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.
Below is a flyer showing five key proposals for Ahora Madrid:
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?