We Make Our Own History: Discussion and Book Launch

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Social movements and Ireland:
We Make Our Own History discussion and book launch, Dublin

The launch event takes place in Connolly Books (East Essex St, Temple Bar) at 6 pm on Wednesday 9th December.

ny_bok_alf_g_nilsenHow are social movements doing in Ireland? What kind of real change might be on the cards, here and in Europe or further afield? What are the key issues that we should be thinking about if we want to see it happen?

Co-written with Norwegian researcher on Indian movements Alf Gunvald Nilsen, my book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto, 2014) draws on the Maynooth tradition of activist research in social movements to read Marxism as a reflection of the learning of popular struggles and uses this approach to explore how movements grow out of the struggle to meet human needs, how they develop, how the collective agency of the powerful and wealthy works and what all this means for the struggle against neoliberalism today.

Launched at the London “Historical Materialism” conference, the book has raised interest wherever movement struggles are intense (reprinted in South Africa, translated into Turkish, with Indian editions and translations under discussion) and we have been invited to discuss the book at Ruskin College Oxford’s International Labour and Trade Union Studies MA, the European University Institute’s social movements research centre, the Collège d’Etudes Mondiales in Paris, the University of Gothenburg’s Forum on Civil Society and Social Movements, Reykjavík Academy / Radical Summer School, the University of Bergen, and in South Africa at the universities of KwaZulu Natal, Johannesburg, Wits and Rhodes among others.

It’s been reviewed among other places in Counterpunch, Working USA, Marx and Philosophy, Radikalportal, Trade Unions and Global Restructuring and Social Movement Studies, along with mentions on Pravda.ru and … the Huffington Post. Excerpts and related essays have appeared in Ceasefire, Progress in Political Economy, OpenDemocracy, Reflections on a Revolution, Discover Society and E-International Relations.

For the Dublin launch, rather than focus exclusively on the book there will be a discussion about the state of movements and our possible futures. Chaired by John Bissett, there will be short talks from Margaret Gillan, Andrew Flood and Fergal Finnegan to open a wider debate.

The launch event takes place in Connolly Books (East Essex St, Temple Bar) at 6 pm on Wednesday 9th December.

By way of an appetiser, here are some excerpts from what the book has to say about working-class community activism in Ireland:

“By the end of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ the formal structures of community organisations, women’s groups, trade unions, environmental NGOs, GLBTQ activism, and a host of other social movements had become in effect subcontracted parts of the state, with little or none of the capacity for mass mobilisation, direct action or even independent public expression which they had had when Irish community activism had been perhaps the most dramatic working-class self-organisation in western Europe outside Italy; when Ireland had been one of the few countries anywhere in the world to thoroughly defeat nuclear power; and when women’s groups, GLBTQ activists and their allies overturned what once seemed like an immovable Catholic hegemony on both private and public life.

When, from the mid-2000s on, the state embarked on a direct assault on their new subordinates, closing, absorbing, and defunding these once-independent groups, it is no surprise that organisational leaderships – a mixture of an ageing founder generation with no intention of returning out into the cold and staff who were often not recruited as organisers but rather appointed as holders of state-approved credentials  – have had no plan B but simply seek a return to their previous situation and their own expert territory of access to policy processes, service delivery, tendering for state funding and the like. Indeed, many are loyal allies of the Labour Party, now eagerly implementing austerity, so that a common response has been to develop pseudo-movements loudly calling for change while resisting any mass mobilisation or radicalisation of goals.

A new generation of activists across these different movements and communities, meanwhile, is developing outside these organisational husks, and will probably grow in strength as the latter demonstrate their inability to do anything more than provide cut-price services to the state as precarious subcontractors. An analysis of this forty-year process in terms of praxis – rather than the mystified account in which community development was the miraculous product of a UN programme, the women’s movement responded to membership of the mysteriously progressive EEC, and social change in general results from enlightened elites handing down new policy initiatives and funding streams – makes it possible to think seriously and strategically about this situation. This does not require denying that some real needs were met in the process, at the same time as it acknowledges the dead-end into which this process has canalised popular movements, demobilising the vast majority of their one-time participants.

In this process, we see the expression of needs in movements from below leading to the development of broader popular capacities – at the same time as the state has repeatedly found ways of co-opting, absorbing and ultimately decommissioning them. If social partnership has had the effect of demobilising movements and undermining their capacities for self-organisation, this was also enabled by the ways in which Irish working-class movements used statist and nationalist ideologies that channelled their capacities in particular ways and left them few alternatives when the state offered to get involved (on its own terms).

Irish activists can then think about the possibilities for struggle, mobilisation and alliance-building in the new, post-partnership period – without taking either nostalgia for partnership or resignation to the new, neoliberal onslaught on NGOs and community and voluntary groups as givens. Neither partnership (as cooptation) nor the state’s current scorched-earth policy (as attack) can be understood without the broader presence both of the state and of social movements and mobilised working-class communities as strategic actors; and it is from a consideration of the ongoing conflict between the two that we can understand the social order as both contingent and capable of being displaced. A focus on the ‘long revolution’ of developing popular needs and capacities and the struggle over the direction of development then offers a broader perspective within which we can analyse the specific institutional manifestations of particular moments of this century-long process – and explore new possibilities.”

Consistent with this perspective, the book (written in April 2014, as water charges protests were beginning) noted the collapse of the CAHWT and argued that

“…the way out must lie not in a further reassertion of the narrow interests of organisational elites, be they community, NGO, or Trotskyist, but in strategies aimed at supporting the development of active movement participation and alliance-building on our own terrain. This is obviously easier said than done; in all likelihood, the next moves in action from below will not come from increasingly isolated movement organisations but from new mobilisations below the radar.”

The discussion and launch event is free and all are welcome.


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