WSM conference, Capitalist Crisis, and a united front of struggle to resist it

Women with CE cuts protest placardsThe last two years in Ireland have been dominated by the massive assault launched on the working class as our rules have successfully forced us to pay for the crisis in their system.  Tens of billions have been used to bail out the property developers, speculators and bankers, money that has been generated by the slashing of public services and the imposition of a massive pay cut on public sector workers. The response of the left has been weak and highly fragmented, reflecting in part the massive hold neo liberal ideology has on the working class but also a left that was in no way prepared for the coordinated assault that fell on workers in Ireland. WSM had its six monthly conference in May and as you might expect this topic took up a good chunk of the agenda.

In the region of 20 of the articles that I have posted to this site in these months have been on the Capitalist crisis.  These in turn are only a reflection of a huge amount of debate, discussion and activity that have been going on both inside the WSM and inside and around the left and libertarian movements.  At least in terms of the WSM much of this process is captured and summarised in the position paper 'The Crisis in Capitalism and the Anarchist Response' to which I've submitted multiple amendments and motions at the WSM conferences that have happened in this period.  I talk about some of these in this blog as well as providing the audio of the 'After the anti-capitalist blocs - fighting their crisis' session from the 2010 Dublin anarchist bookfair where I spoke.

As is probably clear from reading these articles and blogs we have in part been groping our way through how best to respond to this wave of attacks, often too slowly and too late and in part had a frustratingly clear picture of what was unfolding and likely to come.  There is something of the curse of Cassandra to that, a point I think I've made in a previous blog.  In part its about being too small to influence events but at least in part its also about being too big and disorganised to quickly react in a collective fashion to opportunities as they arise.  I'm rather hoping the second problem has an organisational solution as we have improved co-ordination considerably in the last few years.

The new sections I submitted to the WSM position paper included the following description of the period from the public sector strike of November 24 2009 to just prior to the Croke Park deal vote on June 2010 (conference was in May so the result was not known although suspected to be a yes).

3.6 The public sector strike of November 24, whatever weakness it revealed in the organisational abilities of the unions, illustrated that despite their fears workers were willing to fight back. However rather then escalating the dispute the ICTU leadership called off the second one day strike on the basis of promised talks that once again proved to be meaningless. This caused considerable demoralization within the unions, a fact reflected in the poor turnouts for the budget day protests and the post Budget ICTU protest.

3.7 The work to rule implemented as an alternative strategy in the New Year saw very mixed implementation and results. Although it was locally effective in a number of high profile cases (like that of the passport office) it also played into the hands of the government and IBEC in terms of helping them set their agenda of public sector workers v the rest of society. Despite this it was probably the reason why the government felt forced into taking talks with the unions more seriously resulting in the Public Sector Agreement.

3.8 The Public Sector Agreement offered next to nothing, worse still it undermined working conditions in return for a vague promise to just have a inflation rate pay cut for the next four years.

Unfortunately there wasn't the time to submit material on the Right to Work and Anti-Capitalist bloc demonstrations that dominated activity in the run up to conference even though they did set the tone for much of the debate and in particular the section on the United Front of Struggle which was partly submitted as a reaction to those events.  I mention this in the blog I wrote 'Scuffles at the Dail, sectarianism and unity - what is the Right to Work?' in the aftermath of the second Right to Work demonstration.  Our reaction to these Gardai attacks was to call the anti-capitalist blocs to demonstrate solidarity with but also distance from the SWP which was being targeted as a result of the Dail scuffles.  In a return to form the SWP responded by violence baiting us as they have several times in the past (eg Shannon and Mayday 2004), more than a little ironic in the circumstances.  I'm uncertain whether this is simply a sectarian tic using the oldest of the anti-anarchist Marxist methodologies or its down to micro management control freakery where they think they are the only ones who can manage confrontational situations (very ironic in the circumstances).

This of course created the usual double danger of justifying in advance police repression plus potentially creating a discipline problem on our side if people who had no connection to the actual organising took the hype serious.  I talked a bit about how we dealt with that in the hurriedly written 'Speaking & pushing - last Tuesday at the anti-capitalist bloc' later on I expanded on the organisation of the blocs a little and the decline of the Right to Work protests in 'The anti-capitalist blocs to the Dail.'

Although it may not have looked like it from the outside the bloc's were very hastily put together things without time for much thought or organisation. They hype probably made them look like some thought out strategic move rather than an immediate reaction to unfolding events. Some of what happened was either not thought out or communicated badly, leading to some criticism on indymedia (based in a large part on a misunderstanding that they were intended as an ongoing thing). They did end up serving a useful purpose not only in terms of media attention but far more importantly internally in the WSM in terms of forcing us to collectively focus our attention on what we wanted to advocate.  They were the beginning of a good month of at times intense debate about what we should be doing and what if anything was possible.

We have worked through a number of strategies in terms of opposing the crisis, recognising the failure of these to go anywhere significant we added the last two paragraphs to existing (in italics) section 8.1. 

8.1 The depth of the crisis remains uncertain but nevertheless the attacks that the bosses need to launch on the working class to get capitalism in Ireland back on the road to recovery are massive. Already many workers have not only faced pay cuts and job losses but have seen their net worth wiped out as house prices crashed, plunging many into negative equity. There is a possibility that the depth of the cuts themselves will force workers to take radical action as the most logical solution to the problems the crisis creates for them. We have already seen that in the Waterford Glass and Visteon workplace occupations.

While this possibility remains open we have to now recognize that demoralization has spread and many workers are opting for individual methods of surviving the crisis including emigration.

We will argue for the construction of a genuine united front of struggle against the cuts on a non electoralist basis that involves left organisations, union branches, community organisations and campaigning groups. This should be based around a common set of slogans against and to reverse the cuts. We will proceed by getting such individuals and organisations to sign up to a call for a founding conference of such a united front which will be open to all who agree that the wealthy rather than workers must pay for the crisis. Such a conference should only be held if and when it has achieved substantial backing from a range of organisations.

Some of the ideas here I've already blogged, in particular I talked about the visibly spreading demoralisation on the activist scene in 'Thoughts on Revolution in our lifetime, the crisis and demoralisation' One of the benefits of the anti-capitalist blocs is that they visibly re-invigorated people even if the end result is likely to be short term.  But for exactly that reason a strategy to make the most out of the defeat that is being inflicted is needed and that is the thinking behind advocating the United Front of Struggle sketched out above.  Such a strategy stands in opposition to the demoralised 'we can do nothing until the masses move into action' pole on the one hand and the substitutionist 'all we have to do is provoke a riot and the masses will pour onto the streets' pole on the other in which the debate all too often becomes trapped.

The real problem is knowing how to flesh out and draw people and organisations into this united front perspective.  It's not a short term possibility, apart from anything else its essential not to create the impression that this idea is simply a competition to the SWP Right to Work front or one of the other front groups of individuals and organisations that have popped up from time to time during the crisis.  It could only work if it came to be genuinely broad, initially of the left but quickly reaching well beyond the very very limited ranks of left activists.  It's premised on the bulk of the left being able to put aside its disagreements and conflictual history to build such a project, is this something the left in Ireland is ready or indeed capable of?

It's probably also important to be clear than on its own it cannot create mass struggle even if it could be part of the process of building towards it.  As I suggest above to often people get stuck in a polarised debate between 'nothing is possible' and 'one more push' positions when it comes to the question of what can be done.  I'm very much more inclined to see it as a question of making use of the tensions and cracks in capitalism that come into existence and uniting with others to expand these cracks and as a result expand the movement as opportunities inevitably arise.  The lesson from the 18 months of the crisis is that unless this has been done even large scale outbursts of anger and combativity like the 24th November public sector strike' are rapidly got back under control by conservative union leadership on the one hand and by an ideological media offensive on behalf of the bosses on the other. 

The lessons of the last months have pushed me further towards the conclusion that modern capitalism with its legions of highly trained Human Relationships specialists, Public Relations consultants and highly polished dispute reconciliation processes can get mass protest back under control very much easier then was possible in 1917 to 1936.  The fact that mass unemployment and huge pay cuts didn't literally result in starvation made that easier but there is a huge sophistication in the modern mechanisms for controlling and diffusing dissent that we would be foolish not to include in our calculations.

This means that from my perspective that although it is true a small group cannot magic mass action out of the air it also cannot afford to wait for that mass action to spontaneously emerge.  We have seen that when the mood for action does emerge it will remain firmly in the hands of the leading ideology (social partnership in this case) unless the numbers already exist to challenge that leadership and stir the movement in an entirely different direction.  It's wrong in my opinion to primarily see the problem in terms of the actual leadership if say the unions and to ignore the fact that the vast bulk of the membership hold if anything more conservative ideas most of the time and that even as they enter into struggle there is only a partial and particular break in these ideas. 

Finally we also decided to revisit a couple of processes that should have delivered useful documents but which had stalled.  It is inevitable this will happen particularly when things get so busy.

10. The working group tasked to produce a collective draft of a "convincing model(s) of an alternative society" for September 2009 failed to do so and failed to report back to DC or conference at all. Nevertheless this is still an essential document. Conference therefore recalls the existing working group and will elect a new one to produce such a draft by August 1st 2010 using the research to date.

11. The authors of the two documents prepared for the Social Solidarity Network on alternatives to the attacks on workers to pay for the crisis will produce a common draft (with a or b options where disagreements remain) for debate and ratification at the June DC

I blogged about my draft of one of the documents mentioned in 11 above in 'There is an alternative to the cuts - blogging an abandoned draft.' At this stage I think it is almost too late for such a document to be useful but all the same if militancy starts to grow there will be some need to be able to point to some of the obvious alternatives. 

The week after conference and also the anti-capitalist blocs saw the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair take place.  As there was an empty slot in the morning I managed to get agreement to insert a session on fighting the crisis there.  I presented second and the audio below includes the other two speakers but if you compare the text I delivered (reproduced below) with the various changes to the position paper passed at conference you'll see how I used it as an opportunity to state and argue for some of the ideas we are now advancing.

Notes for Anarchist bookfair talk on fighting the crisis

Our starting point is that the working class in Ireland has suffered a massive defeat over the last two years. A defeat measured in job losses, double didget pay cuts and huge cuts in services. Unlike some on the left we don’t share the perspective that recessions are good times for the growth of radical left ideas. This historical experience has tended to be a growth of authoritarian and nationalist politics as workers are set against worker in competition for a dwindling number of jobs and services. Despite this we are revolutionaries, giving up and going home is not an option.

This sessions was added to the program quite recently because of the coverage and energy generated by some quite minor street protests and stunts organized by political groups like the SWP and eirigi and then in the form of the anti-capitalist blocs by ourselves. If these had a use in combating demoralistion among a layer of activists they don’t however anyway out of this sequence of defeats.

With the markets once more tumbling the depth of the crisis remains uncertain but nevertheless the attacks that the bosses need to launch on the working class to get capitalism in Ireland back on the road to recovery are massive. If the crash continues the possibility that the depth of the cuts themselves will force workers to take radical action as the most logical solution to the problems remains on the agenda even though and many workers are opting for individual methods of surviving the crisis including emigration. The importance of the protests of the last couple of weeks is that despite their small size they demonstrate that some are still willing to resist. But we need not give up on the working class in general fighting back.

The public sector strike of November 24, whatever weakness it revealed in the organisational abilities of the unions, illustrated that despite their fears workers were willing to fight back. However rather then escalating the dispute the ICTU leadership called off the second one day strike on the basis of promised talks that once again proved to be meaningless.

The work to rule implemented as an alternative strategy in the New Year saw very mixed implementation and results. Although it was locally effective in a number of high profile cases (like that of the passport office) it also played into the hands of the government and IBEC in terms of helping them set their agenda of public sector workers v the rest of society. Despite this it was probably the reason why the government felt forced into taking talks with the unions more seriously resulting in the Public Sector Agreement.

The Public Sector Agreement offered next to nothing, worse still it undermined working conditions in return for a vague promise to just have a inflation rate pay cut for the next four years. Despite this its currently neck and neck and seems likely that once IMPACT and SIPTU complete balloting will be passed as both executives recommend a yes vote and SIPTU denied No campaigners access to union publications to argue their case.

It’s our opinion that we will not rapidly turn this situation around. What is needed is the construction of a genuine united front of struggle against the cuts on a non electoralist basis that involves left organisations, union branches, community organisations and campaigning groups. This should be based around a common set of slogans against and to reverse the cuts. We need to proceed by getting such individuals and organisations to sign up to a call for a founding conference of such a united front which will be open to all who agree that the wealthy rather than workers must pay for the crisis. Such a conference should only be held if and when it has achieved substantial backing from a range of organisations.

The audio is about an hour long and includes a question and answer session after the discussion.

Recorded at the Dublin anarchist bookfair, three speakers look at the economy, what the real situation of the resistance is and what needs to be built and examples of what has been achieved in the unions to date. This is followed by contributions from the floor from a wide range of perspectives.

'Fighting their crisis' - After the anti-capitalist blocs and the Anglo Irish protests how can we build to defeat the government and make the rich pay for their crisis? Audio is just over one hour in length and was first uploaded to indymedia.ie. Listen to Fighting their crisis

  


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