Now what?

At least in the mediatised world where most Irish commentators seem to spend their time, things are moving very quickly. Whether they are moving that quickly for the rest of us, remains to be seen. As the foreign press in particular have noted, the strange thing is how little active resistance there has been to date to what amounts to a class war from above: a series of attacks which started with those on CE schemes, moved onto emergency budgets, the abrogation of social partnership, the establishment of NAMA and now the IMF / ECB bail-out. In the process, large numbers of people have lost their jobs; far more have taken substantial pay cuts while in many cases being tied to boomtime mortgage rates; a series of "belt-tightening" measures have put huge squeezes on many low- and middle-income households (not counting those who are about to lose their homes).

There is no doubt that people are not happy about this: the collapse in the Fianna Fail vote in particular over the last couple of years, two massive demonstrations over the last couple of years, and opinion polls all make this clear. Nevertheless, to the extent that any of this anger has found practical expression so far it has largely been in forms that will do nothing to change the big picture. The major vote swing has been to Labour - committed in advance to loyalty to the EU (and the national interest as defined by elites) and austerity - and the big demonstrations have been organised by ICTU - whose primary concern is to re-establish partnership by any means necessary, not to challenge economic policy. Sinn Fein are playing various cards to try and outflank Labour to the left - but still from a "pro-business" perspective from which a "debt for equity" swap seems like a radical step forward rather than something which has been widely floated by mainstream economic commentators (i.e. the people who helped get us into this mess in the first place).

That people can be manipulated by a bunch of "talk left, walk right" professionals is hardly news, depressing though it is. It is interesting though to watch the gap between feelings and action on the part of those who lose out in this particular three-cup trick. It is clear to the commercial media - not bound by RTE's concern to stay in with the powers that be (even though they seem set to become the powers that were within a couple of months): today's papers are full of calls for default (from the Sunday Independent of all people), celebrations of "protest nation" and so on.

If people are hurting and angry, why are we not seeing more signs of action? Saturday's march was interesting from this point of view: the numbers and feeling were sufficiently large that organisers will certainly keep at it, but hardly enough to suggest that a general strike is around the corner. Come to that, ICTU - who have been doing their level best to avoid too much mobilisation lest the new Labour-FG government have to face an angry and active electorate - felt it was worth holding a march and that it could be done without stoking up anything (they seem to have been right, at least so far).

There are various conventional analyses, roughly as follows: (1) people are afraid of the costs of action, particularly of losing their jobs or other possible reprisals in a time of crisis - true in a sense, but at other times people do take action despite the costs; (2) people see no economic alternative to "business as usual" - hardly credible given the failure of the bail-out even to prop up the financial basics of the state, let alone that of ordinary households; (3) the media are terrible - pretty much a universal given, so not much of an explanation for international differences; (4) people are lions led by donkeys - true, but again hardly a unique situation. Most of these, in other words, are non-explanations; they may be true, but they don't distinguish the times in which people (in Ireland or elsewhere) engage in disruptive politics from those in which they don't.

Let's try three alternative analyses: (1) vicarious identification with wealth and power: certainly significant in the Ireland of the last two decades, and workable in the rest of the Anglo world. For Ireland in particular, the identification has an aspect of wanting to remain "white", "in Europe", "middle class" and other signifiers which mean "please don't let us drop" and involve a reluctance to engage in unrespectable behaviour (protesting, striking, direct action etc.) (2) Sectoral politics, or the logic of Passover - the angel of the Lord is about to slay the firstborn, but let's see if we can't negotiate a let-out clause for Navan hospital, student fees, CDPs or whatever else - understanding that we can only hope to get this from elites if we couch it in terms of loyalty and disconnect from other issues.

Both of these imply a deferential politics (full of resentment no doubt, but one which is entirely focussed on gaining the approval of those who are more powerful and wealthy). If either of these applies, the real challenge lies in the learning curve that people go through as they realise that they are not going to be "seen right", and the question of what analyses they find to hand when this increasingly desperate clinging-on to the hope of continued client status falls apart.

There is also a third possibility. It starts by noting that those who have been worst hit, are also those who are least listened to, and least known, and whose actions are most unpredictable. The increasingly respectable and upwardly-mobile politics of Labour, Sinn Fein, union bureaucracy, NGOs and many community organisations, on this analysis, comes at the expense of those who are neither respected nor surviving.

Furthermore, as elsewhere in the global North, we have returned to the 19th and early 20th century situation of a homogenous elite consensus within parliaments, media etc. (very visible today in the incredibly feeble proposals of Labour and SF), where popular politics to a large extent takes place outside these institutions and at best has mutually instrumental relationships with particular individuals or organisations. If being "inside the system" means routine demonstrations of loyalty to (say) orthodox neo-liberal economics, the EU, austerity and a technocratic approach to politics, it could hardly be otherwise.

In other words, the real search is for ways to find the "power of the powerless"; rather than strategising about a "government of the left" (as if LP + FG, or even SF + LP, would be any such thing) we should be thinking about Latin American models (and perhaps, right now, particularly Argentina ten years back). The current situation - a politics of fear, technocratic rhetoric as a tool for disempowerment, a media working for the state and Tony O'Reilly, and political parties playing "talk left, walk right" - is likely to continue at least for some time.

That does not make the attempt to construct alternatives irrelevant, but it does mean that a focus on doing so at the expense of building movement power here and now is a distraction. That process in turn cannot be as culturally complacent as the Irish left has tended to be. It needs to have some element of self-critique; an acknowledgement of the ways in which people "bought into" the search for property, upward mobility, respectability and acceptance by elites and a conscious attempt to build new egalitarian cultures. A new culture can be created in action, but only if that action is one which revolves around making the country ungovernable from above and creating new forms of popular power from below, in struggle.

The call for a one-day general strike on Budget Day is the simplest and most valuable of these. It makes visible what everyone knows - that the bail-out, austerity politics and the government are rejected by the mass of the population. And it does so in ways that do not involve serving as useful idiots for tomorrow's finance ministers and local councillors. If successful, it also fires a warning shot across the bows of those who will keep on seeing what else we will lie down for until we get up and stop them.