Greek elections: potential for real politics at last

The dire warnings of European leaders faced with the prospect of the Greek left-party Syriza winning power in the January 25th elections alerts us to the fact that something significant is stirring in the undergrowth of European politics. For the first time in decades, a party offering a real alternative has the chance of winning power in an EU-member state. No only is this of immense importance for Greece and its hard-pressed citizens, but it has the potential to have a major impact throughout Europe, both by offering a different way to recovery and because Syriza wants a fundamental reorientation of Europe and its institutions. This is one to watch carefully. 

While the rhetoric of Syriza leaders bears many similarities to that of left-wing groups throughout Europe (including Ireland), denouncing austerity and offering a different and less painful route to economic recovery and social recuperation, two elements mark Syriza out from much of the European left: the first is that it has fleshed out a series of concrete proposals that address some of the key elements of the current crisis in a new way; the second is that it has emerged out of a long trajectory that has united disparate groups on the Greek left to the point of becoming the party with the greatest support as reflected in recent opinion polls. Only the new Spanish party, Podemos, with which Syriza has close relations, is in a similar situation.

So what makes Syriza different? In reflecting the discontent of large sectors of the Greek population, Syriza has identified an alternative proposal to resolve the Eurozone debt crisis, very different to the mainstream politics that has dominated since the crisis emerged in 2008 though, in fact, simply going back to the precedents of history. The party proposes a European Debt Conference, similar to the 1953 London Conference that helped resolve Germany's debt problem at that time. Resolution of the problem would involve not only a restructuring of the debt but also writing off a sizeable chunk of it. This policy has been praised by some leading financial commentators in Europe as the only sensible solution at this moment.

Using democratic procedures to resolve the debt crisis would help to open up a far wider debate about Europe's future and, in particular, the priorities of social recuperation (investment in employment, social services, the welfare state) over satisfying the interests of financial capital that have dominated European policies so far. Among Syriza's policies are a European version of the Glass-Steagall Act in the US in 1933 that separated commercial and investment banking activities, putting restrictions on speculative actions. This would help to regulate financial activities channelling capital into productive investment and away from speculation, a crucial dimension of any sustainable recovery that has been given insufficient attention in the austerity debate so far.

As commentators have noted, much of Syriza's policies are far from doomsday, as their critics allege, and present a sensible set of alternatives putting social needs before the interests of global capital. The fact that the party has the largest base of support among the electorate attests to its ability over a short space of time (its current makeup between different streams of the Greek left only dates from July 2013) to respond to the needs of very hard-pressed voters. Yet, getting itself elected on January 25th is the easiest challenge it faces; if it proposes its policies in place of the current renegotiation of the Greek bailout the chances are that they will be roundly rejected. Greek banks have enough funds to survive until next March according to the finance minister and the country owes debt repayments of up to €20bn in 2015. This is the real drama for Greece and, indeed, for the Eurozone as a whole.

The Greek elections therefore crystallise a clash that up to now has been avoided in European responses to the financial and economic crisis: this is the clash of the interests of financial markets versus the interests of social wellbeing. While political elites have given priority all the time to the former, citizens are at last beginning to demand the latter be given serious attention. Much of the unrest is favouring right-wing parties who seem to offer painless solutions by focusing on immigrants or globalisation as the problems to be addressed. Only Syriza and Podemos have crystallised a progressive response that focuses on the real culprit; their success may be the last hope to reorient Europe from a downward spiral into restrictive, right-wing, anti-immigrant and, indeed, anti-democratic politics. 2015, with its wave of general elections in Greece, Spain and the UK as well as in a number of Scandinavian countries with strong right-wing parties, will push us further along one or other of these two roads.

The contrast with Irish politics could hardly be greater. Instead of a left-wing force emerging from the fragmented disunity that has traditionally characterised the left as in Greece and Spain, the water campaign has been characterised by sectors of the left competing to dominate it. And, instead of credible substantial and elaborated policies on debt, on Europe, on economic development, on banking, on taxation, on the welfare state, and on climate change we are offered easy promises and the politics of sloganeering. Few, if any, of the building blocks are in place to lay the foundations for a serious left-wing alternative to emerge. And few among the electorate or commentators seem to realise it or to care.  


Lessons from Spain: mass movements and parties

Richard's blog on Right2Water and Podemos in which he comments on my reference to Spanish anti-austerity politics as holding lessons for us in Ireland raises some very interesting issues. He rightly fills in the 'cycles of mobilisations that preceded' the rise of Podemos and the rich grassroots democratic culture that these express, including participative assemblies. I totally agree with him that the success of Podemos lies in its ability to 'articulate politically this widespread feeling' that democracy is more than voting once every few years. 

What has been striking about the culture of popular mobilisation in Spain over recent years is its explicit distancing of itself from political leaders and parties of all hues. Richard offered an interesting explanation of how the slogan 'No nos representan' can be seen to have two meanings: not only that existing parties don't represent mobilised civil society but that they are unrepresentable and speak for themselves alone. This interpretation reflects the strong and continuing presence of anarchist views among Spanish civil society organisations, something that is almost totally lacking here in Ireland. 

However, it also raises something of a contradiction in that Podemos has now emerged as a political party that is giving voice to at least sectors of this mobilised civil society and has achieved a remarkable growth in a very short space of time as a result of this. To this extent it is seen as representing them. All of this raises the issue that lies at the heart of Richard's analysis, namely the relationship between a political party and civil society. He is right to take me to task for focusing too exclusively on the role of parties in leading civil society mobilisation and his explanation of the Spanish case shows how a civil society autonomous of parties can self-organise. 

But what he fails to examine is that this self-organised civil society posed no threat to the existing parties and power structure as long as it lacked a political interlocutor. Indeed, what was striking about politics in Spain during the height of the economic and social collapse there was that the PSOE tended to suffer electorally more than the PP. All this has dramatically changed with the emergence of Podemos. And neither did Podemos emerge from civil society; rather it emerged from the deliberate strategy of a group of university professors who established a regular TV programme on a Madrid cable channel. To this extent, Podemos does offer an example of the importance of political education as part of a moment of rupture as Richard so nicely puts it.

So I strongly disagree with Richard that Spain's power elite fears 'a mobilised people, the mass involvement of ordinary people.' Yes, the astonishing bursting on the scene of the Indignados took the elite by surprise but what has really scared them is the rise of Podemos. The continuous barrage by the political caste of left and right to denigrate Podemos shows this; we didn't see anything of the same virulence against the Indignados. It was precisely their lack of a longer term strategy that was their great weakness.

And Richard also confuses the sharp and penetrating critique of Spanish democracy both by the Indignados and by Podemos with an anti-state discourse as is happening in Ireland. There is a world of a difference between the sophisticated critique developed by civil society in Spain that they are not merchandise but citizens and the mobilisation here to abolish a state utility in the name of the fear that it may be privatised, a fear for which there is no hard evidence. It would be seen as ridiculous by any serious European left-wing supporters.

Of course, we cannot simply read off lessons from what is happening in Spain for Ireland. Here again I disagree with Richard who seems to view the mobilisation around the Right2Water very much through a Spanish lens. I would love to think that these recent mobilisations show that people are 'learning about politics and building common bonds and consciousness on their own terms' as has certainly happened in Spain. However, it is difficult to point to much evidence for this; attempts to develop such a culture of mobilisation and learning among civil society since the economic collapse have not been very successful. If it is beginning now, then that is good but it is far too early to have any certainty about this. It still is a movement far too dependent on a certain brand of political leadership.

So, if Richard is right that this is a moment of deepening democratisation and repoliticisation, then I agree that it could lay the basis for some real change. But it won't challenge the political elites until it finds some political interlocutor and there is no signs of a Podemos-type party emerging here. This is my reason for focusing on the need for some proactive political leadership of the kind that has emerged finally in Spain through Podemos. My fear is, and this is not 'pessimistic dismissal' as Richard states, that the Right2Water campaign marks more of a continuation of the sort of petit-bourgeous anti-statist, anti-tax instincts so deeply bred in Irish society by Fianna Fáil hegemony than it marks any transformative rupture. 



Anti-water protests: a new politics or more of the same?

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:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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.

4) 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?

Do outcomes from Lima advance us on the road to a low-carbon society?

So, as has now become the norm at these annual climate summits, Lima ran over by almost two days and managed a last-minute, late-night agreement in the early hours of Sunday morning after being deadlocked in an impasse. While weary delegates began their trips home with some relief, how does the Lima Call for Climate Action look in the cold light of day? How much closer does it get us to an ambitious international treaty to be agreed in Paris this time next year?

While, as NGOs have been tweeting since the conference close, the agreed four-page text is a disappointment, postponing substantive agreements until Paris, a closer read offers some substantial grounds for hope. Depending on how it is used, the Lima Call for Climate Action offers an ambitious framework for advancing on all the major issues that will be needed for a treaty that finally begins to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the scale urgently needed.

Despite determined action by developed countries to narrow the agreement to emissions targets (what is called mitigation), developing countries were finally successful in ensuring that such crucial issues to them as building their resilience against climate disasters (what is called adaptation), funding by developed countries to help achieve this, transfer of technology by developed countries and the crucial loss and damage mechanism that is so important to help small island states cope with the possibly fatal impact of rising sea levels, all made their way into the final text. And, importantly, their inclusion ensures that they will be reflected in the final treaty to be agreed in Paris next year which, it is also agreed, will have 'legal force'.

The outcome also maintains the important principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' that has been a central element of global environmental politics since the Rio summit in 1992. This is the recognition that developed countries have been mostly responsible for the problem of GHG emissions and therefore bear greater responsibility for resolving it. The US in particular has sought over the years to deny this, arguing that large developing countries such as China and India must do more to reduce emissions; efforts to water down this key principle in Lima failed and the document agreed this morning states that the commitment to reaching 'an ambitious agreement in 2015' will reflect this principle. 

So what was agreed finally in Lima? All countries are to send their emissions targets (what are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat in Bonn ideally by the end of next March. A draft negotiating text of the Paris treaty will be prepared 'before May 2015'. By November 1st 2015, the UNFCCC will issue a synthesis report 'on the aggregate effect' of what has been pledged. This is a very important breakthrough, offering some transparency on how far the pledges will get us towards keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. 

Indeed, in the Lima document all the world's countries note 'with grave concern the significant gap' between the aggregate effect of what has been pledged so far and the possibility of keeping warming to below 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is an important recognition in such a document that pledges will need to be much more ambitious. Furthermore, the Lima document explicitly states that each country's pledges 'will represent a progression' beyond what they have already pledged. In addition, least developed countries and small island developing states 'may' communicate their strategies and actions for low-carbon development.

Finally, the Lima Call pledges to 'enhance ambition in the pre-2020 period in order to ensure the highest possible mitigation efforts' under the UNFCCC process. It pledges greater efforts to enhance our technical knowledge on how to achieve the ambitions targets necessary and to share this knowledge with developing countries. It also pledges to provide opportunities for the effective engagement of 'relevant international organisations, civil society, indigenous peoples, women, youth, academic institutions, the private sector and subnational authorities'.

Therefore, while we can be disappointed that the text contains no concrete targets and that nothing has been agreed in terms of climate financing by developed countries nor their contribution to the loss and damage mechanism to help countries deal with climate disasters (especially low-lying small island states), the significance of the  framework laid out in this brief document, as well as the sense of ambition and urgency that is evident throughout, should not be underestimated.  

Finally, Ireland did not cover itself in glory at Lima. Having been singled out as one of the few developed countries that had not pledged a contribution to the Green Climate Fund together with Belgium and Austria, not only did these latter two make their pledges but Peru and Colombia also stepped up to the mark. Furthermore, the speech delivered by Alex White, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, showed a complacency and lack of realism about Ireland's commitment that was frankly embarrassing. It was given just days after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had reported on Ireland's emissions showing emerging problems in the agriculture, transport, housing and waste sectors that belie the Minister's optimistic words. 

So, overall, we can say that there has been some important progress but that the really important work remains to be done. At least Lima has provided a framework for doing it; much will depend on the pressure of civil society to help ensure that it gets done. We are now into the endgame for humanity.



Right2Water: can no one answer the questions I put?

My blog on the contradictions of the Right2Water campaign has generated a lot of interest over the past 24 hours. I've been insulted by some respondents and many seem interested in my critique. But no one has responded with any coherence or understanding to the substance of my analysis. Someone who tweets under the name of Oireachtas Retort wrote the longest response and I will focus on this here. It is a pity that those contesting my analysis do not identify themselves which would allow a more open debate between us; I do not like such lack of transparency. 

It is because I very much share the author's belief that the mobilisation of people on the streets is a sign that 'things cannot continue' as they are and that we are not going to return to the traditional party allegiances, and because I share his/her hope for an alternative to emerge, that I would expect someone who supports the Right2Water protests and objectives to answer my questions.

Oireachtas Retort accepts my question about the need for an alternative but inflates this to a demand that protesters 'must present an out-of-the-box and coherent solution to centuries of absurd inequality'. I nowhere asked for a fully worked out radical programme for an egalitarian alternative though I see the lack of substantive alternatives emerging from our university academics (who are paid to develop new ideas) and many of our think-tanks as a major part of today's crisis, what President Higgins has called 'an intellectual crisis'. What I was asking for for something far more modest, namely how are we going to pay for and to administer the huge investments in our outdated water system that we all badly need if the Right2Water campaign succeeds in abolishing water charges and Irish Water as a public utility. None of those replying to my blog have made any attempt to offer an answer. This is most disquieting.

Oireachtas Retort writes: 'All over the world, people look and fight for an alternative. The first step in that search requires questioning of current assumptions.' This is what I have tried to do, particularly in my analysis of the Right2Water campaign as a political strategy. Instead of addressing my claim that it plays into the hands of those who seek to keep the state weak and under-resourced, Oireachtas Retort claims that what I do is to 'fetishise fidelity to a state, that far from the harbinger of equality or justice, has proved itself to be, by design, oppressive, kleptocratic and spiteful at every unspeakable turn.' While I would not have chosen these words, in essence I agree with this critique of the state. It is because of this that I raise the question as to how those who are leading this campaign seek to fashion a more effective state, something that I take as a core value of the left (though Oireachtas Retort takes issue with my use of the term 'core values'). Again I get absolutely no answer to this key question, central to any outline of a progressive alternative to the market-led neo-liberal model that we currently suffer from. 

There is much in the lengthy reply of Oireachtas Retort that is completely irrelevant to the issues at stake here. It is a pity that the author didn't focus more sharply on the questions I asked and seek to reply to them. Instead I am insulted for 'pandering to the shallow husk of a pretend Labour Party and their Fine Gael colleagues'. The author in her/his reply to me acknowledges the value of some of my academic work on issues of politics and political economy and therefore should know that I have for many years espoused a far more radical politics and political economy for this country than those promoted by the two parties he mentions. It is because I see the potential for a radical new direction being squandered by a short-sighted, self-serving and ill-thought-out politics of protest, that I am asking the questions I have asked. I still await any substantive reply.