This is the second of two blog posts on ‘municipal revolution’, reflecting on the victory of ‘citizens’ platforms’ across Spain and what it might mean for Dublin.
While much attention has recently been focused on next year’s general elections, it seems to us that the municipal scale currently offers more possibilities for a variety of reasons. The urban scale is smaller and easier to engage with; the city council has relatively limited powers and therefor is less challenging to govern; and the elections are several years away, giving plenty of time. What we have in mind here – and we want to emphasise that this is, at this stage, more of a thought experiment than anything else – is an electoral alliance made up of social movements, civil society and the community sector running together on the basis of (a) democratising Dublin City Council (DCC) and (b) using the councils admittedly limited powers to create a more egalitarian and environmentally sustainable city. DCC has for too long been used by political parties as a stepping stone to general elections. Local elections are often played out either on national issues (e.g. voting against the government of the day) or on the basis of local clientalism. Meanwhile, councillors have often been acquiescent in the face of the executive branch of the city council which effectively calls the shots on most issues. Is it time for the citizens of Dublin to take back our public institutions? Is it even possible? These are the questions we address in what follows.
In the first post, we looked at the radical new electoral alliances in Barcelona and Madrid through five lenses: the context; the alliances; the politics; the communication; and the figureheads. This post will apply these five categories to Dublin in order to provoke reflection and debate on the potential for institutional transformation led by social movements and civil society.
The below obviously reflects our views and experiences and is necessarily incomplete and partial. We’ve also tried to be brief and therefor have left lots of stuff out, be we do hope to return to these issues at a later date. We hope, nevertheless, that it can contribute in two ways. Firstly, because it might feed into debates around elections currently taking place and, secondly, because it tries to approach this issue in a way which takes seriously the relationship between the electoral or institutional sphere and social movements.
There’s an awful lot that could be said in terms of context but in our view there are a few big themes worth highlighting.
(i) There is now a relatively rich tapestry of ‘small to medium sized campaigns’ such as Anglo Not Our Debt, the Anti-racism Network or We’re not Leaving in Dublin, capable of garnering significant media attention and working consistently on important issues. However, many groups are relatively young and have not put down strong roots, while others have yet to find their focus. Few, if any, have achieved concrete, tangible victories in terms of transforming policy. This vibrant ecosystem, as such, needs more time to grow and find its feet.
(ii) The bigger national movements, such as that against the household tax and more recently against the water tax, have obviously been much larger and, at least in the case of the water movement, have made a serious dent in the schemes of the political elite. The water movement has shown that collective action can bring about meaningful change – which has been crucial. It has also resulted in a very significant de-legitimising of the political system and mainstream parties and has crystalized the widespread feeling of alienation from mainstream politics and institutions. However, the water movement, it seems to us, has only begun the task of creating a rupture with the political system and neoliberal hegemony. Spain experienced both the massive 15M movement as well as several simultaneous movements around housing, education and health, all of which built up a growing sense that social legitimacy was held by the movements and not by the politicians. We’re not quite there yet in Dublin.
(iii) The last ten years or so has witnessed an upsurge in interest around urban space in Dublin, with projects around community gardens ad pop up parks proliferating. Many of these networks bring together architects, planners, activists, environmentalists and artists, and form an important part of those attempting to change the city. They also have built up experience working with DCC.
(iv) The community sector in Dublin has been decimated and, while this has not produced the kind of combatative response we might have hoped for, it has driven a wedge between the community sector and the state to a significant degree. This is most strongly reflected in the Spectacle of Defiance, but more broadly there is now a large cohort of youth and community workers with strong local roots and concerned with meaningful change.
All in all this is a promising but ambiguous context, characterised by strong but as yet not fully realized potential.
In the first post, we mentioned the importance of trust and experience working together in building up alliances. It is not enough to want unity or alliances, or to espouse them as values. They have to come from working together on concrete projects. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful in this respect when we think about Dublin. First of all, the small to medium size groups have been characterised by an interesting composition. In a project like Anglo not our Debt, community workers, media activists, and international development activists worked together very successfully. A similar cocktail is evident in other groups, such as Attac Ireland or Housing Action Now. Such projects have, it seems to us, created a context in which all sectors have come to have a new found trust and respect for each other. The larger national movements have also brought together interesting alliances. There has been a certain amount of the usual left wing parties vying for prominence within the water movement, but this seems, for now, to have been less destructive than in the case of the household tax campaign. Probably the most important set of alliances that have bubbled up here have been between independent community activists, Dublin Says No and related groups, the trade unions and independent left socialists. This seems to be the cohort most likely to work together on some kind of further political or even electoral project. So, there are important and promising alliances emerging in Dublin.
However, it would be remiss of us to ignore the less promising signs. As everyone knows, the background within which most of us are working is one characterised by years of low levels of trust and even suspicion and this is difficult to overcome. A lot of this is down to the smaller left parties, but the issue effects everyone. The household tax campaign and the water campaign have had to confront these issues, and in some instances trust and mutual respect has been eroded as much as it has been bolstered. A further significant issue, and one that effects the smaller campaigns as much as the larger ones, is what some describe as the ‘backroom culture’ and ‘boys club’ that often takes centre stage. This refers to a number of nefarious phenomena, such as decisions being taken in pubs after meetings by small groups of friends, or certain people being ‘in the know’ and others left out. Linked to this is a kind personality politics as well as a devaluing of the less ‘sexy’ forms of contribution and participation. There is a kind of division of labour in which some individuals self-appoint themselves as ‘movers and shakers’ and attempt to define the wider political trajectory of the movements, while those doing the equally (if not more) important work of facilitating meetings, designing web pages etc. seem to get less respect. Importantly, there is a strong gender dimension to all of this, with women being too often excluded and dismissed. This raises all kinds of issues about political practice and the kind of world we’re trying to create. But, with regard to the questions under discussion here, this aspect of the current culture poses practical problems because it undermines the strength of alliances and levels of trust and solidarity. In short, we have a way to go before building stronger alliances which could sustain a ‘municipal revolution’. This would require a greater degree of working together on shared projects (such as, for example, a ‘right to the city’ campaign linking water, housing, transport etc.) and a willingness to acknowledge, challenge and transform the nastier aspects of the current culture.
In our first post we noted that, with regard to the citizens’ platforms in Spain, the key is that they made the election be about citizens taking control of their public institutions and NOT voting for a ‘better’ or ‘more progressive’ party that will change the city on behalf of citizens. It also involved articulating a politics beyond left and right, a non-ideological politics (in a specific sense of that term), focused on processes, practices and objectives. Could such a politics emerge in Dublin? There are many arguing for a more people-centred politics that would put old divisions behind us and put citizens and democratic participation first. But there are also many who continue to be attached to more or less traditional left wing politics and who are critical of those approaches that seek to move beyond left and right. It seems to us that further analysis of the importance of re-articulating a progressive politics that corresponds with the contemporary world is called for.
Another issue here is the question of democracy and the city council. This raises at least three core problems, discussed in turn. (1) Movements in Dublin have focused more on austerity and material questions than on democratic participation (with the exception of Occupy perhaps), so there would need to be greater concern for democratic participation as an end in itself. (2) Movements in Dublin/Ireland have tended to neglect the city council, seeing it as irrelevant, unimportant and little more than a stepping-stone to general elections. It is generally argued that most or all important issues are decided at a national level. A would-be municipal revolution would require a re-evaluation of municipal democracy as an end in itself and of the importance of the city as scale and space for radical social change and local democracy. (3) A meaningful attempt to take back Dublin City Council would involve working within, but against, the constraints of weak local government. On the one hand, many areas of policy and the economy are simply beyond the remit of DCC – it would be pointless to campaign around taxation, hospitals and many other issues which DCC simply has no control over. On the other hand, elected representatives in DCC have insufficient power, and it is the unelected executives who hold the reins. Thus, a municipal revolution would have to: (a) identify the real changes which could be brought about through city council, avoiding the temptation to campaign on national issues; and (b) propose meaningful ways to democratize DCC and take on the executive side (such as a directly elected mayor answerable to the council; the creation of neighbourhood assemblies to hold the council to account etc). All of this requires research and analysis in terms of the significance of the municipal scale for social change, the current set up and dynamics within the council, and the potential elected councillors have to bring about changes.
4) The communication
The movements in Dublin have no doubt made great strides in terms of communication, media and so on. But many challenges remain. We continue to largely communicate with our traditional ‘constituency’. Would we be able to communicate with young precarious workers, the kind who have no living memory of a time when city councils provided public services? Would we be able to get migrants to register for local elections and vote? This would require ambitious and rigorous work and considerable time. Of all the challenges, however, it is probably the most surmountable.
5) The figureheads
While we favour participative democratic processes in which personalities do not play a strong role, it is also the case that fledging electoral alliances require figureheads who can (a) articulate the project clearly; (b) garner significant media attention; (c) be trusted and respected by social movements and civil society. Activists suffer some disadvantages here, because we typically don’t have the opportunity to gain much experience with the media or to become well known public figures. Those who challenge the status quo are also typically Pidgeon-holed as ‘hard left’ types who have no practical solutions to offer, presenting further difficulties.
As we said at the outset, the main focus of discussion in Dublin’s social movements recently has been the general election. Here we’ve taken a different approach and used the victories of citizens’ platforms in Spain to explore the possibilities for a ‘municipal revolution’ in the fair city. Taking back our institutions of local government seems to us an important task, but one that can only come about on the basis of strong social movements and civil society, a meaningfully participative process and a comprehensive rethink with regard to the city and its institutions as a scale and space of democratization.