Politicians content to let us wait in the dark

By Fintan O’Toole (for the Irish Times)

I know there has been a surfeit of crap Chilean mine metaphors. My excuse for spinning another is that the most obvious parallel to our own situation has been missed.

Those charged with keeping the miners alive listened to psychologists who had studied people with similar experiences. The key message they received is that people are far more likely to survive if they can be given the sense of being in control of their own destiny. If they sat there waiting to be rescued, they would go mad. “The big trauma [is] lack of control - That’s how you make people crazy,” explained one of the experts. The miners were encouraged to hold meetings, to reach consensus among themselves, to make decisions. Even when it had no material effect on the rescue operation, the rescuers understood the vital necessity of not allowing the trapped miners to become passive objects of other people’s attempts to save them.

The miners have reason to be grateful, therefore, that their rescuers were not Irish politicians or economists. Here we are, stuck way down in a very deep hole. The roof has fallen in and all sorts of vile rubble has rained down on our heads. The owners of our own little gold mine thought only of their own profits and paid little attention to our safety. And now they shout down from on high, though a very narrow chink, that we will be all right. We just have to sit in the dark, be well behaved and, sooner or later, we will be rescued. The quieter and more passive we are, the better it will be for all of us.

The ineptitude of our current masters is nowhere as clear as in this: they can’t even give us the illusion of control. Skilled leaders (not just in politics but in all kinds of organisations) allow people to believe that they have made decisions themselves, even when they have in fact been manipulated into accepting a pre-ordained choice. Our lot are too crude and too bewildered to be able to do even this for us.

In the short term, of course, there are advantages for our rulers in the absence of a sense of collective control. The short word for not being in charge of events is panic. People who are experiencing panic don’t make rational choices. They feel powerless. And this, indeed, is the way citizens are supposed to feel right now. We are meant to believe that there is nothing we can do about anything. Our purpose is simply to accept whatever happens and to pay whatever price those above ground - the Government, the markets, the EU - tell us must be paid. By and large, we have been very good at adopting the correct posture of crouching passively in the dark.

In the longer term, though, this sense of being completely powerless while the biggest decisions in the history of the State are being taken above our heads merely compounds the disaster. Those in charge of the rescue were careful to give the miners a sense of control over their own fates because otherwise they would be likely to experience one of two extreme reactions. Either they would curl up in despair or they would go mad.

You can already see in Irish society our usual tendency - faced with two alternatives, we adopt both. At the private level, people are swinging between utter despair and ranting, hysterical madness. They sit fatalistically in the cave but rise every so often to shake their fists in the general direction of those above ground. It should be obvious that neither of these reactions is conductive to the survival of a democracy. Powerless despair and impotent rage are equally corrosive of the sense of collective purpose that a democratic state requires.

In looking to preserve our sanity, we might start with Rienhold Niebuhr’s great Serenity Prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, but actually intended to be as much a political statement as a personal one. (The original uses “we” instead of “I”.) Niebuhr prayed for “Grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,/ Courage to change the things which should be changed,/ and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Serenity may be out of the question for now, but we desperately need a collective process of sorting out that which we’re stuck with from that which we can, not just change, but transform. One way or the other, we’re stuck with austerity and with the economic consequences of spectacular misgovernment. We’re not stuck with the system that produced (and continues to produce) that misgovernment.

Let’s think about what remains, collectively, within our own control: our political culture and system; our public ethics and values; our health, education and pension systems; our legal impunity for white-collar criminals; our lack of civic pride; the very passivity that makes us powerless. It is still within our power to shape a decent society. If we don’t believe that, what have we to look forward to but life in this hole?

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