December 2011

Lately, I find myself having a recurring conversation.  The people and the places change but the basic premise stays the same.  I meet friends whom I haven’t seen in some time, I ask them how they are, what they’ve been up to.  They shrug. “Nothing” they say.  They are either unemployed or working in an area divorced from that of their training, part-time in a bar perhaps.  These are people from a wide variety of backgrounds; qualified carpenters and electricians, science and engineering graduates, graphic designers and academics.  When I tell them I am working I suffer from a vague sense of embarrassment, as if I somehow cheated and escaped the recession that we are all embroiled in.   I know in reality this is not the case.  I am also caught up in the noxious landscape of austerity.  I may not be as victimised as some others but I am not immune.  I am the 99%.

This very savvy tagline is of course that of the global Occupy movement, which is also currently taking place in various cities across Ireland.  In one sense, this is a piece of inspired branding.  But the critique underlying the statement is also significant.  This stands for a number of things, but I will mention just two.  Firstly, it stands for the increasing concentration of wealth within fewer and fewer hands (the 1%).  Secondly, it aims to mitigate the possibility of a protest movement being divided and conquered by effacing internal differences under an umbrella banner (the 99%).  Occupy is a movement that incorporates multiple peoples and perspectives, political aspirations and pessimisms. It unites under a very simple principle; that the system as it currently stands is not fair and something needs to change.

All this is very commendable.  It is an inspiring sign of our continued capacity to seek a more socially just society.  But as my internal optimist wrestles with my eternal pessimist, I find myself wondering what protest can still achieve in the increasingly democracy-starved society we live in.

It is a society of spectacle.  Postmodern culture, particularly as channelled through the auspices of the internet, has multiplied the voices through which any event is represented and exploded the cacophony of perspectives through which it is read.  This has had the effect of bringing important new modes of analysis, such as gender, race, and sexuality, to bear on society, but it has also eviscerated the stability of fixed categories.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, as postmodern sensibilities have been sucked into consumer culture one of the outcomes has been the creation of a society that passively engages with media, politics, and culture.

JG Ballard, in the last few novels he published before he died, captured this very well.  Books such as Millennium People and Kingdom Come present a society deadened by the bland permissiveness of consumer culture, wherein meaning is refracted through so many halls of mirrors that all we are left with is the mode of representation standing for nothing but itself.  Under this veneer of boredom, Ballard sees a society dreaming of violence, unconsciously searching for meaning through the visceral experience.  But in a consumer culture divorced from meaning, the violence that erupts takes the form of consumerism; violence as spectacle, violence as the experience economy.  “Look at the world around you, David”, proffers one of the characters in Millennium People, “What do you see? An endless theme park, with everything turned into entertainment. Science, politics, education – they’re so many fairground rides”.  The society of spectacle pushed to its logical endpoint.

Advertising slogan from JG Ballard's Kingdom Come, by Harper Collins Design Team

When I look at the world around me I see a lot of truth in this statement.  Political discussion in Ireland at the moment sees minor points of policy debated, while any major changes are precluded by the intractable system the state operates within.  The politicians argue, points are scored, and nothing changes.  Because, ultimately nothing can change if the locked-in system precludes it.

Within this post-politics, protest also has its place.  After all, everything is permissible, all points of view, all arguments.  In such a liberal climate, Zizek argues, we do not necessarily elevate the platform of discussion but rather everything gets reduced to zero, to an inchoate mush of jostling consensus, the only agreement the agreement to disagree.  This has the tendency to reduce politics to a mannered debate contest, pretty in discursive eloquence and nuance but with rules that are set in advance.  As we have moved into this post-political society of the consumer spectacle, the response by governments to protest, at least in the Western world, has been simply to ignore it.  Whereas in previous eras protest was frequently quashed or at least elicited some sort of response from those in power, now marches and demonstrations are tolerated without comment.  This strategy is not incidental.  Governments now know that in the majority of cases the best method for dealing with spectacles of dissent is to allow them to happen, to allow protest groups their fifteen seconds in the spotlight of information overload. Governments then ignore the issues these protesters raise and to get back to the neoliberal business at hand, safe in the knowledge that the spectacle will dissolve again into the informational mush.

This had also been, up until recently, the response to the Occupy movement.  In the early stages of Occupy Wall Street, there were some cases of police brutality, which were widely publicised and help politicise and popularise the movement.  But following this, as the movement spread viral-style across the US and Europe, on the whole the response from governments has been pretty tight-lipped.  Presumably, it was hoped that the Occupiers would soon run out of steam and their cause would be forgotten as another took its place in the spectacle spotlight.  However, despite tacit attempts to fragment the movement and to undermine it simply by attrition, the protesters have been tenaciously holding their ground… literally.  Last month, across the USA there appears to have been a crackdown on Occupy protesters, which Naomi Wolf writing in The Guardian suggests could only have been orchestrated from higher levels of Government.  She attributes this sudden flexing of state power to the congealing of a number of succinct demands on the part of the Occupy movement relating to financial transparency, which has the potential to make some elected representatives look pretty bad. While a similar crackdown has not happened in Ireland, there were rumours that the Occupy Dame Street protesters were to be hit with a court injunction for erecting a temporary structure.  But whatever the immediate impetus for these crackdowns, it seems to me that the Occupy movement has reached a certain critical mass in spatial and temporal terms that has taken the option of simply ignoring it away from governments.

Protester at Occupy Dame Street

This certainly suggests that the movement is having a political impact, does not necessarily mean that anything has been changed… at least not yet.

The computer scientist Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget describes a process he terms ‘lock-in’.  Lock-in describes what happens when particular programmes, despite their limitations, become the standard, and because it proves impractical to change or dispose of all the software and hardware that has been developed using this programming, the technology remains stagnated through its basic underlying architecture.  Lanier uses the example of MIDI, a programme that represents musical notes.  When developed in the 1980s, MIDI offered a very crude way to represent music digitally – it could represent the rather static expressions of a keyboard but not the transient expressions of a saxophone for example.  What perhaps started as a first step towards digital musical expression became widely used and, thus, became locked-in.  Thirty years after its inception then, MIDI remains the standard scheme to represent music in software, to the ultimate detriment of musical expression.  This occurs, Lanier suggests, because while it is easy to build small programmes from scratch, it is extraordinarily difficult to change existing larger programmes.

I think that lock-in offers a good metaphor for role of the state in terms of the current crisis.  For the past thirty years, nation states have been programmed into a mode of neoliberal thinking.  This mode of thinking is now to a large extent locked-in.  We can see this in the response of nation states to the financial crisis.  This crisis was brought about by an excess of neoliberalism – an all too optimistic faith in markets and the retraction of state oversight and regulation – but the solutions being proposed use the same neoliberal architecture as their foundation.  Like MIDI does to the musical note, these solutions diminish democracy so as to make it compatible with the limitations of the neoliberal programme.  Moreover, nation states do not stand in isolation, but are routed into global political and financial systems.  Thus, the ‘big’ programme gets bigger.

If the neoliberal project is the cumbersome ‘big’ programme, Occupy is the ‘small’ programme.  For the participants, it is a joy no doubt to watch it grow and flourish.  But the greater challenge for the group is to influence the architecture of the ‘big’ programme.  This is no small feat.  There is a lot at stake in the status-quo.  This is partly, as Marxists rightly suggest, because powerful interests exert political influence in order to retain or enhance their position in the system.  But it is also, I think partly down to a lack of political imagination.  The system stays the same because our leaders can’t imagine what it would be like to create something different.  There is a broad consensus calling for reform, but the programme is so big and so many interests are involved that these reforms become more and more inconsequential and we are left with lock-in.  Leaders are interested in fixing the bugs in the programme, not changing the underlying architecture.

But this is hardly reason to resign ourselves to a neoliberal future.  If the current trajectory continues we can only hope for further encroachments on democracy, deepening inequality, and the next crisis waiting around the corner.  This is an important junction to insert the possibility of alternatives.  But this is likely to be a long-term project.  After all, we are dealing with thirty years of neoliberal programming which we can’t expect to simply disappear overnight.  To those people who critique Occupy for their lack of defined alternatives, I would say, give them a chance.  Despite the way in which history is generally conceived through things like Hollywood movies, change does not happen abruptly.  Change occurs gradually through fragmented actions that coalesce into moments in which transformation seems to crystallise, although this is often only apprehended after the fact.  Occupy is one part of this process wherein alternative trajectories are being put forward.  Its’ very public face means that it plays a significant role.

One of the major pitfalls that Occupy potentially faces is that it will get locked-in to existing structures.  Having reached the tipping point where the movement can’t simply be ignored, Occupy are in the difficult phase of trying to turn the initial flurry of discontent into something more sustainable.  Part of this is creating a programme of succinct demands.  Another part is steering a difficult course between the rocks of public opinion and political discourse in search of a position of ‘legitimacy’ upon which to extend the movement’s reach.  This journey is precarious because it relies on the same fickle media/public machine, which inasmuch as it can be permissive of multiple perspectives can also be mobilised in intensely moralising ways.  We saw these two facets in action during the recent presidential election in Ireland.  The candidates’ characters were routinely assassinated, which clearly had a decisive influence on the outcome of their campaigns.  At the same time, this was treated by most of the public (perhaps rightly) as entertainment akin to the X-Factor.  This dual aspect of media culture is perhaps baffling, but ultimately is something that public figures and groups have to contend with.  Hence, Occupy’s policy of no drink, no drugs, and no violence on site.  Clearly there are many sides to this policy, including making the occupations safe environments, but one aspect of it is certainly an attempt to mitigate the usual suspects of negative press that are levelled at protesters.

Map of Areas Effected by Rioting in London August 2011

We saw this type of media backlash during one of the other major political moments the occured recently in this part of the world; the UK riots in August 2011.  I was astonished how readily much of the media and the public were willing to dismiss the riots as opportunism devoid of any political content.  As the results of a recent study involving 270 interviews with people involved in the riots suggested, while opportunism played a role a motivating factor for many involved was “anger and frustration with the way the police engage with communities”.  Without condoning the form of protest the rioters took, it is ludicrous to view these events as apolitical.  In a sense, the UK riots are akin to Ballardian dystopian projections, the logical and frightening endpoint of a society of burgeoning inequality drenched in consumer culture and idolatry of wealth.  I was therefore also surprised to read an interview with musician Billy Bragg (a supporter of the Occupy movement) in which he suggested that “there was no ideological framework behind these riots”.  I can sympathise with his point of view in that he clearly sees the need for organisation if any movement truly wants to see change going forward.  However, I think it is shortsighted not to see the politics implicitly embedded in such a spontaneous eruption of action.  Whether coherent or fragmented, intended or not, the mere fact that enough people felt enough discontent to riot for days on end makes this act political.  If the system we live in is broken, then we should be looking to all corners for the signs of its manifestation.  If we don’t at least pay attention to the uglier mobilisations of protest, learn from the cautionary tales they might teach us, we may find ourselves back in the mannered setting of the debate contest where discussion and dissent are on the table but real change is not.

I do not intend to be critical of Occupy here.  I have been heartened by the movement and found a lot to admire in the aspirations and determination of the protesters.  This piece is written in solidarity.  I hope the movement is here for the long-haul.  I hope they can both literally and metaphorically come in from the cold.  I hope they can retain their multiplicity of identity while moving an agenda forward that challenges the locked-in mode of neoliberal thinking.  I hope they do this in combination with the other voices that move broadly in this direction.  I hope…

Cian O’Callaghan


Investors, first-timers likely to buy“, so says the headline in the property section of today’s Irish Times in response to the recent Budget.  It goes onto to say, “the Budget’s concessions to first-time buyers are designed to get potential residential property buyers off the fence.”  It is a little way into the article before one of the elephant’s in the room is revealed: “banks will have to start lending on bricks and mortar again before many first-time buyers can get into the housing market.”  The other elephants are, of course, that changing the mortgage interest rate will make no difference to the wider economy, or the unemployment or Live Register rate, or that because of the wider budgetary measures everyone will be worse off and are more likely to be cautious on consumption (this was after all an austerity budget).

All of the people quoted in the piece are of course representatives of the property sector who have a vested interest in talking the market up.  No surprise then that they would like to see first time buyers plunge into the market.  The budget has not led me, however, to revise my assessment of the long term prospects for the residential property market one iota.  Spin is a wonderful thing, but is unlikely to make much difference to consumer confidence, and even if it did, many people are not in the position to enter the market.

The piece finishes with the ‘get in quick before it all disappears’ soundbite.  “Ironically, first-time buyers who are tempted to dip their toe in the market by Budget 2012 might realize it’s hard to get what they’re looking for.  Michael Grehan says that there is a shortage of the three and four-bedroom houses in traditional inner suburbs in northside and southside Dublin – the kind of properties its clients are looking for – on the market.” Only the Irish Times would think that everyone in the country wants to live inside the inner ring road of Dublin.  Even if property is tight there, and I’d want to see some evidence of this, not just the assertion of an estate agent, there is a massive oversupply everywhere else in the country.  Buyers have the pick of whatever type of property they want; assuming they can afford it and can access credit.

Rob Kitchin




According to the CSO, just over 76,000 people migrated from Ireland in the year to April 2011. Almost 38,000 were female, which means that the gender breakdown was more equal than in 2010. The largest group of migrants was Irish men, at 23,100 (ca 30%), followed by Irish women, at 17,100 (ca 22%). Overall, though, there was a 4% drop in the number of migrant men, and a 51% increase in the number of migrant women, from the year to April 2010.

There was also an increase in the number of people moving to Ireland during the year. Just over 42,000 migrated to Ireland in the year to April 2011, an increase of over a third from the previous year. The largest increase is in the number of Irish people returning to Ireland, up from 13,300 to 17,100. There has also been a large increase (from 5,800 to 9,000) in EU12 nationals moving to Ireland, but this remains significantly lower than the peak year, 2007, when over 50,ooo EU12 nationals moved to Ireland.  Slightly more women than men moved to Ireland in the year to April 2011.

The ‘Rest of World’ remains the most significant destination for migrants from Ireland, with over 30,000 (ca 40%) people moving to places outside the EU and the USA. However, the UK has increased in importance as a destination, accounting for almost 19,000 (ca 25%) of all outward migration.

As in the case in previous years, a significant majority of migrants from Ireland fall into the 15-24 and 25-44 age categories (accounting for 43% and 45% respectively). However, the number of outward migrants in the age category 65 and over has doubled in the last year.

Mary Gilmartin

Unused Traffic Lights, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Following on from the recent post about ghost cities in China, this short piece seeks to illustrate the impact of cycles of investment on urban development in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The example of Phnom Penh is illustrative of the extent to which the image of the globalised city as representing the ideal future of society (high-end apartments, offices and shopping centres in a largely privatised ‘public domain’), that is more often than not created through highly speculative investment, has become all-pervasive within the current projections of city development. Furthermore, to all intensive purposes, the situation illustrates the complex tensions and contradictions between the current economic system and urban development. The sheer contrasts between ‘those who have’ and ‘those who have not’ is here clearly illustrated, with the desire to create a city of high-end apartments and offices standing in striking contrast to the eviction of the poor from central areas that have become highly valued pieces of real-estate. The imbalanced and dysfunctional nature of this approach to planning and housing provision is further emphasised by the reality of the current situation, with half-finished office-blocks, ‘ghost-estates’, and roads that literally lead to nowhere becoming a common feature of present-day Phnom Penh and its surroundings.

Gold Tower 42 (back left), Untouched since September 2010, and De Castle (Centre) Still under Construction, on Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, 2011.

Partially developed apartments beside completed apartments, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Such an image may paint a familiar picture to readers of this blog, yet there are, of course, some significant differences to the Irish situation. The relative strength of economic growth in Asia, combined with the multitude of sources of funding, have ensured that the current situation in Phnom Penh is marked by a stalling out of some projects (predominantly larger-scale projects) and the continuation of others (predominantly stand-alone apartment or other smaller-scale developments). The most high-profile example of the former is that of ‘Gold Tower 42’, which was being developed by the South Korean firm, Yon Woo. Originally billed to be Cambodia’s tallest building, it currently stands as a half-built shell, untouched since September 2010. While a number of large-scale developments continue, such as Rose Condominiums and De Castle, which are both high-end residential developments at the centre of Phnom Penh, presently, a number of high-profile large-scale ‘new city’ developments at the periphery remain only partially built. One example of such is CamKo City, on the northern periphery of the city, which is currently stalled due to liquidity problems and questions of fraud within the South Korean owned Busan Savings Bank (believed to be the main backer of the project). Further outside the city, Grand Phnom Penh, an exclusive ‘citidel’, which is to have commercial, residential, and leisure functions, remains only partially developed (some of the villas and the golf course are developed), due to lack of market demand. Furthermore, a number of more centrally located projects, such as Star River, have been only partially developed, with a significant amount of the land that has been cleared for development in the area beside the Tonle Bassac River remaining vacant.

Extent of Infill of Boeung Kak Lake from Google Maps, 2011 (The sand now extends further into the fromer lake).

Meanwhile, many of those who cannot even dream of the new forms of lifestyles being promoted are being removed from their homes, with Amnesty International recently stating that 10% of the residents of Phnom Penh have been evicted between 1990 and 2011. The example of Boeung Kak Lake at the centre of Phnom Penh, which is currently being filled in, has become symbolic of the tensions between everyday life in Phnom Penh and the sheer power of current investment in reshaping the city. In 2007, the Cambodian Shukaku Inc. (owned by Senator Leng Meng Khin of the ruling CPP Party), in partnership with the Chinese Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co. were granted a 99 year lease to redevelop the lake as a high-profile mixed-use development to be called ‘New East City’. The result has seen up to 4,000 families living in the area surrounding the lake  either  evicted or under threat of eviction.

Boeung Kak, has, to a large degree, become representative of the wider issues facing Phnom Penh, and indeed, Cambodia more generally, with those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the pressures of development reduced to pawns in a game of extreme speculation. Despite the threats of the World Bank to withdraw funding from Cambodia, and the promise of land titling for some families, the sheer power of the forces at play continue to be evidenced, with the impacts upon everyday lives becoming more marked by each protest.

The current situation in Phnom Penh, and the form of urban and peri-urban landscapes being produced, serves as yet another illustration of the globalised nature of the recent, and, it should be said, on-going, form of urban development. It is a reminder of the manner in which the dominance of market forces as dictated by largely invisible globalised structures, which in this case have become partially visible in the built environment, are allowed to dominate and dictate everyday reality.

Philip Lawton

Here are links to a pair of fascinating accounts of China’s ghost cities.

It is estimated that there are 64 million empty apartments in China at the minute with vacancy levels of 70% or more in a number of cities.  One city has been built for 1 million people and has an occupancy of 20,ooo.  Another is a new city designed for 12 million, the vast majority of which is empty.  As is one of the world’s largest shopping mall, with all but a handful of the 1500 units empty (6 years after opening).  Building continues everywhere, fuelling GDP growth (sound familiar?).  The assessment is that China is experiencing a massive property bubble that if and when it pops will have a massive knock on consequence for China’s economy and by implication the global economy.

Rob Kitchin