The occupation of Dame Street begins its third week tomorrow. Other occupations are also underway in Galway and Cork. As with last Saturday, a march will leave the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin for the site of the occupation, at the Central Bank headquarters on Dame Street, at 2pm. Last week’s march had around 1,000 people on it.
I’ve been on bigger marches in Dublin, but I find it hard to recall one as rambunctious. From thousands of miles off it’s quite hard to gauge if there’ll be a bigger turnout tomorrow, but in a way it doesn’t matter. It’d be a mistake to look at this ongoing event merely in terms of the number of people it draws out onto the street on a Saturday, but in terms of how it alters perceptions and serves to re-politicise Irish society, which I believe it will.
What effect will these networked occupations have on life in Ireland? I think anyone who delivers an assured response to this question is either spoofing, or seeking to contain and control the event, or both. I will try and give my own tentative answer this question a bit further down, but first, some context to the Irish occupations which, although catalysed by developments in other places (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain the US), need to be looked at in terms of the specific situation in Ireland.
The Eurozone is on the brink of the abyss. Greece, and indeed Ireland, is being looted and laid to waste by the European authorities, operating in the interests of finance capital, and in particular, big German and French banks. But unlike Ireland, there are general strikes in Greece, and mass rebellion on the country’s streets. The PASOK government’s grim insistence on collaborating in this robbery, along with the capitulation –with no small amount relish and vindictiveness- by the PSOE government in Spain to the demands to make the repayment of bank debt a constitutional priority, are telling illustrations, of the utter bankruptcy of European social democracy.
European welfare states built after the Second World War, the product of long and painful labour struggles, are being dismantled, and the designated function of Europe’s social democratic parties is to accelerate the great unravelling.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Labour Party has a special role to play in the dismantling of the already emaciated welfare state. Its role, in a country that has never had a left-wing government, is to partake in a massive lie: that its participation in a government prepared to expropriate the population to a greater degree than even the IMF prescribes, represents the interests of the working class. In doing so it is supported by trade unions, as this recent press release illustrates.
The EU-IMF-ECB bailout has secured a lockdown of neoliberal economic policy. Any measure, no matter how cruel and devastating its effect on the population, is justified by politicians from the ruling parties in terms of the need to reduce the budget deficit in line with imposed targets, and to raise ‘competitiveness’, the latter little more than a synonym for the fear of poverty. It scarcely needs mentioning that there are no official targets for restoring people to paid employment.
(Takings are down: you’ll have to dance more)
In pursuing slash and burn policies in health, education, social welfare and in other areas, Irish Government representatives say their hands are tied, that this hurts them nearly as much as it hurts you, and they cite binding requirements from the IMF memorandum of understanding. But as shown by a recent Michael Taft piece, this is a lie. There is no requirement for the Government to privatise state assets. The government, which represents the interests of local ruling elites (40 per cent of Cabinet members attended fee-paying schools, compared to just seven per cent of the general population) is using the bank bailout as an alibi for imposing their own visions of how Irish society should be organised.
And those visions include: a ‘flexibilised’ labour market, an emaciated public sector, a raised retirement age, wage cuts, pension freezes, a shift from direct to indirect taxation that benefits the rich, the protection of the corporate sector from tax increases, the privatisation of state assets, and an economy placed under the management of technocratic sages. A war of all against all: the ECB and IMF might be seeking all these things as a means of paying for bank bailouts, but all these things have long been none-too-obscure objects of desire for IBEC members and media oligarchs too.
Left political parties and trade unions have failed to operate as a significant countervailing force against the neo-liberal lockdown. This has fuelled widespread despondency and bewilderment. It’s hard to think of a singular event as enervating, for those who were inclined to mount some sort of concerted resistance, as the march in Dublin organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions last November. Tens of thousands braved extreme weather to protest the EU-IMF-ECB bailout.
And then: nothing. Trade unions backed the Labour Party in the February elections, who were only too happy to use the support to set about meeting the commitments they had made to Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Cue a near constant flow of approving media opinion about how homo hibernicus was a peaceable and affable beast.
However, if we bear in mind the history of ‘social partnership’, the demoralising character of the march last November should not be too surprising.
Social partnership presented the image of a society in which trade unions, and community and voluntary sector organisations, supposedly participated in decisions on an equal footing with employers’ organisations.
The effect was to enforce an idea of ‘One Ireland. Of Employers and employees’ (the capital E is in the original text), as Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore put it, before the last election. ‘The social partners’ became the name used by evening news bulletins on the State broadcaster.
What happened, as one writer put it, was that the ‘institutionalised forms of intermediation’ used in social partnership appeared to have ‘become a vehicle for imposing a neo-liberal political agenda’ (Taylor, cited in Kirby, The Celtic Tiger in Collapse). What had grown during the years of social partnership was ‘the tendency of the state to control those sectors of civil society, such as the community and voluntary sector and the trade unions’ (Kirby) that might be expected to produce dissent. Social partnership, then, was intimately intertwined with structures of neo-liberal governance.
“We need to regain our economic sovereignty” has been a consistent refrain by Irish politicians and business executives since the days of the first days of the EU-ECB-IMF bailout.
This raises the question of whether ‘we’ ever had economic sovereignty to begin with. Within the terms of the sterilising consensus established by social partnership, ‘we’ probably did. After all, banking bosses liked to talk about how, when negotiating with the Department of Finance about the best way to save their neck at the expense of the public, they were working in the national interest.
The point, then, is that the discourse of ‘regaining economic sovereignty’ becomes the main alibi used by ruling class groups for inflicting unrelenting cruelty on broad swathes of the population. And what this discourse obscures, in turn, is the conflict between popular sovereignty and neo-liberal governance.
One of the most nefarious inventions in recent Irish history has been the generation of civil society groupings that purported to be popular grassroots movements, but on closer examination –rarely undertaken in media- turned out to be the products of ruling class networks. Nearly all of them seemed to have failed Presidential candidate and professional Eurocrat Pat Cox in them. Other civil society formations, operating among constituencies that would have the most to gain from adopting dissenting positions vis-à-vis the dominant logic of the state, refrained from engaging in too much dissent, lest their funding arrangements take a hit.
What has been evacuated from Irish political life, then, through these processes of co-optation and domination, has been any animating vision of social transformation. Those who engage in political mobilisation and collective action become the enemies of consensus. The state’s incorporation of the trade unions, its domination of civil society, a compliant state broadcaster, and a news media dominated by a few oligarchs (O’Reilly, O’Brien, Murdoch) have all served to produce a remarkably sterile and insular consensus, in which maturity and obedience are demanded, and in which any inkling of conflict –which is, after all, the basic ingredient of democracy- prompts the media to conjure the spectre of checkpoints, bombs and riot police, drawing on memories of television images of life in the other state on the island of Ireland.
Enter the occupations.
The first, and as yet, the biggest of these, began 13 days ago, spurred on by the moment of popular revolt on Wall Street. Rebellions in Spain and Greece might have appeared more relevant, on account of the fact that all three countries are periphery members of the Eurozone. But the glut of accounts of the occupation on Wall Street and elsewhere, and the relatively high interest in American politics by comparison with other places, meant it was the idea of an occupation that occupied just enough people’s minds to take the initial leap of faith to get things started.
The choice of the Central Bank building has puzzled some people, given the presence of Ireland’s Own Private Tax Haven to the left of Connolly Station, but in reality, the logistical challenges posed by an IFSC occupation would have been insuperable for the small group of pioneers who took the first step. There is a severe lack of suitable public spaces in central Dublin. There are no spaces where citizens (in the broadest sense of the term) can freely engage in open dialogue about life in the polis, and besides, the Central Bank, now with its very own IMF technocrat, is a good a symbol of the unaccountable nature of ruling institutions –the Global Mubarak– as any.
Hang around Dame Street for a few hours, or a few days, as I did last week, and you begin to realise that something different is happening there. There are people standing around, talking about politics, and economics, and history in public. There is music and poetry and talks. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in Dublin. In Dublin’s pubs, whose residual reputation as hives of political intrigue is wholly undeserved, they turn up the music so you stop talking about politics and start drinking and talking about football.
Some people in Ireland are impatient with the lack of sufficiently articulate political positions from the Dame Street. Given the dimensions of the crisis and other people’s failures, the impatience is understandable. But it’s important to bear in mind the immense material difficulties involved in maintaining an occupation in an urban space as sterile and inhospitable as that of Dublin.
Moreover the Dame Street occupation hasn’t had the same range or depth of sympathetic social movements to call on for assistance, as has been the case with other places.
But against the astroturf civil societies produced under neo-liberal governance, the Dame Street occupation has opened up a critical distance, not merely down at the site itself, but also on social networks, that enables people to subject the political system to radical questioning. This is in itself is a major achievement, and whatever happens to the occupation itself, it is hard to see how this achievement can ever be rolled back.
Occupy Dame Street, and Occupy Cork and Occupy Galway, are about to visit a polarising impact on Irish society. And this is an excellent thing. Media institutions, always keen to enforce a sterile consensus, invite us to believe that polarised opinion is always bad. And yet it’s hard to imagine anyone would argue that there is something wrong with polarising opinion on the morality of slavery or child labour. Why shouldn’t we do the same with regard to a political order based on discipline, dispossession and domination that concedes ever greater power to voracious financial institutions and seeks to destroy any vestige of popular sovereignty?
By taking the concept of the ‘99% vs 1%’ that originated from the Wall Street occupation, and using it as their own, the occupiers are engaging in a healthy polarisation. In their horizontally organised miniature of society, they’re demonstrating a commitment to social transformation and real democracy. Against the informed ignorance of dominant media institutions, an informed and reflective public opinion. Against the commodification of knowledge, collective intelligence. Against nativist isolationism, international collaboration. Against individual responsibility, collective responsibility.
Stand on the footpath at Dame Street and you can no longer see the bottom of the Central Bank. It’s obscured by the spread of tents and banners erected outside its entrance. It’s as though the building were getting devoured from below. They –we- can do this. There are plenty of signs that pessimism of the intellect’s long suffering partner –optimism of the will- is about to make a comeback.