Tuesday, 15 December 2020

In praise of ungovernability (remix)


How do we make sense of different kinds of Irish government today? There is a "crisis" in Irish politics that fundamentally consists of a long-term shift to the left, driven by large-scale mobilisation in the water charges struggle, the marriage equality and abortion rights referenda, and other anti-austerity struggles. It has become (tiny violins) difficult to put powerful right-wing governments together - as elsewhere on the European periphery, there are no longer social majorities for the politics of austerity and neoliberalism. But the twilight of liberalism is lasting a long time.

I published this in the late, lamented Irish Left Review back in 2016 just before the general election. You can still find the original here but it is becoming harder to do, so I thought it worth rescuing - not quite for posterity but just for myself.

Back then the question was whether a stable majority could be reached post-election. Now, in December 2020, we have what this piece called "a complex coalition", in which two days of (fairly intense) pressure (12 - 14 Dec) forced the Green Party to get the ratification of the EU's free trade agreement with Canada (CETA) taken off the order of business. That does not of course mean that it has gone away - but it does illustrate the basic point that in neoliberal contexts, a "weak government" is often a good thing for social movements.


With the general election now upon us, Fine Gael and Labour can be expected to highlight the need for a “strong government”, while attacks on the left parties have suggested that they are uninterested in governing and only interested in being “wreckers”. This can be a difficult argument on the doorsteps, against a long history of assuming that only parties in power can “deliver” (usually particular benefits for local groups). I want to suggest that ungovernability would not be such a bad thing, and that a “weak government” is in the interests of most people in the country.

What “strength” has meant over the past five years has been strength at imposing decisions made elsewhere – by the Troika collectively, by the EU or ECB individually, by “the markets” or in some sweetheart deal with multinationals – on a population which has been increasingly recalcitrant. Not strength in representing our interests, but strength in riding roughshod over our interests and our resistance. A strong government is not our friend if it is on the right (and there is no real chance of anything else in the next Dáil).

Conversely, on all recent opinion polls a weak right-wing government is almost certainly the least bad outcome we can hope for, whether that be a coalition of FG, Lab, SDs and independents or – on different numbers and backroom deals – FG in some sort of arrangement with FF (minority government? government of national unity?) The reason for this is that a weak government is one which is less cohesive, and less effective at imposing other people’s interests in the face of our resistance.

I don’t want to overstate the case for this – even a weak government will pull together and ignore all possible popular resistance to, for example, the US military use of Shannon or Shell’s presence in Erris, and will continue to stand over whatever violence is required. However, not every issue will be so easy to handle. Water charges stand at the head of the list of a series of impositions by recent “strong governments” which may prove far more politically problematic for a “weak government”.

At its simplest, a “weak government” is one which will have to pay far more attention to social movements and popular pressure; it will have fewer rewards to offer for loyalty and will have less scope to threaten internal “dissidents” within what is likely to be a fairly thin majority. Indeed, the strategy of “ram the changes through and people will have forgotten in five years’ time” becomes less likely if the government’s lifetime may be considerably shorter.

Readers will make their own assessments as to which particular assaults on the population will prove harder to push through in the case of a complex coalition, minority government or narrow majority, but it will almost certainly involve some elements of austerity, and probably some issues of civil liberties (with which recent governments have played fast and loose). As with marriage equality, so too with repealing the 8th amendment we may even see politicians racing to put themselves at the head of the parade in the hope of convincing voters that they, and not popular pressure for change, should be praised for taking action.

In a very general sense, then, social movements, community groups and trade unions have everything to gain from a “weak government” which will have to struggle for support to stay in power, and some of whose members or supporters may seek instead to find popular allies rather than undergo further meltdown while in power. Meltdown will not be a problem for Fine Gael, whose core voters genuinely seem to like what they are getting: but it would be a problem for Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats or for that matter Fianna Fáil if they find themselves acting as junior partners in yet another austerity government where the “recovery” will be felt far less on the ground than rhetoric suggests – and where votes may continue to hemorrhage towards Sinn Féin, the left parties and left independents.

This broadly positions Ireland in a similar situation to Greece, Spain and Portugal, where popular majorities and consent for austerity politics have been hard to find for several years now. The European periphery is only governable at the cost of not looking under the hood at the degree of legitimacy of governments and policies: time after time we have seen parties elected on one mandate take a different tack once in power, referenda re-run when people have not voted the right way and in the case of Greece just how little real choice citizens are allowed. The case of Greece (and Portugal’s recent semi-coup by the outgoing president) also shows, of course, that peripheral states cannot by themselves overturn this state of affairs. If we want an end to austerity in Europe, our peripheral ungovernability will have to find strong allies within the core European states, whether parties or movements. But Ireland is now joining the rest of the periphery in refusing a social majority for austerity, and that is a step in the right direction.

So I want to suggest that we should be happy to be (relatively) ungovernable for now, and that we should actively make the argument that in the absence of a possible government opposed to austerity and neoliberalism, our best option is a weak (and if possible fragile) pro-austerity government faced with determined anti-austerity parties. It is in this situation where strong popular movements will best be able to win victories and force concessions, and start to shift the initiative towards our side, and away from the IFIs, the EU and our own homegrown rich.