ODS January 19, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
I was been thinking a lot about Occupy Dame Street before Christmas, in part because prior to this I wasn’t thinking much about it in great detail due to pressure from other fronts, so to speak. So this piece by Helena Sheehan is of particular interest in terms of analysing aspects of ODS and bringing people up to date with developments [and is of a piece with this excellent analysis]. I’d add that it is a thoughtful, self-deprecating and useful analysis which is both positive where it needs to be but unafraid of pointing to problematic issues.
I have to admit to being conflicted, though I’m not involved directly so any observations I make are at a bit detached.
There’s a lot to like about Occupy Dame Street. A number of obvious innovations, perhaps most notably the invitation of speakers to those at ODS, have been a genuine step forward in terms of potential educative outcomes and something that others could usefully emulate by rethinking where and how they have similar events. No one could dismiss out of hand the endurance of many of those at the Central Bank. And its longevity is nothing to sniff at either. I’ve wandered down a couple of times, but haven’t had the opportunity to sit in on one of their assemblies (though to judge from the video evidence may be a mixed blessing unless one has the time to devote to them).
But there are those problematic issues mentioned above. I’ve heard no end of people from more traditional left wing groups complaining about the inchoate and diffuse nature of ODS and in particular the marginalisation of that left. And it’s true that there seems to be a certain pathology as regards attitudes specifically towards the SWP, but not entirely restricted to it. Now any of us on the left will appreciate that there is a mixed history there – to put it mildly, but that said there are good people in the SWP, and beyond that again the effort they put into the work they do is prodigious as I’ve seen at first hand time and again. That – of course – doesn’t mean that the outcomes are necessarily optimal. But – even going halfway towards the ODS position, it’s far from impossible to construct processes to mitigate against any of the negative outcomes that seem to perhaps overly exercise ODS.
Sheehan in her piece neatly sums it up as follows:
These specific changes escalated to a way of talking about them as if they were sinister and evil, rather than being another force on the scene that was mobilising on the same issues. Any attempt by the SWP to relate to the occupation was seen as an attempt at infiltration.
This has, it would seem, spread to, or run in parallel to, an antipathy to the unions. Again, any of us on the left are aware of the chequered history of many/most of the TU’s. But the problem seems to be a remarkably undiscriminating attitude whereby some amongst ODS see all unions as being a problem. You know you’re in trouble when DCTU are seen as somehow being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Trade union officials tended to get a rough ride. When Mick O’Reilly spoke, a woman screeched at him demanding that he call a general strike immediately. When Sam Nolan gave a sketch of the history of trade unions in Ireland, it was our longest session, with many people coming and going. After several hours and darkness falling, a new wave of participants were asking questions that had been asked and answered two hours before that. One young woman ranted against trade unions from a position of utter ignorance.
Granted there are other voices too, but I thought it was telling how distinctly ODS has sought to place clear water between itself and unions.
It’s practical effect has been the obvious problem that by not allowing trade union banners, whatever about party banners, that it delinks itself from a broader societal struggle, and look, as we have this week, at levels of union membership in this society – even now. They are mass organisations whatever their flaws.
But, and here’s a further thought, the very concept of 99 per cent and 1 per cent leads, in part, to a broad brush approach whereby the very starkness of that figure disguises – or avoids, some of the nuances that should accompany such analyses. It’s not just 99:1, so much as 20:80 or somesuch, and the distinction isn’t entirely irrelevant. There are tranches within various classes with more or less progressive attitudes – sure. But classes are – and I know this will come as a shock to some of you reading this – antagonistic whether that antagonism is covert or overt. And the same is true of institutions – such as unions etc which are broadly representative of classes. It is revealing to me how in the US the labor movement and the Occupy movement have made common cause and that’s because there seems to be a shared recognition that ultimately it is the working class which makes up much of the 99 and that consequently the interests of an action must be to identify with that class.
But oddly, none of this is entirely unfamiliar to me. There’s an echo of another avowedly “non politics as usual” strand.
Consider the arrival of Eamonn Ryan to speak to them – though given his centrality to the events that exacerbated the crisis he’s a curious choice. Consider Sheehan’s description of the following:
We never discussed criteria for speakers, because we assumed common understanding of the project. Until the name of Eamon Ryan appeared on our timetable. He was now leader of the Green Party, but had been a government minister, defeated in the election earlier in the year. He was a particularly arrogant exponent of the decisions that brought us to our knees. I was told that he would speak on ‘energy, no politics’, which I did not find acceptable.
I introduced the session in a civil, but less than welcoming, way, asking participants to let him have his say, but indicating that all should be able to address the politics of energy as well as to air their grievances with the last government. The discussion veered from people losing their tempers at his very presence and walking away to engaging him in ideological debate to being honoured by his presence and trying to impress him. I was astounded at the latter, especially because I had been careful not to invite Richard Boyd Barrett of the SWP, who had been elected to Dail Eireann in the recent election, or Alex Callincos, when he was in town for the marxism conference, as I thought it would inflame the situation at this stage. People who didn’t want to be tainted by association with trade unions and left parties were gushing over a politician who voted for and justified what ODS was set up to protest.
This is, to me, very telling. Here is someone with direct responsibility for aspects of our current woes, and yet he is invited to address ODS. The contradiction between express aims and this is enormous.
And it is of a piece with that previously mentioned aversion to unions, the emphasis on consensus, the disavowal by some of ‘politics’. It is all too reminiscent in some limited respects of the Green Party.
One thing over the years that struck me in my dealings with some, quite a significant tranche as it happens, within the GP was the attitude to the unions, an attitude of remarkable hostility. This initially surprised me but on reflection didn’t seem so strange at all. The GP didn’t and doesn’t self-consciously do class politics even in the inchoate and residual way of much of contemporary social democracy [of course it does in a more fundamental way, structurally and in the sense of reinforcing or sustaining certain orthodoxies]. Many of their members had little or no experience with unions, indeed few had any serious engagement with them – and due to that there was amongst some an entirely exaggerated understanding of what unions are and do. It was certainly an eye-opener to hear some of the tropes of the mainstream narrative reiterated unthinkingly as regards their ‘corruption’ and so on. And even though I know those amongst their number who fully understand class politics this isn’t reflected in their ethos or policies. I’m no Leninist, but there’s no way around functional class structures that permeate this society and that have to be engaged with politically.
The concentration on ‘consensus’ was something also found within the GP. I entirely understand the motivation for ODS in adopting this, and perhaps more particularly in the context alluded to above when some groups attempt to piggy back or worse onto protests. But having seen, at reasonably close hand how ‘consensus’ style approaches waved the Green Party towards entry to government with Fianna Fáil it seems to me that the limitations of it were as apparent as its virtues. And it was clearly as open to negative outcomes as any other representational/decision making methodology. Again, the image of leading members of the GP seated individually amongst huddled groups of members at that meeting in the Mansion House in 2007 where there were – well – Stakhanovite efforts to reach the 66 per cent required to accept the Coalition, is unlikely to leave me any time soon. And that, a party which twelve months earlier would have found the idea anathema acquiesced to entering an FF led coalition.
And as with the GP it’s useful to note that processes can appear to be more important than outcomes. This, of course, is no stranger to most of us on the left and further left. We do love our programmes – but a programme at least offers a starting point, an expression of first principles. Yet, programmes and formats are not quite the same thing and formats certainly shouldn’t be reified over outcomes.
And the antipathy to politics is problematic, not least because the demands are intrinsically political. They are de facto of the left and of the radical left. But the aversion to sharing the context with others of that left/radical left suggests some complex processes in themselves. Fears of being swamped or marginalised or of a dilution of messages are understandable, but they can seem in some respects to be the flip side of a stand-offishness or sense of ownership which is in itself self-referential and exclusivist in much the same way as the formations that it seeks to avoid being captured by [indeed in that respect there’s something too of the GP about that approach too where when questions were asked about policies they were supporting in government that one would have expected would have been anathema to them it was met with something akin to ‘but that's not the same thing at all as FF supporting such an idea. It’s us who are saying/doing this - how could we do something wrong if we are doing it?’. I exaggerate, but only very slightly, and some would say not at all].
And if this seems harsh on the GP, well it should be because for all the genuinely thoughtful approaches on some issues, and indeed the entirely correct centrality of climate change to much of what they championed, so much of what they implemented in government has been sluiced away by the likes on one P. Hogan. That’s all it took. That’s how marginal their impact actually was.
I’m not trying to suggest that ODS is the GP redux, or to suggest that because the GP was supportive of something that immediately invalidates it, or to suggest that the GP is the font of all evil, but what I am suggesting is that we have seen a formation using which took certain approaches that in practice proved to be deeply problematic and that necessitates some caution in engaging with those approaches. But nor, and this is crucial, does any of this invalidate ODS. It must stand or fall on its own feet and by its own decisions.
That said, there’s something quite… well… admirable about the effort to work out in such painstaking detail their positions on one issue and another. One can argue that it goes over the top, yet there’s a seriousness there that I think is important.
But to even phrase it that way is to point up the issue that it’s not, at least theoretically, just their positions. Not when they seek to represent the 99.
But lest this seem only like a critique of ODS, which it is in part, it’s impossible to focus on them without considering the broader picture. The thing is that ODS has a certain power precisely because the ‘traditional’ left seems to some degree adrift. We’re now three and a half years into the worst socio-economic crisis in generations in Europe and in this state and yet there’s been no phase shift in terms of representation of the left or efficacy. This is in no way to dismiss the very genuine gains, the ULA TDs, Sinn Féin’s advance, and so on. Nor to note the very concrete work carried out by people from those and a range of formations.
But it is to point that those gains don’t quite measure up to the depth of the crisis, and therefore I’d tend to support any experiments that can potentially bring us forward. So despite those problematics noted above there still seems to me to be considerable scope in ODS, both in itself as it is today and in educative terms for others. And as a libertarian socialist it seems to me that it is a manifestation – however imperfect, as all manifestations will be – of an experimental impulse that should be encouraged in itself and as exemplar across a range of areas and by other formations.
To give a small example, a left that supported/organised/enabled open air easy access ‘lectures’ and ‘schools’ around the cities and towns of this island would be one that was moving away from the rather staid and formalised models we’ve seen in the past, one that in some sense was reaching out. The idea of Helena Sheehan or Conor McCabe or Michael Taft and many others speaking openly in public places is something that I think is enormously valuable. That alone would be something to be built on if nothing else ODS did was of import. But it is of import… the simple fact of an oppositional presence, their oppositional presence, is of enormous import.
And in a way that’s why, for me at least, the 99 per cent trope doesn’t delve quite deeply enough into aspects of this – and every − society. That class structures bite deep into and cut across that 99 per cent and have to be acknowledged and engaged with and that this ultimately means moving towards a position of identifying who one stands with as much as who one stands against.