What marks the anti water charges campaign out as being completely different from any of the previous anti-austerity campaigns (or lack of them!) is that it has managed to draw into activity a huge layer of working class people who are not members of political organisations, many of whom have never been involved in campaigns before and who don’t necessarily look to the trade union movement – and certainly not the left parties – for direction. .
“In addressing the question of ‘where next?’ for the anti water charges campaign it is useful to start with a quick look at where it currently is, where it has come from, and what have been the key influences inn its development.
And in kicking that off it is also useful to remind ourselves that a year ago it wasn’t anywhere – it didn’t exist to any appreciable extent. A couple of factors have combined to help it become the biggest campaign against any of the austerity measures visited on us over the last 7 or 8 years and to have organised some of the biggest mass mobilisations in the history of the state.
Principal among those factors has been the initial example shown by a small number of activists in a small number of communities in Cork and in North East Dublin in using direct action tactics to prevent the installation of meters, the use of social media – facebook in particular – to spread that example which has since been taken up, copied and repeated all over the country.
And alongside that the fact that 5 significant trade unions affiliated to the national Right 2 Water body gave it a wider mass appeal than any previous campaign – such as the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes and the earlier anti bin tax campaign which were largely fronted by the left parties and politicians.
Having said that, I would argue that the thing that marks the anti water charges campaign out as being completely different from any of the previous anti-austerity campaigns (or lack of them!) is that it has managed to draw into activity a huge layer of working class people who are not members of political organisations, many of whom have never been involved in campaigns before and who don’t necessarily look to the trade union movement – and certainly not the left parties – for direction. .
I don’t think it’s particularly useful to talk about THE campaign against water charges because there is no one campaign. It’s more helpful perhaps to think about it as a movement, a many headed monster if you like. This lack of cohesion – this lack of a single entity that is ‘the campaign’ is a huge strength – it means that there is no one ‘movement’ or ‘campaign’ which can be co-opted or beheaded, there is no one leadership which can be bought off, cosied up to or defeated.
While most of the massive protests have been called under the Right2Water umbrella, many local campaigns don’t have any involvement in Right2Water other than to participate in those protests. They don’t look to Right2Water for leadership, they don’t wait for Right2Water to tell them what to do. Indeed even many local campaign groups which call themselves Right2Water do not look to or seek leadership from Right2Water as a national body.
The local area in which I have been playing a small part in assisting in the building of resistance to water meter installation and the building of the political confidence necessary to convince large numbers of people not to pay is Dun Laoghaire. Any of you that know the area will know that the greater Dun Laogahire area has a mix of very wealthy areas, mixed working class areas and poorer areas.
Our campaigning in that area has really only kicked off since Christmas. During the months of January and February a small number of community campaigners organised in the region of 25 – 30 community street meetings over which had an average attendance of between 20 and 30 people. From these meetings, local phone trees and contact lists were organised and communities in any of the areas where these meetings have been held have successfully resisted the installation of meters in their areas.
A small but very active bunch of water warriors have been participating in direct action protests to prevent meter installation on a daily basis. When installation has been attempted in Council estates and more working class areas, there has been tremendous support and involvement from local residents. In other areas, the reaction of residents has been mixed to say the least. But the group’s decision has been that in terms of defeating the charges and privatisation, every meter delayed or prevented is a victory.
The relationship of our local community campaign to the Right2Water group which exists locally is the same as our relationship with the national R2W ‘umbrella’. We participate in protests and public meetings organised by them but we do not see ourselves as ‘part of’ R2W.
That’s what I see replicated across Dublin and throughout the country – the emergence of a layer of activists, many of whom have never done so before getting involved in community organising and in turning almost instinctively to the tactic of non-violent direct action as being the most effective way to prevent meter installation.
The emergence of this layer is something that should really excite those of us interested in anarchist and libertarian politics and equally should be a worry for the trade union leadership and the established left parties just as much as it worries the government and right wing parties.
People are organising outside of the party structures and outside of the trade union movement, they are learning that we don’t need ‘leaders’ or people to do things for us or think for us. They are learning that we are all capable of thinking for ourselves and of doing things for ourselves. They are learning that organised together in our communities we are strong and capable of standing up to injustice. And when working class people learn those lessons, they don’t meekly go back to the game of ‘follow the leader’ or ‘vote for me to bring about change’.
That is not to say that what is emerging is about to overthrow capitalism – far from it. But what is emerging is a new audience willing to engage with and listen to new ideas. They’re an audience that to a great extent have rejected the failed politics of the past.
What is obvious is that the existing left have no idea how to engage with these layers of people. A working class organising itself is a worry for them, working class protesters who don’t follow the ‘rules’ of protest and who don’t look to political leaders for guidance are coming up against a left whose idea of political dialogue is that people listen to their ideas, a left which doesn’t have the ability to listen to people, acknowledge their ideas and engage with them from where they are at.
The challenge for those of us steeped in libertarian and anarchist politics is to do that reaching out, to embrace, to listen, to work alongside and to support and encourage this layer of activists.
The big danger of course is that much of the energy and enthusiasm will be diverted down the electoral cul de sac.
R2W refuses to endorse or call for the only tactic actually capable of ultimately defeating the charges – non-payment. Taking the movement down the electoral route involves disarming a people who are beginning to find their voice in terms of how they relate to ‘politics’. It involves telling those who have stood in front of diggers and prevented meter installation, who have organised in their communities, who have marched and protested in their tens of thousands that ‘someone else’ will solve their problem, that all that is necessary to get rid of water charges is to have ‘the right people’ in power.
The message people need to hear right now is that it is as a result of working class people organising and protesting and uniting with each other that the government is under pressure. And that the ultimate weapon at our disposal – refusal to pay – will defeat the charge. It doesn’t matter who’s in government, by standing with our neighbours and refusing to pay, the charge is unenforceable.
So to me that’s the big challenge – can we turn the movements away from the self-destruction of taking the electoral route, can we convince people in large numbers that it is on the streets and in conversations with their neighbours that the battle will be won not in the ballot box? Over the coming months we need to solidify the message of the twin direct action tactics of blocking meter installation and not paying the bills – the message of people seeing themselves as leaders in their communities in terms of having that conversation – ‘I’m Not paying. You Shouldn’t Pay’ – retaining the many headed monster and avoiding the false ‘unity’ that involves leadership from above being imposed on self-organising community campaigns”
Gregor Kerr of Dun Laoghaire’s Not Paying
This video is part of the recording of ‘The Fight Against the Water Charges – Where Next?’ panel at the 2015 Dublin Anarchist Bookfair. The panel discussed the challenges facing the popular, community-based movement against Irish Water, and what we should do next, you can watch the entire panel including the contributions from the floor at http://youtu.be/4lIfvVEhMz0