Originally posted on Irish Left Review
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”.
The Chapter on Spatial justice and housing in Ireland, which I co-authored with Rob Kitchin and Cian O’Callaghan, details the catastrophic fallout of the property crash and its social and spatial repercussions for households in Ireland. It analyses how, during the Celtic Tiger period, housing policy in Ireland was increasingly neoliberalised and the privatization of social housing and the rolling out of PPP regeneration schemes in many instances served to erode existing social housing infrastructures. It critiques the failure to alter the fundamentals of how the Irish housing market is constituted and works, and the assumption that future housing will be the preserve of the private market and the benefit of private interests. The current housing system is not only inherently unequal, but now fundamentally unfit for purpose and perpetuates and entrenches social and spatial injustices, making them increasingly difficult to dislodge. Through the Celtic Tiger many communities in our large cities and rural towns were excluded. Similarly in the crisis and ‘recovery’ places are affected unevenly with significant spatial inequalities remaining. The danger is that the imbalanced spatial and institutional landscapes deposited by the crash, left to the whims of the market, will calcify into a nation increasingly characterized by geographically uneven development. Echoing, Dorling’s conclusions, the authors highlight “the need for (and indeed right to) decent social housing cannot be questioned given the housing waiting list figures and the high dependence on rent supplement”. Providing social housing and regeneration can be a win–win scenario we claim, as “delivering it on a large scale offers the potential for real economic and social stimulus for local communities and for the wider society and economy”. Finally, it is clear that “the ideological opposition to social housing and obsessive support of the private rented and property market must be put aside to develop alternative approaches that place the primary value of housing as a home and a right, and not a commodity.”
In her chapter, Greening the economy in Ireland, Anna Davies provides extensive detail and analysis of the challenges and possibilities for a more just transition to a green, low-carbon economy through grassroots enterprise responses such as cleantech clustering. Three core elements pervade the discourse of just transitions: the need for wide and inclusive consultation about the economic changes involved in decarbonization; the requirement for green and decent jobs; and suitable mechanisms for reskilling people to work within resource-efficient economies. This chapter examines whether one novel socio-spatial configuration, hybrid clustering around cleantech, could function as a mechanism through which collaborative agendas for just transitions towards a greener economy might emerge in an Irish context. It details the case study of Ireland’s first cleantech cluster, An tSlí Ghlas ‘The Green Way’, a cluster of more than 200 public, private and civil society enterprises including those with a social and community focus, such as the Rediscovery Centre. It concludes that it could be “optimistically characterized as a novel socio-spatial arrangement for radical sustainability transformations.”
In their Chapter on Health and spatial justice, Ronan Foley and Adrian Kavanagh, explore the relations between ill health and poverty. They explain how they have devised an index that uses the measure of social description now collected by the Irish census to describe the healthiness of people in small areas. This will allow geographers to monitor the health consequences of the recession and recovery. Foley and Kavanagh highlight their findings and how unemployment, poverty and ill-health reinforce each other and the geography of the crisis is marked by these interactions.
This book is a significant departure for Irish geography. Since the 1970s geographers internationally have developed a rich tradition that critically and systemically analysed capitalism based on social and spatial justice perspectives. It is significant to see that in the last decade we are witnessing the emergence of similar progressive social justice analysis and research by Irish geographers that are engaging with issues of critical societal importance. Examples include the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, the Ireland after NAMA blog and leading work done by Irish geographers on climate change and associated justice issues. A critical and radical geographical perspective offers an important lens to understand the world around us as it focuses on issues that are often neglected from mainstream economics and political research and policy.
Geographers have a particular set of perspectives on social justice and each of the core themes of geography can be made the focus of a justice perspective; thus we may speak of spatial justice, environmental justice and place justice. As Kearns explains “geographers have also tried to understand these inequalities as having a structural basis so that they can examine the production of unequal space, particularly as a consequence of capitalism or of legal orderings of space around ethnic, racial or class apartheid”. Thus geographers highlight the importance of place and scale in frameworks such as solidarity, resistance and human rights in regard to the ‘Right to the City’.
These perspectives are important to challenge dominant narratives about society and politics such as the claim that the Irish did not protest the crisis and austerity. A geographical lens reveals that the Irish did not protest like the Greeks and Spanish but had its own, unique ‘place-specific’ socio-political response. This is evident in the new and (often local) social movements such as the youth against forced emigration ‘Were Not Leaving’, the Spectacle of Defiance challenging cuts to disadvantaged communities and the anti-household charge campaign, along with a rise in support for radical left and independent politics. This sits alongside the ‘hidden resistance and solidarities’ in the on-going local community struggles such as the anti-incinerator campaign in Poolbeg and Shell to Sea in Mayo. But a spatial lens also highlights the necessity for political resistance strategies to reach across scales in order to be successful – to build solidarity from the local to the national to the international. The recent Greyhound dispute which highlighted the importance of worker’s struggles connecting beyond the workplace into local communities is noteworthy in this regard.
This book goes beyond just interpreting the geographical dynamics of the current Irish crisis and aims to contribute key critical knowledges to changing the world around us. In this regard, the book also carries a fascinating interview with one of the leading social scientist academics and geographers in the world, David Harvey. His interview discusses the root causes of the crisis outlining his own discourse on the contradictions of capitalism and why we must take up a politics of anti-capitalism. Harvey makes some very interesting points that should be considered in relation to the ongoing analysis and development of political economy in Ireland. Firstly, he highlights that we cannot just address the symptoms of the problems but need to transform the cause of crisis and inequality and injustice. He argues that ethical concerns of approaches such as socialist humanism on their own are insufficient to deal with the underlying nature of the problem. A political economic project is also required “to displace the dominant system that is actually both producing wealth and producing inequality and poverty at the same time”.
According to Harvey we, therefore, “need a political system that is able to represent the interests of the mass of the population in a democratic kind of way so that democratic decisions can be made about the nature of development which is not going to be privileging big capital and financiers and developers but is going to be privileging the needs of people.” Harvey, interestingly, argues that we have to stop the state being a capitalist state and turn it into a‘people’s state’. But to do that politically becomes a real problem as there’s a lot of resistance on the left to going after state power, because state power is bureaucratic and because the current state is indeed a capitalist state. So Harvey calls on us to think through what a different state apparatus might look like? Does the entire state apparatus have to be dismantled or certain aspects of it? And are there aspects of it we should protect such as public health and education systems? Harvey also suggests that Ireland, in order to get around the fear of capital flight could, as a temporary measure, put a small surtax on corporate profits to gain extra revenue. He explains that this was done in New York State on high income, “and it was just for two years. And the theory was if you just do it for two years people aren’t going to move out just for two years, but if you do it permanently it might cause a problem”.
Overall then this book contains important information and analysis on vital aspects of Irish society and economy. It is also a very accessible and readable book that is extremely useful for academics, students, politicians, policy makers, NGOs, activists, trade unions and community groups interested in achieving social and spatial justice in Ireland. Running through the book is a clear emphasis on the idea that social, spatial and environmental justice should be placed as the central way to measure Ireland’s social and economic ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘recovery’. Rather than GDP growth levels or property prices the benchmarks and indicators identified by the authors should be prioritised such as access to housing, levels of health inequalities and poverty, community based regeneration, uneven development across Ireland, and sustainability.
Rory Hearne is one of the contributors to Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis. You can order the book online, at a cost of €20, here
The book will be launched on Monday 29 September, 13.00, at the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson st, Dublin. As part of the launch the RIA and the Geographical Society of Ireland will host a lecture with Professor John Mohan, Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, UK Charity deserts, spatial justice, and the distribution of voluntary resources: bad science, evidence-free policy, and the politics of the “Big Society”
The lecture examines the spatial justice aspects of the increasing reliance upon charity and voluntarism in welfare provision.
You can register for the event, here