The Luck of the Irish: Occupy Ireland, The Gift and Punk Economics

By Cathleen Falsani 1-30-2012
View of the Shandon area of Cork City. Image via
View of the Shandon area of Cork City. Image via

Oh, how I love the Irish. Sure, I'm biased, being half a Celt myself with legion cousins still living on the old sod. (Shout out to the Bradys and Caffreys in Ballyjamesduff!)

As a self-confessed Gaelophile, I've been following the various Irish Occupy groups on Facebook for several months now, and they are endlessly entertaining — and interesting. The Occupy movement in the States is, largely at least, missing at least one key component: A sense of humor. The Irish Occupiers seem to understand that you can catch a few more flies with honey — and a good laugh — than you can with angry chants and somber rhetoric.

When I heard about a surprising turn of events at the County Cork occupation last month, I thought, That's brilliant. On Christmas Eve, members of the Occupy movement in the southern city of Cork found a present underneath the Christmas tree in their Peace Park encampment. It was a package containing a letter from "Santy" Claus, which read in part, "Dear people of Cork: Inside is a present, a gift from me to you, from all of us here at the North Pole."

The gift package also held the key to a padlocked, vacant, seven-story office building in the city center, and a list of instructions.

Not wanting to begrudge ol' Santy, the Cork occupiers dutifully took their gift-key — the provenance of which seems to have remained a mystery —  opened the office building and moved inside out of the cold, where they've remained until earlier today when an Irish court ordered them to vacate the building that they had hoped to turn into an ersatz community resource center.

Naturally, the Cork-u-piers captured their "Christmas miracle" on video and posted it to YouTube:

According to a report in Monday's Irish Times:

Barrister for Padlake Ltd, Jim Duggan BL said his clients had bought the premises on October 18th, 2006, and although the recently constructed office block was not connected to electricity, water and sewerage services, the owners were in negotiations to lease the building.

He opened an affidavit from Padlake Ltd director Barry Doyle in which Mr Doyle said the defendants and others associated with the Occupy Cork Movement had unlawfully entered the premises by breaking a padlock on the Smith Street entrance on January 1st last.

Mr Doyle in his affidavit went on to say he had made a formal complaint of trespass to gardaí [police] on January 3rd last and went with gardaí to the premises where he and the gardaí asked the defendants to leave the building and they refused to do so.

He said the defendants and the Occupy Cork Movement had posted a video on the Internet of them entering the building entitled "A Christmas Gift to Cork" and had advertised plans to renaming the building the "Cork City Centre Community Resource Centre".

He also said the defendants had held a ceilí [traditional music session not unlike an American hootenanny] and a disco in the building and given that there were open lift shafts and a risk of fire from mobile generators, the owners were seriously concerned that somebody might be injured on the premises.

I don't know about you, but the image of the Occupiers sitting around that cavernously empty office building playing songs on the fiddle and the bodhran, or shaking their booties to dance-trance music, made me smile.

While there was ample whimsy and good humor to the Occupation of the Cork office building, it had a dead serious side as well, articulated eloquently in a post by Tom Boland — a sociology lecturer at the Waterford Institute of Technology and a member of Debt Justice Action — that appeared on the Irish Politico website. Boland began his post by comparing the Cork Occupation building to France's Bastille (ground zero for the French Revolution.)

He wrote:  

With its glass frontage Stapleton House on Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street is an unlikely Bastille. However, like the Bastille, this NAMA building serves as one symbol of the illegitimacy of the regime, and contrary to myth the Bastille was almost equally empty.

Unlike the Bastille, this building was taken peacefully, and rather than opposing the state it is intended to supplement it; to give where the state cuts back. Briefly, the centre is intended to house various public amenities, from debt and mental-health counseling to a ‘Youth and Wisdom’ café run on a voluntary basis and a ‘pop-up’ soup kitchen.  

The building Cork's occupiers have been, well, occupying is part of NAMA — the National Asset Management Agency or Gníomhaireacht Náisiúnta um Bhainistíocht Sócmhainní, in Irish — established by the Irish government in response to the national financial crisis and burst Irish real estate bubble. NAMA bailed out a half-dozen Irish banks that were hamstrung by property development loan assets, i.e. bad loans, for properties that are valued now at considerably less than the loan amounts owed. NAMA assumed billions of Euros of bad debts in exchange for the banks' purchase of government bonds, a move that many critics say will end up plunging Ireland even farther into debt.

The result of NAMA, which has been wildly controversial in Ireland, are the scores of vacant buildings in various states of construction and development that litter the small island nation, including the building in Cork City, which, according to reports, has stood empty for a number of years.

Because they had the key to the building's padlock, the Cork-u-piers entered the building legally, Boland said. The only thing in dispute, leading up to today's court hearing, was "whether they are tenants subject to a nominal rate or squatters ignoring eviction notices."

Still, how can the seizing of private property for public use — even if it's intended use is for pro-bono and social welfare services — be justifiable? Because the key, and by extension the building, was a gift, Boland said.

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss argued that giving is fundamental to all societies. Societies without money are based on giving, which doesn’t create debt, but obligations. If you have something to give, then you should; if you don’t, people forgive you. Giving is matched by receiving; both require grace and inspire reciprocation, creating mutual benefits. As opposed to contracts - which are legally defined, precisely remunerated and can be discharged without creating any relationship - gifts bind people together. Without give and take there are no relationships, no families, no friendships, no communities and no society. Gift relationships create social trust. They can lead to corruption, but the alternative – a world based on contracts for everything – is inhuman.

Idealistic? Consider Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, which confirms that where people give their time and effort to voluntary associations there is a clear social dividend for everyone. Furthermore, the state can be understood as an agent of gifts – it receives the gift of wealth and abundance in the form of taxation from those who can afford it and gives education and care to all who need it.

Boland points to the work of researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their 2011 book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, where, based on 30 years of research, the authors posit that the healthiest and happiest societies are the ones where their members enjoy the greatest equality. "Almost every modern social problem-poor health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness-is more likely to occur in a less-equal society," the authors wrote.

Below is a short film that elaborates on the ideas in The Spirit Level:

In his piece, Boland continued:

All across Europe the response to the crisis has been austerity; the alternatives are to default on debts – that is, debt-forgiveness, or for central banks to print more money - a gift that minutely decreases the value of existing cash or deposits. Either course would get the cycle of giving going again....Without the bank bailout, from the promissory note to the unsecured bondholders, Ireland would be in the black. This turns the state from the handmaiden of gifts into the agent of theft, transferring wealth from the many to the few, the poor to the rich. Though this policy is enshrined in law, it is illegitimate, unjustifiable and imprudent.

And that is decidedly no laughing matter.

"Ireland is the canary in the coal mine, because what happened in Ireland three years ago is happening all over Europe right now," the Irish economist David McWilliams says in the clever short film below, Punk Economics. "A good way to think about this is to think Woody Allen. He's neurotic, he's anxious, he doesn't want to do next. That's what happens in an economy when the balance sheet is broken. People are terrified, they're neurotic they don't spend. And they less they spend the less other people around them spend and suddenly the economy goes into a downward spiral. And as as consequence of that, the balance sheet will get worse, not better."

Watch Punk Economics below. You might just learn something (I did), and surely you'll crack at least a smile or two.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.


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