Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

Anarchist Lens: What’s Wrong With This Photo?

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Mick Barry Says...What’s Wrong With This Photo?

For a lot of people, the photo on the right is just another snapshot of a candidate looking for votes in the forthcoming Irish general election. On one level, that’s a perfectly fine way to view the photograph. However, the picture also captures a fault line in left politics that is worth looking at.

The anti-water tax campaign is the most serious movement to emerge, to date, in Ireland in opposition to austerity. It is a campaign with plenty of strands to it but one thing is clear: community (and collective) action has been decisive to its success. Although resistance has been at times sporadic and uneven, no one doubts that the current upsurge in struggle against water meters is one of the largest mobilisations seen in the country for decades. Large numbers of ordinary citizens have been drawn into political action in which their own self-organised efforts have been decisive to the outcome. As a result it has also been, for many people, an empowering experience that has renewed an awareness of the existence of community, shared interests and the power of taking common action to achieve goals.

“Bigging-Up”

The Barry photo, however, is not about any of this. Although the candidate is a socialist (and a member of the Socialist Party now trading as the Anti-Austerity Alliance) you will notice that there is little – sorry, nothing – on his banner about collective struggle. Instead the focus is on the candidate. The banner, prominently on display during a recent protest march in Cork, is mostly about ‘bigging-up’ the candidate as a potential spokesperson for the anti-water tax campaign. This is in turn the core idea behind the Right2Change platform which aims to get the anti-water tax movement to buy into the idea that ‘trusted’ politicians will sort out the water tax issue on our behalf. Needless to say for aspiring politicians this is a win-win situation: they get to promise that electing them is the solution to all our problems and in turn they use the grassroots campaign as a platform on which to build their careers.

The bitter disappointment that was Syriza (in Greece) has not quite sunk in for many on the electoral left in Ireland. For that reason many still see Syriza’s strategy as the way forward. Recall that it took the Coalition of the Radical Left (translation of Syriza) nearly eleven years to reach their dream of forming a government in Greece. During those eleven years considerable time and energy was put into the electoral project. When they finally made it into power they discovered that they were toothless in the face of the establishment. Capitalism, let’s face it, is an entrenched system of power and privilege. It won’t be unseated by a few parliamentarians throwing temper tantrums. Embedded authoritarianism and a resourceful State structure stand bang smack in the way of even basic progress. In the end, in Greece, Tsipras and a range of politicians were humiliated and they couldn’t do anything about it.

A Hefty Price-tag

The more ambition left politicians in Ireland have a Syriza style movement (and strategy) in mind – minus the tragic end, one hopes! They are hoping to see this emerge from the current anti-water tax fight. On one level this looks attractive: after all what could be simpler than voting austerity out of existence?  But really, I ask you, is it going to be that easy? More importantly an unspoken, hefty price-tag  has to be paid if the electoral route is followed.

Time and again grassroots movements have experienced a decline in momentum and power as soon as they switch to an electoral focus . An example of of this was the fate of the German Green Movement in the 80s and 90s analysed here. A more relevant and recent example it that of Podemus in Spain. We Can (translation of Podemus) was formed in 2014 and has  shamelessly cashed in on the network of organisations created in Spain from 2011 onwards to fight austerity. As the Podemus electoral project grew in scope it sucked energy and activism from those organisations which had led the fight against austerity in the communities – for example the anti-eviction movement PAH. Not only that, as Podemus grew, it in turn began to shed its more radical political positions in favour of a business friendly political image. Where have we seen that before?

There is a real danger now that the same outcome could come to pass here in Ireland in the anti-water tax campaign.

The Fault Line?

No!So back to the fault line in left politics. What is it then? The alternative view of how change can be brought about involves avoiding the parliament (and persona based politics). Instead the aim is to resource the grassroots movement that has emerged around the anti-water tax campaign and then extend it outwards so that it can link up with and encourage similar developments in other areas where social conflict is happening. So important strikes need support. Direct action efforts around homelessness needs support. The aim all time is to build popular activism, to move in a horizontal direction as opposed to a vertical one; to emphasis participation and democracy as much as possible. To take one example, a crucial fight is happening right now in respect to the LUAS strike in Dublin. The Establishment has realised this and the LUAS workers have been pilloried in the media at every turn. Will the LUAS workers have to fight on alone or will a grassroots solidarity emerge to help them win their battle.?How could that type of solidarity be built and what shape would it take? These are matters that a grassroots movement could and should address.

An alternative strategy then would never have a banner like Barry’s near it. The alternative banner would show a large group of people – similar to what is shown just above – under the slogan: Tgether we are strong. Together we have the power. Somehow that slogan just doesn’t seem to fit with getting elected to the parliament. But therein lies the important difference.

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