This crisis is inherently spatial. Where should the axe fall? Where will sovereignty be located? What shape should society take now, or in the future? However, these questions of ‘whereness’ or spatial form are by no means the only spatial issues we need to consider. There are also all sorts of issues to do with proximity and distance. Take a story in today’s Irish Times. Christine Lagarde has been in Latvia telling the people there that their austerity has been worth it; that toughing it out is for the best. And in the process she’s telling everyone else – people far from Latvia, such as people here in Ireland – to look at their example and get on with the suffering.
Lagarde can easily say such things. She hasn’t (although please correct me if I’m wrong) had to endure much austerity in the last few years. Like her fellow IMF folks (ahem, Ajay Chopra, Merrion Hotel…), she probably stays in the finest hotels in whichever country she’s visiting. Most likely (although, again, please do correct me) the closest she’ll come to spending time with those who are really feeling the brunt of austerity will be when she swishes her way past hotel staff on the way to meeting other members of the European or global elite. She’s distant from the reality of those who are really suffering from this crisis, even though discursively she’ll no doubt claim to be working for and closely with them. So proximity and distance.
But wait, there’s more. Turning the pages of the Times today, another example leaps out. Vincent Browne gets it absolutely spot on with his attack on Michael Noonan. Browne’s argument is that Noonan and people like him, such as Lagarde, need to stop hanging out with their chums in Davos or Monaco or wherever the latest conflab is held. Instead, they should be spending time with their constituents and experiencing what cutbacks or unemployment really entail. Stop being distant, he argues; get up close. So proximity and distance again.
What difference there is between proximity and distance, what that space between is like, has possibly never been so important. This is especially the case regarding material inequality. Of course (and I’m trying to be ‘fair and balanced’ here), many of the champions and defenders of the particular form of capitalism we (exist within and) produce might very well have come from humble backgrounds, and so they might understand perfectly well what living a truly austere life is like. And maybe many of the politicians who trumpet the argument that we have no choice but to stay in this game and not try to leave, and that we must stay open in particular ways and just be a certain way (for these are the arguments we have been served since the crisis began; dismal, unimaginative arguments that are precisely about Ireland’s geographical position and character)… maybe they also know what it’s like not to be so very handsomely paid, or even what it’s like to have a fixed low income cut by ten euros a week. Maybe.
But the blunt truth is that the economy and world they argue for is resulting in such a schism, such a gap, such a social and spatial distance between those who do well out of this game (the 1%, as the Occupy movement call them) and those who do not, that the all-important aggregate or effective demand that capitalists need for their profits to flow is failing to take shape.
The upshot is that this crisis isn’t just about government deficits or property bubbles / diseases. It’s also about the effects of growing inequality, about the consequences of having so much wealth concentrated in the hands of such a small proportion of the world’s population. This is one of the most important yet least-discussed dimensions of the crisis: what to do, what to really do, about inequality?
[In this sense, by the way, a ‘hurray’ is due for new French President, François Hollande, who has at least raised the question of what the multiple should be between lowest and highest paid workers in France and, by virtue of that, Europe.]
But in the shape of the Lagardes and Noonans, we are led by decision-makers who don’t seem to want to consider this question. So rather than having leaders who want to get up close and take sides with those feeling the pain, we have leaders who seem to prefer administering the pain and from afar, albeit whilst claiming to be doing something serious about it all. In this latter sense, too, therefore, there’s a proximity-distance issue, because the distance between what our leaders should be doing and what they are doing is ever-widening. We’re getting further from where we need to be, rather than closer, and so long as we don’t get closer then surely this era of austerity is only going to continue and get worse.