What would happen if Fine Gael had a change of heart? What if, having been visited by three ghosts the night before, Michael Noonan decided to address the misery brought on by the largest housing crisis in this nation’s history? It’s an interesting question, but of course it’ll never be answered. Still, thinking about it forces us to consider other questions. It leads us to a view of modern capitalism and international power relations which, if more unsettling than Scrooge Fine Gael, is a more solid understanding on which to build our offensive.
The first thing we need to understand is that our dear Mick Noonan and his blue-shirted brethren are not bumbling around Leinster House, trying to assist in an issue that is simply beyond them. Equally, they are probably not 24-7 toasting with chardonnay and scorning the working classes. The Irish state, with the support of the various right wing economic ‘think tanks’ on its payroll, and the tacit support of the EU and its banks, is systematically pursuing an economic policy designed to inflate house prices nationally. They want house prices to increase. The thousands of families living in emergency accommodation, the tens of thousands more in mortgage arrears, and the people barely existing in penury on the streets of our towns and cities, are just an inconvenient side-effect of the plan. So, why are they doing this?
In the run up to the financial crash of 2008, cheap credit poured out of French and German banks in search of higher interest rates, which were found in the Eurozone’s peripheral states, notably Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. Irish banks happily accepted the loans and lent the cash at higher interest rates to developers who purchased overvalued land and threw up cheaply built, overpriced housing. When the house of cards came crashing down, the entire financial system was embroiled in debt.
The neoliberal solution to such a problem? Call in international financial corporations to buy up the debt! Fine Gael’s strategy for demonstrating to international financial markets that Ireland’s banking and property crisis has been solved has been to invite ‘Real Estate Investment Trusts’ (REITs) - also known as Vulture Funds - to buy nationalised properties through NAMA and to relieve some of the state’s debt obligations.
Fundamentally, the Irish state - shaped in the interests of its gombeen ruling class - aims to transform commonly created housing wealth into profitable revenue streams for private shareholders and their cheerleading service providers. The condition is that before they invest, Vulture Funds want increasing house prices to be sure they make profits. Therefore, clearly the state will not provide social and affordable housing to meet still growing demand. Unless we resist.
The cure being worse than the disease (probably)
Going back to the opening question: what would happen if Fine Gael abandoned their policy of sacrificing the Irish people in the interests of the super rich? Or, more likely, if a left wing Irish government attempted a change of pace, but somehow managed not to be immediately shut down by the banker-controlled European Troika, like Syriza was? Most likely at the next hiccup of late-stage capitalism there would be ‘renewed fears’ about Ireland’s ability to repay bondholders, interest rates would boom, and the ministers would be once again boarding planes to Brussels, cap in hand.
What this means is that neoliberal policy is locked-in through Europe and through the financial markets. So believing we can vote our problems away is a costly mistake. Grassroots-led housing struggles in Ireland and elsewhere are now a major front in anti-finance, anti-capitalist struggle – fundamentally in opposition to the underpinnings of capitalism today.
When housing campaigners occupied Apollo House in December in order to give rough sleepers a home during the bitter winter, people all across the island were inspired by the ability of the ‘little people’ , like you or me, to defy the powerful and take charge of our futures. But Apollo House should be seen as one strike back in a long struggle which we must extend into the future.