Building fair societies: Discontent is moving to a tipping point

The Apollo House site

It may just be a coincidence, but it is a significant one, one that underlines how dangerously divided our world is and how a life is utterly defined by a person’s capacity to match the demands of that insatiable monster, “the market”.

It may always have been thus, but there is a growing resistance to the social constructs that limit so many, while wealth becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of the few.

On Saturday, up to 10,000 people marched in Dublin to highlight — again — the housing crisis. Speaking at that protest, Peter McVerry said the Government had lost control of housing and that the crisis will continue as long as it is in the hands of the private sector.

As if to confirm his repeated assertion, it was announced within 48 hours of the march that the site of the former Apollo House in Dublin, which was, irony of ironies, occupied by homelessness protesters almost two years ago, has been sold for more than €50m.

The 0.72 acres, near Tara St, have planning permission for a 10-storey building that will provide 12,622sq m of office space.

You do not have to be a card-carrying member of People Before Profit, a jaded Labour activist, or even an uneasy member of Fine Gael needled by the memory of Declan Costelloe’s Just Society optimism, to understand that at more than €50m an acre, the prospect of affordable housing in that area is as remote as Nasa’s InSight lander, which reached Mars last week.

That may be the reality in every capital city, but that does not make it any less socially challenging.

These issues, albeit under different headings, have come together in France, where the embattled president, Emmanuel Macron, tries to contain anti-government riots. Protests over climate-control fuel taxes have become a sans-culottes nouveau fury at escalating living costs. At least three people have been killed.

Security dominates Macron’s immediate agenda, but the momentum the Gilets Jaunes may offer Marine Le Pen’s hard-right party, as next year’s European elections approach, is of greater long-term concern.

Were Macron to be so weakened that he becomes a lame-duck president, just as Germany’s chancellor, Anglea Merkel, moves into the shadows, the European project would lose another important champion.

That great project has, it seems, lost Britain. However, it might still be premature to suggest that Brexit chaos could spark similar public unrest, but it would put too much faith in British sangfroid to dismiss that possibility.

Yesterday’s Social Justice Ireland report that 780,000 people — 250,000 children — live in poverty adds to the unease. The report emphasised lengthening hospital waiting times (700,000 people are on waiting lists).

None of these problems are new, but they seem to be conflagrating in a new, wider way, towards a tipping point that would open the door to the kind of extremist politics — left or right — that always end in catastrophe.

The hardship inflicted on individuals and families is tragic, but the real tragedy is that most of the centrist governments that have dominated Europe for three-quarters of a century have not used their great power to pursue social justice as forcefully as they have supported the market.

And it’s later than you think.

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