A few months back, when the scaremongering Prime Time programme about immigrants making fraudulent welfare claims was shown in advance of the budget, I planned on writing another piece about Seán Quinn, to whom I had referred rather obliquely in my review of the programme.
Roughly put I was going to discuss why Quinn was treated with such widespread reverence by contrast with lesser plutocrats. There had been a moment on a Frontline programme round about that time when Jack O’Connor made reference to how Seán Quinn’s children had received €200 million for their own portfolios as an example of how there was still substantial wealth in the country that could be taxed. Pat Kenny, ever ready to offer the knucklehead apologia for his fellow millionaires, countered that Quinn employed thousands of people and therefore how could you blah blah. (At the risk of your head imploding at the sheer improbability, close your eyes and try and imagine Kenny arguing the converse: that the fact that thousands of people were working in order to maintain Quinn’s fortune is an excellent argument for him to pay more tax)
But the awed reverence went beyond media shitheads like Kenny, or Shane Ross or the latterday convert Matt Cooper. Even Fintan O’Toole described him in Ship of Fools as Ireland’s canniest businessman. It was standard fare among politicians too, and the reverence is still on display among the county councillors in Quinnlandia:
Newtowngore Fine Gael Cllr John McCartin told the paper that the actions of the Financial Regulator have seriously undermined confidence in the entire Quinn Group of companies, both among consumers and suppliers. Questioning the wisdom of such a move McCartin said, “If the Quinn group is making a profit of over €20m per month, it will take less than a year for it to recover the €200m asset gap in cover for policy holder’s liabilities. If this is the case, the Financial Regulator’s suggestion that the Company may be sold is completely over the top.”
McCartin concluded,”Sean Quinn built his empire with his own money and the Quinn group has had an immeasurable positive impact on the entire country. The Financial Regulator must not let populism, public blood lust or it’s own past ineptitude taint it’s attitude to Quinn Insurance.”
West Cavan Councillor, John Paul Feeley [Fianna Fáil – HG] said “It is important to recognise the immense economic and social impact of the Quinn Group on the Irish Economy, especially in the Cavan and Fermanagh areas and in the surrounding counties. The Quinn Group have been dynamic and innovative, bringing competition and quality to the consumer and employment to thousands in this region. Government Policy to protect existing jobs and seek to create employment does not seem to feature in the reasoning of the Regulator.”
Mohill Cllr Gerry Kilrane [Fianna Fáil – HG] said, “Regardless of the right or wrongs of the situation the consequences for this area are simply catastrophic. The Quinn Group has provided much needed employment in Leitrim and West Cavan for nearly 40 years. Sean Quinn has provided an opportunity for thousands of young people to live here and rear their families at a time when The Troubles were at their height and this country was in the last recession.
But there are plenty of ordinary people out there who thought Quinn could walk on water. I know a couple of people who know him personally, and who quaked with excitement at the mere mention of his name.
There is a good book out at the minute, Storytelling by Christian Salmon. It focuses on how storytelling by polticians and corporations in the United States is an instrument of power, definitively manipulating the way voters, employees and consumers think, feel and act. It highlights James Carville’s account of how Republicans have dominated storytelling in the field of politics, so that whereas Democratic politicians pre-Obama may have simply produced a list of items, like clean water, better health care and so on and so forth, Republicans were able to create a compelling narrative to shape voters’ perceptions, preying on their fears and desires. In his words, Republicans like Ronald Reagan were saying “we’re going to save you from the homos in Hollywood and the terrorists in Tehran”. In the field of business, consumers are drawn in by the storytelling strategies of the likes of Steve Jobs, the rebel who started out in his garage and who now appears as an evangelical figure. For workers in cororations too, massive amounts of money are placed in the service of making them feel they are engaged in the continuation of a narrative flow: both Vodafone and Hewlett Packard (these weren’t mentioned in the book, but I know this for a fact) to name two, ply their employees with fairy stories about the corporate behemoth’s humble origins: the rebels who took on the establishment. Corporations use consultants to put the right narrative strategies to work, guys who know about Roland Barthes and I can’t remember who else.
It’s unlikely Seán Quinn knows who Roland Barthes is. If prompted, he’d probably guess he was a golfer. But at the same time, the Quinn ‘story’, told by a cast of thousands, had a similar epic function, as a sustaining mythology. Here’s this down-at-home guy who started out small, leaving school at 14, digging in his da’s backyard, who then went on to fell on the big monopolies, all the while staying true to his roots, drinking in the local pubs and so on and so forth, while always looking out for the little guy. The story showed that the little guy who pulls the brass out of the muck can triumph over the megabucks overlords and the faceless bureaucrats, and that the invisible hand of capitalism, left to its own devices, will drag heroes out of the Irish soil.
S. How many workers does he employ; men, women and children, all included?
W. A hundred.
S. What wages do they get?
W. On an average, about a thousand francs, counting in the salaries of managers and foremen.
S. So that the hundred workers in the work receive altogether a hundred thousand francs in wages, just enough to keep them from dying of hunger, while your master pocketed a hundred thousand francs for doing nothing. Where did these two hundred thousand francs come from?
W. Not from the sky; I never saw it rain francs.
S. It is the workers in his works who have produced the hundred thousand francs they received in wages, and, besides, the hundred thousand francs profit of the master, who has employed part of that in buying new machines.
W. There is no denying that.
S. Then it is the workers who produce the money which the master devotes to buying new machines to make them work; it is the managers and foremen, wage slaves like yourself, who direct the production; where, then, does the master come in? What’s he good for?
W. For exploiting labour.
S. Say rather, for robbing the labourer; that is clearer and more exact.