Some comments on the Greek referendum

Greece3543The decision of the Syriza Government to call a referendum on the proposed austerity proposals of the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) in return for another ‘bailout’ programme reminds me of the Irish austerity referendum three years ago.  It gave rise to one of the first posts on this blog.

The Irish people voted by a large majority to support austerity.  Will the Greeks do the same?

The Irish voted reluctantly to accept austerity (how else could you do so?) because there was no alternative at hand.   The arguments of the Left that the Irish State could lead a growth agenda of Keynesian stimulus hardly convinced when that State had just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.

Both the reason for the defeat and its effects have not been appreciated.  Of the latter it is enough to ponder the proposals of the trade unions behind the largest sustained opposition to the austerity agenda – the Right2Water proposals for ‘A New Fiscal Framework for a Progressive Government’, which proposes additional State expenditure of €9.4 billion over 4 years.  This would amount to less than 4.5% of the 2014 level of Government expenditure.

The Right2Water’s ‘Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government’ contains a section which proclaims the need for additional investment in the water and sanitation system of “between €6 and €7 billion”, which leaves just around €2.5 to €3.5 billion for education, health, investment and everything else.  This is not so much an alternative to the current Government’s strategy as a variant of it.  So much have horizons been lowered.

According to the authors of this document the rules of the EU will be adhered to while seeking flexibility within them and negotiating additional scope for spending.  But the case of Greece exposes that the rules of the EU, ECB and IMF can be bent to suit.

So the claim that joining the Euro was irrevocable has been discarded by the leading powers in the EU to be replaced as the biggest threat to the Greek Government and people – vote against our austerity plan and you are voting to leave the Euro.

The propaganda campaign by the EU leaders includes European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, who says he feels ‘betrayed’, and complains about a lack of “good faith” and “sincerity” from the Greeks.  This from a man who presided over the building of Luxembourg into a tax haven.  Yet he sees fit to question the Greek Government and people over their right and capacity to raise taxes.  Has the tax evasion facilitated by Luxembourg not contributed to the Greek predicament?

Christine Lagarde of the IMF proclaims she wants “adults in the room” with whom to negotiate, attempting to infantilise the Greek Government representatives and by extension the Greek people.  This is the Lagarde who has been placed ‘under investigation’ in a fraud case.  One can’t help but recall the behaviour of the previous head of the IMF, Dominic Strauss-Kahn.  Getting fucked by the IMF is a pleasure for no one.

In the current case this involves Troika demands for drastic reductions in the pensions of some of the poorest Greek pensioners and increases in VAT that will hit both those who will pay increased prices and the small businesses compelled to charge them.

On the Left these demands of the Troika are likewise treated as in effect an ultimatum which should lead to exiting the Euro – as the only effective response to the unceasing demands for austerity.  What for the leaders of the EU is a threat which the Greek people should retreat from is for some on the Left a major part of the solution.  What for the former is a recipe for chaos is for the latter the way out of it.

In my view the former are correct.  Exiting the Euro would lead to a new Drachma that would involve massive devaluation and a large reduction in Greek workers’ living standards.  Cutting one’s own throat is not preferable to having someone else do it.  If Greece is thrown out of the Euro it naturally has no choice but that is not a choice it should itself make.

It is clear however that the choice at the end of the day is not Greece’s to make.  It is not in a position to compel a significant reduction in austerity or debt relief even while many commentators who support the austerity demanded admit that debt relief is inevitable.  The reason that they demand austerity nevertheless, even while recognising that it has failed, is that they seek the removal of the Syriza Government.

The EU leaders tried it last week and now seek it this week through refusing to accept Syriza’s huge concessions, refusing to extend the ‘bailout’ and through freezing ECB liquidity provision to the Greek banks.

The Greek workers should reject the austerity plan from the EU and reject the non-solution of leaving the Euro.  Only on the basis of fighting austerity and refusing a go-it-alone nationalist solution can it minimally seek to build a movement that would stem the demands for austerity.  What the Greek crisis shows is that such austerity can only be fought at an international level.

What does this mean?

Well, let’s look at what the Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason, who is covering the crisis, had to say.   Exit from the Euro may be inevitable he says because of democracy – the population of Northern Europe would not support the transfers required to reverse austerity inflicted on Greece while the Greek people may no longer accept it.

In this he is at least partly right.  Only an international campaign of solidarity with the Greek people, which explained that the bailout was not for them, but for the German and French banks and hedge funds who invested in lending to Greece, could explain the real function of austerity and lay out the grounds for convincing those outside Greece to reject it.  On this basis it might force a retreat from the austerity demanded by other EU Governments, including the repulsive Irish one.

Within Greece it would require not just an ‘OXI’ vote but a mass movement that would compel implementation of a Syriza programme to tax the oligarchs through occupations to open the books of these businesses and in doing so help put in place a rigorous system of tax collection.

In itself this would only form the starting point of a workers’ alternative – one that is based on development of worker owned production.  Such workers’ cooperatives are the alternative to the weak and crony capitalism from which Greece suffers.  It offers practical proof of the socialist alternative and is a basis for its growth this side of political revolution.  The latter in turn will gain credibility from practical demonstration of a socialist programme.

The lack of such international and domestic conditions caused defeat for Irish workers in their referendum.  A very different vote in Greece would be a step forward for Irish workers now.

On the other hand the very worst result would be defeat in the referendum and a Syriza Government implementing austerity.

While the Dutch hatchet-man Jeroen Dijsselbloem again reveals the Euro leaders agenda of getting rid of the elected Greek Government – “ who are we trusting” he says if Syriza promised to implement the austerity it had just rejected, Varoufakis is quoted as saying that Syriza would do just this.  “If the people give us a clear instruction to sign up on the institutions’ proposals, we shall do whatever it takes to do so – even if it means a reconfigured government.”

Such an approach would discredit any sort of Left alternative and pave the way for a hard right Government to eventually push through austerity on a demoralised workers’ movement.

The long resistance of Greek workers to austerity has given hope that we are not yet at such a result and that the struggle against austerity will continue.

Has the Irish Left missed the boat?

Screen-Shot-2015-05-31-at-02.29.362An article in the ‘Village’ magazine presents the argument that the Left has missed the opportunity to translate widespread opposition to water charges into a significant challenge to the status quo in the coming general election.

As a hard fact that must be faced, the author of it notes that it’s now possible to imagine not only a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coalition but even the re-election of a Fine Gael/Labour Party Government.  What a kick in the teeth that would be!  Rather like the re-election of the Tories in Britain.  “It’s time for some serious self-criticism” he says.

The conclusion drawn, although it remains totally unexplored, is that the people “have found the alternatives unconvincing.”  That is, they have found the left alternative unconvincing.

It’s not clear to me from the argument of the article that many ever did but I’m not going to go very far in this post in looking at this either.

Instead I want to reflect on the response that the article has evinced from the Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy.  While there appears to be a debate here the grounds of it are very narrow indeed.

In his call for self-criticism Ronan Burtenshaw first points to opinion polls which showed a rise in support for independents during 2014, from 18% or 22% (depending on the poll) to 32% and 30%.  Support for the two established right-wing parties on the other hand had fallen from 30%/28% and 22%/22% for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail respectively to 19%/21% and 21%/19%.

The problem he points to is that in May this year one poll showed support for independents down to 24% and another back down at 22%.  Since he explains the original increase as a result of a series of mass mobilisations against water charges he argues that the effect of this “has evaporated pretty much completely.”

Paul Murphy argues that Ronan’s conclusion is wrong –

“His conclusion, that the fall in opinion polls is because people looked at the alternatives and found them to be unconvincing, simply does not flow from the data, or his preceding analysis. Instead, I would contend that the opinion polls worsened primarily because of the decline of major mobilisations as well as because the low point for the government wasn’t fully capitalised on by a sufficiently authoritative force to consolidate the indicated trends.”

The second part of this explanation is part-admission of Burtenshaw’s case – his argument that the alternative was not convincing might be seen as just another way of saying that there was no sufficiently authoritative force to consolidate gains.

Of course what Paul Murphy is arguing is that if the forces arguing for the left alternative were bigger its alternative would have been accepted by more people and there is nothing inherently unpersuasive about the left alternative.  But this leaves aside the problem why the left was not bigger and why its argument, if it was persuasive, did not lead to further growth than it did, or rather did not allow growth to be maintained.  If it was persuasive would it not also have been authoritative and, if authoritative is a euphemism for being bigger, how did being persuasive not lead to this increased size?

Paul Murphy argues that Burtenshaw’s case has two flaws, the first of which is that it ignores the temporary impact on the popularity of the governing parties of victory in the referendum on marriage equality.  He says that this allowed the Labour Party in particular “to wrap itself in a rainbow flag and present itself as socially progressive . . . I think much of that can be reversed as people are reminded by the real role of the Labour Party”, which includes further privatisation of Aer Lingus.

By the way, Murphy accuses Burtenshaw of ‘confirmation bias’.  That is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.  But Murphy is guilty of this himself, no more obvious than when he dismisses the Labour Party’s role in the marriage equality referendum.  The “real role of the Labour Party” that Murphy wishes to counterpose to its progressive role in the recent referendum includes support for such liberal measures as marriage equality.

But Paul Murphy’s bigger argument is that the decline in opinion poll ratings was due to the absence of visible mass mobilisations around water charges such as the huge demonstrations that started in Dublin and around the State in the last quarter of 2014.  There is no doubt some merit in this argument but it is not as strong as it is presented and does not bear the weight he places on it.

But he also acknowledges two things which again support Burtenshaw’s argument about the weakness of the Left’s alternative.  The first is admission that the role of the leaders of the Right2Water campaign cannot be substituted by the campaigns of the Left, (which calls into question the creation of separate campaigns by the Left groups).

Second is the acknowledgement that protest demonstrations cannot in themselves be the answer.  They cannot substitute for a movement, one that is organised with permanent structures, which provide it with a life of its own outside the calls of unelected leaders to come onto the streets.  So Murphy admits that “It may not be the case that the same level of mobilisation could be achieved now.”

So if the decline in poll ratings is at least partly due to the decline in mass protest and the decline in mass protest is at least partly unavoidable this looks very much like another admission of the weakness of the Left alternative.  Even with support from the Right2Water leaders a series of mass protests could not continue to have the same effect as the first demonstrations that were such a shock to the political system.

Partly this is because the political consciousness of many participants does not go beyond protest politics, involving illusions that the Governing parties will listen, content that they have protested, or simply unable to find a way to turn anger and protest into an alternative.

Less importantly, but necessary to learn, the decline is due to the excessive weight put on the tactic of non-payment by some on the Left.  This tactic might be helped by regular mass demonstrations of opposition but this is not an absolute requirement.   It does not justify a separate campaign with this tactic as its raison d’etre, with its necessary downgrading of creation of a genuine democratic and united campaign that the Right2Water should have been and should still become.

So another illustration of weakness is the inability of the Left to effectively challenge the Right2Water leadership to create a genuine democratic campaign.

The weight put on the tactic of non-payment can be interpreted to mean that more or less on its own it will deliver victory, so why be so concerned about anything else?  But this anything else, as I have noted before, includes the opposition responding to a particular tactic with one of its own such as deducting payment out of incomes.

The Government has also responded by major concessions in terms of the amount to be paid.  As I have also noted before with the carrot comes the stick and shortly after the carrot came the attempts to criminalise and intimidate opposition activists through arrests.

So no tactic by definition is a guarantee of success.

The anything else also involves the whole austerity offensive to which non-payment is so clearly not relevant.  Cuts in services, unemployment, increases in taxes and wage cuts are not going to be prevented or reversed by non-payment so an anti-austerity campaign that features so heavily on non-payment as the key to success has a big question to answer about how success will be achieved in all the other, bigger areas in which austerity has bitten into workers’ living standards.  How if only non-payment works can we fight back in these other areas?

The biggest challenge to the Left which the anti-water charges campaign cannot by itself answer is the seeming success of the governing parties in implementing austerity and now being in a position to claim success.

The upturn in economic fortunes is real.  Unemployment has fallen, the series of major cut-backs has ended and new increases in public spending, cuts in taxation and pay Increases are promised.

The contribution of Eoin Ó Broin from Sinn Fein makes a number of correct points in relation to this:

“Trying to read the poll-on-poll movements against specific political events is always speculative.

Fine Gael’s poll decline in the second half of 2014 was as much to do with the controversies surrounding medical cards, penalty points and Garda Ombudsman as it was to do with the politics of water.

Indeed middle class discomfort with water charges during 2014 had more to do with the initial charging regime, the handing over of PPS numbers and the excessive costs of Irish Water than with principled opposition to the charges and privatisation.

It is not at all clear that the Right2Water mobilisations had any material impact on Fine Gael’s poll numbers or standing with the electorate during 2014.

Replacing Shatter and Reilly with Fitzgerald and Varadkar coupled with the impact of job growth and tax cuts on middle class voters is clearly driving the Fine Gael poll recovery.

Alan Kelly’s revised water package will also have eased the concerns of some middle class voters.”

While one can argue that it is very unlikely that the protests had no impact on the polls, it would be hardly deniable that both the polls and the protests flowed from the same anger at austerity and the charges in particular.  As I have pointed out before, the fact that there appears a clear way of defeating them, through non-payment, has been a big spur to mobilisation.

Also suspect is Ó Broin’s focus on the influence of the events he mentions on the middle class.  There is no reason why changed economic conditions will not have influenced many working class voters as well

Finally, there are two other aspects upon which those involved in this debate are not really so very far apart.   Regardless of the recent movement in the polls, they all note positively the long-term decline in the support levels of the three establishment parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour).

Burtenshaw points out that these parties received over 90% of the vote in every election from 1965 to 1989 while he quotes one recent poll that now puts their support at 57%.

However the participants to the discussion acknowledge, but refuse to digest, the reality that the majority of the electorate have not broken from the politics that delivered them austerity.  The evidence for this is pretty clear – from the 57% figure just quoted, to the election of a Fine Gael Government in 2011, the passing of the austerity referendum in 2012 and the character of much of the opposition to the established parties today.

The biggest and most coherent bloc of this opposition is Sinn Fein, which only the politically naïve could believe will oppose austerity in any comprehensive way.  The experience in the North is well known to political activists on the Left, while workers supporting Sinn Fein will take it at its word, and will then judge it on its actions.  Sinn Fein is no more than a more modern version of the old populist Fianna Fail and neither its nationalism nor its political practice is left wing, never mind socialist.

Meanwhile the Left has collapsed its political judgement and political practice into seeking a ‘left’ alternative instead of a socialist one.  It moved from an analysis based on some version of socialism to one in which the alternative must be ‘left wing’, to one that is simply termed ‘anti-establishment.’  But much of this anti-establishment vote is not even left-wing never mind imbued with any sort of socialism.

As Burtenshaw states:  “In the vast majority these new independent voters weren’t defining as Left but were a nebulous grouping, supporting a wide variety of positions, who found a degree of representation in being “independent” of established politics or wanted an alternative to “party politics” as practiced in Ireland.”

Of independents he notes that “this category, of course, included People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, though neither registered more than one percent at any stage.”

No one disputes this, but it rather puts into perspective any illusion of a Left Government after the next election.

Burtenshaw is right that the Left needs to be self-critical.

The spontaneous outburst of anger that arose in the anti-water charges demonstrations and the organisation of it thereafter will not of itself create the working class movement that is needed.

It will not be a question of surfing the wave of working class struggle; not a question of seizing some short term opportunity that will render history the long term weakness of Irish workers’ political consciousness, and it is not a question of what the Left does or does not do before the next election.

In the next post I’ll look at the most important aspect in which the contributors to the discussion are more or less agreed – the political programme to be advanced as the solution, whether currently estimated to be convincing and authoritative or not.

The next step in the campaign against water charges?

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 01.50.42_0The Right2Water Campaign posted a message at the very end of 2014 setting out the tasks for 2015:

“So where to now? If we are to elect people who enact the laws we, the people, need in the next election to continue to unite on what we agree on and not sow division and discord over tactical approaches as some are currently endeavouring to do. We need to grow and develop the unity that has rocked the establishment and the media – not splinter in 100 different directions as Irish people have (to their great cost) many times before thereby allowing an elitist minority to reap and sow at great cost to the common good. It’s been the way of it for much too much of our history. Can we unite and through solidarity fundamentally change how our water, our housing, our jobs, our education and our health services are paid for and delivered in all our interests?”

The statement, and let’s leave aside the exact status of it for the moment, has been criticised on the Revolutionary Programme blog.  The criticism of ‘electoralism’ is correct in my view but the first problem is not the desire to somehow, in some way, at some time, lever the people mobilised by the campaign into support for some electoral initiatives, alliances or whatever.

There will be elections at some point not too far away and those opposed to water charges and austerity in general would be remiss in not seeking to utilise them to advance their struggle. Of course critics will claim, with previous ‘form’ for justifying such claims, that elections are typically used not to advance the struggle but the struggle used to advance elections.

For Marxists like the Revolutionary Programme blogger and myself the road to change, even for any significant reforms, never mind revolutionary change, will come primarily  from the actions of working people themselves and not from legislators “that enact laws that are wanted and needed by the people they are elected to represent, not Corporations and their cronies.”

Our view comes from our understanding of how the state works and how the nature of the state is such that it cannot fundamentally change society or challenge the priorities set by the corporations and their cronies.  This is because power and resources are distributed and reproduced by an economic system over which the Dail has little, and certainly no fundamental, control.  In Ireland this is much more obvious since the most dynamic sector of the economy is that controlled by US multinationals and Irish people are used to accepting that neither they nor their legislators control these multinationals.

To fundamentally challenge the priorities of the capitalist economy would mean either putting the system in crisis or compelling more radical transformation to a new system.  It stands to reason that if people are put before profit in a system that puts profit before people that the system will start to malfunction or at the very least not function as well – through capitalists taking their money out of the country, failing to invest or simply stirring up political opposition to change.  Alternatively, a completely new system requires something much more fundamental than changing the 166 people sitting in the chamber of the Dail.

This doesn’t mean nothing can be done short of some revolutionary change but it does mean that certain limits are put on such change; the fundamental driver for it will exist outside the Dail; such change can only be temporary if more fundamental change is not made and essential change requires action by the working class itself and not by people elected by it to do it on their behalf.

At the very least those advocating the election of those who will “enact the laws we, the people, need” are required to explain what will be done, who will do it and how it will be done.

If this really is the way forward there can be no objection to debating it.  If Marxists lose the debate and such a reformist road is carried then that will be accepted because it is only by changing workers’ minds that the Marxist alternative can come alive anyway.  Marxists are not opposed to reforms, we are in favour of them, strongly in favour of them, especially when they are posed as a real alternative not to revolution but to no change at all.

What’s more we do not believe that no reforms are possible, just that they will be contested, limited and will not conflict fundamentally with putting profit before people.

What Marxists might really object to now is that such top-down politics is often advanced in a top-down way by those most loudly proclaiming their bottom-up politics.

In Britain a working class party, at least in terms of support, exists in the form of the Labour Party through which the struggle to advance such reforms can be made.  In Ireland the Irish Labour Party excites the hopes of a smaller or larger minority of workers at various times, only for it to betray those hopes.  But it does not retain workers’ allegiance so that some continuing struggle within it can form the basis of advancing Irish workers political consciousness and organisation.

So no obvious candidate for the party needed to fulfil the perspectives of the Right2Water Campaign’s authors exists.  For many people newly drawn into political activity against the water charges this will be an obvious difficulty.  But it is not the most immediate.

The most immediate is the fact that what exists is a campaign against water charges that has no structure, or rather no democratic structure, so that it cannot decide whether any of the ideas put forward in the statement should be supported, because ‘it’ – a campaign – does not exist in any sort of form that could make a decision.  Nor is there any proposal in the statement to bring one into existence through, for example, a national conference and a democratically elected leadership accountable at all times to campaign supporters.

In a previous post I noted that it would be necessary to develop the scope and demands of the campaign but that this would need to be prepared.  Such preparation involves creating arrangements that allow people to discuss what they think collectively, whether they think the campaign should adopt additional objectives to that of opposing charges, and whether certain tactics should be promoted or not.  Even the statement leaves open the reality that the charges still exist, have not been killed off, and have a zombie-like existence – being half-dead and half-alive.  We have all seen enough zombie movies to know they keep on coming back to life to bite us.

Finally, but perhaps firstly, those involved in the campaign could hardly do better than follow the advice, once given by Tony Benn, and ask five questions of the campaign leaders: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

This is all very simple.  If someone thinks the campaign should support certain candidates in an upcoming election they must be able to answer these questions when anyone in the campaign asks them.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 2


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The demonstrations against the water charges last Saturday showed that the Right2Water campaign is supported by local groups in towns and cities right across the State.  This grass-roots organisation is a reflection of the strength of feeling among the working class and is its greatest political strength.  It is not the creation or front of one or other, or even the whole collection, of political groups although they are deeply involved.

It is united in total opposition to the charges and to the tactic of non-payment and it should expect to be challenged by the State on both.  Concessions by the Government will be offered in the next days and afterwards stronger tactics will be employed against those who remain in opposition, if they can be sufficiently isolated.  This is always the way it works.  Every carrot is followed by a stick.

The various organisations involved in the campaign have put forward their own perspectives for the way forward.  By looking at the leaflets given out at the demonstration last Saturday I want to review what they are proposing.

Sinn Fein put out a leaflet ‘Stop the Water Charges’ which promises to reverse water charges when in Government, which rather admits it will be in some form of coalition with one of the capitalist parties after the election.  Otherwise it has little to offer those who want to see the charges scrapped.  Simply waiting for a new Government on the other hand is something that would paralyse and then kill the campaign.

Sinn Fein claims in the leaflet that it blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.  As Eamonn McCann noted in his article in ‘The Irish Times’ I referred to in the previous post – all four main parties in the North have claimed the credit for not introducing water charges.

Eamonn McCann claims “that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water charges by Stormont in 2007.” As someone who went round doors helping to organise meetings and speaking at them I know this is, unfortunately, not true.  There were numerous campaigns but none of them had a mass character and lots of signatures on a pledge of non-payment doesn’t make a mass campaign.  Meetings were usually small and when candidates from the Left stood on anti-water charges tickets they generally got the same derisory vote they always got.

The parties in the new Stormont regime did indeed refuse to introduce water charges because it was very unpopular with their own supporters, and it was something that they could manage without – so they did mange without.

The Socialist Party leaflet doesn’t mention it’s a Socialist Party leaflet but hides itself, as usual, behind some party front; this time it’s the ‘We won’t pay Campaign.’  Since it already dominates the Anti-Austerity Alliance, this method of organisation it appears wedded to wouldn’t seem to be useful even to the SP.

The leaflet is however very good at putting the case for non-payment and explaining the position of the State and the legal implications of the tactic.  It looks back to the successful water charges campaign in the mid-1990s but provides no indication that the lessons of more recent failures such as the anti-bin tax campaign have been assimilated.

The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet also argues strongly for non-payment and advises on the real situation that non-payers will face.  It is also honest enough to explain the counter-measures that the State could adopt to thwart the non-payment tactic, but then also points out the problems this would give to the State.

So the State could deduct the charge from wages or benefits but this would require a change in the law and would make it impossible to privatise Irish Water, which they say is the primary reason for imposing water charges.  On this I am unconvinced.  Charging is necessary in order to raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit, meet demands from the Troika and get the debts of the company and its future debts off the Government’s balance sheet so its debt ratio looks better.  Direct State intervention to make deductions from salaries and benefits go against this project whether privatisation is hoped for in the future or not.

That the amounts might today be relatively small does not invalidate this view but does raise the point that retreat on the issue by the Government would not involve an enormous monetary cost.

In any case we should not lose sight of the fact that it is under public ownership that this attack on workers is taking place and it is under public ownership that the water service has been a disgrace with flooding, poor water quality and leakage at atrocious levels for years.

Public ownership is a euphemism for State ownership and is misleading because the public don’t actually own it and don’t, as we can see, have any say over how it is managed or run.  There is no need to bum up the benefits of such ownership when it’s not the socialist alternative.

With this in mind, calls for a referendum to prevent privatisation might allow some to avoid taking a strong position on opposing the charges.  It is not that surprising that Jack O’Connor appears on the television supporting the call for a referendum while SIPTU fails to back the Right2Water campaign.  SIPTU members should challenge its leadership on this failure and anti-water charges campaigners should stand outside Liberty House demanding the union’s support.

The Socialist Workers Party issued a leaflet from its own political front – People before Profit, practicing the politics of feeble reformism that it condemns in its other publications.  It has its own euphemisms that it uses to straddle the contradiction.  So it calls for ‘people power’ instead of teaching Irish workers that the people are divided into classes and that the power and interests of the working class are different from those of the people who belong to the capitalist class.

This way of approaching politics allows the issue of class to be side-lined and, for example, the class nature of the state ignored, so that the State can be called upon to provide solutions; such as their leaflet calling for taking ‘Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership’.  Like Irish Water?

The leaflet also appears to call fort a general strike on 10th December but doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to say so.  On the usefulness of this demand see a previous post.  It calls for a ‘revolt’ but it’s not clear if this means revolution or is something short of it and what this might be.

The fear of using socialist terms to define socialist concepts and therefore a socialist programme and strategy sits in opposition to what appears as a hyping of the existing struggle.  So the leaflet says that ‘the battle against water charges is part of a wider revolt.’

If only it were.

Its importance however is not that it is part of a wider revolt, but that it is the exception to the rule of general working class passivity and acceptance of austerity.  Its wider political significance is actually that it might herald the start of a wider resistance.  But then the question is how do we achieve this, or can we?  Not that it already exists.

The article in ‘The Irish Times’ noted that one reason behind the anti-water charges campaign was that the people cannot “give any more” and “the people have been pushed too far.”  The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet notes that ‘hundreds of thousands of people are now saying ‘No More’”. In other words many workers have decided that they won’t pay this bill.  They have not decided to stop paying the price of austerity they are already paying or perhaps new ones that will heaped on them in the future should the new boom prove temporary.

If the strength of the campaign is its local organisation then an effective national campaign structure would help to leverage that strength to support activity in weaker areas or where no campaign currently exist.  Above all such a structure should provide for democratic accountability to the members of those speaking for the national campaign.  It would provide the means by which a collective view can be determined and publicised on such things as the response to whatever partial concessions the Government dreams up to stifle opposition.

At this stage it would not appear to advance the overall struggle against austerity to demand that the campaign take on wider objectives.  It is clearer however that at some stage it should.  The best grounds on which to do so would be success in defeating the water charges.  Such a step however needs preparation now for an extension of the objectives of the campaign down the line.

Fighting tax increases, cuts to public services and cuts to wages and welfare will not be easy and the tactic of sitting tight involved in ‘we won’t pay’ is obviously not an answer to these.  A debate on what we are for and how we might build it is also just as necessary, if not more so.

A second tactic is to stand in elections and electoral intervention is now the favoured method of moving forward by Sinn Fein and most of the Left groups.  The latter confidently argue that the former will betray the hopes of their supporters, and Sinn Fein’s support for austerity budgets in the North is all the confirmation one needs for this argument.

Unfortunately the Left’s own claims are hardly consistent either.   They regularly denounce the capitalist state but their programme fully relies on it doing what they want.  On this blog I have posted numerous times on how their support for capitalist state ownership and taxation of the rich are not socialist and won’t work.  In other words they would effectively end up betraying their supporters were they in office just as effectively as Sinn Fein.  Sincere intentions don’t enter into it.

At the more immediate level the Left does not provide an example to follow.  The anti-water charges campaign relies on unity and agreement on total opposition to the charges in any form.  Any sense by its supporters that it did not respond to their feelings and demands would see it lose support.

Unfortunately the Left has a culture of manipulation and a lack of critical and free debate within its ranks.  It regularly calls for workers’ unity while being utterly incapable of unity within its own ranks.  In fact in this respect it has gone backwards, with the demise of what limited unity there was in the United Left Alliance.  It is simply incapable of containing within its present organisation and politics any mass radicalisation of workers.

A potential for radicalisation arises from the sudden upsurge against water charges, posing the need for increased organisation and politicisation of the campaign.  A victory is possible, giving rise to the possibility of further advances and the need to debate now how these could be achieved.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued

Two films: ‘Pride’ and ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’

JS45320465When Margaret Thatcher died my daughter asked me if I could recommend any books that would explain who she was and why she raised such strong views on her death.  I struggled to think of one that would convey the political issues and the raw emotion that she generated.  Even the youngest who are semi-interested in politics know that in some way that Thatcher helped shape politics today, not only in Britain but much more widely, and that at the very least she symbolises changes we are still living through.

In the last week I have watched two films that provide some way of appreciating Thatcher while also immersing one in the feelings generated at the time.  The first – ‘Pride’ – tells the story of a lesbian and gay group in London, which raised more money for miners in a South Wales valley than any other group, during the miners’ titanic strike in 1984-85 against Thatcher.  It’s rarely sentimental, the performances are wonderful and if you don’t walk out of it feeling proud that this is the side you are on then there’s no hope for you.

If you’re older then you’ll remember the struggle with pride and not a little bit of sadness.  If you were in any way involved in solidarity in this side of the Irish sea then you’ll now appreciate the importance of the struggle and perhaps realise you didn’t quite understand its importance then.  You’ll also appreciate the need for unity and solidarity of the oppressed and that only when we fight together do we make real the unity that underlies our oppression and our liberation.

Of course what you take out of any artistic creation partly depends on your own experience and you will only learn from a political film what your political understanding will allow.  Some things will stand out more than others – for me the performances of the actors, including Ben Schnetzer who plays Mark Ashton, the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian solidarity group and originally from the North of Ireland – brave and tender;  or Paddy Considine as the miners spokesperson Dai Donovan, who welcomes against opposition within his own ranks the support of the gay and lesbian group with understanding and appreciation for the bravery of the miners’ new supporters and the value of their own struggle.

Uplifting and inspiring as it is the significance of the miners’ struggle was illustrated for me by the miner’s banner that proclaimed their adherence to international workers unity and the struggle for socialism.  Of all the reference points that they had, as Welsh, as miners, workers and brothers they stated on their banner that what would always define them was international unity and socialism.  Through the strike they demonstrated in their solidarity with gay and lesbian activists from London a unity that went beyond nationality and sexual orientation to recognition of their shared and common interest in fighting oppression.

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And a miner’s banner also featured in another film – ‘Tony Benn Will and Testament’ – a documentary covering his life and political activity, including the miners’ strike and his inclusion on a new Miners’ banner.

It showed Benn narrate his personal and political life and his acceptance of his death that must have followed shortly after the film.  It shows his journey through politics and his affirmation that he moved to the left through joining government and not, as everyone else does, to the right.

He explained his determination to become an MP and change the world because of an encounter with one of the Americans involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, eventually becoming the minister responsible for the civil nuclear programme in Britain.  In this role he explained how he was completely kept in the dark about the fact that the plutonium waste used in this civil power generation was sent to supply the US nuclear weapons programme.   More widely he explains that he came to realise that while in Government he didn’t have any real control and that the Labour Party became simple managers of the system when it achieved office.

The film covers many of the class struggles in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century, from the campaign against nuclear weapons, to  the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in, the ‘winter of discontent’ provoked by attacks on workers by the labour Government, the miners’ strike and the anti-Iraq war movement in our current century.

His bid for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 1981 against Denis Healy, which he very narrowly lost by barely 1%, does not get the attention it deserves but it does turn the spotlight on Neil Kinnock – the so-called left who abstained in the vote.  He later became leader and was leader during the miners’ strike, which he more or less also betrayed, later being rewarded with a place in the House of Lords.  A fighting leadership of the British labour movement could have made the difference between defeat and victory.  Watching the film I found myself getting angrier with him than with Thatcher, but isn’t that always the way with traitors?

He brings to attention the possibility, since the 1970s, of using North Sea oil to modernise Britain but identifies the failure to do so in the pro-big business policies of Thatcher.  Some on the left today see the possibility of modernising Scotland based on what’s left of North Sea oil. However they base this not on any lesson drawn from recent decades but on nationalist division.  The political leader they in effect followed, Alex Salmond, proclaimed that his SNP “didn’t mind the economic side so much” of Margaret Thatcher, while claiming that “the SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself.”  So that puts the rest of us in our place.

I remember listening to Tony Benn speak and someone asked him about the idea that socialism could be brought about through parliament and whether the capitalist class and its system would allow such a transition without mounting a violent coup to prevent it.  Ah, he said, the Chile question, referring to exactly such an attempt to introduce reform in Chile at the beginning of the 1970s, which led to the least politically interfering military in South America mounting a coup, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and murdering thousands and thousands of workers and socialists.

Unfortunately having identified the question he didn’t give an answer to it and this might seem to be the major point to highlight in a Marxist review of a film of his political testament.  And so it is.  But by his own experience and through his own words he demonstrates these lessons and the film is valuable for showing them.

Tony-Benn

After recounting how he wanted to become an MP the film a few minutes later shows him speaking in the House of Commons – to row upon row of empty green benches.   Having had the experience of Governmental office noted above he later announced, in a line provided by his wife, that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics.  We then see him on the campaign trail at meetings and demonstrations until his death this year.

So whatever his reformist words his practice in this way became the opposite of the fetishism and ‘cretinism’ of parliamentary activity for which Marxists would criticise reformist politics.

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Unfortunately today , it is the so-called Marxist left who argue that the big question is the ‘crisis of working class representation’ and pursue one electoralist intervention after another, like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fed on the most piss-poor politics that they otherwise condemn in other times or in other places.

So it is not just the young that could learn from these two films.  Very straightforward as they are in political terms, there are basic lessons to be learnt from them – the need for unity of the oppressed, workers internationalism, the futility of seeking fundamental change through capitalist parliaments or the capitalist state, and the need for class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike and the experience of social-democratic politics cast a long shadow over the working class and socialist movement today.  We can learn vital lessons from them and their failure.  That we do not do so is partly because we cannot see the shadow, since it is overcast by an even darker one – that of Thatcherism and the rampage of what is now called neoliberalism.  To come out of the shadows we need to come out of both.  These two films can help us.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.

Concluded