COP21 – Becoming a Gaian gathering of subjects

December 3, 2015 at 10:40 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

The scale of what is facing the world is enormous. Our planet is dying. Dying in the sense that its life-forms and life processes are being profoundly and systematically degraded. To address this we need an extraordinary change. We need to initiate a new cultural age – what Thomas Berry described as the Ecological Age. This is the only response possible to living in the Anthropocene.

The problem is that the governments in COP21 are thinking within the current set of assumptions and ideologies. They still are trying to make ‘saving the planet’ compatible with an economic growth paradigm. They still see the planet as an object external to humanity.

Let us consider what a truly radical COP21 might look like.

  1. We would recognise that we have entered the Anthropocene
  2. We would recognise Gaia as a subject to whom we must learn to relate
  3. We would recognise Gaia and the Universe as our primary teachers
  4. We would acknowledge the need for a new mode of human presence in Gaia which would affect and change all of our cultural, institutional systems
  5. We would start by ensuring in COP21 that:


i. The interests of non-human life-forms are represented and acknowledged

ii. The interests of future human generations are represented and acknowledged

iii. The wisdoms of indigenous cultures, not just nation states, are represented and acknowledged.


Creating structures to achieve the above three actions are possible with the requisite commitment and engagement. Then COP21 would truly be a Gaian gathering.

Banking Enquiry – An Enquiry into what exactly?

August 2, 2015 at 9:23 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

The current Banking Enquiry reveals well the intellectual limits of current thinking. It exposes once more the dominance of the hegemonic discourse of capitalism and neo-liberalism. How is this shown?

It doesn’t strike anyone that the economic and financial crisis was caused by the system itself. It functioned exactly as it was meant to do. After all, it was a free market, characterised by competition, with suppliers responding to demands, little regulation and plenty of capital available for ‘investment’. What could go wrong? According to the model, the logic of this should lead to optimum outcomes.

But it did not. Why not? This is where the search for answers becomes interesting. If the system cannot be wrong then there must be a failure elsewhere. The answer is morality. Thus, we have ‘greedy’ bankers, ‘corrupt’ politicians, and ‘lazy’ regulators. It all went wrong because of a whole series of moral failures. If our bankers were not ‘greedy’ and our politicians not ‘corrupt’, then the system would have functioned.

Therefore, we have the search for the moral villains who can be identified and castigated publicly in the stocks of enquiries such as this. Once we root them out, all will then be well again.

So much of our politics and media is rooted in this infantile and naïve analysis. It’s not moral failure that’s to blame – it’s the system. Indeed, the individuals and corporations behaved perfectly rationally in accordance with the logic of the system.

The system of profit-maximisation is the problem (the incessant need for capital to reproduce). Until this is confronted, crises and break-downs are inherent. Growing social inequality and ecological devastation are the inevitable consequences.

The Taoiseach’s recent appearance typified this intellectual vacuity. What was his analysis of the economic breakdown? Answer – Fianna Fail. What is troubling here is manifold. First, he could take no responsibility for the failures of all the political parties to correctly analyse and understand the system within which we organise our economy and society. Second, he genuinely seems not to understand the nature of the very system he is presiding over. And third, he reverts at this time of peril and human suffering to the puerile game of bashing the other party – ‘it’s not us, it’s them.’ The old game of politics designed to entertain and befuddle. And Fine Gael are surprised the latest opinion poll shows them 5% down?

The key to bringing about real and radical change is to understand our system. Capitalism is doing precisely what it’s designed to do. There can be no opposition to it if no-one can think outside its categories. This is exactly the finding the Banking Enquiry will not make. That Capitalism itself was the cause of the crash is simply beyond thinking.

From neo-liberalism to neo-barbarism

June 26, 2015 at 8:56 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

As we know, one of the key instruments of contemporary power is control of language. That is why we need to contest the key discursive terms designed to construct our social ‘reality’.

We could start with the master signifier itself – Neo-liberalism. Surely, we should begin to describe this as Neo-Barbarism?

Neo-Barbarism doesn’t operate with swords and axes or with tanks and guns. Instead it uses economic instruments such as capital and debt. But its effect is the same – control over the many by the few through means of fear and constraint. It’s all slightly more subtle of course and more ‘civilised’. It remains however a mode of exercising raw power.

Crucial to its functioning is its claim to legitimacy. This is achieved by controlling the very mechanisms of thought, primarily in the media and education. Thus, people are constrained to think within its categories and internalise its worldview. Hence the language of markets, competitiveness, efficiency, choice and so on.

But if we can think outside its assumptions and categories we can see its inherent barbarism. At its heart is a deep contempt for the poor and the vulnerable and those in social need. These are blamed for their circumstances as though poverty and marginalisation are personal, moral failures not consequences of economic systems that are no longer viable.

Look at the war on welfare. The appalling indifference to our global migration crisis. The wanton destruction of our shared ecology. The grotesque levels of poverty and inequality.

Alas, look at Europe. Look at the increasingly desperate desire to punish Greece, to topple its elected government, to destroy the imaginative possibility that there is any alternative to neo-barbarism. Neo-barbarism functions on the claim that it is not necessarily pretty but the alternative is far worse.

The neo-barbarians serve money and capital and openly want the poor and old of Greece to suffer even more. They no longer hide this, no longer finesse it. It is widely supported, including by our own Irish government. This is why I say this is neo-barbarism – an open, overt assertion that the poor should be poorer and democracy set aside as a technical anomaly disrupting the smooth logic of capital functionality.

What care might really look like

April 7, 2015 at 7:29 pm | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

This article on the Mad in America website is a brilliant evocation of what real care should be about.

What is really at stake with Greece?

March 6, 2015 at 9:19 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

It is worth considering what is really happening at present in the Greek conflict with the EU Euro zone. At issue is not just Greece but the nature of the EU itself. Is the EU an instrument of neo-liberal market discipline or a democratic political union of solidarity, rationality and freedom?

What is being proposed to Greece in response to the election of Syriza? It is to maintain the status quo of the troika bailout programme with its mandatory conditions of fiscal contraction and ‘austerity’. Why, when we can readily see the empirical consequence of this programme on Greece itself. Greece is in an economic depression worse than that of the US in the 1930s. Enormous social suffering has resulted. Its accumulated sovereign debt (+170% of GDP) is mounting to a point where it cannot be re-paid ever. Greece is now borrowing solely to re-pay its debts in a perpetual debt cycle.

The alternative proposal from Syriza is in effect a moderate Keynesian approach. That this is regarded as ‘hard left’ shows how far our political centre of gravity has shifted rightwards in the last few decades. Central to their proposal is to end austerity, increase state spending for investment and social solidarity and address Greece’s deep humanitarian crisis. Writing off state debt is essential to recovery.

If the status quo is not working why is it being insisted upon? Three reasons at least can be identified:

  1. The purpose of the debt is not that it be paid back but that it serves to exercise control over indebted countries by permitting the imposition of market discipline
  2. All the other Euro zone countries are politically led by neo-liberal market ideologues who will not, or even cannot, think outside its ideological categories
  3. For the other indebted countries within the Euro zone collective adherence to austerity is necessary in order to avoid any possibility of an alternative being recognised

What has Ireland’s role been in this crucial moment? From the election of the new Greek government Ireland has been particularly antagonistic and, indeed, patronising of the Greek endeavour. This seems to be for two clear reasons:

  1. Having implemented an aggressive austerity programme the Irish government cannot concede that there was / is an alternative.
  2. We wish to maintain and even assert our allotted role as poster boy for austerity.

Two additional points need to be made here. First, the Irish government is putting its party political interests above that of the wider national interest. Why not join with Greece and others in re-configuring debt by, among other possibilities, Europeanising it in Euro Bonds? Why willingly pay over €7 billion per annum in interest re-payments? Secondly, Ireland is not a proof of the effectiveness of austerity. It is despite austerity that the economy is growing. The Irish economy is export-led due to the significant role of foreign multi-national corporations attracted to Ireland by low taxation and other financial incentives. Our growth is inflated by the routing of vast global revenues through Irish companies. Foreign corporations use Ireland as a base for their activities with limited connection to an indigenous economy. In addition, austerity in Ireland has in fact caused enormous social suffering and considerable emigration.

The time has come to change the ideological imprisonment of neo-liberalism and construct new models centred on social equality and ecological well-being. It can start with actively supporting the modest Greek project for liberation from Troika-imposed austerity.


Quantitative Easing – A Simple Proposal

February 18, 2015 at 10:53 am | Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

From March this year until September 2016 the ECB will buy €60 billion of assets a month, a total of €1.1 trillion over that period. This money will be channelled into the private financial markets in which bonds and financial instruments are traded. The net effect of Quantitative Easing is most usually to cause an increase in the value of assets. This serves to further enrich those who own assets. In effect, there is a significant transfer of wealth to the already wealthy and away from the poor and wage dependent. This further enhances social inequality and fuels indiscriminate economic growth.

So, is this wise? Is this the outcome we want? A huge amount of capital and investment capacity is being mobilised here. Why not ensure that it serves a socially useful purpose? What we need is greater social equality because this produces better societies for all and ecological well-being where climate change in particular is halted and reversed.

How about a simple proposal? Why not direct all this wealth towards investment solely in a new Green economy? How can this be done? In at least two ways.

First, The ECB’s QE should only be used to buy new Solidarity Bonds issued by the European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund which then should only be used to invest in developing new Green economic activities and Green research. Second, the distribution mechanism should be the nation states but also, if not primarily, new regional co-operatives which co-ordinate local investment programmes in Green energy, food and social network provision. Green here can be defined as carbon-zero or neutral and resource efficient with zero pollution externalities. These co-operatives can act to create direct producer-consumer interactions, and employment which is locally grounded by providing financial supports towards more locally produced and sourced products.

This initiative, to be most effective, should be combined with other co-ordinated Europe-wide initiatives. These would include significant increases in carbon-taxation; far greater regulation of the financial services economy in order to channel investment dramatically away from symbolic financial commodities such as derivatives and systemic tax evasion devices towards the real economy; and the provision of a guaranteed basic income for all. These measures would release further investment funds, direct those funds away from a declining carbon-based economy and boost welfare and economic activity through guaranteed living income.

Business as usual is now not an option simply because ‘business as usual’ not only cannot solve our problems – it has actually created them in the first place. The twin alternatives being presently presented by the political mainstream to resolve the socio-economic crisis of today are each inadequate. We are being presented with a false choice. Austerity causes human suffering, depresses economic activity, adds to social deprivation and enhances social inequality. Indiscriminate growth causes rises in asset values, further debt, grave ecological harm through further resource and carbon use and enhances social inequality.

A new system must impose a clear constraint on growth which is harmful and instead channel capital investment towards growth which yields social and ecological benefits. We need to recover the historical language of solidarity, shared citizenship and reason and apply our values to include all of humanity and all of the bio-systems and life-forms making up our shared planet. As we face the current crises it behoves us to address solutions. Passivity in the face of overwhelming challenges is understandable. What is outlined above is radical but not impossible. Indeed, it is proposed precisely because it is achievable within currently available possibilities. A new world can thus be built based upon present foundations not just on imagined futures. This should make a programme realisable and inspire confidence and hope that it can be done in a practical and considered manner.

Building solutions from the bottom up

October 28, 2009 at 11:32 am | Posted in Articles | 2 Comments

We all know that we are in an economic and financial crisis. We also know that we are in an environmental crisis. We are subjected daily to descriptions and analyses of just how bad things are. Both appear overwhelming, to such an extent that we feel powerless to do anything about them.

 It is clear that what we need is solutions. Yet solutions seem to be in short supply and, insofar as any are being offered, they all appear to be in the realm of macro, ‘big-picture’ structural changes which only governments can bring about. Hence, we wait frustrated and disempowered while our leaders strive for answers.

 Yet, here’s the interesting thing. The solution to both of these problems can best be found through a ‘bottom-up’ participative process. Not only is this the most comprehensive way to deal with our problems and fix them, it will also invigorate our democratic and social culture. What we want to do after all is to build harmonies and find solutions, not accentuate antagonisms and build conflict and despair. Here’s how it can be done.

 First, we need to state clearly what our social and political goal is. What is our State about? This is a debate we rarely have but, particularly at times like this, it’s good to consider what might be thought of as obvious. Part of the answer must be that we want all citizens to be included, to have meaningful social activity, to have the means for a decent quality of life. There can be no more appalling notion than that of someone being ‘redundant’. Now, how do we bring this about? We do it by constructing a system that is more responsive to people and their real needs. The way to do this is to give people the power to define and solve their own problems. The means and ends become harmonised – the means used lead to the ends desired.

 Therefore, second, we need to acknowledge that people can be trusted and empowered. Those affected by issues or those at the frontline of issues, are the best sources of knowledge about what needs to be done. Empower them to do so! Let the power go from centralised, bureaucratised systems! We need to allow all kinds of groups – community groups, citizen groups, disability groups, drug addicts, businesses, public services – to work out their own solutions from the bottom up.

 Third, there is a straightforward method for doing this. Key to the method is that the effected group defines the problems and defines what they need. They do this by developing a generating question. Examples might be as follows. How do we who have disabilities live as independently as possible? How do we as a business improve this organisation’s service and save money? How do we as a community provide activities for our children?

 The critical thing is that the relevant group, i.e. those directly affected or those who directly work in the delivery or activity, are trusted to generate the answers and given the budget directly (however limited this must be) to achieve their own priorities. There are lots of ways that this can be done. These range from open meetings and facilitated gatherings right up to the wonderful possibilities available through the internet such as virtual solution systems and specially created social network sites. Information and ideas can flow and be accessed with greater ease now than ever before. Any problem can be addressed in this way from those that are small-scale right up to large-scale issues such as setting budgets through a participative process.

 If communities and organizations – both real and virtual – could empower themselves we would see a real social, political and cultural renewal. Our people would stop being made dependent and would start acting. We would build a culture of engagement, one that hopefully would sweep away our discredited political system of clientalism. Our organisations would become facilitators of activity not depositories of resources unequally distributed.

 A bottom-up democratic participation would almost certainly give rise to new forms of local economic activity. Local currencies and local credit systems might be developed which would provide the means for a renewed community economy providing a basic stream of goods and services. Local currencies could be utilised to reward useful social activity such as work with children, with our young people, our elderly and environmental enhancement. We need meaningful activity for all our people. Local economies creates local resilience (a buffer against global economic shocks) and a basic security foundation for all citizens regarding a minimum of basic goods and services.

 What is outlined here is not utopian. It is entirely achievable once people have confidence and the impetus to change the way we are doing things. What is required is to reduce bureaucracy and top-down management systems and instead to build smart organisations and communities. This is an agenda for economic, social and political change that is radical but uses no jargon, involves no protest, is positive, smart and empowering and uses tools already available. It centres simply on bottom-up participative solution seeking.


Health and social Equality

October 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

Below is the text of a speech i delivered to the irish Practice Nurses Association conference in Westport on October 17th. I have been asked to make it available.


 I want to begin with a rather well-known quotation. It’s from Maev-Ann Wren’s book Unhealthy State – Anatomy of a Sick Society (2003: 50).

 Irish people die younger because they tolerate an inequality between them which breeds ill-health, and they accept a health care system and a view of health care which implicitly places lesser value on the lives of those with lesser means.

 This is an extraordinary and disturbing sentence or, at least, it should be extraordinary and disturbing. Since 2002/3, when her book was written, we have had a further four years of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Does her judgement still ring true? Let me quote now from the more recent book – published this year – by Sara Burke which is provocatively entitled Irish Apartheid – Healthcare Inequality in Ireland.

 We have an apartheid system of healthcare, where those who can afford to, have quick access to what can be life-saving diagnosis and treatment, quicker than those who can’t afford private care. This has always been the case but, in the last decade, the two-tier system of healthcare has been accentuated, with increasing numbers of people incentivised to take out private insurance, privileging them over those who cannot afford to skip the queue (2009: 4).

 What is going on here? What is being described in these books? Is this simply an administrative defect which results merely in inconvenience but little real harm? No, as we know, it is not. This structure of our health system has real implications. A recent report from the Institute of Public Health has shown that 5,400 people die prematurely each year in Ireland due to inequality and poverty. 5,400 people – more than 100 each week. That is a figure so large it almost cannot be comprehended. It is only when this statistic becomes personalised around an individual – such as with Susie Long – that there is any political or media reaction. Susie Long died in October 2007 – two years ago. Has this reality changed? No.

 In this presentation today I want to make a very simple argument. The pattern of illness and sickness in our society tells us something fundamental about our society. Equally, the social structure of our society – particularly the pattern of social inequality within it – tells us something fundamental about the causes and distribution of illness in our society. In other words, there is a clear and demonstrable connection between the pattern of illness and the pattern of social inequality. This connection is so close that we can say that social inequality is a health issue. It is far more than just that of course but it is absolutely a health issue as well. Extraordinarily, far from being a contentious claim, this is widely acknowledged and understood even by those who run our health service. For example, Dr. John Kelleher, the Ass. Nat. Dir. For Health Protection in the HSE was quoted in The Irish Times in Sept 2006 as saying:

 ‘The fundamental issue in relation to poor health is income; if you don’t have that, you’re never going to be healthy again.’ 

 Ireland is a seriously unequal society. This, in turn, has a significant impact on the pattern of illness in our society. In simple terms, the greater the level of social inequality the greater the level of illness and the more unevenly distributed those illnesses are among the population. In short, the poor will be sicker than the wealthy.

 However, and this is important, social inequality is not a phenomenon that only has negative impacts on the poor and disadvantaged. Crucially, it has negative impacts for all in society. If we want a healthy and well functioning society, the most important and effective method by which this can be achieved is by creating and sustaining social equality. At this time of economic and social crisis, the great project of hope which we could grasp onto is to finally bring about a socially equal and just Ireland which would truly transform all our lives, not just the lives of the poor.

 I have made a number of assertions! Let me try now and systematically, if I can, ground these assertions in empirical data. First, is Ireland unequal? Second, does this inequality impact on our pattern of health? Third, does achieving social equality really make such a difference? I will do all this without a single powerpoint slide so I’m going to try to avoid too many statistics!

 Is Ireland Unequal?

It may be difficult for some people to think of Ireland as an unequal society. After all, we don’t seem to have people starving on the streets. But poverty is always a relative concept. You are poor when measured relative to the norms within your given society. In aggregate terms we have been, and remain, a wealthy society. However, the critical factor in understanding poverty in a society is how that wealth is distributed. The key determinant in triggering social consequences and shaping the society is the distribution of that wealth – in other words, the real issue is how big is the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

 Relative to the rest of the EU, particularly Western Europe, and relative to other aggregately wealthy societies, Ireland shows a very high level of social inequality. Only the United States performs worse than us consistently in international terms among the top 20 wealthy societies.

 Some – few! – statistics. Various studies and reports show that we have approximately 16 to 17% of our population living in relative poverty (i.e. with incomes less than 60% of the median income). That’s about 720,000 people. About 6.5% of our population live in consistent poverty (i.e. lack consistently a number of basic material indicators for a comfortable average existence). That’s about 290,000 people. Let me quote now from another Irish Times report in 2006:

Around half of the State’s 1,000,000 children are affected by income poverty at some stage during their childhood. A major study by the ESRI published yesterday, which tracked children between 1994 and 2001, found that young people tended to move in and out of poverty based on factors such as the employment, education and health status of their parents. Of the State’s just over 1,000,000 children, 535,000 experienced poverty at some stage over this period. A quarter of all children (246,000) experienced poverty for a relatively short time of between one and two years. However, just under a fifth (182,000) remained “locked” in poverty for between five and eight years. One in five children experience relative income poverty at any one point in time.

Bank of Ireland’s Wealth of the Nation Report in 2007 showed that the wealthiest 1% of the population owned 20% of the country’s wealth. The top 5% owned 40% of the nation’s wealth. This means that the other 95% of the population had the remaining 60% of the country’s wealth.

 Within this huge group of poor people, certain categories of people are deeply embedded in poverty and deprivation. These include Travellers, asylum seekers, lone parents (38% of whom are at risk of poverty), elderly people, the unemployed (of whom we now have over 400,000).

 One final internationally recognised measure of social equality is the gini coefficient. This is a way of measuring income distribution. If all income went to 1 person and none to everyone else the coefficient would be 100. If everyone had the exact same income the coefficient would be 0. So, the lower the value, the more equal the society. In the mid-1980s Ireland’s gini coefficient was 33.1. In the mid-1990s it was 32.4. By 2000 it had improved to 30. However, by 2005 it had risen again to 32. This can be compared to 23 in Sweden, 24 in Denmark, 28 in France, Germany and Norway.

 The point is that over that twenty-year period – from the grim 1980s to the booming mid-noughties – our level of relative poverty and therefore social inequality remained largely unchanged. We are not a socially equal society. The question that worries me is whether we really want to be or whether we – the relatively comfortable and secure – are happy with the way things are. Poverty seems to be invisible. It is rarely highlighted as a pressing social issue. It is rarely the stuff of heated political debates. It’s almost as if poverty is not our concern. I want to show shortly that this is not so – social inequality affects us all.

 Impact of inequality on health

 We have known for a long time that physical and material conditions have a decisive impact on the patterns of health. Once, within what can be called a bio-medical model of health, it was assumed that the causes of ill-health lay exclusively within the patient’s body and that treatment simply involved identifying the broken or damaged part and fixing it. This was a very mechanical, reductionist perspective.

 We now know of course that each human being is embedded within a complex socio-cultural and ecological setting and that the quality of that setting profoundly affects individual well-being. This occurs to such an extent that the causes for ill-health and mental stress are more likely to lie outside the individual than within. This has come to be called the social model of health.

 Yet even though I am claiming that this is well understood and recognised, it is extraordinary how rarely we hear health debated publicly in terms of the social model. Rather, when talking about health and the health service, our focus tends to be on medicine, on service provision, on treatment regimes and resources. In this sense we have a sickness service not a health service. We are less inclined to enquire into the deep causes of ill-health in our society and enquire into how we can address these fundamental causes in the first place so that we can reduce the number of sick people rather than continuing to focus on expanding our capacity to manage more sick people. As is clear we just can’t keep up. So, it is important to ask, why are so many of us sick? What is going on in the wider society?

 To answer this, we need to understand the social causes of illness. These include assessing the immediate social and environmental circumstances surrounding individuals. What is the quality of the social world? Can people access social services? Are they well connected to the wider society? Are they experiencing stress? Do they feel respected? What is the crime rate? Is there good public transport?

 It also includes the macro social and environmental context. Is the society wealthy? Are the society’s resources available to all or to a few? Are there employment prospects for all? Is the air clean, and the water pure? Does government policy support inclusion and service provision?

 Individual lifestyle is crucial as well. What is the quality of diet? Can people access and afford good quality and healthy food? Do they exercise? Can they access and afford sports and recreation facilities?

 Indeed, when we think about the ingredients of what constitutes a healthy life (both physical and mental) – exercise, food, low stress, social inclusion and connection, comprehensive service provision and access – we can readily see that we are almost entirely thinking about social causes. In this sense, sickness is not simply something you just ‘get’, something that unfortunately ‘happens’. It has clear patterns many of which are identifiable and predictable, patterns which have their roots in the nature and quality of the social world around us.

 We know that social inequality leads to greater levels of sickness. The poorer you are the more likely you are to be ill and in need of medical services. Yet interestingly the key finding of numerous studies is that the key issue here is not the amount of absolute poverty in the society – rather, it is the amount of relative poverty. In other words, it is the level of social inequality that is the determining factor for the pattern of illness. The bigger the gap between the wealthy and the poor, the greater the level of illness generally, and the more those illnesses will be disproportionately experienced by the poor.

 Back to some statistics! Take death. If we compare death rates from various diseases for the richest and poorest socioeconomic groups we find that the poorest have twice the likelihood of dying from cancer than the wealthiest, three times the likelihood of dying from heart disease, almost four times the likelihood from stroke, over five times the likelihood from suicide, six times from accident, almost sixteen times from mental or behavioural disorders, and sixteen times more likelihood from alcohol abuse.[1]

 I have already mentioned the appalling figure of 5,400 deaths per annum directly due to poverty and inequality. Social inequality kills the poor but it degrades all of us.

 Elizebeth Cullen, in an important article in the FEASTA Review of 2004 which reviewed large amounts of data linking poverty and ill-health, has written:

 A report in 2002 found that medical card holders had higher incidences of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, asthma, osteoarthritis, skin cancer and all other cancers, underactive thyroid, kidney stones, osteoporosis, gallstones, duodenal and gastric ulcers, and diabetes. A further report found that 52.9% of medical card holders suffered from one or more health conditions, in contrast to 22.7% of private insurance holders.

 I could go on and on. But there are is only so much data one can absorb – especially without powerpoint! Let me quote finally from the editors of the British Medical Journal, writing as far back as 1996, in a review of studies confirming the link between income inequality and health:

 The big idea is that what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society.

 Does achieving social equality really make such a difference?

Instead, let me return to the question does achieving social equality really make such a difference? To answer this, I want to rely on a very interesting and important book recently published called The Spirit Level – Why more equal societies almost always do better. It is written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

 The argument of this book is straightforward and not by any means original. They set out to show that the benefits (both socially and in terms of health) of economic growth in rich countries have reached their limit. Now, the quality of life is determined they argue by the equal distribution of wealth. It should be clear that this is a position that I, and most social scientists, would agree with.

 What is particularly important about this book however is the impressive amount of empirical data that they present from around the world to support this argument. They show – I think compellingly – that income equality creates better outcomes across a whole range of social indicators. Specifically, they examine:

  •  Community life and social relations (social capital and trust)
  • Mental health and drug use
  • Physical health and life expectancy
  • Obesity
  • Educational performance
  • Teenage births
  • Violence
  • Imprisonment
  • Social mobility (opportunities).

 They demonstrate that in rich countries health and social problems are closely related to the level of inequality in those countries. In short, the more unequal the society, the greater the level of problems in these nine areas. It is a simple but elegant argument.

 Why might social equality be so important? The answer lies I think in understanding that we are fundamentally social beings who need to belong to the social groups within which we live. We have a compelling need to be accepted, to be able to participate, to be able to access the resources of that society. If we can’t, if we are repulsed, marginalised, isolated, ill-treated, then it has devastating effects on us. To have distance placed between you and the society to which you belong places you in an extremely unsettling position. These distances may be symbolic (the wrong accent, the wrong clothes) or actual (the wrong address, the wrong ethnicity) or, indeed, both. Where income differences are bigger, social distances (symbolic and actual) are greater. The materially comfortable and the poor may live in the same country but they live in different social worlds.

 For their part, Wilkinson and Pickett suggest that social inequality causes wider social problems because it leads to

  •  A rise in anxiety
  • Loss of self-esteem and social security
  • Threats to the social self
  • Loss of pride, increase in shame and loss of status and,
  • Inequality increases social evaluation anxieties

 Status is so important for the social creature that we humans are. Having low status has a direct and immediate impact on our well-being. It raises our stress levels, suppresses our immune levels, causes us anxiety. It makes us isolated, marginalised and reduced in our very humanity. To quote Wilkinson and Pickett again – ‘Chronic stress wears us down and wears us out’.

 Their argument is that social equality leads directly to social improvements in regards to each of their nine social indicators. It improves community life and social relations, improves mental and physical health, improves educational performance, reduces violence and the need for imprisonment and increases social opportunities and mobility. Hence, equal societies nearly always perform better.


The conclusion I think is that we need income equality in order to create socially and environmentally sustainable societies and, of course, to create healthy societies. The point is that equality is a matter that should concern us all. We all live in society. The better that society is, the better for all of us. None of us can be isolated and asocial unless we wish to live in a hyper-privatised world of private education, private hospitals, private security, private gated communities, etc. This surely is more a dystopian image of the world than something we might aspire to.

 Equality is a health issue. We are of course not used to thinking like this, or putting it like this. Thus, the greatest single contribution we can make to improving the health status of our society is to bring about social equality. That we have done precisely the opposite in Ireland should therefore cause us no surprise when today we see huge amounts of illness and waiting lists and demands for medical services both primary and hospital. Just why are we so ill? What is wrong with us? Why are we surprised that our society is producing so much physical and mental sickness? What I am arguing is that one of the most important reasons is our level of social inequality.

 It seems clear to me that when we are thinking about our society and about its health we are not thinking deeply enough. Our debate is not at a deep enough level. In our present economic crisis, we are proceeding by reflex, by an accounting template of cutting services for all and raising taxes for all. In addition, crucial decisions, which will shape our society, are being made in reality according to the power of various vested sectional interests. When this happens the poor and weak lose – again.

 What we don’t have is a social plan which contains a vision for what type of country we want to have. We have apparently economic-based plans centred on a ‘smart economy’. What about a social plan centred on a ‘just and equal society’? Especially if it turns out that a smart society is in fact a just and equal society. This is surely essential to do so that as we go through this present phase of suffering and pain we can do so with the hope and expectation that we are finally building an Ireland of social equality and inclusion.

I say this on the assumption of course that this is what we really want. I hope it is. Such a society is not an airy-fairy unrealisable dream. We have the models all around us – in Norway and Denmark, for example – countries of comparable size to us and with similar histories.  Let’s study them, copy them directly if need be, at least see what they have learned and apply it to our own situation. We need this vision in order to give ourselves in this dark time a horizon of hope. The bottom line is that achieving social equality is not just about the poor – it’s about all of us. We all benefit.


[1] Balanda and White in Health in Ireland – an unequal state. Public Health Alliance Ireland, Institute of Public Health, 2004.

The Democratic Deficit – offering Solutions

June 14, 2007 at 11:21 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

As I indicated last week, I would address four key issues facing our country and seek to propose practical solutions rather than simply outline further grievances. I will start with the democratic deficit.

There can be no doubt that there is a serious democratic deficit in the country. Just walk around and talk to people in our expanding new housing estates or in the small communities of rural Ireland. People everywhere feel that they personally cannot participate meaningfully in the decisions which directly affect their lives. Whether that be regarding playgrounds, schools, healthcare, anti-social behaviour or farming practices, very many people feel alienated from the democratic process which is meant to serve them. Vested interests and those with influence and money seem to decide everything. Politics is experienced as a mildly amusing spectator sport populated by politicians who operate on the basis of personal favours and strokes rather than rights and accountability.

This needs to change. We need a radical democratic renewal. Elsewhere on this blog I have analysed some of our deeper, structural democratic defects. Here, let me outline some immediate practical proposals.

Local Government

  • Directly elected County and Town Mayors, serving fixed four-year terms and exercising most of the powers of the County and Town Managers.
  • Annual local budgets under the control of the elected Mayor.
  • Establishment of community and neighbourhood councils with diect liaison to Mayor regarding budgets and local development plans.
  • Compulsory pre-planning requirements for developers of large projects to consult with local communities directly affected by their projects.

National Government

  • A standing Corruption Investigation Body with the power to investigate any allegation of corruption against an elected representative or public office holder.
  • A standing Oireachtas Petitions’ Committee to receive petitions from citizens on any possible breach of the law.
  • Dail reform to ensure that power is re-balanced towards the legislature rather than the executive. There needs to be more questions, more accountability and more capacity for legislation to be initiated by individual deputies. The Westminster model needs to be reformed so that, for example, the executive can be defeated on proposed legislation without having to resign.
  • Major Seanad reform. A second house of the legislature is of value but its electorate needs radical expansion. Thus the number of nominating bodies should be expanded and updated, members of those bodies should be permitted to vote and all third-level graduates should be able to vote in the ‘third-level’ constituency.

Finally, a word on myself. I am deeply conscious of the irony of running in a constituency that is archaic and elitist. However, all I can do is take the constitutional situation as I find it and use the opportunity presented to make an argument as best as I can. That after all is at the core of my idea of politics – making arguments and seeking support.

April 3, 2007 at 9:14 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

Social Science Research Council workshop, NUI Galway.


The SSRC is comprised of a group of academic researchers working in the field of environment. Disciplines encompass sociology, geography, law and the natural sciences. The third annual workshop was held last weekend in NUI, Galway.  In my paper I argued that environmental conflicts are not always easily identifiable in terms of specific issues. In fact they often involve cultural assumptions which are not necessarily articulated in the course of disputes. 

In the Corrib gas conflict, locals were forced to define the dispute in terms relevant to their various interlocutors.

Yet the dispute was about far deeper cultural issues than that. Take Willie Corduff’s explanation for his ongoing opposition: I was born and reared on this farm. It’s memories that are making us do what we are doing. My father came here in 1947. The place then was pure bog with a fallen-down house. The memories we have are of the way we were brought up. Hard times. They’re the memories you have and the memories you have to keep. To see someone coming in now and trying to destroy it, as Shell is doing, it kills you. Our footsteps are around the place since we were able to walk. There are memories of our fathers and mothers and how hard they worked to bring us up. This was all bog land. It all had to be reclaimed by hand. Doing corners by spade and shaking a bit of their own seed that the cows had left after them in the shed. It wasn’t that they went out and bought seed for they couldn’t afford to go out and buy seed. They gathered up the seed that was left after the cow had eaten. They shook it in a corner every year to make it green. That’s the reality. It’s all memories. You cannot let them die (Our Story: The Rossport Five 2006:15).  How do you translate that into terms cognisable by bureaucratic processes or multi-national corporations? Therefore, in my Seanad campaign I will argue that planning for major industrial developments must involve: 

  1. An obligatory pre-planning phase whereby developers and community engage meaningfully and agree a development model.
  2. One, over-arching independent body which oversees complex projects which involve multiple consents.
  3. That development be recognized as requiring community consent with the community as genuine partners in the pre-planning and consents phase.
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