August 2013        

Household charges: implosion of resistance

Buoyed up, no doubt, by the collapse of the campaign against property taxes, the coalition Government is now showing its determination to proceed with the introduction of water charges. It’s a policy that fits comfortably into its overall determination to press ahead with the Troika’s dictate to cut our welfare safety net to the bone and remove the social wage wherever possible.
     Ignoring the advice of a former senior official of the International Monetary Fund, Prof. Ashoka Mody, to ease back on austerity, the well-heeled ministers of the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition are promising yet another tough budget. The outstanding question now is whether they can be prevented from causing further damage to the people they govern, and if so, how.
     An air of weary resignation has spread among many working people as a view has grown that, while resistance is justified and indeed desirable, at the present time it is futile. This is not in the least surprising, since the Government has managed to impose a property tax (in reality it is a tax on homes, as big wealth in Ireland remains largely untouched) against the wishes of a majority of the state’s citizens.
     The events and circumstances that saw resistance to the property tax defeated are instructive. Let’s go back, therefore, to the launch of the campaign against household charges in late 2011 and explore how this initiative developed and eventually withered.
     As 2011 was drawing to a close, nine TDs and a number of councillors publicly pledged not to pay the household charge, and said they were prepared to go to prison in defence of their stance. The group contributed significant sums from their Dáil salaries and council allowances to the campaign fund and called upon householders throughout the 26 Counties to join them in a boycott of the tax. The call gained an early and powerful response.
     Several factors had come together to elicit this positive reaction. For a start, many political activists in the Republic welcomed the sight of elected left-wing and radical representatives combining in a united front in order to organise a campaign on the streets. In the second instance, members of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party invested significant time and energy in contacting and organising non-party activists in rural areas.
     There was, of course, the fact that an across-the-board levy on all households, regardless of size, collected in order to pay off gambling bondholders, was deeply resented as outrageously unjust by an overwhelming majority of the population.
     Lastly, and most importantly, there was the very important detail that the collection of household tax was in the hands of local government—a vehicle not best suited to the task and one that it proved possible to defy.
     In summary, the campaign in its earliest days had unified political leadership, had ground-level organisation and popular support, and, crucially, had found a viable method of struggle. At its high point, in March 2012, more than half of all home-owners had not paid, and by year’s end the figure was still high. Throughout the year thousands had marched through Dublin, Galway, Cork, Letterkenny and a host of smaller towns demanding that the tax be discarded.
     In short, there was a very significant mobilisation on this issue, giving rise to the hope that, at last, we were seeing the emergence of a fight-back in Ireland. Sadly, it was not to last.
     Learning from its failure to implement a household charge in 2012, the coalition adopted a different strategy with its property tax in 2013. No longer would local government be tasked with collection; in its place the job was given to the Revenue Commissioners, who were armed with additional and draconian powers to deduct property tax directly from the salary, pension, social welfare or bank accounts of home-owners who did not co-operate with the authorities.
     By late July 2013 the Revenue Commissioners were claiming a compliance rate of 89 per cent, and senior members of the boycott campaign were privately admitting that the day was lost.
     It has to be said, though, that the dramatic implosion of resistance owed its origins not to a sudden loss of nerve by the populace but to other, more concrete factors. Divisions among the elected representatives who fronted the movement caused many activists to question the direction of the campaign. The continuing tale of resignations, splits and personal problems undoubtedly played a part in undermining confidence among activists and public alike. The boycott campaign’s failure to persuade the trade union movement to take even limited direct industrial action was another serious set-back.
     Ultimately, though, it was the “choice of weapons” that really determined the fate of the struggle. By cleverly constructing a draconian method of taxation, the coalition effectually denied the population any effective means of resistance or protest against this particular measure.
     As Councillor Terry Kelleher of Balbriggan told a local newspaper, “the boycott was not a success, but that was down to quite draconian measures by the Government, where people felt that if they didn’t pay they would end up paying more and they would have money taken out of their pensions or their social welfare or their wages . . .”
     In spite of this, there is no reason for despair. We cannot overlook the fact that in 2012 the people demonstrated a significant willingness and ability to organise and fight back, but only under conditions that were suitable and with tactics that were well chosen. There is clearly an urgent need to identify what worked successfully and where mistakes were made and to learn from this, and to do so in an analytical atmosphere, free from rancour or smugness.
     Thereafter, it is necessary that in the light of such a review a better blueprint for struggle be drawn up.
     Arriving at such an agreed plan of action will not happen overnight and certainly not from small, self-appointed cadres of “the enlightened” determining what is best for us. It can happen only in the course of widespread engagement and continuing discussion among the greatest number of working people.
     Moreover, this process is unlikely to occur spontaneously, and surely the immediate role for political activists has to be to facilitate and arrange opportunities for working people to meet, discuss and debate (a process, incidentally, that is taking place at present among progressive sections of the Turkish and Brazilian people).
     There is, however, an important caveat that must be entered before rushing into future activities. The Irish left cannot remain indefinitely on the defensive, no matter how worthy the causes we seek to uphold or the institutions we wish to protect. For too long we have been on the back foot, fighting on ground chosen by the ruling class as we put energy into identifying and thereafter trying to resist measures that we don’t want imposed upon us. All too rarely are we able to turn the tables and force the privileged ruling minority to deal with demands for what we need and want.
     In this light, therefore, it would be unwise, for example, to leap immediately from the property tax campaign to an anti-water-tax campaign without at least putting it in the context of promoting a demand for the broadest social wage. Nor can we simply call for an end to cut-backs without providing a clear analysis of why this cruelty is being inflicted on working people (and by whom—both here and further afield) and thereafter offering a workable socialist alternative.
     As always, while the answer lies not in making capitalism better but in making it history, we must transform this phrase from observation into concrete action. Difficult, yes, but impossible? Most certainly not.

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