Opinion

Never waste a crisis

Reactions to the current financial crisis have produced a number of initiatives and proposals that don’t necessarily arise from a desire to solve the problem, according to Brian McDermott.

Let’s go over this just one more time. The current financial debacle has been caused by the greed, selfishness, short-termism and fraudulent practices of banks and major financial institutions. Good, at least that’s clear now. But if that’s the source of the problem, then why is cutting public expenditure, reducing welfare benefits, freezing public sector salaries and threatening the national minimum wage thought to be the answer? Well, that depends on whether you think the problem and the proposed solutions are even remotely connected.
While most people reasonably assume that the recovery measures proposed by the British and Irish governments have been formulated in response to the financial crisis, the relationship may not be that straightforward. Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was not the first to say ‘Never waste a Crisis’, but he was the one who gave the most telling insight into the mindset and practices of 21st-century capitalist thinking, from the corporate financial world to the local political legislators.
For them, the ‘credit crunch’ is a timely opportunity to implement a number of schemes they have had in draft for some time and a chance to rewrite the rules in their own favour. Neil Smith, Chief Executive of New York consulting firm PGI, suggests striking quickly while the crisis is still hot. He notes that employees of some firms currently accept drastic change ‘without a peep’. Such acceptance will not last for long. He also advises his fellow CEOs to exploit the fact that staff will currently trade maximum compensation for their work for maximum job security.
Closer to home Bill Jeffrey, a member of The Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, recently suggested that recovery from the economic crisis would be helped if the national minimum wage was frozen for the next five years. Never waste a crisis!
Unfortunately, Smith and Jeffrey are not on their own. The list of proposed and implemented ‘solutions’ sounds strangely familiar. Dramatically reduced public expenditure, streamlining public services, a review of welfare, withdrawal of universal child benefit, increasing the age of retirement – all familiar, and all an opportunity taken by neoconservative politicians and company bosses to re-jig the economic and social structure under the guise of solving the credit crunch.
One other recently suggested proposal came from Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin and involved the withdrawal of free travel for pensioners. Never waste a crisis!

Look…over here!

For those planning on making the most out of the crisis that they themselves created, it helps greatly if the public debate runs in their favour. In this respect the role, and influence, of print journalism, radio talk shows and television news should not be underestimated. Nor should it be under-analysed.
Arguably, the key functions which the media performs in this, and other crises, are distraction, dissipation and the reinforcement of capitalism as the natural social and economic order. Let’s look briefly at how that happens. Despite the initial clarity that existed about the reasons for this financial crisis, many people now no longer blame the banks or international financial institutions, and certainly not the capitalist economic system.
Vague and spurious reasons like ‘internationalfactors’, ‘global phenomena’ and the ‘vagaries of the money market’ started the smokescreen. Later, the Chinese Government, consumers and, in Ireland in particular, the public sector were identified as the causes. People who grow old and live too long, parents with too many children, the welfare state, people with disabilities and of course migrant workers – especially those who wash cars or sell newspapers at traffic junctions – all became media targets as contributors to the economic crisis caused by the banks.
‘Welfare cheats’ have got us into this mess. The more that appears in print, the more often it is rehearsed on radio phone-ins and the more television exposés there are, the more it becomes a reality. Measure the amountof air-time and column inches devoted to stories about ‘dole scroungers’ and balance that with an examination of tax evasion and fraud. Despite the media concentration on welfare benefits cheats as the cause of world economic meltdown, the figures don’t add up.
The National Fraud Authority has found that while benefit fraud in the UK in 2008 amounted to around £1billion, tax evasion during the same period cost the public purse over £15billion. A further £10.5billion in income-related benefits went unclaimed in the UK in the same year. Even when an alternative view does make it past the media gatekeeper, the arguments will be demonised, marginalised and then dismissed as impractical or downright lunacy.
For example, a trade union spokesperson who was arguing that there was an alternative approach to the problem that did not involve cutswas asked by his radio interviewer if it was fair on the public to be organising strike action and a ‘winter of discontent’.
This, despite the fact that he had suggested nothing of the sort. He went on to point out that pursuing tax evaders and reforming the existing tax system would raise the money required to refloat the economy without cutting public spending. “Well that’s a very complicated proposal and listeners will no doubt make their own mind up about that one”, said the radio presenter as she terminated the interview – and the discussion. The third function being performed by mainstream media is the reinforcement of capitalist economics as the natural world order.
Of course, the views expressed on radio, television and in print are not those of individual journalists or media organisations. The claim is that they are merely reflecting the public’s views and opinions. The reality is that media agendas are constructed, that certain views are preferred, that access is not a level playing field and that journalists editors and programme makers continue to look to the capitalist economic model for answers to its own crisis. Why is that? The reasons are complex, but a reasonable starting point in understanding this is media academic Stuart Hall’s theory of the ideological compass. Briefly, he argues that for as long as there is a consensus amongst the major institutions, opinion formers and influencers – amongst them, political parties, churches, academia, the legal system and, of course, the financial institutions – then the media uses that consensus to determine its own direction of travel.
Despite the severity of the economic crisis, its impact on the quality of life of working class people and the draconian measures being proposed to address it, that consensus has remained intact. True there have been individual exceptions, one or two people have broken ranks and challenged the conventional wisdom of capitalism, but they have been few and their views don’t make it to the mainstream media.
Challenging the cuts culture and presenting the alternative case relies as much on disturbing that existing economic consensus as it does on mobilising public support. Perhaps capitalists aren’t the only ones who shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste.

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