By TANA FRENCH
DUBLIN — FOR the past month, Ireland has been outraged by tapes of Anglo Irish Bank officials, back in 2008, discussing lying to the government about how big a loan they needed, and how they knew there was no chance that the loan would ever be repaid. That loan was the first domino in a sequence that ended with the whole Irish economy flat on its face.
It’s not the bankers’ actions that have outraged people — pretty much everyone had a fair idea that this was what had gone down. It’s the overpowering sense of amorality revealed on the recordings, which were released by the Irish Independent newspaper. The bankers have a great laugh about the situation. It genuinely never seems to mean anything to them that the taxpayer is going to be forced to pay their bills, to the tune of tens of billions. More than that: it never seems to occur to them that their actions might harm people.
I write psychological crime, so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about morality and amorality and what underlies them. And it seems to me that this amorality could be a symptom of something deeper: a total disconnect between action and consequence.
Ireland’s population is just over half that of New York City’s. Our ruling class — including many of the politicians, bankers and property developers who wrecked the economy — is a tiny community, interwoven by friendship, marriages, education, sports and financial transactions to a degree that would be unimaginable in a bigger country. That interweaving has created a safety net that won’t let any of the ruling elite fall. If you’re a banker and your golf buddy’s kid wants to be a banker, then it doesn’t matter if the kid is an idiot, or if he kills cats for kicks: you’ll take him on, and you’ll keep him on.
For many of these people, action and consequence don’t apply; their lives are mapped out from birth, and nothing they do will alter that map. It seems to me that that would be intensely disempowering, even terrifying. Instead of being a series of interlinked actions, life is made up of a scattering of events that have no discernible relationship to one another and that you don’t influence in any real way. In that climate, it would be difficult to develop the sense that your actions make any difference, that you have any responsibility for the consequences. Without cause and effect, there’s no foundation for morality.
I’m not saying this is an excuse. It isn’t. But, like everyone in Ireland, I want answers — for the taxes piled on taxes, for the enormous cuts to essential services, for the dole queues and the flood of emigration, for the desperation in the voices of people who are trapped in ghost estates and don’t have the money to buy their kids shoes. And I wonder if this could be one small facet of one of the answers.
Another question, maybe a more interesting one, is how people who weren’t part of that powerful elite got sucked into the property pyramid scheme that fueled the boom. Some commentators have implied that the answer is basically the same: people got deep into credit-card debt, or took out mortgages for 10 times their income, because they were temporarily sucked into the psychosis of the powerful and it didn’t occur to them that there might be consequences.
But I wonder if, for these people, the truth might actually be the opposite.
Throughout the economic boom, the politicians and bankers and property developers, along with the news media, were telling all of us that cause and effect were perfectly, inextricably linked: “If you buy a vastly overpriced and shoddily built house in the middle of nowhere, the economy will keep growing, and in a few years your house’s value will have doubled, and you can sell it to some other sucker and buy something you actually want and live happily ever after and UTOPIA!!!” It was as simple and certain as sticking a coin into a vending machine: insert Action X, and the life machine will inevitably whir and beep and spit out Future Y.
THE Irish are notoriously cynical, but the Utopia myth hit at exactly the moment when we were most open to unquestioning belief. The majority of Irish people were so desperately poor, for most of the country’s history, that when suddenly we weren’t broke any longer, the cynicism was washed away by the flood of prosperity. We needed to believe that the Celtic Tiger hadn’t simply wandered in, because that would mean it could wander out again. We needed to believe that we had somehow made it happen, and that therefore there were things we could do, like buying overpriced houses, to make it keep happening. We needed, basically, to believe in that chain of action and consequence.
And so the Irish tendency to raise an eyebrow at anything that’s presented as certain paradise dissolved just at the moment when it was needed most.
A lot of my generation believed that chain was unbreakable. When it shattered, so did they — not just financially (although that too), but also psychologically. Their whole sense of a world governed by coherent cause and effect, of their ability to have any agency in their own lives, came under attack.
Those people, the ones who trusted too deeply in action and consequence, were the ones who got utterly, shamelessly destroyed by the people who had no such belief. I’m pretty sure the effects of that betrayal, for Ireland, will take decades to fully unfurl.
Tana French is the author, most recently, of the novel “Broken Harbor.”