Anarchism in Interesting Times
This article originally appeared in Swedish in Brand, a Swedish anarchist magazine, in May 2015
There’s a theory in evolutionary biology known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ which claims that most species show little evolutionary change over the course of their collective life span. Instead, they remain in an extended state known as stasis until, over a short space of time, geologically speaking, rapid evolutionary change occurs. There is a case for saying that the fightback against austerity in Ireland has unfolded in punctuated equilibria, over three phases, beginning with the public sector strike in 2009 and the left and trade union led marches of 2010, rekindling in 2011 with the occupy movement and the campaign against home taxes, and finally, evolving into the spontaneous revolt that has unfolded against the water charge with periods of stasis in between.
In 2008, when global markets went into decline and the Irish economy, the small active Irish left busied itself preparing to organise a fightback. The multi-billion bailout that shielded the banks and property speculators from the worst of the crisis, and the resulting announcements of austerity policies by the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition government certainly produced anger in workplaces and communities and the expectation was that this anger would convert into a leftward shift in the political landscape and mobilisation within the unions and on the streets. The Trotskyist element in particular, expected that this pressure from below could move the union bureaucracies to the left, or that the current leadership would be replaced, and that seismic shift would lead to the construction of a mass workers party, within which the Trotskyist leadership would play a prominent role.
The unions were not quick to respond to the looming threat of cuts and job losses. Their leadership had been used to the prestige of having a seat at the negotiating table and did not want to jeopardise the chance to reconstruct the tripartite consensus of the boom years with the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the government. Within the union ascendency, the great hope was that Labour would be in government after the next election and that would herald a return to social partnership. The left activists on the other hand, with their calls for a left turn and a general strike, had no audience, since rank and file trade unionism had effectively been dismantled in the late nineteen eighties.
By late 2009, however, the unions were forced to take some action. Relentless propaganda from the right wing media and pressure from IBEC, painted a picture of a bloated, underworked and overpaid public sector. The government responded by cutting pay and creating a levy on public sector pensions. This unilateral action forced the hand of the bureaucracy who balloted for industrial action and subsequently announced a series of one day strikes. At that point, the average public sector worker had lost the equivalent of fourteen days pay and the feeling was, enough was enough.
In November, 250,000 public sector workers took to the picket lines. When the placards were stacked and stored away however, the feeling was that another days pay had been lost. Workers returned to the office to catch up on work that was left and the pay cuts happened regardless. In some areas, work to rule actions were carried out for the next few months but their nature and duration was dictated from union head offices. The outcome, rather than heralding a reverse of the cuts, was the meek waving of the white flag of surrender, with the signing of the Croke Park Agreement, which simply gave the bureaucracy a role in deciding how austerity would be implemented. 28,000 jobs were lost, meaning extra pressure to do more work on those who remained. On top of that, there was a commitment not to take any further industrial action for the duration of the agreement. This was billed by the trade union leadership as some kind of victory and in a sense it was, for them. They had gotten their feet back under the negotiating table and through the no strike clause, ensured that the boat wouldn’t be rocked for a while.
In the aftermath of the the public sector fiasco, came the first attempt of a section of the Trotskyist left to strike out on it’s own. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) announced the launch of the Right to Work Campaign and attempted to win over the left of the trade union leadership along with the tiny left rank and file. A series of Right to Work Marches were held during 2010 to protest at rising unemployment. Initially they attracted two to three thousand, but that campaign lacked any other strategy than marching from A to B and listening to speeches calling for greater militancy. The numbers on the marches, inevitably dropped off as time went by and no fightback seemed imminent.
In November 2010, it seemed that a fightback might begin in earnest. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) called a protest in Dublin and there was a serious effort to mobilise members from accross the country. The protest attracted somewhere in the region of 100,000 people, but far from heralding the birth of a new militancy, ICTU used it as a rally to promote their alternative economic programme which contained veiled references to the scandinavian model and fairness. This was the way the first attempt to build resistance to austerity ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.
A period of stasis followed, where the small numbers who had been politicised over the preceding two years, endeavored to build campaigns, but protests over the next year were measured in tens and hundreds rather than thousands. A general election came and went, which delighted the union bureaucrats and Trotkyists alike. Labour returned to government, as a junior coalition partner with the conservative Fine Gael, while the United Left Alliance (ULA), which was an electoral platform for the Socialist Party (SP), The SWP and unaligned socialists, gained five seats in the Dáil (parliament). In between the government and the far left, Sinn Féin, who have some influence on the left in the trade unions increased their total from five to fourteen. The success in the electoral arena and relative quiet on the streets led much of the left to place more emphasis on parliament, in spite of revolutionary rhetoric.
In late 2011, however, something changed. Youth had been conspicuous by it’s absence during the early phase of resistance to austerity, but the arab spring, the indignados in Spain and the occupy movement in the USA, became and inspiration to the disenfranchised who were not impressed by the old left. Occupy camps were established in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Waterford. Like their counterparts abroad, this movement suffered from structurelessness and attempts by small groups right wing libertarians to win influence, but it did succeed in politicising a new layer of young people and it was an arena where anarchists were able to intervene and set themselves apart from others on the left. Members of the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM – platformist anarchist organisation), took part in the assemblies and argued for more coherent action, such as working alongside the trade union left and crucially, getting involved in the campaign against the household tax.
While Occupy was petering out, the Campaign against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), a coalition of Trotskyists, anarchists and left Republicans, was growing into a significant movement. At first CAHWT was very successful, when the registration deadline for the household tax passed in March 2012, over 50% had not registered. Ten thousand attended a protest on that day outside the Fine Gael national conference and the following month, five thousand converged on Galway to protest at the Labour conference. The government response was to do nothing. Divisions in the campaign began to show and many activists dropped away.
At the beginning of 2013, the household tax was abolished, but this was not a victory, as it was replaced by the property tax (which was not really a property tax but a home tax). The government gave the Revenue Commissioners powers to extract payment directly from wages and social welfare payments so boycott was impossible for most people. The campaign went on with protests, but without the boycott it was powerless. The only hope was to convince union members to agitate for industrial action, but the campaign was not strong enough in the unions. As defeat loomed, the Trotskyists argued more and more for an electoral response. The WSM and others positioned themselves in opposition to this strategy this that the campaign should regroup and build for the coming fight against water charges. At a conference of the campaign that was carefully stage-managed by the SP and packed with their supporters, amid much controversy a motion for an electoral front was passed. After this, WSM left the campaign and soon after many other groups did too. Those who stayed on with the SP became the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) and CAHWT fell apart.
In the intervening period of stasis, electoralism on the left once again took hold. In the European and Local elections of 2014 there was a significant shift to the left. The AAA and the People Before Profit Alliance (an SWP front) each won fourteen council seats, mainly in the cities. Left independents also made gains, while Sinn Féin were the big winners. Across the broad spectrum of the electoral left, the issue of water charges was prominent in manifestos and media interviews. At the same time, a very different kind of resistance to these charges was emerging, a resistance that was spontaneous and, used the methodology of direct action and direct democracy.
A poll carried out by RED C in 2014 found that sixty percent of German people felt that the Irish had been too accepting of austerity. This view was echoed across Europe in countries where militant resistance to neo-liberal politics had been going on for years. It was easy to take that view from the outside, but throughout the crisis there was palpable anger. The major factor was that most people lacked the organisational skills to do anything effective about austerity and that the unions were dominated by bureaucrats. During the previous phases of resistance, particularly from involvement in CAHWT, people from all across the country who were not affiliated to any of the left organisations gained those skills and learned learned lessons about what kind of action was effective. It was people like this that initiated resistance to the installation of water meters in their own communities.
The source of anger over water charges came from the fact that water services are already paid for through general taxation and that these charges were a step towards commodification and eventually, privatisation. This anger has lead to the politicisation of tens of thousands, maybe more, in what is the biggest anti-government movement in southern Ireland in decades. This resistance is unique here because it was not initiated by the left, it began because working class communities spontaineously organised to prevent Irish Water (The company set up by the state) from installing water meters (the work is actually done by private subcontractors, one of which, GMC Sierra is owned by the billionaire Denis O’Brien, who also owns a lot of the media here). The company got court injunctions to stop people protesting within 20 meters of installation work but people ignored that and continued to protest. In many cases meters are being installed outside people’s front doors so it is impossible to stay 20 meters away. The police and masked private security have been intimidating and threatening protesters, but people continue. There are some groups around the country called “meter faries”, who go around in the night removing meters that have already been installed.
Since last October there have been several large street protests, ranging in size from 30,000 to 100,000. Some of these were organised by the Right2Water campaign which is an umbrella group between some Trade Unions, PBPA, AAA, Sinn Féin among others, but it is not a mass campaign, just a committee with some of the leadership of each organisation. Right2Water does not call for boycott of the water charge and has little to say about direct action against water meter installation, though they are trying to build an electoral alliance as they have no other perspective for opposition. It is important to mention that the AAA and PBPA, call for a boycott under their own banner but not as part of the umbrella group, while Sinn Féin do not call for a boycott at all but say they support those who take this action, a confusing position arising from their hesitancy to support the boycott in the first place.
In February 17 people were arrested in connection with a protest that happened in November, in which the deputy prime minister’s car was surrounded for two hours. The state is claiming this was false imprisonment, a significant section of the population think this is a bad joke. One of those arrested was Paul Murphy TD (member of parliament) from SP/AAA. There were also 5 teenagers among the arrests, one as young as 14. The arrests all happened early in the morning with 6, 8, 10 police for each person arrested. A week later, five people received prison sentences for their involvement in blocking meter installation. This was an attempt by the establishment to scare people away from protests, but the tactic has backfired. The protests continue and there is huge support for a boycott of the charge.
There are variations in the level of organisation of local anti-water charge groups. In some areas they arise spontaneously to oppose meter instalation. In other areas there is strong anarchist influence – Stoneybatter in Dublin, Mahon in Cork, Dun Laoighre in Dublin and of late some anarchist influence in Rathfarnham in Dublin. Other areas are controlled by Trotskyist groups and have a more hierarchical structure. The AAA has it’s own anti-water charges front, the We Won’t Pay campaign. All of these groups are actively campaigning for a boycott. A minority areas are controlled by “freeman on the land” type organisations who espouse tea party style anti-tax ideas along with counter-factual legal advice. The ideas of this latter group in particular need to be countered as they represent a threat to building a left orientated resistance.
The role of anarchists in the campaign in the coming period is to encourage the continuation of the use of direct action and direct democracy and to draw links, not only between this movement and other anti-austerity campaigns, but also with campaigns for abortion rights, anti-racism and asylum seekers rights and to help it go beyond resistance to austerity, to the struggle for a new society based on people’s needs, not profit and greed. The next stage of the evolution of resistance in Ireland needs to be built on a victory, which would be the first for a whole generation of activists, and a victory here could be the inspiration for a resurgence in resistance to austerity all across Europe.
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