When Kurt Cobain in his suicide note quoted Neil Young’s ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’, I assumed he was being desperately ironic. I mean, he was a fairly decent lyricist himself, and hardly a stranger to deploying irony. It seemed unlikely to me at the time that he would have interpreted Neil Young’s lyric as a mere declaration of  a natural fact.  Then I remember hearing Courtney Love reading that line in the note sobbing ‘this is not true’ as though she herself, a fairly astute lyricist, considered that Cobain was being sincere. The phrase subsequently became emblematic in the popular imagination of Cobain’s character, and was adopted by generations of anguished straggle-haired teens before they went off to study accountancy and engineering. Looking back I have to wonder if I was wrong and he wrote it because that was what he really thought at the time.

Anyway, what I am wondering on the back of this is if I have a general difficulty with gauging if someone is being ironic or not. I think I may be excessively inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt on such matters, that when they use a particularly barbarous phrase, they are most likely being ironic, or sardonic. The particular example here is that of Ireland Inc. Any time until recently I have heard someone say this, I have imagined they are making some reference to the fact that what exists is not a democratic republic, but a form of capitalistic corporation, and that this is a bad thing.

But listening to the radio of late, I realise I may be wrong on this. There was someone on Morning Ireland this morning, can’t remember who, talking about international confidence in Ireland Inc. But the terms in which he made his remarks appeared to indicate he thought that Ireland Inc. was a plain fact, just as there is no irony in the facts that Paris is the capital of France, eczema is a condition of itchy skin, and so on, and that what had to be done was whatever was best for Ireland Inc.

And then I read this:


35 WHEREAS a serious disturbance in the economy and a decline in the economic circumstances of the State have occurred, which
threaten the well-being of the community;
AND WHEREAS as a consequence a serious deterioration in the revenues of the State has occurred and there are significant and increasing Exchequer commitments in respect of public service pensions;
AND WHEREAS it is necessary to cut current Exchequer spending substantially to demonstrate to the international financial markets that public expenditure is being significantly controlled so as to ensure continued access to international funding, and to protect the State’s credit rating and reverse the erosion of the State’s international competitiveness;
AND WHEREAS the burden of job losses and salary reductions in the private sector has been very substantial and it is equitable that
the public sector should share that burden;
AND WHEREAS it is necessary to take the measures in this Act as part of a range of measures to address the economic crisis;
AND WHEREAS the value of public service pensions is significantly and markedly more favourable than those generally available in other employment—

It began to dawn on me that Ireland Inc. really exists. Looking beyond the wherases, the content of what is outlined could be easily lifted from a corporate memo.

Think of a corporation with multiple divisions engaged in the production of different items. When total revenue falls, investors want to see what executives are doing to maintain profitability. This normally means making cuts on capital expenditure and jobs. If revenue falls 10%, then investors are likely to demand that jobs should be reduced by a comparable amount. Since the CEO is committed to pursuing profitability for its shareholders,  this demand is likely to be mostly met, with some room for minor exceptions and adjustments here and there, in line with business strategy.

Even if some of the divisions are engaged in healthy profit-making activities, it is still likely that the CEO will move to cut salaries and make some symbolic job cuts in these divisions, the point being to demonstrate to investors that the firm has the necessary discipline to focus on maximising profitability and cutting costs. It may be the case that such actions are in fact detrimental to the long-term viability of the firm, but the major consideration here is maintaining investor confidence.

The terms in which the CEO will frame such actions to employees will be as follows: times are tough, we need to satisfy our investors, all our people need to play their part. I personally am taking a hit of 25% (the fact that his salary is many multiples that of the average worker does not come into play), senior executives 10%, the rest of you 5%. Furthermore, whilst I realise that workers in some divisions have delivered value for the firm of late, if we do not take action, we will have to cut more jobs, and even more families will be hit by the pain. So it is only right that all our people share the burden. If we do all this, we will be all the stronger and well-placed to ride out the current storm. Needless to say, we will engage with our workers’ councils on how best these measures can be implemented, and we will renew our focus on continuing to meet the highest standards of corporate ethics in all aspects of our firm’s activity.

For ‘firm’ above, read ‘State’. That is, the State is not purely the set of institutions that serve the public, but all firms public and private that operate within its borders. This is revealed by the expressed need to ‘reverse the erosion of the State’s international competitiveness’: if by ‘State’ we mean simply public service institutions, why would healthcare or special needs education for Irish citizens need to be ‘internationally competitive’?

The main difference between a corporation and a democratic state, in theory at least, is the fact that a corporation is a tyrannical organisation serving shareholder interest regardless of worker needs, and a state is supposed to represent the interests of all its citizens. So why is the government acting and talking like corporate managers?

If it walks like a duck etc.

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February 2009

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