Austerity – tearing the spirit

‘It’s the death of hope that gets you,’ she said. ‘You try to keep on going. But in the end… there’s nothing.’

Her words are clipped, her tone self-critical. She’s to blame. Because, this time, she can’t come up with a solution. It started with the finances. Now it’s swallowed her whole… eroding her integrity, her family. Reducing her to bills and bank statements she’s afraid to open. Figures misrepresent the full story.

A1 - euro

Months waste into years. Stable employment? No chance. Only short-term projects that demand intense attention, then fizzle to zero. The contemporary curse of ‘casualisation’… Build up your portfolio – take on as much you can, for the least remuneration. A lot of her work is unpaid. To retain her ‘professional profile’ – whatever that is. She’s burning out in the process. But, of course, the worker has always been expendable. Today’s business ethos shows little change from that which underpinned the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Connolly and Larkin must turn in their Commie graves at its centenary celebrations. Or maybe they’ll have the last laugh… at market forces devouring the neoliberal masses.

A2 - lockout

She’s tried recruitment agencies. They’ve told her she’s over-qualified. True, she’s rife with certificates – up to the fourth level. Studies completed while having kids, thinking it’d be best for them. Not in this environment. Ironic… she once lived in a ‘knowledge economy’. Based on the commodification of learning, skills, experience. Such a fallacy. She should’ve done something lucrative, though… sold her soul to technology. Stupidly, she wanted to ‘contribute to society’. But where are the opportunities? Even voluntary organisations have evolved into streamlined outfits. Hiring interns because, she supposes, it takes a few names off the live register. Makes the statistics look better. Paving her demise, she channels Dostoevsky: ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence’. Robbed of meaning, ‘they go stark, raving mad.’

Emigration has been recommended as an alternative to insanity. By a careers advisor… by her doctor, when she finally admitted that stress was taking its toll. Headaches, muscle pain, stomach in constant knots and sleep murdered. Those were her symptoms a while back. Niggling, but they’re becoming drug-resistant. Ibuprofen doesn’t help. Nor do her pointless overseas applications. Never mind the rejections for the few posts she’s seen advertised at home. She tries not to view the latter as a reflection on her competence. They could’ve been decided in-house or snapped up by those with that vital attribute – a track record in ‘obtaining funding’. Otherwise, apart from rare cases of essential staff replacement, her area of expertise falls within a sector crippled by a moratorium.

A5 - aer lingus

She’d love to leave. Were it not for the practical obstacles, she’d have gone two years ago. Though the fear of uprooting her children… And her husband, at least, has a job here. It feels like they’re marooned. Could they even return to city? That might be her salvation – a release from the hinterland in which she was ensnared by the boom. The buzzword then was ‘location’. But the fringe of the commuter belt was as far as their family budget ever extended – a three to four hour round-trip to ‘civilisation’. Her spouse makes the daily journey. He’s off in the morning before the kids are awake, gets back late. Reaps sympathy for endurance… ‘God help him, all that travelling’. It’s OK for a father, but for a mother it’s well-nigh criminal neglect. Plus childcare, in her locality, won’t cover those sort of hours. To an employer in the metropolis, her availability is questionable. The disadvantage of distance… and no options lie within her geographical radius. It’s an annihilating circle – a woman-trap.

Nonetheless, she has her family. She has responsibilities. So, as she’s been told, she ought to be content. Society seems better attuned to a man’s loss of identity. If he’s unemployed, or can only find scraps of work, there’s a modicum of understanding. Analysis of the crisis tends to highlight its impact on the guys. Leads to public concern at, for example, the rising rate of male suicide. Women, on the other hand, just bear it. Their screams are suffocated. Perhaps it’s the anti-depressants? That chemical asylum, its walls made of blister packs, not bricks. But it’s as incarcerating as the straight-jacketed institutions of the past. She guesses that its clients are predominantly female. It’s tempting – a couple of tablets to numb raw-edged emotions. She might be a bit more docile then, if somewhat zombified. No, she won’t be seduced by pills. Or therapy, or yoga… Rightly or wrongly, she’s chosen her mantra: ‘these problems are due to external forces, not to any imbalance of the brain’. She can’t let them corrupt her mind. Though she senses she’s running out of time.

A7 - Anglo Irish

Her gapless CV is worthless. It won’t get the mortgage vultures off her back. She wishes she could throw the keys at them… except that they’re the keys of her children’s home. Arrears mount. They’re in massive negative equity. The house has depreciated to half-price in eight years. Debt. That’s all they’d carry away. And her rage. At those bankers who joked, in taped phone-calls, about ‘moula’ in the billions… and the smarmy politicians who still appear on their side. The authorities – so slow to prosecute when those in cahoots with them claim there’s no ‘smoking gun’. Those property profiteers who sold young couples a fierce breed of pup that’s now mauling its ‘owners’… She loathes herself for being fooled into buying. Because it was cheaper than renting and any form of accommodation was increasingly expensive, before the bubble burst. But who expected things to get so much worse?

No-one could’ve foreseen it. That’s what those in power say, as they instruct the average citizen to cough up and ‘share the pain’… when they’re immune to it. She hates the pettiness of complaining, adding her wails to the ‘squeezed middle’ whinge. It’s not like she’s on the breadline or in straits as dire as families on welfare. She’s aware – as UNICEF reminds – that, each year, over six million children die before their fifth birthday, mostly of preventable diseases. In comparison, Ireland’s difficulties are minor and her predicament is trivial. She isn’t in war-ravaged Syria, although she’s no stranger to conflict and that makes her feel more ashamed of her present weakness. Pathetic… D.H. Lawrence was right, ‘how beastly the bourgeois is’. And the female of the species is as abhorrent and hypocritical as the male. She tries to deny that she’s one of them. But when she signed for that house she joined their club… albeit in a très petit kind of way.

A8 - ghost estate

She prefers to see herself as déclassé – a Gallic euphemism for abject failure. Dissolving into insolvency… She’s invisible, a ghost in her estate. Withdrawing from her marriage, building a barbed-wire fence between her and the man she loves. Resenting him because, despite drops in his salary, he’s still got his dignity. He has a social slot. While she’s accepting bail-outs from her parents, when – at their stage of life – it should be vice versa. She isn’t even grateful for their charity. And now it’s an effort to smile at her own children. That might be what’s affecting them. They’re acting out, more than ever. It’s her fault – she’s their mother. No longer coping… far too tired. She switches off the lights. Her hoard of worry spills into the night. Into that dark stream of hopelessness which seems, like Joyce’s snow, to be ‘general all over Ireland’. If she, and the sleepless others, only knew that they’re as numerous as the stars above the neon fug and damp, mist-smothered fields.

********

After five years of austerity, this isn’t much of a tear-jerker. It’s just another chapter in what’s become an Irish legend… a grim sequel to the ‘fairy-tale’ of the Celtic Tiger. You can castigate the character, tell her to ‘catch herself on’ and be stronger for her kids. Diagnose her depression. Order her to ring a help-line or seek medical assistance. ‘Talk to someone’ as advocated by the state-sponsored campaign for mental health protection. You won’t hear it acknowledge that the recession (which, officially, has ended) has caused epidemic levels of stress-related illness. There’ll be no admission that untrammelled development and the harassment of beleaguered borrowers has already proven fatal.

A11- troika 3

No, with pulsar-grade spin you’ll be told that things are improving. Ergo, if you’re not thriving, you’re a loser. The consequent self-torture is as effective in gagging dissent as the psy-ops of a totalitarian regime. This is the virtual gulag which the financiers and their cronies have created. We are among its growing number of inmates.

(Some of the pronouns may have been changed.)

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5 thoughts on “Austerity – tearing the spirit

  1. If this family can pay, they should pay. If they can’t pay, they should go bankrupt or go down the insolvency route. Housing is a right in Ireland. OWNING a house is NOT a right. This bizarre fetish for ownership is what is corroding our society. Not being able to pay a bubble-era mortgage does NOT mean that you can’t rent property that you can afford.

    I’m getting as sick of hearing about people’s self-inflicted misery as these people are of their struggles to hold onto their property. Let it go, and live again.

    • I accept that this issue is contentious and appreciate your comments. Regarding your suggestions, the burden of negative equity often rules out the option of renting and leaves families with no choice but to do their utmost to pay as much of their mortgage as possible. Pure pragmatics, not remotely a question of fetishising ‘ownership’. Also, it appears that the new bankruptcy/insolvency measures are inherently biased towards the rich and reckless, rather than facilitating people who have always been (and continue to be) conscientious and hard-working. Unfortunately, there is no simple fix to this crisis. Pitting one section of the population against another only lets the main culprits – the bankers and megalomaniacal developers – off the hook.

      Anyhow, the main point of the piece was to simply highlight the impact of the recession on health, relationships and the future of this country. Nothing new in that, as media coverage last week shows:

      http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/economic-crisis-linked-to-100-suicides-in-state-by-study-1.1531208

      http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/educated-irish-leaving-for-new-life-abroad-1.1541741

      The psychological effects of living under austerity, not to mention the loss of so many young people who see no prospects in Ireland, cannot be underestimated. On this note, we may perhaps agree to differ.

    • Yes Jack except if you walk away from a mortgage you still owe the debt so it’s not as simple as you suggest despite changes in the law.

      • If you can’t pay it, you can go bust – in two different ways. If you can, you should pay it. I didn’t suggest walking away from mortgages.

        Having said that, I’d be amenable to the taxpayer picking up – say – 50% of the debt left over after the property the mortgage is secured against has been sold. And I’d consider that very generous.

        Remember, hundreds of thousands of people cumulatively lost billions of euros from their pensions and savings when AIB, BOI, and PTSB shares went down the tubes. I personally lost a 5 figure sum on bank shares – bought with my post-tax income, in an effort to provide for myself and my family in the future.

        I don’t hear anybody campaigning to restore my life savings to me – I’m expected to just take that hit, and I will. But please don’t try to suggest that others should be allowed get away scot-free from their poor investment choices.

  2. Irkinja, I certainly agree that negative equity can have negative social and psychological effects – but there is no solution for negative equity other than time. I made myself very unpopular in the early to mid 2000s telling my friends and colleagues that we were in a bubble, and doling out all the information that they needed to see it for themselves. By and large, they ignored me. For that reason, I don’t see these people as blameless victims – I see them as people who chose to invest in property and get it wrong.

    I’ve lost money myself on investments, and I know it hurts. The difference is that I didn’t borrow hundreds of thousands to invest – I wouldn’t be comfortable with that. So these folks took a big risk, and it backfired on them. If their properties had doubled in value, they would regard themselves as geniuses and would fight tooth and nail if the government tried to take some of their winnings from them. Instead, their properties have halved in value, and they are falling over each other lobbying for taxpayer-funded bailouts, cursing their luck.

    I rented through the bubble (and continue to rent) because I think property was – and remains – overvalued. I’m taking a risk in doing that too – should property prices increase again, I won’t ask for (and will not receive) any taxpayers’ money to give me ownership of a property. I resent the notion (not necessarily advocated by you, of course) that I am expected to pay extra taxes to keep other people in property I cannot afford to buy.

    And the funny thing is that you are clearly a person of good will, as I believe I am. I wish everybody the best in dealing with the circumstances they find themselves in, and I did my very best to prevent friends and colleagues getting themselves in trouble in the first place (which is a hell of a lot more than opportunists like Fianna Fail acolyte David Hall and his ilk ever did). But the idea that the prudent should have to pay to bail out the foolish – I find that absolutely galling. First, renters were laughed at for not buying. And now those that laughed at us want to put their hands in our pockets so they retain ownership of the property that we should be able to afford and that they clearly cannot.

    You could not make it up.

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