Fifty Shades of Green: Ireland and the Erotics of Austerity

Author: Seán Kennedy (Saint Mary’s University)

As Joseph Valente remarks in the opening essay of this volume, it makes little sense to talk of “Ireland in Psychoanalysis,” there being no collective Irish subject that might plausibly enter into such a process. As such, the phrase can only indicate a “literary proposition.”[1] It is in literary discourse, Valente suggests, that Ireland has been placed in psychoanalysis, by writers as different as James Joyce, Anne Enright, and Sebastian Barry. Here, I want to offer a comparable psychoanalytic reading of Irish political discourse, more specifically certain propositions about the Irish people that have become prevalent in the wake of the recent banking collapse: the era of “troikanomics” and continuing austerity. I want to address Ireland’s experience of troikanomics and recent membership of the European Union (EU) as part of what I am calling an “erotics of austerity”: I want to look at Ireland’s traumatic experience of, and muted response to, troikanomics as an erotic problem; or, put differently, I want to frame the apparent passivity of the Irish people in the wake of the bailout as a problem of austerity erotics. In reading about Ireland’s experience of troikanomics, one is struck, time and again, by the regularity with which the language of kink has permeated, even structured, the conversation: there has been a recurring tendency to frame the issue in terms drawn from the diverse vocabularies of BDSM.[2] It is this troping of the debate that I wish to examine here. What is it about austerity that has it yoked to the language of sadomasochism?


Some definitions first: “troikanomics” refers to the economic period in Ireland commencing with the bailout of the economy in 2008, where the “troika” in question consists of the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who have been tasked with managing the European debt crisis. In doing so, they have imposed austerity budgets across much of the Eurozone. Austerity is the economic doctrine that seeks “voluntary deflation” in struggling economies through “the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending […] by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficits.”[3] A “dangerous” economic doctrine that has had a devastating impact on the social fabric of almost all countries where it has been applied, it has nevertheless been the remedy of choice imposed by the troika on the so-called PIIGs of the EU (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). The effect has been to ravage the economies in question while saddling future generations of EU citizens with the debts of a number of private banks. In November 2010, to take only the present example, Ireland received its bailout in exchange for a twenty-six percent cut in public spending, and its net debt-to-GDP ratio (which was 24.8 percent in 2007) rose to 106.4 percent by 2012.[4]


While the focus here is on Ireland, the EU is central because it was there that the divisive terms of the troika bailout were conceived. Since its accession to EEC membership in 1973, Ireland has been viewed as an exemplary member state, ratifying all measures aimed at further integration of the Union whilst benefitting directly by way of investment, farming quotas, and structural funding (or so the story goes). In a series of recent trenchant critiques of the EU, however, Susan Watkins has traced how the decades since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty (1992) have seen a steady erosion of decentralized power leading to a new era of autocratic government in Europe. Most worrying have been the “extension of autocratic control” by the European Commission and “an unprecedented centralization of extra-legal power in the office of the German Chancellor [Angela Merkel].”[5] For Watkins, these measures amount to the “abrogation of sovereignty in successive member states.”[6] As well as this, the “stark class politics” of austerity have placed huge strain on representative democracy across Europe (as the plight of Fianna Fáil indicates).[7] There is, Angela Merkel has announced by way of confirmation of this trend, “no such thing any more as domestic policy making” in Europe: a statement on par with Thatcher’s notorious pronouncement that there was “no such thing as society” in 1977.[8] In fact, the entire social contract that brought the EU into being has been pronounced “obsolete” by Mario Draghi, Chief of the ECB, who trots out the familiar argument that there is now “no escape from tough austerity measures.”[9]


Passivity has been the most remarkable feature of Ireland’s response to all of this (at least until the recent water charges controversy).[10] There has been no equivalent of the populist Spanish movement Podemos, for example, and this docility has not gone unnoticed. We have been praised by German diplomats for our “exemplary resilience,”[11] and described variously as the “poster boy” of austerity and a “model bailout student.”[12] In this same period, we are told we are also one of the happiest nations in the world.[13] So, are we happy with troikanomics? Is some part of the Irish psyche, some masochistic strain in us, gratified by the suffering? The question bears scrutiny because of the manner in which the experience of the bailout has been framed. When Irish Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, announced his austerity budget in 2009, for example, he remarked: “The steps taken have impressed our partners in Europe, who are amazed at our capacity to take pain. In France you would have riots if you tried to do this.”[14] So, although there can be no collective Irish subject of psychoanalysis, we can have discursive constructions of the Irish electorate as exemplary masochists. Similarly, when a mere thirty percent of the Irish electorate turned out to pass the Fiscal Compact Treaty in 2012, a relieved Enda Kenny called Angela Merkel to “beg for some debt relief as a reward.”[15] The response was insistence on payment in full. Relief, it was suggested, would “send out the wrong signal.”[16] Here again, we are in the realm of the erotics of austerity: control, begging for relief, and signals. In this context, Ireland’s ratification of the fiscal compact, ceding sovereignty in economic affairs to precisely these autocratic powers, must seem worrying, even perverse. Lenihan’s account of the amazement of our European “partners” implicitly frames them as willing participants in an eroticized spectacle of suffering. So are the Irish exemplary masochists in the manner described? And are our partners in Europe gratified by our suffering? Paul Krugman has highlighted a tendency to frame austerity economics as a “morality play” in which bad times are “ineluctable punishment for previous excesses.”[17] Do the Irish people, on some deep level, accept such an explanation?


A question of this kind, placing Ireland in psychoanalysis against our better judgment, can only be answered by way of suggestive analogy, but some rough outlines might be considered. In his work during the 1920s, Freud distinguished three kinds of masochism: erotogenic, feminine, and moral. Moral masochism stems from “shame and a sense of guilt,”[18] and tends to proliferate where “cultural suppression of the instincts” is a dominant feature of social life.[19] It would not be difficult to apply these observations suggestively in the Irish case, where guilt, repression, and Catholicism have been virtually synonymous.[20] The recurring trope of passivity is also suggestive, since Joseph Valente has traced how Irish masculinity under British colonialism was caught in a double-bind such that passivity fed into traditional stereotypes of the Celt as feminine and in need of governance, whilst assertiveness fed into bestializing accounts of the Celt as monstrous and equally in need of imposed authority.[21] In both cases, the result was an argument against the granting of sovereignty: a castrating scenario that might well manifest as an Irish propensity for masochism with the British colonizer as a repressed object of sadism. In 1919, Freud characterized masochism as sadism “turned ‘round upon the self.” [22] We can imagine how such an impulse might operate in an Irish (post)colonial setting, where castrated men would take themselves, Irish women and children, as well as other more marginalised groups, as the internal victims of a rebounding sadism. Works like John McGahern’s Amongst Women (1983) might even be read as imaginative accounts of such a scenario. Irish masochism, in this reading, is a kind of colonial hangover: set over and against any desire for self-governance is the continuing “need for punishment” that paves the way for eroticized suffering and docile submission to dictates from external authorities—that is, “whether from the super-ego or from the parental powers outside.”[23]


As far as the influence of external powers go, any account of the influence of British colonialism would have to be read alongside Ireland’s enduring relationship to Catholicism, specifically Roman Catholicism, which might also explain an Irish penchant for the erotics of shame and guilt. As Victor Smirnoff remarks, the iconography of Catholic martyrdom is inherently masochistic:


[T]here is always a basic component of ecstasy: the mystical trance, the tortured and languid body exposed to blows, the exquisite agonies, the often orgasmic quality of posture and facial expression. And those same elements are to be encountered in all erotic literature and pictorial representations of masochism.[24]


Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” (see fig. 1) is the most often cited example of such representation, but there are innumerable others, and there can be no doubting the enduring theme of virtuous, even pleasurable, suffering in the Catholic tradition.

Figure 1. Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

Catholic saints are those who amaze us with their suffering, and since martyrdom is a common precondition of sainthood, we might discern an unconscious quest for martyrdom in the Irish psyche. Historically, if the problem of colonialism could not be escaped, it could be transcended, and suffering in the ecstatic self-denying mode of the Catholic martyr was one way of doing so. It was Ireland’s first republican hunger striker, Terence McSwiney, who famously proclaimed, “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”[25] And this potent formulation became particularly influential in modern Irish culture by way of the “mystical nationalism” of Patrick Pearse and the “terrible beauty” of the Easter Rising of 1916.[26]


In the present day, we might surmise, the Irish have so internalized this narrative of virtuous penury that austerity gratifies a propensity for moral masochism that needs only to “maintain a certain amount of suffering.”[27] In this scenario, were there any sudden improvement in our economic position, the Irish would begin to suffer, as it were, from a lack of suffering. Talk of this kind is necessarily impressionistic, and there are numerous limitations (we cannot, for example, say if the Irish are attracted to Catholicism because of its masochism, or are masochists because of their attraction to Catholicism). Yet it is difficult to deny the suggestiveness of this analysis given Ireland’s response to the recent bailout.


According to Freud, the moral masochist “wants to be treated like a small and helpless child, but, particularly, like a naughty child,”[28] and this chimes with the infantilizing noises coming from the Irish political elite. Recent economic policy in Europe has been driven chiefly by Germany’s “moral indignation” that any kind of debt forgiveness would involve “rewarding bad behavior,”[29] and, in all of this, two central tropes of BDSM, “discipline” and “control,” have been central.[30] The claim is that the so-called PIIGS were financially profligate and needed to be disciplined for their own good.[31] Brian Lenihan’s infamous claim from 2010, that we had “all partied” during the boom, suggests that key Irish politicians internalized this critique.[32] More recently, in the run up to the 2015 budget, when economic improvement offered the possibility of an end to austerity, Enda Kenny responded in similarly revealing terms: “we must not lose the run of ourselves.”[33] Likening the Irish to incontinent children who must be regulated for their own good, Kenny tacitly sanctioned Germany’s infantilizing narrative of fiscal irresponsibility as the occasion for recourse to austerity.


The implication is that we all did party, and that the resulting shame and guilt must be expiated by what Freud terms “chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny”

Figure 2. Angela Merkel with Ireland by the balls

(here embodied in the figure of Angela Merkel).[34] When Germany beat Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, a meme appeared online (fig. 2). It is a joke, but a revealing one. For Angela Merkel, “you cannot have guarantees without control”—in this case, ball control.[35]


Arguably, then, the Irish accepted the fiscal compact because we concur, whether consciously or otherwise, that we are, indeed, naughty children. We need to prove, both to ourselves and others, that we are capable of self-control. If we fail, we deserve to suffer. For Jessica Benjamin, it is only once we recognize “submission to be the desire of the dominated” that we can begin to understand it.[36] Benjamin sees the chief desire of the masochist as not mere submission but “submission to an idealized other.”[37] She suggests that the relationship to the mother is too fraught to underwrite this scenario (the child “resents its dependency,” even as it wishes to see it magically continue), and so the father comes to occupy the role of the ideal agent of desire.[38] By analogy, Ireland’s bitterly resented relationship of economic dependency with Britain[39] might be seen to provide a foil to our later, idealized relationship with Europe, to which we continue to submit in humiliation despite ongoing abusive treatment.[40] In the transfer of loyalties, we have lost any capacity for critical engagement leading to a “self-destructive acquiescence to abuse.”[41] Even as a former deputy director of the IMF has criticized the ECB for trying to inaugurate a “fire sale” of Irish national assets “in the interests of protecting its own balance sheet,” Enda Kenny has characterized our commitment to the EU as “clear and unqualified.”[42] There is nothing we will not endure, it seems, to appease our European partners. Accordingly, our national budgets constitute exercises in “civic discipline” rather than economic stimulus.[43] All of which suggests that continuing Irish membership of the EU is not unlike a return to toilet training, with the only difference being that we consent, as adults, to such humiliation as part of a masochistic search for imposed discipline. Was it for diaperism the sons of Erin died?


The attraction of this reading is that it explains recent Irish passivity. The problem, apart from the merely suggestive terms in which the analysis is offered, is that it locates masochism as a largely endogenous phenomenon: the focus is on the peculiar perversities of the postcolonial Irish psyche. The perverse role of our European partners is largely occluded. In an important essay, which challenges Freud’s endogenous accounts of masochism, Victor Smirnoff points out that the essential phenomenon of masochism is “the position of the masochist in the masochistic relationship.”[44] For Smirnoff, masochism is a contract, and the “conditions imposed are an essential part of the masochistic position.”[45] In this reading, it is “the victim who lays down the rules.”[46] Smirnoff points out that a true masochist encountering a true sadist would put themselves in an absurdly dangerous position. He writes:


The sadist aims at the ultimate destruction of the victim, and tries to mutilate and annihilate him. The masochist is not seeking to be killed or destroyed, but to be branded. Not by the absolute power of the other, but by the fictitious power that he himself has bestowed on the executioner: a power that the victim has, by way of contract, forced on the executioner, who can execute it only at the victim’s order.[47]


In reality, then, it is the masochist who is in charge. His “eclipse,” as André Green puts it, is “pure pretense since he is pulling all the strings.”[48] In this light, it becomes harder to read Ireland’s propensity for moral masochism as the whole story. Certainly, we cannot liken colonialism (as one hypothetical source of Irish masochism) to the kind of contract described here. Were the colonized Irish, in any substantive way, ever “on top on the bottom?” The historical case would be difficult to maintain. Turning to more recent times, given the dismaying, even “treasonous,”[49] handling of the Irish bailout amid continuing calls for “hard choices,”[50] we seem no closer to a situation in which the victim is making the rules. In fact, we approach the dangerous position of Smirnoff’s masochist trapped by a true sadist.[51] Here, for purposes of comparison, is a recent account of the economic impact of troikanomics in Greece:


Since May 2010, the policies inflicted by technocrats from the IMF, ECB and European Commission have included 25 percent reductions in public-sector wages, savage public-spending cuts, regressive tax rises and pressure for large-scale privatizations, which would lead to a fire-sale of the nation’s capital. The result has been a drop in GDP of 3.7 per cent in 2010, 5.5 per cent in 2011, and probably between 3 and 4 per cent in 2012. […] For the Troika, of course, if the figures do not tally with the projections it is the Greeks’ fault, for accepting austerity so grudgingly, and has nothing to do with the collapse in production caused by the plan that Brussels and Berlin imposed.[52]


This is not kink, but pain for the sake of it: an abject lesson in humiliation and submission. Perhaps this, most of all, is what links the economic and the sexual under the rubric of an erotics of austerity: both are usually (and disingenuously) framed as questions of morality.[53] Effectively, we are told that we are being fucked (and fucked over) for our own good. In the circumstances, any Irish propensity towards moral masochism must be set against a growing propensity in the new EU for what Paul Krugman calls “sadomonetarism.”[54]


The term “sadomonetarism” marks a quite different erotics of austerity and was coined by William Keegan in the 1980s to describe Margaret Thatcher’s early recourse to punitive economic measures in Britain.[55] In recent years, Krugman has taken it up to describe the disposition of the austerians.[56] In this picture, it is the role of institutions like the Troika that is perverse, as governments struggling to shore up the financial crisis have had to first inflict unnecessary pain on themselves to regain the market’s “trust.”[57] For Krugman, this psychologization of the market has had a profound effect on economic doctrine amounting to “an inversion of the Keynesian compact.”[58] The austerity policies of the Troika have come to dominate because “the perceived need to play the confidence game supersedes the normal concerns of economic policy.”[59] Under neoliberalism and the Troika, one no longer caters to the needs of society (which no longer exists in any case). Rather, one must cater to “the perceptions, the prejudices, the whims of the market.”[60] Incredibly, the need to win the confidence of “the market” can actually prevent a country from following otherwise sensible policies and “force it to follow policies that would normally seem perverse.”


Krugman uses the term “perverse” here in a negative sense, which differentiates him in important ways from Freud. For Freud, perversion is ubiquitous since it means any act or inclination that is not in the direct service of sexual reproduction, the so-called “normal sexual aim.” He therefore thought it “inappropriate” to use the term as one of reproach.[61] However, Robert Stoller has offered a very different definition of perversion—one closer to Krugman’s description of sadomonetarism—reserving it specifically for acts of eroticized hatred. For Stoller, true perversion is “the erotic form of hatred.”[62] Masochism is not a perversion in this reading because it involves a punishment chosen for oneself: “a controlled, partial […] libidinized—fake—punishment.”[63] With the true pervert, by contrast, there can be no question of the contractual pleasures of S/M. Stoller’s pervert, like Krugman’s sadomonetarist, is out to do harm. In an early example of sadomonetarism in New York in 1975, Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon, counseled that any financial terms offered to bail out the city should be “so punitive, the overall experience so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road.”[64]


Here, we enter the realm of the truly perverse: the world of neoliberal sadomonetarism where any kind of suffering is justified if it consolidates power in the hands of elites and appeases the market. “In each case,” to apply Stoller’s model beyond his own immediate context, “is found—in gross form or hidden but essential in the fantasy—hostility, revenge, triumph, and a dehumanized object.”[65] As Krugman suggests, the response of the EU to the plight of the PIIGS has been that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”[66] This calls to mind the central fantasy in Freud’s seminal paper on masochism, “A Child is Being Beaten.” Based in unconscious sibling rivalry amongst dependent children, it is not a fantasy one would have dictating economic policy across the Eurozone. It is especially egregious when it is generally agreed that the ones being beaten did not generate the crisis. Apart from Greece (which is a special case on this issue given certain fiscal irregularities attending their accession to the EU),[67] there is no basis for the claim that the banking crisis was caused by the profligacy of the PIIGS. Rather, the move to moralize the debate was taken to obscure the real origins of the crisis in the deregulated frenzies of global financial capital, as well as structural problems at the heart of the single European currency.[68] In the process, “the risks were socialized while the profits were privatized,” bankrupting entire economies in the process.[69]


All along, neoliberals have tended to justify their radical attacks on society and state by appealing to the market as ultimate arbiter of social and economic good. What is catastrophic in this context, for Campbell Jones, is the “imagined unity attributed to the market when it is treated as a subject” by politicians and financiers alike.[70] As commentators like Krugman have noted, under neoliberalism “the market” has “moods,” gets “nervous,” requires appeasement and, for this to happen, almost any political measure, irrespective of its social and political cost, can be justified. Here, for example, is the Irish government explaining in 2011 why minimum wages needed to be reduced: “The government is concerned that international bond markets will panic, fearing Ireland is reneging on its commitments to the IMF and the European Union.”[71] Ironically, one of the market agencies that determine the state of the markets is called Moody’s, and a view of the present state of Ireland is the prerogative of Moody’s and their moods, which are themselves held out as distillation of the moods of “the market.” Yet, the market cannot ever be analyzed or made accountable for its moods, precisely because it is not, in fact, a unified subject. Just as there can be no collective subject called “Ireland” in psychoanalysis, there can be no unified subject called “the market”—none of which has prevented the trope from operating to devastating effect under neoliberalism.


In a fascinating critique of this psychologizing trend in neoliberal discourse, Jones characterizes the neoliberal market as, in fact, “oscillating” between sovereignty and dispersal: it is deemed sovereign when seen to be making demands, or having a mood, but then disperses when being held accountable for the results of those moods.[72] In the circumstances, for Jacques-Alain Miller, “the market” takes on the role of the Lacanian analyst: the “one who is supposed to know.”[73] Extending this analysis, Jones identifies some sinister implications:


The existence of a subject supposed to know almost unavoidably implies a subject or many subjects supposed not to know. And this is the terrifying brutality of the idea that the market might be a subject, that it might have desires, a will, that it might command us. The corollary of the market as subject supposed to know is that we are subjects supposed not to know how to determine our collective fate. The market here is not the embodiment of us all, but precisely the opposite: the denial of our capacity for reason, will, speech and action.[74]


In this context, we should be justly concerned about neoliberalism’s desire to “bring all human action into the domain of the market,”[75] for to do so is synonymous with the disempowerment of the majority of its agents. In Europe, it is precisely those who are predisposed to the hegemony of the market, Mario Draghi and his colleagues, who have overseen the abrogation of sovereignty decried by Susan Watkins.[76] It is the purported vagaries of the market that allow a certain class of politician/expert to consolidate class privilege around the idea of their being the ones who know what the market knows. Which brings us back to passivity, and to the nagging issue of consent. Why would people consent to such a scenario? Is there a sense in which the enduring paradox of masochism for psychoanalytic theory finds its politico-economic equivalent in majority consent to sadomonetarism?


Such a claim would require the conflation of two very different modes of consent. In BDSM, consent is elusive, being intimately woven into each moment of the ritualized act. Consent is a precondition of true S/M eroticism, and unlike torture, for example, it is not inflicted on a helpless subject. Safety words exist to indicate that a threshold of tolerance has been reached, such that any escalation of suffering should cease. The truly successful S/M scenario is one where thresholds of suffering are approached, or attained, but only rarely superseded. Consent is a highly intuitive and immensely vulnerable condition (and precondition) of pleasurable suffering. It can be granted or withdrawn in an instant, and often by very subtle means (a grunt or a twitch). The construction of consent under neoliberalism was necessarily different. It was achieved slowly, and at considerable cost by “capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state.”[77] Between 1980 and 2007, the highest-earning one percent of Americans doubled their share of aggregate income from eight percent to over eighteen percent, and this was not done without a fight.[78] By way of an outright assault on the major social institutions—universities, schools, the media, publishing, the courts—neoliberalism has managed to create conditions whereby citizens routinely consented to political measures that were quite obviously at odds with their own interests.[79] To achieve these conditions required the “augmentation of the coercive arm of the state” as well as “repression of dissent.”[80] Along the way, to speak only of recent European experience, democratically elected governments have been removed to keep things ticking over.[81] For obvious reasons, and in a manner that reveals important flaws in the application of a BDSM vocabulary to the realm of economics, this situation is drastically different to the eroticized consent of the masochist. It might seem odd to even speak of consent in such circumstances. However, Lisa Duggan’s groundbreaking analysis of the cultural politics of neoliberalism has shown how many economic constituencies have, in fact, been seduced into complicity with the neoliberal agenda,[82] and a significant amount of neoliberalism’s success must be attributed to what Lauren Berlant sees as “the particular ways in which identity and desire are articulated and lived sensually within capitalist culture.”[83] In each society, the particular blend of coercion or seduction, as well as military and police force, has been tailored to the realities on the ground. The result each time, though, has been a fracturing of traditional solidarities,[84] the consolidation and expansion of economic and political power by class elites, and the production of a fatalistic acceptance amongst a majority of citizens that “there is no alternative.”[85]


Figure 3. Original design for poster from British Home Office

“Keep calm and carry on.” The phrase originally appeared on one of a number of motivational posters designed by the British Home Office for dissemination during World War II.[86] In the event the poster was not issued but was rediscovered in 2000 and has been ubiquitous ever since, appearing on everything from aprons to ashtrays (fig. 3). In the context of neoliberal austerity, it seems a rather docile position to adopt, and might be taken as symptomatic of widespread disillusionment in the wake of neoliberal gains across a globalized economy.[87]


Figure 4. Irish variant on the original “Keep Calm and Carry on” design

It is difficult not to relate the sudden ubiquity of this innocuous phrase to the manner in which Western societies, after a protracted struggle in the 1980s and 1990s, have met recent neoliberal gains with resignation.[88] In Ireland, where we are condemned to produce our own version of all things English, we get: “Keep going sure, it’s grand” (fig. 4).


Here, the harp has replaced the crown, revealing Ireland’s continuing relationship of “identification and rivalry” with Britain,[89] but it is the same deadening impulse: sleepwalking in zombie-esque fashion into compliance with a raft of austerity measures aimed at disenfranchising the ordinary Irish citizen. Even recently, as economic prospects have improved, we are told we must keep calm and carry on, where to do so means to absorb any further shocks that the troika insist upon whilst using the fruits of any modest recovery to service the debt.[90]


Given continuing Irish passivity in the face of this, it seems reasonable to assume that loss of sovereignty is an unconscious desideratum of the Irish people. Freud has been justly criticized for his simplistic conflation of the active/passive and masculine/feminine roles, and Novick and Novick have shown how active masochists can be in their quest to retain contact with an “intrusive object”: masochists seek out suffering in ways that are never quite as passive as they seem.[91] And there can be no denying the stark fact that in 2012 Ireland voted for austerity. 30% of the population voting on the Fiscal Compact Treaty leaves 70% of Irish subjects who are either disenfranchised or mutely passive—ideal subjects for austerity. There is, it seems, little desire amongst the Irish electorate for a radical reconceptualization of our relationship to Europe. In effect, we have swapped a conflicted dependency on informal empire with Britain (the afterlife of the Union) for a progressive social democratic project (the EEC), only to end up in outright submission to the new imperialism of a German-led neoliberal EU. This puts Ireland in the debilitating position of needing to be recognized as independent by the very agencies upon whom it remains dependent.


In this, Ireland’s relationship to the EU closely resembles the “affectively stunning double-bind” of cruel optimism described by Lauren Berlant.[92] If Irish passivity can be read as an index of moral masochism, it is important to situate this reading against the broader global acquiescence in the upward distribution of power under neoliberal regimes. Drawing on Freud’s observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, Berlant is interested in why affective attachments (personal and political) are so difficult to relinquish even after they have clearly ceased to meet our needs, let alone gratify our desires. In language that is obviously linked to BDSM, Berlant talks of the “cruel bindings” of our continuing attachments to neoliberal institutions in particular,[93] and she is especially interested in the impact of neoliberal restructuring on our “fantasies of the good life.”[94] For Berlant, attachments are optimistic in the sense that they represent “a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us.”[95] Such attachments become cruel, she suggests, when the very object that “ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.”[96] The optimism that greeted Ireland’s accession to the social democratic project of the EEC can be usefully read in such terms. For Ireland, as might seem unsurprising in a postcolonial context, the good life became linked to fantasies of political sovereignty within an economic and political alliance with Europe. Membership in the EEC offered a compromise formation between the untenable dream of Irish economic self-sufficiency and the unbearable shame of continuing economic subservience to Britain. The neoliberalization of the EU has jeopardized that solution. Enda Kenny’s stated aim on taking office in 2011 was to restore Irish sovereignty after the bailout,[97] but, as the foregoing analysis makes clear, the new EU is now “itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that people bring to it.”[98] The EU has clearly reneged on its promise to protect Irish sovereignty, yet we continue to hold on. As a test case in neoliberal attachment, we offer compelling evidence of Berlant’s claim that it is both “awkward” and “threatening” to “detach from what is already not working.”[99] For Berlant, the attraction of attachments such as the EU is their “life-organizing status,” which trumps any desire to address the damage they provoke.[100] Thus, Ireland “finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.”[101]


In the circumstances, the Irish would do well to focus on their own behavior as well as that of their governing elites. Yes, troikanomics is merciless—humiliating and presumptuous—and many observers suggest it will undermine the European political project altogether.[102] Yet Conor McCabe has traced a recurring problem at the heart of the Irish political State. Repeatedly, since the State’s inception, he argues, Irish politicians have overseen a “wholesale transfer of wealth” to vested interests, foreign and native (be they large farmers, natural resource companies, or, more recently, “builders, banks and speculators”).[103] To take only the most egregious of recent examples: the blanket guarantee of the Irish banks in 2008, a decision that was taken (without consultation with the Irish people) to “instantaneously” transform private debt into public debt.[104] As Ray Kinsella has it, Ireland’s elites have ceded sovereignty to our European partners because they are unable to face economic adjustment on its own terms, preferring that “strangers” should administer the pain.[105] However, when we think of a presumptive male Irish subject being ball-squeezed by Angela Merkel, she is merely overseeing and enforcing the work of an Irish elite, predominantly male, in the work of disciplining the majority of the Irish people. In a sense, then, the truly perverse agents are both the Irish elites (of whatever party) that have overseen the implementation of austerity on behalf of the bureaucrats of the troika, and the Irish people themselves for accepting it. The politicians purport to share in the suffering and responsibility (“We all partied”) but they are, in fact, the ones doing the disciplining. We are, in the end, being beaten by ourselves, a governing class of ourselves, which is deciding where and how the pain is to be applied.[106] Neither the submissive nor the dominating agents of this perverse morality play are necessarily who we think they are, at least as it is being popularly portrayed. Nevertheless, our commitment to these elites, both European and Irish, remains clear and unqualified.


What, then, are we committed to? Across Europe, austerity is held up as the only way to save the European project, but numerous economists have pointed out the central flaw in the austerity agenda: we cannot all cut our way to prosperity at the same time. In order for someone to be running a surplus, someone else has to be running a deficit.[107] As Mark Blyth summarizes it: “In the Eurocrisis, we see northern European savers juxtaposed with profligate southern Europeans, despite the fact that it is manifestly impossible to have overborrowing without overlending.”[108] Paul Krugman directly blames Germany’s policy of “exporting deflation” for the current economic plight of the PIIGS,[109] and more recent analyses from the European left confirm this reading.[110] Austerity doctrines have their origins in the Scottish enlightenment when David Hume and Adam Smith praised the virtues of “common prudence” and “parsimony” as the engines of growth and progress, which amounts to little more than a “moral critique of debt.” This creates a simplistic view of the current crisis: “Countries that save must be doing the right thing, while spenders must be storing up trouble.”[111] Lacking any convincing economic basis for austerity, we can only assume the Germans are wedded to the suffering of the PIIGS for its own sake, as moral exemplum, and for reasons of financial expediency.


However we explain it, there can be no doubting the suffering that has been meted out by Merkel’s sadomonetarist regime. Austerity has been devastating across the board. The sight of young Greeks prostituting themselves for the price of a sandwich is ample demonstration of the many ways neoliberal austerity is an affront to human dignity.[112] In this light, we need to be mindful, too, of the complex social composition of the victims of austerity. The Merkel meme, with its suggestion that it is Irish men (with their balls in a squeeze) who are the chief victims of austerity, reminds us that austerity discourse is highly gendered. Whilst we should not be complacent about the devastating effect of recent events on Irish men—as documented in the recent fiction of Donal Ryan, for example—it is important to refuse this gendered designation.[113] Better to think in non-gendered terms and acknowledge austerity as an important issue for feminist, queer, and disability theory analyses of Irish society, as well as analyses of race and class. It is women, single mothers, children of vulnerable or marginalized communities, as well as immigrants, successive waves of emigrants, asylum seekers, and working and unemployed classes of all genders that are paying the heaviest price for austerity. It is the ones who never did get to party in the first place—those who benefited least from the so-called “boom”—that are paying the heaviest price. These people do not even have balls, if by this we are implying something like access to the power of the phallus per se.[114] This is significant, even as we acknowledge what the collapse of the construction industry did to employment among Irish men, and to traditional single-income families across the country: the so-called “squeezed middle.”


Sadly, given Berlant’s analysis, there is little prospect of respite for the PIIGS unless radical political measures can be taken. Numerous analysts have shown the current situation in Europe to be a deadlock, given the structure of the single currency, the Euro. Generally, there are four ways out of a financial crisis—inflate, deflate, default, devalue—but three of those options are no longer available in the EU:


If states cannot inflate their way out of trouble (no printing press) or devalue to do the same (no sovereign currency), they can only default (which will blow up the banking system so it’s not an option), which leaves only internal deflation through prices and wages—austerity.[115]


In the circumstances, it is important to recall that consent, if given, can always be withdrawn. The social contract of the EEC was what Ireland consented to, and the new EU, in which that contract has been declared “obsolete,” should no longer command our assent. For obvious reasons, withdrawal of consent from austerity can never be as subtle and immediate, as intimate, as is the case in BDSM. Political structures are required to facilitate it and, as we have seen, the political structures of the EU have been altered dramatically to frustrate just such an eventuality. This revolution in power has gone unremarked in the Irish media,[116] but it is a stark fact that while the majority of Irish people have withdrawn their consent to austerity measures, they have not been able (or willing) to alter their experience of Merkel’s disciplinary regime to any significant degree—“consensual nonconsent,” Ed Madden has termed it.[117] There is, we recall, no such thing anymore as domestic policy making. The days of consent are over. This raises some important questions for any analysis of the erotics of Irish austerity. Given the complexities of the globalized economy and the new EU, can we still see Irish membership of Europe as a “contract […] that is also an alliance?”[118] Is our consent even required? If there is no such thing anymore as domestic policy, is it time to withdraw from the European project generally? Ray Kinsella has made a case for this, arguing that to remain in Europe today is less moral masochism than outright “self-harm.”[119]


For now, given recent trends in Irish politics, there is little prospect of such a move.[120] We complain endlessly, but there is little real appetite for change. Our behavior confirms André Green’s observation that moral masochism “reinforces” authority but finds “considerable compensation in denouncing it.”[121] Hence Ireland’s “comfortable powerlessness” in the wake of the bailout.[122] Clearly, the Irish have difficulty conceiving of a life without the EU, preferring “to ride the system of attachments they are used to.”[123] As Berlant’s analysis of cruel optimism suggests, it is easier “to sustain optimism for irreparable objects” than to engage “the delicate work of detaching from the cruel optimism of a political fetish.”[124] From this masochistic perspective, “familiar pains may be the best available pleasure.”[125] In the light of all we have seen, however, now is not the time for the Irish to keep calm and carry on. Rather, we must manufacture new grounds of dissent from neoliberalism and troikanomics as they are being played out across the Eurozone. An obvious first step would be to form a national government capable of lobbying for reform of the governing structures of the EU. We would need to pursue an alliance of the PIIGS in the quest for a renegotiation of debt-relief, and push for a managed exit from the Euro and a return to nationally sovereign central banks so that currency devaluation can provide relief to recovering economies.[126] For many on the left, however, reform might not be enough: the European project is broken and needs to be dismantled in its present state.[127] Austerity Europe may not be redeemable, and there is little to be gained from the exhausting repetition of trying to repair what is constitutively broken.[128] For this to happen, we would first need to address Ireland’s penchant for moral masochism. Given the obstacles to putting Ireland in psychoanalysis, however, it is difficult to foresee any immediate end to our kinky relationship of cruel optimism with Merkel’s sadistic regime.



[1] Joseph Valente, “Ireland in Psychoanalysis,” in Ireland in Psychoanalysis: Special Issue, ed. Joseph Valente, Seán Kennedy, and Macy Todd, Breac 7 (2017). I am grateful to the editors, as well as to Michael Rubenstein and Lisa Duggan for their judicious comments, and to Ed Madden for the pun on the work of E.L James.

[2] BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadomasochism). For an introduction to this world, see Robert Stoller, Pain & Passion: A Psychoanalyst Explores the World of S&M (New York: Plenum Press, 1991). In an Irish context, see BDSM Ireland,

[3] Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.

[4] See Blyth, Austerity, 4.

[5] Susan Watkins, “The Political State of the Union, New Left Review 90 (Nov./Dec. 2014),

[6] Watkins, “Political State,” 11. See also Watkins, “Another Turn of the Screw,” New Left Review 75 (May-June 2012),  

[7] Watkins, “Political State,” 17. As overseers of the bailout, Fianna Fáil were punished by the electorate in 2011, losing over half their first preference votes. See Wikipedia’s “Irish General Election, 2011” entry,,_2011.  

[8] Quoted in Watkins, “Another Turn.”

[9] Quoted in Julien Mercille, “The Irish Media—Cheerleaders for Austerity,” Irish Left Review, December 23, 2013,

[10] For a brief account of the water crisis, see Daniel Finn, “Water Wars in Ireland,” New Left Review 95 (Sept./Oct. 2015),

[11] Ekhard Lubkemeier, “Auf Wiedersehen, Ireland that we have come to love,” Irish Times, July 28, 2014,

[12] “Economic austerity: the island of Ireland,” The Guardian, December 13, 2013,, and, latterly, Watkins, “Another Turn of the Screw.”

[13] See Katie Soren, “Top 10 Happiest Countries in the World,” Tripbase Travel Blog,

[14] Quoted in Daniel Finn, “Rethinking the Republic: Fintan O’Toole and the Irish Crisis,” New Left Review 90 (Nov./Dec. 2014),

[15] Quoted in Watkins, “Another Turn.”

[16] Derek Scally, “Berlin says bank deal for Ireland would send wrong signal,” Irish Times, June 5, 2012,

[17] See Paul Krugman, End this Depression Now! (New York: Norton, 2012), 23.

[18] Sigmund Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” in Margaret Ann Fitzpatrick Hanly, ed. Essential Papers on Masochism (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 276.

[19] Ibid., 283.

[20] For an overview of this period in Irish culture, see Marjorie Howes, “Public Discourse, Private Reflection, 1916-70,” in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volume IV: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, ed. Angela Bourke, et. al. (Cork: Cork University Press, 2002), 923-30.

[21] Joseph Valente, The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1885-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 24-5. As Valente argues, “Just as the resistance of Irish political nationalism to racial feminization tended to ratify the concomitant imperialist discourse of racial simianization, so the resistance of Irish cultural nationalism to simianization tended to ratify the concomitant imperialist discourse of feminization.”

[22] Sigmund Freud, “A Child is Being Beaten,” in On Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten, ed. Ethel Spector Person (New York: Yale University Press, 1997), 3-28.

[23] Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” 282.

[24] Victor Smirnoff, “The Masochistic Contract,” in Essential Papers on Masochism, 66.

[25] See Wikipedia’s “Terence MacSwiney” entry,

[26] For an insightful, if hostile, analysis of Pearse’s “mystical nationalism” and its relationship to Yeats, see Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 95-122.

[27] Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” 280.

[28] Ibid., 276.

[29] Paul Krugman, “Righteousness is killing the global economy,” Irish Times, October 14, 2014

[30] For an account of the historical origins and moral import of German ordroliberalism, see Blyth, Austerity, 141-3.

[31] “Austerity is the penance,” as Mark Blyth puts it, “the virtuous pain after the immoral party.”; see Blyth, Austerity, 13.

[32] “Brian Lenihan ‘We All Partied’ on Prime Time 24/11/10,” YouTube video, from an RTÉ One interview on November 24, 2010, posted by alexiablogs, November 25, 2010,

[33] Mary Minihan, “Kenny warns that economy must be managed carefully,” Irish Times, March 4, 2015,

[34] Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” x.

[35] Quoted in Watkins, “Another Turn.”

[36] Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988), 52-3.

[37] Jessica Benjamin, “The Alienation of Desire: Women’s Masochism and Ideal Love,” in Essential Papers on the Psychology of Women, ed. Claudia Zanardi (New York: New York UP, 1990), 456.

[38] Ibid., 463.

[39] Clearly discernible in recent anxieties regarding any British exit from the EU. See Arthur Beesley, “Arthur Beesley: Brexit warning adds to uncertainty for Ireland,” Irish Times, Nov. 6, 2015,

[40] On the politics of informal empire with Britain that structured Irish independence, see Mike Cronin, “Golden Dreams and Harsh Realities: Economics and informal empire in the Irish Free State,” in Ireland: The Politics of Independence, 1922-49, ed. Mike Cronin and John Regan (London: Macmillan, 2000): 144-63.

[41] Benjamin, “The Alienation of Desire,” 458.

[42] For IMF deputy director Ajai Chopra, see Charlie Taylor, “ECB sought fire sale of Irish assets to protect balance sheet—Chopra, Irish Times, Nov. 12, 2015,; for Kenny, see Denis Staunton, “Brexit briefing: Kenny makes clear where the State stands, Irish Times, Nov. 10, 2015,

[43] See Mercille, “The Irish Media—Cheerleaders for Austerity.”

[44] Victor Smirnoff, “The Masochistic Contract,” in Essential Papers on Masochism, 63.

[45] Ibid., 72, 65

[46] Ibid., 65.

[47] Ibid., 69.

[48] André Green, “Masochism(s) and Narcissim in Analytic Failures and the Negative Therapeutic Reaction,” The Work of the Negative (London: Free Association Books, 1999), 114. For purposes of citation, I retain Green’s presumptively male subject.

[49] Watkins, “Political State.”

[50] Fintan O’ Toole, “The crisis is over so when does the cruelty stop?” Irish Times, March 31, 2015,

[51] Smirnoff, “Masochistic Contract,” 69.

[52] Michel Aglietta, “The European Vortex,” New Left Review (May/June 2012),

[53] See Robert Stoller, Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred (Harvester Press: Sussex, 1976), 207.

[54] See Paul Krugman, “Stability or Sadomonetarism,” New York Times, July 1, 2014,

[55] See The Treasurer’s Wiki “Sadomonetarism” entry,

[56] Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York: Norton, 2009), 101-118.

[57] Ibid., 116.

[58] Ibid., 112.

[59] Ibid., 114.

[60] Ibid., 113.

[61] Quoted in Stoller, Perversion, 111.

[62] Ibid., 4.

[63] Ibid., 181.

[64] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005), 46.

[65] Stoller, Perversion, 9.

[66] Krugman, “Righteousness.”

[67] See Aglietta, “The European Vortex.”

[68] See Blyth, Austerity, 51-93.

[69] Ibid., 73.

[70] Campbell Jones, “What Kind of Subject is the Market?” New Formations 72 (2011), 141.

[71] Quoted in ibid., 133.

[72] Jones, “What Kind of Subject,” 140.

[73] See ibid., 141. For a time, until his demise, the market was embodied in the figure of Alan Greenspan; see Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics, 139ff.

[74] Jones, “What Kind of Subject,” 142.

[75] Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 29.

[76] For an account of the careers of the main players in the business of “EU crony politics,” including Mario Draghi and Jean-Claude Junkcer, see Watkins, “The Political State of the Union.”

[77] Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 42. See also Blyth, Austerity, 98.

[78] See Blyth, Austerity, 13.

[79] Paradoxically, for an economic discourse concerned with the extension of freedom and human dignity, neoliberalism has created a new residuum, the 99%, which it can conceive of only in the abstract and dehumanizing terms of “the market,” and usually for the purposes of “growth friendly fiscal consolidation”; see Mark Blyth, Austerity, ix.

[80] Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 77.

[81] Aglietta, “The European Vortex.”

[82] Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 43-66.

[83] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 44.

[84] The “boorish chauvinism” of Irish Minster of Finance, Michael Noonan, with his repeated mantra, “Ireland is not Greece,” is only the most obvious example of this trend amongst the PIIGS. Such pronouncements damage any prospects for solidarity amongst the peripheralized economies, thus paving the way for continuing neoliberal hegemony; see Finn, “Water Wars in Ireland,” 50. On the dangers of turning the heuristic neoliberalism into “a world-homogenizing sovereign with coherent intentions,” see Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 15.

[85] On fatalism, see Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 40.

[86] See Wikipedia’s “Keep Calm and Carry On,” entry,

[87] See Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 20.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Joseph Valente, Manliness, 19.

[90] See Cliff Taylor, “Use economic growth to reduce national debt, EU advises,” Irish Times,

[91] Kerry Kelly Novick and Jack Novick, “The Essence of Masochism,” in Essential Papers on Masochism, 250.

[92] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 51.

[93] Ibid., 28.

[94] Ibid., 18.

[95] Ibid., 23.

[96] Ibid., 2.

[97] See Richard McAleavey, “Sovereignty Regained? Ireland Exits the EU-IMF Bailout,” Critical Legal Thinking, November 20, 2013,

[98] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 227.

[99] Ibid., 263.

[100] Ibid., 227.

[101] Ibid., 2.

[102] See Blyth, Austerity, 92, and Heiner Flassbeck and Costas Lapavitsas, Against the Troika: Austerity in the Eurozone (London: Verso, 2015).

[103] Conor McCabe, Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (Dublin: History Press Ireland, 2013), 156.

[104] Blyth, Austerity, 68.

[105] See Ray Kinsella, “Should Ireland Exit the Eurozone?” Irish Examiner, May 20, 2013,

[106] See McAleavey, “Sovereignty Regained?”

[107] See Blyth, Austerity, 166.

[108] Ibid., 75.

[109] Krugman, “Is Germany Europe’s real ‘bad boy’?” Irish Times, December 2, 2014,; and see Blyth, Austerity, 141-3.

[110] On the general delinquency of Germany, and the specifics of the “transfer problem,” see Flassbeck and Lapavitsas, Against the Troika, 21-38.

[111] Blyth, Austerity, 113-6.

[112] See Daniela Deane, “Young Greek woman selling sex for the price of a sandwich, new study shows,” Washington Post, November 27, 2015,

[113] See Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart (Dublin: Doubleday Ireland, 2013), and The Thing about December (Dublin: Doubleday Ireland, 2013). On the urgent need for more work on Irish masculinities, see Ed Madden, “Posterboys, or Fifty Shades of Green,” Breac, April 14, 2015, On male suicide rates under austerity, see Catharine Shanahan, “Austerity ‘had a huge impact’ on suicide,” Irish Examiner, June 17, 2015,

[114] Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, ed. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), 575-585. See also the entries under “phallus” and “phallus: feminist implications” in Elizabeth Wright, ed., Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1992), 318-323.

[115] Blyth, Austerity, 87.

[116] See Mercille, “The Irish Media—Cheerleaders for Austerity.”

[117] Madden, “Posterboys, or Fifty Shades of Green.”

[118] Smirnoff, “The Masochistic Contract,” 72.

[119] Kinsella, “Should Ireland Exit the Eurozone?”

[120] Approval ratings for Finé Gael indicate general acquiescence in the politics of austerity.

[121] André Green, “Masochism(s) and Narcissim,” 92.

[122] See Ray Kinsella, “A blast from the past: Lessons from the 1950s,” Irish Times, July 8, 2014,; and Fintan O’Toole, “We don’t believe enough in the future not to stuff ourselves with what’s in front of us now,” Irish Times, July 22, 2014,

[123] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 28.

[124] Ibid., 259.

[125] Arnold Cooper, ‘The Narcissistic-Masochistic Character,” in Essential Papers on Character Neurosis and Treatment, ed. Ruth Lax (New York: New York UP, 1989), 299.

[126] See Flassbeck and Lapavitsas, Against the Troika, xi.

[127] Ibid., passim.

[128] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 227.