Brian, Bill and the faceless men

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen (2nd R) speaks during a news conference on the steps of Government Buildings, in Dublin November 22, 2010. Cowen resisted calls for his resignation on Monday, vowing to stay in power long enough to pass an austerity budget needed for an EU/IMF bailout package, and then call an early election.   REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton  (IRELAND - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS)
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton makes remarks to applauding supports as he arrives to boost the campaign of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and other Democrats, at Federal Hill Park,in Baltimore, Maryland, October 21, 2010. Clinton has been lending a hand on the campaign trail, as some polls suggest the Democrats may lose majority control of the House in the upcoming midterm elections.    UPI/Mike Theiler Photo via Newscom
It’s a long way from Bill Clinton to Brian Cowen. Clinton is revered by most people in the US as the man under whose watch they enjoyed eight years of unrivalled prosperity, Cowen is detested as the man under whose watch the twenty-six counties plunged into an economic pit. Clinton was famed for his ability to ‘feel the pain’ of others; Cowen is denounced as a man out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. At the end of his time in office, Clinton could have sailed into a third term had the law allowed it; at the end of his term in office, Cowen will be lucky to escape lynching.

And yet there is a link. A couple of months ago I attended a talk by Clinton at the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster. A central point in his talk was that all students emerging from high school should have a firm understanding of basic economics – how the economic system is organised at a local, national and international level. As the waves of rage have swept the twenty-six counties these past few days, the former president’s words have sounded more and more convincing.

Over ninety per cent of the population are like myself: they haven’t a clue about economics. They’ve never studied it, they don’t understand it. Listen to the politicians and pundits talking. They contradict each other, they contradict themselves, they don’t seem to understand the problem and they certainly haven’t got a convincing answer to it.

So when people lambast Cowen, they might want to ask themselves if the problem is less of his making and more that of a very old, external force: international capitalism? Irish banks can’t get money except at exorbitatant rates. What’s more, the people who won’t give them the money are they’re now intent on doing likewise to Portugal, Spain and any other victims they can put up against the wall. As a result, tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs and their homes, social benefits are being slashed along with wages – misery is being doled out in generous helpings. Granted, Cowen’s austerity package has targeted those with least and let those with most off lightly. But that’s the detail. The pig picture is of international money-lenders overwhelmng national governments. It’s capitalism versus democracy, and capitalism seems to be winning by a continental kilometre.

So let’s not heap all the blame on Brian Cowen. Against forces like that, Bill Clinton himself would have been impotent. Granted, I say all this as an economic illiterate. But isn’t that what they called Gerry Adams a couple of years ago, when he said the boom times were favouring the big boys, penalising the poor, and that reorganisation was needed?

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