October 2016        

The water struggle: part of a bigger strategy

Eoghan O’Neill

As the debate over Irish Water enters a new phase, and with a renewed attempt to mobilise large sections of the water warriors, which saw tens of thousands of people hitting Dublin’s streets in mid-September, now is the time to take stock of the wider political and economic context of it all, before lashing headlong into a string of marches that brings us closer to defeat and demoralisation, rather than towards unity and victory.
     Without critically analysing how we got to where we are, how will we know where we have to go?
     The Irish people have not been fooled regarding Irish Water and the real agenda of the privatisation of our water. However, Irish Water should not be thought of as just another bad policy in a string of bad policies by successive Governments but should be understood in the context of a broad encroachment of the capitalist class and their allies into the one sphere where they have yet to reign supreme: the public sphere. This is the overriding goal and agenda, and Irish Water is just one specific case within the general attack on public assets and utilities.
     We have to understand that this has been a long-term strategic plan of the ruling class, which was given the green light when the welfare race ceased to be a factor with the dismantling of the socialist bloc in the late 1980s and early 90s. The plan was given a major boost with the economic crisis of 2008, which opened up huge opportunities to allow governments, through debt, to force harsh austerity budgets on the people, making the sale of state assets and utilities more palatable to a public dazed and confused by the sheer scale of the unfolding crisis.
     The question we have to ask is, Why, after decades of building welfare states, are the ruling class trying to dismantle them?
     Public utilities, services and assets have been the fruit of organised labour over the past hundred years or so. The social welfare state itself was an appeasement of the growing strength and militancy of the working class after the Second World War. Since the competing socialist bloc was dismantled, however, capital no longer has to appease the working class. Not overnight but piecemeal and by making use of the economic crisis, their advance into the public sphere for its commodification and privatisation is without doubt the golden goose that they seek.
     The reasons for this can be found in the evolution of the capitalist system over the past thirty years or so. Investing in manufacturing in the West does not reap the same level of profit that it does in areas of the global south—because (a) a century of organised labour in the global north won a greater share of the wealth created and (b) the cost of labour in the global south is a small fraction of that in developed countries.
     This has led to a shift whereby 83 per cent of the world’s manufacturing workers now reside within the global south, where transnational corporations have employed two forms of “outsourcing”: foreign direct investment (internally within a company) and “arm’s length” (independent suppliers from the leading firms) to avail of cheap labour. In essence, organised highly paid local labour in the north has been replaced with low-paid labour in the south, leaving an abundant supply of capital to invest from the super-profits accumulated by this systematic development.
     With this capital, instead of investment in manufacturing in the west there has been a corresponding shift to investments in financial assets and speculation. Developed countries have been de-industrialised and are now termed “service economies,” whose purpose is to service the needs of finance capital, instead of its people. These countries—Ireland included—have proved that this leads to investment bubbles and the eventual bursting of those bubbles, because finance capital does not create wealth, it only inflates it.
     More important to understand, however, is that the rise of finance capital is wholly dependent on the gross exploitation of manufacturing labour in the global south. It has become a vicious cycle, where the more finance has dominated developed countries the more it needs to exploit the underdeveloped nations of the global south, hence the expanding outsourcing phenomenon.
     Because of the high-risk, high-reward strategy of finance, capitalists—the owners of the means of production—also seek safe long-term investments in the developed world. With the loss of manufacturing and the de-industrialisation of many western countries, the only sure investment that can yield continued profit is in the public sphere.
     No matter how much wages are reduced, spending on needs will always outstrip spending on wants. The public domain, the common areas in society not yet commodified and privatised, our state-owned and public assets and utilities, are what stand in the way of the potential profit streams of those who want ownership of them.
     This is the context that all those involved in the water struggle should be conscious of. Irish Water is only one specific case, but an orchestrated general attack is under way, and if it is not resisted this will be enshrined through TTIP and CETA and other international trade agreements, which are basically the policy papers for implementing, by law, their strategy of privatisation in the never-ending search for profits.
     Taken together with disinvestment and the dismantling of public services and utilities, such as we’ve seen with Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, our health service, education, and public pension schemes, to undermine the ability of a state body or company to provide the high levels of provision needed, this is the concerted attack on the welfare-state system as we know it.
     Apart from the obvious exploitative nature of the system, the fundamental problem with the capitalist strategy is that crises are unavoidable, and so the economic and social ruin caused by a financial crisis is inevitable. Experts predict that we will have another economic crisis within the next five years, if not sooner. Debt and austerity are becoming the norm for national governments to manage. Workers’ wages and conditions are constantly under attack, while long-term, full-time employment contracts have been replaced with precarious employment, zero-hour contracts, and “internship” schemes. Apart from voluntary organisations, it is only the state support and welfare systems that keep many people—and even whole countries—from spiralling into complete economic, political and social chaos.
     Compound this with the privatisation agenda and one can really see that the crisis that many countries are now facing is not the result of bad banking practices, greed, or negligent regulators, as the establishment would lead us to believe, but is a general crisis of the capitalist system, which is headed for disaster for the working masses of the world and which cannot provide the majority of the people on this planet with the basic needs of life.
     The idea of a “specific crisis” suits the agenda of the political establishments, which are allied with the ruling elite at the national and the international level. It suits the establishment because if it is specific, then the crisis area can be targeted; “society” can learn from this and avoid a similar crisis in the future.
     In simple terms, it is the basis of the ideology of the ruling class that underpins their legitimacy as owners of the means of production. According to them, whatever problems or crises occur within the existing economic system they ultimately can be reformed. This theory is filtered down to the mass of the people through the media so as to garner consensus and through mainstream education and academia for legitimacy.
     Reformism—being able to reform the system from within to satisfy the greater needs of society—is not a new concept. It is accepted by parties on most of the political spectrum, from labour through greens, liberal and populist to the right wing. In fact you would be hard pressed to find any party or union or for that matter an individual in Ireland or internationally, outside the communist and workers’ movement, that to a lesser or greater extent does not believe that, for all its faults, the capitalist system is the best and most equitable system for producing and reproducing the needs and wants of the global society.
     This only goes to show the strength and resilience of the ideology of the ruling capitalist class and their ability to maintain their hegemony within society.
     The real worry, however, is that the ideology has spread to what traditionally were areas of real working-class power: trade unions and mass political parties. To stay in the Irish context, we lack a mass working-class party and a trade union movement that holds the alternative view: that private ownership of the means of production is hugely inequitable and also unsustainable, and needs to be transformed into public ownership.
     How the Irish working class, who certainly aren’t unique, have been disarmed politically, economically and militantly is a whole different debate; but make no mistake about it: we are in a weakened if not debilitated state. Class-consciousness is in a trough that is in desperate need of rising once more.
     The Right2Water demonstrations should be seen as a sign of optimism, that those who are involved and those opposing the privatisation agenda have not been fooled by the temporary concessions granted by the current government and Dáil. We do need, however, to learn and to grow in confidence ourselves, and this can only be done through education, organisation, and agitation.
     The CPI seeks that all those who reject Irish Water look for a minimum programme to establish maximum unity. That is why the call for a constitutional referendum should be the top priority: because only by enshrining our ownership of our water in the constitution can we safeguard its future from privatisation, which needs to be the people’s minimum programme.
     Where the movement has faltered and been weakened in the past is where groups within it were looking for a maximum programme with minimum unity.
     To attack the general crisis of the capitalist system we must first identify the specific areas where the establishment have been weakened and where unity can be strengthened. However, only by coming to the realisation that this is not a specific, isolated attempt to privatise just one particular public utility but a general, long-term strategy of the ruling class, to try to maintain growth and profits in their own interests, does the general crisis within capitalism and its whole ideological pack of cards come crashing down.
     This is where class-consciousness can begin to rise again. To be reformist upon this realisation is to choose to ally oneself with the ruling class and declare oneself an enemy of the working class.

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