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Column: Why do we love reading books about the economic crisis?

All these critiques don’t spur us to action, writes Tom Boland, so why do we keep buying them?

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OVER CHRISTMAS I was reminded of when French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously argued that the first Gulf war did not really happen. He meant that it was a hyper-real media spectacle, a simulacrum, a representation of total technological war epitomised by smart bombs flying straight down chimneys. Of course, for Iraqis in the firing-line, this pronouncement must have been cold comfort.

What reminded me of his provocative remark was the plethora of books on the Irish economic crisis. Concerned citizens across the country are filling each other’s stockings with reports, manifestos, diagnoses, commentaries and histories of the crisis. What does this say about the crisis, the people experiencing it, reading about it, and the nature of public debate? First of all, let me clarify – I am not suggesting that the crisis is not happening. Nor do I wish to accuse those who buy these books of being some kind of ‘chattering classes’ insulated from the effects of the crisis.

Crisis literature

I have purchased, gifted, received and read many of them myself. Neither would I accuse the authors of this sort of crisis literature of “cashing in” – the sales generally number in the low thousands and always have another source of income. They write with good intentions.

Yet, this is the third Christmas since the bailout, and at least the fifth in effective recession. Year after year, publishers produce a great variety of books, from regular contributors like Shane Ross, David McWilliams or Fintan O’Toole (three books each) to single servings like Gene Kerrigan. There are lighter volumes designed for the uninitiated and jargon filled tomes. There is even a parody in the form of Angry Baby: Ireland’s Youngest Political Activist Speaks Out, which concerns a two-year-old who becomes politically educated through reading crisis literature. Going from page to stage, there is even Anglo: The Musical, which must have taken months in writing, and presumably proceeded on the assumption that no revolution would sweep the scene in the meantime.

All of these books criticise a situation which they can rely on to continue while the work is written, researched, edited, proofed, printed, launched and discussed. These numerous commentaries share a general pattern. They begin with what is obviously wrong with the country in terms of the recession, then go on to introduce the reader in one way or another to secret or obscure information, whether it is the hidden forces of economics or clandestine corruption.

Enlightenment

With or without explicit plans, the author(s) exhort the ‘people of Ireland’ to do something about the crisis. So, every year thousands of people are reading books which are written with the broad intention of enlightening the reader, emancipating them from government spin or the cosy consensus. Most of these books amount to a political education, and many exhort political engagement and protest.

Last year, with Occupy camps in each city, one might have thought these books had a direct connection to real protest. But since then, protest has declined, yet the books are just the same. So what happens when people buy and read these books? Are they just mood-music to help us imagine a catastrophe which is happening all around us, but is kept invisible by a combination of shame and indifference? Perhaps these books are very necessary, in order to help people to understand a slow and diffuse disaster, to make collective sense of thousands of instances of individual suffering.

What I would suggest is that something very peculiar happens when people read a critique of their own society. The reader is already reading a book, so they cannot be the unenlightened ‘people of Ireland’ who need to rise. Instead they identify with the author, as one of the few who really understands what is happening. Maybe their friends will also get the picture, maybe they display their knowledge online, but it doesn’t necessarily go further than that.

The Celtic Tiger

The consequence of critique is not always action, but the proliferation of critique, and even its trivialisation. Something similar happened during the Celtic Tiger: From the high echelons of critics came the revelation that the boom was based on vulgar greed, imitative consumption and individual conformity. This narrative spread around the media for around a decade, until parish newspapers replicated this critique of our decline and fall. Presumably, those who read this story placed themselves on the side of the critics rather than with the conformist consumers.

Similarly with political satire, the audience is always in on the joke, even though the real butt of the joke is the ‘plain people’ who tolerate injustice and corruption. Thus, through becoming critical of the situation and the crisis, the reader distances themselves from their own society, so that the crisis becomes a spectacle which one is not really part of. Two of the best Irish Christmas books were The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine and Tim Pat Coogan’s The Famine Plot, which concern the greatest Irish catastrophe. Yet, to some extent, many readers view both that history, and the current experience as a spectacle.

Tom Boland Lectures in Sociology at WIT and is co-ordinator of the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative. Tom has also researched articles on critique and the public sphere and Ireland’s economic crash.

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