What’s been laughable recently is the claim that the only way to retain Ireland’s sovereignty is by slashing the budget, playing the game, not upsetting the ever-watchful credit ratings agencies, and just repaying the bondholders. This is supposed to be sovereignty: ‘You can do anything you want, so long as it’s this.’
The disabling effect this has on politics and on the sense of what’s possible is plain for all to see. Take the Labour Party. What can Labour really say other than that they’ll also slash the budget? Maybe they can say they’d slash it differently, but the backdrop to anything Labour proposes is what the credit ratings agencies will say, what the bondholders might do, etc. ‘Behave yourself, Ireland, because if you step out of line your cost of borrowing will rise and then the IMF will come in.’
The message is this: ‘There is no alternative’. And if that’s the case, then there is no sovereignty. Taking an alternative path – say, refusing to pay the bondholders, taking our chances with the credit ratings agencies, re-thinking all aspects of the economy we have versus the economy we need and deserve – isn’t possible. No wonder there’s a sense of powerlessness; a sense that nothing can be done. Apathy (I’m thinking of myself here as much as anyone else).
But yet there is a hunger for sovereignty in Ireland. Support does exist for a sort of ‘national heave’ against the political class that got us here and that aims to keep us here. Sure, if such a heave did get anywhere – and if it meant that we found and then practiced our sovereignty – then that would place us in what political theorist Slavoj Žižek calls an “‘objectively’ hopeless” position, just like the Morales government in Bolivia, the Chavez government in Venezuela, or the Maoist government in Nepal. Outcasts. We would be up against “the whole drift of history” – that endlessly dreary sense that there’s nothing for us to do but bow down to the market. But as Žižek asks about Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nepal’s (BVN) sovereign acts, “does this not give them a unique freedom?” Maybe that’s what practising sovereignty means today. Maybe it’s about not playing the game.
Of course, it’s easy to look to BVN for inspiration. They’re far off lands. Exotic. So what about Europeans? Žižek again: “Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous. We will be forced to live ‘as if we were free’.”
But to act is to “risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old—education, healthcare, basic social services.”
Indeed. Education, healthcare and basic social services. Not that we had these in much abundance or in such a fine state in the first place in Ireland, but whatever we have had is now getting cut back. And all because we’ve ‘no choice’ but to pay back the bondholders? In what sense is this sovereignty?