Watching the “deal” on Anglo being done over the past few days has provoked some pretty awful feelings in me and I imagine I’m not alone in this – certainly if my facebook news feed is anything to go by. The copper-fastening of the promissory note debt by converting it into a sovereign bond represents a significant move in the wrong direction. The government has actively maneuvered to limit even further any possibility of default on that debt.
In terms of the realpolitik of this, it makes a certain degree of sense. By transforming the promissory notes into government bonds the issues has been kicked to touch – no doubt the possibility of defaulting on this debt will be completely removed from the political agenda. In other words, this technical operation will depoliticize the Anglo debt and therefore consign to history one of the most contentious elements of the legacy of the ‘financial-real estate complex’.
Moreover, the government spin has been quite effective. They have managed to sell the line that this will cost us less because it is stretched out over a longer period and that this ‘bookends’ the Anglo chapter, thus providing a sense of resolution or closure. The support of the media for the government position, even for those of us who would not be enamored with the media at the best of times, was striking. On Wednesday evening it seemed the media were struggling to find their take on the whole issue. By lunchtime on Thursday Sean O’Rourke on RTE’s lunch time news was cheerily declaring a “breakthrough in Ireland’s attempt to lift the debt burden”. Today’s Irish Times (February 8th) features an entire promissory note section, most of which reads like a press release from the Department of Finance.
However, what was most striking of all, for me anyway, was the feeling of powerlessness and despair in response to these developments. This was partially because of the lack of opposition in the public sphere. There has been almost no voice in the media with whom I could identify, or even trust (Andy Storey on Newstalk yesterday was one of the few who managed to break the silence).
This whole episode, perhaps most importantly, should provoke reflection for those concerned with challenging the new status quo. The Anglo “deal” represents a further institutionalization of the power and the dynamics of the financial system, it represents a further strengthening of ‘debtocracy’.
So, what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it?
The first thing to take into consideration is that existing left organizations cannot point a way forward here. By this I mean the Socialist Party and the Socialist Worker Party, and their various proxy organizations (ULA, People before Profit etc.) There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, these parties, in responding politically to the debt issue, have focused on parliamentary politics and (in the SWP’s case) protests. The problem is that both organizations are completely incompetent at both of these activities. The fiasco of the Trotskyst parties in the Dail has made for grim viewing and SWP protests are awful. Secondly, the standard right wing critique is true in this case – both parties are incapable of putting the good of the country before their ideological agenda. In fact, they seem to even be incapable of putting the good of their own organization ahead of their ideological agenda. Moreover, the ideology of these parties doesn’t resonant with anyone beyond an extremely limited number of people who identify with a traditional socialist position.
What about the Trade Unions? On the face of it, the Unions probably represent the only organization capable of mobilizing large numbers against the financial dictatorship. However, the leadership have made it clear that their priority is implementing the Croke Park agreement and that they are going to avoid the whole debt issue. David Begg (top dog at ICTU) has an opinion piece in the Irish Times today ahead of Saturday’s depressingly titled ‘jobs not debt’ protest. He argues that the debt is unfair and that we cannot, as a people, carry the burden. What does he recommend we do? He suggests that we go on the protest on Saturday. He does not call for default. Some people argue, however, that the ‘rank and file’ workers could radicalize the Unions from the bottom up, putting pressure on the leadership to act. However, this seems unlikely because the unions are structured to reduce politics to ‘protecting pay and conditions’ and to disempower the rank and file. Moreover, there is not a strong presence of activists within the Unions.
All of this leads to two significant problems. First of all, and as argued above, the organizations which we might expect to lead the opposition are incapable of doing so. Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, many individuals who would be critical of the socialist parties and the unions remain in their political orbit. Some of these are in the ULA. Others are not members of organizations but engage in debates linked to the socialist parties, the ULA and so on. We often hear calls from these circles for ‘left unity’. But two wrongs don’t make a right and you don’t need a Masters in organizational studies to tell you that combining two completely dysfunctional organizations (the SP and SWP) is not going to work. In my opinion, remaining within the orbit of these organizations is limiting.
However, there have been a number of developments over the past two years to which we should pay attention. First and foremost, Anglo: Not our Debt clearly represents the most successful attempt to build a form of political organization which is capable of responding to the dominance of the financial system. Why is Anglo: Not our Debt so important? First of all, it represents an important and perhaps unique form of alliance. It involves NGOs, working class ‘community activists’, researchers and artists. Unlike other attempts emerging from ‘civil society’, such as Claiming our Future, it has not been set up by people largely associated with either the Labour Party or Trade Unions and therefore has been able to take a direct and explicitly radical position on the question of debt – clearly signaling default as the way forward. Second of all, it is not characterized by the type of ‘ideological identity politics’ that has blighted the left organizations discussed earlier. Anglo: Not our Debt has developed a political language and strategy around default which allows people with different views to cooperate effectively and develop a shared analysis in response to a concrete issue. Thirdly, the campaign tries to be participative, to be open to lots of different types of people and to embrace popular education as a methodology of intervention.
Anglo: Not Our Debt has also linked in with the energy coming out of the occupy movement. Many young people who came out of the Occupy Dame Street (ODS) experience support or work with Anglo: Not Our Debt and for many more people the campaign is the main source of analysis and leadership with regard to the debt issues. For instance, the Unlock NAMA campaign (which largely emerged from ODS), has been able to draw on the support and analysis of Anglo: Not Our Debt (for example Anglo: Not Our Debt members Michael Taft and Andy Story participated in the launch of Unlock NAMA).
ODS, like Anglo: Not Our Debt, was noteworthy for the new form of alliance it made possible and for its ability to articulate oppositional politics which is not based on an ideological identity and which can reach out to include a wide variety of people. There was clearly a sense that ODS opened up a political space which had been badly needed. Participants in ODS did not manage to construct a way of doing politics that was sustainable and that could keep alive the space they opened – but the thousands of people who participated in and supported ODS have not gone away.
Unlock NAMA, which was an instance of younger people who did not have much background in finance and debt trying to get to grips with the politics of financial capitalism, were also able to draw on support and inspiration from other sectors. For instance, the Irish Left Review and, in particular, Conor McCabe’s writing. ILR has been one of the few (if not the only) projects associated with the left which has highlighted the significance of the financial system and its importance to political change today.
Conor McCabe has also been involved in a number of important educational projects, including a project dealing with the issue of money and the Praxis group. These educational projects have maintained an important space for reflection and collective learning which, while not all that visible, represent a significant development within the social movements.
In addition to ILR, which has recently commenced a printed version, there has been a wider variety of media projects including the Live Register, Dole TV, as well as writing by people like Mark Malone and Richard McAlevey. All of these are linked, in different ways, with the campaigns and projects mentioned above and they represent an engaging and exciting space for analysis and debate.
These various projects have a number of things in common. They recognize the centrality of the question of debt to our political moment. Most of them, if not all, are unambiguously pro-default. They embrace a new type of radical anti-capitalist politics which is not defined by an ideological and organizational identity, in which individuals reflect and think for themselves and in which meaningful and free debate between equals is welcomed. They can effectively communicate with a wide variety of people – and they can produce good quality and engaging analysis and media. In this regard, importantly, the projects discussed in this post reflect some of the most important elements of the new social movements which have arisen in recent years – in particular the 15M movement and the movement of the Indignados in Greece.
The question I want to finish with is whether or not, somewhere in this ferment, in this emerging and embryonic network, a new possibility for mass expression of political opposition to the financial system and its political stooges is possible? I know that for me, rather than going to the ICTU march this weekend, I would much rather be going to a protest organized by people who genuinely believe in what they are doing, who know what they are about, who can be honest with people and respect their intelligence – and who are not afraid to demand default. And if I think about who these people might be or what organizations might be able to put in place a protest of this nature (or any other form of collective political expression) I think of Anglo: Not Our Debt, I think of the Irish Left Review, I think about the media and educational collectives mentioned throughout this article. Would such an alliance be able to create a space were people felt they could express their anger at the financial system, could rally together around the demand for default, could this alliance engage in meaningful political discussion and education, could it galvanize the energy which we seen in ODS in a more fruitful and productive direction?
Maybe we need to recognise that no else is going to create the movement we want to see – that we are the ones we have been waiting for.