Controversy on the WSM position on the so called austerity treaty

Every so often you find yourself taking a different position to the rest of the left, an interesting experience as the shrill denunciations pour in because you've dared to depart from orthodoxy. The so called 'Austerity' or 'Stability' referendum in Ireland has proved to be one of those occasions because the WSM has dared to argue that they referendum is in fact meaningless. And in particular we disagree with the standard left line that it can be treated as a referendum on austerity.

We say this because there is no suggestion that if the referendum is voted down austerity will be halted. And we think the attempt to shift resistance to austerity from the neighborhoods to the ballot box is a grave error. After all the context is the campaign against the Household tax which around half the households in Ireland have refused to pay. That we insist is 'The real No to austerity.' You can read more on the WSM thinking on the so called austerity referendum, the sequence of articles also shows the hardening of our position as we debated it out internally.

This blog has been generated from a Facebook debate with people who think our position is mistaken. Some of these responses are no more than the standard left insults but some see the referendum in the context of a European electoral revolt against austerity. Aside from the sectarian jobs which as always are not worth responding to I think there is an interesting question as to what exactly the so called anti austerity electoral shift amounts to at the EU level. The only place it seems to have a somewhat genuine radical edge, Greece, is almost certainly now going to be used as a set piece example of what happens when the electorate goes too far. Losing 2% of the EU for a while is probably well worth the cost of scaring the working class in the other 98% and it appears the EU is gearing up to throw Greece to the wolves within the next weeks if not days.

The vote in France appears to be meaningless with Hollande already backing off from his opposition to the Fiscal Compact and now talking of doing no more than trying to mix a pinch of growth in with the austerity. Meaningless except of course that France was otherwise the one EU country where mass resistance in a core country to actual austerity was likely. Now instead we will probably have the standard 18 months honeymoon that follows the election of a left government. The electoral results across Europe will probably boil down to the next round of austerity being introduced in the name of anti-austerity!

Here in Ireland its really not clear what the meaning of a No vote would actually be except for this abstract and frankly quite 'playing the game' idea put forward by many on the left that it would damage / embarrass the current government parties. I've never got the revolutionary lefts willing to play the electoralist game as uncritically as they do - but its sort of fascinating how sucked in to the rules of that game they have got in relation to this referendum.

I will say that just like a general election the results of the referendum will be an interesting poll on where popular consciousness is but I am strongly concerned that the lefts insistence that this really is some sort of referendum on austerity will have damaging consequences, in particular if the No vote narrowly wins. At that level I think weirdly enough a very narrow Yes would probably be the most useful outcome so the idea of a democratic mandate for austerity (which the left is in effect creating through its campaign) will be minimised without the left forces suffering the sort of massive demobilisation that would seem inevitable in the result of a narrow No 'victory'.

There are two reasons I think a narrow No would be bad news,
1. Many people who are not part of the left organisations would think, at least for a while, 'great that's settled, we've won' and pull back from what they consider to be the risky activity of protesting etc.
2. The left campaign is selling the idea that the vote will have real meaning as a vote ageist austerity. When it turns out this is not the case it will reflect badly on the left. Who wants to follow those who prove to be so easily tricked.

We have the recent election of Labour as an example of what the problem is. With Fianna Fail out of power there was a long honeymoon for the new coalition government during which resistance died down. It is not rocket science to recognise that exactly the same problems will flow from a narrow rejection. The counter argument isn't to try and deny this but to insist that the left has been clever enough to avoid this somehow and/or that some sort of organisational benefit will flow from the campaigning that will outweigh this problem.

I'd add to that in this context the deliberate United Left Alliance (ULA) strategy of confusing the Campaign Against Household & Water Tax (CAHWT) with the ULA No campaign is a quite disasterous example of electoralist logic doing significant damage to actual resistance. There was pretty much no need to do this - its simply a dumb move.

There would be a legitimate argument that the best result would be an impossible 80%+ no vote. If this was clearly an anti-austerity vote it would be impossible to ignore without risking mass mobilisation but that's not on the cards and never was. The level of non-payment of the Household Tax indicates a 50:50 polarisiation in the population at the moment on the question of even that mild resistance, simple non payment of that tax bill. And whatever No vote is achieved will be due at least in part to right wing neoliberal forces like Libertas & the UKIP.

Most people understand that a hard fight is the required alternative to austerity. Today's poll showing a 60% Yes to 40% No vote needs to be examined by those who think it was smart to pretend this is a referendum on austerity. That sort of vote 'for austerity' on polling day would be a disaster. If the current trend continues we could well see a 2:1 vote 'for austerity', in effect with the left delivering a democratic mandate to the pro-austerity parties that they came nowhere near in the general election.

The counter argument tends to be that the left can't put forward demands that are radical at the moment because they will not be popular. And that the No campaigns are not in fact sewing illusions because their posters are cleverly worded, in the example pictured for instance its been pointed out that the slogan is to 'Demand Jobs' rather than the statement that voting No will in itself created jobs. Frankly I don't think most people will draw these distinctions and I suspect on the doorsteps most canvassers won't even make them.

On the first point although I recognize that it is true most of the population are not willing consider never mind adopt a revolutionary perspective. However I still don't think that the method to follow is to try and convince everyone of the need for revolution in a clever step by step fashion by making demands we don't think will be implemented as this will expose 'what is really going on'. There is no evidence of that method actually working because what tends to happen is the 'lack of democracy' that gets exposed gets 'fixed' through a purge of those at the top. Get rid of Bertie, wait 5-10 years and get back in with Michael Martin is for instance the way it is being played out at the moment with Fianna Fail. All that gets exposed are 'bad' or 'corrupt' decisions that we are told will not be repeated by the new layer of youthful honest leaders. The very reasonableness of the demands made by the left means there is no real preparation for such a democratic fix beyond trying to play the game a bit better then your rather better funded opponents.

I'm more inclined to work from the premise that there are moments when 'public opinion' goes through moments of crisis and it is at those points that a revolutionary alternative can have an appeal. I don't think tiny groups (in which I include the WSM) making unrealistic demands create those moments of crisis because what gets remembered is that they too were fooled - even if the entire leadership knew what was really going on. The implicit lack of honesty also strikes me as counter productive, in particular in this era when distrust of politicians is so widespread - why confirm you really are no different.

Couple this with the not very surprizing dynamic with electoral parties towards getting fully incorporated into the system that close contact generates and that set of tactics is mostly downside. As with everything of course you can't entirely rule out the unexpected having a major impact (a short way of saying that its not clear how it will work out in Greece) but I think in Ireland with this referendum and the arguments being used its predictable enough.

On the second point in theory there could have been a left No campaign that didn't 'sow illusions' - for instance one that said 'this isn't about austerity or the household tax but is a chance to punish the government'. In our internal decision making process that was an option we considered, based around a slogan of 'Vote No with no illusions'. The campaigns that actually exist are not that campaign and I'd be surprized if it emerges from some other quarter between now and the 31st.

My prediction is that without the honesty to own up to a tactical mistake the left is going to step up the 'its about austerity including the household tax' in the last two weeks and this will allow the government to both win the Yes vote by talking about the need for stability but also be able afterwards to claim a mandate for austerity.

The concern that those on the left have with 'sending a message to the government' in this debate is also a bit odd for two reasons. Firstly why is it important to send any message to them at all? Do we expect them to listen? And secondly because they have in any case been already sent a message they can't ignore, the mass non-payment of the household tax by around 50% of the households in the country.

Some have objected to me using the term electoralist in relation to the referendum. But referendums can certainly be electoralist if as many have done you adopt general electoralist methods to 'win' them.

As it seems to be unclear I'm using the term electoralist here in relation to the referendum to point to a particular tactic of argument that reflects the similar problems found in elections. That is the requirement to get 50%+1 means that almost everything gets sacrificed to that requirement most especially giving an honest assessment of the true meaning of a vote. In elections the candidate has to be presented as capable of performing miracles, the same thing is being said of a No vote in relation to the referendum.

It is the left that is turning this referendum into somethings its not, a vote on austerity. Without the left doing that all we would have is a treaty that is sold as being about 'stability'. A left crested mandate for 'stability' is meaningless, a mandate for 'austerity' unfortunately will not be.

With opinion polls showing the referendum will be carried this situation will get worse as an increasingly desperate left try to close the gap, by trying to frighten people by re-enforcing the idea that this is indeed a vote on austerity. There will be a serious effort made at the National Conference on Saturday by the left mobilizing to get the CAHWT to adopt a position against the treaty. This despite the fact that we can now be reasonably certain it will be carried and so in effect by doing this the left will be creating a democratic mandate for the tax where none previously existed. At this stage this is a bonkers thing to do but I'll be truly amazed if people are smart enough to drop the Vote No on the Treaty motions rather than hyping the hell out of them and using party bloc votes to get them through.

Finally a couple more counter arguments

1. That the vote is a chance to have ideological arguments and that the WSM position means we have disengaged from that opportunity
It's not a question of disengagement - the referendum is a minor priority for us but we have written about it, will be producing stickers and are holding a debate at the bookfair. This effort will have two aims, to engage left activists in a critical consideration of the consequences of short term electoralism and to say to the wide public that resistance to the CAHWT is the real referendum on austerity and not this side show. The debate raging today across Facebook in particular means we have already achieved that goal.

2. The WSM has campaigned against previous EU treaties like the Lisbon treaty, what is different here?
If you actually look at what WSM said around the Lisbon treaty its not that different from what we are saying here, its just that at the time of Lisbon there was no movement to damage so calling for a No to throw sand in the machine made some limited tactical sense. What we said at the time though was pretty clearly that 'this referendum will make very little difference' - we did not make the mistake the left is making in this campaign.

We wrote instance that "However, the No campaign also faces its own big problem. While it is easy to criticise the current direction of the EU, coming up with a convincing alternative is far more difficult. Rejecting the treaty merely means the retention of the status quo. Particularly in Ireland, it’s hard to see the EU state being any less democratic, honest, principled or competent than the hapless gombeens who run this place."

Presenting austerity as something Europe wants to do to an us that includes Ganley and the UKIP is not raising consciousness. Austerity isn't going to be solved though putting a green light on the roof (for those not in Ireland a reference to the racist practise of some white Irish born taxi drivers of doing so to distinguish themselves from migrant workers in the industry.)  Europe isn't the problem, Germany isn't the problem, capitalism is.


 This whole, 'what about

 This whole, 'what about Lisbon' was answered in advance at the bottom of the piece you are replying to.  As you seem not to have read it here it is again

2. The WSM has campaigned against previous EU treaties like the Lisbon treaty, what is different here?

If you actually look at what WSM said around the Lisbon treaty its not that different from what we are saying here, its just that at the time of Lisbon there was no movement to damage so calling for a No to throw sand in the machine made some limited tactical sense. What we said at the time though was pretty clearly that 'this referendum will make very little difference' - we did not make the mistake the left is making in this campaign.

What is different in other words is that there is a mass movement in the form of the CAHWT that may indeed be damaged by the inevitable compromises of a referendum campaign plus by the loss of resources ploughed into the referendum.

That aside I haven't looked at all the Lisbon material in detail and I don't in general believe that a good method for the left is to first off fear departing from a previous position and cling to orthodoxy over re-analysis. So its certainly possible both that in the heat of that campaign we over stated arguments (one of my arguments after all is that this is the electoralist logic that you fall into) or indeed that our position has indeed shifted in the years since.  Both of these would show that we are prone to the same pressures I warn others of and that we are not necessarly 100% right 100% of the time.  For the orthodox left and its belief in (self) infalliable leadership this might be a problem, for anarchists it is not, indeed the ability to acknowledge it is a sign of health.

The idea put forward in this

The idea put forward in this article that anti European treaty campaigns the WSM were involved in always sought to make clear that the vote would make clear they would make no difference is just factually inaccurate. Take the following quote from Libertarians Against Nice (a coalition of Anarchist groups including the WSM campaigning against Nice 2).

"The European Union is committed to a far-reaching programme of privatisation. Step one in privatisation is making people pay for public services so as to make them profitable and attractive to investors. We can see this here with the bin charges, the back door re-introduction of fees for Third Level education and increased outsourcing in all areas. Privatisation inevitably results in worse working conditions, greater inequality of services, lay-offs and wage cuts as bosses seek to cut corners to maintain profits in a competitive marketplace."

In pointing this out, were the LAN trying to fool the Irish people into thinking that were there a no vote to Nice 2, that the government wouldn't try to introduce privitisations, bin charges etc? The leaflet goes onto criticise the treaty for introducing qualified majority voting in cases where a veto used to apply, therefore making it easier "for the European Bosses to impose privitisation and cutbacks on all the people of Europe". Why was it of concern to LAN that the treaty changed the methods by which bosses and rulers voted on how to introduce privitisation and cutbacks. Surely the consequences of such a change are less obvious than the strict targets on balanced budgets, borrowing etc that Mark P refers to.

The cover of the leaflet criticises the treaty for giving more power to the EU commission, calling it "an unelected, secretive body that was so corrupt it was forced to resign in its entirety in 1999." were LAN trying to sow illusions that the previous arrangement which gave more powers to the council of Europe (i.e. European governments including Ireland) was better than it was? Using the term introduced in this article were LAN not greenlighting on some of these issues? Andrew Flood should really know what they meant, he was the media co-ordinator.

On the left introducing specific examples of austerity (household and water taxes) as reasons to reject a treaty that sets stricter targets that will mean even more austerity, something the WSM would never do, what about this press release in which Gregor Kerr links the agenda at the heart of Nama with the one at the heart of the Lisbon Treaty? Surely the links between NAMA and the Lisbon Treaty are more tenuous than the ones between this treaty and Austerity? Would not the working class be very angry with the WSM if they voted no to Lisbon 2 and found out that NAMA still existed?

This article welcomes the Lisbon 1 result on the basis of the class breakdown of the vote. Do the WSM think that the breakdown in class voting patterns will shift greatly in this referendum?

As regards "the shrill denunciations pour in because you've dared to depart from orthodoxy" you ignore the fact that you are in fact returning to Anarchist orthodoxy on referendums having previously departed from it.

All in all, the main reason I can see for such a retreat into glibitarianism is the posture the WSM takes towards other existing left organisations within the household tax campaign. In effect, this means allying itself with those seeking to limit it to a single issue campaign against those, and frequently campaigns with no activists from the organised left are most enthusiastic about this, who see the treaty as part of the same agenda and are seeking to broaden the campaign into a wider anti austerity campaign. WSM members on facebook have gave a number of vague suggestions on how the campaign would be broadened through other means (rent strikes etc.) but as none of these were proposed at last week's CAHWT conference, it is reasonable to assume that these were rhetorical points that sought to cloak in effect a conservative argument in a left cloak.

Let me see if I've got this

Let me see if I've got this straight: If the referendum passes, Ireland will have to balance its budget by 2014 or be fined 0.1% of GDP. If it fails, Ireland won't have to balance its budget, but it won't be eligible for bailout money from the European Stability Mechanism, and the Irish government can still implement austerity measures at will.

A no vote by itself can't really "demand jobs." To believe that it can is to have faith that Irish politicians want to create a jobs program instead of more austerity, and that a no vote will make them fear losing an election if they support austerity. In the end it does come down to electoralism, since it relies on the whims of Irish politicians.

This "attempt to shift

This "attempt to shift resistance to austerity from the neighborhoods to the ballot box", which you think is a is a "grave error", is actually a figment purely of the imagination of the WSM. The referendum campaign does not take anything away from the building and strengthening of the CAHWT, in fact it could be used as a focus for the campaign for this month, that would give many opportunities for activities and further politicising the campaign as a whole.

I defy the WSM to find one person (who is not WSM member) who thinks, because of anything the Left have said in the debate, that voting No will mean there will be no more austerity.

This is wishful thinking, the

This is wishful thinking, the referendum campaign has cost 10's of thousands of euro and required 1000's of hours of effort in terms of putting up posters.  Those are resources that for the most part could have been used to continue to build the CAHWT (which I understand is about 35k in debt).  An argument that this is a good use of resources is one thing, trying to pretend that none have been used is just silly.

As to your last point.  When you are putting out posters (ULA below) and leaflets (SF) urging people to 'Vote on to Austerity' or worse still 'Vote No to Home & Water Charges' in the identical colour scheme to the CAHWT it is entirely reasonable to presume that some people will read this as 'Vote No to Austerity' or 'Vote No to Home & Water Charges'  Denying this just seems weird.

Well it is a political

Well it is a political question as to whether it "is a good use of resources", I think it is, but leaving that aside, of course I'm not saying that no resources were used. That would be more than 'silly', but then you know that's not what I was saying. I was arguing against your argument, which seems to be that resources used by anyone in the CAHWT for anything other than building the campaign directly, represents an "attempt to shift resistance to austerity" - this is genuinely silly. Like it would be silly for me, using the same logic, to accuse the WSM of wasting resources on the Anarchist Bookfair, instead of putting those resources in to the CAHWT. Do you see the silliness?

On your second point, this is an Austerity Treaty, nobody seriously disputes that. Therefore voting No to this treaty is one way registering ones opposition to Austerity, it's quite simple. Hence, I'm not denying that people will read what we say as you suggest, but again that's not the point I was making. What I am saying is that nobody - not one person (outside of the WSM) - will confuse what we're saying to mean that voting No in the referendum will mean that there will be no more austerity and I defy you to find someone who does.

If you want to argue that

If you want to argue that there isn't a single person in the country that will interpret the poster 'No to Home & Water charges' as meaning vote no to get rid of Home & Water charges then I think your fooling yourself in such an extreme fashion that nothing I do or say will convince you otherwise

Well if you think that's the

Well if you think that's the case then you obviously think people are idiots, but your wrong about that. And likewise I don't think I will convince you, but maybe if you do try to find someone outside of the WSM who thinks that, and inevitably fail, you might rethink your position. Anything less would not do justice to that critical mind of yours.

Such an interpretation seems

Such an interpretation seems a less stupid interpretation than the one you are taking. The treaty will codify into law budget targets that will make austerity completely inescapable and make borrowing money past targets illegal. This is a signficant reduction in the room to maneuever over the medium term.

Any real campaign against austerity is going to have to be at a European scale or larger. The treaty rejection puts us on a larger scale impacting the entire European scale as upposed to the CAHWT which does not. Neither can stop austerity but CAHWT is less effective at opening possibilities at the European scale full stop. It is a localist approach to a problem whose reponse needs to be more far reaching. This isn't to say that CAHWT isn't useful, but the austerity treaty is currently deeply important and a better use of funds. There isn't much that could seriously go into CAHWT at the moment at any rate. What would you have done? Cover the city in CAHWT posters?

In terms of the use of resources, the rest of the left has a lot more resources than the WSM. Why is that? It's because the approach they are taking garners more resources. If you want to be able to call the shots on how those resources are used, you should be taking approaches which enable one to call the shots. Otherwise you are simply acting the armchair general.

 Well first off Mark your

 Well first off Mark your final question is actually answered in the text your replying to which rather suggests you haven't gone to the bother of reading it.  2nd & 3rd last paragraphs if you care to look back

Secondly far from trolling anyone on Facebook the comments this was built out of and all the discussion I've seen come from the profiles of WSM members or the WSM page itself.  I don't think people posting to their own profiles can be classed as trolling.

Your opening paagraph is also not accurate, I said nothing of my 'critical thinking' (trying to make me look vain?) but rather commented that the reactions showed a lack of critical thinking on the part of the left.  Now to me the three corrections I've had to make here are a good demonstration of that problem, that this much misrepresentaion can only be down to a reaction of angry outrage.

Your second last paragraph has some substance to it but for the most part is actually addressed in the text where it should be clear that I consider the disadvantages to outweigh the rather minor advantages you point to.

The article starts with a

The article starts with a flawed premise: That the WSM's departure from "orthodoxy", by which you seem to mean its own long record in referendum campaigns along with the views of just about everyone else on the left, has resulted in "shrill denunciations" from people outraged at your "daring". On Facebook you went further and put it down to people being "shocked" by your "critical thinking", one of those snippets which perhaps reveals more about your self-image than it does about the views of anyone else.

In fact, very few people would have been particularly annoyed about three dozen Anarchists sitting out a referendum campaign if a couple of WSM members hadn't put some effort into trolling No campaigners - which is to say everyone else on the left - on Facebook. It's that behaviour which has produced a few internet squabbles rather than the mere existence of your mistaken position. In and of itself that would only have produced a bit of bemusement from some, more engaged argument from a few, and total apathy from the majority of left activists.

As far as the meat of your argument goes, it's reductive in the extreme. Action (A) won't end Austerity by itself, therefore it has no real impact, therefore it's a harmful distraction. "Resistance" is reduced to particular campaigns (in fact one particular campaign), and the ideological aspects of politics, the way in which people perceive of themselves, their political role, the state, law, referendums, etc are all just airbrushed away. In your schema, at least as presented on this issue, there is effectively no ideological battle to win, there are no tactical advantages or disadvantages from a strengthened or weakened government, the particular provisions of the law have no impact. This is concrete resistance, everything else is a distraction is an exceptionally crude way to approach political activism.

I'm curious, by the way, if the WSM is no arguing that it was wrong, and indeed was misleading people and distracting them from real resistance, when it called for a No vote in all of the many and various referendum campaigns in which your have previously done so? Or do you prefer to just forget that ever happened?

(Mark P)


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