Reflections on a campaign

The boycott of the household charge is an important point of solidarity in this money-siphoning exercise we know as the recession. And solidarity with others is one of the best ways to overcome the fear that is currently propagated by those in power. By Eoin O'Mahony.

At the tail end of 2011, I was asking myself how best I can fight against the household charge. I spoke with neighbours at Christmas about organising street-wide non-payment; to little avail. I thought about recording a short three minute film along the lines of “...My name is Eoin, I’m a private sector worker and I am not paying the household charge.” This last one would spur others into action, I thought, and get colleagues, friends and others to record their own three minutes of digital protest. We’d all jump together so to speak. As it turned out we did jump together, but by not doing something. One million of us jumped together.

On Saturday last I walked and chanted with thousands of others through the streets of Dublin. We were on our way to register our unhappiness with the main party of government about their household charge. We had a weight of authority behind us and we had elicited some reprehensible threats from this government since taking office. Alan Shatter suggested we should “get a life”; with Phil Hogan playing off him with hints of jail for those who didn’t register and pay. Lessons from the same man about how unpatriotic we were for not complying with a flat tax which bore no relationship to our collective experience of local government funding. I took great heart from people online enquiring about my reasons for protesting over the last few months. Points for solidarity, that least expensive of things, are rare right now. Here it was: a way for all those who took pay cut after pay cut since 2008 to show their power. And solidarity felt bloody good last weekend: chanting at capital’s spatial representation of its own power, the Convention Centre.

So why was I, a vaguely left wing, mortgage paying and college educated middle-class lad out protesting vehemently against a tax on property? Property: that thing of theft, the very thing that had created such excessive hardship for so many? You know, I thought you socialists were for taxation. Housing as a commodity, as opposed to a place to live, became the concrete meme du jour for the corruption and greed of so few since the 1970s. Why was I against a tax on property to curb such excesses? Well the truth is that this charge is a point of solidarity for once in this money-siphoning exercise we know as the recession. I’m not against property tax; I’m against this property tax.

This is a regressive tax because a Dublin-based barrister on €240,000 a year pays the same for his property as a pensioner who drives her own rubbish to a landfill. This charge is being levied to pay for the mistakes of others who took stupid risks that the Government has committed to cover through mind-bendingly stupid promissory notes. Even if I believed that all we need to do to solve this crisis is pull the right levers of governance and capitalism (I don’t), this charge is being levied in advance of any reform of local government. Dublin City Council have just privatised the entire city’s waste collection system, so we’re not exactly clear about what local government means any more, are we? Let’s have some discussion about what local government we want in this endemically corrupt political system and then let’s talk about a household charge. Further evidence for this is that there is no government agency collecting this charge. Remembering first year economics, I thought taxes were for scarce commodities. Last time I looked we had no shortage of housing in Ireland. Knowing local government as I do, this suggests to me that none of this money will be “ring fenced” for local authorities. The uneven geographies of local government are already plain to see before any threats of disbursing funds unevenly from ministers after the household charge deadline passed. This strange echo of a clientelism we all know too well makes a mockery of local government.

To this disillusioned lefty, a boycott is one of the most effective ways that we can send a message to this increasingly punitive and craven government that after five budgets where public transport subsidies, public sector wages, Traveller education, disability advocacy services, SNAs, English language support, welfare allowances, free legal aid, and plenty more have been cut, enough is enough. Closure of hospital beds and garda stations is about cutting public services. Did you not read that somewhere? We must remember that power in this democracy rests with those who vote, not those who get voted for. Furthermore, this flat tax nonsense perpetuates the idea that somehow "we are all in this together" when inequality is rising, households at risk of poverty are increasing in number and the banks continue to cook books in order to become less reliant on a State that loves them to bits. We are not starting from an equal base here: hearing people dispute the notion that €2 per week is affordable is to betray a lack of connection with reality. “Sher it’s only the price of a glass of beer,” and don’t we all drink beer, therefore we can all pay this tax? As the CSO makes clear: “In 2010 the deprivation rate (those experiencing two or more types of enforced deprivation) was almost 23% compared with just over 17% in 2009.”

Solidarity with others, even those who hold reactionary views about the sanctity of the family home, is part of the development of a longer struggle. Part of this struggle requires recognition of where we are right now and not where we could be, as if ‘actually existing social democracy’ ever actually existed in Ireland. Solidarity with others is one of the best ways to overcome the fear that is currently propagated. This propagation of fear is a rallying call to ‘a squeezed middle’ of its true class position: ignore the crusties, you’ve got a home to protect. I’m looking forward to the day when only half the park is open to me because I didn’t pay the charge. Or the day that I can only borrow some of the books in my local library. This household charge nonsense may well mean a further destabilisation of the physical reality that you and I live in the same area. We live here in this country with our friends and family. So I’m left asking: what exactly do we want for ourselves in this place? {jathumbnailoff}

Eoin O’Mahony is a doctoral student in geography, at NUIM.

All images: Eoin O'Mahony.