News stories


Over the last couple of weeks the Irish media has been chock-a-block with stories about the McNulty affair. There’s really no need for a recap here. But suffice to say that Fine Gael found itself mired in controversy when the story broke (and broke and broke…) that John McNulty, “a Donegal grocer and petrol retailer”, had been put on the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in what has been called an incidence of ‘stroke politics’, so as to boost his credentials to fill a vacancy on the Seanad’s cultural and education panel.

The affair was flogged by media and opposition parties as indicative of the type of cronyism and ‘jobs for the boys’ that Enda Kenny so virulently condemned during the last general election. Along with the Taoiseach, Heather Humphreys, was singled out in particular for the very public backlash – so public indeed that Fine Gael TDs John Deasy and Séan Conlan got in on the act. McNulty, for his part, kept pretty quiet – his ghostly presence mostly circulating in the form of a single photograph and soundbites from various individuals testifying to his credentials – before withdrawing his candidacy on yesterday.

While the purported abuse of the boards of semi-state bodies for purposes of political patronage is not unproblematic, the whole episode speaks to a far more troubling aspect of Irish political discourse: namely the way that issues of cronyism and ‘political reform’ are placed centre stage in political debate, while decisions about the economy, including the perpetuation of austerity, which have far wider reaching impacts on the lives of citizens, are being made politically invisible.

In a feature piece on the topic in last weekend’s Sunday Times, Fine Gael’s John Deasy, expressing his criticisms of Kenny’s handling of the affair, is quoted as saying:

“People are getting sick of the way this is being conducted and it doesn’t really strike people as being what we, as a party, phrased as new politics… The parliamentary party is very happy with the way Michael Noonan is running the economy, but I think people are becoming disgusted with the way Fine Gael is being run [by Enda Kenny]”.

For me, the crucial aspect in Deasy’s statement is the way it constructs a separation between economic policy (Noonan’s ‘management’ of the economy) and the ‘politics’ of state appointments (Kenny’s party leadership). The most significant political decisions the current Government has made have been those relating to the economy. Sweeping spending cuts in social welfare, healthcare, and education, an intensified programme to sell national assets, far-reaching reforms of working conditions and a redirection of state supports to cash-rich investors have all been features of a suite of economic policies that successive governments have implemented post-crisis. The sustained programme of austerity has woven itself deep into the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Decisions about the direction of economic policy, then, are intrinsically political.

However, these decisions are frequently viewed as issues of technocratic management, a matter of accountancy and number crunching, which precludes any real political discussion about them. Decisions about the economy are constructed responding to the objective state of ‘the markets’, and as such are outside the messy realm of politics.

This has been compounded by a recent shift in the discourse. Ireland, the Government tell us, is now in recovery, the recession is over and the austerity policies implemented over the last half a decade have proven a ‘success’. Despite ample evidence of continuing hardship (for example, a MABS study showing their clients have an average disposable income of just €8.75 a week), Fine Gael, in particular, have been keen to mobilise this story to bolster their chances of re-election.

And the media seem happy to accept the story of recovery at face value.

During the recent Prime Time debate between the candidates running in the Roscommon South-Leitrim by-election, for example, Miriam O’Callaghan put it to one of the candidates that his previous calls to “burn the bondholders” had been proven erroneous by current economic recovery. In another exchange, Independent candidate Gerry O’Boyle spoke out angrily about the considerable time given over in the debate to questioning Fine Gael’s Maura Hopkins about the McNulty affair. To O’Callaghan’s suggestion that “this was a huge national issue” he retorted: “I’m here to deal with the issue of family homes… Family homes — you don’t even think about it!”

Vincent Brown made the point on TV3 on Monday that the corporatist neoliberal economic model that has been practiced by the current Government is indicative of a much more trenchant form of cronyism (the proposed tax probe on Apple a case in point) than the McNulty affair. As indicative of a warped political system as it is, the McNulty affair pales in comparison to the destruction that the programme of austerity has brought.

In the aftermath of McNulty’s withdrawal, Fine Gael have tried to weave a careful PR narrative through the facts of the case. In the run up to the next General Election, if the John Deasy’s sentiments are shared widely within the party, one might speculate that Kenny could potentially be jettisoned as Taoiseach in an attempt to distance Fine Gael from the stigma of cronyism.

Instead the party will seek to be judged on their economic track record. And they should be – but not in the way they have in mind. Rather the political debate should be squarely focussed on the politics of economic policy – who the winners and losers have been in Ireland’s supposed recovery.

The swell of media coverage and discussion on the McNulty affair has pushed cronyism to the top of the list of burning political issues in the country. Meanwhile the politics of economic policy are pushed to the background. But as long as questions concerning the economy are depoliticised, the game stays the same – it just gets more fierce.

Cian O’Callaghan

Advertisements

On 15 November the winners of the ‘Space Invaders Dublin’ competition to redevelop a vacant lot on Thomas Streets were announced. According to the Irish Times, the winning proposal offered “a mixed-use development with a large digital wall at the centre of an open space on the site which will be a tourist attraction in itself and also a showcase for companies using it”.

In the same article , it was announced that the Digital Hub Development Agency, the state agency which owns the vacant site, is considering “allowing artists and cultural bodies to use existing derelict buildings on the site to help regenerate the area”. Ronan Tynan*, property manager for the Digital Hub noted that “We are trying to get something together to get us to the next stage if parties are interested in using it, but there is a cost for even temporary use. We’ve got to see if it is feasible money wise.”

The interesting point illustrated here is the desire to use artists and cultural groups to help redevelop a site. It is noted that the currently derelict buildings which have no heating, water or lighting would require a lot of work to provide even a “basic level of services” and that there would be a cost for even temporary use- though it is not clear how this cost would be shared between the Digital Hub and the user groups.

It is unclear if users will be expected to pay a rent, but the intention remains: to use groups known to be under-resourced to inhabit and work in spaces with a basic level of services in order to add value to a site. The arts and cultural groups will be facilitated until they have added enough value to the site, they will then be replaced, likely, by higher-end and more profitable uses.

That this process is allowed to be presented as an act of altruism towards arts and cultural groups rather than the act of exploitation is telling of the scarce opportunities available to these groups, as well as the uncritical eye through which the media views urban redevelopment. In my thesis ‘Crises without Retail: A Street Level Approach to a Global System‘, among other approaches I examined the role that temporary uses have played in efforts to relieve vacancy was. From that research I found a popular association between arts and cultural groups utilising derelict or unused spaces. Such an arrangement gives these groups a space to work and organise from, which they may not be able to acquire conventionally. Traditionally, where capitalism cannot find a profitable use for a space, it lets it depreciate until the rent gap widens or more profitable markets saturate and the space can be traded or developed. This process can be accelerated by managing the organic response arts and cultural groups have to seek out space with a low exchange value, but still with a feasible use value.

In valuing space based on use value and with little ability to acquire space based on exchange value, abandoned or dilapidated spaces are often sought by arts and cultural groups and their use tolerated or even facilitated by land owners or city authorities. The problem is that the work of artistic and cultural groups is rightly valued by people when choosing where to live, and as these types of uses grow in an area the opportunity for gentrification ripens. With this the possibility of displacement for the arts and cultural groups as well as other residents looms.

A difficulty in critically exploring the dynamics of temporary use (see the discussions over Granby Park previously presented on this blog) is the amount of good will that often features. To help understand the actions of the relevant actors it is helpful to distinguish between ‘consent’ and ‘compliance’ with the underlying processes of urban development and the wider system of capitalism.

Where land owners concede to discounts and alternative uses due to having their property vacant they are helping arts and cultural groups as well as offering residents a new amenity. Despite this they are still compliant with the same system that made their property empty and makes access to space for arts and cultural uses infeasible in the first place.

The arts and cultural groups who accept and seek out temporary uses are compliant too, once the space they are offered is prime for redevelopment they will have to leave and the ability of other residents to stay will also be threatened –  this they do not consent to. Though arts and cultural groups would prefer more secure and more purposely designed spaces to work in, these are not always available so they take what they can get. Where these groups once sought alternative uses for abandoned spaces they are now offered, sometimes at a cost, the use of spaces explicitly as part of a redevelopment strategy that may lead to displacement.

Those who are both compliant and consenting are another story. The plan to provide temporary spaces to arts and cultural users on the lands of the Digital Hub, allowed to remain derelict while in the ownership of the state for 12 years, and the media that presents such an act as gracious are more clear cut players.

The arts and cultural sector need real supports and sustained access to purposely designed spaces and it is important that that is made clear to those with the power to provide those spaces. The incorporation of temporary uses or alternative uses of spaces as part of the development process is testament to the value arts and cultural uses provide. At the same time, people who live in an area and add value to it through the community they build also deserve protection from gentrification aided by the latter uses. But the nature of value has been so disturbed that those who add value to places and spaces are not rewarded, but instead are expected to be grateful for the privilege of helping others make money and in keeping a system that devalues them working.

*An attempt was made to contact Ronan Tynan via the Digital Hub, seeking more information on any plans for temporary uses, with no reply.

Liam Duffy recently graduated from the 4Cities UNICA Euromaster in Urban Studies. His interests include retail planning, urban economic policy, brownfield development as well as arts and cultural policy. He is currently in Copenhagen and looking for employment and other opportunities in Denmark and further afield. He can be contacted at Lmtduffy@gmail.com

Why have the Irish not protested the crisis and austerity in Ireland?

People are debating why the Irish have not been more like the Greeks and Spanish protesting against unemployment, the bank bailouts, austerity Budgets and cuts to public services? This article delves into that subject and offers some suggestions as to why this is the case and some indications for progressive social movements in Ireland. Firstly, it provides a short overview of the history of protest in Ireland and how this, along with successful state strategies of control, and the decisions of key political forces of opposition have stopped us from protesting the biggest economic collapse in the history of our state. This article is based on my practical experience and academic research into the politics of protest*.

Austerity Kills

History of Protest in Ireland

Protest and opposition has had varying aims and forms and involved a range of groups and classes in Ireland. This has included the poor, working class, the Catholic Church, middle classes, tenant farmers, factory workers, women, teachers etc. Here is a snap shot of some of most well-known protests in the last three centuries of our history.

1840-1880s: Daniel O Connell and the struggle for catholic emancipation which involved ‘monster meetings’, where it is reported between 100,000 and one million people attended one such meeting on the hill of Tara.  There was also the Fenians, the Young Irelanders and the Land League in this period. The Land League fought for the right of tenant farmers to own their own land and organised resistance to evictions, withheld rent, and held monster meetings of tenant farmers with 15,000 to 20,000 reported to have attended some.

1890s-1920s: There were campaigns/movements/armed insurgency for Independence and alternative structures set up parallel to the colonial state administration including the Gaelic League and community co-operatives. Alongside and within these independence struggles was action by the working class for social rights, against exploitation for a fair distribution of wealth. Through trade unions and the Labour Party workers organised the 1913 Lock Out, a General Strike in 1918 against conscription, workers councils (soviets) in Limerick and Belfast in 1919, and a General Strike in 1920. Many were motivated by Connolly’s argument that an independent republic of Ireland would be worthless unless it was built on freedom from exploitation – a socialist republic.

1930s to 50s: The newly independent state was controlled by conservative middle class nationalists and the Catholic Church.

1960s & 1970s: Emergence of civil rights movements; particularly the ‘Free’ Derry (‘Battle of the Bogside’) in relation to housing discrimination against Catholics in 1968, there was the 1971 ‘contraception’ train involving former President, Mary Robinson, and others, then in 1978 over 20,000 people marched against the destruction of Viking Dublin Wood Quay and city council tenant held a series of rent strikes.

Early 1980s: The Dublin Council of Trade Unions organised the massive tax marches and general strikes with150,000 marching in Dublin in 1979. In 1980 350,000 attended in the probably the largest demonstration in the history of the state. There were also the Hunger strike marches in Dublin in 1981 and protests at the British embassy. In 1984 10,000 protested at the visit of US president Ronald Reagan protests. Between 1978 and 1981 anti-nuclear protests and festivals were held at Carnsore Point in Wexford. While in 1984 and 1985 the Dunnes stores worker’s held the anti-apartheid strikes and protest.

Then in 1987 the trade unions entered social partnership agreements with the Government led by Charles Haughey. The unions agreed to ‘industrial peace’ and wage restraint in order to achieve economic development in Ireland and to try avoiding an Irish ‘Thatcherism’ attack on the trade unions.

1990s: There were the on-going Dublin inner city drugs and poverty marches, the anti-water charges campaign from 1994 to 1996 and the X case abortion protests.

2001-2003 There was a significant working class protest against the inequality of the Celtic Tiger through resistance to the imposition of bin charges but social partnership dominated at a national level.

2003: Anti- Iraq war march with 150,000 in Dublin

2004: Anti -globalisation EU summit protests in Dublin & May Day protests with 5000 people attending

2005-present day: Corrib gas, ‘Shell to Sea’ community campaign and protests. The Jailing of the Rossport 5 led to thousands marching in Dublin. Also protests by Ringsend community against a proposed incinerator and similar in Cork.

2005: December. 100,000 people took part in protests and strikes across the country in support of Irish Ferries workers and against outsourcing and exploitation of workers.

2008: First austerity protests: Senior citizens protested against the withdrawal of the medical card

2009: In February 100,000 people protested at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ‘There is a Fairer Way’ protests. A public sector General Strike was held in November and Community, youth and drug projects held a massive 12,000 demonstration in September.

2010: November 40,000 students march and 100,000 attend ICTU protest.

2011: Election of Fine Gael/Labour government. Ballyhea ‘anti-anglo debt’ protests start, Occupy Dame Street commences, Vita Cortex workers organise their ‘sit-in’ occupation, and the Roscommon Hospital Action campaign protests.

2012: Over 50% non-payment of the new household charge. 15,000 protest at pre- Budget march against austerity, teachers protest over cuts and salaries, in Waterford 15,000 march against hospital downsizing.

2013: In February 80,000 protest across the country in the ICTU organised ‘Anglo Not Our Debt’ protest.  Public servants oppose then agree to Croke Park wage agreement, the Wood Land League protest against sale of our Forests, Special Need Assistants, parents and teachers protest education cuts.

Understanding Protest in Ireland

This short snap-shot of protest in Ireland reveals a number of features of the nature of protest in Ireland and helps explain our (lack of) response to the crisis since 2008.

This history demonstrates clear evidence of significant protest and rebellion. For example, Ireland’s population is 4.6 million, France’s 65 million and the UK 63 million. This means that the 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin marching against austerity are equivalent to 1.5 million in Paris or London, so ours are relatively, extremely large.

However, given the extent of oppression and famine as a British colony and then poverty and economic stagnation as an Independent state culminating in austerity and crisis in recent years, it is surprising there hasn’t been a lot more rebellion. This can be explained by the various strategies adopted by both political forces and individuals in Ireland. There is evidence both of strong solidarity and extreme individualism.

(more…)

I was a bit baffled by the news that housing charity Threshold had, in its pre-budget submission, added its voice to those campaigning for government stimulus for new housing construction.  As quoted in the Irish Times, Bob Jordan Threshold chief executive suggested that “Up to 30,000 new houses need to be constructed annually to meet the ongoing demand for new homes. However, since the recession, housing construction has virtually ceased, with only 8,500 new units built last year.”  The organisation argued that, if left unchecked, the “housing shortage” could become a “full-blown crisis”.

A closer look at their submission reveals that the proposal for the Minister for Finance to consider a stimulus for housing construction is part of a wider and much more targeted set of proposals, which in large part aim to address the current threats faced by tenants in the increasingly precarious private rental sector.  Included in these are proposals to provide a financial package for the purchase and construction of social housing and amendments to Residential Tenancies Act.  Threshold are keen to point out that the problems of undersupply are restricted to particular, primarily urban, areas.  In this context, it is odd if a little unsurprising that the point picked up by the media is the call for new construction.

Another story is today’s papers35Gogh_Old Man in Sorrow offers a more apt corollary to the issues that Threshold raise.  A report from Oxfam claims that austerity policies across Europe are benefiting the top tier of society while impoverishing many households on the lower end of the economic spectrum.  Likening current austerity policies to structural adjustment programmes imposed on poor countries by the IMF since the 1970s, the report (in which Ireland features prominently) warns that:

“The only people benefiting from austerity are the richest 10% who have seen their share of income rise whilst poorest have seen their share fall. The UK, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain – countries that are most aggressively pursuing austerity measures – will soon rank amongst the most unequal in the world if their leaders don’t change course.”

It is this growth in levels of inequality and the knock on effects this has, rather than simply a lack of construction, which produce the suite of challenges for tenants that are now being flagged by Threshold.

Cian O’Callaghan

The Irish Branch of the Regional Studies Association and The Centre for Enterprise Development and Regional Economy, WIT invite speakers for the following conference:

CALL FOR SPEAKERS

One-Day RSA Conference – The Role of Universities in Regional Development

Waterford Institute of Technology

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Deadline for submissions: 27 September

Introduction: Universities and other higher education institutions are believed to play a core role in processes of Regional development.  This role has become a core interest to policy makers, practitioners and academics in a range of disciplines, including Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Science and Business Studies. The one-day conference will explore a range of themes including, amongst others: universities and entrepreneurship, universities and spin-off processes, the development and upgrading of regional labour resources, universities and regional systems of innovation, knowledge transfer, and the entrepreneurial university.

Confirmed Key-note speaker: Professor Paul Benneworth, Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS), University of Twente, The Netherlands. Paul’s major research interest is in the relationship between universities and societal change, from the broad level of how universities as institutions respond to major social shifts such as the emergence of the post-industrial society, to relationships between universities and businesses in the creation of new high-technology businesses and spin-off companies.

Expressions of Interest : We would be delighted to hear from practitioners, policy makers and academics working in this area who are interested to present at the conference. No written papers required. Expressions of interest should be directed towards: chris.vanegeraat@nuim.ie.  Deadline: 27 September.

Granby-Park1

Granby Park, a pop up park created on a vacant site on Domenick Street in Dublin’s north inner city, has been in operation since 22 August and will run until 22 September.  The initiative incorporates a temporary space wherein “there will be free arts events, outdoor cinema & theatre performances, live music, educational activities and a pop-up café open to the public”.  Thus far, the reception has been warm and the park has proved popular amongst a diverse array of the city’s inhabitants.

Whilst temporary uses of vacant spaces can be a very positive way of breathing life into otherwise underutilised sites, the pop up phenomenon also raises a series of pertinent questions. These include concerns about the long term impacts that such initiatives might have on derelict sites and to what extent the structural features of urban property development are transformed through these incursions.

Rather than trying to offer my own perspective here, I want instead to point readers to two other pieces, both broadly supportive of the Granby Park initiative but offering diverging perspectives on the longer term impacts.

Gerry Kearns from the Geography Department in NUI Maynooth sees progressive potential in making creative use of vacant spaces in the interim of the downturn.

Mick Byrne and Patrick Bresnihan of the Provisional University raises some cautions about who will reap the long term benefits (longer piece here).

Cian O’Callaghan

What can be said about the Anglo Tapes?  That conversations such as those between John Bowe, Peter Fitzgerald and David Drumm, which seem to suggest a concerted attempt to mislead the Government regarding the bank’s levels of debt (an allegation that both Fitzgerald and Bowe deny), must have been happening at Anglo during this period is something most of us had already expected.  In this sense, the revelations of the tapes are perhaps unsurprising.  But should this placate us?

© Eoin O’Mahony 2012

© Eoin O’Mahony 2012

The reaction has been ambivalent.  On the one hand, the aforementioned lack of surprise has left many people slightly cynical about the level of media attention being afforded to the affair, and particularly the Independent’s handling the story as an unfolding soap-opera.  On the other hand, there is understandable shock and outrage regarding the content and tone of these conversations.  One point that has been returned to on a number of occasions is the perceived tone of frivolity with which these men discuss a strategy to get the Government to commit €7 billion of taxpayer’s money to a bank that, at the very least, knew they would need much more than that to stay afloat.  As Bowe describes it:

That number is seven but the reality is we need more than that. But you know, the strategy here is you pull them [the Central Bank] in, you get them to write a big cheque and they have to keep, they have to support their money, you know.

Writing in September 2010, Vincent Brown suggested that the forces that shaped white collar crime in Ireland lay in the “socially illiterate” ethos of the “posh” schools.

“Just think of the thousands of lawyers, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and others who must have colluded in criminality over the last decade or so… These people didn’t come from nowhere. They came out of our schools, most of them Catholic schools and they came out not just theologically illiterate but socially illiterate as well. Most of them are without any sense of being part of a society; they have no sense or little sense of being social beings, of having responsibilities to others. No sense of sharing or wanting to share. Instead they have a highly individuated sense of themselves, out for their own advancement and enrichment and, if society suffered as a consequence, nothing to do with them… [These schools] went on a lot about character, character formation, that sort of stuff…That Kipling If palaver:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute /With sixty seconds worth of distance run,/Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And which is more you’ll be a Man, my son!

Yeah? What is more you’ll be a sociopath, my son! Not a single whisper in the poem about anything to do with social responsibility, just character stuff; and that was (is?) the ethos of the posh schools that brought us the criminal generation.”

The lack of social responsibility of which Brown writes is clearly evident in the taped conversations of the Anglo executives.  Nobody here expresses concern over the level of debt they are about to plunge Irish taxpayers into, other than the concern that if the Central bank “saw the enormity of it [Anglo’s debts] upfront they might decide… the cost to the taxpayer is too high”.  But this is also hardly surprising. Studies have shown that psychopaths often make good CEOs precisely because they lack empathy and a sense of social responsibility, traits which allow them to make ‘ruthless’ decisions in the pursuit of profit.  The neoliberal capitalist system prizes these traits.

But this is just one aspect of the troubling liminal zone between capitalism and criminality.  Much of what constitutes legitimate business is not far from a form of sanctioned criminal activity.  The recent controversy over Apple’s tax record offers a clear case in point.  Whilst applying the letter of the law to their payment of corporate tax, Apple’s position as a transnational company with operations across several countries has allowed it to avail of loopholes to avoid paying tax on profits.  Although this does not constitute ‘illegal’ activity, it very clearly puts the accumulation of wealth ahead of any perceived social responsibility to the countries they operate in, and is obviously part of a well though-out tax strategy.  This is what Bono, in a recent interview with Gay Byrne, referred to as being “tax sensible”.

Gay Byrne: “If I don’t ask you this, I’ll be criticised and if I do ask you this I’ll be criticised but since you’ve touched on the subject now. The subject of U2′s taxation arrangements, whereby people are expressing their wonder at what they call your hypocrisy, not my word, their word, hypocrisy of haranguing us all and asking us to pay for more international aid, at the same time as you shift your company overseas in order to save taxation.”

Bono: “Yeah, but it’s [unintelligible] of Irish people to be critical of this is because the shock horror moment here is U2 behaving like a business. (Fake shock facial and gasp expression). And I mean our, we live in a small rock in the North Atlantic and we would be under water were it not for very clever people working in Government and in the Revenue who made tax competitiveness a central part of Irish economic life.

It is the reason we have companies like, you know, Google and Facebook and, indeed, I helped bring those companies to Ireland. So it’s more than churlish for Irish people to say well we don’t want an Irish company involved in that stuff that we do want everyone else. I mean we do pay a lot of, I want to say, we pay a lot of tax and…but we are, you know, tax sensible. But, as every business is. And why is it because I’m involved in these…some people think as idealistic things but I think as pragmatic things, why can’t U2 be tough in business? This thing of the warm, fuzzy feeling, you know we want you know this…I’d like people to get over that. Because that’s not who I am. I am tough and I may have, you know, I may sing from a very private and intimate place and I make art. But I’m tough-minded and I’m intellectually rigorous, I hope. And, I think U2′s tax business is our own business and I think it’s not just to the letter of the law, it is to the spirit of the law.”

Bono’s line of argumentation here is interesting.  He appears to suggest that the “spirit” of the Irish law is tax avoidance, or to coat this in Bono’s cuddly neoliberal veneer, “tax competitiveness”.  Bono’s broader ideological position is also explicated here.  Bono believes in neoliberal solutions – or at the least he sees this kind of brokerage to be the only pragmatic way to operate in the world, whether that is addressing global inequalities through aid or handling U2 like a business.  Such a position is dependent on the partitioning of the ‘private’ sphere (where the sole objective is the pursuit of profit) from the ‘public’ sphere (where the responsibility for redistribution takes place), the only problem being that ‘private’ sector tax avoidance tends to severely deplete the ‘public’ resources that are meant to be redistributed.  Bono would seek to mitigate the inequalities that this partitioning produces through aid.  While Bono’s work in Africa has undoubtedly materially improved the lives of many people, as Slavoj Zizek argues, charity can also act as a way of easing inequalities while allowing the system that creates these very inequalities to continue.  On this view, Bono is a champion of, and frontman for, neoliberal elites and his political work has, as Harry Browne argues, made the world “worse” [i].

I am not trying here to demonise Bono (who is a clearly complex character), but rather to highlight how the consensus viewing the operations of the ‘private’ sphere as inherently separate from that of the ‘public’ sphere is normalised.  I think that this separation is crucial to understanding our ambivalent attitudes to white collar crime.

In an intervention on the London Riots in 2011, David Harvey makes the argument that the rioters were simply re-appropriating the “feral capitalism” that has become the globally accepted norm.

“Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth ; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world… [The rioters] mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth”.

While I don’t necessarily buy the direct line of causality that Harvey proposes, he hits upon an important distinction that is made between the ‘legitimate’ ‘business activity’ of the corporate world and the ‘criminality’ of the rioters.  Moreover, there is a clear class bias in this distinction.  This perspective is wonderfully satirised in a sketch on Chappell’s Show, which inverts the arrest and prosecution trajectories emanating from the investigations into criminal activities of a corporate executive and a cocaine dealer: the corporate executive is raided by an armed SWAT team while the cocaine dealer is phoned up by a police detective informing him of a warrant and politely asking him when would be convenient for him to turn himself in.

We can clearly see such distinctions being made in the discussions about the Anglo Tapes.  As well as the inherent class bias, this stems, I think, in large part from the nebulousness of the border between feral capitalism and crime.  In a world where private sphere companies can pursue the profit motive without recourse to any other considerations, and where global corporations can situate themselves in the interstitial terrain between different legal jurisdictions to minimise tax and maximise profit, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where capitalism ends and crime begins.  In this sense, it is unsurprising that we are unsurprised by the Anglo Tapes – this is how we expect the corporate world to behave.

The more that the ‘private’ sphere (profit) is partitioned from ‘public’ sphere (society), and the more that this arrangement is rationalised through the kind of cosy neoliberal discourses espoused by Bono, the more that the ‘spirit of the law’ constitutive of each of these spheres diverges.  What is clearly demonstrated through the case of Anglo is that these spheres are not separate at all; the private pursuit of profit at any cost has had devastating impacts on Irish society.  Rather than accepting the inherent partitioning of these spheres, only paying attention when one very obviously bleeds into the other, we should seek to enlarge the public sphere in order to equalise the spirit of the law between the corporate world and that of society.

Cian O’Callaghan


[i] These aspects of Bono’s political work are unpacked by Harry Browne in his recently published The Frontman: Bono (In the name of power) (Verso).

Next Page »