Summer 2017

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The Banks & Social Metrics: Summer 2017 | Volume 105 | No. 422

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Eight years ago, as the economist Ray Kinsella, a former professor of banking and finance, recalls in his challenging essay in the present issue of Studies, ‘the global banking account had ignited’. The impact was enormous, wrenching ‘the history and well-being of countries into wholly different trajectories’. We are only too well aware of what happened in Ireland and ‘its intergenerational effects’, which continue to blight the prospects of young people in their quest for work in proper jobs, and housing, and a decent life. There is deeply understandable residual anger at banks which, ‘Having been rescued by society, then pay out as much, and in some instances more, in dividends and bonuses; … having fuelled a mortgage boom and are recapitalised by society, then enforce a “no write-off” policy, repossess the homes of the victims of their mistakes and write the profits back into their P&L account’. As with other scandals in our midst, there has been all too little accountability and, in this case, little sign of a change of heart.
Professor Kinsella is quick to say, rightly, that the problems have not been due primarily to any absence of good people – individual banks, retail banks in particular, are full of them and we all know them. The problem lies in a seriously flawed system, which generates decision-making that is radically unreflective and deeply destructive of other people’s lives. What is needed is recovery of a sense of moral purpose and of the banks’ fundamental obligation to society as a whole to manage the funds they hold in trust with integrity and use their resources and skills to serve the public good. ‘The besetting sin of global banking and finance for the last two generations’, he argues, ‘is a wilful refusal to reflect on relationships’. The greed which has so infected the system, much more widely than in banking alone, is the outcome of such failure to reflect – above all, to reflect on the consequences of a bank’s decisions and choices on others – and to change accordingly.
Noting the signal failure of regulation (hence the long catalogue of failures by banks and the huge fines imposed) and the distance between the board rooms of banks and those affected by what they do, he proposes the addition of what he calls ‘social metrics’, to measure the social impact of their activities, to the list of what banks should be asked to include in their annual reports. As it is, these reports already include not only the staple financial information which might be expected (whether easily intelligible to readers is another question), but also, nowadays, ‘reams about “pluralism” and “gender balance”; about “carbon footprints” and “inclusion”’. But nothing about ‘the blood-and-tears dimension’ of a bank’s engagement with customers and clients; ‘repossessions, family breakup, business failures, suicides, broken marriages’, something ‘often hermetically sealed’ from the board’s attention.
He is calling for a new kind of reporting – arguably in a document ‘drawn up, and collated, independently of the bank’ – and a new conversation ‘that goes like this: “Speak to me in this report, in language that I can understand and reflect on, of your stewardship of the management of funds that are not yours. Tell me honestly, in metrics to which I can relate, how your business model – your way of doing things – has impacted on the society that we share over the last year. Tell me how well you have done because the quality of your performance is important for all of us.”’ Without the kind of reflection and moral conversion envisaged in this hard-hitting paper, and the ‘virtuous leadership’ which that requires, the danger is that, after a few high-profile court cases, everything will go on as before, with many of the same risks for individuals and the economy as a whole.
This all seems a far cry from the high idealism of 1916, as analysed in David Walsh’s subtle meditation in these pages on ‘the intellectual significance of the Easter Rising’, what he calls a ‘philosophic search for its meaning’. (This essay began life as a paper given to the Loyola Institute conference in Trinity College last June on ‘The Role of the Church in a Pluralist Society’.) ‘We have difficulty’, he writes, ‘in understanding the motivations of those who marched out on that Easter Monday morning’. In this we are not too unlike ‘those denizens of Dublin who awoke to discover that rebels had seized the most prominent buildings of their city’. They lived in different worlds from each other then; we live now in a very different world from those who led the rebellion and their supporters in those distant days.
Professor Walsh, who teaches philosophy in the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, develops at length the tension between ‘the ethos of national self-determination’, which animated the rebels, and ‘the liberal outlook that defined late-Edwardian society’ and prevailed around them. Unlike the bankers that Ray Kinsella has in his sights, the men of 1916 had ‘turned their backs on the pursuit of material gain that the modern progressive economy had ushered in’. But their vision of liberty failed to resonate with fellow citizens who, at that time, ‘hardly considered they were in need of liberation’.
In pursuing his illuminating discussion of ‘the deeper tensions’ underlying those events, David Walsh draws extensively on the distinction the philosopher Michael Oakeshott makes between the ‘civil association’, which enables individuals to pursue their happiness in their own way’, and the ‘enterprise association’, in which individuals subordinate their autonomy to a cause greater than themselves. He would say that the more or less hidden currents in play in the years leading up to the Rising brought into the open ‘the theoretical problem of the relationship between a nationally constituted community’, such as the rebels set out to bring about as a political reality, ‘and the mutual recognition of rights that defines a liberal society’. Can the aspirations of revolutionaries ever succeed, with those rights also continuing to be respected? How might that have happened in 1916 – and did it?
For David Walsh, the answers to these questions lie in the choice of the leaders to sacrifice themselves for their cause and, in doing so, transcend themselves and their cause in an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice. This, he says, changed everything: ‘… it was the sacrificial action of 1916 that transformed a largely indifferent populace into resolute supporters of the guerilla campaign of endurance’. By deliberately appealing, through the sacrifice of their own lives, ‘to the hearts and minds of their countrymen’, they brought about ‘a reversal … in the character of the rebellion’ and made possible a different future. They installed ‘a new political principle’: ‘The exercise of liberty, even on behalf of national liberation, could not countenance the abrogation of the liberty of those who disagreed’. Because of ‘the peculiarly spiritual nature of the struggle’ that had taken place, its aftermath did not degenerate ‘into a contest for absolute victory, one that, when it had been reached, would leave no room for the defeated’.
In the final stage of his remarkable paper, Professor Walsh acknowledges that ‘Pearse’s model of a redemptive sacrifice … derived from the figure of Christ, has been discounted as the excess of a fevered imagination’. But he insists that the example of Christ ‘exercised an authoritative hold’ on the imagination of the leaders and guided them on the path they chose. From such origins, in turn, unfolded the destiny of the nascent state: ‘What is unique about the Irish scene is the genesis of the state in a political movement that took the redemptive paradigm as emblematic … [T]he liberal-Catholic axis had framed a social consensus’.
In the light of his careful argument, the author can even speak of ‘[t]he spiritualisation of Irish life’, ‘a distinct consciousness of interiority’ and ‘a spiritual equilibrium that has not always been fully acknowledged’. In conclusion, he dares to say that ‘it was the Catholic character of its revolution that exercised the most decisive impact’.
These are, in some respects at least, counter-intuitive reflections, not only on what went on in those troubled times in the second decade of the twentieth century, but also on the Ireland that has emerged and that we find ourselves in now. Ray Kinsella’s treatment of the banking crisis seems to point in a rather different direction. Which Ireland are we? Which Ireland are we becoming? What, if any, is the value of our Christian and Catholic heritage, to which both writers discussed here willingly and knowledgeably refer? Are the shortcomings of contemporary Ireland a reflection of what its critics regard as the dead hand of that heritage? Or perhaps an indication that the loss of a moral sense, and the coarsening of public discourse, is a measure of what is being lost at a deeper level? The relentless disparagement of the Church is not good for the Church or those who try to adhere to it; it is not good for Ireland either. In light of the upheavals caused by the surely disastrous ‘Brexit’ vote in Great Britain, and other uncertainties in the wider world, these questions will assume greater urgency in the coming years.
Elsewhere in this issue, Megan Loumagne, a doctoral student in Oxford University, examines the roots and phenomenology of fundamentalism, in particular its concept of sin. This is a paper originally delivered at the Loyola Institute. (There are interesting echoes here of Professor Kinsella’s essay and the role of what he does not hesitate to call ‘sin’ in the banking debacle.) Bill Toner SJ is the treasurer of the Irish Jesuit Province but his essay here is engaged with higher things! It’s a pithy challenge to Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and campaigner in favour of atheism, and the understanding of evolution which underpins his atheist views. Michael McGinley worked for twenty years in the Department of Finance, but he’s not writing in this issue about money either. His interest is in the Dublin friendships of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s something of a corrective to the common view that Hopkins was simply isolated and unhappy here. But the fact remains that he was out of sympathy with the rising Irish nationalism he could sense around him in the 1880s and, as one of his late sonnets in particular makes clear, felt himself ‘a stranger’. Patrick Samway SJ, retired professor of English in St Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, has a different concern about Hopkins: to examine his relationship, as a Catholic convert, to the English Catholic poets of his time, in particular Aubrey de Vere.
One of the places Hopkins felt himself rather more at home during those years of exile in Ireland was Clongowes Wood College. 1889, the year that the poet died, saw the publication of the first of a series of Jesuit journals based on University College in St Stephen’s Green, where Hopkins had been – rather unhappily – teaching classics. The publication in question was the Lyceum and the series of such publications culminated in the appearance of Studies in 1912. Declan O’Keeffe, who teaches history in Clongowes and has studied this topic extensively, traces the pre-history and origins of Studies and what Yeats might have described as ‘the uncertainty of its setting forth’. It’s a story which has salutary lessons for latter-day editors.
Finally, we publish the fourth of Dr Sean Brophy’s reflections on ‘the decade of conflict’. Sean, who took a keen interest in Studies, struggled heroically with very poor health from childhood, while managing to live a very full and productive life. In the process, he inspired many of those who came into contact with him, very much including the writer of this editorial. Sean did not live to see his own final piece, published in this issue, into print, dying with the faith by which he had lived in mid-February of this year. We publish it here in warm, affectionate tribute to his memory.