Some reflections on a demonstration (and by extension, the Irish left)
Note: This is a post I published on Facebook earlier this evening. A few people suggested that I also publish it on this blog, as my Facebook is set to Private. So here it is for your perusal, along with some of the discussion from the comments thread. Enjoy. Or not.
Here are some thoughts on yesterday evening’s ‘Jail the Anglo Bankers‘ protest, organised by the SWP/People Before Profit (or perhaps by one of the front groups like Enough, I don’t really know to be honest – EDIT: It seems the group is in fact called ‘Jail the Anglo Bankers’, and would appear indeed to be a SWP front group). Note this is not an attack on any one group, or individuals, just some musings how I felt after the demo. If you think I’m unfairly attacking an organisation, then be assured I’m an equal opportunities complainer!
The first thing to say is that I was disappointed by the numbers. Despite over 2,000 people ‘joining’ on Facebook, less than 500 people turned up (and I think I’m being generous there). Of course, Facebook ‘attendees’ are not a particularly reliable gauge, but can show a certain mood – and I thought given the high number of ‘attends’ in such a relatively short period of time, spurred by the Anglo recordings, that there would be a big turnout. Of course, I was wrong, but one can’t blame the organisers for that. Or can they?
One thing that struck me was the absence of other groups at the action. The only organised groupings in attendance were SWP/PBPA (obviously), flag waving delegations from the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and Republican Sinn Fein, and the Dublin Says No/Occupy Dame Street remnants (more on the latter later). I spotted a couple of Socialist Party members seemingly selling their paper The Socialist, two members of Sinn Féin (one taking photos for An Phoblacht) and one member of the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement. Sinn Fein, it should be noted, have a similar protest this Saturday, themed ‘Jail the Bankers’.
This appears to have been a solo run by the SWP/PBPA, based on the relative success of a demo they held last week were “400” people marched through Dublin (I wasn’t at the demo, so can’t say whether that’s an accurate figure) – and was reflected in the make up of the speakers – James O’Toole, Richard Boyd Barrett, Memet Uludag, Madeleine Johansson, Kieran Allen (I think the latter two spoke anyway) and a few random punters and/or people I didn’t know. That I could see, there were no representatives from any of the other Left groups given a platform – perhaps they would have been had they shown up, I don’t know.
Anyway, the bigger point about this is, was any outreach done with other groups to try and build for this protest? Or was it merely a case of one left group (in this case the SWP) running with the idea? I wasn’t involved in the building, so I can’t say. But surely, it would have made more sense to try and bring as many groups (political, community and NGO-types) and left independents together as possible, to maximise the message and attendance? I know it was a short space of time to organise things, but I think a genuine effort could have been made.
This brings me to the actual message of the protest, namely the demand for jailing the Anglo bankers. This is a very timid demand, barely reformist and far from revolutionary. ‘Punish people for breaking the law’ was the gist of the demo, something I think even a moderately sensible Blueshirt could support. Personally, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a very good demand. Notably absent from the speeches of these revolutionaries (or at least the ones I heard) were any concrete demands about the actual economy. For example, no one said anything about nationalising the banks, thereby taking the control of major finance away from these criminals once and for all. Jailing a few bankers and crooked politicians won’t change anything fundamental, in fact it probably won’t even change behaviour; it’s never worked for the mafia, for example. Personally, while sending the likes of Drumm and Bowe to prison for a few years might have a certain schadenfreudian appeal to it, I would rather see these people walk free in a world where the method they chose to perform their criminality no longer exists. Of course, the two outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive!
Another demand that could, and should, have been made in my opinion, was for the repudiation of the socialised private debt foisted upon the people of Ireland by this criminal and craven congealment of bankers and politicians. “It’s not the people’s debt” to use the Communist Party slogan. As with Ecuador, who successfully repudiated their odious debt, there is a strong (now even stronger, in light of the Anglo recordings) case to be made for the southern Irish state to attempt such a move – if the political will were there of course.
But this leads on to the question of the effectiveness of this type of ‘let’s march from A to B and listen to some speeches’ protest in general. Or in this case, let’s listen to some speeches, then march from A to B with greatly diminished numbers cos lots of people have fucked off during the seven or eight speeches. Of course, protests are important and have a significant role to play in the struggle. I think however, that ‘protest politics’ is pretty much a dead end. And before you point to Egypt or wherever, there people are mobilised with fairly coherent aims, and are mobilised in large numbers. I really don’t think the anger – or at least the anger-translated-to-action – exists in Ireland for such a protest movement at present, and as such these constant calls to take to the streets to voice our outrage are kind of useless – even the biggest mobilisations (eg the CAHWT march on the Fine Gael conference, or the ITCU demo) have achieved little to nothing. The one exception I can think of is the X Case stuff, where relatively large mobilisations are undoubtedly responsible for the government legislation, as crappy as that legislation is in reality. The government’s back down on the sell off of Coillte was mentioned by Richard Boyd Barrett yesterday as a victory for people power. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about that campaign, so I can’t say if that’s true one way or the other. Regardless, presuming it’s true, these (limited) victories had clear, basically reformist, demands and don’t really challenge anything fundamental about the capitalist state.
However, when it comes to economics and ‘big picture’ politics, I think the left falls down badly in its coherency. What exactly should be the demands of a mass movement (for if there is to be a mass movement that has a chance of success even in a limited reformist manner, there must be surely be demands to organise around, no)? I have suggested two above – which I think should be the staple of any left economic protest movement/organisation. There are plenty of others I can think of – I’m not saying I have the answers by the way, just that for the left to be credible in people’s eyes, it should have some concrete and coherent positive answers, rather than just being against cuts, austerity, or whatever. To be fair, Sinn Féin have done this relatively successfully – though I would disagree with many of their economic policies. In addition, the implosion of the ULA and the seeming disarray that the CAHWT/CAPTA campaign is in and the ultimate failure of the boycott strategy, doesn’t lend the far left any credibility, to say the least.
Anyway, back to protests. It seems that in this case the SWP’s answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ is as predictable as being asked to buy a copy of Socialist Worker at a SWP-organised action: ‘Let’s have another demo! More people on the streets!’ And so we’re asked to come out again in two weeks, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, to stand around outside the Dail and listen to speeches. If we’re lucky there might be a bit of argy-bargy with the cops to keep us mildly entertained for ninety seconds. The ultimate aim of this protest is actually to build for the next protest in September, which one speaker last night suggested could be our Tahrir Square moment, where we would “surround the Dail”. Another speaker (or perhaps the same speaker) asked the crowds to raise their hands if they wanted to achieve and Irish version of Tahrir Square. Of course, almost everyone present raised their hands. Who wouldn’t want a progressive mobilisation on that scale here? However, I was compelled to shout out “but hands up who thinks that’s going to happen?” Alas, I didn’t have a microphone, so probably only about ten people actually heard me. Of course, we’re not going to achieve a Tahrir Square moment in Ireland in the near future.
Let’s just break down the figures for a moment. Cairo has a population of 9 million or so. Let’s say at a minimum the renewed Tahrir movement has mobilised around 1 million unique people on a sustained basis (though I have seen estimates of up to 3 million). That is 1/9th of the population of the capital city – not counting other mobilisations around the country. Applied to Dublin, 1/9th of the 1.1m-odd people in Dublin is 123,400 people. The last couple of these protests have seen around 400 of these people turn up. Where are the other 123,000 going to come from? Ok, I’m being a bit mechanical here, but it’s a serious point. If you are telling people that an Irish Tahrir is possible in the near term, I just don’t think you’re being honest. Yes it would be great if such a thing happened (the closest we’ve ever come was probably the outpouring of relatively spontaneous anger against the war on Iraq on 15th February 2003, ten years ago – but let’s not open that can of worms right now), but realistically will it? I think the answer is no, unfortunately, and I think we should be honest with people about that.
But even if it were possible, then we must ask ourselves – around what political program, around what demands, would such a protest be built, and could 120,000 people on the street actually change anything? It didn’t stop the war on Iraq of course (anyone who thought it could was deluding themselves I think), but it didn’t even achieve the limited aim of ending US imperialism’s use of Irish airports and airspace to carry out their vicious wars, and transport their torture victims. Of course there’s the argument about direct action vs mass mobilisation vs both, but I’m not going to go into that here. The upshot was that 100,000 or so people marching for a day changed nothing then, why would we think it would change anything now? At least not on its own and in and of itself. Now maybe I’ve created a strawman here, and am accusing the SWP and/or others of a perspective they don’t actually hold. Maybe, maybe not. However, what I think is clear is that any such mobilisation – were it even possible in the first place – must be coupled with a strong, relatively disciplined and coherent genuinely non-sectarian leftwing organisation (be it a party – unlikely, given the history of groups on the left – or a coalition/federation type thing) united around a series of progressive demands that are both achievable and desirable. They don’t even have to be revolutionary demands as such (and here is where I’ll probably get called a reformist, sellout, social democrat, or worse, petite bourgeois), eg the demand for nationalisation of the banks is not in and of itself revolutionary. However, such a demand can – and should – be made and organised for by revolutionaries. And should it happen, the nationalisation of the banks, and/or our national resources for example, could have revolutionary consequences, allowing people to believe that yes, ‘another world is possible’, and indeed, ‘necessary’, to use the slogans of a decade ago. In essence, what I’m trying to say, I think is that a protest shouldn’t be a goal, it should be an outcome and auxiliary action of successful organisation towards a goal. Or something.
Anyway, alas, for now, it seems the strategy will remain (at least for the SWP), as one Anarchist wit once put it to me, “organise a relatively successful demonstration, repeat until demoralisation”.
In fact, what I found most disheartening about last night’s demo was the disempowering nature of it. I’ve already talked about the barely-reformist demand it was organised around, ie, ‘jail the Anglo bankers’, but the demo actually did propose a concrete action that people could take. They were asking people to fill out Garda complaint forms – to me, this is asking people to ask the armed wing of the state, the enforcers of capitalism, to take action against the people who they basically serve (in a broad sense I mean) – the rich and powerful of society. I think there may also have been a petition floating around as well, but forgive my scepiticsm regarding that – you can probably count the amount of lefty petitions ever handed in to their prospective recipients on one hand. And so, after being told to turn up in two weeks, and again in September and to build(!), build(!!), build(!!!) the protests(!!!!), a somewhat frenetic and fairly small march made it’s way to Pearse Street Garda Station (I presume) to hand in loads of these forms for consideration by the 100%-totally-free-of-political-interference police. I and the people I was with didn’t follow it down, we’d all had enough by then.
No, instead I stayed to have a look at what the Dublin Says No/Freemen/Anonymous/Occupy remnants-type people who sat down on the road afterwards were doing. This gathering of maybe 40 or so people, complete with jazz hands, brought back some piercingly painful memories of Occupy Dame Street at its worst. I’m tempted to make a comment about tragedy and farce here actually. Anyway, they held a consensus based ‘general assembly’ type discussion, with Liam Mac An Bhaird seemingly facilitating it. At one point some be-suited people left Leinster House and were chased and heckled by some of those present – whether they were politicians, civil servants or just people in suits I have no idea, I didn’t have a great vantage point. Then Liam called them back to the circle. The discussion seemed to consist of a slagging of the Socialist Workers Party/leftwing political parties (“all parties are the same, they just want money and power”), a lot of shouting about how awful things were, a constant heckling by one man who may or may not have been drunk, and an exhortation to join the “real protest” (I think that was the phrase used, forgive me if I misremember) that the recently formed ‘Dublin Says No’ group hold every Sunday afternoon. Dublin Says No, it seems, tries to model itself on Ballyhea Says No – I can’t say I know enough about them to speak with any authority, but I would guess they are of the “we’re not rightwing or leftwing” anti-politics type of protester. Anyway, that was even more depressing than the demo in some ways.
So basically, that’s some of my rambling thoughts about yesterday’s action. They may not be coherent, they may be contradictory, they may be full of logical errors and unrelated thought processes; you may agree enthusiastically or fumingly disagree; but they’re what I think at this point in time. Thankfully, things are fluid, and I hope to be proven wrong by the process of events.
TL:DR? Went to protest, came away even more downhearted, but maybe I’m wrong.
So, I’ll end on a joke – yesterday I found myself wondering what the collective noun for Trotskyists should be, and after the sixth or seventh time I was offered a copy of Socialist Worker, it became clear, it’s obviously ‘a paper sale of Trots’.
Some of the comments and exchanges (slightly abridged):
Garrett M: Excellent critique and it certainly gives a downbeat picture of Ireland protest movements but the problem is there is no positive alternative emerging and you do not suggest one.
Citizen Partridge: Yes you’re probably right, it’s a bit stream of consciousness-y. I think I’m arguing for what I said about a coalition united around a series of progressive demands that are both achievable and desirable, maybe. I am dispirited I have to admit, not just with yesterdays’ demo, with the Irish left in general. This is me basically thinking out loud.
Garrett M: You are entitled of course to feel dispirited. It is a dispiriting picture. My spirits are not raised with the Left Forum or anything else really.Maybe what we need to do is get the left on a big long bus trip to the next G8 summit in Russia and use the trip to discuss ‘where we are now’ – politically speaking of course. The prize for a coherent answer is flights home and for not coming up with something that amounts to a left vision which will be respect is the bus journey home.
Christopher L: I would go for a ‘programme of Trotskists’ myself! But that debate is for another day! Suffice to say I agree with 90% of what you said there Kevin. Very good post. I just do not see any strategy for the future development of the left, at least not from any of the organised far left. All of them are hidebound by past practice, sad but true.
Raymond D: All very well, but what’s the point of going on at length about such matters on Facebook? Are there not other fora, or even forums, at which to voice such a critique? Speaking as someone who didn’t turn up for the demo, for various reasons. And I don’t actually believe in “jailing the bankers” ‘cos I don’t really believe in jail – except for homicidal maniacs. Put them to work on the roads instead.
Citizen Partridge: I would agree with your final comment there Chris. Raymond, Facebook is as good a place as any to post this I think. I’m not sure any lefty blog would be interested in posting it, and I steer clear of political forums in general for the good of my health!
Christopher L: I just feel like a complete fetish of organisational form has been adopted by the far left, with very little evidence or supporting reasons for why such a form has been adopted. The left, as a whole, has always been most successful when it has been at the forefront of the fight for democracy and democratic rights. That is the great legacy 200 years of socialist struggle has left us. Really though, the significance of what you are saying is ‘we do not have a f****** clue’. We need to be adult and human enough to admit that. Once you know where you are, you can begin to navigate away.
Christopher L: I think it is worthwhile to draw a balance sheet up of where the left actually is and in fairness I would not dedcribe the ‘left’ as anything other than the fairly small number of individuals named above. There is a potential resevoir of millions of progressives to mobilise in Ireland, how we get there is the other question. Personally, I think some form of far-right victory may be the only thing which may conceivably shake a number of people into action. The ‘whip of counter-revolution’ and all that.
Garrett M: No Christopher- many people thought that an economic crisis ‘which confirms our perspectives’ would galvanise the left but it didn’t and nor would a right wing government. In the UK, Labour moved to the right after Thatcher’s second election victory. I think [the piece] nails it in his first or second paragraph when he asks ‘was there any outreach done’. The collapse of the ULA has left a vacuum but arguably the ULA was not a very honest venture. The ‘partners’ did not respect each other, nevermind like each other. As for Raymond asking why post on FB, well if we don’t then we all think that we are the only one’s thinking like that.
Raymond D: I seem to remember that view was current in 1933.
Christopher L: I am not talking about a right-wing government though Garrett. I think something much more dangerous, frightening, and conceivably galvanising may reignite the left.
Garrett M: Like Nazis???
Christopher L: I wouldn’t say Nazis. But the crises occuring in Europe right now mean there are parallels. Fascism will never re-emerge in its open C.20th form. However, as we all know there are right-wing, neo-fascist and populist organisations mobilising across Europe.
Citizen Partridge: Unfortunately it seems many on the far left think that the organisational form of a revolutionary party in 2013 should mirror the Bolshevik party of almost a hundred years ago – or rather, their sometimes imagined view of what that party was like. (I’ll admit I’m far from an expect on the internal workings of the Bolsheviks). And indeed, Menshevik, a term denoting a section of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party which was outlawed and basically ceased to exist by 1921, is still seemingly considered to be a valid term of abuse to be thrown at ‘rival’ leftwing organisations. It’s kind of a little bit strange.
What does ‘the left’ – however one describes it’s constituent parts, and however much of the ‘left spectrum’ one wants to include – want a fairer more equal society to look like? That is indeed a good question.
For years I used to believe “[insert some generalities about workers control, economic and political democracy, right of recall] and ah sure everything will sort itself out after the revolution, be grand sure”. But I’ve come to think that that simply isn’t enough of an explanation for people when you are trying to convince them a socialist/communist society would be materially better for them. Some kind of speculative empiricism is needed (if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms) in terms of future models. At a very basic level, what would an election look like in a socialist society? What would the decision making process entail in a workplace? How would we concretely plan the economy so there isn’t underproduction or that everyone isn’t wearing the same fucking clothes? Again, I’m just thinking out loud here – I’m not saying I have the answers to such questions, cos I don’t. But expecting Russian Revolution Mk II, or a Cuban or Chinese style guerilla war, in an industrial country in 2013, is expecting the improbable/impossible.
I wouldn’t be that optimistic about people organising in the face of a far right threat to be fair Chris. People have already mentioned the Nazis, but then again, in France and Italy after the fall of fascism in those countries (brought about by years of total war it must be said) , there did emerge strong and respected communist parties. Of course, that didn’t end up too well either. Maybe we need years of brutal repression and fightback by lefty partisans to earn the trust of the masses… oh fuck I don’t know!
Fearghal O: I’m surprised I actually agree with so much of this. Our model of organising is fundamentally broken, and continuing to flog this very, very dead horse is only going to demoralise and burn-out the ever shrinking core of activists even further. The fact that those who perhaps have realised this failing are actually the anti-politics ODS\Independent\Sovereign types does make me feel even more uncomfortable.
A – B marches with abstract or unachievable demands are completely pointless. Our aim should be to empower people and give them confidence in their own ability to take action, direct their own lives, and protests ending with the same big talk, meaningless boring speeches does nothing to empower people.
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