Gillian Tett, in her book on the global financial crisis entitled “Fool’s Gold”, points to the concept of a social silence (a concept outlined by French anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his work Outline of a Theory in Practice) as a possible factor in facilitating and perpetuating the global credit boom that eventually burst with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Bourdieu’s social silence, as Tett explains, allows an elite group to control society not just by controlling the physical means of production but also by influencing the cultural discourse. Crucially, influencing the way society talks about itself also influences what is left unsaid – i.e. that which is regarded as impolite, taboo, boring, or taken for granted. Such silences can arise through overt strategies, but often come about less deliberately through social conformity or shared ideology and assumptions. According to  Bourdieu, all that is required for the ideology to establish itself in this way is a complicit silence. Tett speculates that such a social silence may have been pivotal in the general acceptance of the idea that financial markets could regulate themselves. What is more, the opacity that surrounded seemingly sophisticated financial instruments, deterred non-specialists from gaining a fuller understanding of the workings of the financial markets and created a self-contained silo of financial activity and knowledge that only financial experts could penetrate.

To what extent could this idea of a social silence explain the perpetuation of the Irish property bubble and reckless banking  practices of the late 1990s and early 2000s? After all, there does seem to be a general feeling of “we all saw it coming” yet only a handful of commentators warned of the dangers (and they were roundly dismissed as “talking down the economy”). Of course the social silence analogies don’t stop there: it could also be argued that, in the subsequent bust, the quality of debate over the Irish bank guarantee of October 2008, the implementation of NAMA, the capital injections into our ailing banks, whether or not to wind up Anglo Irish, and the risk of an Irish sovereign default has been anaemic at best, with only pockets of academics and media commentators really grappling with the details of these policies (in part, as illustrated by the difficulty in assessing the cost of winding up Anglo Irish bank,  due to a lack of full information).

So, are we trapped in an Irish social silence? And if so, how do we turn up the volume?

Declan Curran

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