You may have noticed, if you keep an eye on politics in Ireland, that resistance to austerity has gone up a couple of notches, most significantly in the form of the Household Tax boycott, and in the demonstrations that have accompanied this campaign. You may also have noticed, if you still bother to watch the news or read the papers, that the consequences of such a declaration of disobedience, in terms of the democratic legitimacy of the government, have been mostly ignored.
The response from the ruling parties and the regime’s media has been:
- to vilify those people who have gone out and protest (see Alan Shatter’s claim that protesters should ‘get a life’; the Sunday Independent’s racist smear that those involved were foreigners who had no right to participate in democratic activity);
- ignore the fact of popular disobedience altogether and present the non-payment as some sort of monumental administrative cock-up (a near sublime example was the publication of a piece in the Irish Times by behavioural economists concerned with incentivising payment that consigned the question of democratic legitimacy to a domain beyond the known universe);
- frame the disobedience as a drama that can be neatly consigned to the power contests of representative democracy: thus the people who refuse are an undifferentiated and unthinking mass, largely inspired by delinquent representatives who seek to further their career, who in turn are pilloried by the right-wing press (to repeat: all the press in Ireland is right-wing). One might cite the recent Independent profile of Richard Boyd Barrett (which insuated that protest is merely an affectation of people who cannot come to terms with their own privilege), but a more illustrative example was the Frontline feature on the Household Tax boycott, where one of the audience members who was participating in the campaign was cut off by presenter Pat Kenny, who deemed that this person’s point of view was unimportant since Joan Collins, a TD who was on the panel, could speak for the movement;
- ratchet up the authoritarian threats. Of note here are Leo Varadkar’s initially absurd and desperate threat to cut people’s water off should they not pay the charge, and the subsequent intimations, on the part of Phil Hogan and Enda Kenny, that water -a basic human right that the previous Irish government refused to recognise by abstaining from the UN General Assembly- would be cut off.
In a country with a press dedicated to democratic inquiry, and not one that rests largely in the hands of oligarchs who benefit handsomely from the privatisation of public infrastructure and the commodification of natural resources, one might expect some degree of critical analysis of what by any standard is a deep democratic crisis. Instead, the cracks are being systematically papered over, in the hope that the commotion will eventually die down.
The whole point of the phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ assumes that the laws of physics cannot be defied forever. But is politics best understood in terms of the laws of physics? Here I am reminded of the splendid illustration by Spanish cartoonist El Roto, which appeared recently in El País.
The image provides such rich interpretative possibilities that I feel uncomfortable applying it narrowly to this situation. But in this context it does pose some useful questions. In his address at Wall Street, Slavoj Zizek appealed to a device he often uses to illustrate the present juncture:
We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What we are doing is just reminding those in power to look down…
El Roto’s cartoon seems to take Zizek’s image into account. But ‘those in power’ show no sign of being concerned with looking down. Nor do they show any sign of what ‘we’ are doing. And there is nothing in the drawing to suggest that the ruler -or the regime- is about to fall.
We could easily pose this in terms of a question: what is it that makes us expect that downfall will naturally come about once what sustains the regime -supposedly, in our societies, democratic consent- gives way? Indeed, El Roto may be suggesting that rather than it being a case of us looking at those in power with the hopeful expectation that they might return our gaze and, if not oblige our wishes, at least obey the law of physics, we become transfixed by the spectacle those in power put on show for us, of their seeming ability to defy our natural expectations, through displays of impassive cruelty and disdain.
One cannot be in doubt about the authoritarian turn of the bailout-era Irish government and the naked contempt for democracy that is unfolding, in the actions of its representatives and in the press that serves it. But, we should not be transfixed by it. As the piece below suggests, we are talking about a moment of a ‘precious margin for action’, in which the terrain is, as another writer points out, ‘ripe with possibility‘. And that means, among other things, exposing the cracks by taking to the streets this May, starting with the May Day Rally on May 1.
Translated from the blog of Raimundo Viejo Viñas, On The Wobbly’s Road.
The history of the 20th century was the history of democratic progress. It was also, and not by chance, the history of the progress of movement politics. Both processes can be seen, in fact, as interlinked. It could not be any other way: democratisation, for the simple fact that a democratic regime is one founded on citizen participation, cannot be realised without collective action (which is necessarily contentious when democracy has not yet been established). Collective action, for its part, needs to operate democratically in order to sustain itself over time (there is a worse enemy for a movement than repression from the outside: the absence of democracy among those who drive it). In sum: without democratisation there can be no movement, and without a movement there can be no democratisation.
It is something different, however, that collective action institutionalised in a particular political regime (for example, elections based on the present electoral law) should be considered enough to guarantee democratic rule, and not, on the contrary, the means of curtailing the very bases of democracy – the present electoral law, in fact, allows for something like 30% to allow an absolute majority to impose its policies. Or that the lack of mechanisms for accountability to the citizens should permit absurdities such as governing without giving the slightest explanation, or what is even worse, by providing explanations that are simply embarrassing.The limits of so-called liberal democracy
When the institutional capacity of a regime exhausts its sources of legitimacy, there inevitably appear contentious forms of collective action which problematise de-democratisation. This is what 15M was. But it is no less inevitable that those who benefit from the corruption of the regime and its deconstitution (in original, deconstitución) should reach for the resources at their disposal to sink the social mobilisation.
Here is where we find ourselves today: faced with the strategy of tension, faced with the desperate search of the recovery of a social control that escapes the grasp of the party of order everywhere when the party of democratisation rebels against the regime. Rule is enforced, once again, according to the ABC of the theory of the absolutist State.
As Jorge Moruno reminded us only yesterday:
‘And upon this ground it is that also in subjects who deliberately deny the authority of the Commonwealth established [the Spanish translation of Commonwealth used here is ‘Estado’, i.e. State], the vengeance is lawfully extended.. because the nature of this offence consists in the renouncing of subjection, which is a relapse into the condition of war commonly called rebellion; and they that so offend, suffer not as subjects, but as enemies. For rebellion is but war renewed.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.’
For whoever disobeys, the condition of war; they will no longer be considered subjects, but enemies. The Schmittian dialectic of such Hobbesian inspiration is reborn in the very heart of the liberal matrix, leaving democracy to one side so that it can, finally, reveal the ruler in its purely dictatorial character. Wherever dictatorship cannot be imposed on a mass scale, autocrats need to open fissures in the regime of guarantees that allow them to generalise a culture of emergency.
A slow installation of dictatorship
Dictatorship has to be experienced today at a molecular level before it can corrupt the guarantees of the democratic regime in a generalised manner. The old Nazi lesson of the Weimar years reappears today, reformulated with the same tactics as always (the dehumanisation of the enemy, the preventive violation of the private sphere, etc), only updated for the great democratising success of movement politics in the 20th century, and unleashed from within liberal democracy. We must urgently recall Poulantzas when he said that fascism is nothing more than capitalism under state of exception.
We are speaking of a selective dictatorship, a regime of power that can feed on the limited democracy that is liberal democracy as long as the multitude does not flood its institutional frame through generalised practices of disobedience. This regime of liberal democracy itself has been historically contingent on the power of the multitude, which is functionally inoperative, for this reason, under neoliberal rule.
Let no-one be confused, however; the destruction of liberal democracy at the hands of autocratic liberalism takes time. This is the precious margin for action in which the politics of the movement must unfold: by steering clear of repertoires that serve the strategy of tension (such as burning waste containers for the sake of it), but without stepping back an inch from the practice and extension of those other repertories that shift fear to the other side until installing the process of absolute democracy, the political regime of the commons.