Monthly Archives: January 2017

RTÉ: United In Ignorance

rteunitedRTÉ, the state broadcaster, is running a story today on a trustee company linked to UNITE the Union applying for an exemption from social housing for a development at its former headquarters on Merrion Square.

What makes this newsworthy from the broadcaster’s point of view, is that the application was made at the same time as plans were underway for the occupation of Apollo House, with UNITE official Brendan Ogle in a prominent role.

The news report includes the detail that the property has toilet and shower facilities. The relevance of this detail to the story is that a group called ‘Hands Off The Homeless’, cited in the report, believes that the property ought to have been used instead of Apollo House, and that the fact it was not used made the Home Sweet Home initiative a ‘publicity stunt’.

Who are ‘Hands Off The Homeless’? No idea. But a commenter on this site yesterday made a relevant observation, before the news report and the group in question appeared on the scene:

‘Is it not time that those without a home are referred to as homeless people. The term ‘the homeless’ tends to depersonalise those who are already marginalised and treated with indifference by society at large.’

With this report we are back again in the territory staked out by Mannix Flynn on Liveline last week, but also in the territory staked out by a large degree of the coverage given to the Home Sweet Home occupation. To wit: the matter of homelessness is simply a technical matter, not a political one, and it is solved through charity and private initiative, not through political intervention. If you want to do something with regard to homelessness, you should be putting your hand in your own pocket, rather than expecting state agencies to do anything about it.

By staking out this territory, other areas are kept free of scrutiny. If all that is needed is charity, then there is no need for increased public funding for social housing. Nor is there any need to call into question how current public resources are being used to address homelessness.

What makes the UNITE detail particularly attractive to people who are sympathetic with the predicament of the powerful when their indifference to human need is highlighted is that it appears hypocritical, on the one hand, to support an action aimed at using public resources to tackle homelessness, and on the other, to engage in commercial activities that appear to narrow the scope for providing social housing. Few things whet the appetite of someone who hates trade unions more than the possibility of making them appear as bad as the political and economic elites they claim they are challenging.

There may well be a contradiction involved. But so what? Such a contradiction would not alter one iota the principal issue brought to the fore by the Home Sweet Home occupation, which is that the government favours the interests of property speculators over the interests of people in need of a home. Moreover, we are not told what the ground rules are for such a trustee company, and what it is obliged to do with its investments. It is only when you wish to avoid the principal issue that a contradiction such as this takes on any relevance.

In fact, unions -and individuals- engage all the time in activities that can contradict their stated political positions and broader activities. This is a fact of operating in a capitalist system. The question is: how do you evaluate the contradiction?

The thick strain of right-wing anti-establishment sentiment in Irish political life, tapped into by RTÉ’s reporting here, does not evaluate it at all. It merely barks ‘hypocrisy!’. According to these quarters, the ‘vested interests’, in which the trade unions are always made to figure heavily, have things all sown up, at the expense of the little man. The purpose of such sentiment is to sow disenchantment with trade unions and, consequently, with the defence of workers’ rights, including social rights such as the right to a home.

RTÉ’s concern over UNITE’s role in Home Sweet Home is hardly matched by an ongoing concern with workers’ rights, or the provision of public goods, whether public housing, education, or healthcare.

For example: on January 6th, in the midst of a full-blown hospital trolley crisis, the Sean O’Rourke show, RTÉ’s daily news and current affairs morning programme, had what amounted to a feature length advertisement for private health services in general, and for the Beacon Hospital in particular.

The feature was presented in terms of ‘how the private sector can help’ with regard to the present health crisis. They had the CEO of the Beacon Hospital in studio, an emergency ward consultant in Cork University Hospital on the phone who said he was a ‘committed public sector man’ who ‘believed in’ the National Health Service and Ireland’s health service but who had come round to the idea that ‘some sort of hybrid model’ was “the way forward”, and a rep from the national association of GPs who said she and other GPs encouraged their patients with private health insurance to attend private hospitals whenever possible. In effect, such programming means that when you pay the licence fee, you are also contributing to the local PR fund for disaster capitalism. The feature did nothing to examine the role played by the so-called ‘two-tier’ health system -which allows private operators to profit from the poor condition of public provision- in producing the crisis in the first instance, and, as with the housing crisis, addressed the problem, as ever, in terms of technical solutions.

There is a continuity between this kind of coverage and the UNITE story: addressing social crises means ponying up out of your own pocket and leaving the powerful and their political institutions well alone.

The real story of hypocrisy here is a public broadcaster affecting concern over homelessness as a cover for anti-union attacks. In fact, unions do a great deal to prevent homelessness, primarily through maintaining minimum standards for workers.

Given that the drive of RTÉ’s reporting is to undermine support for collective institutions that serve to protect basic social rights, it is also a drive for increased homelessness, and heightened reactionary ignorance.


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Home Sweet Home and Democracy


via Home Sweet Home Eire Facebook page

It could have led to ‘an intolerable situation in a democratic state’, according to Judge Paul Gilligan, had the Apollo House residents been allowed an extension to the deadline laid down by the court for vacating the building.

A corollary to the judge’s argument, however, is that homelessness is a tolerable situation in a democratic state. Homelessness: tolerable. Preventing homelessness: intolerable.

One might also observe that if direct action to end homelessness is intolerable in a democratic state by the judge’s lights, then it must also be intolerable in other kinds of state: judges in a fascist state would also deem infringements of private or state property rights to be intolerable.

So it’s not clear yet why the judge makes reference to democracy at all.

Perhaps it would be intolerable for the judiciary to interfere with government decisions, since this would undo the separation of powers set forth in Article 15 of the Irish Constitution, and, since Ireland is ‘a democratic state’, it would therefore prove intolerable within the scope of the constitution.

This would suggest that democracy exists only in so far as it inheres in a constitution, and that the Irish constitution is what defines democracy in the first instance. The Irish constitution emphasises that a democratic state is one in which the people have the right to ‘designate the rulers of the State’.

Even though ‘in final appeal’ it is the right of the people to ‘decide all questions of national policy’, the rulers rule and the people are expected to comply, regardless of whether or not or how much they took part in making the rules.

In actual fact, the vast majority of people have no role in the formulation of rules, and their everyday compliance is taken as proof of both their consent and the legitimacy of the rules. So when it comes to homelessness, or to any other social outrage arising through the application of the rules and by the actions of the rulers, the only acceptable course of action is to petition the rulers, or elect different ones.

All this amounts to a very narrow conception of democracy. In practice it means the rule of a minority over a majority. In no sense is it ‘government by the people’, which is commonly cited as a defining characteristic of democracy.

In fact, when people take action that amounts to ‘government by the people’, which is to say, deciding for themselves how life in common should be lived, this is bitterly denounced by the ruling powers, and by those who live by upholding the rules.

For example, on Friday’s Liveline, the organisers of the Home Sweet Home campaign came in for unrelentingly bitter criticism from Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn. According to him, those who had supported the campaign were ‘dupes’, and he took particular umbrage at the fact that Home Sweet Home might be breaking the law. He voiced his own experience in working with homelessness, and called into question the political credentials of ‘Mattress’ Mick Flynn, who was speaking in favour of the campaign and who believed that the occupation of Apollo House ought to continue in defiance of court rulings. In contrast to those involved in the campaign, Mannix Flynn said that he had been elected. Though charged with a venom rarely encountered in airwave debate, there was nothing particularly unusual about his perspective: breaking the law is wrong, leave things to the experts, and if you want to do something about the matter of homelessness yourself, you should either take your own private initiative in accordance with the law, or help charities who operate in this domain. And if you want to take part in politics, you should be standing for election.

Mannix Flynn pressed Mattress Mick to accommodate the occupiers of Apollo House himself. This was no different in approach to Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who in the Dáil suggested that families ought to accommodate their homeless members. Thus private solutions -ones that do not disturb the rules that produce homelessness in the first instance- are the order of the day.

The overall effect of this is to de-politicise homelessness, and to confine it as far as possible to the private realm. In so doing, it strengthens the underlying relations of power that sustain homelessness. First, by refusing to interrupt the legal order, the speculative activities, and the housing policies that favour speculation and private enrichment over the right to a home, and secondly, by making individuals bear the cost of homelessness.

In the latter case, this means that not only are people enjoined to engage in charity rather than challenge the legal and political order, but it shapes the sense that those who do end up without a home are primarily responsible for their predicament. Moreover, it shifts the discussion away from the underlying causes of homelessness and its status as a political issue towards the question of whether proper order is maintained and how to get rid of the malcontents undermining proper order.

Flynn’s intervention also condemned Mattress Mick and the Home Sweet Home participants more broadly for encroaching on an area in which they had no expertise. That is, to intervene in public matters such as homelessness, one must be endowed with the necessary know-how and experience. But the know-how and experience that comes with attending to the needs of homeless people day-in day-out is an entirely different thing to identifying homelessness as a human scandal and a political matter.

Whatever the necessary work carried out by homeless charities in providing day-to-day vital supports, there is no reason to expect that these entities will challenge the overall order in which homelessness emerges, and a great deal of reason to expect that they will be at best subdued in their criticisms, reliant as they are on government contributions and private donations.

The most widely-heard voices, whenever a social crisis comes into public view, be it unemployment or homelessness or mental health or any other issue you care to name, are never the voices of those affected, but the voices instead of experts: politicians, economists, charity CEOs and psychologists. This does not mean there is anything wrong with expertise, or with a deep understanding of a particular area, but what it shows is that the only acceptable solutions to such crises, under the current order, will come by disregarding radical responses, by leaving it to the experts, by protecting the regime of property and by suppressing expressions of democracy deemed to threaten the status quo.

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Homelessness crisis, property crisis

via @soundmigration

The bottom line is that property rights, including the right of rentiers and speculators to make a profit, must at all times take precedence over the right of people without a home to have their basic human needs met. In effect this means the law does not recognise the latter right at all. It is the right to profit from property speculation that produced the homeless crisis in the first instance, and measures taken by Fine Gael in government have done nothing to interfere with this right, and a great deal to strengthen it.
None of the outpourings of admiration for the deceased TK Whitaker I encountered yesterday were in any way diluted by considerations of how among the prime beneficiaries of the economy he is credited with bringing forth were bankers, builders and property speculators.

Instead, Whitaker was lauded as a figure whose free market inclinations and technocratic paternalism had brought prosperity to the country. It is no coincidence that Whitaker is remembered as rising above the fray of petty politics -he was never elected to public office himself, of course- and fostering a sense of order in the name of ‘public service’, ‘the national interest’, and the ‘common good’ that suppressed political conflict, particularly where trade unions were concerned. As trade unions are one of the most effective instruments for guaranteeing the rights of the working class to a decent standard of life -including decent accommodation- the ‘common good’ exalted by Whitaker’s admirers can only mean the suppression of the claims of working class people to a greater share of the wealth they produce. ‘Patriotism’ in this regard means making working class people get back in their box.

A quote from Whitaker doing the rounds, outlining the aims of his public policies, contains the word ‘eventually’: that once all these ‘free market’ measures are implemented, then everyone born on the island will be entitled to their share. This is of course a first cousin of the ‘trickle-down’ argument rehearsed ad nauseam by ruling elites across the globe, bent on their own enrichment on the backs of others, over the past four decades. The matter of precisely when this share will be apportioned must, of course, be left to the designs of the same ruling elites, and what their financial instruments tell them.

What the Home Sweet Home campaign centred at Apollo House in recent weeks has achieved is to undermine this prevailing notion that it is all a matter of waiting a bit longer, of depending on established institutions and their appointed experts to do as they profess. What is more, it has undermined the prevailing notion that the ‘common good’ is synonymous with property rights. It can hardly be expected to overturn such things altogether, or even conclusively resolve Ireland’s homelessness crisis, since the latter is a product of the property relations that the government, the courts and the press are concerned with upholding. But it has cast into sharp relief how spaces of mutual aid, solidarity and collective resistance amount to enemy territory for the ruling powers, and how recognising basic human needs, from the perspective of these powers is a “recipe for anarchy”, as lawyers pressing for the evacuation of Apollo House put it. That is, it cannot but produce fears of a crisis in property relations, in the prospects for making a killing off the misery and fears of others. Good: the greater the fears of such a crisis on the part of these powers, the greater the prospects of a decent and humane existence for all.

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