Ireland: When everyone you know buys art, or a sculpture, to upgrade their life
People protest when they can take no more, but also when there is a glimmer of hope: When it becomes obvious that there is enough to go around, but despite that all boats are not being lifted. People protest when they find out just how much is being squandered and how little the elite know; or care.
Seamus Power (2018) quoted Alexis de Tocqueville (1856) who pointed out that it was ‘…in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest’. The French revolution occurred when and where it did within France not only because there was great suffering and poor harvests, but also because the squandering of great and growing riches had become so clear to so many.
Ireland is not about to have a revolution, but in contrast to every other affluent nation it has suffered by far the greatest crash. Figure 1 shows how public expenditure rose to bail out banks in many countries, but more in Ireland and then the subsequent choices made to cut down on public expenditure.
Figure 1: public expenditure as a proportion of GDP 2002-2020
In the USA protest erupted in the 1960s when it became clear that a large proportion of the population were not being listen to. They were simply unheard, not even ignored but unknown. Speaking three years after the Watts riots of 1965 Martin Luther King told an audience at Grosse Pointe High School:
‘It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.’
In England, the riots of 2011 where mainly confined to London. They were not riots over austerity. Instead their geography revealed economic inequality to be key. It was where there was most to be looted, where the riches and ignorance of the very affluent were flaunted most that rioting was most common (Dorling and Lee, 2014).
Figure 2 shows that more rioters lived in a ring of boroughs outside centre London than in entire English regions located far away from the capital and far away from where the shopping malls of the rich (Dorling, 2014).
Figure 2: The regions of England and boroughs of London sized by the numbers of people accused of riot in 2011
Seamus Power suggests that: ‘In the Irish context, people accepted austerity because they believed by doing so the entire economy would benefit’ (Power, 2018). However, emigration rose rapidly. Hardly an example of accepting austerity.
On 30 September 2008, a ‘bank deposit guarantee’ was introduced that made people wonder why it was needed. Within days the crash had begun. Most probably just after 10pm on 2 October 2008 when the chief executive of the Financial Regulator of Ireland appeared on Irish television news. As Michael Lewis so eloquently explained, quoting Colm McCarthy three years after these events, the reaction of the Irish public to that man’s appearance was: “they saw him and said, Who the fuck was that??? Is that the fucking guy who is in charge of the money??? That’s when everyone panicked” (Lewis, 2011, p.98).
Analysis of large scale survey data taken each year in Ireland between 2004 and 2014 recently revealed that life satisfaction reached a minima in 2010, driven by the despair of those who were worse-off. Social trust fell and in 2010: ‘belonging to the lowest income quartile … had a significant negative impact on life satisfaction. This is in marked contrast to 2008, where the income stratification of life satisfaction was completely due to subjective economic hardship’ (Weckroth, M., et al., 2017). In other words, by 2010, the poorest in Ireland had come to realise that they were disadvantaged as a group whereas just two years earlier their answers to survey questions did not reveal such a knowledge.
Only analysis of survey data taken from across a whole country can tell you when the overall mood changes. Anecdotes, such as that of Colm McCarthy quoted above, help identify plausible trigger points. Anecdotes also identify the ignorance of the elite, such as the rich Irish women quoted by Power (2018) who said that prior to the crash she did not know anyone ‘who didn’t buy art, or a sculpture, or something to upgrade their life’. Power suggests that when the crash came the rich lost the most. He says: ‘in objective terms their relative loss is greater’.
But, in objective terms, who really lost the most? Was it the person who now has to sleep in a car because they can no longer pay the rent on their old home. Or the person whose home is now worth a few hundred thousand euros less, but they still live in it and own it?
Most recently the situation in Ireland has become much worse as Figure 3 reveals. Cuts are a political choice, not inevitable.
Figure 3: Ireland: public expenditure as a proportion (%) of GDP 2001-2022, original and most recent IMF estimates and projections
Coda: On why there was a sudden shift in Figure 3 above see Paul Krugman, Leprechaun Economics and Neo-Lafferism, New York Times, November 8th 2017
Dorling, D. (2014) Mapping the August 2011 riots, The New Statesman, August 5th,
Dorling, D. and Lee, C. (2014) Inequality Constitutes a Particular Place, Chapter 7 in D. Pritchard and F. Pakes (Eds.) Riot, Unrest and Protest on the Global Stage, pp.115-131, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lewis, M. (2011) Boomerang: the meltdown tour, London: Allen Lane.
Power, S. (2018) The Deprivation – Protest Paradox: How the perception of unfair economic inequality leads to civic unrest, Current Anthropology, Volume 59, Number 6, December.
Walters, M. W. (2015) ‘Mortal Men and the City of Baltimore’, The Huffington Post, 28th April,
Weckroth, M., Kemppainen, T. and Dorling, D. (2017) Income-based social stratification of life satisfaction in Ireland between 2004 and 2014, Irish Journal of Sociology, 25, 2, 128-149.
click here for pdf and link to journal article to which this is a commentary.