Property Developers and the Irish State

Dr Hans Sluga: a thoughtful man, and not a criminal, even though his bio photo looks like he might be.

Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.

This imbalance of influence and power is borne of what Sluga calls an empire of disorientation, echoing for me at least Feuerbach / Marx and the condition of alienation. He used his experience in Hong Kong to back up the argument, not just the Donald Trump phenomenon. In Hong Kong, the property developers favour Beijing, because they don’t like to be subject to the whims of a democracy. Dictatorship is good for business there. The real estate business requires permits, easements, and the negotiation of zoning decisions. It requires the management and manipulation of government processes at local, regional and sometimes national level. That in a sense makes property developers very au fait with the workings of the State.

It applies to Ireland too, in such tragic ways. The country with a strong agricultural heritage, and politically born essentially of a land struggle, finds itself in 2017 still climbing out of an extraordinary property bubble that infected every part of the State. The Galway Tent came to represent corruption in Ireland. The debt the country bears today is that of speculative developers, over-confident banks, and other businesses whose failure derived from the bust. NAMA, the ‘bad bank’ established to mop up the dead loans and minimise the losses to the State, was designed in such a way that its success would depend on a reconstruction of the model that led to its creation in the first place.

And still, the wounds deepen. This morning a man was killed in a fire in a building originally designed as a single house, converted into eight separate flats. Homelessness is now pervasive, and despite two separate ministers being dedicated to addressing the problems since May 2016, the homelessness rates have increased. Rent scams assail young students looking for accommodation. The Construction Industry Federation in a mixture of glee and horror complains that a parking spot costs €100,000 in Dublin to build.

From Donald Trump’s America, to Xi Jinping’s China, Leo Varadkar’s Ireland – there is a thread that is common to our States, and it is real estate. It monopolises the attention of government. It is certainly true to argue that neoliberalism rejects the non-economic realm, or – perhaps more accurately – denies any State relevance outside the economic sphere. In turn, real estate as an asset class disproportionately influences the vitality or otherwise of the economy, particularly at the heart of the major city, where State-power-politics actually happens. The focus however remains a choice to be made, a strategic determination. It doesn’t appear to be healthy, either for the democracy, or for its subjects.

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