbiotic relationship. By becoming more Irish – by speaking the language, playing, listening and dancing to traditional music, playing Irish sports, embodying local and national culture – we will become globally successful.
However, culture is fundamentally about meaning. It is something into which one is immersed, that is inherited, shared and, within the practices of everyday life, recreated by individuals wanting to bond and belong, be liked and appreciated, and to live a full rewarding life. And therein lies another problem with Bradley and Kennelly’s argument. Is speaking Irish, the GAA, Irish music and literature the main source of what makes us culturally different? Can Irish difference be reinvented through a type of neo-Gaelic Revival movement as they suggest? More importantly, is this what Irish cultural difference revolves around? I think it is more complex.
There is a passage in the book when Bradley and Kennelly quote Eystn Evans:
It is perhaps not kosher to argue that the heart of Irish cultural difference may well lie more in the pub than in the Irish language. And yet, culture is primarily about meaning, a way of being and, within this, of speaking the truth about the world in which we live. The Irish, I would argue, have developed a rather unique way of talking about themselves and the world and much of this is related to the way they learned to talk in pubs.
Social interactions in the pub were a mixture of gossip, storytelling, jokes, jibes and banter. The peculiarity of the pub was that to be recognised and accepted, let alone to attain honour and respect, it was necessary to embody a way of being in which one surrendered oneself to the group. Individual difference was capped at a low level. People who “got too big for their boots”, who “lost the run of themselves”, who “developed notions”, who “got all high and mighty” were taken “taken down a peg or two”, had “the piss taken out of them”, had “their mickies pulled”. The pub was a space where men could hold court by their ability to tell a good yarn. By embellishing events and people, by letting their imaginations flow, they were able to capture an audience and feel good about themselves. It is this way of being, this surrender of the self to the group, combined with repetitive hard drinking, which was central not just to pub life, but was a key ingredient in what made the Irish, well at least Irish men, different. It is not to say that there were not pubs or cafés in other societies with similar features. It is rather that for various reasons the pub entered deeper and lasted longer in Irish social life and, had a peculiar dynamic. It is this dynamic which was one of the central reasons why it was the Irish and not the English pub which became a globally successful brand.
So where were Irish women in all of this? They were, as has often been noticed, at home minding the children. They were enmeshed in a Catholic discourse and practice of being good mothers. Again it is not that other women in Western society were not having large families and staying at home to mind the children, it is just that Irish women did it on a bigger scale and that they continued to do so late into the twentieth century when most other Western women had given up having large families as a bad job, had taken to fertility control and gone out to work. Maybe what makes the Irish different is that for most of the twentieth century they went on having large families when the rest of the West went for small sizes.
And if global business success is all about capitalising on cultural difference then as well as speaking Irish and playing Irish sports, we will have to go back to being good Catholics. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries what made the Irish different from the rest of the West was the way they not just embodied Catholicism but swallowed the Church’s view and understanding of what life was all about, hook, line and sinker. What was central to the Catholic way of being in the world was its emphasis on a discourse and practice of self-denial, which extended to a disdain for taking pleasure in material things. This helps explain the lack of ambition and success. Business and professional people who openly strove to be successful, let alone fabulously wealthy, were in danger of being excluded from good Catholic society. There was no point in becoming wealthy as family, friends and neighbours might frown on any overt form of self-indulgence.
The control of materialism was linked to a control not just of pleasure, but of desire and sex. When it comes to describing and analysing Irish difference, it would be foolish not to focus on so many people growing up in poverty in large families, to men and women not being able to have sex without fear of procreation for so many more years than many of their Western counterparts. Such was the stranglehold of the Church over the Irish mind and psyche that sex was construed for so long as a problem rather than a pleasure, as a source of guilt and shame rather than as something beautiful, virtuous and fulfilling. Again, it is not that the Irish were completely different from other regions and countries in the West, but rather that these cultural currents ran wider, deeper and lasted longer than they did elsewhere.
It would be hard to imagine the Irish capitalising on these cultural differences and, yet, instead of being obsessed with self, sex and success, there might well be an attraction to slowing down and becoming more spiritual and transcendental and less bound to the culture of consumer capitalism. It is perhaps here that the real challenge of a learning society lies. We could, for example, try to develop a new way of being in the world which was not based so much on an endless treadmill of production and consumption, but revolved around the cultivation and fulfilment of simple pleasures. We could develop a global reputation for restricting the growth of cities, taxing travelling, giving tax incentives to working locally, placing higher taxes on high priced, non-essential goods and, on the other hand, learning how to develop pleasures of the mind and body beyond consumption. A learning society might, at least, have a public debate about these issues.
When Bradley and Kennelly talk about sustainable development, it always seems to be in the context of an unquestioned acceptance that we have to have continued economic growth, we have to become wealthier and that to do so we have to work harder and perform better in order to be more competitive. However, in a learning society these orthodoxies would be questioned. Adults would learn to critically reflect about what was relevant, meaningful and important in their lives. It seems to me that if we are to develop a sustainable balance between working and living, through earning money and enjoying life, then we have to encourage alternative ways of cooperating and bonding.
How are we to achieve this? The first thing to realise is that it cannot be prescriptive. We cannot tell people that it is in their interests to learn Irish, to play Gaelic sports, and so on. On the other hand, if we recognise that any long-term alternative to global consumer capitalism has to be local, voluntary and spontaneous, then perhaps we could follow the example of the Danes. The government might think of introducing a new income levy, the proceeds of which would go specifically to adult learning and community development. Cooperatives, organisations and groups would be able to apply for funds on the basis that their activities demonstrably contributed to increased social bonding at local level, to greater participation in public debate, to increased volunteering, and to participation in alternative forms of learning. It is well recognised, by Bradley and Kennelly and by others, that the main deficit in contemporary consumer capitalist societies is the decline in public life, in civic society, in volunteerism and, linked to this, a decline in the value and importance of social capital. Robert Putnam famously summarised this as the move to “bowling alone”: people do not participate in community life as they used to previously. So, if we are to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in, the state needs to think more imaginatively and put more money into creative forms of adult learning and community development to promote and facilitate new creative forms of social bonding and belonging.
The challenge, then, is to think and act differently: literally to think and act outside the consumer capitalist box which shapes our existing mentalities. There are, of course, structural limitations. We cannot think outside our climate. And yet we can begin by talking to our children about the pleasures of our life. Hedonism has got some bad press in recent times. It may be time to focus on our ethical responsibility to live socially and environmentally sustainable lives and realise that the way forward is to stop consuming ourselves and the earth to death and instead to focus on the simple pleasures in life – cooking, music, art, literature, walking, talking, listening – and through these to begin to bond and belong in a new way.
The pursuit of pleasure is not just noble but central to living a beautiful, fulfilling life. If we have abandoned the notion of life after death, and with it the notion of following religious teachings as a means of living a good life and attaining eternal salvation, then we need to devise a new ethic which focuses on identifying, pursuing and fulfilling pleasures that are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable.
To achieve this, we need to move beyond the inherited, outdated notion that it was wrong to talk about our pleasures and desires. We need the exact opposite. We need to talk to each other, to reflect critically and to teach our children, at home and in our schools, about the pleasures of life and how these include but extend beyond sex, grooming, travelling, shopping, smoking, drinking and eating. So instead of a negative, prohibitive approach to pleasure, we should encourage not just ourselves but our children to talk about what satisfaction and sense of fulfilment they get from these and other pleasures. Perhaps instead of having no talk about drink, drugs and sex in schools we should have classes in which pupils are encouraged to talk about what they enjoy and why.
If we are, then, to capitalise on culture, if we are to be not just different, but honoured and respected for our difference, then we might begin with a national debate and educational programmes about what gives us pleasure and different ways of living a full, pleasurable life which is not so dependent on working ever harder to consume ever more.
Tom Inglis teaches sociology at University College Dublin. His book Global Ireland was published in 2007.