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(en) wsm.ie: Common Threads #1 - From apathy to rebellion: the water war in Ireland.
Sun, 9 Apr 2017 09:00:32 +0300
No one saw this coming, not even the veteran activists. Hundreds of thousands resisting
neoliberal economic policies would have been difficult to imagine even at the height of
the Campaign Against Home and Water Charges. Although that campaign, primarily fighting
against the regressive Household Charge and the subsequent Property Tax, was nationwide,
it never quite built the momentum that we've seen with the anti-water charges campaign,
though not for lack of effort on the part of activists. The CAHWT failed in its objective
of defeating the Property Tax, the resistance effort however was not in vain; it prepared
the ground for the current phase of struggle. ---- In grassroots communities across the
country, CAHWT community groups gained confidence and experience in how to organise while
building lasting networks with each other. Importantly, the CAHWT also normalised
political protest; people grew accustomed to seeing protesters and sympathised with them,
however in this instance when it came to the crunch they still paid up when the government
told them to.
So despite some positive outcomes, the CAHWT failed, leaving many campaigners thoroughly
demoralised as they had campaigned hard for over two years only to see the majority of
people pay the new regressive taxes. As 2014 was coming to an end, the government began to
prepare for the implementation of water charges after their success with implementing the
Property Tax and many exhausted CAHWT groups felt there was not much point in fighting it
based on the public reaction to the last government attack.
As Irish Water began its program of water meter installations nationwide, likely targeting
the areas of high compliance with the Property Tax first, they were unexpectedly met with
localised resistance. Water meter contractors would arrive in an area to carry out some
minor excavation works and meter installations to find members of the local community
dismantling their safety barriers, climbing on their equipment, or standing so close to
machinery that it could not safely be operated. These efforts were widely publicised on
social media, particularly Facebook, where they received significant levels of support.
Many of the people involved in this direct action were elderly people or people who had
not been involved in anything like this before.
Anti-water charges campaign groups began to form on their own, in areas where there was no
recent history of resistance. Momentum appeared to be building but still exhausted CAHWT
groups were trying to recover their energy and were not as active as they had previously been.
The Right2Water campaign, composed primarily of trade unions and left wing politicians and
parties, launched in August 2014 with a loose set of criteria for joining: "All you need
to be part of the campaign is to believe that water is a human right and that water
charges should be abolished." The campaign came to serve as an umbrella group for
community groups, left wing parties and trade unions to affiliate with, but did not have a
formal democratic structure and could not direct members to particular courses of action.
Then on October 11th 2014 a large anti-water charges demonstration exploded onto the
scene, with attendance in the tens of thousands and a vibrant energy that further added to
the sense that a new wave of people was indeed ready to stand and fight. Many were new to
political activism but their energy boosted the veteran campaigners whose organising
experience meant this new anti-water charges campaign hit the ground running.
This surge in working class activity has been building for a long time, fostered both by
constant government attacks on our public services and standards of living and also by the
persistent and extraordinary efforts of the ordinary people who fought these attacks.
While this campaign has been extremely popular by any measure, many of its participants
view it in different ways and are hoping for different outcomes.
Political parties normally look at campaigns like these as a way to gain publicity and to
pull in a few more activists with the aim of increasing their share of the vote come
election time. From that perspective, campaigns are just things that you participate in to
strengthen the party, not to strengthen the working class.
Anarchists look at campaigns like this as an opportunity for working class people to build
our own knowledge, confidence, networks, organisational capacities and political
consciousness so that no matter who is in government, we will be able to organise to
The world that we want will never and can never be delivered through the state. Though
many engaged in struggles around water charges and housing sincerely believe that the
capture of state power through parliamentary means can be used to end poverty and
homelessness, this is simply not possible. While elections appear to be a shortcut to
political power, in reality they are a trap, designed to undermine, split, roll back and
destroy working class political power and organisations.
When a determined left wing government is elected global capitalism acts to dismantle
this. This is either done through subverting a country's economy which we have recently
seen with Syriza in Greece, or a more violent approach is taken, as was the case with
Chile in 1973 when the left wing government of Salvador Allende was overthrown through as
US backed military coup of the Chilean military.
What we should be aiming for during the current surge in working class activity is not to
build political parties who would act on our behalf but instead to strengthen our existing
campaign groups with a view to maintaining and increasing our own capacity to defend
ourselves. Building a stronger working class movement should be our short term goal, not
building a party up for the next electoral circus. Undermining and destroying a political
party is a lot easier than a militant working class.
Building working class power.
If you have never been involved in political activity before, the anti-water charges
movement has functioned as a way of acting collectively with others to directly confront
Irish Water through protest, marches, blockades, and most vitally, the boycott of payment.
This has also been a campaign in which people's perspectives on how politics is played out
have shifted markedly. In one hand, campaigners hold a placard, and in the other they
might hold a book on Irish economic history, or a document on county council housing
allocation procedures, or a text on abortion rights or the struggle against the occupation
in Palestine. Once people got active, the scope of their understanding of the world
increased, water charges were just the springboard to interest in other struggles, one of
the dots to connect with the many others in the fight for a different world.
In many community based anti-water charges groups there are left wing activists who hold
fairly solid understandings of how capitalism works, and the history of working class
struggles around the world. Most of these people will have some experience with pro-choice
campaigning, Palestine solidarity campaigning, LGBT rights campaigning, anti-racism
campaigning etc., so over time their knowledge and perspectives can come to shape those of
other members of the group who may not previously have thought much about those things.
This is a positive development but it can be undermined by the strong dislike that people
have for the manoeuvrings and often self serving actions of political parties.
The Detroit Water Brigade visited Ireland at the invitation of the Right2Water campaign in
order to stand in solidarity with us and share their own experiences of fighting against
the restriction of access to water.
Greek flags became widespread at demonstrations in Dublin to express Ireland's solidarity
with the people of Greece as they struggled against the Troika's decision to shut down
their economy in response to the election of a left leaning government.
Bolivians attended a recent demo to express their support for our cause as they fought a
similar battle for control of their water resources and infrastructure. Actions such as
these boost the morale of protesters here by highlighting the global significance of their
Myths about immigrants are widespread among the working class today. They range from
stories about how Polish people can get an additional dole payment in order to ‘socialise'
with Irish people, to how Muslims are somehow the most serious threat to our society.
Fantasies such as these are not just factually wrong, they are extremely dangerous. This
divisive, right wing narrative fosters an atmosphere of hate that facilitates violence
against minority communities and the rise of the far right who ultimately serve the ruling
These fictions about other, more vulnerable sections of the working class are part of a
time honoured practice of divide and rule. If the ruling class can turn us against each
other on the basis of religion, sexuality, race or even employment status, we are easier
to economically exploit. Challenging and countering racist superstitions can only be
effective if socialists, anarchists and other anti-racists are active in class struggle
within our communities.
If you have campaigned alongside someone for two years, put up posters together in the
rain, went door to door for the first time together, leafleted, marched, organised with
them, when the topic of immigration comes up you can have a proper conversation about it
and challenge any factually incorrect assertions or racist myths directly.
Notably, campaigners can argue from a position of credibility against those who are not
politically active who express anti-immigrant or racist views. When some people were
expressing the view that ‘We should take care of our own first', while actually having
shown no interest in Irish homeless people prior to the refugee crisis, the most effective
voices countering this narrative were those engaged in feeding the homeless on a daily
basis. It's very difficult to argue for helping Irish people in need over foreign people
in need when the people helping Irish people are saying that everyone should be helped
without delay or exception. Being active in struggles gives credibility and weight to
Networks and campaign structure.
Through this campaign, a nationwide network of campaigners, socialists, unions and
academics is in the process of forming. While community groups form the primary
organisational units of the campaign, trade unions (through the Right2Water umbrella
group) have acted as the figurehead of the campaign, funding the major national events and
engaging in media work nationally and internationally in support of the campaign.
R2W does not direct the activities of local groups which are largely autonomous and self
directing. This means the structure of the anti-water charges campaign is totally
different from its predecessor, the Campaign Against Home and Water Charges (CAHWT).
Arguably, the water charges campaign could not have come into being so rapidly if it
wasn't for the CAHWT laying the groundwork for the next phase of struggle.
The CAHWT had a centralised structure set up by left wing political parties and groups
which met regularly to coordinate activity and fundraising for the campaign. The formal
structures of the group were in place early in the campaign which is totally different
from the decentralised campaign that we have built to fight Irish Water.
The current decentralised structure seems to be a lot better for morale as campaigners
don't have to endure the constant attempts by rival left wing parties to manipulate the
formal structures of the CAHWT for their own electoral ends.
Academics can provide context to a struggle by providing information to campaigners about
why water privatisation is being pushed and how transnational capital relates to Irish Water.
Understanding the logic of the market, free trade and neoliberal economic ideology is no
longer something that only political anoraks study, it's now what campaigners talk about
on the bus to Dublin for a demo.
Irish Water contractors being blockaded from installing water meters was one of the first
types of direct action seen in this campaign. This was entirely non-violent and consisted
of local communities organising physical blocking tactics so contractors could not install
meters on their water mains. This led to the police being deployed to screen contractors
from protesters but since we usually came out in large enough numbers, the police were
unable to control us and so, frequently resorted to use of violence.
This aspect of the campaign is significant as it shows quite clearly what happens when
working class people engage in effective actions to defend their interests. Very quickly
police violence is used against us in an attempt to break our resistance.
The media then omits police violence from their reporting and instead implies that the
protesters were actually the violent ones. In this struggle, this tactic has mostly
failed, as virtually everyone has a smartphone, and so when violence occurs it is plain to
see that it is the police, private security and contractors who are the guilty parties.
Through the experience of neoliberal government policy, direct action, police violence and
media lies a significant number of newly politically active people learned rapidly who
their enemies are. In a matter of three years, politics in Ireland is in the process of
transforming from a spectator sport, into a normal community activity.
Where to from here?
The water charges are just one area in which the state and capital are attempting to
squeeze more out of us. Housing is most likely to be one of the major sites of struggle
over the coming years as vulture capitalists continue to speculate on and dominate the
Irish property market. As homelessness figures continue to rise, and rents remain sky
high; we will have to find ways to effectively confront and defeat these forces. As long
as we maintain the momentum we've picked up during the battle against Irish Water, we will
be in a very good position to get started building a housing movement. A great deal of
self education will be needed by our campaign groups if we are to be effective but a
number of groups with campaign experience have already begun the process of transforming
themselves into housing action groups, as part of the Irish Housing Network.
The most developed groups are based in Dublin but they are sharing their experience with
others around the country and are providing advice on how to get set up.
This process will not be complete until Irish Water is defeated but with the boycott
holding strong and more people joining it all the time, we appear to be on course to
defeat Irish Water.
Build the boycott, build working class power!
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