The Blame Game: The Crisis as a failure of Morality

Five years into the economic crisis and what have we learned, or as is the concern of this blog, what has the media learned? Have we witnessed a deluge of documentaries and news features on the structural issues of the crisis; questions of how markets work or indeed don’t work? the nature of class and power in our society? Has the assumed superiority of market systems been challenged, or indeed have any alternatives been discussed, indeed has the media moved beyond discussions about how to ‘fix’ the  markets. Moreover has the media and especially the print media given any consideration towards its own ideological role in the various crises. To paraphrase a well known property developer ‘have we ****!’

Rather, as pointed out by Conor McCabe in his introduction to Sins of the Father (2011) for the Irish media, the  economic crisis has been of a crisis of morality.  Of course there are moral issues to the crisis but by concentrating on solely moral issues the media acts to hide deeper structural, class and power related aspects of the crisis and as such continues to act as an ideological apparatus.  I’ve chosen just a few of the  issues of morality I’ve noticed over the last number of years:

  • The Regulator was asleep
  • Bad Bankers
  • Reckless Lenders
  • Reckless borrowers
  • Bad Speculators
  • People partied
  • ‘We’ paid ourselves too much
  • The public sector
  • Vested Interests
  • Bad Bondholders
  • Cheating in the Capitalist game
The key thing all the frames have in common is that it is a moral failure that is at fault and a moral failure of individuals and sometimes groups. The first on the list ‘the regulator was asleep’ is one of the most outlandish of these frames.  Because it infers that the Irish regulatory system is fine, but that a single man ‘the regulator’ was asleep on the job. This of course is nonsensical as the Irish financial system and especially the IFSC was designed as a light touch regulatory system so as to attract foreign investors and of course encourage Irish financiers too.  This is similar to the frame of ‘bad’ bankers who of course were bad but again it hides the structural issues, and again infers if it weren’t for Fingers and Seanie, all would have been fine.
But enough of individuals: what about ‘us’ or the royal we? According to the press and especially the Sunday Independent  ‘we’ all partied too much, ‘we’ all borrowed too much. Of course they never explain how ‘we’ were supposed to find housing outside the private housing market, or borrow at ‘sensible’ levels when no homes were available at a ‘sensible’ price. Its worth noting that in my own research of nearly 1,000 articles on housing in the run up to the 2007 general election not one stated that a single house or apartment was overpriced. Linked to this is the frame that again ‘we all partied’ and this immorality caused the nation’s downfall. In this frame a Spanish Holiday or a trip to New York was the problem, not having to pay 400,000 euro for a two bed shoe-box apartment. It also possibly tells us something of property ‘journalists’ and their sources.  Maybe if we take the royal ‘we’ not to mean the ‘we’ of society but the ‘we’ journalists and their developer friends ‘we’ might be onto something, but that of course is Sindo style speculation that ‘we’ wouldn’t do.
The public sector workforce of course is immoral for daring to have long-term or even permanent contracts and bearable working conditions,. There is even some suspicion in some sections of the press that some public sector workers are not completely miserable and oppressed on a daily basis. The private sector workforce for its part is generally invisible to the Irish media, who prefer to have Irish private sector bosses (or management ‘experts’) speak for them rather than their own representatives. This public sector immorality is linked to the crisis by a lack of competitiveness – which for some is the cause of the private banking collapse, though none has of yet explained how.  While we are on competitiveness another frame is that ‘we’ paid ‘ourselves’ too much. Personally I haven’t, nor do I know of  a single working person, in either the private or public sector, who decided on his or her own pay rates; all of which went into rent or mortgages anyway.
Firemen: The Villains of the Irish Banking Crisis

Firemen: The Villains of the Irish Banking Crisis

Now of course the media doesn’t just blame us, they are also aware of ‘bad’ speculators and ‘bad’ bondholders. Though these ‘bad’ speculators and bondholders are generally far away (possibly German?) mysterious types. Our own speculators and bondholders are ‘risk taking entrepreneurs’ or sometimes simply known as ‘experts’.
My own favourite moral failure frame, and I think the most ideologically insidious, is the one that outrages economists such as David McWilliams and Constantin Gurdgiev this of course is the frame where the bad bondholders and speculators and bankers are CHEATING in the capitalist game. It’s of no accident that this frame predominantly comes from neo-liberal empiricist economists who seemingly really believe that markets would be self regulating if only people didn’t cheat. For them class and power doesn’t exist and the idea that a class or fraction of a class (lets say financiers and developers) would use their significant wealth, social power and sponsored political parties in their own interest seems to shock them at every turn.  Though not half as much as when working class ‘vested interests’ try to protect themselves.
No Cheating!

No Cheating!

But throughout this entire moral framing there is seemingly no attempt to connect the dots and investigate whether there is a structural fault to the crisis. We can only speculate as to why; though the suspicion remains that rather than being an objective reporter of the economic system the press is part and parcel of the Irish economic system, both through advertising, a source of information for businesses, and as the ideological apparatus to justify the ‘morkets’ which included in the past the hyperinflation of housing cost, the bubble and indeed the bust.  Rather than investigating a structural problem in which it is an important cog, the press can instead point to the moral failings of individuals and even groups, and in that way continue to provide ideological cover to a crisis of class and power.


Henry Silke


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