Writing from below

I've just been spending a depressing hour searching the Irish left blogosphere for serious comments on the public sector pay "deal" (the inverted commas because it's by no means clear that it will pass ballots and work as a deal). Let's summarise the most important points: - Massive pay cuts are to remain unless and until public sector workers make equivalent savings (ie through proletarianisation, casualisation and outsourcing; increased productivity; redundancies and "redeployment");

- Loss of rights to overtime pay rates which make up a major portion of e.g. nurse and police salaries;

- No guarantee that even this will restore lost pay if the economic situation doesn't justify it;

- Loss of the guarantee of permanent employment which has been a central part of the attraction of jobs as teachers, civil servants and police in particular (and I would guess nurses).

There are two obvious winners from the deal, which are unsurprisingly the sides actually sitting at the table. On the one hand, the Government was in two minds about imposing the last round of pay cuts in the first place; it had been offered a deal making equivalent savings in return for extra holiday entitlements, and had been minded to accept. The deal was eventually scuppered by a combination of FF backbenchers and GP ministers who felt that they had to be seen to put the boot into public sector unions. If one attributes strategic intelligence to the bootboys, this is because the PS unions are the main line of resistance to a new wave of neoliberalism; if one doesn't, it's because their sense of what the grassroots thinks is largely mediated through reading the Indo and listening to talk radio.

On the other side, this deal saves partnership for a union leadership which has no plan B and (as recent months have shown) does not know what to do with a quarter of a million people prepared to demonstrate in opposition to the cuts. Its only skill (as for much of the leadership in various NGO, social movement and community organisations) is in working partnership; hence the union leadership's actively proposing the "pension levy" which was the first round of cuts, as a way of begging the government to let it stay in the game.

Will workers buy it? I'm seeing virtually no comment on this online, and as one of those workers am feeling pretty worried. Part of the problem is of course that the deal was rushed out just before the Easter holidays, on the justified assumption that our capacity to organise is at its lowest, and that union leaderships can organise ballots faster than we can mobilise against them. I'm sure frantic conversations are taking place within the NPSA, Social Solidarity Network and other anti-partnership and anti-cuts groups though, and haven't given up hope of seeing a workable counter-strategy next week (eg an explanation, in simple language, of what the deal means, why we should reject it, what we can do within our own unions to make sure the ballot fail, and how we can put pressure on the Government - more on all this in a sec.)

There is some real anger out there. Union bosses have ducked invitations to defend the deal in public, we are seeing a range of industrial and political action (the passport office events, 15,000 people opposing the cutting of hospital services in Clonmel) - and no-one who knows anything about Irish teachers, nurses, civil servants or cops can imagine that they will be remotely happy at losing the permanency that is one of the major benefits Irish parents see in steering their children in these directions, or that nurses and cops will be able to afford the loss of overtime pay rates as well as everything else.

But the left commentariat, true to form, are talking about NAMA and Anglo-Irish (and following the lead of the newspapers, which clearly see massive popular anger around this too). Don't get me wrong: NAMA will massively constrain any future government of the left (insert hollow laughter at this point), and will be used for decades to come as a justification for all sorts of financial stringency. But something is missing, which is that little question of agency: who are we writing for?

The answer, as often, seems to be an imagined public sphere which turns out to be more of a blogosphere for fantasising about what a good economic policy would look like, and making clever points about what is wrong with this one. There is, of course, nothing wrong with utopian thought - except when it acts as a distraction from serious politics. Pointing out what is wrong with NAMA and Anglo-Irish is fine as "agitation" - getting a large number of people to feel angry about something - except that that particular job is already being done rather more effectively by the mainstream media, and needs to be followed by "and here is what you should do if you feel strongly about this".

The reasons this doesn't happen more seem to have to do with the implied position of speaker and reader: as we move into the world of discussing the rights and wrongs of economic policy, we move into the implied position of a "we" who make it. That "we" is most obviously the government (which is fantasy), perhaps other people who enjoy swapping opinions about what "they" should do and who like to feel that they understand matters, or (at worst) the nation, as in the government's own good housekeeping rhetoric. The audience that is defined this way is not a space for organising political action; it is a drink-free alternative to the college pub, a place to argue furiously about ideas rather than convincing people to do things.

If we want to convince people to do things, we have to start from the other end: from talking about what is happening to people's jobs, pay and conditions (in both the private and public sectors, and making the connection between the two rather than letting the Indo set them up against each other); by all means show how this is linked to NAMA and AIB, but also why this is happening, in terms of whose interests are served; why union and other social movement leadership remains wedded to "partnership at any cost"; and what we can do, in both public and private sector unions and in our communities and movements, to take effective action right now.

We don't, as one blogger suggested, need to initiate a new kind of discussion and debate about the future of the left. This is happening all the time anyway, but is a much slower process. What we need is to find ways of mobilising, in our own work and living places as well as on a broader scale, that will bring new people into the conversation at the most basic level of "what should we do?" and from there maybe generating new strategies for change.

In other words, we need to talk more about people - what is happening to us, whose interests this is serving, what we can do about it, what risks we are running by taking action and which by not taking action - and subordinate the discussion of things -most notably, economic policy - to that discussion. Those of us who are putting ideas out there need to write more from below, as people affected by these decisions, who want to know who made them and why, and what we can do about it, and less from above, as though we were advising the government.

Unfortunately the main thrust of the training (by universities and the mainstream media) of intellectuals in Ireland is towards this position: to misquote James Scott, towards "seeing like a state". Which works just fine for those (on the political right, or on the conservative wings of Labour, the Greens or Sinn Fein) who have a reasonable chance of winding up in that position of making policy. For the rest of us, perhaps it would be good to stop and think about why we write the way we do, where we learnt how to do so and whether it is in fact working.