Unity all round after the election

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Speculation continues about the formation of a new Government and that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will collaborate to ensure that it will be more or less stable for however long.  It would be a disturbing thing for many if the ship of State were to sail too long without what is considered to be the captain.  The Left repeats that there are no differences between the two parties and that they should unite, making it easier to present the opposition as the Left.   In doing so they remind me of regular sermons from Catholic and Protestant Churches in the North that its politicians should get over their differences, to which the latter’s reply should be – “ok, you go first.”

It is not that the Left are wrong, they are correct.  The historian Diarmaid Ferriter quoted Seán O’Faoláin in 1945 saying that “Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.”

This is something of an exaggeration – he’s wrong to say that the two parties’ ideas are not the same.  There are no ideological differences between them and this is only partly due to their respective ignorant assumptions that they don’t have any ideology in the first place; they do, and it’s called nationalism, which is very good at hiding and accommodating reactionary ideological views, often under the cover of left wing opinions.

But the long dominance of the two parties, with meagre ideological convictions to motivate them and stunted political ideas, rests on a population reared on a similar basis.  Of course the parties have gone a long way to create the lack of political development in the population but both have deeper roots borne out of the country’s lack of economic and social development for much of its history and the resulting political weakness of its working class.  This in turn has resulted in a politically weak labour movement.  An examination of this was written some time ago and I don’t intend to repeat it here.

The point is that the two civil war parties are both creations and creators of the population that supports them and that they have governed.  The rebound of Fianna Fail despite its calamitous performance as the previous Government only arises because of its continuing deep roots in society, roots that give it a permanence, which while not invariable and everlasting, nevertheless gives it a strength that can sustain major blows.  This reflects the nature of class society in Ireland and the social structure that grants endurance to the Fianna Fail clientelist machine and its nationalist ideology.

The Left would normally be built on similar permanent features of class society such as trade unions and other political movements but these are themselves politically weak and do not involve the majority of the members in regular joint activity.  This only takes place among union members when at work and mainly in their role as employees and not as trade unionists.  The roots of the union movement have particularly atrophied, as with social partnership there is little need for shop-floor or office activism when the relationship between low and high level reps and management and State sorts out everything important.  The Left has grown but mainly in localities through electoralism, not in the unions and not through rebuilding an active labour movement.  Ephemeral campaigns are no substitute for the permanent structures on which the right wing parties are based.

One mechanism that lies wholly within the Left’s power to build is a real political party; as we noted at the start the fragments could unite and stop throwing stones at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael while still in the greenhouse.  An obvious lesson of the elections, which shouldn’t need an election to be discovered, is the need for unity.

Unfortunately the AAA/PbP grouping showcases a left that comes together for the purposes of elections while tolerating and defending disunity outside them on the basis of tactics in campaigns and dogmatic political traditions and theories that they often don’t even adhere to.  The AAA/PbP is not only based on unity but also on a split within the previous United Left Alliance.

So even attempting unity is a major task that threatens the component parts because they may lose control.  But any attempt to maintain control would only frustrate the potential, the creation of which a united party is meant to release.  The point would be lost.

As I have said before, the capacity of the component organisations in a united working class party to contain large numbers of workers is very much open to doubt and in my view could only be successful if their dogmatic and undemocratic culture was dissolved, shattered or whatever simile is best applied to the process that would see it disappear.

Part of this ought also to include rejection of ideological assumptions that rest on unquestioned parroting of political views that should burn in the mouths of anyone claiming to be Marxist.  The day before the election I was listening to Today FM and Richard Boyd Barrett of People before Profit telling listeners that even those not on the Left regard the AAA/PbP as “good for the Dail”, as if it were ever any job of Marxists to be good for the institutions of the capitalist state.

Here was me thinking their duty was to expose the hollowness and pretence of capitalist democracy, not to pretty it up and sell it better than its real owners.

A further example was provided by an ‘Irish Times’ interview with the retiring (as a TD only) Joe Higgins of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who stated his faith in statist ‘socialism’ by saying that the solution to the financial crisis in 2008 was to take the banks into (democratic) public ownership, which was more or less what was done with their effective nationalisation, but which also meant taking ownership of their unpayable debts.  The idea that the socialist answer is working class, cooperative ownership was not mentioned.

No wonder so many commentators have felt able to allege that Fianna Fail “stole the left’s clothes”; a reflection of the grubby character of the clothes rather than the daring of Fianna Fail.  A promise by the latter to legislate for workers’ rights to ownership of their place of work would really have been a bold and brave step, one the Left itself hasn’t contemplated.

A left that claims to be Marxist believes that it can and has held out against the world wide right wing trend of the last decades and the even longer period of absence of revolutionary circumstances in the most advanced capitalist countries.   Of course it has not and had it done so it would, ironically, disprove Marxism, which believes that social consciousness is determined by social being, including political consciousness being conditioned by material economic, social and political circumstances.   Not simply by ideological fealty to a particular set of theories.

It would be strange if, this being the case, small and weak political formations were not subject to such forces and extraordinary if there were no examples of its effects.  Once again, ironically, the disparagement of the need for ideological debate is one such example.

While the divisions on the right are built upon denial of common ideological views that are actually there, the divisions on the Left are due to presumed ideological divisions that aren’t.  This presumption helps prevent the required political debate necessary to develop the politics of the Left beyond reformist politics that facilitate allegations of theft.

Back to part 1

The 2016 election – a victory for social democracy?

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 - Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 – Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

The 2016 general election has been hailed as delivering a ‘sensational’ result, although this is disputed, and has led to some difficulty in forming a new Government.  Apparently only one party, Fine Gael, wants to be part of one, partly as a result of the horrendous results for the governing parties in the last two contests.

In this election the two Governing parties, holding a record majority, lost heavily: the Fine Gael vote fell from 36.1% to 25.5%, while the Labour Party was decimated, losing more than three quarter of its seats, its vote falling from 19.5% to 6.6%.  The biggest apparent gainers were Fianna Fail mainly because of a striking reversal of fortune, increasing its vote from 17.5% in 2011 to over 24.3%, and Sinn Fein, which increased its vote from 9.9% to over 13.8%.  This performance however will be seen as disappointing, coming nowhere near the 20% it recorded in polls beforehand.

The governing parties stood in the election on the basis that their painful austerity medicine had worked and that there was now a remarkable recovery, the fruits of which would allow tax cuts and improvement in public services.  And the truth is that there has indeed been a recovery; new austerity measures have generally ceased and for some people incomes are rising, either through getting a job or pay increases.

Unfortunately for the Governing parties their arrogant declarations of success rankled with a population fully appreciative of the slenderness of the improvement, which for some has been non-existent, while the more they declared the scale of the success the more it appeared to contrast with the experience of the majority.  The Government claimed credit for the improvement but it was a long time coming and the Irish people are aware enough of the vulnerability of their economic circumstances not to be inclined to credit the Government with creating it or of letting the possibility of a new recession escape their minds.

Above all, the accumulated austerity measures inflicted by the Government have not at all been reversed, the huge cuts and tax increases of the last seven or more years are still being felt, the price is still being paid, and smug and arrogant claims of achievement angered a population weary of austerity and aware of too recent and continuing attacks, including water charges.

Fine Gael won the previous election on the back of the then Government’s perceived responsibility for a disastrous economic collapse, a promise that its policy would be different and that the existing ‘no bondholder left behind’ approach would be challenged.  Labour campaigned on the grounds that there was a choice between Labour’s way and Frankfurt’s way.  Of course these promises were hollow and no coherent policy alternative was put forward, a more politically aware population would have understood this, but the immediate task was to punish the egregious Fianna Fail and a Fine Gael/Labour coalition has been its historic alternative. What this meant, as one commentator has put it, was that in that election they took the least radical option for change, just as they have almost done so again, while in between they voted to accept austerity in the 2012 EU referendum.

So the 2016 election has been hailed as a vote against austerity and an Irish reflection of the forces that have produced Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US.

But the vote in 2011 was also in part a vote against austerity, although driven mainly by the desire for revenge through a massive vote against Fianna Fail, which rocked that traditional hegemonic party of the Irish State and led many to wonder whether it was finished.  It has now had something of a comeback in yet another anti-austerity election.  In the 2011 election the Labour Party did extremely well on an anti-austerity ticket, at one point believing it might end up the largest party.  So what exactly is the nature of a ‘new’ anti-austerity vote that sees the bounce-back of Fianna Fail and the continued development of Fianna Fail nua in the shape of Sinn Fein?

The general election has been characterised by some as a demand for social democracy, an anti-austerity alternative, that was reflected in Fianna Fail’s emphasis on the fruits of the recovery being spent on public services and not on tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich.  The claimed new consciousness is also supposed to be reflected in the increased vote for Sinn Fein, which emphasised that it was in favour of a ‘fair’ recovery in which the better off paid most, and in the showing of new formations such as the Social Democrats, which did moderately well arguing that US tax levels were not compatible with a European standard of public services.

There is therefore a case to be made that the election was a vote against austerity, a vote for some sort of social democracy and even a move towards a more conventional right/left political division, now that the more or less identical Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties together have declined to just under half the vote.  There is also an obvious case to be made that this is a reflection in Ireland of a wider international phenomenon.  But it is more an Irish reflection of this phenomenon rather than a reflection of the phenomenon in Ireland.

So we have an initial clear problem that the recovery in the vote for Fianna Fail is evidence of the move towards social democracy while its savaging in 2011 was also such an example.   We have a move to a left/right divide while the historically largest civil war party made a strong recovery.

This does not invalidate the argument but simply demonstrates its limitations and the weakness of the shift.  But that a shift is taking place is nevertheless still the case.  The long term decline of the civil war parties continues, as recently as 1997 they received 78% of the vote and in 2011 73%.  The 2016 vote was a vote against austerity, but not yet a vote for an alternative, at least not a real alternative because neither Fianna Fail nor Sinn Fein are a real alternative and neither are the majority of right wing independents coming, as they say, from the Fianna Fail or Fine Gael gene pool.

The social democratic tone of the likes of Fianna Fail reflects more an improved economy and not any more basic shift in economic policy.  Fianna Fail is still widely blamed for sharing a large degree of responsibility for the economic crisis while Sinn Fein voted to bail out the bankers and bondholders.  Fianna Fail has a long history of populist rhetoric and actions, which may be called social democratic in a broad sense, but which has been successfully employed to prevent the development of a left/right divide in Irish politics.  Without such a divide we have simply had a right/right division.

The case for a growing right/left split rests partly on the policy proposals of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, and their success, and partly on the pressure on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to collaborate in order to allow creation of a new Government.  There are no credible alternatives as the forces of ‘the left’ are too disparate and divided.  Some informed commentary is that Fianna Fail will not allow such an alliance to happen partly to frustrate the development of such a divide, which would threaten its traditional role and base inside the working class.

The argument for the development of a left/right demarcation however mainly rests on the rise of Sinn Fein, understood broadly as a ‘left’ party, and the fortunes of the Social Democrats and some left independents.  It also rests on the progress of the genuine left, most visibly in the shape of the Anti Austerity Alliance/People before Profit (AAA/PbP) alliance, the creation of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

But Sinn Fein is not, it must be repeated again and again, a genuine left party.  Have a look at austerity in the North if you find this hard to accept. Only by the most expansive definition can it be considered left wing, which might be useful as some sort of catch-all description in some circumstances but is misleading when it comes to any analysis.

Having a predominantly working class support does not make a working class party; Fianna Fail has had the largest support of any party within the working class for many decades until relatively recently.  A working class party is one that not only is supported by the working class or part of it, but is composed of workers, is organised from within its ranks and in some way represents its separate interests to a greater or lesser degree.

So what constitutes ‘the left’ and how has it performed in this election?  One commentator has argued that, if we include one third of the large number of independents elected, the left has hardly increased, amounting to about a third now compared to 35% in the outgoing Dail, although the composition of this left may be said to be more ‘left wing’.  A second analysis defines Labour, Sinn Fein and United Left Alliance as the left in 2011, together receiving 31.5%, while Labour, Sinn Fein, AAA/PbP and Social Democrats are defined as left for the purposes of the 2016 election, receiving 27%.  Another perspective groups the AAA/PbP and explicitly left independents together to arrive at a total of 141,890 votes, not very different from the Labour Party’s 140,898 – which is supposed to have had disastrous election.  A narrower definition could take the TDs from the United left Alliance that went into the 2011 election and compare their performance in 2016 (while including the gains of the AAA/PbP) and arrive at a total of over 5%.

None of these show any dramatically increased vote for the left, however defined, and are certainly more convincing than some comments from the AAA/PbP, who have not unnaturally looked firstly at their own results.  Richard Boyd Barrett has been quoted as stating that “we went from being newly formed to almost 4 per cent.”

However one delineates the left it is clear that the only consistent social democratic alternative offered has come from the AAA/PbP and the candidates who used to belong to the United Left Alliance and perhaps a handful of others.

There has therefore been no qualitative radicalisation but instead a longer irregular evolution of rejection of the traditional right wing parties but without an embrace of any consistently thought out alternative.  This is therefore expressed in illusions in parties which peddle familiar solutions that may appear to a greater or lesser degree to be social democratic.  When we see these include the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and even Fianna Fail what we don’t see is any sort of consistent social democracy.

to part 2

Voting in the 2016 election

aaapbp imageAs we head into the last ten days of the general election campaign the failure of Fine Gael’s strategy of ‘stability or chaos’ tells us not only that a majority would like to see a new Government, something explicitly polled and confirmed, but that there really is no threat of chaos that Fine Gael can hold itself up as protection against.  The liberal author Fintan O’Toole has cited pursuit of foreign investment, membership of the EU and a ‘consent’ approach to the national question as the reigning consensus.  Even if we added such things as social partnership, fake neutrality and unwillingness to challenge the Catholic Church this consensus holds.

So even after a full scale crisis, encompassing banking meltdown and the approach of sovereign bankruptcy, plus a grossly unfair transfer onto the majority of the reckless gambling debts of a privileged minority, the Irish working class is not threatening to overturn the existing political order.  Not that this is a shock, having voted into office the traditional Tweedledum alternative of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition to the thoroughly but not completely discredited Fianna Fail Tweedledee in the last election and then confirmed its choice in the 2012 austerity referendum.

This current vote will again demonstrate that elections will usher in no fundamental shift in the political power of the working class without a previous shift in its economic and social power and how to achieve this is hardly apprehended never mind understood.  Instead, it appears that the only stable configuration of parties that could form a Government after the vote is a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition, although opinion polls put them at just under 50 per cent of the vote.

So while nothing fundamental will change, and the inability of Irish workers to break from the rotten political culture of the Irish State is once again confirmed, this does not make the election unimportant.  A marriage of convenience between the civil war parties would be a step forward in removing the false alternative they have claimed to offer for the best part of 90 years.  Nor is the search for some sort of alternative by many workers without importance, even if most seek it in independents who are utterly dependent on the rotten political culture that is often seen as the problem, and in newer versions of the old populist nationalism that has already failed them.

The most striking expression of this search for an alternative is the potential vote for left parties made up of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit Alliance and others such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins.  Irish workers should be encouraged to vote for this left alternative.

As regular readers of the blog will know I have many criticisms of the politics of this left and I do not consider their political programmes either adequate or Marxist, in fact not even socialist, except in the popular understanding of what socialism means, in itself a misunderstanding that these parties unfortunately only confirm.

aaapbpimages (13)

The manifesto of the AAA/PbP Alliance puts forward a mixture of increased state intervention into the economy and redistribution of income through taxation.  The first involves an increased role for the existing capitalist state, which in the form of taking over of the banks was a weapon against the majority, while the second is predicated on existing property relations, the redistribution of income presupposing the existing ownership which alone can allow such a redistribution to take place.

It is however an alternative in the sense that it breaks from the right wing consensus and in doing so opens up space for a debate on more radical alternatives.  It impinges on the current choices of private capital and by seeking to protect workers from the worst ravages of the system increases their social power, which should also increase the scope for their political development.  That ultimately this Keynesian programme will not work, as indeed some of its authors admit, does not currently matter since it will not be called upon to be implemented.

The problems created by the view that the limited programme will be naturally outgrown by the need to go further, in order to realise even the limited aims of the proposals offered, remain but will therefore not be exposed.  The fight for more radical change based on a strategy centred on electoral and parliamentary success, but without the necessary building of the working class’s social power, will prove disastrous, since it fights precisely on the terrain favoured by the political and social forces that are the bulwarks of the current system.  No amount of rhetoric about support for a left Government from mass action outside the Dail makes up for the weakness of seeing the state as the mechanism for social and economic transformation.

Nevertheless the left’s alternative creates openings and if even minimally successful would create more favourable political and social conditions for the political development of the working class.  The organisations involved would not be able to cope in their existing form were masses of workers to join them, seeking to make them vehicles for their political advance.  These organisations would be changed more by a large influx of workers than the workers would be changed by these organisations.  Already their sometime declared revolutionary politics has been diluted by their electoral activity and hasn’t withstood the necessity of knocking on doors and asking for votes.

The less than revolutionary character of their programmes is due to their inability to conceive of revolutionary politics in a non-revolutionary situation, reflected in the low level of political consciousness of the workers from whom they have sought votes.  In this the left are not an obstacle but not much of a help either, certainly not as much as they should be.

The lack of democracy and dogmatic character of the left organisations would shatter if masses of workers raised within them the real questions facing the construction of socialism.  This lack of democracy is not primarily because of undemocratic restrictions, such as lack of rights to organise political tendencies, but because the memberships see no fundamental problems that need debate in the first place; despite or perhaps because of the lack of any revolutionary success.  For them the strategic questions have already been answered.  However for workers this might not be the case.

The Left are now recording around 10 per cent in Dublin and such a result would be a significant step forward.  Such results do not however confirm the strategy of seeking creation of a Left Government as the way forward, and given the political and economic crisis of the last decade may be seen as a relatively poor return.  What the left offers however is a class identification even if somewhat diluted.  This is evidenced in their ideological background, their manifestos and subjective intentions. On this it may be possible for something more adequate to the tasks to develop.

A vote for these left candidates is therefore important and would strengthen the resistance to existing austerity.  It would place the existence of an alternative on the political agenda in a much more elevated way and make it the subject of increased debate.

The question then arises whether a vote for Sinn Fein should also be called for.  After all, I have previously argued that the difference between the policies of Sinn Fein and the Left is one of degree – greater state involvement and greater redistribution but no fundamental change in property relationships.  I noted that involvement of Sinn Fein in a left electoral alliance would add some credibility to the perspective of electing a Left Government, which is the left’s own perspective, and I recommended that the left seek agreement with Sinn Fein on the platform for such a potential alliance and future Government.

However, the pursuit of some sort of agreement was put forward in order to better expose the limitations of Sinn Fein’s claims or alternatively to lock them more effectively into an agreement of more substance.  In the event this approach was not attempted and neither objective can be said to have been achieved.  There is no real left alliance regardless of Sinn Fein signing up to the principles of Right2Change or agreements on voting transfers.

Sinn Fein is therefore standing as a purely independent party and can only be judged on its own credentials.  In the North it has been tried and tested and has not only failed to offer an effective fight against austerity, or alternative to it, but has actually implemented it in coalition with one of the most right wing parties in Europe.  It is a purely nationalist party that abandoned its core rationale a long time ago; it has no class perspective, even of a limited kind, and its interventions in actual struggles against austerity have been opportunistic.

Of course it can be argued that the smaller organisations of the left have the luxury of not having been tested either and their constant refrain of betrayals of the working class have been made without themselves having withstood the pressures of office.  Indeed my argument has been that their reformist and electoralist strategy puts them precisely in the position of those such as Syriza in Greece that they have condemned for selling out.

There is however a difference between those who have been tested and failed and those who have not.  A difference between those who offer some perspective of struggle, even if subordinated to electoral and parliamentary calculations, and those for whom such calculations are everything.   A difference between those whose politics are purely nationalist and those whose policies are limited to the nation state by virtue of other weaknesses of their political programme.  A difference between those for whom the working class has some independent political interest and those for whom it is simply a sociological category denoting the poorest sections of society.

There should be no vote for Sinn Fein even though a strong showing for it would also reflect opposition to austerity and pursuit of an alternative.  While it is possible that the working class could develop its political strength and its class consciousness through left organisations, in my view the possibility of doing this through Sinn Fein is excluded.  A strong vote for Sinn Fein is as likely to lead it into coalition with Fianna Fail as it is to result in increased pressure for concessions to workers.  This is more so the case because of the lack of any alliance of Sinn Fein with the left, for which of course the fault lies also with Sinn Fein itself.

Workers in the Irish State should therefore vote for the Left.

Dáil tactics when there is no Left Government

Dail images (13)With protest politics in single issue campaigns being inadequate to stem or reverse austerity, and with a party building strategy based on electoral intervention, there is no doubt that the obvious prospect of no left Government arising from the general election that is closing in leaves the Left with a problem in explaining what they’re going to do.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance proposes the following:

“In the case that no left programme for government can be agreed, but a government could be formed without the establishment parties, our TDs will vote in the Dáil to allow the formation of that alternative government. While we would not participate in a government without a left programme, we would allow that government to come to power and then vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.”

Whether this addresses the problem satisfactorily we shall see.  First we should note the absolutely crucial role the project of forming a left Government plays, for the AAA says immediately after the above that:

“At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”

It is not therefore just that protest politics on its own presents limits to potential impact, or that electoralism has eaten into any former recognition of the limits of parliamentary politics on transformational change; it is clear that forming a Government sitting at the top of the state is the route to their ultimate political objectives.  Since immediate achievement of a majority in the Dáil has never been possible and success in getting a few TDs elected can no longer be presented as success the problems of being a minority in the Dail unable to form an administration have to be addressed.

This is especially so given the enormous economic and political crisis that has hit the Irish State over the last 8 years or so.  Following scandals that robbed the political establishment, state institutions and the Church of much legitimacy the financial crisis saw the State go bankrupt in order to bailout bankers  who were exposed as treating the people with complete contempt.  The Irish State lost any pretence at undivided and exclusive sovereignty through the arrival of the Troika and austerity saw large reductions in peoples’ living standards, compelling tens of thousands to emigrate.  After all this the failure to elect parties no different from those that presided over the crisis, plus voting to endorse austerity by EU Treaty, have been blows to the Left view that their combination of protest and electoralism offers a long term alternative.  And here I will ignore the Left’s habit of always posing its answers with regard only to the short term.

The AAA says its TDs will allow the formation of a Government that does not contain the establishment parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour Party, but does this mean it will vote in the Dail for it or simply abstain? It then says it will vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.  What if a proposed budget (for example) includes both?  What if voting against a measure will see this government fall with the likely alternative being formed by the establishment parties?

With a non-left Government in place there will be no pretence on its part to be introducing a non-capitalist alternative.  Does the AAA think it correct to keep such a Government in office?  How would their political responsibility in doing so be justified?  What measures by this Government would see the AAA vote against it regardless of the consequences in relation to its replacement?  Who would make such decisions?

If it would in effect allow a non-left government to remain in office how can it oppose an alliance with the trade unions in Right2Change on the basis that such an alliance will include Sinn Fein, when Sinn Fein would inevitably be in the non-left Government that the AAA would allow to be formed and would support in certain votes?  That it will not form an alliance is based on the claim that SF in government “will make compromises with the system . . .  that will undermine the whole basis of the initiative and lead to a dead end.”

Since socialists in parliament are obliged to vote for measures that benefit or strengthen workers, no matter who proposes them, it does not appear that the AAA is saying anything very new.  Except that it will be taking political responsibility for letting that Government take up office in the first place, and this on the basis that it is not formed of ‘establishment parties’, which is hardly a very rigorous political distinction on which to make such a judgement.

All this may be academic as at least one of these parties will be in government following the elections.   The main point is not that Dail tactics may be unclear and messy but that the admission that such tactics are now considered means the strategy of forming a left Government as the answer to the political challenges faced by workers will shortly be revealed to be worse than academic.  Worse because the reformist logic behind this perspective will not only not have any purchase on reality after the election but will prevent elaboration of a debate on what a socialist strategy should be.

That the logic of the AAA strategy is reformist is made clear by the passage quoted above – “At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”  Such is the role of the workers – to put pressure on the capitalist politicians and then replace them with other better politicians.

All this being the result of “ mass movement”  does not make it better but in so far as it becomes the fixed and certain political perspective of the workers’ movement it is a strategy bound to mislead.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with putting pressure on capitalist politicians and a left Government is preferable to a right-wing one.  The point is that this pressure should arise from a strategy of building up working class power and seeking to exploit a left Government to facilitate this further.  This is not the same as this pressure and a left Government actually being the strategy itself.

So why is this misleading?  Well the Socialist Workers Party, which leads the People before Profit electoral front, has written a short article setting out the history of the failure of such initiatives based on the traditional Marxist analysis that the capitalist state cannot be reformed, even with a left government sitting on top of it.  I will look at this in the final post.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

The exclusion of Sinn Fein from the idea of a Left Government

demo imagesSince there isn’t going to be a left government elected in 2016 the left has seen itself with two challenges.  Firstly how to defend themselves against the charge that it is they who are the barrier to such a prospect through ruling out an electoral alliance of some sort with Sinn Fein and the trade union organised Right2Water campaign and secondly, how do they explain their electoral strategy without a left Government; a plan B so to speak?

As I have argued in the three previous posts, the left programme for Government and that advocated by the Right2Water campaign are not so dissimilar and if they were serious about a broad alliance that included Sinn Fein there would have been more of an effort to pursue an agreed platform and having done so seek to split the trade unions from endorsing Sinn Fein if this effort proved fruitless.  The cause of the failure could then be held up as warranting the split of the unions from their endorsement  of the Sinners.  I have argued the grounds for the latter are narrow, although from my point of view this justifies more the creation of a different platform than accommodation with Sinn Fein.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance has attempted to do some weak imitation of this in a statement:

“The AAA is part of Right2Water and we believe that R2W and the trade unions behind it have played a very important role in mobilising people on many mass demonstrations.  We accept the positive intentions of the trade unions in initiating Right2Change but we believe having Sinn Fein at the centre of a new anti austerity political movement is a major mistake.”

The statement then goes on to make a number of points about the weak tactics of Sinn Fein in the anti-water charges campaign, their role in imposing austerity in the North, their signals to Fianna Fail (FF) that they may go into coalition with them and their own much more radical policies and reliance on working class self-activity.  Finally they bum up the potential for a left-led electoral intervention, dropping a figure of potentially 30 per cent support into the discussion.

As far as tactics go, tactics are tactics and not a strong basis to refuse alliance.  The criticism of Sinn Fein’s role in the North is bang-on; the question of coalition with FF would not arise if there was a wider left alliance and their claim to much more radical policies is not nearly as strong as they would like to believe.  Certainly, as the analysis of their budgetary proposals goes, it is a question of differences of degree only, which are important but not in themselves enough to rule out an alliance.  As for the question of workers’ self-activity – in the left’s strategy this the consistent practice of sponsoring campaign fronts consisting of protests over single issues.  The broader strategy remains one of electoral success backed up by such support outside, workers self-activity is therefore strategically subordinate.  And as far as the prospects for success go, the figure of 30 per cent is not a promise, not a forecast and not an analysis or fact on which to decide what has to be done.

In answering the specific questions posed by the Right2Change they argue as follows:

“Does the AAA support the Right2Change policy principles?

The AAA generally supports the reforms outlined in the policy principles. We believe that for these to be realised will necessitate going much further than the projected spending increases in the Fiscal Framework Document. These reforms are reasonable and necessary and provide the opportunity to win mass support for the radical change that is needed but they are beyond what the current system can offer.

Does the AAA agree now to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow?

The AAA is open to participate in government but not a government that includes any parties associated with austerity or a government whose policy is based on operating within the strict fiscal rules set by the EU or capitalism. We want a government that will scrap the unjust taxes and charges and reverse the draconian austerity cuts that have been implemented; a government that immediately sets about the transformation of the economy on the basis of democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy to ensure people’s needs not profit is the basis of society.”

What this means is that the AAA is not in favour of a left Government but what might be called an anti-capitalist Government in which case an alliance with Sinn Fein does not arise, and neither for that matter does an alliance with the trade unions in the anti-water charges campaign

In so far as the AAA pretends to an alliance with these trade unions it is on the basis that agreed reforms have simply to be made more extensive to inevitably lead to a break with the EU and capitalism and the working class that voted for these reforms will carry along supporting this break.  The left Government leads and the working class follows or, in the very left version of this strategy the left leads the workers in militant action that leads them to elect a left Government that the working class follows.  Not much hangs on the difference.  In either case the working class is expected to be a bit slow in realising that when it votes for reforms it really gets revolution, of a sort.

Except it won’t be getting socialism.

As Leon Trotsky so accurately put it “it would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In essence the policy of the other organisation on the radical left, People before Profit (PbP), is no different from the Anti-Austerity Alliance:

“Sinn Fein is sending out conflicting signals. They talk about forming a ‘progressive government’ but also indicate that they are willing to join in coalition with Fianna Fail or Labour, provided they are the larger party. In view of the position we stated above, they

* would have to rule out coalition with the establishment parties –something they are very reluctant to do.

* would have to agree to an increase in corporation tax – even though they tried to reduce it in the North.

* would have to agree to writing down Ireland’s debt rather than just asking permission from the EU.

* would have to stop promoting austerity in the North while opposing it in the South.

* would have to join the active fight against water charges by promoting a boycott.

Working people who want real and significant change should query Sinn Fein on these issues.”

The PbP policy has all the strengths and weaknesses of the former but it combines it with its own political confusions which I will look at in the next post.

Back to part 3

How left does a Left Government have to be?

AAAdownloadThe weakness of the left’s strategy is revealed in the proposals upon which they would proclaim their difference from Sinn Fein and their preference not to seek a common platform.  If we look at the Anti-austerity Alliance (AAA) proposals for the 2016 budget we can see this illustrated in a number of ways. The gap in the strategy of the Left, evidenced in the AAA proposals, therefore also raises the question of how left the policies of a Left government have to be.

But first there is the reluctance of the AAA to accept that there is an economic recovery and one that many have benefited from, if only to the extent that the cuts appear to have relented.  Of course, that the rich do best is a permanent result in capitalism.  The issue here is not that the rich do best but the view that “for us, for working class people, for the majority of young people, unemployed people, pensioners and small farmers – there is no recovery.”  (AAA)

But this isn’t true.  Unemployment has fallen, and not just as a result of emigration, and wages are beginning to rise again while taxes are no longer increasing as before.  These things matter to people and go some way to explaining why there will be no left Government elected in 2016.

Stating otherwise allows the opponents of socialism to claim that socialism is politics for the poorest only.  It sits comfortably in right-wing rhetoric that socialists are only interested in those at the very bottom of society as opposed to better off or better placed workers.  It makes poverty the issue rather than the class inequalities and class divide in society.  It does not make one more of a socialist, or revolutionary, to deny that capitalism can improve the living standards of workers in particular ways, within particular limits and with regular crises that threaten the lifestyle that workers have slowly tried to create for themselves.

Worst of all, it fits with the view that socialism is created not out of the strength of the working class – that it has employment, that this employment is often skilled, that society is dependent on this skilled labour, that the working class is increasingly educated, and that it is not on desperation and oppression that socialism will be built but on hope, expectation and confidence of the working class in its potential power.

Above all, the unity of workers is based on shared interests regardless of more or less temporary differences in status and income.  The income inequalities within the working class are barriers to its political unity while the reformist emphasis on redistribution ignores what all workers share regardless of levels of income.

Poverty, unemployment and marginalisation are most important from a political point of view because they present barriers to a common class identity and unity.   Denying what little improvement there is robs whatever else is said by socialists of some credibility and it is not necessary to deny the growth of capitalism in order to argue for its greater failure and the need for an alternative.

When we move to the programme of the AAA the gap in the perspective of the left becomes apparent.  In proposals to repudiate the debt the case of Syriza’s attempt to renegotiate the Greek debt is recalled.  While it is proposed that “a left government in Ireland would demand a negotiated write-down of debt to a sustainable level” it is acknowledged that “if as the Greek experience indicates seems likely, it did not have success at the negotiating table, it (a left government) would then turn to the option of repudiation.”

The proposals state that this would involve an audit of the debt and that “it is reasonable to estimate that such a debt audit repudiation would result in a reduction of the total debt to at most 50% of GDP.”  The issues this proposal throw up – of opposition by the EU and of private capitalist measures that would be taken in retaliation, in other words of everything that makes this option a challenge, is unexplained.  The unwillingness to state how this would be successfully implemented and the opposition to it defeated hides an inability to explain how it could be carried out.

No amount of rhetoric will hide the failure to explain what needs to be done to implement the policy.  In a previous post I have looked at the lessons that the Greek experience might teach us, which elicited some discussion, but none of the potential lessons touched upon there are presented in the proposals of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.   Unfortunately problems are not overcome by ignoring them.

A second area in which purely reformist perspectives are evident is in the proposals for ‘Public Investment, Jobs and Decent Work’.  Here it is argued that “the state should not only be willing to employ people in public services, but rather should also invest and create jobs in “wealth creating’ sectors of the economy – construction, communications, natural resources.”

This proposal cannot be confused with the demand for employment presented in the Transitional Programme written by Leon Trotsky, which was written to “deal with the present catastrophic period” and which was not a perspective for long term development of the (capitalist) economy.  It was required in order to protect the working class “under the menace of its own disintegration.”  Its purpose was not primarily to protect living standards or to provide a long-term solution to the ravages of unemployment but was necessary because “the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. . . Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility.”  Its purpose was plainly mainly a political one, to put the workers in a better position to take over society, not to confuse such measures with socialism itself.

The proposal is mistaken not only on the grounds of principle, that it proposes, and expects, that the capitalist state  could “provide the investment necessary for the creation of a an economically and environmentally sustainable recovery”, in other words a more efficient and effective capitalism, but that its proposals are concentrated on development of infrastructure that private capitalism has been so bad at providing almost everywhere and on which it has often relied on the capitalist state to provide.  In other words state investment in infrastructure is complementary to private capitalism not a competitor to it, even if state ownership in itself could be so considered, which it can’t.

The specific proposals for investment make this clear, mostly directed to traditional state sectors – a public works programme based on the water and sewerage industries, healthcare and education; childcare and development of wind energy.  All are complementary to existing private capitalist accumulation and are supportive of it.  Even development of the wind industry is already well established and already has state companies at its core – ESB and EirGrid.

The most dynamic industries situated in Ireland are in the ICT and chemicals sectors (including pharmaceuticals).  Encouraging the setting up of workers cooperatives in these would signal a real appreciation of the possibility of a workers’ owned cooperative sector of the economy growing in competition with the private capitalist sector, laying the basis of a future economy totally based on cooperative principles.   But there is no evidence that this has been considered at all.

Finally, the AAA proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply asks that the headline rate of 12.5 per cent becomes the effective rate.  It is obviously aware of the timidity of its approach despite saying that: “by maintaining a regime of low effective corporation tax to entice foreign multinational companies, Irish society pays a heavy price by depriving our wrecked public services of the funds they require to provide decent living conditions for all.”

Given its view of the paramount need to redistribute income from the richest corporations to workers it makes little sense to propose that these corporations incur a tax rate of 12.5 per cent while the lowest income tax rate for workers is 20 per cent (excluding the universal social charge).  The reluctance to even make them equal arises from the knowledge that such a rate would not be considered credible.  The AAA is unable to rebut the claims of establishment society that low corporate taxation is essential for the State’s economic sustainability:

“If it is truly the case – as claimed by the entire political establishment (as well as Sinn Féin, who support not only maintaining corporation tax at its current levels but extending that rate into the North) – that the slightest rise in effective corporation tax, to say fund the expansion our healthcare system and end the scandal of homelessness, would lead to a flight of companies out of Ireland then that is an indictment of their system, not a mark of economic irresponsibility on the part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.”

So despite stating that “it is not simply a matter of tweaking with elements of the system here and there”; that a “rupture is needed”; “rules must be broken” and “a fundamental transformation of our society  . . needed”, it becomes clear that this rupture lacks foundation, except as a generalised declaration of the existence already of “the wealth and resources . . to deal with all the ongoing problems of the crisis”.

The calls for a “move to a socialist economy, with public ownership of the key sources of wealth, under democratic control of working people, and planned in the interests of the majority”, like the AAA “indictment of their system”, becomes a moral condemnation separated from a programme to achieve the goals desired.

If the AAA cannot have the confidence that multinational capital will not up-sticks and leave upon increased corporate taxes, never mind actively seek to sabotage a left Government’s plans, then what confidence can workers have?  More importantly – what will give workers this confidence to take steps to tax the rich, tax the corporations and slash corporate welfare?  The AAA itself admits that: “as was unfortunately demonstrated in Greece, the wealthy are unreconciled as a class of people to any encroachment on their privilege. . . . the rich . . . will attempt to do whatever it takes to avoid paying for the crisis in their system.”

Unfortunately the AAA comes nowhere near explaining just what “whatever it takes” means, or whatever it takes would mean for the working class to defeat this capitalist resistance.  A radical left Government that truly sought to introduce a socialist society could not do whatever it takes, and this wouldn’t be mainly because of the opposition of capitalism, but because socialism can only be the creation of the working class itself, not a left government sitting atop a capitalist state.  If multinational capital struck against a radical Irish state this state is not capable of taking over the production vacated even if it were able to sell internationally what it produced.

This demonstrates in a very practical way how reformist notions of a state-led transformation of capitalism into socialism cannot work.  Only working people themselves can take over production and organise it on a cooperative basis.  Only workers can implement a radical restructuring and development of a cooperative economy and only they can replace, if necessary, the production vacated by fleeing multinationals.  That no significant section of Irish workers sees this as a possibility, as a mission, is why they buy into the fear that to challenge multinational capital too hard would only invite a retaliation they would be unable to cope with.

All this is why the creation of workers’ cooperatives is so necessary – in order to establish in the minds of workers the realisation that they can own and control production themselves; that they can create their own firms, provide their own jobs, develop their own products and markets, and impose their own discipline in the workplace.  On such a basis the failure of capitalist production will more and more witness a successful rival that, as the cooperative sector grows, would provide a potential alternative to it, one based on more than simple propaganda or agitation.

This alternative would involve the realisation of workers that their future lies not in sacrifices for the capitalist system but the development of their own cooperative sector to cover the whole of production.  In this rival sector of working class power all firms would be under the ownership and control of their workforce, all jobs their creation and all products those that workers see a genuine need for.  Within this sector of the economy their own discipline would determine the relations of power which would more and more come into conflict with the relations of power across the rest of society.  Such an exercise of power would see them shed illusions in the neutral role of the state and would see them stop looking to the state as the solution to all their problems – a state that they can never control and that can never reflect their interests or will.

Unfortunately the AAA like many others present the state very differently, as all its proposals demonstrate.  I will not dwell here on whether its devotion to the capitalist state as the vehicle for socialist transformation is a result of electoralism, which posits a left government at the top of the state as the key task, or whether worship of the transformative power of the state makes pursuit of a left Government the only rational objective.  But even the AAA sometimes can’t help expose the contradictions in its whole approach, as when it states that: “the contrast between the state’s efforts to publicise its corporate welfare schemes and its miserly approach to social welfare claimants could not be starker, or more revealing of the capitalist interests the state exists to serve.”

So if the state exists to serve capitalist interests why would it tax a resistant capitalist class, provide jobs for workers and strengthen their bargaining power; attack corporate welfare; countenance the replacement of private capitalist investment for its own and agree to a programme that clams will lead to socialism?

Perhaps some defence of the AAA proposals is possible by recalling its statement that “the purpose of the Anti-Austerity Alliance budget statement is to give an illustration of how things could be organised differently – how the wealth exists to provide decent living standards for all.” Except that what it holds up is more than an illustration but is proposed as an important step on the road to a socialist society.  Of course socialists should not oppose the measure proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance but only because their implementation, even partially, would make taking the right steps on the right road to working class power easier.

One purpose of the examination of the AAA proposals has been to demonstrate that the conception of change held by the left is not so very different from that of Sinn Fein; one based on state led economic development directed by a left Government with popular support.  In the next post I will look at further proposals to separate the left from the Sinn Fein by People before Profit and what approaches the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have for dealing with the situation after the election when there will not be the left Government they seek.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4