Weed the citizens

The We the Citizens National Citizens' Assembly takes place this Saturday and Sunday in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. They describe a Citizens' Assembly as 'a way in which citizens can recapture trust in the political system by taking ownership of the decision making process.' But, writes Hugh Green, the project assumes, wrongly, 'that the institutions that regulate society are a little bit short of perfection, and that what is needed, in effect, is some tweaking here and some tinkering there.' 

Let me recap on what I think is the effectiveness of the idea of Real Democracy Now / Democracia Real Ya element of the 15-M movement.

When it works, it engages people as citizens – but not merely as formally constituted political subjects but also as the primary constitutents of society - and enables them to develop collectively a deeper realisation that they are not inert economic units or commodities, but potentially powerful agents who become more powerful when they combine with others.

In Ireland, space for this sort of political thought is crowded out by various things: the endless exhortations that ‘we are all in this together’, but only in the way that the dominant class demands it.

The way, the truth and the light

This way involves a certain legitimacy for unions, but only in so far as these are participants in the process that goes under the name of ‘social partnership’, which is to say, collaboration in preventing others from organising unions.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this institutionalises the image of a society where everyone – financial speculator and low paid childcare worker alike – works together for the common good.

Therefore any defilement of this image - which is the image to be presented to ‘the markets’, ‘international investors’, ‘the rest of the world’ - in the form of dissent is treated as an anti-social and destructive activity.

This way also involves restricting ideas about politics to refer narrowly to the operation of existing institutions.

That is, it is assumed at the outset that the institutions that regulate society are a little bit short of perfection, and that what is needed, in effect, is some tweaking here and some tinkering there, perhaps involving a citizens’ assembly here, legislation on political donations there.

And excluded ex ante is the idea there is anything particularly wrong with how social and economic power is concentrated in society. Nor for that matter is there any questioning of the legitimacy of austerity programmes or the expropriation of the population through the accumulation of speculator debt, because of the legality ascribed to these things.

Such assumptions, exclusions and omissions are achieved, in part, through trumpeting superficially emancipatory sloganeering about ‘radical reform’, ‘democratic revolutions’, ‘riots at the ballot box’, and so on and so forth.

‘Weed The Citizens’, or I Still Know What You Did Last Lisbon Treaty Vote

As an example of what I am talking about, consider the ‘We The Citizens‘ initiative, which invites people to ‘speak up for Ireland’. However, the potential idea that ‘Ireland’, however conceived, should have nothing to do with serving the interests of multinational corporations, is unlikely to find favour with ‘the Head of Corporate Affairs, Intel Ireland Campus’, who sits on the board of directors.

It is not that this person will be watching over proposals emanating from the ‘citizens’ (whose role and potential range of actions are established and regulated in advance) and striking them down with thunderbolts, but that the parameters of such an enterprise, on account of the participating individuals and the interests served, are well delineated in advance. We are, once again, where we etc.

Also likely to be excluded from the range of possibilites set forth by We The Citizens is the Euro Pact, which was the theme of Sunday’s DRY/RDN protests. Let us recall that Intel launched a propaganda campaign in favour of a Yes vote for the second Lisbon referendum. Also sitting on the Board is Brigid Laffan, who was ‘Chairperson of the Ireland for Europe citizens’ campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum’. It is hard to imagine one of the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign - Joe Higgins, say - sitting on the board of directors of We The Citizens alongside the Head of Corporate Affairs of Intel Ireland.

We can therefore see quite easily how we are talking about a deliberately constricted form of citizenship, and one that fits perfectly with the hegemonic ideas about politics.

Asleep at the wheel

There is also room, in this way, for, as Richard Wolff puts it in a piece on the US, ‘the role of the state as the socially acceptable object of anger, protest and rage deflected from the economic power and privileges of its hegemonic partners.’

This can take the form of Tea Party-style anti-government agitation, but can also be found in a more genteel Irish commonplace: that of how the financial regulator was asleep at the wheel and this damaged our standing with international investors (e.g. Intel). And so we must have sweeping reform.

I wouldn’t like to underestimate how difficult it can be, for people jarred into thinking about politics by the crisis, to transcend this dominant idea of the political. Its dominance is determined and enforced by mass media institutions, and its vocabulary and grammar inevitably structure people’s own responses.

‘Workers’ ain’t working

I might wish it otherwise, but in terms of words they can identify with, many people are dispossessed of the very capacity to represent themselves, and this includes the capacity to identify themselves as workers, which is to say, in the specific sense of a human being whose life and labour power is channelled into obligatory activities to meet the needs of capital.

The hegemonic idea of a worker nowadays is merely someone who engages in some form of productive activity. At the same time, lots of people hear talk of ‘workers’  in a political context and think of images of brawny men with cuboid jaws who wear boiler suits and carry sledgehammers.

But since the very name given to the auto-legitimating process of dispossession is ‘democracy’ (remember Angela Davis’s insight that when George Bush talked about bringing ‘democracy’ to countries, what he really meant was capitalism), and since ‘democracy’ is treated as good in itself, the name serves as a vital site of struggle over words presently captured by power.

Recall what the mostly-forgotten ‘ghost manifesto‘ from Sol said: ‘we must recover words, restore their meaning so that language cannot be manipulated with the end of leaving the citizenry indefenceless and incapable of cohesive action’

There is a serious misapprehension doing the rounds that by excluding union or party political symbols from its demonstrations, the Democracia Real Ya element of the broader movement is somehow anti-union or apolitical. This misapprehension is usually accompanied by a complete failure - or thoroughgoing refusal - to engage with ideas such as those outlined above.

If people identify as citizens, as part of the demos - which, of course, is what even multinational corporations tell us we are - this is a point of departure that contains real power. It allows for a realisation that the idea of elections every four years which change little - and nothing else - is a travesty of the idea of democracy, what ought to constitute democratic activity. And this in no way precludes or limits or diminishes the power of emancipatory struggles that adopt a different tack. If anything, it strengthens them. Because, as shown by the account by Pedro Casas translated below - which is critical of some of the DRY elements - of the Madrid marches on Sunday, the restoration of the meaning of democracy is a crucial moment in reversing a process of dispossession.

Why should this be treated as anything other than an urgent priority?

From their neighbourhoods and towns, working women and men take Madrid

It has been many years since something similar has been seen in Madrid. Workers of all ages and trades went out into the streets of their neighbourhoods and towns to go, all together, towards the Congress of Deputies, the place where the decisions are taken that end up affecting everyone, and where the social and employment cuts that affect the popular classes obtain the force of law.

From the early hours of the morning 7 main columns began to move, from Plaza de Castilla (north),Moratalaz, Villa de Vallecas (east), Getafe and Villaverde (south-east), Leganés y Carabanchel (south-west) and Templo de Debod (west). To these columns many others joined which had also begun in peripheral neighbourhoods where crowds had formed. Many neighbours of these areas, in whose streets one does not usually hear demonstrators pass, looked on with something of awe at the human tide that called on them to join in. And the emotion was more than obvious at the moments of confluence of the different marches of thousands and thousands of people.

The working-class character of the marches was expressed both in the main composition of the demonstrators, who had left their peripheral towns and neighbourhoods, and in the slogans chanted by the majority, among which stood out “they call it democracy and it is not”; “they do not represent us”; “Long live the struggle of the working class”; “the people united will never be defeated”; “We will not pay for this crisis”; “No hay pan para tanto chorizo*”; “We need a general strike now”.

The call for the marches and their organisation was the product of worker assemblies that were formed by neighbourhoods and towns in the heat of this crisis, as a reaction to the attacks on working and social rights, and against the practices of unions, now in the majority, that have abandoned struggle as the method of winning rights in favour of pacts that cut them. These assemblies, with a horizontal function, began co-ordination after the general strike of the 29th of September, and around February they began to look into the possibility of carrying out these marches.

In the first months of the year, the ideas on how many would participate were not those of today, and despite this in the month of March it was decided that these would be held on the 19th of June, as people were convinced that the only thing that could be lost was one’s dignity by not trying. On the 27th of May the communications were presented to the government authorities and on the 10th of June this was formally recognised. The general slogan was “Against the crisis and capital”, and as complementary slogans the following:







It is worth highlighting that the preparation of the announcement read out at the end of the marches was done in a very simple and united way through the assemblies, whose ideological composition is very varied, showing that unity against the attacks is possible as well as necessary.

The popular assemblies in neighbourhoods and suburbs that cropped up in the heat of the 15-M mobilisations became aware of the call for the marches and their content, and, almost unanimously, decided to support them in each area, and undoubtedly this support has contributed to the success of the marches.

Meanwhile, the different organisational expressions of the so-called 15 M movement decided to call demonstrations the same 19th of June in other cities of the state, to protest against the Euro Pact and give continuity to the mobilisations once the acampadas had been lifted. Both before and after the celebration of the marches, big media outlets have sought to hide the origin and content of a mobilisation that does not seem to please the economic powers that sustain these media. And some organisations and spokespersons of 15M seem to have felt comfortable with this image, since there is no word of declarations that have sought to clarify this situation, but on the contrary there have been others that arrogated authority without further ado over mobilisations whose responsibility rested with other assemblies.

But reality is stubborn, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who have been filling the streets of a Madrid 'taken' by workers, have gone home convinced that struggle is the only way, and that we workers cannot sit in passive contemplation of the cuts that are being carried out with the sole goal of ensuring that those who have most, make off with even more still. The massive columns that came from every cardinal point in Madrid have shown that it is possible to resist and to make advances, because the power of workers is immense.

The economic powers can try to falsify reality, or even hide their head in the sand, but that is their problem. And the majority unions have a problem too, since their practice of downward agreements is more and more questioned, to the point that now they limit themselves to the mobilisation of their stewards, who are more and more alienated from their working class social base. And this is what is we are seeing, and what will be seen in coming days (on Wednesday 22nd for starters) because the old axiom that held back mobilisations in Madrid: that it wasn’t possible with them (because they did not want to call for struggles), but wasn’t possible without them either (because of the low mobilising capacity of alternative syndicalism).

The situation we are living through is a change of historical cycle, which is modifying not only the chessboard of social struggle, but also its  pieces and their ability to move. Let us not waste the opportunity that we are building from different trenches.

*Literally, there is no bread for so much chorizo. Chorizo, as well as being a cured pork sausage made with paprika, is also slang for a thief.

Image top: Eamonn Crudden.