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Political upheaval August 26, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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An interesting point made in Mary Regan’s piece in the SBP this last weekend where she considers the political upheavals in this and other states across the last few years. She notes that despite the ‘civil-war parties’ losing 30% of their share of the vote since the 1980s, dipping from 80% to 50% (entertaining to see the LP excluded from that schema):

But their demise is not as strong or as sudden as the retreat of mainstream traditional parties in other European countries. And so far, there has been no dramatic rise of another party to replace it.

She, of course, is thinking of SYRIZA or Podemos. And that is intriguing. I was thinking something not dissimilar the other day. That while the political structures we have known for many decades have disintegrated they haven’t seen a process of reconsolidation in a new form. So, instead, we are left with many competing voices beyond the ‘civil-war’ parties, albeit perhaps a slim majority of those voice on the Independent side are left of centre while SF is the single largest formation, and by quite some distance, outside of the Independents.

Perhaps because here that process of deconsolidation predated the economic crisis of recent years, that slowly the ‘civil-war’ parties were losing ground and momentum and when that crisis broke it accentuated the process. But… that without a clear incontrovertible alternative that process has now halted and perhaps, perhaps even reversed a little.

And this is a problem because forming a coherent opposition is next to impossible. The SBP has a long piece by Michael Brennan on SF (of which more on one particular point soon) which notes that SF has shifted towards a belief that only in coalition with FF is it likely to gain power. I wonder if that underestimates the antipathy towards it from FF. We’ll see.

But still. Political upheaval hasn’t delivered to us the outcomes almost all of us on this site would hope would occur. Perhaps political upheaval isn’t enough, and hoping for same isn’t enough. But if that’s the case then how will those outcomes be achieved?

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1. lcox - August 27, 2016

I think this argument may insist too much on the inherent value of “party-ness” (for lack of a better phrase). Part of the (long) crisis of parties in most west European-style polities (excluding Ireland) has been precisely a crisis of the party model. Syriza and Podemos – in very different ways, one in terms of its origins as an internally diverse alliance, the other in its origins as a sort of anti-party party – were precisely not “just another new party filling a gap in the party system”.

I think this is broadly true of most of what have been seen as promising new party-type initiatives on the west European left: they have either been relatively complex alliances of different progressive forces, or have aimed at some more radical form of democratisation, or both: usually also shaped in terms of some wider engagement with radical social movements (plural). Of course part of the charges most damagingly levelled at both S and P is that they have ceased to be this and have become very much directed by a central clique focussed solely on a particular strategy in terms of state power – in Syriza’s case losing the dissenters, in Podemos’ case becoming “Pablemos”.

Put another way, it’s not just that nature abhors a vacuum but that the “clear alternative” has to be more than just an alternative in terms of programme – it has to be at some level an alternative in terms of organisation. Moreover, potential supporters on the left and in progressive movements (who are not the only ones, but those most likely to lend practical support to the organising process, come out of political retirement etc.) are much more likely to mobilise if they see some sign that the new formation will not immediately reproduce past failed efforts (which they are typically aware of after all).

Put another way, the real challenge in the Republic for those who want a strong left alternative in the party system is to create or more likely develop something which is able to convince substantial numbers of non-members that it is genuinely diverse in terms of the political approaches able to coexist and cooperate within it and / or that it is genuinely internally democratic, and / or that it is organically connected to popular movements, or (ideally) all three.

To be fair I think there are signs of attempts to move in these directions, more in terms of attempting to demonstrate internal diversity (running as alliances rather than individual parties) and a different kind of relationship to movements (particularly the water movement for obvious reasons) than in relation to demonstrating internal democracy etc. and these need to be recognised and supported / encouraged.

But all too often (in my experience) there is simply an assertion of the value of Party-ness, Unity, A Clear Vision / Programme, etc. Particularly unhelpful (imho) is the bait-and-switch that consists in saying “you can see that there are circumstances in which parties are necessary, can’t you? Right then, you should support us / join us” – where the real question is whether *this* organisation is at all convincing in terms of what people on the left / in movements are looking for *beyond* just “being a left party”.

Probably the crucial question in all this (in terms of getting people involved as organisers) is the question of internal power: do committed people with a bit of organising experience really think they are going to be listened to / able to have an impact, not just personally but especially in terms of the kinds of movements, communities and social experiences they know well? And do they still feel that after six months or a year in the organisation? For large numbers of people who have been in a wide range of Irish radical / left parties the answer is clearly “no”, and if you scratch many a community or movement activist you find someone who has been more or less badly burnt by putting a toe in that particular water at some point and said “never again”.

NB that I am not saying this is always the case, still less that it is necessarily the case: what does matter, in practical political terms, is the number of people who have had that experience (including indirectly, through collaborating with particular parties or their friends who have left) and the failure of parties to convince those who share broad elements of their programme to convince them about the party itself.

Taking the “party system” argument a bit further it might be possible to claim that the difference in Ireland (given the crisis in the political system) is the historical weakness / absence of what elsewhere became the post-1968 / New Left parties, obviously due to things like the nature of the postcolonial state and the parties in power, the war in the North and for that matter the historical weakness of the statist left (so that a newer left couldn’t define itself against social democracy in quite the same way). I don’t think it has to be that way *but* it is telling that the sort of critiques which were made of how both Stalinist and social democratic parties worked in the late 1960s and early 1970s are still seen as some kind of bizarre aberration by many people in Irish left parties – who then fume about why so many people who share their ends find the means proposed less than convincing.

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WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2016

I agree with so much of what you say, more pluralistic structures, broader coalitions between left forces, etc that I feel almost churlish to wonder if though there’s a problem between focusing on left forces and members and activists of one stripe and another as against the broader dynamic of how political impulses manifest in the electorate. For example, I don’t know you and haven’t met you IIRC, but you and I would between us probably know a good number of people active on the further left. It’s very very small, the social and political weight likewise.It’s not really able to make the political weather. And… it has more populist rivals (I don’t count SF as not being of the left but some do but I’m thinking of others, ‘centre’ and right independents, etc, etc). And the traditional rivals are bigger again.

I think the questions you ask are entirely legitimate but that they apply to a fairly narrow part of the question as it stands today. Beyond this are those who are entirely unaware and disinterested in the left, whether further or otherwise. And that’s a very large cohort and changing their perceptions and approaches… I’m dubious that that can be done without some form of more political structures if only because that is how political activity is shaped in the context of this advanced capitalist democracy. And there’s an expectation on the part of the electorate that that is how it is done – through a party system. That legitimation which is afforded political activity is very very strong, particularly in the context of increased atomisation due to deunionisation in workplaces, the loss of social capital ironically as supposedly ‘social’ communications increase, etc. People subcontract out to the national and local political structures and to those involved. And that’s a pattern that repeats time and again.

So at the least any putative left formation that encompasses what you and I want it to encompass has to have that side engaging with those actual political structures to it. And from seeing R2C from fairly close at hand I’m dubious about the ability of such disparate forces to work together terribly well – frankly what we have is far from optimal whatever their individual virtues. And if not in the recent year or two where the effects of the past number of years have been particularly resonant, well when in the context of a patchy but not entirely unreal recovery – sufficient at least for the media and a swathe of the population including significant parts of the urban working class to buy into.

And still taking your point to reach those cohorts, some of whom are I worry actually unreachable in some or large part politically – I look at the demise of the LP in particular. c.45 seats to 7. But where did those 38 seats go? They surely didn’t go to the further left in the main. And that makes some sense because in a way they were borrowed from very very soft left and others who had traditionally voted FF. So even in the context of the crisis and after some of those have returned to FF, some to SF, some to Ind/FF gene pool and a much smaller number to the further left or other lefts (SD included).

And this returns to your final sentence which I agree with entirely re ends and means. But framing that in the context of an electorate who even as we speak are shifting in part back to FF and I wonder.

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2. lcox - August 28, 2016

Hi WbS,

I’m not sure if we really disagree (that’s a genuine “I’m not sure” btw!) I’d agree that to reach that wider audience one needs some kind of political structures. My point is more that to do that without relying on the MSM alone (and no serious left force will ever be able to do that) requires pulling together a far wider range of those who are already, to some degree, politically active and able to organise. Both in order to build some kind of critical mass needed to use the limited possibilities afforded by the electoral system, MSM etc. effectively, but also in order to develop a real basis of strength that isn’t reliant on those.

From this perspective the relative smallness in most Irish towns (Dublin I think a bit of an exception) of these circles isn’t irrelevant, but I read it differently. So many of those one would want to get involved in a credible left party have already been burned, or know people who have, that they will need to be convinced by something more than the argument “It’s a Left Party!” to get involved. Conversely that relative smallness means that it’s not impossible to get a sense of what does motivate people to come out of the woodwork for more than a one-off event. And part of that IMHO is not just “lots of people mobilised on a progressive issue” but some sense that a given campaign (which is what is usually involved) isn’t being monopolised by an individual organisation, that manipulation and sectarianism are being held to a reasonable minimum, and that a range of issues and movements are involved. Much of which we have seen with the water charges movement more broadly: part of the critiques of R2C are precisely about whether it has managed to translate the broadly positive experiences of the wider movement into the electoral format or not, surely.

None of which is to say that it is not important to think about the wider picture obviously. But we arrive at very different results if (for example) the starting point is the extent to which people have been mobilised around water charges – in very different ways (non-payment, direct action, local meetings, national demos, R2C votes, discussions on social media) and with quite a range of different political languages – and if we think in terms of a party Centre which (in Marxist or in marketing terms) tries to make an offer pitched in terms of where it perceives a largely passive audience as being. So these are two kinds of relationship between how one works with those who are already, or have been, active and how one relates to those who aren’t yet active.

I do think Dublin is a bit different, in the sense that I am often struck in moving between different spaces (organised left groups, local community activism, unions, other social movements) how often people don’t know each other. Partly a matter of size but also because the national and often international relationships of these different spaces often pass via Dublin so it has that dynamic as well, a kind of inbuilt competitiveness which is often much less marked even at local level in different parts of Dublin as well as in the other towns and regions in the country.

I’m not sure the challenge of reaching the soft left, ex-LP vote is one which can necessarily be resolved by either strategy – though my own feeling is that often we do fail to challenge some of the tendencies behind it. At one level it is hardly surprising that there is a good chunk of any western electorate that would like to see a return to the good old days of the welfare state, however much nostalgia is gilding the picture. Tbh as someone with a mortgage, a salary and family responsibilities if there was a serious option on offer along those lines and my vote actually made a difference I could feel pretty torn. Of course no such option is realistic, but it is unsurprising that people are pulled towards it – and some of how we handle defensive campaigns (and how we talk about neoliberalism) reinforces that sense of uncritical nostalgia, as though all we needed to do was turn the clock back. Few of us think that, but we don’t often challenge it when other people whose support we’re looking for do express that sense.

I think in particular there is a chunk of the Dublin (and other) “respectable” working class which was traditionally FF (Kieran Allen’s book on FF and Irish labour is very good on this), moved to Labour after 2008 and is now attracted by SF or FF’s swing to the left. When I broke down the figures for how the vote has gone since the crisis, the shift to the LP, SF and points further left (about 20% of those voting as between 2007, 2011 and 2016) seems to break down fairly neatly into those who have really learnt nothing (as above) and those who have actually started to change their orientation to politics and are moving left in a more consistent way. Of course this is not simply individual but also an accentuation of a longer-term generational tendency for FF, FG and LP combined to capture less of the vote.

Again it is unsurprising that people want to believe “we’ll see you right” – if you are under the kind of stress that so many wage-earners are and have been, it is a very powerful offer and when it comes from someone you perceive as personally credible and trustworthy, it is quite seductive. The liberal, Irish Times-style critique of people who feel and act in this way is entirely unhelpful – and those familiar with majority world politics will know that it is by no means purely an Irish phenomenon but defines (for example) much of Peronism.

As said I don’t think our own organisational strategies can fully resolve this problem, which I would see as a certain chunk of the electorate not having really changed their orientation to politics but simply looking for whatever offer they feel best meets their sense of what politics is for and what they want to hear. But I do think that the things we can most effectively do to change this lie more in the domain of involving people in some degree of mobilisation and organisation (losing faith in elites through practical experience) than in simply trying to make them an offer through the media and elections.

And it is not at all uncommon to hear from activists that they respond far better to candidates who have a history of getting stuck in on movement and community issues, that they are far more enthused when there is a sense of the left working together and not acting in overtly sectarian ways, and that what they really want to see is people who will act on behalf of the wider working-class / communities / movements etc. In my experience that orientation to politics is widespread enough and often forms the basis for successful candidates (party and non-party) who can hold a local base over decades.

Of course there is one other dimension, which is the non-voters, just under 30% in general elections since 1989, except for 2002 when it was just over. I think it was also just over in 2016 but the figures most normally quoted in Ireland are proportions of the electoral register, which is actually somewhat larger than the complete voting-age population, so that standard turnout figures overestimate non-voters by a few percentage points; see https://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/media/housesoftheoireachtas/libraryresearch/lrsnotes/Election_Turnout_FINAL_28_Jan2016_180434.pdf for details.

To reach non-voters, who even on these reduced figures are still at least as large as the 20% of voters who have become “detached” from FF / FG, I think it is fairly clear that organising, and probably more on a community or other movement basis, has more to offer than a party-centric approach. Of course these need not be alternatives, but to the extent that parties are not really open to independent organising except as a sort of vote bank and cadre recruitment school they can easily become so. My sense is that in most if not all left parties there are activists who genuinely seek to combine both but that they do not typically have the upper hand. And of course one source of popular independent / community candidates on the left is precisely people who are ex-members of parties or in any case open to electoral participation but do not see the actual party organisations in their area as a credible way forward. Not that they are always in the right in this obviously, but the number of such people should surely be a cause for real concern among left parties that want to be part of something bigger.

Apologies for the length of this! I’ve an unexpected 24 hours free and am enjoying the chance to discuss these things but the dull compulsion of economic necessity and childcare will catch up with me very soon. Bottom line: I think it’s entirely possible to agree in theory that a strong left party would be a good thing *and* to feel that existing ones are themselves more driven by their internal power structures (justified with reference to external, “objective” analyses of course) than they are serious about remaking themselves to become the kinds of organisations that could come anywhere near Syriza or Podemos at their best. Given that both of the latter have, em, disappointed expectations considerably, of course what actually has to be aimed at if one takes the “but we need a party!” analysis seriously has to go beyond that in terms of ambition, not fall below it (or use those failures to justify changing nothing).

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WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2016

I was wondering could I post that up as a post in itself perhaps?

Like yourself I think we aren’t actually in disagreement it’s just we’re looking at the issue(s) from two somewhat different perspectives. I was thinking in the interim, been out, that in a way it is that there are two questions, one is the forms of organisation, and I think those have to be pluralistic and we’re in agreement there, and secondly the means of appealing to tranches of citizens who hitherto have only in extremis voted, or thought of voting, or simply haven’t voted and never would for left of FF candidates and parties and formations has to be fashioned.

I think your point re ‘a mortgage, a salary and family responsibilities ‘ and the appeals of a genuine SD alternative – perhaps along the lines of what Corbyn and those in the LP are somewhat inchoately reaching towards would in itself be a game changer, but like you I’m pessimistic that that is happening and while SF has many of the attributes of same there’s a basic problem that many won’t vote for it full stop and there are programmatic issues that prevent it from appealing to many.

And just to say I agree ‘we need a party’ isn’t going to work as is and anyhow there’s too many franchises on the left whose core belief is that they = socialism. That’s another problem in and of itself.

Adding to the woe is the sense of those who move from left to independents slipping structures of representation, in terms of reference groups, etc. That’s another problem because once beyond party they tend never to go back to any structures or only very diffuse ones (and just on all that, it’s telling to me how the SDs and various others have no clear democratic structures so far).

Can I +1 your final paragraph in particular:

Bottom line: I think it’s entirely possible to agree in theory that a strong left party would be a good thing *and* to feel that existing ones are themselves more driven by their internal power structures (justified with reference to external, “objective” analyses of course) than they are serious about remaking themselves to become the kinds of organisations that could come anywhere near Syriza or Podemos at their best. Given that both of the latter have, em, disappointed expectations considerably, of course what actually has to be aimed at if one takes the “but we need a party!” analysis seriously has to go beyond that in terms of ambition, not fall below it (or use those failures to justify changing nothing).

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lcox - August 28, 2016

By all means do make it a post if you think it merits it – I’d be honoured! If that doesn’t break the discussion too artificially.

+1 to your comments in any case!

The Corbyn experiment is fascinating and (like some of the Sanders support in America) does underline the support that can be tapped fairly readily for anything that seems like a credible offer of a social-democratic kind: not enough for a majority but certainly a good place to start from. I think in both cases it also underlines (at a minimum) the extent to which there is support available for people who seem to be doing politics differently (in the sense of being personally honest rather than slick, facing off against party authorities who don’t mind how undemocratic they appear so long as they win, and consciously trying to make links with wider movements).

And in this sense more useful than “Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Fein” (with the implication that they are all in some sense doing the same, and airbrushing out their differences) might be “Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn” with the implication that as in Latin America there might be many different possible strategies, each no doubt with their own weaknesses but some more likely to succeed in particular national situations than others (although clearly any such party is up against it in a big way).

Having said which the thought of a “New Left party with Irish characteristics” is, em, not the most catchy of slogans to start from…

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WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2016

Heheh, that’d be quite a party.

That’s true too re the very distinct differences being smoothed away and that being a problem. All three and more are quite different both in orientation, etc. I’ve long felt that this is a situation that has to be fought on a number of fronts simultaneously, in communities, workplaces with unions, in local and national representative bodies and of course around and about them in the media and so forth. Each of those need different approaches, I also think there has to be a commonality of approach and goal. But one big party? Can’t see that quite yet!

I’ll link to the discussion in a day or two perhaps. it would be useful to get a sense of what others think.

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3. GW - August 29, 2016

Great discussion so far – for me this is the vital question for the further left – how do we build a democratic political structure that a range of people can invest emotionally in and give their time willingly to? One that goes beyond the political impasse that many movements reach.

It’s clear to me that Leninoid forms of organising and relating to campaigns and movements (in a nutshell – take it over and use it as a recruitment tool) have succeeded in putting of more people of leftist instincts from politics for life than they have active members. These are the ‘burned’ that Icox refers to.

Lessons have to be learned from Syriza’s failure and the present blockage of the rise of Podemos.

The appetite and a potentially large constituency is there for a party with a plan (as opposed from the standard ‘Let’s have a revolution and then work out what to do) outside the mainstream – that from the start had methods to bypass the inevitably hostile MSM.

One aspect would be a respect for different levels of engagement – many of the potential activists do not have the time to mimic the self-sacrificial level of engagement expected in Leninoid formations – they have families and probably work to go to. They will also at first be wary, given the way that further left politics has alienated so many people in the last few decades.

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WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

Gw that’s key I think that as peoples personal circumstance changes – partners or family or different work experiences etc – their perspectives shift radically and their willingness to engage likewise. The thought strikes me too, you know when many people talk about how after splits people just walk from parties, I wonder is it that the chance to go is there and people take it (something not disimikar occurred generationally with SF too). The other problem is pseudo conspiratprial military style structures just don’t work in the current era and really only once of twice before in ver y particular vonditions .

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WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

Apologies my phone has heard of predictive texting but doesn’t hold with any if that new fangled nonsense

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4. Alibaba - August 29, 2016

I think the building of a democratic political structure is a vital one. The main obstacle to the building of a new energised Left is the enormous distrust that many activists have for the practice of Leninists, as well as the self regarding and self perpetuating cliques of other formations. People do get ‘burned’ out for the reasons articulated. Nothing short of overhauling organisational matters and working genuinely collaboratively has a hope of resolving this. So much easier said than done; I know, I know.

The record of Stalinist, Maoist, whatnots somewhat wiped away in late 20th century makes many people understandably turn away in horror at anything associated with revolutionary socialism. So democracy matters. So too does the necessity for a focus around which people can mobilise and agitate, given that the radical Left has minuscule political weight. And like it or not leadership is needed to seize that opportunity when it arises, share resources and to channel it all towards the kind of action that builds movements or parties that could be a factor in power. What to do? As put in the words of Samuel Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

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WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

Building representative structures across widely varying areas is party/formations, unions, communities is a huge challenge and yet it can’t be impossible one would think

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lcox - August 29, 2016

I do think with all the known difficulties the experience of R2W (not so much R2C!) is a powerful step forward. It’s the first time I can recall when we have actually seen the different forms of working-class organisation (community groups, trade unions, political parties) working together in any sustained way. I know it’s been anything other than plain sailing, but still it is a real indicator that it is not impossible to work together despite all the known forces pulling in other directions.

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WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

Interesting too to contrast the fates of R2W and R2c

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5. Gewerkschaftler - August 29, 2016

On a more international level the movement against TTIP and CETA has been a good and reasonably effective (a TTIP agreement is looking doubtful – and pressure against the ratification of CETA is rising) participation from a wide variety of civil groups, political parties and importantly trades unions.

But that is a campaign against – new party forms have to stand for a broad picture of what they are for – which is another kettle of fish entirely. This is the problem I have with ‘anti-austerity’ as a rallying cry.

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