The defeat of the opposition to the property tax and the ability of the Government to impose a second Croke Park austerity deal might lead many to conclude that resistance to austerity has been defeated. Even before this many have commented that while Greece has witnessed violent protests and numerous general strikes the absence of such events from Ireland is notable and remarkable. General strikes have also taken place in Spain and Portugal but not in the Irish State.
The relative electoral success of the United Left Alliance appeared to blind some to this but the collapse of the ULA has simply confirmed what is more generally understood to be the case. More and more it is acknowledged on the Left that we have to face the reality as opposed to perennial false claims that an upsurge is taking place or is just around the corner.
Realistic assessments of the state of workers’ action have often been drowned out by childish claims that this shows one is insufficiently revolutionary, underestimates the workers , their ability to change their ideas quickly or that such views will not encourage workers to take action. Not in front of the children appears to be the motto. Workers are always ‘angry’ and all it needs is the right campaign, so long as it is active enough, to stir them into action.
Reality is imposing itself and no sound bites along the lines of ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ can hide the fact that the economic crisis has resulted in the imposition of austerity on workers without effective resistance. Why is this?
First we must qualify the judgement that Irish workers are peculiarly useless. Commentators have remarked in similar terms about the countries in southern Europe. We have noted before that more or less spontaneous social explosions have not resulted in great advances by the working class. Greek workers have been by far the most combative in terms of general strike action but in hardly anywhere has living standards plummeted so much. I have also noted in one of my first posts that economic crises spurs growth in extreme reactionary forces and we have seen this is in Greece with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement. So Greece is no model to seek to copy.
Secondly Irish workers have fought back albeit within very strict limits. I can still remember the very large demonstration in November 2009 in Dublin, which had many working class people from outside the ranks of the trade unions taking part. The following year public sector trade unions organised a successful strike. At a local level in certain places and at certain times strong campaigns have developed against tax increases or hospital closures. All this and more was reflected in the vote for ULA.
There is however an over-estimation about what workers can achieve within the limits of the capitalist system – a general misconception that workers’ struggles can overturn the laws of capitalism. For example, if a company goes bust and attempts to close down, making all its workers redundant, it is pretty obvious that strike action will not achieve very much.
At this point many on the left propose that the capitalist state protect workers even though these same people have a part of their brain that tells them that the state is a weapon of the capitalist class that cannot be reformed and must be smashed. They also believe that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by workers themselves but usually object to the idea that, instead of the state, the workers should take over and own and run these workplaces as workers cooperatives.
It is a similar situation at the level of society as a whole and at an international level. The Irish state was and still is bankrupt. It needed a massive injection of money to save the banks and put itself in a position to start reducing its mushrooming debt. Austerity is a means of doing this. Again the Left argues that the state can adopt policies of taxing the rich and spending money on investment that will restore the capitalist economy to economic growth, which will then deal with the problem of the debt.
This is not however the view of socialists. The socialist view, confirmed once again by recent events, is that capitalism inescapably produces economic crises which are dealt with and resolved by the laws by which the system works, including through unemployment and destruction of unsuccessful capital whose markets and sometimes businesses are picked up on the cheap by those remaining. It is not possible for the capitalist system to prevent such crises by adopting policies of more investment, as for example argued by left followers of Keynes.
It is not therefore possible for workers no matter how well organised to prevent the laws of capitalism from working. This at least was the view of Marx and the evidence of history would again confirm this. So workers resistance against austerity may be able to ameliorate austerity but, in so far as they are necessary to lay the foundations of a new upturn, it is not possible for workers to prevent unemployment or wage cuts or tax increases in their entirety or even to a significant degree. In other words it is not possible within the system to prevent capitalism periodically disrupting workers’ lives. That’s why we oppose the system and why we propose a different one called socialism. If we thought capitalism could work better without its nasty effects we wouldn’t be socialists would we?
Yet the left presents austerity as simply one policy option of the Government which it could choose to reject and replace with their own proposals. But even the Keynesian alternative requires ‘counter cyclical’ state action. In other words the austerity measures are simply postponed. All the left’s proposals involve actions by the capitalist state in one way or another – tax changes, public investment, nationalisation etc.
The point in terms of the current argument is not that the Left is misleading workers into accepting reformist solutions that won’t work and this is a reason why resistance to austerity has been such a failure in Ireland. These ideas are more widespread in southern Europe than they are here. No, the issue is that, absent a socialist alternative being created, as long as capitalism exists the laws of capitalism will continue to work and impose themselves. Resistance to austerity will therefore fail and this failure is bound in turn to lead to weakening of the resistance.
We must be careful however not to qualify the problem out of existence when it contains more than a grain of truth. When Greek workers chanted “we are not Irish” on their May Day demonstration in Athens in 2010 they weren’t imagining the relative weakness of resistance in Ireland.
Nor can the question be dismissed by saying Irish workers did fight back – they did, but nowhere near to the extent required for success.
Nor is it credible to blame the poor politics or organisation of the Irish Left.
It is also not adequate to simply say that capitalism wins unless we create socialism. This is obviously true, although its logical implications for reformist strategies and policies are often ignored. But it doesn’t come near explaining why the reformist strategies for resistance have elicited such weak workers’ action. It’s hardly that Irish workers can see through such strategies and are ready for something more radical.
Socialism is not an event or a situation but a movement. Workers will only become capable of building a socialist movement and carrying out revolutionary change if they are also capable of mounting strong resistance to the ravages of capitalism. In Ireland this hasn’t happened and there has been a retrogression of the small socialist movement, although this in itself is not particularly new.
So in Ireland the state has been able to pursue austerity policies that increase unemployment and wage restraint in order to restore its solvency in very much the same way capitalist crises work to restore profitability in the private sector. It has been able to do so without much of the resistance shown in other countries in a very similar situation. This remains to be explained.
To be continued.