The people of Gorey, in Co. Wexford are:
sinking under the weight of huge debts, negative equity and the trauma of failure. They bought into the dream that they could juggle all the balls in the air, the new houses, the new jobs and the new children. They believed that the price of houses would continue rising. Why wouldn’t they? Every politician and businessman in the country told them it could only go one way. The media saturated them with seductive images of a brave new world where they could just hope on the Irish bus to success. All you needed to do was to gather the deposit and you would be whisked away to an advertiser’s dream world of better stuff, better friends, better kitchens, better careers, better sex.
– David McWilliams, Follow The Money, 9.
One of the many valuable things that David McWilliams contributes to Irish discourse is the ability to see economic statistics in terms of actual human beings with beating hearts and driving desires. I don’t mean to suggest that academic or corporate economists, who may be closer to the “events that matter” are heartless buffoons. Rather, I simply mean that McWilliams recognises that people and societies are never motivated by abstractions – growth or efficiency or productivity. They are motivated by desires and crucially, the way that capitalism presents those desires is in terms of representations.
Thus, buying a house isn’t just about a place to call your own and grow tomatoes in the tiny back garden. It is the entrance-way into a world of betterness, it is a milestone of achievement for people striving to be happy. The house represents far more than four walls and a roof.
The difference between the formal way we analyse our economic activity – abstractions – and the functional way we order our economic activity – representation – is probably something someone very, very smart should study.
But McWilliams has this great, almost pre-moral recognition of it that reoccurs in all his writing. We should appreciate it, even (or especially) if we wish he’d drive for something more radical in our response to austerity.
The web of economic activity that consumed the households of Gorey and much of Ireland over the last 25 years was driven by cheap and easy access to credit. We know this story. We understand the political motivation for flooding the market with such money. That is a story that operates on a national level (electoral success was guaranteed by providing liquidity), on a European level (the internal dynamics of the Euro meant that peripheral nations were quite literally peripheral) and on a global level (the story of the age we live in is the age where we tell the story that the flow of capital is more powerful than even politics).
But perhaps there is a deeper connection between indebtedness and the consumptive desire that is aroused in us by the promises of betterness. I suspect that one of the reasons why this recent consumptive capitalism has been so phenomenally successful is that there is a fittingness between the stuff being sold (credit) and the reasons for buying (desire). We are eager to get into debt, because we believe we deserve to be in debt.
Freud talked about the death-drive, the thanatos, that can grip individuals and whole societies. We live in an age suffering from a debt-drive, an opheilos. We can posit all kinds of cheap hypotheses as to why the rhetoric of austerity works so unproblematically. Perhaps with the collapse of shared societal values, the only binding that holds us together is fiscal and so language about the importance of repaying debts wins our allegiance? But regardless, it does seem to be the case that the disputable moral claim that anything that can be rendered as a debt must be repaid is eagerly assumed as an axiom.
If I am even a little bit right – not entirely full of shit – as I muse looking out on a sunny Aberdeen morning in Holy Week, there is a direct implication for our theology. Whatever glorious thing happened on the cross, one persistent line of thinking cherished by the church has been that Easter overloads our cosmic debt. Before his last breath, Jesus cries out “It is finished”. Some Greek lexicons note that the word used, “Τετέλεσται”, was stamped on invoices in the Roman world when they had been paid in full. Regardless of how accurate that is, there is this one thing we should remember and preach this Easter: if God has entered in on your behalf, no debt can unilaterally bind you. Long before money, markets or capitalism, humanity talked in terms of debt. Debt to family, debt to nation, debt to temple, debt to the Cosmos. Jesus addressed each of those issues in his teaching (Family: Matthew 12:48, Nation: Mark 12:16, Temple: Mark 2:23-28, Cosmos: Matthew 5:45) but he explicates them most fully on the cross.
It is well outside the bounds that even McWilliams can address, but Easter is the living God’s response to both debt and desire. Our standing in the world is transformed. If God elects to be God for us, then our status here in time and space is not as hired hands, but as embraced sons and daughters. The fatted calf is prepared for us, the ring is placed on our finger. We are not indentured slaves. God is not levering us into debt peonage. He is making us his sons and daughters. Debt is put to death.
But desire is also challenged. The beauty of the God we find in the parable of the two lost sons is laid bare, literally and metaphorically, historically and poetically, on the cross. It is Him that we want. All the other wants are shadows of that one want. He is what we were made for. Not indebtedness and not better stuff, “better friends, better kitchens, better careers, better sex.” We were not made for betterness, which is always inherently relative. We were made for God, the one standard and one measure by which all else is assessed.
In other words, Easter is the beginning of God’s financial year, the divine economy of grace
Your Correspondent, Going back to work now