John Fanning writes: Maurice Earls’s thought-provoking essay ‘The State Of Us’ (February drb) is a valuable contribution to a much-needed debate on our future direction at a time when the world is drifting unsteadily towards an as yet unknown destination. The fall-out from the 2008 great recession is still reverberating and has been further complicated by the rise of populism in many previously established democracies, the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and, overshadowing all, the impending climate crisis. Ireland is seen as an economic success, but this is largely based on our continuing ability to attract FDI especially from the US, a position wittily labelled by the author as the Hibernian Trading Platform. In querying whether we should have all our eggs in one basket Earls suggests that we need to pay more attention to developing indigenous businesses, especially in the agri-food category. He then widens the canvas by suggesting that we are experiencing symptoms of the general malaise affecting many western societies; ‘widespread discontent and structurally embedded inequality’.
The need for more indigenous businesses has been a cause of concern for many years, usually accompanied by a warning that our success in attracting FDI won’t last forever in spite of the fact that we are less dependent on a favourable tax regime to attract inward investment than ever. But there are additional social and cultural reasons why we need more successful home-grown businesses. It’s impossible to argue with that but over the past three decades we have seen the emergence of a number of very successful Irish businesses including CRH, Kerry Group, Glanbia, Ryanair, Paddy Power. They are all global leaders, and therein lies the rub: the majority of their employees and shareholders are now based overseas, which is the inevitable price we pay for being a small country. Unfortunately, most of these companies are currently considering transferring their stock market listings from Dublin to the New York exchange; an unfortunate example of the price of success. We could obviously do with more successful local businesses, particularly in the food and drink sectors, but Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland do have a wide range of imaginative support schemes and the pipeline for successful new businesses looks promising. Sales of Irish whiskey are predicted to overtake Scotch sales in the US by 2030, a position that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. In anticipation of this turnaround, a plethora of new distilleries are appearing all over the country. It must also be acknowledged that we have a very successful economy, enjoying full employment and the younger generation is arguably the most entrepreneurially minded ever.
If all this sounds too Pollyannaish then it is time to turn to the second of Earls’s preoccupations: the widespread sense of discontent; here unfortunately the outlook is not so good. The only consolation is that we’re not alone, our discontent and alienation seem to be shared across Europe and much of the rest of the world and is now regularly broadened into a more general sense of Nietzschean ressentiment. A variety of reasons is advanced to account for this phenomenon, ranging from fear of more pandemics, increasing effects of climate change, the return of 1914-1918 style trench warfare on European soil, and above all the general insecurity caused by the Great Recession of 2008.
Earls rightly suggests that the real issue is the lack of any credible alternative to the neo-liberal economic order which failed so miserably fifteen years ago. The Left have been found wanting for at least fifty years, since the goal of a centrally planned economy proved impractical. Instead of presenting an alternative vision for society they have retreated down the rabbit hole of identity politics. The Right presented a simple and convincing narrative; we all want more prosperity (don’t we?) and the most effective way to ensure economic growth is to allow people’s natural competitive instinct free reign; individualism and competition will ensure prosperity for all (won’t it?). This societal goal was reiterated recently by David McWilliams in his weekly Irish Times column: ‘The purpose of 21st century Ireland is prosperity. We can argue over what prosperity means and in particular the success or otherwise of its distribution but there is little doubt that prosperity of the many is the socioeconomic goal of the Irish state. This is the purpose of the endeavour, the heart of the exercise.’
I examined the letters page of the Irish Times every day of the following week wondering if anyone would register even a smidgin of disagreement with this definitive assertion but failed to find any. But if this contention is true then there is no prospect of an end to our current discontent, alienation and ressentiment. Experience of the last thirty years has shown that a rise in prosperity will inevitably be accompanied by a further rise in inequality and although people may have a little extra to spend on more ‘stuff’ there is ample evidence that ‘the consumer’s goals are perpetually recurring illusions which vanish at the very moment they loom into view destroyed by the appetite that seeks them’.
Our obsession with economic growth is a relatively recent phenomenon: it only began to trump all other considerations in the middle of the last century. Economics used to be a moral science concerned with the wider implications of the good life. We need to revive this idea. The belief that there is such a thing as a ‘good life’ has been key to all the world’s great civilisations: except our own. Before she died recently British philosopher Mary Midgley continually returned to this subject and in one of her last books made the following plea: ‘Our age is preoccupied with the vision of continually improving means rather than saving ourselves the trouble by reflecting on ends—we need to compare visions and articulate them more clearly and think them through.’
We should do the same.