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Tag Archives: polyarchy

It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

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I attended a funeral recently. On the way there, driving in rural north county Dublin, I encountered an anti-water tax sign which urged people to “Rise up”. A short time later, waiting, in the church porch, I noticed the front page headline on the Catholic newspaper “Alive”. It was anti same-sex marriage and urged people to “Rise up”. Now, I’d be confident that there’s a study somewhere of the Irish Catholic/nationalist preoccupation with the romantic, rising/resurrection notion that stretches from at least the “Easter Rising” of 1916 to the present-day nationalist splinter group, éirigí. (That translates as a plural imperative, commanding the people to Rise.) But lately there’s been quite a bit of resort to the word, especially on Facebook.

Ok, it might be nothing more than a word that is in people’s minds right now. In the short term it’s Lent and Irish Catholics are looking to Easter; next year is the centenary of 1916 and there’s a considerable amount of media attention being paid to that. Nevertheless, it might be worth giving some thought to the prominence of the word.

Some of those calling for a rising, like some of those calling for a revolution, may be completely serious. That is to say, they’ve thought about the words they use, the reality of battle, the effect on the general population, their desired outcome and they’ve concluded that this is the best or only way forward.

However, the largest group using evocative terms are hardest to understand. They constantly reiterate their opposition to violence but are unwilling or unable to let go of its lexicon. On the cultural side, the marches, banners, feelings of solidarity, if drained of violent rhetoric, would be revealed as a quasi-constitutional way of letting off steam or as an illustration of the way things work in a polyarchy, i.e. political priorities are decided by pressure on government or – more fashionably – on the political class.

On the theoretical side, they have opted for the parliamentary path and have explicitly eschewed violence but many still want to think in terms of a people rising up in revolt. It is a search for a third way between revolt and reform. It can seem incomprehensible that having abandoned the former and chosen the latter, the impression presented is that the choice was the other way round. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, like any organisation or party experiencing change, they don’t want to be either outflanked or teased by more aggressive former comrades.

Secondly, they still see a role for street activity. They not only want to identify with the tradition of gains won when people clashed with the state, they also see this as a continuing route for advance. Some reckon it is the only way progress was ever made or will be made. A seat in parliament from this perspective becomes a mere platform for an activist who believes more in street activity.

The final group is comprised of fantasists who believe they are living in a police state and that they are part of an uprising which will shortly be joined by the majority.

If words matter, those who urge others to Rise Up or who talk in terms of revolution will have to be questioned forensically until citizens know exactly what – if anything – is meant.

The essential thing that is particularly annoying citizens right now as “austerity” bites is inequality of income or, rather, hideous levels of income inequality, the very structure of inequality. Now one way that the political right seeks to maintain the structure – with all its relativities – is to talk about inequality between groups. They’ll have a go with age vs. youth, public sector worker vs. private sector worker, rural vs. urban etc. It is a conservative position; the idea is to have no change or very little change in relativities while reducing wages and welfare payments to the poor. Against that, far too many on the left advance an argument whose effect is also conservative. They identify the very rich (the 1%) as opposed to the merely rich (let’s say, the 10%) and argue that if the 1% could be soaked, then all else could remain the same. This is a conservative stance.

Minister of State, Brian Hayes has been targeting pensioners for cuts by pointing out that some pensioners are well-off. [i]  Michael Taft is a socialist economist but in responding to Brian Hayes, even he argues that rather than pursuing pensioners, a “better” target would be the management-and-professional category/interest group. [ii]  Now this comes close to demanding change but the conservative flaw remains. Most of those in this category are rich but not very (1%) rich. However, as Michael concedes, not all are rich. That’s too much like the argument that Brian Hayes makes in relation to pensioners. It diverts attention away from “rich” and towards an interest group and so implicitly supports a view of society made up of competing interest groups, a view which papers over the inequalities of income within many of these groups.

For as long as the democratic left defends or attacks the economic positions of pluralist groups, the structure remains unchallenged and the right wins. Let’s face it there are rich managers, there are rich pensioners, there are rich public sector workers, there are rich farmers etc. All that separates these groups is the proportions of rich within them.

It would be far better to call the right’s bluff on each and every sectoral target. Let’s define rich in income terms (Yes, of course I realise that income is not the only measure!) and say that below that point income will not be touched but above that point, “Go ahead, cut!”[iii]