The Socialisation of Failure

“But let’s be fair about it. We all partied.”

Hoping for contrition, prior to another austerity budget, the Irish public were not expecting a rebuke commonly levelled at party-goers unwilling to clean up post-festivities.

In a now infamous Prime Time interview in 2010, the then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, under robust questioning on the Government’s handling of the banking crisis, sought to broaden the responsibility for what he regrettably had to do.

Two years earlier, the ill-fated State Guarantee of bank liabilities occurred. Simply understood as the “socialisation of private debt”, this decision shifted the debts of the banks onto all Irish people after a bullish period where the profits were privately shared amongst a much smaller group of people – the shareholders. The bank guarantee provided the framework for a way of thinking where a Minister of Finance could admonish an entire nation – who did not all gain from the period of economic growth – for the political, regulatory and ethical failings of a few who did gain substantively.

Though the remit of government is broad ranging across many areas of our public and private lives, it is typically a single issue which forms their legacy. Previous Fianna Fáil coalitions will be remembered for an overheated construction and banking sector, exacerbating the effects of the global recession and instigating austerity politics. The outgoing Fine Gael minority Government has been unable to distance itself from the housing affordability and homelessness crisis which will remain its legacy.

On the campaign trail recently, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, found himself being pressed on the housing crisis and his Government’s record. Conscious of the political implications of taking responsibility on behalf of his Government, Varadkar, in a similar vein to Minister Lenihan, endeavoured to broaden the responsibility by asserting that “it [homelessness] brings shame on us all.”

Feelings of shame are indicative of wrong acts or decisions. Have we all done something wrong to contribute to the homelessness crisis?

Blame could certainly be attributed to some: those who have contributed to the commodification and financialisation of housing; those accruing private wealth by capitalising on scant housing; and those soothsayers who tell us that we are turning the corner on housing. To suggest that all Irish people are complicit in the housing and homelessness is erroneous.

Maybe this is an unfair interpretation of the Taoiseach’s response. The goal of our analysis of the housing and homelessness crisis is never to target individual politicians for unfair criticism. But the chieftain is a role of representative leadership and on that basis, it is only appropriate respect to pay careful attention to what the Taoiseach says. Had he broadened his suggestion with a communitarian perspective that recognised that many people in Ireland profit handsomely from the system that leaves so many in homelessness, that would be a much more fertile position. But instead, we have soundbyte moralism. And sadly, this is a trend that repeats through the Taoiseach’s career.

As Minister within the then Department of Social Protection, Varadkar’s flagship policy was a campaign entitled “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” which encouraged the public to report suspected cases of social welfare fraud. Many criticised this very public campaign for over-emphasising the actual occurrence of fraud within the welfare system and stigmatising those who needed income support. Little time was afforded to the disharmony created by a campaign that, while offering many striking photo opportunities, widened the gap between social class groupings.

It has been explicitly recognised by Department officials, on record, that the rhetoric of the campaign was a mistake. In essence, this campaign was dog-whistling to the middle- and upper classes by reinforcing caricatures of the devious and contemptible welfare recipient. It is not a stretch to trace the lineage of this campaign to the ongoing privacy-breaching debacle of the Public Services Card, intended to remove the last vestiges of fraud from public life, but now repeatedly declared illegal itself.

Diagnosing the inclination of the right-wing political class to divide society into groups as “negative solidarity”, Mark Fisher, a British writer, goes on to attribute this maintenance of negative solidarity as crucial to the neoliberal project. Negative solidarity can express itself as exploiting the “righteous anger” of some people towards others who are perceived to be in receipt of resources or benefits that they “haven’t earned”. They should not only be denied those resources, they should be publicly shamed for claiming them.

During the leadership contest within Fine Gael in 2017, and echoed again recently, Varadkar’s message of negative solidarity evolved. Setting out his stall, he wanted to lead a political party for “people who get up early in the morning.” As another dog whistle to middle- and upper-class voters, this message was intended to not only resonate with those salaried workers who find themselves sitting in motorway traffic at 6.30am but also, perversely, praise them for doing so. Do full-time carers of sick children and disabled parents not also get up early in the morning? What of families living in homeless hubs who bring their children to a different postcode to maintain a semblance of stability for their children?

In a recent General Election 2020 debate, the Taoiseach clarified that his reference to “people who get up early in the morning” means “anybody who works for a living.” His vision for Fine Gael and, by extension, the next Government is to provide for those who work. This does not extend to include: those unable to work for various reasons; those caught in poverty traps between meagre income support and precarious work; and those providing endless hours of care labour. That is to say nothing of the sustained and compelling argument being made by Thomas Piketty and his collaborators that the group in society who don’t have to work are the 1%. Since return on investment out-strips return on wages, the rich don’t have to get up early. They can rest while their money works for them.

Even when trying to win a General Election, with a statistically booming economy, for which his Government often claims sole credit, the Taoiseach is unwilling to share the fruits of the wealth with all people.

Yet, when asked to account for the homelessness crisis, the Taoiseach seeks to draw us all in share in the failings of his Government. The socialisation of failure.

“It [homelessness] brings shame on us all.”