Claiming Our Future

Over the Halloween weekend I attended the Claiming our Future event in the RDS along with a thousand or so other people. Today I got a card I sent myself in the post from the event reminding me I'd promised to write it up. This draft has been mulled over for a while so I guess its time to publish.

Claiming our Future was defined by the organizers as "a progressive movement for an equal sustainable and thriving Ireland." It arose from meetings of Is Feidir Linn, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Environmental Pillar of Social Partnership, the Community Platform, Social Justice Ireland and TASC (a sort of left wing think tank). Although they were keen to say it wasn't a political party there was a significant input from the 'left' of the Labour party and as it turned out the agenda was very much directed by their sort of capitalism with a kinder face politics.

The whole idea we were told was modeled on an event that had taken place in Iceland, (I'd be interested to hear more about this, some googling was a failure). The core idea was that instead of listening to a load of speeches by the usual suspects everyone would spend the day in discussion with 9 other people around a table and the input of the 100 tables would be tabulated by a computer system. As anyone who has taken part of these sort of sub group discussion will know the real power, even when there are only a limited number of groups, lies with those who set the agenda to be discussed and who later tabulate what the consensus was. Even where there are only half a dozen groups the potential for all sorts of manipulation is there, with 100 groups it was clear that these two powers would be key.

It was thus with considerable interest that on signing up I observed that there appeared to be a web based voting process for determing the points of discussion. Quite a good one where anyone had the power to make suggestions and where everyone could then vote these suggestions up and down the agenda. It appeared somewhere in the region of 200 people took part in this process in the weeks leading up to the conference and I had a go putting in a couple of proposals as below.

The first read

Aim for economic equality to make democracy meaningful
It isn't possible to have democracy as long as there are massive disparities in wealth. The rich can influence not only elected representatives directly through donations, but also influence society as a whole through their domination of the mass media. So if we want an equal society where people can have their fair say, wealth will have to equalised.

74 people gave 152 votes for this (you could give up to 3 votes in any individual proposal and you had 10 per section) which placed it joint 4th in the general section. I think the text is pretty self explanatory.

There were six sections in all, as of December 13 they were still archived on the Claiming Our Future site 

In the section headed democratic reform I submitted the following.

All decision makers should be elected, mandatable and recallable
Our current model of decision making is deeply flawed as even where people are elected they are not accountable except at the next election. This allows them to lie about their intentions, get into a position of power and do the opposite of what they promised. We should have a system where all decision makers are not only elected but can be mandated on an ongoing basis by those who elect them and can be recalled and replaced as soon as they break that mandate.

This topped the poll, receiving over twice as many votes as the 2nd place option. This had been placed from an account called 'Claiming our Future' and read

Develop participatory and deliberative forms of governance.
Develop participatory and deliberative forms of governance, greater diversity in representative governance, greater levels of devolved government and more open and transparent government.

Having been around the block a few times and being something of a cynic about such things I wasn't overly surprised when the day before the event I received by email an agenda which didn't list my point but instead listed something like the above as well as points that had scored even lower. In fact right across all the areas the various radical suggestions that had been made and proved popular in that online poll were ignored and variations of the 'capitalism with a human face' suggestions that had been less popular in the online process were the only ones to be seen. Below are some of the other high ranking suggestions in the online poll that were not on the agenda on the day

Popular education on democracy and political economny
A co-ordinated programme of popular, inclusive education with the aim of empowering people to make decisions about exactly what type of economic development. The desire to serve the people is not enough, the economy must be be organised by the people. -
1st in its section.

Campaign for a common eurozone minimum wage
In order for European integration to serve the ordinary European wage-earners, rather than being a vehicle for a race to the bottom by competing corporate interests playing national workforces off against each other, we need to move to convergence of a common Eurozone minimum wage. This would also give us the basis for a struggle for a common maximum wage as a multiple of the common minimum wage
- 2nd in the same section

Ban carbon trading/disband carbon markets and encourage direct action
The biggest threat facing us the belief in false solutions to climate change, including the belief that creating ficticious markets can resolve global heating. They cant, and they are not intended to.Carbon markets just reproduce the problems of capitalism.
- 1st in its section

Make Public Transport Free
In order to encourage the use of public transport as the default option for urban residents, we should make public transport free. Tax revenues from private automobile and aircraft transport, including fuel duty, should be ring-fenced for investment in public transport. Similarly for international flights. Ferries, taxis, ambulances, mobility and support care transport to be exempt. Shared bikes schemes (like Dublin bikes) to be extended to all major urban centres -
2nd in its section

You get the idea. That sort of stuff was nowhere to be seen but other suggestions broadly similar to those that had been posted from the Claiming our Future account, but which in some cases had received as few as a third or less of the votes, were what the agenda was entirely composed of. Now although this was expected I was still a bit mad about such blatant manipulation when I arrived on Saturday to the point where I was working out what to do for the rest of the day if I ended up storming out early. Spending the day as part of an extended focus group exercise for the Labour left and trying to choose the least worse of their options didn't seem so attractive.

As it was I ended up sticking around. In part because I became fascinated with the stage management of the event (and I don't simply mean this in a negative way) and in part because I found the discussion with the other people at my table to be interesting.

On the morning I ended up getting a taxi across town as I was running late and wearing a dinner suit, not really so good for cycling. Right after the event we were having our 1% Network Halloween treasure hunt and I was to lead the tour while dressed as a vampire so wearing the suit for the day (sans pointy teeth and make up) seemed a better option than having to change. The taxi driver when I had told him what I was going to spent the rest of the trip filling me in on the nepotism of the local Fianna Fail TD who he had canvassed for but since realized was a complete corrupt idiot.

On arrival there was the expected line up of SWP paper sellers at the entrance and as expected a clump of people I knew standing around nattering and smoking. I headed in and took up my allocated place at a table whose number I have since forgotten.

Part of the stage management was to try and keep a constant level of hype and excitement in the room. So the day started with a small Samba band march through the hall and then loads of short video clips on the huge screens that dominated the center. These ran from Haughey's infamous 'we are all living beyond our means' TV broadcast to the nation in the 1980's crisis to vox pops about why people are coming and then ended with ex president Mary Robinson, the darling of the Labour left, no doubt inserted to suggest what was possible if we dreamed hard enough.

Mary Murphy & Niall Crowley then introduced the day saying it was the first time to bring together a very cross sectional group, that the process started January last with 6 organizations with a shared concern about the 'dominant narrative' and the conviction that alternatives were possible and there was a role for civil society in creating these. They wanted a catalyst to drive this process and this is it - it's not a conference we were told, there are no key note speakers etc. Inspiration had been drawn from other Civil Society movements across the world in particular a similar Iceland event. There were no pre plotted answers (I typed 'yeah right' in my notes at that point). Lastly she thanked Killian Fitzgerald for the IT setup and said they were encouraging blogging and tweeting.

There was 'new media' buzz overkill going on throughout with a lot of twitter references and references to the computers held by the facilitator on every table.  These were to be used to tabulate results as they came in during the day but  they were running Windows so it was no big surprise when the one on our table crashed not long after the process had got underway. Various announcements were soon made about how it was OK to record stuff on paper as other computers around the hall also went down.

Neill Crowley then introduced the first sessions where we would be asked to choose five entries from a pre-selected list of values. He said these values offer crucial sign posts,  that they were a touchstone, and then something I missed about motivation. Again we were told that the platform isn't cast in stone, that this list was just to began with, we should choose 5 values, but we can add extra ones. Of course with 100 tables you would need to have had massive prepared co-ordination of many people at many tables to push a new value onto the list and even if that had been done who knows what would have been interpreted when it came down to the computers and organizers discovering the 'consensus' that had apparently been reached.

My table turned out to be 8 rather than 10 people although a 9th later joined us. There were 5 men and three women initially (the later add on was a 4th women) and in the introduction round I noted down the sector each came from as follows.
NGO - community sector
Arts / community sector
Community development
An Taisce, with previous involvement in Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU)
Mens development network
Woodland League
Advocate for people with Intellectual disabilities

Straight off from this list you can see that my table was very 'community' orientated with almost everyone being not only involved in that area but it also being their actual career. This had also struck me strongly at a couple of events I attended over the summer, that those they have been attracting have been people in paid employment in the community sector, a sort of work that expanded massively under social partnership but which has been savagely cut in the last couple of years. Twenty years back when I was involved in unemployment struggles as part of a group composed entirely of people who were actually unemployed rather than paid to represent the unemployed we used to refer to this type rather harshly as 'poverty pimps.' We fought with them in the INOU to try and retain it as a campaigning organisation of the unemployed in struggle rather than the lobbying and services organisation of unemployment experts it became. We were a minority in this fight in part because many unemployment activists when offered a chance to turn their activism into a paid career with a funded office could not resist the opportunity and did not yet realize the scale of the compromises this would mean accepting.  One of our members wrote up the experience as the article A Spoonful of Sugar.

I'd have mellowed considerably from that point of view since but I think it remains an issue that those mobilized for these sort of events from the community sector are overwhelmingly if not completely those in paid employment in that sector. This has been true with the exception of a couple of the larger crisis demonstrations which also mobilized some service users but it seems to me that model is flawed beyond the now widely recognised corrupting influence of social partnership. It depends very much on experts doing stuff for people rather than self organisation and while there are certainly areas of expertise required for most aspects of service provision this shouldn't be the case for struggles as well.  It can be argued that this is now recognised as an issue within the radical wing of the sector, the recent Spectacle of Defiance and Hope being a reasonably successful exercise in mobilising the base.

Because I was irritated by the way the agenda had been shaped I decided not to soft ball the introduction round and introduced myself as an anarchist and political activist who had been involved in a wide range of issues over 20 years or more. We had been asked to also mention any concerns we had about the day so I used that space to bring up the way the agenda had been shaped through the ignoring of more radical proposals that should have formed a legitimate pole in the debate, discussion and selection. As one of the people speaking before me had already raised 'infiltration' as one of their serious concerns I expected this might raise the temperature of conversation at an early point and pretty much everyone speaking after me also mentioned 'infiltration' as a concern although it emerged later that at least some of them were more concerned about union influence then the left when they raised it. Other concerns raised included the involvement of ICTU at all (given social partnership), the lack of environmental input, and the fear of yet another 'Grand old Duke of York' strategy where some leadership would march us to the top of the hill only to march us down again.

The first sessions was about 'values' and we were supposed to pick five words from a list of 12 that had been put forward, see the PDF on the FoF site. The facilitator suggested we discuss these with the person beside us before coming back to the table with our deliberations. I don't think this worked very well in terms of decision making but it did work quite well as an ice breaker as it meant having a fairly detailed conversation with someone I didn't previously know and discovering perhaps more common ground than I might have expected from the introductions.

Enterprise was one of the 12 words but no one on the table picked that - a positive sign. There was quite a bit of discussion as to whether 5th place should go to 'freedom' or 'accountability', in the end accountability won out. At the start a couple of people advocated for trust but through discussion we moved away from that one, trust is something earned rather than a value to be assumed.

At the end of that first sessions we had our first computer crash as our facilitator tried to input the results, we weren't the only ones as before long an announcement was made that it was OK as everything had also been recorded on paper. It emerged that the problem was people entering data which included commas, which are often used in databases to indicate where one entry ends and another starts.

For the first break between sessions the singer Mary Coughlan came on stage, after being introduced as an 'enduring treasure' she said that "in 1976 I had to fight for the right to breast feed, in the 1980's to fight for contraception, abortion information & divorce, we won all of these."  

During the break the An Taisce guy next to me sort of challenged my presence by saying he thought political parties were excluded but supposed that because we didn't stand in elections this didn't cover me. I pointed out that such an exclusion could hardly exist because one of the categories people could register as was 'political activist' (producing my ticket to demonstrate this). This was a friendly exchange but does illustrate the ongoing isolation of the far left from the bulk of union and community activists - there is a strong tendency to be suspicious of your real motive, something which the behaviour of the far left, in particular the SWP, has a fair share of the responsibility for.

We then moved onto the first of the policy choices sessions, we were asked to pick two of the five sets of choices that had been selected for us by the conference organizers. As above my main problem with this is that all radical choices had been excluded so you were basically asked to choose between some rather watery options, the full range of the choices presented is in a PDF on the CoF site

We started this session off with a go around which I think I may have either started or came in early on. In any case I said there was no way I could support two of the choices at all, numbers 3 and 4 in the original document which I reproduce below

3. Drive a strong indigenous economy through links with appropriate Foreign Direct Investment, state-owned enterprises and investing in specific local enterprise strategies.

The whole assumption of 3 above is one of capitalism as usual with no fundamental challenge whatsoever. Fianna Fail or even the PD's (if they still existed) would be behind 'appropriate Foreign Direct Investment' (who is for anything inappropriate). And there is nothing progressive in either state ownership or local ownership as ends in themselves, some of the worst bosses are local.

4. Regulate banking to change the culture from one of speculative banking to one where currently state-owned banks and new local banking models focus on guaranteeing credit to local enterprises and communities.

This one was straight out weird mild reformism. Again at this point in time the idea that banks should be regulated is not controversial even to the parties of the right (sure that's not what they would have said two years back but that argument has been settled for the next decade or more by the march of history). I was quite surprised when the overall votes were eventually announced that this was one a majority of tables had actually gone for.

The first two points were OK if perhaps to be so general as to be lacking solid impact

1. Change the current development model and define and measure progress in a balanced way that stresses economic security and social and environmental sustainability.

2. Ensure that natural resources are developed sustainably and benefit the common good over private profit.

Both at least open up the floor for a discussion that unlike the previous two points is not premised on accepting capitalism as a starting point and findings ways to regulate it.

Point 5 sort of repeated point 2

Prioritise a legally binding national sustainable development strategy that caps resource use, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and implements measures to protect our life support systems.

But my query for this one was why the emphasis on 'national' something that cropped up elsewhere in the suggested policies. Greenhouse gases are hardly respecters of borders and this more clearly than any other issue can not be sorted out on an national basis.

My initial impression of the table improved as everyone else took their turn and it was revealed that almost no one liked points 3 & 4 for largely the same reason, they seemed to seek to make minor modifications to the dysfunctional capitalist system.

We then had the report back of the votes from the tables on the values with the following being the five that topped the poll (I think in order)

Equality
Sustainability
Accountability
Solidarity
Participation

Not far off this list were
Human dignity
Justice

and apparently Enterprise was qualified by a lot of groups in various ways. It seemed an odd value to include in the first place. But actually this list isn't a bad list of traditional anarchist priorities with the environmental issue of sustainability added in.

The next section was Income, Wealth and Work and I straight off wanted to throw out the second point which amounted to giving the national pension fund to private enterprise

2. Utilise the ‘pension reserve fund’ to invest in capital works programmes of social infrastructure and in private and social enterprise small business start ups.

I really don't get this small local business is somehow good line that kept cropping up, often the little boss is the worst boss, it was noticeable for instance that IGDATA the small shop keepers association was one of the first of the bosses organizations out of the traps in welcoming the cut in the minimum wage in the four year plan.

Point 5 "Achieve greater income equality and reduce poverty through wage, tax and income policies that support maximum and minimum income thresholds." proved to be very popular, in particular the demand for a maximum income.

I suggested adding in the demand for a EU wide minimum wage, one of the radical proposals that had been popular on the web poll. This caused quite a bit of discussion around the valid point that 12e an hour for instance was quite different between Ireland and Greece in terms of what it could buy. So perhaps this particular demand is more usefully argued for as an EU wide minimum standard of living where the wage is based on relative living costs. The bottom line holds, the need to move away from the situation where European workers are encouraged to see each other as opponents rather than comrades in struggle.

A lunch break was up next during which I took the opportunity to drop leaflets advertising the 1% Networks Halloween tour onto all of the tables. I'd a few discussions with people as I did this and found quite a bit of interest in the work of the 1% Network and the tour although I think this only translated into a couple of extra participants on the night.

When we reconvened we were thanked for coming back after lunch as the organizers feared this would be the point a lot of people might clear off. I guess that sort of makes sense, certainly if the morning had felt futile I'd have headed off. We were also told that people had been asking for detailed breakdowns of the votes and that these would be available on the web. These are now online under the sessions link and make for interesting reading. I don't quite get how the votes were tabulated as they seem to total to 1200+ votes per session rather than the 1000 that might be expected (maybe Jack O'Connor had a block vote :-)

The next section on democratic reform saw us faced with a very general and uninspiring list of choices. I flagged point 4

Develop a strong and effective judicial system that is proactive in protecting and advancing equality and human rights and that secures timely, effective and barrier free access to justice.
saying that those of us who had been at the wrong end of the judicial process at Rossport and elsewhere would probably not be so keen in the idea of a strong judiciary.

The two that topped that poll were

1. Reform representative political institutions to enhance accountability, equality, capacity, and efficiency of national and local decision makers. 413 votes
2 Develop participatory/deliberative forms of citizens’ engagement in public governance and enhance democratic participation by fostering the advocacy role of civil society orgs, civics/ethics education in all school levels and a diverse media
380 votes

which strike me as a bit of what Americans would call 'motherhood and apple pie' who could be against such aspirations but just what would their implementation actually mean?

The final section covered the public sector and social services. Here I focused on arguing against the use of the word efficiency in "Make efficiency, integration, and equality the goals of public service reform." Efficiency is a pretty meaningless term as who wants to be inefficient, its use is pretty much always a way of justifying some new round of attacks on public sector workers.

The two items that actually topped this session were instead demands for good access to services which is very much more the point

1. Provide universal access to quality healthcare, childcare and services for older people. 408 votes
2 Invest in equality in access to and participation in all levels of education (preschool to university)
.

After this was a rather clever routine where people were given a green, orange and red card and told to hold up which ever reflected their interest in continuing the process beyond that day. The cards as you might expect were mostly green, I choose to hold aloft a orange one, honesty being the best policy. According to the consensors report there were about 15 red cards in total.

Post cards were distributed on which we were to write what we were going to do and then address them so that in a month they could be posted to us as a reminder. That was yet another clever organizational idea. I wrote down that I'd write an account of the day (hello, here we are!). Mind you mine only just arrived today, I guess I can use that to excuse the lateness of this piece!

There was a final session where we were meant to come up with 'what next' suggestions. This was where people were really drawing a blank (organize for a general strike seemed a little out of touch with the fluffy atmosphere). I put forward the idea that seeing as ICTU was quite involved and very many of the 1000+ present were members of ICTU unions we could campaign for ICTU to fund a national daily paper with the ideas that came out of the conference as its editorial line. Talking to another WSM member a week afterwards I discovered he had spontaneously put forward the same idea at his table. It would seem that if this sort of soft left gathering has something useful to offer this is exactly the sort of ambitious move that should have been made.

The PDF of the consensors reports says 474 ideas were submitted from this session which they grouped as follows
Keep going/proposals on structures/governance of CoF 71
Develop a local organization/hold local events 66
Develop a web presence/social media/netroots activities 55
Ideas for publicizing CoF and its programme 49
Develop a clear CoF policy platform 46
Link with other organisations/interests 45
Organise some form of mobilization/ demonstration 34
Recruit new members 29

A full list is now available on the CoF website

A little over two months on and I'm still somewhat unsure of what the meanings or outcome of this event was besides providing the organizers with a huge focus group on the broad left and an extensive database of contacts. There are regional meetings taking place around the country advertised on the site but communication is very centralized, the centre can communicate with us and we with the centre but there is no horizontal communication structures I'm aware of. People have appeared on TV programs as representing Claiming our Future but there was no process of selecting spokespeople I was aware of.

From the point of view of control this may be what the organizers want but it also puts a massive break on spontaneous development through people communicating freely with each other. It may be the intention is to open this up or it may very well be that it is not, the only mass communication so far has been asking people to sign a petition against the cut in the minimum wage, again a one way flow of information. This included a small demonstration at the Dail where the only political speakers were from the main stream parties including the right wing Fine Gael party.

If things were to be opened up to such a large and diverse group I've no idea just where it would develop to. It could come apart in arguments about different political perspectives and 'join our party not theirs' wrangles. But I guess this is the problem with playing to safe, you avoid those sort of pitfalls but without risking exposing your saplings to the weather your don't get growth. There is perhaps still potential for something very interesting to emerge from Claiming Our Future, the question is will the organizers allow it to blossom?

Vox pop video


Minimum wage protest

  


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