This article provides a critique of social partnership & ‘soft’ NGO advocacy and reflections on pathways forward.
Political & Economic Context: Neoliberalism & Ireland
Many people ask about the cause of poverty, oppression, rising inequality, environmental destruction and climate change. Neo-Marxist thinkers like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright and Hardt & Negri, make the case that it is International capitalist globalization that is underlying these social catastrophes. It is the neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus – which was a political project of the wealthy and capital elite, theorized by the free marketeers of Friedman and Hayak. It started in Pinochet’s Chile and then Reagan and Thatcher implemented it in the US and the UK. In the face of declining profitability and the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s the aim of the wealthy and elite was to reduce the share of income (wealth) that went to workers and to increase that returning to capital and the elite. They also sought to reduce the power and influence of trade unions and the working class socialist organisations in society, politics and the economy.
At the heart of the neoliberal ideology was a belief that private unregulated markets are the best mechanisms to organize society and state-led planning is inefficient. Neoliberal policies included the de-regulation of the Keynesian welfare state protections and the financial sector, the privatization of public services, neocolonial conquest through corporations, imperial wars for resources such as Iraq, the commodification of nature like water, land, and seeds. Indeed at the heart of this project of neoliberal capitalism is the commodification of everything. Everything is to be turned into something that can be bought and sold, traded on markets, profited from, commercialized. Neoliberalism is about the utopia of individualized responsibility. Your existence is commodified through competition. You must compete with everyone for everything. Values of solidarity, public good, and co-operation are replaced with competition, individualism, commercialism and materialism.
But neoliberalism is also based on a myth of freedom. Where is the freedom for migrants who die in attempts to enter the EU or the US? Where is the freedom for low paid workers forced to work three jobs to survive? Neoliberalism has been dramatically successful in increasing the wealth of the minority, in increasing inequality, and in promoting its values and ideology amongst populations. However, it is also riven with contradictions as any variant of capitalism is inherently so because of the anarchy of free, unregulated, markets that continually engages in boom and bust cycles and because of uneven development where one area expands at the expense of retrenchment in another area. For example, the declining rate of investment for capital in general commodities led to capital in the 2000s flooding new financial products and the financialisation and commodification of ever greater aspects of our lives that capital could invest, gamble and accumulate profit from. But as the logic of the market was expanded into ever greater areas the potential for crisis and crashes increases and thus we see greater numbers and intensity of economic crises. Naoimi Klein has used an interesting term ‘disaster capitalism’ to describe the way in which the elites use various crises to further intensify exploitation and the commodification of everything by private corporations.
Neoliberal capitalism, rather than providing a solution for economic growth, has shown itself to continue and intensify global capitalist crisis, inequality, uneven development and the concentration of the wealth created by workers and peasants into the control of a global corporate, political and financial elite who have become massively wealthy and powerful.
Ireland is a good case study to explore the failure of the neoliberal financial capitalist model. The Celtic tiger was built on the belief in the private market and the complete integration with globalised markets and dependency on foreign direct investment from multinationals. McDowell and the PDs promoted that inequality is good and essential to motivate people, that we needed light touch regulation in order to allow private developers and bankers release their entrepreneurial ‘talent’ and risk taking. It was also based on reducing taxes on multinationals and the wealthy. Corruption was rife within the political system. The over accumulation and uneven development of the boom lead to the massive crisis and recession.
Despite its failures, most countries, particularly the EU, continue neoliberalism. Here in Ireland the Labour and Fine Gael are continuing the neoliberal path. The clear priority and purpose of the neoliberal paradigm has been exemplified by both governments during the crisis stating that Europe and the IMF could challenge or take anything from us but they would not force us to raise our corporate tax rate. This also links into Ireland post-colonial mentality of dependency and inability to stand up and challenge oppressive powers. So Ireland Inc. imposed massive reductions in funding for marginal communities and essential disability services etc so that it could keep multinational taxes low and they could keep making billions in profit in one of the most profitable countries in the world for multinationals to do business in. So Ireland Inc. slashes our social housing budget so we can pay back international billionaire bondholders.
The elite successfully convinced a significant proportion of the population that their interests lay not in protesting or resistance but in maintaining a stoic passivity that would show the international markets and foreign investors that Irish people will accept whatever they are given and will not disturb the profit making system. The system continues to fuel the belief in commodified housing markets that result in evictions, homelessness, mortgage arrears etc. The key overriding raison d’être of the Irish state has become –to ensure international multinationals, financial markets and bondholders and the domestic privileged elite remain in control and continue to grow in prosperity while working people and poor are dispossessed of their public services, wages and community services.
Civil society and consent
Now most people who believe in social justice and those who consider themselves on the Left in Irish politics are likely to agree with the above analysis. The question and debate then centres on how to change this? How do we achieve an equal, sustainable, peaceful, non-oppressive Ireland (and world) based on solidarity and cooperation? What should be our political approaches to action and strategy?
It is worthwhile asking at this point how the consent of majority of people is maintained in this context. Why do they do not revolt and resist? Noam Chomsky has done a lot of work on this question and describes how popular consent (passivity) is manufactured – in key part through control of the media and an absence of systemic questioning and critical thinking in wider civil society. This is also in the vein of the thinking of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who explained in regard to getting social resistance and transformation that civil society plays a key role in maintaining support for existing capitalist hegemony and thus in maintaining consent.
Thus it is worth applying this framework to look at the Irish civil society organisations and analyse what role they are playing in challenging or sustaining capitalist hegemony.
Firstly, let us look at dominant approaches to action or social change among NGOs, the community and voluntary sector and trade unions (i.e. Irish civil society). The dominant approaches include a charity, service provision, institutional level lobbying or ‘soft’ advocacy approach and one of ‘social partnership’ with the state, negotiating with it or depending on it for funding. It focuses on public ‘awareness’ raising, raising donations, or adopting a strategy of supporting the Labour party to get into government and then hoping to influence things that way. A reasonable question to ask in relation to this is that if you are truly aiming for radical transformation how effective are these approaches? How do they change the structures of capitalism and power systems that keep it in place? How does lobbying elites change things? Where is the evidence that they listen in any meaningful way? We must ask ourselves is the state neutral or in whose interests does it serve? How can change come from within a system where the political and social institutions, including the media, ultimately focus on maintaining the status quo and protecting the privileges of the existing elite? Where has the state, media and politicians from mainstream parties shown a real interest in transforming the system so it prioritises the excluded and vulnerable?
Irish trade unions have since the mid-1980s, rather than engaged in social conflict and resistance against the Irish state, decided to concentrate on partnership negotiations, for fear of the implementation of Thatcherism with the rise of the PDs. This also fit within the paradigm of supporting ‘national economic development’ whereby delivering ‘social peace’ trade unions and workers could contribute to showing Ireland was a safe place for foreign direct investment. However, the Irish experience of 20 years or so of holding back on protest and strikes –of civil society organizations ensuring, or ‘self-policing’ the delivery or social peace – as part of partnership with the state and political parties in government, shows that this approach results in few gains for working and poor people and the co-option and silencing of potential forces of dissent and a destruction of solidarity. For example, during austerity the leadership of the public sector unions and ICTU made agreements with the government not to engage in industrial action in return for maintaining wages of existing public sector workers and no compulsory redundancies.
However, the agreements also included much greater reductions in the pay of new entrants to the public sector and moratoriums on new recruitment. Furthermore, the real price of the agreements was the major trade unions stopped protesting austerity and did not challenge in any major way the imposition and war of austerity against the poor. So the most vulnerable communities that were devastated by cuts were left with no one to defend them but themselves. The large charities and community & voluntary groups barely raised their voice either for fear of further funding cuts and due to long standing connections with the Labour party which was now in government. They believed that Labour was mitigating Fine Gael and that the government was worth supporting because things could be much worse with Fine Gael on its own. It was also a belief that working with the state was the only way to effect change and that fomenting protest, dissent and public mobilization was not a strategy they would support. So there is a complicated picture of why civil society organisations did not resist.
This analysis does indicate how enmeshed they are in dependency and the ideology of the elite system. Within this space of ‘responsibility’ and ‘pragmatism’ there is no room for radical critique and opposition. Having being involved for a number years in advocacy to the system I experienced how it narrows your horizons of what’s possible, of what should be demanded, of how radical or critical your action should be. The radical potential of moments are held back and with strained. For example, the potential of the Claiming Our Future 2010 RDS event to turn into a more radical social movement was lost by a civil society leadership that, for the reasons outlined above, did not want to engage or unleash the popular protest and resistance that radical change requires.
But this is not restricted to Ireland, at a global level, the likes of leading global anti-capitalist and booker prize winner, Arundhati Roy, Author of God of Small Things and Capitalism: A Ghost Story has strongly critiqued “the NGO-ization of Resistance”:
“In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to neo-liberalism. At the time, the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy, transport, and public health. As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas. The difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending. Most large funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN, and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose, political formation that oversees the neo-liberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place.
“Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that. NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right.
“They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar [the government] and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.
“In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation.
“In order make sure their funding is not jeopardized and that the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present their work in a shallow framework more or less shorn of a political or historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient historical or political context.
“Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese . . . in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.
“Eventually–on a smaller scale but more insidiously–the capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate the agenda. It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticizes resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self-reliant. NGOs have funds that can employ local people who might otherwise be activists in resistance movements, but now can feel they are doing some immediate, creative good (and earning a living while they’re at it). Real political resistance offers no such short cuts.
“The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”
This quote from Roy requires re-reading and its depth of reflection and accuracy and relevance to Ireland is striking.
What ways forward for Irish civil society? Alternative approaches for civil society
I engage in this discussion not to suggest that much of the work undertaken by NGOs is not necessary or is worthless. The majority of people involved in this work do it because they genuinely believe that this is helping their fellow human beings. I also recognize the difficulties of trying to provide an immediate response and solution to problems of exploitation and oppression that foreseeably might never be addressed otherwise. However, I am challenging the approach that is only focused on partnership and lobbying the elite and does not give equal weight and effort to grassroots resistance and systemic critique. I do not accept the counter posing of having to be either inside the system and thus accept being subject to its rules or else being outside and thus being ineffective and isolated. There is another approach – one of critical engagement.
That is based on empowering the marginalized, workers and those suffering discrimination to speak themselves to power. That is based on an articulation of the critique of capitalist neoliberalism and a clear understanding that radical social transformation will only take place when people engage in struggle and then through that struggle demand and create alternative systems. Engagement with the system must be based on using the power of the majority – popular resistance and an ability to withdraw consent for the system.
The infrastructure of resistance was never developed adequately in Ireland on a popular basis and it is this social resistance infrastructure that we see playing an essential role in Greece, Spain, and Portugal in mobilizing and developing alternative approaches and forcing civil society organizations and political parties to take more radical positions.
The state has also played a clever game. Co-opting some dissent –dividing and conquering, repression in some quarters such as student protests in 2010 and ongoing with Shell to Sea, removing potential political rallying points such as the annual promissory note repayment and the associated manipulation of information and reality such as claiming that there was a ‘deal’ on the Anglo notes. The Irish state and political system, in particular an uncritical media, has been effective in many ways in maintaining a passive population. And of course its encouragement of the age old safety valve of emigration.
Gramscian frameworks also emphasize that you have to try understand the cultural place-specific context of civil society organisations to see how change might occur. In Ireland NGOs and trade unions have emerged from a society of silence that had a few moments of large working class mobilisation and some small sporadic group acts of resistance. There has been oppression and collusion. Resistance and persecution. Fleeing and famine. Those who survived the Famine did so while millions died and were forced to emigrate. A fearful population, oppressed for hundreds of years, were liberated by a small group only to become oppressed again for almost a century after Independence. Workers were defeated in the lock out. Dissenting voices of communism were forced like Jim Gralton, into exile by a conservative, church dominated, paranoid and deeply insecure state. We had no large communist or socialist party like the rest of Europe, we had no 1968 revolutions, no factory occupations or red zones in the 1970s or 80s. This has left a legacy of the absence of a social resistance consciousness and infrastructure today. When some liberal moves began to be made in the 1990s the Celtic Tiger came along, trade unions & civil society were bought off and bought into partnership. But that has collapsed.
So what path is Irish civil society going to travel on now? It is significant that the dominant narrative is that the Irish did not protest the neoliberalism of the Celtic Tiger or the crisis and austerity. And yet there was the anti-bin charges campaign in during the Celtic tiger, the massive anti household charge campaign during austerity, the community development protests of the Spectacle, a new youth movement that for the first time in Irish history is resisting emigration – We’re Not Leaving, the Ballyhea & Anglo Not Our Debt, Shell to Sea, Anti-fracking, an emergence for of a new radical Left in People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance. We have also seen the rise of an anti-austerity (for now) Sinn Fein. What is interesting is how these movements (bar Sinn Fein) have remained undocumented, isolated, not breaking through, resisting under the radar. Will they become the hidden grassroots social resistances that have existed over the last 300 years in Ireland but are written out of an elite nationalist history just as the various social resistances against poverty and oppression were written out of our 19th and 20th Century history? Where this goes depends on the strategies we decide to adopt.
Based on trying to get radical transformation of Ireland I think the following strategies could be useful for NGOs, social movements, community groups, community and voluntary organizations, and Trade Unions to think about in the current period.
Break the silence through education and research
The first suggestion is to move the focus away from trying to change the mind of the elite civil servants, media and mainstream politicians and focus on educating and empowering workers, communities, students, and the public through a Freirian approach of education for political emancipation not the mainstream ‘common sense’ of the system. This should provide a clear critique of neoliberal financial capitalism, alternatives, and methods for radical change. There is a view held by a lot of civil society leadership that Irish workers and the public are not supportive of radical action or Left politics. That is clearly changing but grassroots education and organizing is central to changing that and building a base of support for more radical social justice and egalitarian alternatives.
Freire champions that education should allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, in turn overcoming their condition. Nevertheless, he also acknowledges that in order for this to occur, the oppressed individual must play a role in their liberation. As he states:
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption” (Freire, 1970, p. 54).
Interestingly for Ireland, according to Freire, the system of dominant social relations creates a ‘culture of silence’ that instils a negative, silenced and suppressed self-image into the oppressed. The learner must develop a critical consciousness in order to recognize that this culture of silence is created to oppress. Also, a culture of silence can cause the “dominated individuals [to] lose the means by which to critically respond to the culture that is forced on them by a dominant culture.” Here in Ireland we have allowed a system of silence to dominate.
So part of this critical consciousness education is teaching and promoting alternative models of social, political and economic development that exist. We need to provide examples where popular resistance exists and has achieved radical change. We can learn from international and local resistance that has challenged neoliberalism e.g. Zapatistas, Argentinian cooperative movement, Bolivia, Venezuela. We need demonstration and dissemination of alternative models of health, housing, employment from around the world and from within Ireland. These need to be researched, written up and disseminated through popular education such as social media and community forums.
Within this critical consciousness and education is the necessity to discuss the values on which we want society to be organized and how we believe it should be organized. How alternatives based on cooperation, solidarity, and social justice can operate. Why there is a necessity to remove the profit, commercial, market motive and method of organizing society and economy.
Why under capitalism meeting the housing, education, health, environmental, employment, needs of population are never prioritized and how alternative societies work that do prioritise these issues. How real participatory and deliberative democracy would lead to social justice- and how the elite should not have monopoly rule and power. Co-operatives are an interesting model that could have particular resonance for Ireland. We need to ask critical questions that the challenge prevailing common sense of the system. Why does anyone need a salary over 60,000? Why do we have housing and health provided on a for-profit basis? There is clear evidence that more equal societies do better on a range of indicators. Solidarity and cooperation rather than competition and individualism are driving values we aspire to in our family and personal lives. Why do we think the system should operate differently?
Organise, campaign, protest
Secondly, there needs to be support for and the organizing of social resistance, struggle, protest, and campaigns. It would be more productive for civil society organizations to look beyond their individualized silos and compartmentalized lobbying and let go of their fear of upsetting their civil servant and government partners and build and support movements based on popular protest and alternatives. Movements such as those opposed to water charges, household charges, community cuts, Were Not leaving, the radical left, environmental campaigns require civil society organization support in order to scale up their influence and succeed. Why do we support such movements in Latin America but not when they are here? Is radicalism ok for the Global South but not for us here in Ireland?
Even if we are not exactly in agreement with the particular issue (this is obviously not applicable in racist or xenophobic issues) we should support grassroots resistance because that is where radical transformation comes from –the bottom up. That is where the potential for radical change and transformation comes from. People and workers in communities and neighbourhoods in cities, towns and villages taking action themselves. It is good to see trade unions supporting and organizing workers like the Marks & Spencers workers, the Greyhound bin workers and NGOs like MRCI supporting the Paris Bakery occupation. These should be continued and intensified. The lessons of their victories and defeats circulated and publicized.
The urban context of cities and large towns is central for this. The Right to the City literature highlights the importance of going beyond single issue campaigns to form broader grassroots alliances between environmentalists, the urban dispossessed, trade unions, and radical Left activists – to define a new type of non-capitalist, non-commodified urban life. And to engage in radical political action to challenge the system. This also needs to be based on a new politics of diversity that respects different traditions, ideologies and approaches. It is clear that we need a new approach to revolution. We musk theorise and think through how will an alternative society come about? We do not want more authoritarian dystopias. We cannot wait for capitalism to combust from its own contradictions. Indeed, capitalism has proved its ability to survive, mould, transform and sustain itself. We have to create new mechanisms for transformation and it is most likely a combination of various diverse approaches. From alternative autonomist communities to co-operative societies to mass resistance and local community action. What is clear from new social movements is that it cannot not be one singular act, one singular organization and one ideology. We have seen the multiple failures that that leads to.
Radical inequality and injustice legitimizes and necessitates radical popular mobilization with the aim of transformation. We must ask ourselves. What are we afraid of? Social upheaval? What would be wrong with people waking up and taking control through mass protest and community action? Why did civil society organizations not organize mass resistance when we were bailing out banks by the billions, when we entered the Troika bailout programme, when the ECB told us we couldn’t burn bondholders, when the population wanted to resist the household charge? They were moments which could have fractured Irish politics and society permanently. Senior trade union officials have described that had they did not want to do that for fear of collapsing the system, for fear of frightening foreign investors, for fear of losing, for fear of worse alternatives. This highlights that the approach of civil society leadership has not been about radically changing the system but about mitigation. And the question has to asked is this what radicalism is about? Does this serve the interests of the poor, workers, the discriminated and marginalized? If we think this system is fundamentally wrong- then why not try making it collapse and develop alternatives?
A European and global dimension is also important. Unless resistance is linked regionally, e.g. at a European level and internationally it will be very difficult to sustain a longer term challenge and alternative power to international markets as one country. International solidarity requires facilitating social movement to scale up by supporting the European anti austerity movements, the global justice movement in World Social Forum, Climate Justice Events.
The neoliberal capitalist system and elite privilege holds on to its power on the basis of the consent of the population and us not realising our collective power. The elite have no desire or belief in real democracy and actively try to stop it emerging. Thus until we support the silenced, help them find their voice and become empowered to take radical political and social action themselves nothing will change fundamentally toward a world of equality, social justice and sustainability. We must not be afraid of unleashing popular resistance – of really facilitating the working class and marginalised to tear apart the existing institutions and recreate the world in an anti-capitalist manner.
Ireland, the Republic and transition
In Ireland we are in a time of transition. The fundamental foundation of our politics, society and economy are in question. The elite are desperate to get us back on the Celtic Tiger track – bowing to the multinational and ECB masters. But more and more people are not just opposing austerity but questioning more fundamentally. What type of Ireland, indeed world is this? Do we want this? Does it work? As we approach the anniversary of the 1916 rising and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic it is an opportune time for the Irish left and radical civil society to engage the public in these debates and hopefully motivate action. The fundamental questions to ask is; is this (austerity, debt slavery, neoliberalism, privatization, low wages, emigration, unemployment, discrimination) what the leaders, particularly James Connolly, fought and died for?
We need to analyse what happened to the social aspect of the revolution? They fought to create a Republic of equality. But the rising was defeated. And the voice of workers and the poor was lost in the Civil War and the subsequent Free State. The reality is that it is an unfinished revolution. We have never had the social, economic or political revolution that Connolly and poor and workers of Ireland fought for. We remain a colonized and oppressed people. We are a neo-colony of neoliberal capitalism, US multinationals and the EU. We are colonized most of all in our minds and our actions. We never got true independence or freedom from oppression. We replaced one colonizer by another. The British oppressor was replaced by the church and conservative elite, the civil service, the EU, the ECB, international markets and now bondholders and international property and finance speculators. Because the truth is there was always an elite class in Ireland – catholic and protestant – that supported and benefited from the colonial master. The large land owners, the civil servants, the bankers and judiciary. There remains an elite class in Ireland that is willing to be the local colonial masters for the EU, ECB and international bondholders. Imposing the policies of the colonizers in return for holding on to their privileges. Connolly’s words are eerily insightful on our situation today. Writing in Shan Van Vocht (socialist newspaper) in January, 1897 he said;
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”
I am involved in a civil society campaign with Claiming Our Future to start a participative process of defining, creating, debating and mobilizing for A Declaration for A New Republic. Perhaps this can provide an opportunity to engage and discuss and act towards a social and political revolution and development of alternatives based on cooperation and solidarity.
These are difficult and challenging themes and questions for all of us. But there are no easy answers or strategies. Most importantly we must continue to engage in grassroots campaigns and struggles and pressure the system. We must also simultaneously critically think, reflect, debate and question what is the purpose of what we are doing, what do we want to achieve, are there other ways to do this?
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