“A society in which it is easier to be good.” Ever since the Dublin riots I have been thinking about these words from the eccentric French co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Peter Maurin, no ivory tower optimist.
We have an intuitive understanding of what a society where it is easier to be good looks like. People feel safe, with a high level of trust in their friends, neighbours and institutions. It is possible to earn a decent living and have a home.
Families and communities work well and so do public services. People are open, friendly and tolerant. Differences can be discussed without demonising people who disagree. The environment is respected. Those with greater needs, for example because of disabilities, or being young or old, receive what they need. The contrast with the burning buses and people fleeing the city centre as if the last flight out of Saigon were about to take off could not be more stark.
I am also thinking about a comment from a friend. She said that if you find yourself standing next to someone at a match wearing a particular brand of down-filled parka costing about a grand, you wonder if it is someone working in financial services or a drug overlord.
Outrageously expensive brands are markers of societal success. Unsurprisingly, career criminals aspire to them. We once valued self-effacing service and felt mortification on behalf of those who bragged, flaunted wealth or acted as if the world revolved around them. Now, entire careers are built on doing all three. The bonds that reinforce good behaviour have been eroded as if by acid because our culture now values ostentatious wealth, fame and individualism.
Some of what we witnessed last week was downstream of globalisation, which increased wealth in the aggregate and lifted millions out of dire poverty. Simultaneously, it has created winners and losers, those who can aspire to financial security and a growing precariat with no such hope.
The extraordinary thing is that so many people who have suffered intergenerational poverty never resort to racism, much less criminality
The cost was summed up by Tony Blair’s 2005 speech when he urged Britain to embrace the inevitability of globalisation. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” All of this may seem a million miles from vandals threatening police, destroying property and terrorising others, but it is not.
The right-wing populists see globalisation hastening the flow of jobs to poorer countries and the associated threat of AI taking jobs away entirely. In that context, immigrants are framed as arriving to threaten job security, sponge off state benefits or undermine national identity. Some of those who feel ghettoised are naturally attracted to the simplistic message (without ever apparently thinking about what would happen to Ireland if those immigrants they despise withdrew their labour for 48 hours). Add the toxic corruption of virtually unregulated social media (which has made a few, mostly men, billionaires) and you have a recipe for social disintegration.
The extraordinary thing is that so many people who have suffered intergenerational poverty never resort to racism, much less criminality. They suffer not only from poverty but from being associated with the behaviour of these violent, aggressive young men who also terrorise the communities they live in, places where gardaí often fear to enter.
The middle classes are much more likely to have cosy family lives and suffer less threat to their livelihoods from immigration. They rarely live in areas where immigrants are forced to cluster. Yet they label every legitimate concern expressed by people in the areas most affected as racism, while also championing the kind of corrosive individualism that allows people to ignore the needs of the wider community.
The left sees young people being drawn into criminal behaviour as a failure of systems, most particularly of State intervention. The right sees it as a failure to support family life and nurture moral character. Often, neither view will accept that the other has a point. Our collective values both nationally and globally are skewed. As globalisation falters, there is an opportunity for change. We have to prioritise education.
The staff of Gaelscoil Coláiste Mhuire, led by Pól Hansard, ran themselves ragged over the weekend to reassure distraught families and parents after the stabbings outside the school. They had waited 20 years for decent premises until the first sod was turned this June. The playground was in a car park shared with a hotel. Classrooms were cramped and inadequate.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, by championing apprenticeships, may do more good than any amount of throwing demoralised and inadequately equipped gardaí into powder keg situations.
Policing does not solve criminality and nothing removes it completely. But some will be diverted by viable alternatives that offer stable employment and decent, affordable housing. We need a culture that values family life, instead of sacrificing it to the maw of the market. We need less individualism and more focus on trying to build a society where it is easier to be good.