Peadar Kirby has written a piece expanding on his criticisms of the Right2Water campaign, locating them within a wider critique of what he calls Ireland’s politics of anti-austerity. He is pessimistic about the possibilities of the current mass mobilisation against austerity in Ireland, and contrasts the situation in Ireland with the situation in Spain, where as he sees it Podemos is on the verge of taking power ‘not through a politics of opposition but through a serious politics of proposing an alternative that is credible to large sectors of the citizenry’.
In this post I wish to highlight some further similarities and differences between the cases of Ireland and Spain, and in doing so, question some of Kirby’s criticisms.
Kirby is critical of the ‘politics of opposition’ rather than a ‘politics of proposal’ in the Irish case. He thinks the anti-water charges campaign ought to articulate fully how the right to water ought to be guaranteed, since, as he sees it, the likely consequence of the campaign should it prove successful will be to winnow away further at this right. This criticism relies on a strict interpretation of the right to water as codified by the UN. I agree with Kirby and others that when people are campaigning against water charges, they are not campaigning for a fully articulated and costed solution for the provision of water in keeping with UN accords. They are doing so because they feel they and others will be impoverished by water charges. But they are also doing so because they recognise that the imposition of water charges is regressive and hence unjust, and the demand for water to be paid for out of progressive tax measures, and the demand against privatisation, which are both very common in the campaign, are not calls for stripping away the capacity of the State to provide public services. On the contrary.
It is true: there are no detailed concrete proposals to this end. Kirby thinks this is a big problem. I don’t. And here is where I begin to part company with his analysis. In drawing attention to the rise of Podemos in Spain, Kirby omits the cycles of mobilisations that preceded the rise of that organisation. These mobilisations stretch back more than a decade now: from the mobilisation against the Iraq war to the V de Vivienda campaign for a right to housing to the Juventud Sin Futuro campaign, and, crucially, the 15M movement that called into question the very legitimacy of Spain’s political system, its right to call itself a democracy. And on from the 15M to the various Mareas?—?in defence of public healthcare, public education, emigrant rights, abortion rights, as well as the resounding achievements of thePlataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca in mobilising public opinion against evictions.
All of these things, which combined participative assemblies with street mobilisations and open confrontation with the authorities, laid the foundations for a new democratic common sense in Spain. The success of Podemos lies in its ability to articulate politically this widespread feeling that democracy is about more than just voting once every few years and that neoliberal kleptocracy and institutionalised corruption have to be brought to an end. That is not just my conclusion; it is also the analysis of the Podemos leadership.
Podemos did not come about as a consequence of work by the Spanish equivalent of the Nevin Institute and TASC but through antagonistic political action. Nor was it on the initiative of established left-wing parties, even though there is not a huge amount of difference between the policy platform of Podemos and that of Izquierda Unida (United Left), and even though Julio Anguita is frequently cited as an inspiration by figures in its leadership.
The simple fact is that left-wing leaders in Spain have had very little to do with the kind of transformative politics that Kirby sees present in Podemos. Therefore I don’t know why he expects the leaders of left-wing parties in Ireland to develop the same kind of thing.
Kirby thinks that the Irish Water protest campaign should be an ‘opportunity for educating citizens into a new proactive vision of a transformative politics that involves duties as well as right, mobilising a sense of active citizenry developing a project of national renewal and various sectors of society in support of it’.
But what happened in Spain was not the consequence of didactic interventions from left-wing leaders. In fact, the crucial political moment in Spain during the past decade can be located in the ‘No nos representan!’ -they don’t represent us- slogan that began ringing out in streets and squares across Spain from the 15th May 2011 onwards. As my friend, philosopher and activist in Podemos Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop points out, there are two versions of this statement. One version has it that these people -politicians from ruling parties- do not represent us and there are others who can do it better. The other version has it that these people do not represent us because we are unrepresentable: we speak for ourselves alone. This is the crux of the transformative politics in Spain, and the horizontal democracy it entailed formed the basis for what Kirby describes as a ‘sense of active citizenry’.
Of course I do not claim that the Right2Water campaign is the same thing as the 15M in Spain, nor am I so sure that something similar to the latter is likely in Ireland. But it is worth pointing out that both the ‘Real Democracy Now!’ slogan that ignited the event of 15M, and the ‘no nos representan’ that sustained it are not examples of what Kirby calls a politics of proposal. Furthermore, the event, in the same way that Kirby describes Right2Water, had no evident longer term strategy, and was casually dismissed from left and right commentators precisely for this reason. And it could also be quite easily characterised in terms of an anti-state discourse, just as Kirby attributes to Right2Water, especially given the claim in Spain’s constitution that it is a social and democratic state, and given the mass refusal to recognise the political system as legitimate.
But as we have seen, it was this moment of rupture that created the terrain for Podemos to appear on the scene. And hence I think Kirby is far too dismissive of the Right2Water campaign precisely because of the striking level of involvement and activism of people who had hitherto taken no part in politics beyond voting, and because of the huge repoliticisation that the campaign has entailed. Kirby does not appear to want any such rupture to happen in Ireland, any means by which people are able to view the state and its workings at a critical distance in order to develop strategies for popular action. He is by no means alone in this, of course. But the Spanish experience shows that there is no reason ex ante that this should translate into a deepening neoliberalisation.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias rightly makes the point repeatedly that Spain’s power elite -’the caste’- does not fear any particular combination of left-wing parties or activists: they fear a mobilised people, the mass involvement of ordnary people.
This is as true in Ireland as it is in Spain, and what we have seen in recent weeks in media coverage and elite discourse about the mobilisation has been, alongside a rampant demophobia, a persistent and anxious resort to metonymy: as if the hopes and desires and perspectives of protesters can be easily represented by the words of Paul Murphy or a flag flown by a Sinn Féin member, such that the people involved are not learning about politics and building common bonds and consciousness on their own terms, and in the interests of a better society, but simply marching behind assorted nefarious Dukes of York, their ultimate destiny to become election fodder. There is, of course, a danger of self-fulfilling prophecy here, and no doubt that is the intention for some. But for those who hope for a democratisation of Irish society, this mass repoliticisation ought to be the best thing to happen in years. At any rate, optimistic engagement trumps pessimistic dismissal.
Latest posts by Richard (see all)
- Right2Water and Podemos - December 18, 2014
- Pablo Iglesias: “put a stop to the grand coalition that is imposing austerity and financial totalitarianism.” - July 2, 2014
- Uterus Strike - February 19, 2014
- A Dialogue on Democracy and the Republic, Part 2 - January 10, 2014
- A Dialogue on Democracy and the Republic – Part One - October 29, 2013