I have spent the Autumn reading newspaper articles, journal pieces and books about the history of the Irish economy. I still don’t quite know what to make of it all, but since I am due to submit some fantastic piece of work to my supervisor by Friday week, I better start deciding.
One of the most ambitious books I have read is Sins of the Father by Conor McCabe. As my little brother reminded me, McCabe is not properly an economist. He works in a School of Justice, which is a concept economists rarely find lucrative! But his argument is a pretty interesting one. He argues that the Irish economy has been shaped by the sectional interests of beef barons, property developers and bankers. Much of the prosperity we have experienced has been the end result of the curiously unproductive things we did in these three areas and how they colluded with political power to make Ireland an excellent place to hide profits.
So as you can imagine, this is not like the first book I read, written by a former Minister for Finance.
I suspect that for many economists, the synthetic and discursive account that McCabe offers would barely meet the standard of argument. And in that sense, my little brother’s reminder that economics is not just things people say about the economy but a specific and highly developed mode of discourse is a wise one. It is no slight to McCabe or to Tom Garvin or Denis O’Hearn or any of the other social scientists who have analysed the Irish economy to declare that these works are not economics.
But one thing that McCabe definitely doesn’t think he is doing is theology. He says so himself towards the end of his argument:
It seems bizarre to have to point this out but the crisis was not a theological one; it was of an economic social system and the position that Ireland’s comprador [middle-man] class have carved for themselves within that system.
Keen readers will note the non sequitur. On what understanding of theology is a crisis grounded in the distorted shape of an economic social system not theological?
But then immediately McCabe goes on to make what is most certainly a theological judgement:
There are no moral bankers within capitalism, only those who return a profit and those who do not.
It’s pretty shoddy theology at that. It is a firedoor theology; where “capitalism” is a thing so real that it blocks out any hope of being moral, where profits and ethics are hermetically sealed off from each other.
McCabe’s book is hugely helpful as a way into the development of Irish society that concerns itself with the economy without imagining economics to be the driving force. But it is also hugely helpful as a reminder of just how incoherent we are when it comes to deciding what is of worth.
Your Correspondent, Whatever way you cut it, mutual benefit is a moral category