The citizens’ assembly on abortion in Ireland – a pre-emptive critique of anticipated hype

For readers living in any country that is not Ireland, you might have missed it but the campaign to legalise abortion has made huge mileage over the last few years and – not wanting to jinx it – will probably win a fairly unrestrictive regime later this year. A central element in this struggle has been the Citizens’ Assembly on the 8th amendment: a panel of 99 randomly selected people from across the country charged with making recommendations to the government in terms of what should be done regarding a constitutional article that currently guarantees the right to life of unborns and therefore effectively removes decision-making rights from women within the borders of the irish state about the functioning of their own bodies. This article has led to some barbaric treatment of women including the X case – a fourteen year old who was raped, planned to travel to the UK to have an abortion, and when the family asked the police if DNA from the aborted foetus would be admissible as evidence against the rapist, the state sought and won (later overturned on appeal) an injunction to prevent her from leaving the country in case she might go and exercise control over her own body. That was in 1992. Twenty years later, an Indian woman called Savita Halappanavar died in hospital when her pregnancy began to miscarry and caused an infection in her blood. Early on during the miscarriage, she requested the pregnancy be terminated, which would have saved her life, but was told “this is a Catholic country”.

The citizens’ assembly sat and deliberated for seven months in 2017 before finally recommending unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. And despite a cynical attack from the ageing political class and establishment media which framed these recommendations as extremist, a date for a constitutional referendum has been set for next month, May, and it looks likely that it will be easily won. On paper this sounds like a positive example of participatory democracy at work. And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of and why I’m writing this piece. On paper, and with the main details, I can already see liberal and progressive journalists and political science researchers praising it and urging other European countries to implement similar structures. What I am afraid of is that said journalists and researchers will attribute the ‘success’ of the experiment to its design features and hail it as a model to be replicated. So I’m going to give a pre-emptive correction to this view.

But first, the background. The Irish state inherited a law from the british colonial government, but after independence when the british government legalised things, Ireland remained stuck in the dark ages. Which gave rise to the practice of travelling across the water for those who could afford it, while backstreet abortions or being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy was the lot for those who could not. This regime was not enough for some reactionaries, who in the 1980s formed a campaign to have foetuses’ right to life made constitutional. The governments of the day were slaves to the power of the catholic church and so organised a referendum which was passed in 1983 as the eighth amendment, which effectively prevented any legal liberalisation. Then there was the X-case as outlined above. Although the horrific injunction imprisoning a teenage rape victim was initially granted, this ruling was subsequently overturned in a higher court, which argued that the right to life of a foetus does not outweigh the right to life of a pregnant mother, including if she feels suicidal.

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Image from Shirani Bolle

In normal circumstances, a ruling like this would lead to legislation to establish this principle in law, but successive governments have been happy to shit on women rather than risk alienating the church or their conservative support base. Instead you had what is euphemistically known as an Irish solution to an Irish problem: abortion is unconstitutional, except in some cases; but the state isn’t obliged to tell you want those case are; certain abortions could be legal in Ireland, but the state doesn’t know and won’t inform the medical profession or women, so it is mostly up to the conservatism and fear of legal consequences of individual doctors; people may travel to access abortion, if they have the means, but the role of state-based medical boards is a grey area; giving out information on the possibility to travel is also a grey area.

And that was how things stayed until into 2010-2013. There was always a pro-choice movement but they were successfully demonised and liberal public discourse consistently gave ‘balance’ between ultra conservatives and moderate conservatives. But then there were two events which shook things up and injected this movement with anger and momentum. First, three women took a court case against the state claiming that the regime violated the European Convention of Human Rights. They weren’t entirely successful, but the court did rule that chaotic and uncertain environment where women cannot figure out what their rights are, this was a violation of the ECHR. This led to a government-appointed body to review the situation and announced their recommendations that the state was obliged to provide ‘clarity’. This announcement came in 2012. The very next day, news broke of the death of Savita Halappanavar, mentioned above. The widespread disgust that people felt on hearing about her treatment translated into growing support and visibility and acceptability for the pro-choice movement, which forced the government to do something. That something was the diplomatically and ambiguously titled ‘Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act’ in 2013. For all the time it took to produce, it didn’t do much more than implement both the eighth amendment from 30 years earlier and the X-case ruling from 21 years earlier into law (i.e. abortion is possible if the life of the woman is in danger including through suicide) so as to provide the needed ‘clarity’.

So far, so familiar. Anybody can look that up on wikipedia. Oh, did I fail to mention that under the 2013 law, whether a woman was considered suicidal would have to be approved by a 3-5 member panel of medical professionals (so, quite far from a woman having choice over her own body). Or that it established that women having unapproved abortions faced up to 14 years in prison. And that the regressiveness of it was illustrated the following year when an asylum seeker who had been raped in her home country discovered she was pregnant in Ireland, wanted to terminate but could not travel to the UK under the terms of the asylum application, became suicidal, went on hunger strike, the courts ordered that she be force-fed and then her pregnancy was delivered by c section. You can also look that up on wiki.

But from here there are a few points that are harder to come by. Officially, the CA was established as “an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society today”, and has been marketed as the brainchild of grown up visionary politicians. However, anybody could have told you back in 2016 that the real reason for establishing the CA was to avoid being seen to make a political decision. There is an influential conservative minority to whom the political class has always either explicitly or by default given deference. But over the last eight years or so, the pro-choice silent majority has been growing in confidence with pro-choice individuals realising that their views are not as isolated as they are often told. So, along with the growing momentum of the movement, the scandal of high-profile abhorrent cases such as Savita Halappanavar and anonymous victims of the courts, politicians were caught between a rock and a hard place: do nothing or do something, either way you leave an angry constituency royally pissed off. Some limited concessions were granted with the 2013 PoLDP act but it was clear that the government were not powerful enough to keep the growing movement in check forever and that further, limited, concessions were on the cards. The CA was a way to disarm the movement with these kinds of limited concessions without losing credibility with their conservative support base through being the ones to grant those concessions.

What they didn’t realise was the extent of the gulf between themselves along with their conservative support base on the one hand and the values among the younger, less well-paid, more female, wider population. And so, 99 randomly selected people rocked the establishment through recommending something that wasn’t even on their radar: unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

And straightaway came the spin: [The prime minister] says the country is not ready for abortion on demand”. “The consensus in the [parliament] is that the assembly’s recommendations were an overly-liberal interpretation of the current thinking of middle Ireland on the issue”. “Sometimes these debates are dominated by hard-line views on both sides and I think the government has a responsibility to go through a process that can allow a much more respectful and informed debate”. A pro-choice Independent minister, often portrayed as radical, even went so fat as to say “I expect that the people will not be in favour of a liberalisation of the abortion legislation to the extent that the Citizens’ Assembly put forward”.

The implicit message behind each of the statements was that the 99 members of the CA (and not the political class or establishment media) were out of touch with the public and that visionary deliberative democracy would be given the shaft and a referendum would have to contain something much more moderate if it was to have a chance of passing. And they were on track to get away with this as alternative watered-down proposals were being drafted. But then came a poll in late 2017 which found that 60% of people supported abortion upon request, and even higher numbers favouring abortion given certain circumstances. In other words the poll directly contradicted the spin emanating from the political and media establishment: the public was of a broadly similar opinion to the CA, and actually it was political class who are out of touch.

Faced with this evidence, the establishment class found themselves backed into a corner. A strategy to disarm a movement through granting limited concessions, but at the same time not be seen to be the ones granting those concessions turned out to be a bungle and has put on the table a far greater devolution of power with respect to women exercising choice over their bodies than was ever expected. A referendum was announced for May, and at the time of writing looks likely to be won.

So what were the keys to success of the CA? Two things: (1) a miscalculation on part of the government and (2) a movement of committed activists who knew every cynical trick of the government as they tried to regain ground lost through this miscalculation and who knew how to respond to it. So there you have it, for all these political scientists or functionaries who want to replicate the CA model, this is something you won’t find documented anywhere. But interview anybody involved in the movement and they will give you a perspective something like this. And make to include those two recommendations – government miscalculation and strong movement – in your report to the European Economic and Social Committee or your paper in the European Journal of Law and Public Administration.

Review: Notes toward a performative theory of assembly by Judith Butler

It’s been a while since anything was written here. I’ve been sunk with wage-labour. Or more precisely the labour that you have to do along side a paid job but which isn’t paid. I’m not sure what that’s called.

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But anyway, I didn’t have time to write but I did have time to read – Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. I remember being involved in a direct action campaign a few years back where we were blocking construction machinery on an infrastructure project. One thing that did my head in was when the construction workers would ask “but there is only a handful of you” as if that implied that what we were doing was not reflecting widespread public opinion. Even worse was when some of our own would say “It’s disgraceful that there aren’t more people here. If they really cared they would be here”. This whole dynamic brought forward a sense of righteousness: we are the only ones with the commitment to act on our beliefs and we were burdened with doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the majority who were on our side but too lazy to do something about it.

I never felt comfortable whenever this attitude started to assert itself in our group. Two interrelated topics that Butler deals with in this book are the socialised support required for a person to ‘appear’ and take political action, and the relation between the messages put forward through the actions of activists and the opinions of the broader population, the democratic will (And there are plenty others). What I’m taking away is that we should be humbled by the privilege to have the opportunity to act politically where others cannot (even if often getting beaten by the police, or ostracised trying to find a new job doesn’t make it feel like much of a privilege). It is also singularly important not to drift into the whole ‘doing this on behalf of those who could not be here’: certainly it’s good to acknowledge that there are those who can’t be there, and that out of solidarity we should do what they would like to have the chance to do, that is, to push the struggle in ways they would like. But we cannot assume the right to act or speak for others. This gives rise to the politics of representation. Ok not in the traditional sense where we think of it as a party claiming to represent a constituency of voters but then being given free reign with no accountability. But think about the elections last year in Kenya: anti-democratic electoral interference prevented Odinga from winning, but the flip side is that reclaiming democracy is now reduced to getting him into power. We can see a similar pattern with high-profile women hit by the glass ceiling (e.g. Robin Wright campaigning for equal(ly astronomical) salary as Kevin Spacy on House of Cards), persecuted whistleblowers dominating campaigns with their egos (e.g. Julian Assange), when asylum is granted to a limited number of refugees who took action, or arrested activists becoming the voice for the next directions of the campaign, namely to try to secure their release (e.g. Nelson Mandela). In each of these cases we have genuine subversions of democracy and genuine experiences of repression, leading to a situation in which the personal projects of a set of select people get projected as the only way the democratic will can be respected. Anarchists and activists involved in direct action like to think their forms of organisation and repertoires of action are based on directly democratic participation and are opposed to a politics of representation, but as Butler shows, and as seen in the examples above, saying your actions are against representation is one thing but there are ways for the logic of representation to creep back into things, which is not something that anarchists are used to being accused of.

Other themes dealt with in the book that are relevant to us today include ethics – important to guiding or situating intersectional struggle, including the right (even necessity) to subdivide multi-dimensional autonomous identities even in places where strategically only unity will advance struggle; breaking the separation between body and speech – think about the ability to write, or the talent to write well, and the exclusions that are created and voices lost when cultures or movements elevate the status of print over vocal and emotional knowledge; and, as the title suggests, a theory of assembly – what could be more important to understand seeing how the most explosive forms of revolt of the last 10 years were almost entirely defined by stripped down assembly, or simply being, together (compared to previous tactics like shutting down meetings in the days of the alterglobalist movement, or strikes and workplace occupations further back in the syndicalist wave of the early 20th century). Indeed evidence of its importance can be seen in how Hardt and Negri have made a comeback to deal with precisely that topic.

I’m probably over extrapolating in drawing out these lines, which is partly as a result of me reading too deeply into her thoughts, and partly as a result of her reading too deeply into hypothetical situations. The problem with hypothetical or abstract reasoning is that you can make very convincing arguments about a dilemma or contradiction that really is not such a big issue in practice. For example, she asks “Does the freedom of assembly depend on being protected by government, or does it depend on a protection from government? And does it make sense for the people to rely on government to protect itself from government” (p158). The problem is that this abstract logic creates a paradox which in reality people, rationally, are pragmatic about.

For example, I was reading something about a series of movements in India where it was observed how movements negotiate this false dilemma strategically rather than ideologically when deciding which avenues have the best prospects of getting their aims realised. As the author observes, movements recognise the necessity

“to steer a strategic course between anti-statism on the one hand and state-centrism on the other hand. The basic argument against anti-statism would be this: an awareness of the structural limits to the changes that can be achieved via the state-system and the state-idea does not translate into a principled rejection of any engagement with the state. […] this does not entail a position in which interaction and negotiation with the state is seen as the beginning and the end of the strategic scope of oppositional collective action. […] In other words, it is a position that advocates an instrumental rather than a committed engagement with the state-system, and the state-idea – that is, an approach to interaction with the state based on limited expectations of what can be gained and, simultaneously, a clear perception of what cannot be gained and what is risked in pursuing this avenue.”

So, if the police protect particular bodies on a particular night from attack, taking that protection doesn’t mean you are a statist. I remember being involved in a camp and on one occasion being called to intervene in a case of partner violence. When we joined together to ask the guy to leave he started punching out at all of us until eventually us weak bodies managed to somehow overpower his macho mass. And we sat on him to immobilise him and called the police, who by day had been trying to evict us. For us it was a no-brainer that we had to rely on the state to protect us, regardless of what the state tried to do to us other times.

And just to give another example (because it is annoying me how much of a non-issue this can be for people), unemployment benefit is often an important form of protection by government for activists. Without it many people I know would not have the time or energy to get involved in projects that they are in, while for others, it saves them from activism rendering them homeless or turning them into alcoholics. Activists often draw unemployment benefit without falling into the illusion that the state is somehow benevolent and that they don’t need protection from it. Indeed, in some countries unemployment benefit is necessary in order for unemployed people to be entitled to social and medical security – often precisely to pay for the medical costs for treatment for injuries received at the hands of the police at a protest.

This is just one fleshed out example of how Butler’s style of argument (and possibly the whole area of political philosophy in general, I can’t say I read enough of it to be able to tell) can create its own problems rather than dealing with problems that people encounter in struggle. As a consequence you need a fair bit of concentration to stay focused on the eventual point. I’ve heard other people speculate that Zizek doesn’t write his books – he just records himself on a rant and then has that dictated. I can well picture Butler doing this, only instead of recording herself while riled up and foaming, she records herself when stoned. And the result goes like this:

“It is true that I am trying to struggle toward an affirmation of interdependency in what I have offered here, but I am trying to underscore just how difficult it is to struggle for social and political forms that are committed to festering a sustainable interdependency on egalitarian terms. When any of us are affected by the sufferings of others, it is not only that we put ourselves in their place or that they usurp our own place; perhaps it is the moment in which a certain chiasmic link comes to the fore and I become somehow implicated in lives that are clearly not the same as my own. And this happens even when we do not know the names of those who make their appeal to us or when we struggle to pronounce the name or to speak in a language we have never learned. […] Indeed, certain bonds are actually wrought through this very reversibility, however incomplete it is. And we might find ways of understanding the interdependency that characterises cohabitation precisely as these bonds. For if I am here and there, I am also not ever fully there, and even if I am here, I am always more than fully here. Is there a way to understand this reversibility as limited by bodily time and space in such a way that the other is not radically other, and I am not radically over here as an I, but the link, the joint is chiasmic and only and always partly reversible and partly not?” (p 120)

As I said above, I don’t know if this kind of thing is a problem of this specific book or of political philosophy in general (Zizek certainly comes up with some things which sound fascinating and enigmatic but have zero relation to anything going on outside his head). One thing though in terms of the substance of her argument that I do disagree with is the second last chapter, ‘We the people’: thoughts on freedom of assembly. A big part of her conclusions here are built on, amongst other things, how she deconstructs the idea of ‘the people’. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid problematisation of what is and has always been an exclusionary and elitist concept of constituency. But why not just skip all these problems and just go with the multitude? The reason I ask is that elements of the multitude don’t try to speak for or act in the name of other elements. Butler even makes an important point with this critique of the concept of ‘the people’: civic units are (in part) constituted through the means by which they are permitted to access the public and/or political area. As she says,

“All of these are reasons why those with the freedom to appear can never fully or adequately represent the people, since there are people who, we know, are missing from the public, missing from this public assembled here in Gezi Park; they are those who must find representation, even as those who seek to represent them risk imprisonment for doing so. And it is not just that there are some people who happen to be missing from the gathering because they had something else to do; rather, there are those who could not have gathered in Gezi Park, or can no longer gather, or who are indefinitely restrained from gathering. That very power of confinement is a way of defining, producing, and controlling what will be the public sphere and who will be admitted to public assembly” (p 173)

Incidentally, for a great example of how this works in practice, have a read of this article on ‘minority politics’ in Amsterdam and how the local government switched the framing from multi-ethnic integration (involving social justice-oriented leftist immigrant groups) to religious inclusion (centred on religious associations), with the result that where left activists once campaigned as leftists, they then campaigned as muslims. But regardless, why not just sidestep the entire theoretical dilemma by using the concept of the Multitude? – which incidentally also happens to free itself from the further dilemma of tacitly legitimising a state that represses it.

So, on the one hand Notes toward a performative theory of assembly deals with a lot of relevant themes and ideas. On the other hand, there are problems which I have outlined. I’m going to embrace the contradiction rather than trying to tease it out.

Diversity commentary:

Monograph written by a homosexual woman. University-educated, working at Professor rank at a university in an advanced capitalist country (USA). She was born in the US, is white, but comes from a Jewish family, of whom previous generations were persecuted and killed by the Nazi regime.

The electoral politics delusion

Its that time of the season again where a prominent left-wing party or candidate looks like they might just get close to winning an election, and the question is asked, “what if ….”. This time it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, but this comes only a few weeks after Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not so far away from the 2nd round (and some say probable eventual victory had he reached that far). And with the failure of the extra-parliamentary, non-institutionalist left-led wave of struggle from 2009-2013 or there abouts, and with the racist right riding a wave at the moment, can you really blame people for getting enthusiastic about something that looks a little bit hopeful for a change?

The thing is though, if elected, Corbyn won’t implement any radical policies, and he will have a hard time implementing even moderate reforms. But I’m not going to argue this like the usual anti-state anarchist cut-and-paste denouncement of any effort to effect change through the state or political parties. Actually, I would ask people in the UK to vote Labour and maybe even join and become active members in their local Party branches. But before all that, let’s take a look at some trends leading us here.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the general capitalist crisis that followed it was so deep that neoliberalism really faced a legitimacy crisis for a while. But instead of trying to save its image the dominant response from governments right or left of centre was to mount a class struggle assault and to undo gains won from below in previous bouts – something so galling that by 2011 the movements of the squares unleashed the most visible ever (at least in Europe and North America) extra-parliamentary extra-institutionalist movement (of which the M15 or Occupy were only the most well known instances of a more general trend of extra-parliamentary and extra-institutional struggles kicking off everywhere), that explicitly said Fuck You to the entire political Class, in the process bringing in thousands of people who had never been active in any political way before.

But in the end, we failed. Even to get minimum objectives. Although the left-led wave of anti-austerity struggle did articulate visions of a radically different type of economy, there were plenty of other non-revolutionary solutions that we would have been happy with. For instance, Keynesianism is far from anti-capitalist and the capitalist class would have been ok with this as a peace-treaty had we forced it on them. A plane ordinary stimulus solution is even less anti-capitalist. But while capitalism should have been entirely discredited, not only did it survive, but it actually led an assault and pushed beyond the previous peace-lines. The fact is that nowhere has anybody – autonomist left, institutional left, or reactionary right (who regardless of posturing obviously aren’t going to challenge neoliberalism, what with their business leaders support) – was able to win anything: not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity.

In 2012 we saw Syriza jump from 4.6% to 12% of the vote. But with Golden Dawn making a frightening jump (from a lower starting level of support), and with the general movement still going strong, this was kind of forgotten about. But then, not so long later, as 2014 drew to a close, it looked like this party was likely to win in the election in January. This was certainly different from the movement of the squares, and it was one of the first times a Party that made significant anti-austerity noises had been in a position that they might have a chance of winning. So naturally people across Europe started asking the question: ‘What if…”

Well we soon found out what happened.

But I’m not the type to write-off any prospects for an institutionalist solution just because it didn’t work once. There are any number of reasons why what happened to Syriza would not necessarily happen elsewhere. For example, they were the first openly challenging austerity politics to get to a position where they could technically do something about it. So the Greek and European establishments rallied to prevent it. It is by no means certain such an alliance could hold out indefinitely and wait out the legitimacy crisis if faced with a series of similar situations in country after country (although obviously an unrealistic ‘if’). It was also Greece, the hardest hit of the austerity laboratories, and as a test case the neoliberal cadre has a lot invested in seeing how far they can push this one. It might have been easier to extract concessions if the Syriza phenomenon had taken place in, say, Portugal or Ireland (again, and unrealistic ‘if’).

But these hypotheticals aside, looking at what has happened since, I still say a Corbyn government will not be able to deliver, not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity. It is generally accepted that Mélenchon would not have been able to do much with a presidency despite the unique circumstances, reflective of a general legitimacy crisis in politics in France, where all you need is 20% to win. But because the support of a similarly diverse parliament is required, only a candidate of the establishment could actually do anything. This of course served to support Fillon or Macron, but Mélenchon or Le Pen would only have survived in the presidency if they made the right compromises. That is leaving aside whether Mélenchon would have actually beaten Le Pen in a second round run-off. Because while the Mélenchon campaign were criticised (correctly in my opinion – but more on that further below) for not showing unambiguously enough a Republican Front stance and instructing their voters to vote against Le Pen, I actually have serious doubts whether Fillon or Macron would have directed their supporters to do the same, because it is quite possible that the Capitalist class would prefer a racist fascist to a communist.

Looking at Labour, the two-round system and the separation of the executive and legislature are not a factor in the Uk and so the challenge for Corbyn is not in institutional structure. But look at what he has faced since being proposed as a candidate for party leadership in 2015: an incredibly hostile media (even including the historically progressive Guardian), and a Party elite which has tried every dirty trick to undermine him and has shown contempt for the internal democratic party process. And they have done this without fear of of negative media coverage, indicating a widespread establishment alliance to get rid of him. This alliance will only get stronger and more determined in that event that Labour wins a majority. And if in the very unlikely event that some radical or even moderately reformist measure was put to vote, it is almost certain that the right-wing Labour MPs will side with the Tories and vote against it.

But earlier in this post I did say that I would ask Uk-based people to vote Labour. After all this criticism, that hardly seems logical. The reason is because an anti-austerity campaign needs a strong and organised movement. Labour in government will not do that. But Labour narrowly missing out on government, with a confident militant grassroots of activists (which I think is Corbyn’s biggest achievements) would be far more effective in defending communities and extracting concessions from the Tories than would a Labour government.

In France, the << ni ni >> campaign (neither Macron nor Le Pen) scored an important victory (although at the time I was against it: Fascism is too dark to gamble with). Although their ‘candidate’ did not get elected, the campaign, and the election results, made it very publicly known that Macron did not win the Presidency – people voted against Le Pen. This makes Macron a much weaker opponent for the French left to extract concessions from than a hypothetical Mélenchon presidency needing the support of a centrist parliament.

And similarly, looking ahead, the Corbyn-inspired grassroots activism in the Labour party is probably the most significant and engaging level of political activism in Europe since the 15M movement and the equivalents in Greece moved out of the city-centres and into the neighbourhoods. Whatever about short term policy changes that may or may not (probably not) be achieved by a government, this kind of mass and sustained activism is what is needed – both to achieve short-term anti-austerity victories here and ther, and also for building community-based militancy capable of pushing for more in the medium to longer term. Unfortunately this is currently being realised through a political party. And when I say unfortunately I’m not talking about because it generate false hopes in a parliamentary solution, but because despite the level and radicalism of involvement, all this energy is always under risk of being co-opted or extinguished by a party hierarchy (whether involving a compromised Corbyn or the Labour right-wing after another one of their coups). What is needed is further movement-building and democratisation of the movement to be able to to resist, or eventually become independent of, the party. And both things can only come from a narrow Corbyn defeat.

Statement: IMPACT Trade Union on anti-water privatisation victory

Statement by IMPACT Trade Union on Irish parliamentary committee’s recommendation to hold referendum on public ownership of water.

The background: Ireland was one of the worst hit countries to experience the austerity treatment in the EU but unlike Greece or Portugal, resistance was not very visible. Until plans were announced to privatise water. A resistance movement embracing direct action tactics of non-payment of charges and blocking installation of water meters swung public opinion so that all political parties declared themselves against water charges at the election in March 2016, forcing the new government to climb down. But this victory was not enough for the campaign. Although this government scrapped the plan there is nothing stopping any later government from re-introducing it. That is why the campaign went on the offensive and pushed for a constitutional referendum enshrining public ownership of water – that way any future government would not be able to privatise water without going back to the people in another referendum, where they would be defeated. Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee recommended holding a referendum, signalling a big victory for the anti-austerity movement in Ireland.

Originally posted on the IMPACT blog.

The decision of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services to recommend a referendum on enshrining public ownership of Irish Water in the Constitution was big news for the European water movement. For us, this was a huge encouragement for the many local and national groups fighting the privatisation of water services across the continent.

It followed on the heels of the Slovenian Parliament’s decision to introduce an amendment, guaranteeing the right to water, into the country’s constitution. Today [Wednesday 22nd March] is World Water Day, an occasion for us to celebrate the huge contribution that decent water services make to public health and quality of life, and to highlight the opposition to privatisation that’s growing throughout Europe.

People in Ireland and elsewhere are making it clear that water services should remain in public hands.

The concern that water services could be liberalised through trade agreements, like the CETA deal just agreed by the EU and Canada, motivated many workers to protest. And it mobilized Irish and European trade unions to start a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the right to water.

Attracting nearly two million signatures from across the EU, this became the first ever successful ECI, effectively placing the issue on the EU’s legislative agenda at the behest of its citizens. The European Parliament then fully supported the ECI demands in an opinion piloted by Irish MEP Lynn Boylan.

The European Commission responded, as it had to. But it failed to bring forward the legislation sought by unions and the European water movement.

Despite the clear message delivered directly by citizens through the ECI, and by their elected representatives in the Parliament, the European Commission fails to listen. In the case of Greece, where people rejected water privatisation, the Eurogroup has been forcing the government to sell shares in the Athens and Thessaloniki water companies.

World Water Day is also an opportunity to ponder the extensive research that underlines why private water companies want to stay on the pitch and make huge profits from what is a public good and a human right.

The University of Greenwich Public Services International Research Unit, which has undertaken extensive work on the issue, says public ownership is the right model for delivering quality water and waste services not least as public authorities can source cheaper loans than private corporations, and because the profit motive pushes up the price of water delivered by multinational private companies by as much as 10%.

Another drawback of privatisation that gets scant attention is that financial and other risks are never transferred to the private sector when lucrative contracts change hands. The quality of the water in our taps is put at risk. Public authorities remain responsible. But private companies can simply walk away, without sanction, when things go wrong.

On top of all this, the European Commission highlighted in 2014 that private water and waste contacts are a potential source of corruption.

These are the reasons why local authorities in European countries like France, which risked costly experiments in water privatisation, have been bringing services back into public ownership. The Portuguese city of Mafra followed suit after years of rising bills for water users.

The Irish people have made crystal clear their desire to see water and waste water services remain in public ownership. Their instinct is supported by the overwhelming results of research that shows privatisation is a bad choice.

Ireland has the support of Europe’s trade unions and the broader water movement, which is connecting the resistance to privatisation across European borders.

Kevin Callinan is Deputy General Secretary of IMPACT trade union. Jan Willem Goudriaan is General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).

Book reviews: To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective

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A small key can open a large door – front cover. Image from Combustion Books.

Something incredible seems to be happening in Rojava. The first revolution ever to be pre-figuratively anti-patriarchy, anti-state and anti-capitalist, and doing all this in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course the Rojava Revolution is not without its contradictions: they have a military alliance with the US, there is the hero-worship of Öcalan, official feminist and libertarian ideology seem to have been decided on by the leadership of a formerly Stalinist Communist Party. But as Marx said, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, the Revolution in Rojava is something real, happening, and it is something to be supported and deserves our solidarity.

The problem I have is getting info on it. The many online resources are great to keep abreast of things. But like a lot of things on the internet while being swamped with updates I don’t really have a clear idea of what is being updated. On the other hand the problem with books is that they take so long to write, publish, distribute, become affordable, and finally to read them that they are hopelessly slow at keeping pace with the situation that changes everyday. And usually long single-author reads are just inappropriate for reflecting a real democratic revolution that is by nature full of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints and is constantly fluctuating.

Two books which kind of address this are To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective. Both books are short, accessible compilations of multi-author texts, and published relatively recently. Compiled to specifically address this dilemma outlined above they are aimed at international audiences to raise awareness about what is going on in Rojava and to stimulate solidarity movements.

To dare imagining was motivated by an utter failure on part of the american media “to report on the real story of what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, i.e. Rojava”, believing that “journalists are literally unable to comprehend the very idea of a social revolution” which they outline as:

“a left-tradition of resistance to oppression, and like those struggles, the Rojava Revolution has identified the State itself – nationalism, hegemony and patriarchal power – as the force to be overthrown. Alone amongst all recent armed uprisings in the world (except that of the Zapatistas), Rojava’s is an anti-authoritarian insurrection” (p7).

Compiled of texts (sometimes new, sometimes ‘borrowed’) written by visitors to Rojava, commentaries on the work of Abdullah Öcalan, and a few excerpts of his work, the collection reflects “a distinct urgency about getting this book out and into the american conversation”. It contains a diversity of viewpoints and is sufficiently coherent yet retaining the rough and ready feel that reflects its role as emerging from an ongoing and changing situation. In short, it is anarchist publishing at its most useful. Among the highlights are a set of interviews with women combatants in the YPJ discussing the experiences and feminist reasons for taking up arms, an essay on the sociology of biopolitical and necropolitical wars – the Kurds are victims of both state/imperial rationalised violence and the communal ritualised violence of the likes of ISIS with the implication that new logics and institutions need to be imagined as appeals for protection on the grounds of citizenship or humanitarianism don’t work – and a great piece by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, phd candidate, and one of the editors of the book.

A small keyis similarly motivated by the observation that “Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution” arguing that although “it is absolutely true that it is easier for radicals to travel to Chiapas, Greece, Palestine, or Ferguson” because the “danger is greater in Rojava then so too is the necessity of our support” (p41, 42). But beyond supporting the experiment,

“we also need the Rojava revolution for our own work here in the West. Revolutionary politics in the West have been waiting far too long for an infusion of new ideas and practices, and the Rojavan Revolution in all of its facets is something we should support if we take our own politics at all seriously. […] we can not wait for the selective safety of hindsight to analyze the revolution now unfolding. The people of Rojava have chosen to fight and so must we” (p. 42).

Unlike To dare imagining, A small key is built almost entirely on translated statements, documents, or interviews from groups in Rojava or Turkey and not original pieces, apart from a very informative introductory chapter written by the editorial collective and another great piece by Dilar Dirik on what it is that gives the revolution the will to succeed in the face of so many forces against them (“In the midst of war, Rojava’s cantons have managed to establish an incredibly empowering women’s movement, a self-governance system that operates through local councils in a bottom-up grassroots fashion,and a society in which all ethnic and religious components of the region work hand-in-hand to create a brighter future […] the anticipation of such a free life is the main motor of the Kobani resistance”).

If there are drawbacks, the most obvious one is that both are very much oriented to US audiences. A small key compensates a bit being based on translated texts, as mentioned above, from people or groups taking part in the revolution or activists in places like Turkey. This gives it more of a feeling of talking to a friend who has family and friends active there, whereas To Dare imagining feels more like being taken on a tour by a group of Western academics. Added to this, you have to be cautious and aware that both books only contain a very partial view of the revolution. With To dare imagining you have to keep in mind that the writers are themselves being taken on tours, most likely PR tours, by the welcoming committees, drivers, and translators who bring them everywhere. I’m sure there is as much hidden as there is shared with these messengers. And the other drawback, which is generic to this form of communication, is that they are already woefully out of date – A small key was published in March 2015, while although To dare imagining generally feels rushed and hastily prepared, the most recent of pieces date from January 2016.

Despite being dated, there is still a lot to learn from both books. What is going on in Rojava, if these books are in any way accurate, is nothing short of a new way of thinking and doing feminism (undoing male domination of women and society inherent in the birth of ‘civilisation’, hierarchy and the city-state thousands of years ago) and a new way of doing anti-capitalism (through practicing “the peoples’ economy”). It has made me rethink my perspectives on militarism and nationalism: I used to have answers – both were bad; now just uncertainty.

If I had to choose one of them, I would probably go with a small key. It feels closer to the revolution. That said, to dare imagining does convey more of the philosophy which is (apparently) behind it – particularly in terms of feminist theory and Öcalan’s writings on Sumerian roots of civilisation-as-patriarchy-and-hierarchy and on democratic confederalism. And it is that bit more up-to-date.

But I probably would also prefer the newer book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan which is more up to date and at least written by people who had spent more time there (written by three Germany- and Turkey-based activists who have been working for years with with and in Kurdish groups, they visited Rojava and spent a month there and compiled their notes into the book, which originally appeared in German but has been translated into English recently by Janet Biehl). Hoping to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as I can. But in the end, it is not so important which book or blog you follow. The most important thing is to spread info about what seems to be an incredible struggle that should be supported and learned from as much as possible.

Posts of December

The worst news by far this month was how the anti-democratic system in the US decided to hand state power to a racist misogynist. There’s been many things written about that since the appointment (it’s not an election), so I’m just sharing three of them here: an article in Al Jazeera written by a Palestinian cultural heritage researcher, showing how a series of american presidents and politicians, including both Clintons, have on numerous occasions fucked over Palestine to boost their own profiles. I’m not sharing it in order to say that Trump isn’t that bad – just that in many places outside of the US he represents the continuation of arrogant figures who get to arbitrarily decide whether to intensify ongoing domination, colonialism, and general fucking-over of distant lands. But Trump is that bad, particularly for any people whose existence exposes the myth of white happy america. And that is exactly what the post sub-titled “Make it impossible for this system to govern on stolen land” does: naming a system that is united by the violence it serves to indigenous americans, people of african descent, people of demonised religions, non-white or english-speaking migrants, LGTQBI people, and the list could go on. And how to make it impossible for him/them/it to govern, that’s the reason why the other piece I’m sharing is a list of practical steps to practice solidarity and organise community self-defense in anticipation of a structural violence that looks set to accelerate, published on Cindy Milstein’s blog.

And much else from November follows a similar theme. It’s all about the rise of the fascist right and colonialism, or less pessimistically, anti-colonial resistance and self-defense. In what by now seems something from a different age, this article in ROAR just before Trump lost the election places the targeting of the HDP by Erdogan and subsequently by ISIS, as part of a longer pattern from the elections of 2015 and intensifying after the coup attempt earlier this year in which the country looks firmly on the road from republican democracy to fascist dictatorship.

In terms of anti-colonial resistance, next door to the US, the resistance at Standing Rock is inspirational and there has again been a lot written about it. My pick is this article about two police who left the force instead of attacking the protectors. I know its a drop in the ocean, but moments when the police or military decide that the side of the 1% is not their side are what make revolutions. And we are never going to beat them with violence, the only hope we have is to make it impossible for them to continue defending themselves and waging war on us. Another piece is one by a student in South Africa writing about the #Fees Must Fall movement for decolonising education, their goals (not just stopping university student fees), their victories so far, and some of the internal tensions that it must overcome. And third, a transcribed lecture on the Haiti Revolution and its influence on African history and literature, nationalism and internationalism, black radicalism and the black revolutionary tradition. Interesting stuff there.

And towards the end of the month we had the death of Fidel Castro. Regardless of where you stand on his politics, most people will agree that his death marks the passing of one of last and the most iconic figures of the cold war. Something from a different era, not just pre this current post-neoliberal fascist dystopia, but also pre-neoliberalism itself. The media was predictably formulaic talking about mourning in communist Havana and celebrations in dissident Florida. So the piece I picked was something on Al Jazeera that doesn’t try to balance the two views – he was a monster AND a socialist superman – but more importantly outside of the two cold war core spheres of influence, Cuba, Fidel and Che were known as anti-imperialist internationalists who helped the Vietnam liberation front, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and participated in the Movement of the non-Aligned (although in the end they were shown up to be in the pockets of the Soviets..). (incidentally, for anybody who thinks this is too apologetic, ok, here a second link to a book review outlining the early roots of Che’s Stalinism).

And finally, a few pieces in the spirit of community self-defense, first there is a post shaming the Guardian for its cheerleading and generally unbalanced and uncritical coverage of MI5 (british spying institution) and the imperialist wars of the international community. The Guardian was an important part of my development of political awareness but some of the things I have seen there in recent times are outrageous (e.g. showing ‘balance’ between the Labour party’s membership and the parliamentary party’s attempt to block them from democratically participating in the party) so to honour this betrayal I am pushing to share any post calling them out (I even have a new tag for this – ‘Shame on the Guardian’). Second, an article about Barrett Brown, a journalist arrested and jailed for reporting on companies using and selling electronic surveillance technologies. And third, a resource guide on information security and on how to protect yourself digitally.

Era of 21st century fascism is already here: Trump is a disaster but it didn’t start with him

What happened on the 8th of November was truly disastrous. I remember in 2000 when Bush won with this program to re-launch Star Wars (the satellite nuclear missile defense system from the Cold War – didn’t happen in the end) and to go back to Iraq (did happen), that this was terrible for the world. But now this is far worse.

Since the results announced that Clinton had won the vote but the fucked-up anti-democratic system was handing the most powerful state machinery in the world to a Fascist, hate crimes have predictably rocketed as bigots feel empowered by the moral authority that he has unleashed. And this is still 2 months before he actually takes power – lets see the kind of pain he is prepared to inflict on people then, both in the US and in the rest of the world.

This is all tragic, but it is important to remember that it did not start with him. He is part of a wider pattern where the extreme-right have taken whole or partial electoral power. Even when they only have partial power this has seen a buoyancy of hate crimes – e.g. Greece when Golden Dawn won 21 seats in the (first) 2012 election, or Netherlands when the liberal People’s Party and the Christian Democrats accepted the support of the PVV for their minority government in 2010. But when the power of the state has been handed to them they have used all its machinery of violence on whatever scapegoats within its territory (e.g. Hungary and the UK targeting of ‘immigrants’; Poland’s trend of increasingly controlling legislation of womens’ bodies and movements) or outside its territory (e.g. Turkey extension into Syria of its ongoing genocide against the Kurds; Iran’s and Russia’s support for Assad’s mass murder of a people risen to ensure their own people know what is coming to them if they assert any basic democratic rights).While all certainly unique to their own circumstances, they do share a pattern that was already there before Trump’s arrival. But it has now announced itself with a bang with this pig (because the power of the US state machinery makes it so much more dangerous and because of US-centric world media that means it unfortunately is the centre of the world and as they say, if its not happening in america then it isn’t happening) although with tight elections around the corner in Austria and France and who knows where else as the trend plays out, it is clearly not limited to one man’s victory.

Nor is it likely to be limited to a handful of sets of states. As mentioned, many have regional police-man ambitions, while the weird and erratic economic shifts they instigate are going to have repercussions in trading partner states. Which is important because while for better r worse neoliberalism has been seen since the 1970s as the only political-economic order possible, its hegemony has been in crisis since 2008 and despite all our efforts it now looks like it is the right who are set to claim this ground. As Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen wrote a few years ago

“whether neoliberalism is ending is perhaps not the main question we should now be asking. Such hegemonic projects have relatively short shelf-lives, induced by their declining ability to meet the interests of the key members of the alliances which underpin them. The real question is more one of how much damage neoliberalism will do in its prolonged death agonies; and, even more importantly, what (or more sociologically, who) will replace it and how”

There are a number of essential actions that need to be taken immediately: neighbourhood organising to protect victims (this does not have to mean vigilante-ism; sometimes it is as simple as racially privileged people accompanying racially targeted people just to lessen the sense of immunity that police or bigots might have), actions targeting specific policies or wars, pressures on elites in states that have yet to fall to the right to withdraw moral support from and condemn the actions of these bigots so that they are not permitted to pretend to be legitimate participants in democracies (aside: a few months ago I had a conversation with an elderly life-long lefty from France, who told me that worse that the socialist party’s move to the centre-right was that socialist or other left politicians now agree to sit on discussion panels with the Front Nationale, whereas 20 years ago all lefties would leave their seats and refuse to facilitate the masquerading of hate speech as democratic debate – this is the long process of how we have let the likes of Trump come to pass). But beyond this, there is a need for movement-building that seriously comes to terms with a possible post-neoliberal world order, although far from the one we have been trying to bring into being.

That is a huge task, and even starting to think in this way is huge (not to mention depressing) and clearly cannot be dealt with here. So I’m going to finish this post by casting blame. For better or for worse, neoliberalism is dying. Due to its own inherent contradictions but also because of capitalist elites who transformed their own growth and profitability set-backs into an unprecedented economic crisis, neoliberalism has had an image-problem as a legitimate order since 2008. But because of their allies managing policy making institutions who refused to let bad investment and greed get what they deserve – nothing – and instead sucking wealth from the rest of society, because they relentlessly imposed such policies against all resistance, and did everything to stop a left-wing democratic and humane discourse from building itself as an alternative to neoliberalism, because of this, the have let the monsters take over. Obama created Trump, Hollande fostered La Pen, and Gordon Brown made Theresa May. The blood of fascism’s coming victims will be on their hands.