Probably the most encouraging development that has come out of the water charges movement has been the accentuated understanding of ‘them’ and ‘us’; the idea that society is organised so as to benefit the minority at the expense of the majority. This is the starting point that all of us on the left had been yearning for since the beginning of the crisis. Undoubtedly, it was slow to arrive but when it finally did so, it was truly an explosion of struggle and organisational prowess, as we finally said ‘enough is enough’.
Any lingering illusions that the mainstream media, establishment parties or big business exist to better our lives, will have been dispelled for those at the heart of the movement. However, conclusions on how to change society for the better are numerous, unclear and disjointed. This comes as no surprise with an embryonic movement, which lacks ready-made and large radical institutions to provide solutions.
Ireland is a tax haven for big business
Rome, or Dublin for that matter, wasn’t built in a day. Economies and societies are incredibly complex systems that have developed over centuries. Ireland’s economy, in particular, presents many structural challenges for the left that simply cannot be wished away or eradicated overnight. The most successful capitalist economies are those which have the strongest industrial bases, specifically economies which actually make things and have goods or raw materials to trade with others countries or markets.
Ireland imports roughly 85% of the things it uses within its economy and exports 105% of the things it produces.[i] This puts us in a very weak position in trading terms and points to a fundamental change being needed in the structure of our economy. Currently our economy is a haven for financial capital. It is the Bahamas of the European Union with a long list of multinational corporations essentially washing their profits in and through Ireland, in order to cut their tax bills. This situation has even come under the scrutiny of some of the strongest neo-liberal institutions within Europe and the US.[ii][iii]
Ireland’s attractiveness to financial capital began in earnest with the establishment of the IFSC in 1987. We legislated to keep banking and financial regulations low, ensuring that Ireland earned a reputation as a country of little regulation and became a haven for shadow banking. This has resulted in a situation where, for example, 24% of all shares issued in the Eurozone in 2009 were issued in Ireland, while our economy made up only 1% of the EU’s GDP in that year. Statistics like this are a clear sign that hedge funds, speculators and financial institutions see Ireland as a great place to do business.[iv]
You need to understand a system in order to be able to change it. At present we know relatively little about how the Irish economy functions and the left has put relatively few detailed alternatives forward as to how to the economy could be radically changed, a crucial task in convincing people that we can change society.
Water charges movement creates seismic shift within Trade Union movement
The size and scale of the water charges movement have been historic. However, the role that the Right2Water trade unions have played within that movement has also been vitally important. Through the Right2Change initiative we now have 5 trade unions looking for a new political-wing to replace the Labour Party.[v]
This is a very positive development for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the participation of the trade unions in the movement against water charges has helped to create an atmosphere where non-payment could take hold. The scale and publicity that the Right2Water protests received have given people the confidence to not pay their water bills. Furthermore, at those protests, politicians and activists were given a platform to articulate the argument for mass civil disobedience, both in terms of non-payment and water meter blockades. This was an unprecedented opportunity for the left, one which has allowed it to grow rapidly over the last 12 months.
Secondly, without the re-alignment of trade unions away from the Labour Party and towards left parties, the task of radically changing society becomes much harder. The influence that trade unions command amongst society and workers means they have always been a vital accompaniment to the political-wing of class struggle.
Lastly, the Right2Change document, however preliminary it may be, is a welcome attempt at further politicising the water charges movement.[vi] It is clear that water has merely been a symbol for broader anti-austerity anger, and it is essential that the left take up the responsibility of translating this anger into political opportunities and actions, through a programme that goes beyond opposition. It must begin to concretise what it is for, and not just what it is against.
Winning a majority in the next Dáil?
It is always important to approach elections with a positive outlook, otherwise why else stand? Current polls suggest that the left (whatever way you want to describe it) is in rude health.[vii] This comes as no surprise considering the unpopularity of, and new-found resistance to, austerity.
However, it is also important to be honest with ourselves. Even if all the parties and independents considered left-wing continued to grow between now and the general election, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to form the next Government. It is also important to note that just achieving electoral majorities does not mean an immediate improvement materially for working class people.
Victories and losses can easily characterise a political movement. Buying into the idea that a progressive government is on the cards, when the figures clearly indicate otherwise, has its dangers.
Many people may feel demoralised if they don’t see change happen at the speed they anticipated. It could also lead to a situation where, instead of celebrating potentially historic gains for the left, we are left frustrated at yet another right-wing government being formed.
A look at SYRIZA’s election manifesto prior to last January’s election indicates that the Greek party jettisoned many of the core tenets of its economic programme, the nearer it came to gaining power. In particular, it dropped its commitment to creating a strong, indigenous and industrial economy, the sort of economy which would be critical for any genuinely left-wing government to have any chance of success. It would appear that the SYRIZA leadership decided to try win power by galvanising the Greek people around the issue of unsustainable debt. It can be argued that this was ultimately a grave mistake, given that even this aim wasn’t achieved. It is clear that sacrificing your political programme at all costs to attain power is a serious risk and one which ultimately may not bring working class people much change at all. However, it is important to understand that for SYRIZA to even get into the position of even being able to attain political power, it took years of planning and a political situation not directly comparable to Ireland’s.
The recent success of the Communist Party and the Left Bloc in Portugal is further testament to progressive alternatives not materialising overnight. Portugal has a strong tradition of left-wing consciousness within society, with many working class people historically being engaged in trade unionism and left-wing politics. Furthermore, Portugal experienced a revolution in 1974, which was the culmination of the over-throwing of a fascist regime. That experience still lives strong within the consciousness of ordinary citizens. It also allowed for the development of media, community and political institutions which put forward a counter-narrative to the main right-wing institutions.
The seismic shift which was previously alluded to, points to the possibility of this also being achieved within Irish society, but patience is also required. A definitive timeline does not need to be tied around our necks for achieving any gains, nor can significant victories for working class people not be achieved in the here-and-now.
Left Unity and Left Co-operation.
It has often been the case that the best gains for workers, and the social welfare systems that protect them, have come about without progressive governments being in positions of power. A quick glance at the list of French presidents indicates that when some of the most impressive structural gains were being won by working class people, the French left-wing was mostly in opposition. The power to effect change can come in many forms. Our job as socialists is to effect change in the greatest way possible, whether that is inside or outside of national parliaments is a question of tactics and electoral strength.
Furthermore, in many instances the gains achieved by the French working class were organised through ‘left co-operation’ and not necessarily ‘left unity’. Left co-operation is a principle which many left and socialist parties across Europe adopt.[viii] It affords the opportunity to organisations to choose on a campaign-by-campaign or election-by-election basis whether they want to work in unison.
The benefits are manifold. It creates a more open and dynamic environment in which to engage with politics, consequentially parties are more skillful in raising differences rather than merely relying on all-out attack. It also respects the right of parties to retain their own identity, traditions and reasons for existing.
For example, as a member of a socialist organisation, I would obviously have a difficulty with dissolving my party into an alliance which has different aims. Likewise a nationalist party may have different goals and would equally not want to put its core ideals aside for a larger project. However, a strategy of ‘left co-operation’ affords parties and activists the opportunity to work together as issues arise.
Developments in Portugal are of particular relevance to us right now, with the Communist Party (PCP) and Left Bloc (BE) forming a government with the social democrats.
Both the PCP and the BE adopt the tactic of left co-operation and work closely together on a number of issues. Where differences arise, they approach those debates skillfully with the view that they must have an ongoing and fraternal relationship. In the run-up to the recent Portuguese general election, they ran on their own independent political programmes. It was only post-election, that they began a process of negotiations to form a government with the social democrats[ix], which has taken weeks to thrash out.
The Right2Change initiative is a welcome one, which my own party supports as a basis for progressive change.[x] The fact that five trade unions are initiating a project to further progressive politics in this country can only be welcomed. In my opinion however, and for the reasons given throughout this article, this initiative should be seen as a first step in a process of building left co-operation, which will be vital if we are to realise radical change in Ireland over the coming years. Genuine and principled left unity will only come about if we can build trust between different organisations through the process of left co-operation.
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- Reflections on Water Movement and Right2Change Development - November 10, 2015