Post March 30: The movement evaporates

Anyone following the blog will be aware of the way I've been reporting on resistance in Ireland to the capitalist crisis. Back in February I wrote about the feeling of a growing movement in the aftermath of a 120,000 strong trade unionist march through Dublin.  This lead to a campaign for and then a successful ballot for a national strike, a strike that was called off at the last minute by the trade union leadership on the weakest of excuses.  In the aftermath it felt like all that momentum had collapsed, something confirmed by the patheic turnout for the Grassroots Unite protest at the weekend.

The origins of this protest were in a meeting called by the SIPTU Education branch a few weeks back, one of a small number of initatives to try and re-create some of that sense of momentum at the rank and file level, this meeting set up Grassroots Unite.   The education branch organises all sort of workers in third level education in Dublin, everything from cleaners and programers to academics and librarians.  The left is in a position of relative strength and influence within the branch although this isn't saying a lot, prior to the crisis branch AGM's typically attracted 1-2% of the branch membership (which is scattered across a dozen or more individual workplaces).  The low attendence creates a situation where it is relatively easily for individual leftists to get elected to branch committee position but which does not in itself mean any real influence in terms of ideas.

All the same when the crisis hit this was one of the very few branches anywhere in the Irish union movement where the left were in a position to set the agenda.  Which translated into mass meetings in individual workplaces at which all members were able to listen and join in the debates about how we should react.  This unfortunately was quite unusual within the Irish unions in general, many of my friends and comrades elsewhere found themselves in workplaces that while technically unionised were without any general meetings of the membership and so completely reliant on what was passed down from the union leadership.  I say unfortunate because where the meetings happened you could visibly see fellow workers being radicalised by these mass discussions, without them most people were probably taking their que from the mass media's negative coverage of the resistance.

There is a bit of a trend in sections of the marxist ultra left to insist that capitalism has changed in some way that means the number of people in left organisations no longer matters. All that is important is holding the correct ideas and come the crisis these will be magically transmitted through the class (which will then of course adpot them).  It's an idea I've never found convincing even though I was a among those who pioneered radical use of one of the mechanisms that was supposed to have changed it all, this here  In any case our practical experience of the February and March period blew this theory out of the water.

The problem we faced was not just the tiny size of the WSM (around 70 members at present) but the tiny size of the rest of the left as well (adding a couple of hundred in total).  The universal pattern seemed to have been that where ever there were workplaces / union sections with one or two leftists with some experience the arguments  not only for action but some sort of idea of organisation independent of the bureaucracy were carried.  The problem was that this minimum was in perhaps 20-40 of the 1000 odd union branches in the country and there was no mechanism to transmit this to other branches (never mind the unorganised) in the brief weeks from when the resistance blossomed to when the bud was chopped off ahead of its flowering on March 30th.

This was not through lack of trying, WSM alone produced 20,000 leaflets for the February mass demonstration, but even to distribute that number of leaflets within an hour you need dozens of people.  Other left groups did the same.  Articles analysising the situation were produced for indymedia , Facebook groups were created, posters were erected, meetings were held, newspapers distributed and in 100 different ways the arguments were made.  But too few people were trying to make what are a complex enough set of arguments in too little time, and heavy use of the 'new media' did not counteract the overwhelming and organised opposition of the 'old media' to any sign of workers taking action.  An opposition that not only wore momentum down but which also - if only as a side effect - ended up portraying the union leadership as too radical rather than too conservative in the eyes of the bulk of the membership.

The momentum collapsed by the end of March, a process that had started even before ICTU called off the strike. It is important to acknowledge that the problem is as much about the ideas in the heads of most union members as it is with the machinations of the unions leaders that they have after all elected (for the most part).  Those small sections where the left had influence did try to sustain things, the CPSU right back at the start of the process by going out on a one day strike on there own, the Dublin bus workers through their wildcat actions last month, the teachers unions in terms of the hostile reception at their conferences for the Education minister and the education branch in terms of this weekends protest and the conference planned for June 20th.  Another potentially significant initiative was the attempt to bring reps together from across the public sector unions.

Of course a critique could be offered of all this activity.  Everything could have been done better even within the limited resources and number available but it would be rare when this would not be the case.  More seriously there was a noted tendency for the left groups to continue old patterns of sectarianism at a moment when this needed to be put aside, it was notable that the turnout for events that were not the direct initiative of this or that party were not what they should be and with the exceptions of the anarchists and of Eirigi the organised left was completely absent from last weeks Dublin Mayday march.  Electoralism is the best excuse you can offer for those who should know better.  But it would honestly be hard to make the case that it would have made much difference if the parties had mobilised their members in a more general way to support all initiatives.  This would have doubled turnouts here and there but not really made any difference beyond this.

The remarkable thing about all this is that the working class is being screwed.  Not in the rhetorical sense the left sometimes says this but in the unemployment doubling, double diget pay cuts, closure of hospital wards, loss of education, slashing social welfare in half for under 20's, 'fuck off and emigrate' sort of sense; all while the rich continue to line their pockets and the corporations (and Shell in particular) plunder the islands resources.  It seems impossible there is so little organised opposition, indeed I suspect the government and senior Gardai are stunned, a month back they were fearing riots once the cuts started to bite. But most workers have fallen into resigned acceptance and the search for scapegoats rather than making any real move to get off their knees and fight back.  In this context it is odd to read articles from elsewhere that put Ireland at the center of resistance, the center of the offensive for sure but the resistance as far as it went was brief.

This blog has evolved into something a lot longer (and more pessismistic) then what I intended at the outset but that is part of the 'joy' of blogging.  What of the future?

I hold with the analysis I offered back at the start of February in Thoughts on the crisis, what is planned for us and the alternatives which is that the depth of the crisis, particularly in Ireland, mean individual stratigies of tightening our belts and keeping our heads down will not see most workers through the crisis.  Unfortunately the warning offered by James McBarron and myself back at the Grassroots Gathering in Cork that an initial period of resistance could rapidly become resignation and demoralisation seems to describe what we have seen in the last couple of months.  In general, with the exception of the WSM,  the anti-autoritarian left has failed to date to engage with the crisis, energy had gone into existing projects with an almost complete failure to break out of 'routinism'.

On an organisational level we sketched a lot of this out in a collective fashion in the new position paper agreed by WSM conference last month, The crisis in capitalism and the anarchist response. We've made the first moves at implementing some of the ideas in this paper and other things beside.  Personally two key areas are I think going to be the ongoing struggle against Shell in Erris (Rossport) and co-operation with RAG in trying to get an anti-cuts network off the ground in Dublin.

The struggle against Shell has sprung back into life in the last weeks as construction resumed and today's Irish Times reports that the Solitaire is expected back in Broadhaven bay in early June.  News has just come in that Maura Harrington is at this moment en route to Mountjoy prison for another week in prison in connection with the struggle. I think the struggle has reached a new level of importance for two reasons. Firstly the context of a recession and the slashing of wages and public services makes the billions given to Shell even more relevent then they were during the Celtic Tiger.  Those billions are one clear illustration of the lie that is the 'there is no alternative', the lie offered as justification for the cuts by all the political parties and the media.  Secondly and at least as importantly in the current general spirit of resignation and demoralisation in the face of the onslaught the big threat the state and capitalism face is the threat of a good example.  Successful resistance at Erris, indeed even a militant fight that merely continues to delay the imposition of the project demonstrates that there are alternatives to individually rolling over and accepting our lot.

Beyond that there remains the general sense that something, somewhere has to break.  Comrades have pointed to the 2006 Dublin riots as an example of a sudden outbreak of anger that came from nowhere and was predicted by no one.  It also illustrates the problem that such spontaneous outbreaks will mix up reactionary and progressive ideas into a mish mash that may in itself lead nowhere useful.  Again an illustration of why an organisational and building approach is required rather than sitting back and hoping it will be all right on the night.

This said we have to take the evaporation of the movement into account.  In January, February and March we had a period of intense and unsustainable activity bvuidling towards March 30th.  This sprint made sense at that time, in hindsight it is confirmed that March 30 was a moment whose success or failure would determine what would follow.  Dealing with the failure however involves recognising that we moved from a sprint to a marathon, the movement to be rebuilt will be one that takes a while and relies on circumstances beyond our control and probably beyond our prediction.


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