Monthly Archives: May 2015

There Be Dragons

Very often boys and girls have a lot more common sense than many adults who have been warped as they grew up. We do not only need to look after our children and guarantee their rights, but we must listen to them and allow them to speak. – Ada Colau

Zog

Zog

Before bedtime last night my son asked if we could go to school a bit earlier the following morning. Why, I asked. He lifted his shirt to show an eye-wateringly rough gash on his side. Resisting the urge to faint, I asked him why this meant he wanted to go to school early. “To show everyone.” He had fallen outside on the tarmac while playing football.

Half an hour later, after the application of antiseptic and gauze, he was in bed, now howling and wincing from the sting. I went downstairs to sort a couple of things out. When I came back up, maybe five minutes later, his sister, who is four, was in the room. The light was off and it was dark. She doesn’t like the dark. She had taken a chair from her own room and placed it at his bedside and was sat up, in the dark, watching over him. Don’t worry, I’m looking after him, she said.

When our children get upset by something late in the day, they can’t settle and become hyper. She had been drifting off to sleep before her brother’s pained howls, and now she was looking for stories. She picked out Zog, by Julia Donaldson. Zog is the story of a dragon going through school, learning each year to do one of the things dragons need to be taught, in order to become a dragon – to fly, to roar, to breathe fire, to capture princesses, and to fight.

Zog is the most enthusiastic dragon in his class, but at each year of his schooling he seems unsuited to the tasks set to him. He falls and hurts himself when he tries to fly. He goes hoarse when he tries to roar. He singes himself when he tries to breathe fire (apparently dragons can also breathe ice, but they are told by the teacher that they should not). He is beaten away with ease when he besieges a castle to capture a princess.

At each pitfall, he has a chance encounter with Pearl, who tends to his afflictions with plasters and peppermints. When he fails to capture a princess, she says, perhaps you’d like to capture me? Pearl, it turns out, is also a princess. He brings her back to the other dragons, whom she looks after when they are sick and injured. But after a year, a knight in armour comes to rescue her. Zog, who is now learning to fight, rears up to fight the knight, roaring that Pearl is his. Then Pearl places herself between the knight and the dragon, saying she does not want to be a princess, and she does not want fighting. She wants to be a doctor. And so, it turns out, does the knight. So Pearl, the knight and Zog decide to become a flying doctor team, and Madame Dragon, Zog’s teacher, agrees it is a good idea.

In the end, Zog leaves behind all the things he is being trained to do at school that are supposed to make you a dragon- fighting, roaring, taking hostage, breathing fire- except fly. Pearl refuses to be a damsel in distress, rejects her position of privilege and wealth, and hangs out with the mortal enemies of her family. The warrior knight decides he would be better off healing rather than injuring. As a children’s story, Zog stands radically opposed to the standard feudal fairytale, whether in traditional or Disney form.

Zog suggests there is no good reason for things to be the way they are. It suggests we would all be much better off if we reached beyond the narrow role we are assigned by school, by family, by gender norms, or by nationality and notions of military valour, and thought instead about how we can help each other. It suggests that the expectations we are taught to have for ourselves can turn us into something we were never meant to be.

Of course, it is a story for children. In the adult world, the idea that you should care for someone who doesn’t look like you, or for someone who comes from the dangerous part of town, so often gets dismissed as unrealistic and immature fantasy. The idea that schools leave a repressive imprint on people is just so much childish babble. The idea we could live in a world without war, without contending forces of annihilation, is the sort of thing a five-year-old would come out with. Why ask children’s opinions on anything? Sure what do they know?

My daughter is growing up in a country where people in power pretend to care about children. “Cherishing all the children equally”, and the rest. But the same people are the ones who insist on maturity. Maturity means accepting the way of the world, and it just so happens that this way benefits them more than it does most people. As Fintan O’Toole wrote the other day, 6.8% of children in Ireland lived in consistent poverty in 2008. By 2013 it was 11.7 per cent, in his words, ‘an entire Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of poor kids‘. This is what having the maturity to accept the way of the world does to a country.

Last night, my daughter braved her fear of the dark to sit beside her brother for a bit because he was in pain. In Zog, Pearl is not in the slightest afraid of the dragons, nor they of her. Why would you be afraid of someone who says they will look after you? It turns out, however, that there are lots of people who are afraid of the people that are supposed to look after them.

A report on an ombudsman investigation in yesterday’s Irish Times, by its Health Correspondent Paul Cullen, begins: ‘patients are afraid to complain about the care they receive in hospitals because of concerns over possible repercussions for themselves or their loved ones’, and concludes ‘the investigation discovered many users of hospital services were afraid of repercussions, did not believe anything would change as a result of complaining and found it difficult to discover how to complain.’

Why are people afraid of the people who are there to care for them? If you are a child reading a story like Zog, you probably think hospitals are full of good people who make you better (and they mostly are, to be fair), so why would you be afraid of them? You will probably be perplexed about the idea you can have a hospital that doesn’t let some people in because they haven’t got enough money, because you don’t even know what money is yet. But somewhere along the line, you learn, as many people do, to grow up and accept reality.

Who taught us to be so afraid? Who taught us that it was OK for people to make a profit out of the pain and vulnerability of others? Who taught us it was OK to say nothing about any of this, to accept it, and to be “mature” about it? Recently deceased writer Eduardo Galeano once paid tribute to the dead Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, saying he was “a man who never betrayed the child he once had been.” I doubt there’s anyone who feels they could say the same thing about themselves. But perhaps we could start overcoming our fears, dare to believe that there are many others who feel the same as us, and confront the voices that never stop urging a betrayal.

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No Big Words Please, We’re British

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones has an article on The Guardian website today, contrasting Podemos’s approach to political communication with that of ‘the British left’. He says that the latter must ‘abandon the old shackles of the left’, and that its language ‘often seems intended to exclude, full of rhetoric and terminology that only those who have associated with leftwing milieus could ever hope to digest’. He also criticises the culture of ‘the British left’, describing it as ‘operating in the most rampantly individualistic way’.

The first thing that struck me when reading this is that in fact, there are parts of ‘the British left’ – I apologise if my scare quotes appear post-modern, let me assure you they are necessary- who are communicating just fine. For example, in Scotland.

Secondly, it is not as if Podemos itself speaks with one voice. True enough, Pablo Iglesias and others are skilled media communicators. But some of the main figures also write things that are as indigestible for the uninitiated as anything you will ever come across in Britain. Take for example the writings of its political secretary, Owen Jones-lookalike Iñigo Errejón. Here is a translated excerpt of a sentence of his:

Let us recall that old conservative liberal fantasy that flirted with the possibility of the existence of a democracy without a people –it is surely from here that we get the hysteria unleashed in the use of the term ‘populist’-, a democracy of citizen consumers lacking in collective will.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing something like the above: on the contrary. Some concepts are difficult, and they need to be explored with specialised language. The world, including the political world, is complex, and not every decent idea can be pared down to one syllable words with the meaning left intact.

Raymond Williams knew this. In his collected series of interviews Politics and Letters, the Welsh cultural critic mentions his impression that when listening to a French militant or trade union leader being interviewed:

‘they command a much greater vocabulary than their English social equivalents, which may eventually have an effect of the quality of what they say.’

Williams also speaks of his ‘distress’ during his years in adult education, at

‘the blocks people encountered when some perfectly necessary concept was used, and the easy way that could slip into anti-intellectualism, or the more unfortunate case of somebody who comes across a word but doesn’t fully understand it, yet starts to use it, often in the labour movement.’

When Williams sought

‘to write a series in Tribune on words that caused difficulty – typically enough, they were not interested. I had a very strong sense, as in everything else, that working-class people needed to command all the tools with which social transactions are conducted’.

That is, the development of a specialised vocabulary is something working-class people –or, if you like, everyday people- actually need in order to empower themselves.

What Owen Jones describes as ‘online “safe spaces”’ aren’t necessarily a bad thing. True, there may be plenty of jargon-heavy writing, and confused writing, and people showing off. But again, not everyone can describe their predicament, the way they encounter the world, in the simplest of terms. This is because things are rarely that simple, as people’s lives are full of complexity and contradiction. To put it another way, let’s use the analogy of a musical instrument. You need to spend a great many hours playing badly before you start playing well. That is not to say that everyone will become a virtuoso, or even competently, but sometimes just trying to put things into words helps clarify things in your mind.

Also, not all the ‘British left’ is averse to keeping things simple. If you read a copy of Socialist Worker, for example, the prose is usually clear enough. Whether people are convinced by it and want to come back for more is another matter.

When Owen Jones talks about the way Podemos communicates, he seems to have severed it from everything else that has been going on in Spanish society for the last few years, including many phenomena that really have not come to the fore in British society, at least not on the same level. I am thinking here, of course, of 15M, without which Podemos would simply not exist.

Owen Jones cites the need for

‘a wide-ranging discussion about how we best achieve political representation for working people and all those denied a voice.’

But by placing this as his foremost concern, or even his only concern, he ignores one of the crucial factors in 15M’s explosive impact on Spanish politics as society: not the idea that such people need proper representatives, but that they are unrepresentable, that they have the capacity speak with their own voice. That is, a rejection of representative democracy as the sine qua non of popular emancipation. We see this crucial element expressed in a recent interview with the mayor-elect of Barcelona, Ada Colau:

‘We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this’

But also in writing from other members of Podemos:

‘the Podemos method has given expression to a common sense that has been hegemonic in this country for some time, but which political representation and electoral arithmetic have however systematically prevented from making a reality. The central themes of Podemos’s programme and campaign (the fight against corruption, the audit of debt, the sharing of work and wealth, the defence of social rights and public services) expresses clearly, precisely and resoundingly a common sense of the majority that does not fit within the institutions. And these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’

To repeat: ‘these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’ Most of this work was done pre-Podemos, before figureheads such as Pablo Iglesias came to the fore, and the major controversy within Podemos, since the Citizen Assembly that established the organisational structure of Podemos, has been the way in which all this involvement of everyday people, a politics of everyone and anyone, has been subordinated and marginalised, so as to give way to the primacy of the mediated spectacle of Iglesias and others.

There were resounding successes in the municipal elections in Spain: in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza, to name the three most important places. These platforms included participants in Podemos, but their crucial success factor was widespread participation from a great many others outside these ranks. By contrast, there were much more modest wins for Podemos proper in the regional government elections, far below the expectations raised by the high-flown rhetoric of the top tier.

If this tells us anything, it is that the terminology and rhetoric of Podemos’s top tier –which is indeed geared towards what Owen Jones calls ‘political representation for working people’, is not the most important thing, but rather. the realisation that it is when those excluded from representative institutions re-establish politics on their own terms, in their own language, that real democratic empowerment is realised.

It is a terrible thing that the Tories have taken power in Britain again, dismantling what remains of the welfare state and embarking on the most brutal and vindictive measures against the poorest in British society. Bar an initial flare-up of protest, there does not seem to be any grasp taken as yet of what so many people in Spain already know: that representative democracy –with its supporting media institutions- is not real democracy, that it is not designed to give people a voice, but to take it away from them. And hence some radical reconfiguration, that goes way beyond the kind of language used, is needed. But first comes the break with the legitimacy of the established order.

People in Scotland certainly seem more aware of this than the more established formations on the British left. On the whole, though, the broad understanding of democracy appears stuck within Churchill’s formulation of ‘the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper’, and Orwell’s urging for plainness and simplicity. Is it not high time to get beyond the idea of democratic politics as coming up with the right little words to convince the little people?

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Ada Colau: “We are going to need more social mobilisation than ever”

adacolau

Ada Colau

This is a translation of an interview conducted with Ada Colau, who yesterday, standing as part of the Barcelona en Comú platform, was elected mayor of Barcelona. It was originally published in La Marea on 22nd of December 2014. It gives good and relevant insight into Colau’s political perspective –and prescience- and how the project she is associated with fits in to the overall scheme of things in Spain’s uncertain political landscape, including Podemos. The interview was conducted by Daniel Ayllón.

Note: Guanyem Barcelona –‘Let’s win back Barcelona’- which is referred to repeatedly in the interview, changed its name to Barcelona en Comú –‘Barcelona Together’- after an unscrupulous local political climber bought the rights to the name, hoping to exchange it for some form of political privilege.

La Marea: How do you evaluate 2014?

Ada Colau: The year has been marked by the irruption of Podemos. But it’s important to point out that Podemos is not only Podemos. It is the maximum expression of a democratic revolution that has been cooking up for a few years now and that has had various phases: the PAH, 15-M, the mareas. It has gone from a mass mobilisation to realising that this was for real, that there was a need to look for effective safeguarding mechanisms for defending the lives of ordinary people. The citizens have been ahead of the institutions in the defence of rights: it is they who have stopped evictions, who have defended hospitals against privatisation…and that cycle has not come to an end. Many people, who have no particular interest in a political career, have had to have a re-think. Because the capture of the institutions is a threat to rights and democracy.

Do people mistrust the institutions or only those who govern them at the moment?

The institutions are in an enormous crisis of legitimacy.


There have been corruption scandals in them all.

At municipal, regional and state level, in the courts.. not only due to corruption alone, but also due to the revolving doors and their use for party-political purposes. The parties of the regime have destroyed democracy. They have generated a highly dangerous situation. We are seeing this throughout Europe. Neo-fascist parties are emerging in France and other places where it seemed unthinkable. There was a similar situation also in Italy years ago, when widespread corruption cases emerged. That’s where Berlusconi came from, because there was no strong citizen mobilisation. We have learned from that. Luckily, in Spain, there has been a positive reaction. We are going to come out of the crisis better than we entered it. They are going to make it difficult for us, but there are many people who have stepped forward and who are prepared to take shared responsibility for coming out of this crisis with a real democracy.

What risk is there that the offloading of activists from social movements into political parties might unravel what has been woven socially, as occurred with the PSOE in the 1980s? Who is going to oversee them when they are in the institutions?

It is not true that there has been an exodus from the social movements either in Podemos or in Guanyem. Nor is it that they are pulling away. Look who has driven Podemos forward. They are in step with the movements, there is no exodus. We are focused on learning from the Transition and the subsequent demobilisation. Those who have stepped forward have done so while taking care to maintain the independence and autonomy of the movements, which maintain their own roadmap and mobilisations. We are going to need more social mobilisation than ever. Regardless of who wins. We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this.
But there are many of you who have stepped forward. Don’t you think that this risk of demobilisation is real?

There is a historical memory of the recent past. In the movements that I am close to there is a great deal of awareness of this. When I myself, for example, left the PAH I was conscious that there was a very strong movement with people who could take on all responsibilities, at every level. And that’s how it remains. The platform continues with its agenda and actions. We have not decapitated anything and it is stronger than ever.

What will your priorities be as mayor of Barcelona in 2015?

The citizens are saying that we must put an end to corruption and malpractice, and to the revolving doors [between political institutions and the world of business]. But those who are immersed in this corruption and this impunity are not going to change the rules of the game. We need to change the priorities of public policy and put social rights at the centre and put a stop to evictions. This is the country in Europe that has the shame of carrying out the highest level of evictions. And any administration has the powers to stop this. I do not accept this talk about having the proper authority. At a municipal, regional and state level there are tools for stopping them, if there is public will. And for ensuring that empty housing that currently lies in the hands of the banking sector is used for social purposes. The same applies to public education, public healthcare, food, basic services. And also, to change the concept of political participation. It needs to be from the bottom up, not the reverse. People who gather signatures via a Popular Legislative Initiative need to be able to create binding consultations for major issues. Spaces for participation are to be decentralised into neighbourhoods. There can be no major urban development carried out without consulting the residents involved…it is a matter of bottom line issues. We do not need great revolutions or to bring down the system in order to achieve this.

Could winning the mayoral elections in Madrid and Barcelona be the beginnings of a state-wide change, as happened in 1931?

Municipal politics is the foundation. There has to be a democratic revolution and that entails people empowering themselves at different levels. It is caricature to imagine that everyone has to be out on the streets or always at assemblies. Each person must be where she can and where it interests her. And what better place is there than local politics? It is key because it means starting from the bottom up.

Pablo Iglesias claimed in January that a project such as Podemos needed a leader as a reference point and that there could only be three people who could do this: he, Alberto Garzón [from Izquierda Unida], and you. Did they offer this for you?

No. They did not make me any proposals formally. It’s true that I had conversations with Pablo about this. But at that moment I was in the PAH and it was very clear to me that I did not want to make any step in that direction. It’s true that the focus on personalities generates discomfort among those of us who have been in social activism for a long time. It is annoying, but it’s also true that we live in a mediated society, and that requires having faces to put to projects. Both in the case of Podemos, and in my own case, what matters is that there is a collective management, a shared responsibility for such personalised leadership. As long as they are at the service of a common project, they need to be controlled collectively.

How did you react when Pablo Iglesias mentioned it to you?

It was an informal conversation. There was no project already mapped out. It wasn’t a matter of signing for a team.


Are you on the left?

Clearly, I see myself in line with the values and the tradition of the left. But if you ask me to define myself, I identify with democracy and human rights, which are values traditionally associated with the left: the struggle for equality, social justice, fraternity, the struggle against inequality… but I believe political labels ought to be useful for transformation, not the other way round. There are people who are too tied to a classical lexicon of the left that must be updated. If the people in the street don’t speak with that lexicon, it is not the people’s problem. It is that this lexicon is no longer useful and needs to be updated. It does not mean you are running away from these values. What matters are values, not labels. There is a classical left that has become outdated and has distanced itself from society and from the people it wants to represent. But whose problem is that? The people’s? It makes no sense to reproach people because they don’t use your schemas.

Who is responsible for this?

A major responsibility lies with the big parties of the left in Spain, Europe and the world. Following the fall of the Wall they embraced neoliberalism, they promoted right-wing policies and they unravelled the meaning of the left. Suddenly, people came to the conclusion that being on the left or the right was the same thing because both of them rescued the banking sector and they attacked social rights. The responsibility for this left-right axis no longer being a reference point is not the people’s, but of the social democratic parties who have betrayed certain values and policies. The citizens have found other ways to refer to the same values: they talk about human rights, democracy, of those below against those on top…if we are talking about the same values and objectives, labels do not matter.

Is Guanyem a left organisation or one from below?

Both. There is a virtue in having people who had never participated in politics, who do not see themselves in terms of the left-right axis and who see Guanyem as a useful tool because it focuses on objectives. But there are also people who come from a left tradition. If you stand for certain values, you find them.

In Greece the left was remade nearly 10 years ago, with the creation of Syriza. Is this the line to follow?

We all have to make an effort to change mindset, it is not just a problem with Izquerda Unida. When people tell me we have to kick people out and put people like me in instead, I tell them: “You shouldn’t have to put your trust in me. What we need to do is change the rules of the game”. And that involves everything. From the ways of practising politics, to parties and the political institutions. Why is it that we want to win? Not for a passing of the baton from one generation to the next, or for a change of acronyms, but rather to change the overall institutional set-up, which until now has served to kidnap democracy. So that it is citizens who take the lead, regardless of who is in power and what acronym they go under. There will be places like Barcelona where, with approaches such as Guanyem there will have to be a coming together with other formations with a longer tradition, and other new ones, so as to join forces. Elsewhere, they may need to go about it separately and then make pacts after the elections. The ultimate objective of democracy must be citizen participation.

What future awaits the PSOE?

I think it is very bleak. The choice of Pedro Sánchez, where they’re trying to put someone in who seems younger, is a marketing operation, but in reality they have a structure and a set of clientelist networks that they have been operating in for more than 30 years. If Sánchez really wants to change things, he should remove all their top brass from big businesses and put an end to the phenomenon of revolving doors. It is in his hands to convince us whether he wants change. No-one believes the little marketing operations, because people are sick of seeing them. The structure of the PSOE forms part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean showing contempt for its tradition, its activists and its voters. They will have to seek out another space. The PSOE, as a structure of power, is part of the past.

To which organisation do you feel closer, IU or Podemos?

There should be a more detailed and more rounded analysis. I have no doubt that Alberto Garzón is a very competent person who is very close to the processes that are underway. He and others in IU. But beyond the switching about of faces, people are looking for a change in the ways of doing politics. Izquierda Unida ought to move strongly in this direction. The name IU is not going to lead this process of a citizen revolution. Obviously it is going to form part of it, to the degree that they wish to be involved. But they are not going to lead it, it is impossible. The problem for IU is not Podemos. It has had the perfect context for growth during the crisis…and it did not grow. That means there are ways of doing politics, there are ways of speaking, and there are also responsibilities because there have been serious corruption cases such as Bankia…and that weighs it down. It is clear that Podemos has worked not only because it makes TV appearances.

Will Garzón be able to change IU?

The people involved matter, and they can play a leadership role, but major transformations are not carried out by just one person. If Alberto Garzón is where he is it’s because he has the ability to lead, but he must be part of something bigger. I don’t have a regular direct contact with IU and I can’t speak with great knowledge of what is going on. From what I do know, it is quite divided, with two souls: one in favour of renewal and another that clings to the language and the ways of operating that have worked in previous decades.
Podemos has major need of middle cadres. Will they be there in time for 2015?

Yes, we built the PAH up from nothing.

But we’re talking about governing a country here.

Yes, I know. But up till now the ones we have had have been completely useless. To call them cadres is to denigrate politics. There is a load of mediocrities who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Starting with the Prime Minister, who hides from the press because every time he opens his mouth he puts his foot in it. I see a public that has the best educated generation in history. And it has shown this in many things. For example, in the PAH, starting off from nothing, with no resources. It is a movement with more than 200 cells, made up with people who are ruined, depressed, culturally excluded, very precarious…we have achieved things that they told us from the institutions were impossible. In Barcelona we now see the co-operative sector, of the social economy, where there is already another system working. Not only are there people a lot more capable of governing better than those who are there now. We need to be prudent and know that we are going to make mistakes because we are human. But we have to do it because if we don’t, it will be worse.

Podemos is not only trying to attract voters but also activists from Izquierda Unida. Do you think the latter will have to dissolve itself?

Let IU decide that, I’m not going to tell them what they have to do. They have very many excellent people. I am against radical novelty, this idea that everything has to be new and what is old is of no use. I have been in social activism for years and I have learned from veterans from all over the place. In IU there are many people to learn from, from their commitment and their involvement. And we are going to be alongside those people, however they call themselves. What we need to do is prioritise the methods and the way of practising politics. Acronyms cannot be an obstacle for the process. If IU, as an acronym, is of no use to the general process of change, this is something they need to think about. But it is a sovereign decison for them. If Guanyem proves no longer of any use for whatever reason, we will change, and that’s that. We need to think about not getting caught up in acronyms, which doesn’t mean renouncing the past, nor tradition, nor history. We need to learn from history, and we need to hold on to it, along with the commitment of many people.

Do you see the makings of an electoral change in 2015?

Yes. We are going to see big changes. The end of two-partyism will come closer. But not everything will be fixed because of that. A change of paradigm does not get done in a day, or in a year. What is uncertain is how far powers that be will try and stop this. They are already trying to discredit us. The banks control most of the mass media. They are not going to make it easy for us but let’s see how far they go. We the citizens do not have economic power, nor political power, nor judicial, nor media power…but we are the majority. And we have discovered that if we organise, we have a good deal more power than what they told us we had. We are going to have to be strong and brave this year.

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Democracy in Ireland – it’s a YES

Equality: not the kind of word that can be made to vanish easily. Not once it has been spoken and written everywhere for weeks on end and once people have felt it in their relations with others, be it in a new and unusual way, or in a familiar way, now given deeper affirmation.

True, both the political establishment and corporate Ireland were fully behind a Yes vote. It’s also true that both will try and milk a Yes vote shamelessly. But really, it doesn’t matter. Neither has much control over the meaning of the word ‘equality’. Once people associate it with a certain kind of experience, and a certain way of relating to one another, neither ruling politicians nor big business groupings can reproduce it or satisfy it. That is because what the latter need, ultimately, is power over others, and an empty conception of equality that serves that end.

The usual banalities about great days for democracy are gushing forth from the usual suspects. Nothing warms the heart of a political professional more than the pageantry and routine of voting day with a big turnout. But democracy means more than the orderly forming of lines to put pieces of paper in a box in private. To wit: imagine, if the turnout had been the same, but the tallies being counted out right now were reversed, and that huge majorities of people in constituencies up and down the country were saying to others: no, we shall reserve our right to go on treating gay people as inferior. Who, bar the most hidebound grotto-dwellers, would call such a result a good day for democracy?

Today, there will be wall-to-wall seasoned observers and eminences grises explaining what the unprecedented irruption of young people into political life in this referendum means. Let’s ponder what it does mean for a moment.

First, it means all these seasoned observers, who happily acquiesced in a ‘balanced’ approach that places lies on a par with truth and bigotry on a par with justice, look older and sound more tired than ever.

Second, it means that something old, and not just the reactionary hold of the Catholic Church, is dying, and, with the most resounding Yes majorities emanating from working class constituencies, the idea that Ireland consists of a genteel liberal elite ever struggling to lead the reactionary hordes along the right path, peddled so relentlessly by the country’s organs of repute, is dead.

Third, it means that all those who campaigned, and all those who bore the brunt of abuse and degrading treatment while doing so, can feel history as something that is made by ordinary people doing what they can where they can, and not by grandstanding political dignitaries.

Against this idea of democracy being the orderly forming of lines to put pieces of paper in a box in private, there is another idea operating, and that is the idea of what happens when a certain group seizes the stage and says we are the people and you will recognise us and stop denying us our rights. The campaign led by LGBTQ people, often at a heavy personal toll, shows that this idea of democracy is alive and at work in Ireland, despite all the ongoing attempts to kill it off.  And that is very good news.

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Democracy, but for people who matter

communicorp

Yesterday, in the Irish Independent Dan O’Brien wrote an article claiming that there was no room for giving Irish people overseas -he used the racial-biological term ‘the diaspora’- the vote in constitutional referenda.

It was because they did not pay tax, and there could be no representation without taxation. He said that ‘non-tax paying citizens would have a huge influence on the outcome’.

Later yesterday, the man -also called O’Brien- who controls the newspaper in which Dan O’Brien wrote the article, issued a demand.

Denis O’Brien, who lives in Malta so that he does not have to pay tax in Ireland, demanded that the parliament withdraw remarks concerning him from its record.  His spokesman claimed that remarks made by Catherine Murphy TD  had been based on ‘stolen information’.

Denis O’Brien’s spokesman also disputed that there was anything improper about using Millington -a company set up in the Isle of Man to avoid paying tax- to purchase a firm that had racked up vast debts with Anglo Irish Bank, an entity that was subsequently rescued by taxpayers in Ireland, at immense cost to the public purse, and, as a consequence, to the public welfare.

Denis O’Brien uses the Isle of Man to avoid contributing to the public welfare in Ireland. He lives in Malta to avoid contributing to the public welfare in Ireland. Denis O’Brien -and it is never just Denis O’Brien, he is just the most prominent face- uses tax havens to avoid having to pay towards things like public hospitals in Ireland. Though Denis O’Brien owns private hospitals in Ireland, unlike most people, and he gets former Taoisigh to work for him, unlike most people.

In Ireland, there is no constitutional right to health care. It is hard to see how Denis O’Brien, the owner of private hospitals in Ireland, would want one. Ireland’s courts, which have served Denis O’Brien so well in recent days, reject the existence of such a right. But the European Parliament, which reported on the impact of the economic crisis on fundamental rights, noted that a right to health is ‘part of Ireland’s international human rights obligations’.

Funding for public health services dropped by €3.3bn from 2009 to 2013. You never hear much about the threat to human rights from these cuts to health, or austerity more generally, on Newstalk, the radio station owned by Denis O’Brien, or in the Irish Independent. You will, however, come across plenty of features devoted to the virtues of private health operators.

For Denis O’Brien, who supports different human rights charities, human rights are a family affair. In the 1980s, his mother had protested outside the US embassy at the murderous activities of US-backed forces in Nicaragua. The Contra war had been launched against “a cancer, right here on our land mass”, according to George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. The US-backed forces launched a terrorist war killing tens of thousands, to eliminate the cancer of democracy.

Decades later, state telecommunications companies had been privatised across the globe. It had been part of the neoliberal restoration spearheaded by Ronald Reagan. O’Brien used the anecdote about his mother as part of his sales pitch to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Ortega sent his mother a signed photo.

There are thousands of people streaming back to Ireland today to vote in the marriage equality referendum, because they care about what happens to people who live here. Many of them were forced to leave on account of policies pursued in the benefit of the business elite in Ireland, of which Denis O’Brien is a prominent part. And Dan O’Brien, writing in Denis O’Brien’s newspaper, says they should not have a say in how life in their home unfolds.

We shouldn’t be too surprised, since, truth be told, Independent News and Media doesn’t think too many people here at all should have a say in how life on this island unfolds, apart from a vote every four years that should have little bearing on the rule of a financial and economic elite. And Denis O’Brien himself appears to believe that even the meagre possibilities for democratic institutions to discuss public affairs freely should be removed. Because people –people who matter, no doubt- might think he had acted improperly.

To sum up, O’Brien the media baron, who lives in Malta so he does not have to contribute to the public welfare in Ireland, who profits from the privatisation of public services, whose newspapers call for the democratic rights of others to be taken away, claims to have been misrepresented in a parliament where, according to the very newspapers he controls, he has no right to representation. That, mes amis, is fucked up. Let us be grateful that not everyone is a model citizen like Denis O’Brien.

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Movements and Milestones

I was down at the Milestone in Balbriggan last night with the Greek Solidarity Committee speaking with Balbriggan anti-water charges group. It was a great meeting, as lively a discussion as anything I can remember, and the local core group present -who are deeply impressive, committed and informed activists- took great interest in what was going on in Greece and the common thread with the movement against water charges here in Ireland. There was a torrent of ideas, about possibilities for future political initiatives, about ways of operating and campaigning and organising, that it became a bit head-spinning.

Prior to the meeting we had spoken about how, in Spain and Greece, people had the advantage of open urban spaces and hospitable weather. This allowed them both to engage in prolonged demonstrations, but also to be together in open spaces in a way that allowed them to shape a common understanding of the collective problems posed by a kleptocratic political elite and by rampant neoliberal austerity. Ireland -the Romans did not call it the land of winter for nothing- does not have that advantage.

One of the activists in attendance pointed out that the Occupy movement in Ireland had managed to maintain sites for months on end in adverse conditions. However, the problem with Occupy, or at least one of the problems, was that the maintenance of the site became an end in itself. That was in 2011/12. Things have changed a lot in Ireland since then, especially as a result of the movement against the water charges and Irish Water, but neither the weather nor the layout nor the transport infrastructure of the country has changed. So people have to work with the spaces they have, whether open spaces on housing estates, or in pubs like the Milestone that have an accommodating management. That places severe time limits, too.

A lot of the discussion concerned how to get existing parties to operate in a different way, how to build more unity around some kind of common programme. One of the participants said something that really caught my attention. In the Balbriggan group, there are members of political parties participating, but in so far as they are participating they are doing so in keeping with what the group has decided, as a community group, rather than in keeping with what their party requires. I didn’t get round to pointing out, because it was hard to get a word in, that this is precisely how Ahora Madrid operates. Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid) is the citizen-driven grouping challenging the Partido Popular for municipal government in Madrid. There is a possibility it may win the elections this weekend. Its candidate for mayor is Manuela Carmena, a former judge and human rights and labour lawyer.

manuela

Below is a flyer showing five key proposals for Ahora Madrid:
ahora madrid programme
They are:
1. An end to all evictions from primary residences. A guaranteed alternative place of residence.
2. An end to privatisation of public services, outsourcing of public services, and sell-off of public assets.
3. Basic guarantees of provision of electricity and water to all households unable to afford them.
4. Health services guaranteed for everyone.
5. Emergency work placement scheme for all young long-term unemployed.

Ahora Madrid has been put together by activists involved in all kinds of political and social groupings, collaborating with people through assemblies in local neighbourhoods.

On this Facebook video, Manuela Carmena is heard saying: “We are so used to trust in ideology, in religion, in politics, in the party, we give so little importance to ourselves, that without noticing, we allow ourselves to be beaten, because we don’t have confidence in who we are. That is why I think every one of us must feel absolutely strong, because each one of us has an amazing ability to make decisions, to reason, and to change the world.”

One thing that struck me, in the Milestone, was that there were all kinds of possibilities discussed, but less thought about what the actual problems are. Maybe this is true more generally of this movement. I mean, we take for granted that everyone who is out protesting has roughly the same understanding of what the problems are. And that may be largely true. However, and I say this because I know there are other people trying to elaborate political programmes and initiatives in an attempt to build on the democratic upsurge that is the anti-water charges movement, unless you have a common diagnosis of the problem, how can you elaborate a common initiative that addresses this problem, in terms that people are happy with?

Anyone can rattle off a laundry list of desirable items. But how can support for such things be built and broadened unless it is based on a common understanding of the problem, one that has been put together collectively and articulated properly, and that people are happy with?

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A note on the difference between left and right in Ireland

“How do they manage to make the bad guys look good?”
“Dead easy: the bad guys write the script”

A recent interview with journalist Gene Kerrigan, conducted by David Manning of MediaBite, was titled ‘Ireland’s invisible, but omnipresent, right-wing’. In it, Kerrigan noted how mainstream Irish politicians were seldom referred to as right-wing in the media, even when their policy approach was the same as the likes of Angela Merkel, and how the outlook of political correspondents was the same as that of mainstream parties, but they are seldom referred to as right-wing journalists.

Kerrigan’s claim about the description of politicians can be verified by a simple test.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Clare Daly” in the past year returns 495 results. 22 of these, or 4.4% contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Joe Higgins” in the past year returns 400 results. 34 of these, or 9%, contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Leo Varadkar” in the past year returns more than 3,000 results. However, only 12, or an absolute maximum of 0.4%, contains the adjective “right-wing”.

So, roughly speaking, Clare Daly is ten times more likely to be characterised as left-wing by Ireland’s media than Leo Varadkar is to be characterised as right-wing. Joe Higgins is twenty times more likely.

In a 2010 interview with Leo Varadkar, Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee noted that ‘If Varadkar lived in Britain he would clearly be Tory, or a Republican if he lived in the US.’ However, McGee continued, ‘he rejects the label of right-wing that is attached to him. He says people are ideologically illiterate in Ireland and, even though they think left is good and right is bad, they tend to vote centre-right.’

It’s hard to know what to make of Varadkar’s assessment about perceptions of left and right. I’m not so sure if people by and large in Ireland think of left as good, but maybe he’s on to something when he says they think right is bad. After all, he himself rejects the label of right-wing.

What is more, there is a strong popular rejection of the label of ‘Thatcherite’ in Ireland, even though successive elected Irish governments have pursued policies that are very firmly within the market belief system that Thatcher’s rule in Britain helped to entrench worldwide.

In one sense this popular rejection is curious, since whatever the ideological reach of Thatcher’s free market project, Britain under Thatcher bore more features of socialism than Ireland ever did, such as a national health service free on point of delivery, free education up to third level, including free textbooks. Of course, Thatcher hated all of this and wanted to destroy it; it is just that there was never any contemporaneous political will in Ireland to build it.

One reason, of course, that there is so little mention of right-wing politicians in Ireland is that there are no major left-wing media institutions. In the absence of such institutions, the civil society institutions of the right can shape people’s ideas about politics largely uncontested, such that what would appear as right-wing in countries with stronger popular democratic currents appears in Ireland as the uncontroversial way of the world.

People who advocate a stronger role for private enterprise, in the provision of what are usually seen as public goods and services, be it education, health, social welfare, roads, water, and so on, would, at other times and in other places, be described as right-wing. In Ireland, but not just in Ireland, you can do such things and be described in the media as centre-left. Indeed, a large part of the trade union leadership in Ireland sees such ‘centre-left’ figures as a counterweight to a right-wing government, even as that government privatises social welfare, endorses private health services, sources 75% of social housing from the private sector, subsidises rich people from the sector that created the financial crisis to send their children to private schools, and introduces effective regressive taxation in the provision of public goods, whilst forking out untold billions in public money to keep afloat an economic model based on financial speculation and the looting of public wealth, to offer a few stray examples. And there is no shortage of gall to go round among those who claim that this is precisely what the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece aspires to do, but doesn’t have the smarts of the suits of Ireland’s ‘Left’.

And this is only on the narrow terrain of political institutions. In Ireland’s public culture more broadly, there is seldom a dichotomy between left and right. ‘Left’ is seldom a descriptor applied to tendencies towards greater social equality and freedom from exploitation. Worse, tendencies that seek to maintain or increase social inequalities and maintain or increase exploitation, whether in homes or enterprises, are seldom described as ‘right-wing’. Take one example in the news in recent days: the Iona Institute. The Iona Institute is strongly committed to the express exercise of State power over women and LGBT people. Its founders are strong supporters of private health care and private education, US military campaigns, and the free market belief system (which entails the express exercise of State power over the working class).

And yet this strong right-wing tendency is seldom remarked upon in Ireland’s mainstream media. For example, a Nexis search for “Iona Institute” from 11th of January 2014 to today’s date returns 307 newspaper results. Only two newspaper articles in that period -which encompasses the reporting of the Panti/Rory O’Neill affair- referred to the Iona Institute as right-wing. One was a piece in the Sunday Independent by Sarah Carey, and another one was reported remarks by Paul Murphy, then an MEP, in the Irish Times.

That is, 0.7% of articles identified the Iona Institute as right-wing, in a period -encompassing both a high profile court action and a referendum campaign where the institute played a prominent role. Against this, it must be pointed out that the Catholic Church more broadly in Ireland also supported, and continues to support, private health care and private education, was vigorously anti-communist, and promoted private property as a means of quelling unrest that might take socialist forms. But the Catholic Church -whose Angelus bells sound every day on the State broadcaster- is never described, of course, as right-wing.

This suggests a remarkable degree of ideological domination exercised by the right wing through Ireland’s media: for all the high-minded claims about ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’, the view of the world it puts forward is overwhelmingly right-wing in orientation, and this is all the more destructive of chances for a more democratic society precisely because it deprives people of the means of naming, and of situating themselves in relation to, the fundamental oppositions and conflicts that run through Irish society unreported.

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