Taking Democracy Seriously: A Response to Miriam Cotton

In a recent article on Irish Left Review, Miriam Cotton took me to task for my 'intellectually-rationalised paralysis' in light of the current crisis. Her article -written with admirable openness and honesty- is an acid criticism of the failure of the Irish Left to put together a coherent response to the present crisis.

I disagree with many aspects of her analysis. I don't believe what she describes as 'rapacious, international financial corporatism' is 'worse than capitalism': it is capitalism.  I certainly wouldn't treat my own writings as indicative or representative of tendencies on the Irish Left -for good or bad. Indeed, if what I write ends up getting treated in that way, it highlights one of the serious problems of the Irish Left: in public, it is either very small, or very quiet, or both.

Miriam's analysis proceeds from the view that there ought to be a development similar to what has happened in Greece, as described by Helena Sheehan's recent piece on Greece: a proliferation of strikes at general and local level, resulting in an increasing convergence of the politics of the street with the politics of the ballot box. 

By contrast with Greece, Ireland's 'austerity and financier-facilitating ‘trade unions’' have 'have stood aside in pale and limp demur', as the austerity regime of bailouts, cutbacks and the destruction of social rights extends itself.

Given this context, she believes that my claim, made at the end of my ICTU piece in relation to 'the climate of grim sacrificial inevitability' (my words) that 'we need imaginative ways of communicating the conflict, of capturing people’s commitment to a struggle for democratic rights' is 'lobbing cold water over any idea' of calling for strikes. In effect, what I am saying is 'sit down again everybody.  As you were.  We need to do lots more talking and thinking before we act.'

Let me address this as clearly as I can. I have no problem with people calling for strikes, or calling trade union leaders traitors. My point -which I'm afraid Miriam elides- is 'that (ICTU) does not take democracy seriously. And that -amid a climate of grim sacrificial inevitability- is a problem that no amount of simply shouting 'traitor!' or 'general strike!' will solve.'

The point about 'not taking democracy seriously' is the crux of my argument.

The idea of democracy does not figure in unions' public discourse at all. I wrote a number of months back, in The Great Theft Movement – Ireland asKleptocracy, that 'conventional wisdom, relentlessly reproduced via dominant media institutions, holds that ‘democracy’ -which is to say, bourgeois representative democracy- is the only form of government worth having; hence the decisions taken by its representatives, regardless of how destructive they are of public welfare, regardless of how much wealth they transfer into private hands, regardless of how the reality of their decisions is obscured from public view, are legitimate and unimpeachable.'

But not only do Irish trade unions do nothing to challenge this conventional wisdom; they reinforce it at every turn. They endorse the legitimacy of the current government -obedient to the Troika and to the rule of finance capital- with their support for the Labour Party. For example, SIPTU President Jack O'Connor made a speech the other day commemorating revolutionary socialist and syndicalist Jim Larkin. In it, he counselled support for a right-wing government in its dealings with the Troika. He made no mention of democracy, or any of its habitual sub-categories (political, economic, social…).

What he did do instead was draw equivalence between the 'extreme left' and the 'extreme right' and cast himself and revolutionary socialist Jim Larkin as moderates of the present conjuncture. By so doing, he was casting people who call for strikes and resistance -in defence of democratic rights- as equivalent to fascist forces such as Golden Dawn.

To repeat: no mention of democracy. No mention of how public services are an essential element of democracy and indeed the democratic gains won by the labour movement. Instead, an endorsement, in fluent technocratese, of 'an optimally efficient public service'  reconciled with the legitimate entitlements and interests of those who are employed in the provision of it'.

No mention of democracy. Instead, talk about how the present economic crisis 'threatens our very existence as a sovereign state'. 'Our' existence. As a state. Tutto nello stato..

The question, then, is how the combination of street politics and the politics of the ballot box can converge, as we have seen in Greece, and, to a degree, in the Spanish state, with regional elections in Galicia and Catalonia, without some kind of democratic rupture, without some kind of popular recognition that the process of inflicting massive cuts in wages and public services and stripping away social rights and transferring wealth from the poor to the rich known as 'austerity' has no democratic legitimacy. In a recent interview, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras used the concept of the 'two squares' to outline how the rapid growth of the Greek radical left -in terms of electoral power- came about in recent years.

Tsipras said that "the movement began on two squares in Athens. Let’s give them some kind of name: the one below and the one above. The square below was always more politicised, with themed assemblies, with different talks. Many young people took part. They practised direct democracy. But the important thing is that these demonstrations were completely peaceful with great mass participation, with very many people taking part….The square above was less participative. That is why the system was more frightened by the one below. It was not the same as wrecking a bank or wrecking a cash machine. Wrecking strengthened the system. By contrast, the peaceful stance did sound an alarm for them. We have to bear in mind that these spontaneous and massive reactions led to the fall of two governments. But by contrast, going back to the comparison of the two squares, burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results. It is very simple: where you had fires, big business could find some small business owner to cry."

Practically no-one believes that what we have seen in Greece could occur in Ireland. That is the current assessment of the financial markets. Moreover, Ireland stands at a conceptual remove from the countries of the South of Europe, both in the minds of financiers, and in the minds of those who resist. On top of this, the trade union leadership is fully aligned with the government's illusory agenda of recovering national sovereignty, an agenda supported by Ireland's right wing media and its owning class, which entails killing hospital patients and driving up suicide rates, so that the sovereign representative body might be restored to its former power.

But as Pablo Bustinduy pointed out in an article I translated yesterday, there is no longer an inside and an outside when it comes to the ransacking of Europe. It will never be enough for a small retinue of Irish Leftists to lock themselves in a room and come up with an electoral programme they think will get people's attention and, simultaneously, hope for the best when it comes to campaigning to mobilise people against specific issues, and do so all within the same framework of national sovereign representation that IBEC and Fine Gael, as well as the trade union movement, defend.

In Ireland, there is no such thing as discussing politics in a nice square in warm weather. So, other ways have to be found. There are always possibilities. But if there is no popular potency in defence of democracy, then, Bernadette McAliskey's words from a few days ago will prove true: "we have got to get a political programme together here and get the struggle for civil rights, social rights, political rights and economic rights together or we are in, comrades and colleagues, for one hell of a hiding."


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3 responses to “Taking Democracy Seriously: A Response to Miriam Cotton

  1. Miriam

    We’re agreed about almost everything, then Richard! Another great post. A lot of capitalists disown what they call corporatism: – socialising the debt, bank bailouts, corporate welfare etc. They say corporatism is not capitalism like many socialists say Stalinism isn’t socialism.

  2. Richard

    <html><head></head><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>Hi Miriam, lots of capitalists make up lots of self-serving stories about how such and such a regime is not ‘real’ capitalism, &nbsp;but are unable to describe any real-world situation in which this ‘real’ capitalism has actually existed. This is because capitalism is a world-historical phenomenon, not a discrete political regime.<br><br></div></body></html>

  3. Miriam

    Sure – it’s a continuum of opinion on the right I suppose but still think there is a big difference between someone who believes that so-called ‘risk-taking’ is just that – if it fails the cost of the gamble lies with the risk-taker. If our so-called capitalists abided by that principle we wouldn’t have the debt burden or the Anglo promissory notes crimes of theft. Many on the right think this is what should have happened and the principle has been applied in some instances to better effect. Iceland e.g. I know it’s not the fairytale ending of repute up there but things are better than here in some respects. I’m not defending capitalism at all btw – just noticing that the present orthodoxy is so extreme that even people on the right share certain objections with those on the left. And still the left has failed to make capital out of it 😉

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