March 2016        

Where to from here?

Eoghan M. Ó Néill


“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”—Emma Goldman

Capitalism and democracy may be a contradiction in terms; however, capitalism does well out of elections. Elections bestow legitimacy on the capitalist system. Rarely if ever do elections focus on the validity of capitalism: instead they are more about how we rearrange the furniture than they are about real change. Despite all the hyperbole about “seismic change,” in reality the 2016 election has changed nothing. At best this election has delivered a partial realignment of the existing politics, and the re-emergence of Fianna Fáil from the sin bin.
     Social-democratic politics are framed within capitalist economics, and any realignment within that framework will be subject to the same capitalist economic pressures. Whether it is a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil or Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, the economic realities, priorities and objectives will be determined not by any social-democratic government, whatever its make-up, but by the capitalist class in whose interest they govern.
     As things stand, the only viable coalition is one between the two right-wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Neither much likes this idea, as it would leave the opposition in the hands of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin’s left rhetoric will be a strategy of attacking and undermining a right-wing government with the intention of mopping up left-wing and disaffected votes in the next election, delivering for Sinn Féin a strong shot at becoming the major partner in a future coalition government.
     However, Sinn Féin as an opposition-leader peddling a left-wing agenda could potentially help move public expectations to the left. But expectations are one thing and are of themselves quite delicate; such expectations are not built upon a strong foundation of class-consciousness but on a belief that capitalism can be reformed and reconfigured to benefit working people.
     It is because they are derived from a simple desire for “fairness” rather than a class analysis and understanding of the existing economic, political and social environment that this desire for fairness is so frail, and must fail. Nonetheless the raising of expectations provides the opportunity for socialist intervention.
     The Right2Water campaign provides not so much a blueprint as an illustration of how we may progress a campaign that the working class identifies with. This is something that Right2Change failed to do. Right2Water not only mobilised the working class but presented an opportunity to radicalise limited sections of the working class. For the most part, Right2Change left the people in a place of opposition without a full understanding of what it was they were opposing, or a clear idea of what they wanted in its stead.
     This is in part the reason why the movement to Right2Change did not advance class-consciousness. Listing ten reasons why we should be angry is no substitute for an understanding of why these issues exist in the first place.
     The other reason why Right2Change did not deliver is that it is essentially contained within a reformist agenda. It talks about ideals such as closing the democratic deficit and about the principles of equality, democracy, and social justice—all very laudable, but it is how it seeks to achieve this that betrays its limitations. An alternative Ireland will not be brought about through playing around with the capitalist tax system. Allowing the transfer of wealth from workers to the capitalist class to continue and then asking them to give a little of it back, in order that the rest of us can live a tolerable life, is not an alternative.
     Right2Change describes very well the ills behind its ten demands, but it fails to pose the question why it is that these ills exist. What is it about our society, our political system, our economy, that gives rise to these ills? For instance on debt it calls for debt justice but fails to explain that debt itself is a necessary ingredient of capitalism, that capitalism requires debt in order to maintain consumption at a level at which capitalists can make exaggerated profits; that debt allows capitalists to ignore the mythical “self-regulation” of the markets by way of prices and instead provides the means for monopolistic and oligarchical control of the markets. The same limited analysis is applied by Right2Change to its other nine demands.
     That being said, Right2Water and Right2Change have provided an excellent starting-point. They have crystallised aspects of the capitalist economy into ten areas that the working class can identify with. That understanding has to be deepened. The ten issues need to be for more than generating anger: they ought to be the starting-point of an active programme of consciousness-raising, of working with workers to identify the reasons why these issues exist.
     The heart of the matter is the exploitative capitalist system and the fact that the politicians in Dáil Éireann are merely the middle management of that system. The people of this nation require a real alternative. Offering them ineffectual reforms in pursuit of electoral results is not enough. What is required is to begin the hard work of engaging with workers in a shared understanding of the capitalist system, and offering the only real alternative: socialism.

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