Workers strike against austerity in the North of Ireland

20150313_130323-1Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the North of Ireland on March 13 in protest against cuts in jobs and services implemented by the devolved administration in Stormont.  The local administration is imposing the austerity agenda dictated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London.  The strike was particularly successful because transport workers, including on the buses and trains, took part as well as those in the civil service, health and education.

Observance of the strike was good and pickets and rallies had respectable turnouts.  Workers have suffered a long period of declining living standards and are clearly willing to declare their opposition.  It would be a mistake however to exaggerate the stage we are at in the development of this struggle.  A glance at the numbers voting for strike action in a couple of the biggest unions involved shows the distance yet to go to build a strong and active movement.

In the trade union NIPSA, covering staff in Government departments and other bodies as well as admin and clerical staff in the health service, 52.9% or 4,201 voted for strike action in the civil service side out of a membership of around 20,600, with the health service side having an even lower turnout.  Not all of the membership was called upon to strike but the vast majority of members were affected.  In UNISON, with a membership mainly in the health service and some in education ,3,181 voted for strike action in a membership of around 40,000, again not all of whom would have been called upon to vote but a majority of whom would have been affected.  The strike had sympathy among the wider population but this finds no expression in organisation.

Many on the left have demanded another strike and have claimed that the recent ostensible U-turn by Sinn Fein on welfare cuts is a result of the strike.  However this would be to take the Sinn Fein position at face value, or rather take them at their word, and exaggerates the effect of the strike.  While it focused opposition to austerity, and can lay the grounds for a deeper campaign against it, the actions of Sinn Fein are not so much a reaction to the strike but the wider feeling of opposition to cuts.

The strategy of the trade union leaders is to lobby and put pressure on local political parties so that if the next Westminster election results in a hung parliament local politicians can demand and negotiate an end to, or at least an amelioration of, austerity imposed in the Northern Ireland.  It therefore takes as given the continued position of these parties and resists any project of setting up a political rival.  This is on the basis that to do so would inevitably require a position to be taken on the constitutional position of the Northern State.

Such a party would inevitably have Keynesian policies of greater state activity in taxing and spending.  In other words salvation would be presented as arriving from the state, so the programme of any such labour or workers’ party would very quickly run up against this challenge.  No autonomous development of the party would be possible.  It is now some years since a labourist project was attempted and the last one that set up the current political arrangements was an embarrassing failure.

The strike was however noteworthy because it was carried out explicitly against the policies of the local Stormont Executive, the centre piece of the peace process and the ‘new’ political settlement.  It also took place against the background of another ‘crisis’ in the process, with the whole financial arrangements of the local administration thrown into doubt by a late Sinn Fein withdrawal of support for the budget because the deal to preserve it did not fully cover the cuts in welfare that were to mirror ‘reforms’ in Britain.

Sinn Fein therefore paraded its anti-austerity credentials, which the media took to be another late intervention by Gerry Adams to shore up the anti-austerity stance of the party in the South of Ireland.  Sinn Fein faces a general election in the South within the year.  The party is riding high in the polls on the basis of this perceived position and it would not look good if it were seen to be implementing austerity in the North while claiming to oppose it in the South.   Sinn Fein therefore ‘supported’ the strike even if the strike was clearly against the budget it had just approved as a major part of the local administration.

This support was invisible in the well-attended rally in Belfast city centre on 13th and is based on the party once again talking out of both sides of its mouth.  A long established practice.

This most recently saw an outing through Sinn Fein’s vocal support for the Catholic teacher training college St Mary’s, which was threatened with cuts by the local administration.  The cuts were proposed by the Alliance Party Minister responsible who was simply implementing the reduced budget given to him by Sinn Fein and its Democratic Unionist Party partners.  The sectarian aspect of this support was lost on no one as similar cuts were to be made to the ‘Protestant’ teacher training college at Stranmillis.  In the end the two biggest sectarian parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – got together to overrule the Alliance Party Minister.

The last minute opposition to the welfare arrangements therefore doesn’t inspire the view that Sinn Fein are a principled opponent of austerity but rather smack of an opportunist change of tack.  At their Ard Fheis in Derry the weekend before they dropped their bombshell the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont, Martin McGuinness , was proclaiming great satisfaction with the deal and congratulating the party on how well it had done in the re-negotiated financial settlement with the British Government.

At the very best their new found concern means that they hadn’t done their sums right or had been rather easily hoodwinked by the DUP; or perhaps that they had re-evaluated the calculus of staying with the welfare cuts programme as it was going to develop – thus facing the flak when it was put into practice – as against provoking another ‘crisis’ and the fall-out that would then ensue.

That this was all a bit last-minute became clear from the Sinn Fein media performances to explain its change of approach.  One prominent spokesperson on local radio refused to say it was a question of money when it could hardly be anything else; then it was claimed that it would cost over £280m to put right before this became translated into a round figure of £200m when the round figure it would appear closest to would be £300m.  Unionist claims that it was clear in the deal that not all the benefit cuts would be covered by mitigation measures in the budget, and would not be permanent for new claimants, seemed more convincing.

Nevertheless, the row over the extent of the funds to cover cuts in welfare matters to those welfare recipients affected who are indeed, as Sinn Fein says, some of the most vulnerable. It doesn’t in the least affect the fraudulent nature of Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity posturing.

To be continued

Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

What way forward for the Dublin Bus workers?

482013-dublin-bus-strike-members-of-siptu-and-3-630x484In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m.  Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.

From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative.  ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management.  It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.

This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves –  the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”.  But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.”  In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.

And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”

To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.

ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.

ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise?  Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?

ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society.  Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.

ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.

ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.

ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.

When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking.  But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves.  So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.

Do socialists have an alternative?

The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands.  The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.

In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party.  This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years.  And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed.  In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.

These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant.  If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian.  Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.

On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.

In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement.  Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do?  We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.

So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?

First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.

Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough.  As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans.  Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces.  In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.

Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?

The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done.  This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.

The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.

The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service.  Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions.  Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position.  Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented.  That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.

The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public.  Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days.  Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.

It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract.  Only a really existing movement could make them anything else.  Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine.  They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them.  Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at.  Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.

The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.

One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU.  The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.

Why have the Irish not revolted?

Public-service-workers-st-006The defeat of the opposition to the property tax and the ability of the Government to impose a second Croke Park austerity deal might lead many to conclude that resistance to austerity has been defeated.  Even before this many have commented that while Greece has witnessed violent protests and numerous general strikes the absence of such events from Ireland is notable and remarkable.  General strikes have also taken place in Spain and Portugal but not in the Irish State.

The relative electoral success of the United Left Alliance appeared to blind some to this but the collapse of the ULA has simply confirmed what is more generally understood to be the case.  More and more it is acknowledged on the Left that we have to face the reality as opposed to perennial false claims that an upsurge is taking place or is just around the corner.

Realistic assessments of the state of workers’ action have often been drowned out by childish claims that this shows one is insufficiently revolutionary, underestimates the workers , their ability to change their ideas quickly or that such views will not encourage workers to take action.  Not in front of the children appears to be the motto.  Workers are always ‘angry’ and all it needs is the right campaign, so long as it is active enough, to stir them into action.

Reality is imposing itself and no sound bites along the lines of ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ can hide the fact that the economic crisis has resulted in the imposition of austerity on workers without effective resistance.  Why is this?

First we must qualify the judgement that Irish workers are peculiarly useless.  Commentators have remarked in similar terms about the countries in southern Europe.  We have noted before that more or less spontaneous social explosions have not resulted in great advances by the working class.  Greek workers have been by far the most combative in terms of general strike action but in hardly anywhere has living standards plummeted so much.  I have also noted in one of my first posts that economic crises spurs growth in extreme reactionary forces and we have seen this is in Greece with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement.  So Greece is no model to seek to copy.

Secondly Irish workers have fought back albeit within very strict limits.  I can still remember the very large demonstration in November 2009 in Dublin, which had many working class people from outside the ranks of the trade unions taking part.  The following year public sector trade unions organised a successful strike.  At a local level in certain places and at certain times strong campaigns have developed against tax increases or hospital closures.  All this and more was reflected in the vote for ULA.

There is however an over-estimation about what workers can achieve within the limits of the capitalist system – a general misconception that workers’ struggles can overturn the laws of capitalism.    For example, if a company goes bust and attempts to close down, making all its workers redundant, it is pretty obvious that strike action will not achieve very much.

At this point many on the left propose that the capitalist state protect workers even though these same people have a part of their brain that tells them that the state is a weapon of the capitalist class that cannot be reformed and must be smashed.  They also believe that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by workers themselves but usually object to the idea that, instead of the state, the workers should take over and own and run these workplaces as workers cooperatives.

It is a similar situation at the level of society as a whole and at an international level.  The Irish state was and still is bankrupt.  It needed a massive injection of money to save the banks and put itself in a position to start reducing its mushrooming debt.  Austerity is a means of doing this.  Again the Left argues that the state can adopt policies of taxing the rich and spending money on investment that will restore the capitalist economy to economic growth, which will then deal with the problem of the debt.

This is not however the view of socialists.  The socialist view, confirmed once again by recent events, is that capitalism inescapably produces economic crises which are dealt with and resolved by the laws by which the system works, including through unemployment and destruction of unsuccessful capital whose markets and sometimes businesses are picked up on the cheap by those remaining.  It is not possible for the capitalist system to prevent such crises by adopting policies of more investment, as for example argued by left followers of Keynes.

It is not therefore possible for workers no matter how well organised to prevent the laws of capitalism from working.  This at least was the view of Marx and the evidence of history would again confirm this.  So workers resistance against austerity may be able to ameliorate austerity but, in so far as they are necessary to lay the foundations of a new upturn, it is not possible for workers to prevent unemployment or wage cuts or tax increases in their entirety or even to a significant degree.  In other words it is not possible within the system to prevent capitalism periodically disrupting workers’ lives.  That’s why we oppose the system and why we propose a different one called socialism.  If we thought capitalism could work better without its nasty effects we wouldn’t be socialists would we?

Yet the left presents austerity as simply one policy option of the Government which it could choose to reject and replace with their own proposals.  But even the Keynesian alternative requires ‘counter cyclical’ state action.  In other words the austerity measures are simply postponed.  All the left’s proposals involve actions by the capitalist state in one way or another – tax changes, public investment, nationalisation etc.

The point in terms of the current argument is not that the Left is misleading workers into accepting reformist solutions that won’t work and this is a reason why resistance to austerity has been such a failure in Ireland.  These ideas are more widespread in southern Europe than they are here.  No, the issue is that, absent a socialist alternative being created, as long as capitalism exists the laws of capitalism will continue to work and impose themselves.  Resistance to austerity will therefore fail and this failure is bound in turn to lead to weakening of the resistance.

We must be careful however not to qualify the problem out of existence when it contains more than a grain of truth.  When Greek workers chanted “we are not Irish” on their May Day demonstration in Athens in 2010 they weren’t imagining the relative weakness of resistance in Ireland.

Nor can the question be dismissed by saying Irish workers did fight back – they did, but nowhere near to the extent required for success.

Nor is it credible to blame the poor politics or organisation of the Irish Left.

It is also not adequate to simply say that capitalism wins unless we create socialism. This is obviously true, although its logical implications for reformist strategies and policies are often ignored.  But it doesn’t come near explaining why the reformist strategies for resistance have elicited such weak workers’ action.  It’s hardly that Irish workers can see through such strategies and are ready for something more radical.

Socialism is not an event or a situation but a movement. Workers will only become capable of building a socialist movement and carrying out revolutionary change if they are also capable of mounting strong resistance to the ravages of capitalism.  In Ireland this hasn’t happened and there has been a retrogression of the small socialist movement, although this in itself is not particularly new.

So in Ireland the state has been able to pursue austerity policies that increase unemployment and wage restraint in order to restore its solvency in very much the same way capitalist crises work to   restore profitability in the private sector.  It has been able to do so without much of the resistance shown in other countries in a very similar situation.  This remains to be explained.

To be continued.

Should we call for a general strike?

One theme of the anti-austerity demonstration in Dublin was the call for a 24 hour general strike by a number of left groups.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) said that “one march is not enough – we need a 24 hour general strike”.  The United Left Alliance (ULA) called for a “boycott of the Property Tax” and “for a 24 hour general strike – on 31 March next year”.  The leaflet from the Socialist Party did not mention a general strike but said that the “mass campaign against Property Tax can be key to defeating austerity agenda . . challenge the sell-out of the trade union leaders – organise from below to strike against austerity.”

Repeatedly reference was made to the experience of workers in Spain, Portugal and Greece and sometimes unflattering comparisons with Ireland.  General strikes against austerity have taken place in these countries but not in Ireland.  Under the headline “How austerity can be defeated” an article in the Socialist Party paper says that “all that is needed is some leadership and direction.  The union leaders should follow the example of workers in Spain, Portugal and Greece – a one day strike in Ireland of public and private sector workers against the cuts and austerity taxes would be a body blow against this weak government.”

Two questions immediately arise from such a call.  What is the purpose of a general strike and how would one be brought about?

It is not stated explicitly by any of the groups demanding one but it must be assumed by the criticism of the failure of demonstrations and previous action, that the purpose a general strike is to stop austerity.  Unfortunately reference to Spain, Portugal and Greece does not support such a claim.  In all countries austerity has continued, if not intensified, despite general strikes.  In fact, as we have noted here and in an earlier post Greece has had a huge number of general strikes but austerity there is the worst.  So at the very least supporters of a general strike owe it to everyone to explain in what way it will work to achieve a specific purpose.

An argument can be made that a general strike will prevent austerity getting worse but again this is not the Greek experience.  It can be argued that the situation would be worse if there was no resistance and as socialists we could all agree with this but this is not the argument being made, in so far as there is one.  This argument appears to be that a general strike will not just prevent austerity from being worse than it might otherwise be but that it would stop austerity, or at least prevent it deepening.

The Socialist Party article claims that a general strike might destroy the Government.  This is doubtful but even if it were true the experience of Greece bears witness to falling governments and continuing austerity.

So if the purpose of a general strike is not apparent the means by which one could be brought about seems even less clear.

Two problems are posed.  What is the role of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the trade union leadership generally and what is the role of the Left and rank and file activists inside and outside the trade unions?

Two criticisms of the approach of some on the Left have been levelled here.  It is argued that while the call for a general strike is a good one it is a mistake to pose it as a demand on the rotten ICTU leadership.  This is because such a demand would confuse those working people looking to the ULA through implying ICTU would carry through on such a call.  Even if forced to give nominal support their role would be to minimise its impact and undermine its success.  Any mention of ICTU should be to expose their role not imply that they could be on our side.

There are various formulations relating to how we should approach the question of the ICTU leadership.  The Socialist Party proposes to “challenge the sell out of the trade union leaders – organise from below to strike against austerity.”  “There is a rotten trade union leadership – we need a revolt from below which either pushes them into action or else has the power to push them aside.”

The Socialist Workers Party says that “trade union members and activists should unite and campaign within all unions to demand that the union leaders organise a fight back – organising demonstrations is not enough – real action including strike action against austerity is needed now.”   It argues that “resistance (has been) held back because most union leaders are in the Labour Party.  Break all links with this Party and remove people who support them from the leadership of our organisations.”

It is clear, from the size of the anti-austerity demonstration compared to that of earlier ICTU organised events, that there is currently not a large enough unofficial or rank and file movement either within or outside the trade unions calling for, never mind in a position to organise, a general strike.   It is not on this basis a realistic short term possibility.  At the moment the only body with the authority, credibility and organisation to call a general strike is ICTU.  It is the unchallenged leadership of the trade union movement and of the vast majority of its members.  However much we might regret that fact it is nevertheless the case.

Unrivalled in its position of leadership it certainly has the authority no other grouping has.  It is the only body currently, which if it issued a call, would be seen as credibly being able to threaten the Government with such an action.  There is no other organisation with the capacity to mobilise the trade union membership and organise a general strike.

However much we also reject their claim to be against austerity the majority of Irish workers have not consciously rejected their leadership.  The vast majority of workers not totally cynical either accept that all that can be done is being done or that austerity is inevitable or that they wish, hope or believe that something more could be done but don’t know what that something is or how it could be made to come about.  Irish workers are angry but they have no clear idea about what to do about it and have no clear and united vision of what the alternative might be.  The general election that voted in a Fine Gael dominated Government and the passing of the Austerity Treaty referendum are confirmation of this.

This means that ICTU cannot be ignored and that the problem is not that of creating illusions in ICTU that are not there but destroying the vast illusions or acquiescence in their role that is there.

So if we should agree that on their own ICTU will not call a general strike, and would attempt to neuter it of its potential if it did, we are left with a recognition that we are not in a position to make a general strike anything more than a propaganda demand that lays the foundations for possible realisation of it in the less immediatefuture.

This is in effect acknowledged by the various Left currents.  The ULA leaflet says we must “start the campaign now with trade union and community meetings to oppose Croke Park II and demand a 24 hour stoppage.”  The SWP also talks about the “start of mass resistance”,  that “we need to start taking real protest action” and calls for, as yet non-existent, “assemblies to allow people to put forward their own vision.”

All the Left argues we need a campaign against austerity but it would be putting its money where its mouth is if it were able to debate openly and come to an agreed decision on how such a campaign should be built.  At the moment there is no agreed position on this.  The ULA has unfortunately signally failed to unite the Left in an anti-austerity campaign with an agreed policy and perspective.  If it cannot unite itself it has to explain how the working class will be united in a general strike against the Government.

A first step in such a task would be to determine the role of a general strike in the struggle against austerity.  A 24 hour general strike would be clear evidence of the potential power and organisation of the working class.  To even achieve the level of organisation beforehand that would be required to make it a success would indicate a jump in political consciousness and capacity to independently organise.  Success in carrying it off would add to this class consciousness and capacity.  It would demonstrate to the Government the opposition to it that exists and the potential for it to be toppled.  But after 24 hours everyone would have to go back to work and the question would have to be what next?  Everyone, including the Government, would know this.

In Greece some socialists are speaking of an indefinite general strike but such a call really is a challenge for political power in one form or another and who believes the Irish working class is remotely in a position to issue such a challenge?

A general strike therefore can only be the product of a prior campaign that was able to extend enormously the consciousness and organisational capacity of the working class.  From where we are now it is clear that a campaign for a general strike would have to argue that this should be the demand of the whole trade union movement and wider forces.  This means fighting for it to be the demand of ICTU.  Such a campaign would have the aim not of passing resolutions calling on the current leadership to call a strike, although this would be one necessary approach, but would fundamentally be about building a movement within (and outside) the trade unions to win support for it from ordinary workers and making them capable of carrying out a general strike with or without and probably against the leadership of ICTU.

We are a long way from that at the moment.

The call for a general strike however is only one rallying point for a campaign against austerity.  Workers not only suffer from austerity they also implement it.  In order to impose the property tax workers must process the bills.  In order to close services workers must accept that they close.  In such cases campaigns must be built that boycott processing of new taxes, wage cuts and redundancies etc and which occupy services threatened with cutbacks or closure, or related workplaces that have been spared.  Taking over the workplace is often a more effective form of action than walking out of it.  Such actions have begun in Greece.

All of this means that workers must have effective control over their own organisations.  This is either through fighting to democratise existing organisations that have been bureaucratised such as the trade unions or creating real democratic organisations from the new campaigns against austerity, the property tax etc that have been or will be created.

Within such a perspective the culminating point, the objective, is not a general strike but the advancing organisation, consciousness and power of the working class movement.  The question of a general strike is one (important) one of many.  Any significant advance along this road would raise the question of a working class political party.

Such a perspective allows us to start from where we are without seeming to pose currently unrealistic objectives.  It is designed to build solid foundations and to go as far as it can without thereby suffering failure because it has not achieved everything.  It is not saddled with a perspective based on one determining clash of forces that it will fail, until that is it might be capable of offering such a battle with some confidence of success.  It is built on the workers themselves and not concessions from the State that are under the State’s control and can be pulled back later.  It is a movement of opposition that teaches workers to rely on themselves and not on the State and not on Left TDs passing legislation that will supposedly make the rich pay for the crisis.

In other words the debate on a general strike cannot be divorced from the problems thrown up by austerity and the resistance to it more generally.  Other questions and issues around this have been put forward by the Left.  Is the Socialist Party correct that the Campaign against Household and Water Taxes is key?  Is it true that “the property tax issue can become a vital issue to defeat not just the Government’s agenda for more home taxes but to undermine the entire austerity agenda itself”. What is the role of the Labour Party and its links with the trade union leadership in betraying any fight against austerity?

A debate on what the purpose of a general strike is – what it is expected to achieve – and how such a call can be put forward as a practical objective, if at all, is necessary.

What sort of Social Explosion?

If austerity increases the likelihood of social upheaval and politics is crucial in determining this, it is also obvious that political factors determine the character of the reaction. Is the reaction even progressive?  The very title of an academic study that addresses this question gives pause for thought – “Right Wing Political Extremism in the Great Depression”.

The authors explain that they focus on right wing parties because it is they that made the most visible progress.  Their analysis covers 171 elections in 28 countries between 1919 and 1939, mainly in Europe but also covering North America, Australia and New Zealand.  In the last election before 1929 Communist Parties had an average vote of 2.8 per cent in these counties increasing to a post-1929 peak of 4.02 per cent.  Ring-wing ‘anti-system’ parties on the other hand increased their votes from 1.16 per cent to 7.39 per cent.  The highest post 1929 vote for a Communist Party was 16.9 per cent in Germany, 15.3 per cent in France and 10.32 per cent in Czechoslovakia.  The highest votes for the right were 43.2 per cent in Germany, 25.1 per cent in Romania, 22.8 per cent in Hungary, and 18.6 per cent in Belgium. In Spain the Franco dictatorship did away with any concern about elections.

The size of the extreme right wing vote was associated with whether the country in question was on the losing side in the First World War and, confirming the findings of the first study, whether there was a longer established democratic tradition.  The study also noted the importance of the right already having a previous base of support on which to build during the economic crisis.  “The Depression was good for fascists” the authors say but “evidently, the depression was of no great help to Communist parties on average.”

Again and again they emphasise the importance of long established traditions of what Marxists would call bourgeois democracy and the institutions and political culture this entails.  Absence of this factor increased the danger of anti-system parties growing to become a real threat.  Of such a threat they say “above all, it is greatest where depressed economic conditions are allowed to persist.”

So much for the 1930s.  What about now?  A third academic study examines the pattern of workers’ protest in a much more recent period.

This study** looks at a puzzling phenomenon: that unions have increasingly engaged in general strikes in Western Europe since 1980 while economic strikes have been in decline.   The number of general strikes has risen from 18 between 1980 and 1989 to 26 in the following decade and 28 in the next seven years between 2000 and 2006.  More recent data shows another peak with 10 in 2007-2009 and 14 in 2010. The study looked at 16 countries including Ireland, which have reported 72 general strikes of which an amazing 33 occurred in Greece alone!  The countries of Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal accounted for 77 per cent of the total.

This phenomenon has taken place against a background of an increase in social pacts between unions, government and bosses, known as social partnership in Ireland, a sharp decline in trade union density and fall in the number of strikes generally.  Between 1980 and 1982 an average of 16.6 working days per 10,000 employees were lost to strikes in the 13 European countries, falling to 4.5 days by 1989-1991 and 1.1 days by 2004-2006. Finally the share of wages in the economy has fallen over the period, which is taken by the authors as an indicator of declining union power.   On the other hand general strikes have taken place even in countries with historically low levels of strike activity such as Austria and the Netherlands.

The authors point to certain political features of the general situation against which this trend has developed, which might go some way to explaining what has been happening.  They point to the rightward movement of social democratic parties and the loosening of their organisational connections with trade unions, weakening the inhibitions on unions taking action against social democratic governments.  Thus, while the more right wing a government appears the more likelihood of a general strike, half those in Greece and five out of seven in Spain have been against Socialist Party governments.

The incidence of general strikes seems linked to rejection by governments or employers of a social partnership type pact and with efforts by unions in the midst of such pact negotiations to achieve agreement on one, eventually with success.  This is often in response to government threats to abandon talks or as a demand by unions to get them started.  Within the authors’ dataset pacts succeeded a general strike or threat of one on 14 of 18 occasions where both events occurred in the same year.  On 17 occasions they find that trade unions deployed strikes as negotiations were under way, mostly to press for concessions.  The issue of union inclusion in a social contract type deal appears as important as the actual content of government policy in the deal agreed.  Finally, while trade union density was insignificant in accounting for the incidence of strikes, high authority of the trade union confederation (ICTU-like body) was important.

So what do these three academic studies tell us?  Firstly that austerity and persistent economic depression increases the likelihood of a social backlash against austerity.  The remarkable relative passivity of Irish workers in the face of significant attacks on their living conditions may therefore not continue.  On the other hand the way austerity is imposed is important, with an emphasis on tax increases as opposed to expenditure cuts perhaps reducing the likelihood of resistance. However the key factor, which is emphasised in each study, is the political conditioning of the working class through a long tradition of bourgeois democracy.

None of the studies investigate exactly how this works but it is obvious that having the ability to vote against governments imposing austerity in periodic elections is valued greatly by working people.  It can and is plausibly put forward as an alternative to specifically working class action.  Put forward by the state, bosses and the bourgeois parties and accepted by a working class bereft of any experience or knowledge of the possibility of having their own alternative.  The Irish workforce grew enormously from 1989 to 2007, by 92 per cent, but under a regime of social partnership with a political and capitalist class exposed regularly as venal and corrupt.  Partnership played its part in making this corruption acceptable.  Inevitably the corruption infected the unions.

Independent initiative and consciousness disappeared and the passivity that has been such a feature of the recent years of austerity was learned over the last two decades by many workers with no experience of anything else.  This is what is meant in Ireland by bourgeois democracy, the subordination of independent working class consciousness under the leadership of a trade union bureaucracy and populist politicians that was all the stronger because for so long it appeared to deliver increasing prosperity.  That tradition bears down heavily as an enormous weight now the boom years have evaporated and the foundations of that prosperity have been blown away.

The low level of strike activity in the Irish State in the years just before the crash and after it is shown in the graph above.  The huge spike in 2009 reflects the one-day public sector strike in November of that year.  In retrospect it signalled the victory of a government policy which sought to divide workers employed in the public and private sectors and to blame the former for the state’s perilous finances.  This victory was pushed through with union agreement in the Croke Park deal which eschewed defence of state services valued by the working class in favour of defending the basic pay levels of its existing workforce.  This signalled entrenchment of division in the working class and tacit acceptance of the austerity agenda.  The rules of bourgeois democracy allowed working people to legitimise austerity further through a general election and an Austerity referendum.  All three of these demonstrate how effective bourgeois democracy is in imposing austerity when it so cruelly exposes the working class’s lack of a social and political alternative.

The studies show that no amount of militant action can substitute for this alternative.  As we have seen, general strikes, which often play such a prominent role in the demands of the left, are in themselves not the workers alternative.  Just think about it.  Greece has recoded 33 general strikes between 1980 and 2006, far more than any other country in Europe, yet if ever there is a working class in Europe suffering because of the crisis it is this one.  If ever the truth of Marx’s judgement of strikes received confirmation – that unions “ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects” – it is in the Greek experience.

This, of course, does not mean that we must reject the strike weapon or the tactic of the general strike.  It is simply to confirm that these weapons of class struggle are not in themselves the alternative, or rather they are only steps and tactics in their creation.  Too often in the programme of the left they appear as events that will somehow spontaneously create the organisation and consciousness necessary for the creation of a truly permanent and conscious workers movement committed to socialism.  An unconscious faith in spontaneity appears at the heart of organisations that otherwise believe themselves to be wedded to building a fully conscious revolutionary movement.  Doubly so – that austerity will lead to militant resistance and that this will spawn the socialist alternative.  The building of the social and political power and consciousness of the working class are the crucial challenges that are bypassed.

This is often expressed in the view that the mass of workers will learn through action, which is true only in so far as it goes.  The point is that every action has a perceived purpose and, as we have seen, often what is a most militant action is wedded to quite limited, if not reactionary,  purposes – a general strike to demand a social pact, a public-sector wide strike to protect the Croke Park deal?  The ideas that workers fight with and for are crucial, if not decisive, not the tactics and methods of the unavoidable class struggle which they must engage in if they are even to think of a socialist alternative.  It is the creation of the conditions for the development of a revolutionary consciousness, which can utilise the various tactics of the class struggle, that must engage Marxists and not hopes that activity in itself, however militant, will solve this task.  The evidence we have looked at shows that this just doesn’t happen.

*Alan de Bromhead, Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke, University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 95, February 2012).

**“Unions Against Governments: Explaining General Strikes in Western Europe, 1980-2006”, John Kelly, Kerstin Hamann and Alison Johnston, Centre for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, Working Paper 2011/261.

Will Austerity lead to a Social Explosion?

Greeks riot outside Parliament

In the debate over the austerity treaty the General Secretary, John Douglas, of the trade Mandate union told its Biennial Delegate in Wexford that:

“There are over 400,000 Irish workers without jobs, 50,000 are leaving the country each year, tens of thousands of families are being crushed under the burden of unsustainable mortgages and living in fear of eviction. Living standards, welfare and services are being slashed, the government is introducing a raft of regressive charges and taxes, a recent Irish League of Credit Unions report showed that 50% of those surveyed had less than €100 left to spend at the end of the month after paying all bills – what sort of an existence is this?”

“The imposition of austerity measures across Europe has resulted in over 25 million workers unemployed, of which 5.5 million are under the age of 25. This is a scandal, human waste of mega proportions – but still, our government at the behest of our European banking masters continues with these failed policies and ideologies, condemning future generations of Irish citizens to a mere existence on the margins of society.”

The treaty “may even shrink domestic demand further leading to mass unemployment, decades of emigration and sow the seeds for future social conflict.”

Irish workers are now well versed in watching scenes of riots outside the Greek parliament on RTE news bulletins.  It has been noted by just about every commentator that similar scenes have not been a regular occurrence in Merion Square or Kildare Street.

Is John Douglas therefore wrong?  A recent academic paper suggests not.*


Employing the mathematical tool of regression analysis, using a wide range of indicators of social unrest – demonstrations, riots, strikes, assassinations and attempted revolutions – in  26 European countries, including Ireland, over 90 years – 1919 to 2009 – the authors look specifically at the relationship between austerity and social unrest.  They note previous studies of the same issue and a study of seven countries in South America during the period 1981 to 1990 which found that the run-up to austerity measures is associated with higher levels of unrest but that this declines after implementation.

Using the various indicators the authors create a single measure of instability which they call CHAOS which averaged 1.5 for the various countries over this period and peaked in Italy in 1947 where there were 38 incidents including 7 general strikes, 19 riots and 9 anti-government demonstrations.  The careful reader will wonder at a country with 7 general strikes but only 9 demonstrations.  We will not delve into the definition of the variables.  This does not mean we should cease to be sceptical of the results but we are obliged not simply to dismiss what we might not like, nor perhaps – more easily – simply accept that which fits our existing opinions.


So what are the results of the study?

There are apparently relatively few protests caused by austerity but when they happen they are large and tend to be peaceful.  It should be remembered this study does not look at all protests, strikes and demonstrations etc. but only those linked to austerity measures.

It identifies no clear-cut patter over time but the interwar period, that immediately after World War II and the 1968 to 1994 periods show unusually high levels of unrest.  It also notes that the years since 1994 have been unusually tranquil.

Higher levels of expenditure and faster growth are associated with less unrest.  This might seem unsurprising but would appear to conflict with an assumption of socialists that lower levels of unemployment, usually associated with higher capitalist growth, allows the working class to rebuild its organisation and confidence and engage in more struggles to advance their social position.  The authors however note that while output growth is correlated negatively with assassinations, riots and revolutions it is not correlated in this way with strikes.

In the years after 1945 the authors observe that more growth lead to more unrest and state that “it seems that high rates of output growth may have encouraged worker militancy more generally.  At a time when many countries reached full employment, this effect seems to have become dominant.  The normal pattern of GDP growth reducing unrest reasserts itself after 1965, when there is also still a clear negative effect of higher government expenditure.”

State expenditure increases are relatively powerful in reducing instability while expenditure cuts are strongly correlated with increasing unrest and tax increases having a similar but weaker effect.

Expenditure cuts are linked to significant increases in demonstration’s, riots, assassinations and attempted revolutions but with less impact on the occurrence of general strikes.  These effects were strongest between the World Wars.

The authors note that after the fall of the Berlin wall the overall connection between austerity and social instability changes sign (in other words increased austerity is associated with less instability) but that it appears this relationship is statistically not significant. The authors conclude that non-economic factors become dominant in this period.


The importance of politics is emphasised when the authors look at the robustness of their results.  They find that unrest is particularly strong to budget cuts if the level of unrest generally is already high.  They also argue that the more democratic the political system in which austerity is implemented the lesser its impact in fostering unrest.

Increases in state expenditure do not reduce unrest to a large extent but this result of the statistical testing is not significant.  On the other hand state expenditure cuts “matter a great deal for unrest.”   Economic growth also does “much to cut unrest” while declines in growth do not set off unrest to the same degree.

The authors do not find that the spread of the mass media facilitates the rise of mass protest.

Finally the authors point to other literature which suggests that “there is no significant punishment at the polls for governments pursuing cut-backs . . . and no evidence of gains in response to budget expansion.”

The analysis would thus appear to confirm the view that political factors appear to be very important, which should be no surprise to Marxists.  Indeed they should find in it confirmation of their view that in questions of class struggle political questions such as the level of class consciousness and political organisation are paramount.

Thus whatever shortcomings, or suspicions, that might arise over the methods and assumptions employed in this academic paper its findings would not on the face of it appear at odds with general Marxist analysis.  It would confirm the view that austerity will generally lead to resistance, that this resistance is crucially framed by political factors and these factors will go some way to determining whether it occurs and is significant.

But what about the character of the political response to austerity?  What does history have to teach us about this?  What sort of politics arises in response to hard times and austerity?  In the next blog I will look at a second recent academic paper that carries out a statistical analysis of the political reaction to the great depression during the 1930s.

*  ‘Austerity and Anarchy: Budget cuts and social unrest in Europe 1919-2009’, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, CEPR Discussion Paper Series August 2011.