March 29, 2010
At the end of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the hero, Winston Smith, was prepared to believe this sum.
Having committed the ‘‘thoughtcrime’’ of questioning the system, Winston was rumbled. After a few days in the infamous room 101 he was so broken that he was prepared to believe anything. He was prepared to believe something was true, even though it was obviously false. This is what is called in the book ‘‘doublethink’’, where you can see no inconsistency in saying one thing and thinking another.
Sometimes, when I hear the incessant propaganda concerning the economy and the banks – which is being peddled by the same people who talked about ‘‘soft landings’’ and ‘‘new paradigms’’ a few years ago – I feel that I have walked into the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the rulers have convinced the citizens that black is white. The people who got everything completely wrong during the boom are now on television most nights bleating the mantra that ‘‘there is no alternative’’ to bailing out the banks.
Meanwhile, the entire financial community – which largely caused the mess in the first place – is united in orchestrating a transfer of money from the taxpayer to the banks in order to ‘‘preserve the credibility’’ of our financial system.
Now think about this for a minute. The ‘‘credibility’’ of our financial system is based on giving the average person the bill for the mistakes of the banking system. How can such a transfer of wealth from the innocent to the guilty, the prudent to the profligate, possibly make the system more credible?
Surely bailing out the banks makes Ireland less credible, because evidently, by pumping cash into the banks, we become a society that rewards failure? It is only credible if you have succeeded in changing the meaning of the word ‘credible’. It is only credible if you have managed to make the incredible credible – if you have convinced the people that 2 + 2 = 5.
In Orwell’s classic, the Party understood the value of language, and mangled the dictionary in order to achieve its ends. Our rulers are doing the same thing. Let’s consider the use of the word ‘credible’ when it comes to the Irish banks.
What does the word credible mean to you? To me, if someone is described as credible, she is solid, she is trustworthy, she is believable, she is the type of person who doesn’t make mistakes – and if she does, she takes full responsibility for her actions. A credible person is accountable, straightforward and capable. You believe what she says.
Given these attributes, how could our financial reputation be made more credible if we interfere with capitalism to bail out institutions and individuals that are not trustworthy, not believable, not capable, not accountable and unable to manage their own affairs?
Bailing out the banks makes us less credible, not more credible. Yet the government insists that ‘‘there is no alternative’’or that this is the ‘‘only game in town’’. So we now have a successful company, like Ryanair, and hundreds of successful small businesses which will be penalised and asked to pay higher taxes to bail out a delinquent company like AIB. What sort of signal does such a policy send to the rest of the world?
The first thing a regime that wants to obscure the truth does is to twist the language and distort the message so that things that are bad sound good. Secondly, the regime tries to silence those who might dissent by accusing them of a ‘‘thoughtcrime’’. In a ‘‘spectator democracy’’ like Ireland, mass compliance is achieved by ridiculing the dissenter – or, if necessary, ostracising the individual who suggests that the truth is being hijacked. In the struggle to bulldoze the interests of the few over the many, language is crucial in order to make bad things sound good. Take ‘‘long-term economic value’’. Now think about what these words mean. Consider ‘‘long-term’’.
When something is long-term it sounds solid, well thought out, not spivvy or tricky in any way. When someone’s actions are determined by the long term, they are usually thought of as selfless, unbiased and, almost by definition, these actions are done ‘‘in the common good’’ because they are long-term.
A bit like a gardener planting a tree, which she will never be around to see in full bloom, but future generations will appreciate. So ‘‘long-term’’ signifies good. Now consider ‘‘economic value’’. Well, if something is economic, it is usually regarded as solid and, most important, technical or even scientific. When something has the aura of being technical, it can’t be invented, it must be mechanical, governed by absolutes. So economic is, let’s say, at worst, neutral. And of course ‘‘value’’: well, value signifies worth. Something with value is valuable and is something that will make you wealthy.
So using the normal codes of language, the message sent out by ‘‘long-term economic value’’ is that it has to be, overall, a good thing. In fact, the reality is that ‘‘long-term economic value’’, the concept behind Nama, is just a makey-uppy name for fields in Athlone that are worthless, that will never be worth anything. It is not long-term, it is a short-term rescue scheme for the property/banking oligarchy in Ireland.
Frankly, it has nothing to do with what we know as the modern economy. In fact, the land-based economy which will be preserved using expressions like ‘‘long-term economic value’’ is a feudal economy based on land totally at odds with the government’s vaunted ‘‘smart economy’’, which is based on brains.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the distortion of language was called ‘‘newspeak’’, where one thing meant something quite different. ‘‘Thoughtcrimes’’ were there to be stamped out, while ‘‘goodspeak’’ was used to describe anything which supported the ruling party. It is hard not to think of ‘‘goodspeak’’ when you hear bankers and politicians opining on television. A great example of goodspeak is the old chestnut that ‘‘Nama will get credit flowing in the economy’’. No, it won’t. No one in his right mind believes that. The IMF told the government as much in April 2009.
The reality is that Nama will save the ‘insiders’ by giving your money to bank creditors who took a bad bet on AIB and Bank of Ireland. The reason the Irish government pays more for its borrowings than Spain or Portugal does is because the markets see through our bluff and realise the more money that goes into Nama, the less there is to invest in productive ideas.
But you wouldn’t think this from the language used by the government. We are told that bailing out the banks will create wealth. But we know that it won’t. Bankrupt banks are not wealth creators; they are, by definition, wealth destroyers. Nama first and now the recapitalisations are both moving taxpayer resources to the banks, where it will be destroyed. The â‚¬4 billlion gone into Anglo last year is gone. In fact, keeping with the Nineteen Eighty Four analogy, Anglo is the room 101 of taxpayer funds.
But the propaganda – the newspeak – tells a different story, so, for example, when things get worse it is spun that they are getting better. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the reliefs from the drudgery is the weekly ration of chocolate. During the course of the book, the ration is cut from 40g to 35g per week. This, of course, is described as an ‘‘increase’’ to 35g per week. Now think about the recapitalisations of the banks. The numbers keep getting worse, yet they are being sold as better. This, of course, is a favourite linguistic trick. As unemployment continues to rise, we are supposed to celebrate when the rise is smaller than expected.
A classic example of this was the finance minister’s reaction to the GDP figures, which last week showed the worst fall ever recorded. Commenting on the figures, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said: ‘‘Excluding the impact of the ongoing decline in new house building, GDP was roughly unchanged in the fourth quarter.”
This translates as: ‘‘Excluding the bits that were falling, we weren’t falling!”