Posts By Rory Hearne

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Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis

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Book Review: Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis, eds: Gerry Kearns, David Meredith, and John Morrissey, Royal Irish Academy (2014) 

The new book Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis, edited by Gerry Kearns, David Meredith, and John Morrissey and published by the Royal Irish Academy is extremely timely given its extensive analysis and detail on the causes of the Irish financial crisis, its socio-spatial impacts on inequality and suggestions for alternative, social-justice based, economic development. The Irish elite, government, big business and media are trumpeting that ‘austerity’ and ‘neoliberalism’ have worked. The Irish economy is now fully in ‘recovery’ it is claimed, ‘austerity’ will be eased with tax breaks again to be given out to the middle classes, employment is rising and we have a mini property boom in Dublin to celebrate. Even potential social partnership agreements are floating in the political air. However, it is now more than ever that critical political, economic, and socio-spatial justice analysis of the Irish economy is required. Rather than cheerleading blindly into another boom and bust cycle based on inequality and spatial injustice there is a need for academics and policy makers to engage in rigorous analysis and reflection on the crisis and the political economic trajectory for the coming decades.

Prof Gerry Kearns, of the Maynooth University Department of Geography, in the Introduction to the book, draws on President Higgins’ reflection on the importance of ‘critical thought’ in the wake of ‘failed orthodoxies’  as ‘the crisis is one of ideas as well as of policy’. Now more than ever, space and time must be given in the academic and public sphere in Ireland to identify the causes of the crisis, its impact on inequality, and alternative (non-capitalist) policies and approaches based on the common good and social justice rather than the interests of the minority elite – the 1%.

This book does this by placing social and spatial justice as an urgent consideration in all areas of social and economic policy. Interestingly, Kearns highlights how government responses to the current crisis go against Articles contained in the Irish Constitution including commitments of the state to ‘promot[ing] the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all institutions of the national life’ (Article 45.1). Significantly, this also includes ensuring that ‘the ownership and control of the material resources may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good’ (Article 45.2.ii).

The book covers the origins of the financial crisis, its political and territorial implications such as the outsourcing of state power to international credit rating agencies, the links between crisis, housing and planning, the uneven impacts of the crisis in different parts of the country and unevenly within cities such as failed regeneration, impacts on equality of opportunity, marginalization of migrants, and sustainability. Within these areas it addresses the questions of spatial justice and where the pain of crisis and the opportunities of recovery are distributed, geographically and socially. It highlights the uneven development that was at the heart of the Celtic Tiger in the inequalities that persisted through that period, how they were worsened by the crash and the forms in which they continue today.

The chapter by Prof Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, on Spatial Justice, Housing and the Financial crisis makes important links between rising inequality and housing crises internationally. This chapter is very interesting for an Irish audience as it highlights how the current housing crisis in Ireland has similar causes to other countries and there is much we can learn in regard to social justice based responses. Dorling argues that “we really need to think of housing again as a way in which we feel safe about where we are: not as a source of investment or a pension or something that can be used for profit, but instead as primarily a source of shelter”.  He offers suggestions to address this such as a mansions tax, rent control, and using second and third homes for housing for those who need it. He explains that “housing is fundamental. It is what lies at the bottom of this crisis. Housing is one of the basic things that everybody needs and that policies can work out a way to guarantee.” He surmises that the reason this is not the case is because current policy appears to be ”trying to protect the equity interest of a small proportion of people who happen to own quite a lot of very expensive housing”.

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Debating Directions for a New Republic

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This article provides a critique of social partnership & ‘soft’ NGO advocacy and reflections on pathways forward.

Political & Economic Context: Neoliberalism & Ireland
Many people ask about the cause of poverty, oppression, rising inequality, environmental destruction and climate change. Neo-Marxist thinkers like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright and Hardt & Negri, make the case that it is International capitalist globalization that is underlying these social catastrophes. It is the neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus – which was a political project of the wealthy and capital elite, theorized by the free marketeers of Friedman and Hayak. It started in Pinochet’s Chile and then Reagan and Thatcher implemented it in the US and the UK. In the face of declining profitability and the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s the aim of the wealthy and elite was to reduce the share of income (wealth) that went to workers and to increase that returning to capital and the elite. They also sought to reduce the power and influence of trade unions and the working class socialist organisations in society, politics and the economy.

At the heart of the neoliberal ideology was a belief that private unregulated markets are the best mechanisms to organize society and state-led planning is inefficient. Neoliberal policies included the de-regulation of the Keynesian welfare state protections and the financial sector, the privatization of public services, neocolonial conquest through corporations, imperial wars for resources such as Iraq, the commodification of nature like water, land, and seeds. Indeed at the heart of this project of neoliberal capitalism is the commodification of everything. Everything is to be turned into something that can be bought and sold, traded on markets, profited from, commercialized. Neoliberalism is about the utopia of individualized responsibility. Your existence is commodified through competition. You must compete with everyone for everything. Values of solidarity, public good, and co-operation are replaced with competition, individualism, commercialism and materialism.

But neoliberalism is also based on a myth of freedom. Where is the freedom for migrants who die in attempts to enter the EU or the US? Where is the freedom for low paid workers forced to work three jobs to survive? Neoliberalism has been dramatically successful in increasing the wealth of the minority, in increasing inequality, and in promoting its values and ideology amongst populations. However, it is also riven with contradictions as any variant of capitalism is inherently so because of the anarchy of free, unregulated, markets that continually engages in boom and bust cycles and because of uneven development where one area expands at the expense of retrenchment in another area. For example, the declining rate of investment for capital in general commodities led to capital in the 2000s flooding new financial products and the financialisation and commodification of ever greater aspects of our lives that capital could invest, gamble and accumulate profit from. But as the logic of the market was expanded into ever greater areas the potential for crisis and crashes increases and thus we see greater numbers and intensity of economic crises. Naoimi Klein has used an interesting term ‘disaster capitalism’ to describe the way in which the elites use various crises to further intensify exploitation and the commodification of everything by private corporations.

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