My blog on the Right2Water campaign a week ago won a lot of support, prompted an outburst of righteous indignation from some who thought me a stooge for ‘right-wing’ parties, but elicited no answers to my key questions about how the right to water is to be guaranteed if water charges and Irish Water are to be abolished, as the campaign seeks. However, it has become clearer to me, as I suspected all the time, that the anti-water campaign has little to do with water and a lot to with, finally, a mobilisation against austerity.
Some of those who were very critical of my stance asked me to take the wider context into account. Of course this is crucial, in particular a critical assessment of the politics of anti-austerity as this is the key issue raised by these so-called anti-water protests. Some seem to see these protests as marking a new beginning in Irish politics, doing away with the failed politics of the past.
I wish I could agree but find myself far less sanguine. A number of observations inform my assessment in this regard:
- A politics of opposition rather than a politics of proposal: Many of those who protest are very angry with the Irish state and its policies of austerity. This is very understandable and some robust public reaction is long overdue. Up to now protest has been far too sporadic and failed to ignite a real mass movement. But, as shown by the lack of any coherent proposal that would better guarantee people’s right to water than the government’s plans, Ireland’s anti-austerity politics is purely a politics of opposition; all it proposes is some painless way to get our public finances back in order while having no coherent alternative political project to offer.
- The anti-state discourse of the protest movement and its leaders: Central to any left-wing alternative must be a positive vision of the role and capacity of the state and a strategy as to how these can be built up. Instead, what we are offered is a discourse full of the sort of dismissal of the state and its officials that would do any neoliberal proud. The task of drawing back the Irish state from its decades-long embrace of global corporate capital (of course, the embrace is warmly accepted by capital) is an arduous task, as is the challenge of fashioning a rounded project of national development through the aegis of a proactive, capable and agile state. Some elements of that project are evident in the important work undertaken by think tanks like the Nevin Institute and TASC. This is the responsibility of the left before Irish society; there is virtually no evidence that our current left-wing parties and leaders are even aware of this responsibility.
- The lack of any evident longer term strategy: Any anti-austerity protest campaign is just one part of a larger strategy of economic, political and social transformation. The protest campaign should be seen as an opportunity for educating citizens into a new proactive vision of a transformative politics that involves duties as well as right, mobilising a sense of active citizenry developing a project of national renewal and various sectors of society in support of it. The campaign around water not only shows no strategy as to how to guarantee the right to water, but no strategy as to where this politics of anti-austerity is leading, other than to build a base of support for the parties leading it.
- The path dependency of Irish politics: What is most depressing about this form of anti-austerity politics is that it panders to the very instincts and values deeply inbred in many Irish citizens by decades of Fianna Fáil hegemony. This is sometimes called populism but that is to misunderstand the potential of a genuinely populist politics mobilising the marginalised in a state-led politics of inclusion as is currently happening in Latin America. By contrast, Fianna Fáil rule weakened state capacity, bought off citizens through short-term benefits, eroded the tax base, failed to invest in robust public services, and reveled in a discourse of easy, painless development. Parties of the left, with their opposition to taxes and charges, their failure to offer any credible alternative, and their easy promises are playing to these very same instincts rather than challenging them.
These are the reasons why I see no evidence that this emerging protest movement will lead us anywhere different, much less to the transformative politics so badly needed. It is therefore a politics of deception, failing to use people’s anger to build that alternative through a serious discursive politics of honesty.
This is what makes is so totally different to what is happening in Spain where Podemos emerged firstly through a politics of communicating a different vision of the state and its transformation, before emerging suddenly into electoral politics as it articulated the public mood so exactly. It is now on course to form the Spanish government next year.
It has got to this remarkable position after less than a year in existence not through a politics of opposition but through a serious politics of proposing an alternative that is credible to large sectors of the citizenry. It doesn’t have all the answers and admits openly to this but it does offer an alternative vision of how the state must resituate itself in its relationship to capital, both at national and at European levels. We badly need such a politics here but where is it going to come from?