Why Irish eyes aren’t smiling

Ireland and Canada offer contrasting warnings from the front line of the budget deficit wars.

As he softened up the public for his brutal austerity package, George Osborne contrasted the coalition, steering Britain out of the "financial danger zone", with the wretched condition of our closest neighbour, Ireland. His put-down would probably have resonated with his Anglo-Irish aristocratic ancestors. Heir to the baronetcy of Ballintaylor in Tipperary, the man in charge of the British Exchequer doubtless laments the demise of the old Ascendancy that ruled John Bull's other island for so long.

Yet the reality is that our rookie Chancellor, along with his cheerleaders in the right-wing press, has been swallowing wholesale the dangerous blarney about the benefits of draconian budget cuts that has floated over the Irish Sea from the department of finance in Dublin.

Osborne's obsession with "rebalancing" the books in just five years is scarily similar to that of the Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, who is hell-bent on bringing the republic's borrowing level back down from a projected high of 32 per cent of GDP to the EU limit of 3 per cent of GDP by 2014, whatever the consequences.

The proud scion of a post-independence political dynasty, Lenihan has waved aside all objections, inside and outside the Dáil, slamming through a series of slash-and-burn budgets. His measures have merely compounded the bleakest financial crisis since the foundation of the Free State. Things will become even grimmer for Ireland when Britain, still its biggest trading partner, starts to feel the full effects of Osborne's austerity. The Irish might be burning effigies of Lenihan, were he not fighting a life-threatening form of pancreatic cancer. The plain people of Ireland remain impressively compassionate, arguably much more so than their present masters.

The more Lenihan slashes - he is planning another double whammy of spending cuts and tax rises in December (amounting to at least €4.5bn, on top of the €3bn he hacked out last year) - the more he lengthens the nation's dole queues. There are 455,000 Irish citizens (almost 14 per cent of the population) registered as unemployed or underemployed, and the jobless total is heading for the half-million mark, further reducing income tax revenues and VAT receipts. As the republic's beleaguered retail bosses could tell Osborne, consumer spending also nosedives when so many are jobless or fearful of losing their job.

Ireland might be celebrated as a fine exemplar of sound fiscal management, but it demonstrates powerfully the counterargument that a country cannot cut its way out of a re­cession and back to economic growth. Someone who apparently comprehends this is another finance minister who is fiercely proud of his Irish ancestry, Canada's Jim Flaherty.

Osborne has cited Canada as a model for deficit reduction, seeking Flaherty out for advice at the G20 summit in Seoul shortly after the Tories' election triumph. What has impressed advocates of neoliberal economics is the way Canada slashed its national debt from almost 80 per cent of GDP in the mid-1990s - when there were threats of the IMF being called in - to just under 15 per cent in 2007. With Ottawa recording annual budget surpluses at the beginning of the millennium, one supportive think tanker proclaimed this performance the "redemptive decade".

In fact, Flaherty's prime response to the glo­bal economic crash has been to adopt a strikingly Keynesian approach: he authorised a huge increase in federal expenditure in Canada's 2009 budget, and remains committed to deficit spending until the country is safely out of recession. Defending his stimulus plan this summer, he stated: "When you're faced with a country going into a recessionary dive, as we were in the last quarter of 2008, that is not internally generated, that comes from outside the country, what do you do?" He decided "to stimulate the economy with government money, with taxpayers' money, to replace the absence of private demand". It worked, and the IMF is forecasting that Canada's economy will grow 3.1 per cent this year and 2.7 per cent in 2011.

Canada goosed

In contrast to Osborne, Flaherty was no fiscal novice when he stepped into national office. He was finance minister of Canada's most economically powerful province, Ontario, when the treasury in Ottawa embarked on its draconian spending review. He remembers the pain of sharp cuts to education and health, and has said he would have done things differently back then.

Flaherty understands that one important reason the shrinking of his country's public sector was not more catastrophic was that the country's most vital trading partner, the United States, was in the middle of the prolonged, credit-fuelled Clinton boom, which helped to expand the Canadian private sector.

However, it should be emphasised that Flaherty hasn't metamorphosed from tight-fisted free marketeer into big-state spender. On a recent visit to Dublin, he praised Ireland, saying it had led Europe "in taking the necessary, courageous decisions towards fiscal consolidation". Yet, were he to spend more than a couple of days in the ould sod, it is questionable whether he would be as complimentary about his Irish counterpart's "resolve". If he were to witness first-hand the effects of austerity across this small island, as he did in Ontario, Flaherty might believe things should be done differently in Dublin - and London.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Independent Colleges Dublin

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood