There must be some way out of here: social movements and the crisis in Ireland

The time of the respectable dissenter - clad in an office suit, with a seat at the table and a place in line for funding – is past, writes Laurence Cox. The bodies involved in ‘social partnership’ are now too depending on funding and policy access, and their bases too disillusioned, to be effective vehicles for change. What is needed in Ireland are effective organisers, movements for change whose primary concern is finding issues around which ordinary people can organise. One exemplary issue around which a mass social movement might rally is the scandal of Rossport; or the transfer of €540 billion worth of Irish natural resources from the Irish people to Shell and Statoil by a man subsequently imprisoned for corruption.

Like its predecessor, 19th century robber-baron capitalism, disorganised capitalism knocks the stool out from under the formal representation of social movements in parliaments. Perhaps it would be better to state this in reverse: organised capitalism created the relatively brief conditions within which social movements (in particular the workers’ movement) could find a relatively stable presence within many western European party systems, but those conditions have been increasingly weakened in recent years, and the likelihood of movement parties emerging (as opposed to parties which originated in movements) is now much reduced.

The concentration of capital in media production and the commodification of academia have had similar effects on other aspects of the ‘public sphere’ so that, as in the 1880s, social movements are typically on the outside, looking in as all and sundry go through the familiar routines. In Ireland, this means blaming the crash on workers and trade unions rather than on neoliberalism and deregulation; targeting poor communities for cuts while bailing out the banks; pushing through the handover of gas reserves to multinationals while squeezing money out of the demand side of the economy; and so on.

In this sense, the recent Irish general election is interesting as an indicator of the popular mood: the combined vote for right-wing parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) was down below 55% while that for left-wing parties (defined in a generous way to include Labour and the Greens along with United Left Alliance and Sinn Féin) over 34%. In 2007, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the neoliberal rump that was the Progressive Democrats had over 72% of the vote and the left had 20.4% - the last election thus saw a left swing of some 15 percentage points on the earlier right-left split, which had remained broadly stable for some decades. Of course, a substantial proportion of the new ‘left’ vote went to the Labour Party (now the junior partner in a coalition government), and some part of this is bound to be disappointed by Labour’s devotion to European respectability at the expense of everything else; so there is probably some further room for left growth here (as well as the potential to put Labour’s loyalty to their new coalition partners Fine Gael under pressure).

A similar situation applies to the unions: despite the double loyalty of union leaderships to the Labour Party and to attempts to restore the recently sundered corporatist pact with capital and the state ‘on any terms’, the massive turnouts for recent Irish Congress of Trade Unions demonstrations can hardly be interpreted other than as a strong rejection of the attempt to offload the costs of the crisis onto workers, with particularly strong feeling in the public sector, now the home of the highest union density (and, not coincidentally, the target of those who aspire to ‘reform’ the working conditions of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people). The approach of union bureaucrats to demonstrations over the past two years has been defined precisely by a concern to ensure that members did not become too mobilised or active, lest they need to be ‘cooled down’ at a later stage.

Matters are somewhat different beyond the union movement. In non-membership-based movements (community activism, feminism, ecology and so on) the turn in the boom years to ‘social partnership’ (the provision of funding and policy ‘consultation’ to professionalised ex-movement organisations) was itself a powerful tool of demobilisation. Recent attempts to mobilise working-class communities and others in opposition to cuts fell very flat, while a rather different constituency of NGOs, professionals in funded organisations, and other institutionalised bodies turned out in large numbers to simulations of movement events, like the misnamed ‘Social Forum’ in CityWest or ‘Claiming our Future’*. Finally, and in keeping with Ireland’s traditions of clientelism, the only effective large-scale protests against the cuts have raised particularist demands – that the level of the state pension should remain, services at Navan hospital should be maintained and student fees should not be reintroduced.

So where does all of this leave social movements?

A quick summary would be to say that there is no institutional way out of the current situation. The organisational superstructure of the years of boom and ‘social partnership’ is too dependent on funding and policy access (or, now, the nostalgia for both) and its base too demobilised to be an effective route for change. Two years of attempting to build coalitions against the cuts and the IMF have largely been a washout, while the one partial success - the United Left Alliance, a coalition of existing Trotskyist parties and independent socialists - came at the cost of a sudden break with movement organising in favour of electioneering.

Movement organisations, for their part, now face substantial challenges. Is there a way back from dependence on funding? The much-discussed US book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded suggests that if there is, it lies in a shift from service delivery to advocacy and campaigning, linked to a principled decision for financial independence and self-funding. My own sense from talking to organisers over recent years is that this is now widely seen as common sense, but that it requires the development of skills which have not been in much demand in the years of funding proposals and policy submissions; and the willingness to endure an upheaval in internal relations as members, rather than professionals, come to take the lead in practice and not simply rhetorically.

Critical intellectuals, too, have to rethink their job. The focus on in-depth critique of official discourses (above all official economics) has proved, bluntly, to be a dead end: far from the global and national crisis leading people to acknowledge the accuracy of the critique and change their politics, it turns out that the critique of economic theology is almost irrelevant to the job of changing people’s economic and political loyalties. If people believe their bread is buttered on a particular side, they are evidently only too happy to believe that the problem lies with public sector unions (or anywhere else that suits). The ordinary footsoldiers of neoliberalism are simply not that rational. What critical political economy has lost, in its long engagement with the politics of ‘opinion’, is a willingness to reflect on agency - how a critique can come to acquire social and economic force - and to find ways of translating technical expertise into straightforward, strategic demands; key issues which can be widely understood and widely supported by those who do not have postgraduate degrees but nevertheless perceive themselves as losing out from the bailout and the cuts.

The key battle in this last respect, for several years now, has been the struggle in Rossport in the west of Ireland. At its simplest, we have a government minister, since imprisoned for corruption, handing over the keys to €540 billion of gas reserves to Shell and Statoil; the state under various governments backing this up with the deployment of the military and a police occupation whose overall conduct the police Ombudsman has been instructed not to investigate; and a right-wing hate campaign in the media against leading campaigners. We also have a remarkable alliance of social movements doing its very best under immense pressure to resist and transform this situation. Most recently, a recording of police discussing raping and deporting activists has highlighted realities which many people have preferred to ignore.

Rossport is not only the place where the actual economic choices made by the mainstream parties are most clearly visible, it is also a place which brings together local communities in struggle, key union issues, ecological concerns, an experience of police violence shared by many poor people on this island, majority world solidarity and, most recently, core feminist concerns. In the late 1970s, an alliance of mass movements stopped plans for nuclear power in Ireland at Carnsore Point in Wexford. If anywhere has the capacity to be the Carnsore Point of the 2010s - a place where the machinery of destruction and impoverishment can be stopped in its tracks, and where social movements can rally around the development of alternatives for Irish development - it is Rossport.

In order for this to happen, of course, movements and intellectuals have to throw off the ‘muck of ages’, or rather the office suits donned for the years of partnership. The desire to be on the inside, in line for funding and a seat at the table, dies hard - as does the intellectual desire to be a respectable dissenter. A respectable dissenter, in our contemporary usage, of course, is in the last analysis a member of the elite - one calling for a different direction, but making this call to other members of the elite. An effective organiser, by contrast, is one whose primary concern is to find issues around which ordinary people are willing to mobilise, around which effective alliances can be made, and which can offer the possibility of disrupting the polite and respectable world of meetings and policy papers.

It does take time to get beyond the politics of ‘business as usual’ and the attempt to formulate the next response to crisis, and the process is not an easy one. Saturday 7 May sees two interesting attempts to do this. The day seminar ‘Beyond the crisis: global justice, equality, social movements’ in Dublin’s autonomous social centre Seomra Spraoi will attempt to see past our immediate situation and understand how movement struggles are placed over the next decade or so. Simultaneously, under the banner ‘Reclaim the unions!’ a wide coalition of trade union activists are launching a new network which looks promising. As we come to recognise that our organising situation has changed fundamentally, we have the chance to reorient ourselves beyond existing routines and, maybe, start to turn the neoliberal tide.

*Note: the line 'Recent attempts to mobilise working-class communities and others in opposition to cuts fell very flat, while a rather different constituency of NGOs, professionals in funded organisations, and other institutionalised bodies turned out in large numbers to simulations of movement events, like the misnamed ‘Social Forum’ in CityWest or the Labour Party front Claiming our Future' was corrected on 03/05/11 to read 'Recent attempts to mobilise working-class communities and others in opposition to cuts fell very flat, while a rather different constituency of NGOs, professionals in funded organisations, and other institutionalised bodies turned out in large numbers to simulations of movement events, like the misnamed ‘Social Forum’ in CityWest or ‘Claiming our Future’.