Before proceeding, I want to conduct a brief thought experiment. It should prove instructive if taken in good faith – bear in mind that the results are between you, your conscience and your CIA case officer.
You’re loitering on the fringes of a political rally, convened at short notice to protest the latest outrage perpetrated by the state/the church/the E.U., or some combination thereof. It’s raining, obviously, and the speakers are uninspired, but turnout is respectable and not confined to the usual suspects; another sign, perhaps, that the world is tilting subtly in the right direction.
The final speaker concludes; staccato applause ripples through the crowd as you turn to leave. A loose ring of paper-sellers and leafleters has formed around the perimeter of the rally, like history’s friendliest NKVD blocking unit. Some reflex of politesse and curiosity (morbid or otherwise) compels you to accept a flyer.
At the bus-stop, whilst fumbling for change, you pull the crumpled leaflet from your pocket and scan it hurriedly. It’s a People Before Profit production; Richard Boyd Barrett glares from the page with a boyish earnestness which makes you ashamed of your secret defeatism.
You flip it over. The headline reads A People’s Government Now! It goes on to plead the case for a left-majority government after the 2016 election, composed of an as-yet unformed political party backed by unnamed parliamentary allies, pursuing undefined goals. It concludes by condemning all those who refuse to clamber aboard this magical mystery tour as self-interested wreckers and parasites. It is, in short, the most stereotypically old-school SWP document ever produced.
Hit pause right there, take note of your instant, heartfelt, instinctual response, and hold that thought for the next 1500 words.
It is fondly imagined in some quarters – Leinster House, Montrose, certain scenic parts of Malta – that the anti-water charges movement has ground to a terminal halt. While the movement does face an existential crisis, it does so because the stakes, of victory and defeat, have risen precipitously in recent months.
In one sense, the ferocity of the battle is testament to the success of coalition strategy since 2011. Its tactic of focusing fire on isolated segments of society (the elderly, the unemployed, student nurses, lone parents) has inflicted defeat upon crushing defeat, clothing the government in a demoralising air of invincibility.
Elites are often at their most vindictive in the ascendant; throughout recent Irish history, weak and sporadic resistance has been countered with massively disproportionate repression. Despite the usual protestations of tied hands and Troika diktats, the government chose its battleground carefully in picking a fight over water charges.
An earlier attempt to impose water charges on Dublin was defeated in the 1990s, and the exemplary power of that struggle has haunted the Irish ruling class ever since; this is a common response amongst anti-democratic regimes, who often feel pathologically compelled to exorcise the sites of past defeats.
By now, it is clear that the coalition grossly underestimated the scale of resistance to water charges. The Kenny/Burton regime has, nonetheless, demonstrated admirable fidelity to its ideological red lines. Despite swingeing concessions, the cast-iron principle of commodification has been steadfastly maintained.
After four years of fruitless resistance, it’s difficult not to be heartened by the sight of a government on the ropes. From a position of sneering impunity, the regime has been rapidly undermined by a series of snowballing scandals arising from the Irish Water affair. Like many a calcified, complacent elite before it, the Irish ruling class is scrambling to respond to crisis after crisis, seemingly unaware that its responses are the crisis.
Denis O’Brien, formerly the poster boy of Ireland’s business elite, is now a hapless hate figure for much of the population. The system of patronage and preference which sustains Ireland’s stratospheric inequality is coming under scrutiny as never before. Establishment figures such as Alan Dukes, untouchable during decades of right-wing hegemony, are visibly stunned and angered to find their pronouncements doubted and questioned.
A key figure in the changed political climate, Dukes’s indignation over Catherine Murphy’s pursuit of the Siteserv deal is genuine and unfeigned. There is much to be taught and gleaned from the mere fact that this malignant didgeridoo was appointed Public Interest Director of Anglo. He represents a class and an ideology which holds – sincerely – that public interest and private greed are literally the same thing. If Dukes and his ilk confused quiescence for consensus, they are being rapidly and rudely disabused of that misconception.
All in all, then, times appear to be ripening in favour of an alternative political proposition. Giddiness and discord are to be expected, and even welcomed, in the circumstances. There are many diverse forces ranged against water charges and the regime of expropriation they represent, and all are sincere in their desire for fundamental and progressive social change.
Some of the strategies emerging from the loudest and most persuasive voices in the movement, however, are misguided, potentially calamitous, and being advanced in rank bad faith. Ever since the bureaucratic component of Right2Water organised a hand-picked conference in May, it has become clear that its ultimate goal is to channel the movement in an electoral direction.
It is also evident that this electoral force, should it ever materialise, is to be conjoined with Sinn Féin at the earliest possible opportunity. This depressing development has been anticipated for some time. Various influential factions within the de facto leadership of R2W have been orienting towards Sinn Féin since last autumn.
For the Syrizists within R2W, Tsipras’s explicit endorsement of the party was always likely to prove irresistible, even if it came just as Syriza’s shameful lash-up with the far-right Independent Greeks cast doubt on its taste in bedfellows.
The bureaucrats’ motives are more opaque, and may amount to nothing more remarkable than a catastrophic lack of political imagination. The lust with which the electoralist approach is being pursued, however, is no less ferocious for its lack of coherence.
So far, it has taken two forms; firstly, an all-out assault on the motivations and credibility of the Trotskyist formations within the movement, over the issue of non-payment. Personally, I have always found the Socialist Party (in particular) far too eager to precisely re-enact the Poll Tax wars, even where the variables of a given campaign militate against it (as during the failed struggle against the Household Charge).
In the case of water charges, however, non-payment is clearly the only winning move on the board. Faced with disciplined mass non-payment – already underway – Irish Water will implode beneath the pressure of its own statutory requirements and political toxicity. Non-payment is the only tactic which can defeat the charge, preserve the mass character of the movement and inflict an unambiguous democratic defeat on the oligarchy.
The second electoralist gambit will be familiar to anyone who suffered through the Occupy Dame Street fiasco, the canonical clusterfuck of recent pan-left politics (in Dublin, at least). The electoral wing is playing the same precarious game as Dublin’s anarchists did – very ill-advisedly, not least in terms of their own prospects – in 2011; tacitly cultivating a crude anti-party anti-politics, the better to ostracise its politically organised opponents within the movement.
This is particularly ill-considered and self-defeating if your ultimate endgame is an electoral one. We might also reflect, in passing, that the socialist left is the only component of R2W with experience of getting actual, non-hypothetical TDs elected on radical platforms, and of using them to good effect.
The electoralist current has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent weeks, spooked by opinion polls which show a fall in support for Sinn Féin and left-wing alternatives. This response is, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the movement and of Irish politics in general.
Many of those who marched against Irish Water throughout the winter will, despite their anger, continue to vote Fine Gael or Labour. Irish voters have been conditioned, by nine decades of theory and practice, to view the polling booth in a particular way; namely, as a private forum to lash out against those most likely to erode one’s own advantages. For much of the population, this is taken to mean – not irrationally – those who occupy the strata immediately below one’s own.
But the starkness of recent events has begun to clarify, beyond refute, the class character of Irish society. The concepts of democracy and political agency, so long defined in stultifying electoral terms, are once again up for grabs. For R2W to short-circuit this process by pandering to the strictly circumscribed parliamentary traditions of the Irish state would be myopic and inexcusable.
Besides which, the prospect of a “progressive” government emerging from the next election is little more than an overwrought fever dream. Sinn Féin’s left-wing credentials have been frenziedly burnished beyond all recognition by the electoralists – a position that appears even more ludicrous now Eoin Ó Broin, Parnell Square’s point-man for all things leftish, has publicly endorsed coalition with Labour.
If anything, the major sub-plot of the next election ought to be the battle between Sinn Féin and the left, a battle to define (or confine) the scope of popular resistance to the water charges and the oligarchy. Sinn Féin understands this, even if wishful sections of the left do not, which is why it poured huge numbers of resources and personnel into an unsuccessful attempt to deny Paul Murphy – an explicitly anti-payment candidate – a seat in Dublin South-West.
For the plural left, supporting a Sinn Féin-led government would be like trying to force an elephant onto a see-saw; even if you somehow get it up there, things are only going in one direction, and it’s not yours.
Both facets of this strategy – the rage against the left within R2W, and a politics which disavows politics – draw from the same well of modish post-Marxist thought. This tendency is especially pronounced within Podemos, and Kieran Allen has delivered a concise critique of its theoretical shortcomings here.
Again, this is a depressingly familiar feature of libertarian-influenced political dissent. Proponents of a politics “beyond left and right” imagine they are carving out a new political space on which to confront power; in reality, they are simply ceding without a fight the ground won by neoliberalism over the past thirty years. In doing so, they share the neoliberal conception of 1989 as a hard reset of social consciousness, as well as its vision of the modern individual as a uniquely self-actualised and rational consumer of ideas.
It’s easy to see why this model appeals to the pro-Sinn Féin elements of Right2Water; after all, if the distinction between left- and right-wing politics is illusory, Sinn Féin’s right-wing tendencies are more readily explained away.
If it holds its nerve, Right2Water can deliver a resounding blow to the Irish ruling class, perhaps the most devastating in the history of the state. The regime has no viable exit strategy; it has, of its own volition, transformed the issue of water charges into a referendum on the right of a moneyed elite to overrule democracy.
To deviate from this task in favour of a sterile, impotent parliamentary idyll would be a gross miscalculation, and an historic betrayal. The inevitable failure of a Sinn Féin government to deliver meaningful change would discredit progressive politics in Ireland for a generation.
For all their vapid sloganeering about big things and small things, the Right2Water bureaucrats appear to have lost sight of the biggest thing of all; the opportunity to defeat the water charges themselves and to pave the way for a new emancipatory politics which can confront Irish capitalism on terms of its own choosing.