“I’ve changed my principles, ideas, loyalties and promises, but I’m still the same person” – El Roto
I think Jack O’Connor is right to say that protest and ‘caustic commentary’ are not enough. I also think there is no point getting fixated on personalities at the top of the trade unions, since in so far as such figures counsel demobilisation and capitulation lest something even worse happen, this is because power structures demand such figures, not because they are particularly swinish individuals, which is neither here nor there. I also think that getting hung up in what such figures do or don’t say can have the effect of perpetuating a cycle of resignation.
I think Jack O’Connor is also right to highlight the need for ‘a coherent vision of an alternative paradigm informed by an egalitarian outlook based on equality’ (as if an egalitarian outlook could be based on anything else). I think he is right that the commitment to equality constitutes the dividing line. I also think some people of socialist and left wing inclinations have an unrealistic view of their own political capabilities if they imagine that any new paradigm can be forged without movements that appeal to lots of people who right now think politics amounts to voting for Labour or Fianna Fáil or even Fine Gael.
To paraphrase a hoary cliché, people are where they are. It may well be true, if not axiomatic even, that trade union bureaucrats are sell-outs. But if the only critique of the trade union leadership amounts to shouting “sell out!”, and, more broadly, to denunciation of the latest outrage or betrayal, then people will remain where they are. In fact, this kind of mere denunciation seems at times to operate, unwittingly, as part of a Texas Two-Step with the activities of the trade union leadership and the Labour Party, where they get to act rational and in command whereas their dance partners look bedraggled and struggling to maintain composure.
The key problem, I think, in the forging of any ‘coherent vision of an alternative paradigm’, is that the person who called for it today, and his colleagues and political allies, consistently operate in ways that dynamite the possibility of any sort of coherent vision being forged, through: support for projects intended to destroy any kind of collective solidarity (cf. support for JobBridge, support for the Property Tax, adopting a mercenary nationalism vis-à-vis the Fiscal Treaty); a political language that treats economic matters in precisely the same terms used by capitalist ideologues, with the fetish object of ‘the economy’ spoken of as if it were a naturally occurring entity that had nothing to do with human labour, let alone class exploitation; an unquestioning acceptance of Ireland’s electoral absolutism as eternally legitimate democratic rule, despite the scale of the assault on social rights and despite the unerring contempt for democratic norms shown by ruling elites, and despite the noxious depoliticising effects of such a system of political rule. There is simply no reason why anyone involved in these things will instigate the alternative paradigm O’Connor says he wants; on the contrary, most of them, like him, will seek to prevent it emerging.
No, protest and caustic commentary and the like is not enough, but when done right, it’s a good start, and without it, there will be nothing. Jack O’Connor says that there is a difference between making noise and making a difference. But the real difference they make is silence. Silence, despondency and hopelessness. We should avoid two-steps with these characters. There is no democracy without conflict, and calls for unity by people who are giving a reddish gloss to kleptocracy should be treated with derision. That still leaves the matter of the ‘coherent vision of an alternative paradigm’: well, the articulation of a democratic public opinion, a multiplication of channels of dissent and antagonism, and analysis that most people can understand and access, would be a good start. And, more generally, whether it relates to hospitals or schools or rivers or factories or whatever: isn’t it about time that we started to act as if we owned this place? Because the simple fact is: we do.