Rosie Meade (University of Ireland)

Drawing Inspiration from Resistance in Ireland and Beyond

 

Thinking about the inspiration that I can derive from recent activism in my own country, forces me to look beyond the political sectarianism that continues to divide sections of the tiny Irish activist field.  Sometimes it seems as if we on the ‘left’ inhabit a delusional universe, within which the values to which we aspire actually do hold sway: a universe that is not dominated by the commodifying and individualizing logic of capitalism.  It is because we live in this world of make believe that we can afford to treat our closest potential allies as our greatest foes; indulgently dwelling on fine points of dogma and subverting opportunities for meaningful dialogue.  Recent demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq have illustrated the Irish left’s pathological inability to avoid alienating the broader populace.  A groundswell of opposition to the war was reduced to a rump, as sectarian factions attempted to colonise and control all expressions of protest.  In some instances, demonstrations and actions were scheduled in order to compete with rather than to complement one another, and so newcomers to activism easily became confused regarding the purpose of protests and the motives of organisers. 

 

If I can find reasons to be optimistic about the current state of activism in Ireland, I continue to despair at the virulence of sectarianism.  As a small country with a population of less than four million, the Republic of Ireland1 has a limited pool of activists and the personal tensions and tactical conflicts that emerge in one campaign, tend to be reified and reproduced in others due to the inevitable intersections in membership.  Frequently activism appears boring or formulaic, as if actions are underpinned by a ‘revolutionary bad faith’.  This means that they are deliberately directed towards immutable institutions of power with no expectation of efficacy, simply it seems, to confirm the unspoken belief that ‘we can’t change anything until everything changes (See Reed, 2000).    Of course, all campaigners must be cognizant of the systemic roots of oppression, but if that analysis demands the discrediting of everything less that full-scale revolution, then the energy of most activists and all non-activists will be dissipated.  Nonetheless, during the last decade there have been unleashed powerful and delightful undercurrents of resistance in Ireland and beyond.   Notably the most effective and attractive of these have shown an enthusiasm for creativity, playfulness and inclusivity, and it is those tendencies that I discuss in the following sections.  

 

DIY and cultural resistance

George McKay (1998) has described how, in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s, an important dimension of activism related to the creation of alternative and autonomous cultural outlets.  Identifying corporate or commercial control over culture as a political issue in its own right, activists organized free parties and raves, founded pirate radio stations, circulated hand made zines and picked up camcorders to make films about their own grievances and aspirations. This ‘Do it Yourself’ (DIY) ethic was premised upon a strong sense of personal and collective efficacy, whereby activists rejected ready made and commodified culture in the name of control over authorship and distribution.  This search for ‘authenticity’ also generated support for the employment of ‘direct action’ tactics. Direct action typically involves more intimate or potentially risky confrontations between campaigners and their opponents, and thus demands a greater investment of commitment by a smaller number of activists.  Such campaigners might argue that the left’s longstanding obsession with mass demonstrations ensured that the intensity or effectiveness of dissent had been sacrificed in the name of populist symbolism.  Accordingly, a hunt saboteur would probably assert that a foxhunt successfully disrupted through direct action is a more substantial political victory than the circulation of a mass petition articulating, what is essentially, passive opposition. 

 

It is, of course, debatable whether passion trumps popularity as a lubricant of social change.  There is a risk that the rhetoric of DIY seeks to camouflage a simple tactical choice as ontology and that other meaningful strategies become disregarded in our rush to prove the authentic spirit of our actions.  Furthermore, as Adolph Reed (2000; 195) has warned, ‘lack of connection to palpable constituencies makes it possible to convince oneself of all manner of ridiculous fantasies’ and it is conceivable that small scale local confrontations, such as are idealised by ‘direct activists’, may produce little of in the way of durable or reproducible improvement.  Nonetheless, this emphasis on direct action is refreshing insofar as it actually seeks to identify the connections between protest and outcomes.   Instead of valourising deferred gratification or emphasising the long hard road to ‘progress’, ‘direct activists’ urge us to steal success whenever and wherever we can and in doing so, they present a vital and dramatic challenge to accepted definitions of ‘revolution’ or change.

 

McKay (1998) acknowledges that DIY is not new and that its antecedents can be traced to 1970s punk, the social movements of the 1960s and even to earlier forms of socialist struggle.  Nonetheless, in asserting that cultural action has its own intrinsic and extrinsic politics, activists have reminded their peers that the scope for resistance is broader than is typically assumed by the traditional left. As if to underscore the threat DIY posed to establishment values, the British Conservative government enacted legislation in 1993 – the Criminal Justice Act – that effectively criminalized key groupings within the DIY activist scene.  Ravers, free party organizers, anti-road protesters, hunt saboteurs and ‘New Age’ Travellers had been demonised by the media and thus became the primary scapegoats of the new measures. 

 

Throughout the 1980s and 90s refugees from Thatcher’s Britain had begun to decamp to Ireland in order to escape the worst effects of materialism, monetarism and the destruction of the welfare state.  Many of the new arrivals, who were often generically (and lazily) referred to as ‘New Age Travellers’, were highly politicised and came with a desire to follow the logic of DIY in their new home.  Although their influence has not been systematically researched or quantified, they have made a significant contribution to the revitalization and reimagination of activism in Ireland over the last decade and a half.  This influence was apparent in the Glen of the Downs anti-road campaign, in the burgeoning free party scene that emerged during the mid 1990s and in the more recent enactments of ‘Reclaim the Streets’ in Dublin and Cork.  Although usually invoked in a derogatory spirit, the labels ‘hippies’ or ‘crusties’ are frequently directed at environmental campaigners, and reflect a popular association of green consciousness and the ‘New Age Traveller’ lifestyle.  Certainly, for many within that ‘movement’ a critique of the impact of urbanisation and poor metropolitan planning, a desire to reconnect with nature and a willingness to construct alternative models of community informed their decision to opt into nomadism.  The vindictiveness with which nomads have been criminalized, both in the UK and in Ireland, reflects the extent to which this lifestyle, and its attendant political critique, has been perceived as a threat to the dominant ideology of possessive individualism. 

 

It is important not to attribute a coherent or binding analysis to all who may have passed through the DIY scene.  For example, many (or maybe most) who attended raves did not necessarily construct their participation as a political act; it was often more about the buzz.  Nonetheless, raves or nomadic communities can be understood as constituting liminal spaces, within which the norms of conduct and prevailing social values are transgressed.  By breaking through the hegemony of commercialism and by offering a focus for dissident opinion, this scene had an important influence over subsequent campaigns and protest movements.  Aside from its more overt political claims regarding autonomy and action, it provided participants, however marginal their involvement, with an opportunity to disengage temporarily from society and in the process to self-identify as outsiders.  This kind of ideological breach is essential to the building of any counter-hegemonic political movement, and as the media, police and establishment voices demonised the various elements of DIY, participants became further alienated from the dominant value frame of their society. 

 

Dropping the dour, embracing creativity

One of the most persistent stereotypes about left wing activists is that we are a dour and poker-faced lot.  In many ways, we have reinforced this image by conducting ourselves in ways that suggest that creativity and humour are too vulgar for protest; that the correct stance for the wannabe revolutionary is that of the arch-miserabilist. Very often, our political aspirations are reduced to mumbled chants as we shuffle along in directionless marches or to truisms printed on monochrome posters that invoke the ‘hardship vocabulary’ of the left – struggle, oppression, work, etc.  Of course, we must not trivialise the challenges we face and we do have an obligation to construct alternative discourses through which the realities of inequality can be appraised with rigour.  But surely a critical consciousness can coexist with an optimistic outlook or a more dynamic spirit!  The tendency towards excessive sobriety is not just a feature of activism in Ireland, but is observable in the UK and USA also.  Ralph Rugoff (1995, 160) has described how wrestler/hero/activist ‘Super Barrio’ injected an appealing mixture of high camp, mystery, ordinariness and playfulness into Mexico City’s activist scene.  Marco Rascon, a ‘spokesperson’ for Super Barrio estimated the value of his contribution in the following terms;

 

‘Before Super Barrio, everything to do with social movements had to be represented in a very serious way, with proper respect for the solemnity of the people’s struggle,’….’All the social movements we see in the US still have this solemnity.  The political opposition there is expressed in very humourless, rational terms, but in Mexico, people don’t distinguish so precisely between the real and the fantastic.’ (Rugoff, 1995; 160).

 

Happily, some more boisterous elements have become visible at recent demonstrations in Ireland.  The mobile sound system, a direct descendant of the free-party scene, is now a regular feature of protest and invites the understanding that it is possible to dance and still be part of the revolution. At the anti-Bush demonstrations at Shannon airport in 2004, one of the most hilarious and memorable groups of dissenters were the absurdist ‘Orange Men’, demanding their right to walk wherever they wished.  By sending up the sectarian unionists who insist on marching though republican communities in the North or Ireland, these bowler-hatted protesters also drew attention to the ways by which the Irish state has constrained public access to the airport in order to facilitate the smooth transit of US warplanes en route to Iraq.  Their sharp and multi-layered political analysis was readily comprehensible to the broader public, but was communicated with consummate wit and charm.   Likewise such self-consciously funny groupings as the global ‘Pink Fairy’ anti-capitalist block or the more distinctly local ‘Dogs Against War’, represent a deliberate movement away from the ‘mystification’ of self-sacrifice that has long been a feature of left wing campaigning.   By embracing humour, protesters also convey their desire to connect with a broader constituency, winning friends among children, parents, teenagers and elders. 

 

Building a discursive community of resistance

One of the most exciting recent developments to occur in Irish radical politics was the foundation of indymedia.ie in winter 2001.  This independent and comparatively unregulated discussion forum promises a free trade in the kinds of ideas, information and viewpoints that are typically ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media. The substance of its news derives from frontline reports that are posted by activists and although contributors have a moral responsibility to record accurately, they are, unlike professional journalists, unburdened by allegiance to the liberal myth of objective reporting. Indymedia invites all who log onto its pages to cast off the humble role of news consumer and instead to participate as equals in the creation and definition of alternative news.   However, by promoting the ethos and practice of ‘open publishing’, Indymedia also challenges writers to use that space constructively.  All too frequently, the ‘pages’ of <indymedia.ie> are overrun over by contributors whose main political purpose appears to be the subversion and ultimate destruction of this experiment in information sharing. Rigorous debate becomes sidelined as sectarians trade insults and trolls launch diatribes against the integrity and tactics of fellow activists.  In these, its worst moments, the news service becomes little more than a frat-house for dysfunctional cyber-lefties: lefties who appear to have abandoned any hope of engagmement with a broader constituency.  In its best moments, however, indymedia.ie, grants minority or counter-hegemonic voices room for expression and thus helps disconnected individuals and groups to become part of a more potent oppositional community through which friendships and alliances can be built.   By offering a safe house for all manner of contrary discourses and by allowing activists to frame their thoughts and actions in words of their own choosing, <indymedia.ie> inverts the objectifying processes, which define mainstream media practice.   It is the fundamental difference between reporting and being reported on, between speaking and being spoken about.  We cannot overestimate the worth of such independent discursive spaces, particularly since Irish journalism is overwhelming centre-right in its orientation and commercial in its sense of obligation (See Corcoran 2004).

 

In May 2003, I attended a meeting in Dublin at which plans for an all Ireland Social Forum were being discussed.  The Irish Social Forum was based upon the WSF/FSM model, which binds participants to a minimalist statement of principles and which emphasises the value of dialogue for dialogue’s sake. There were, at the Irish meeting, some expressions of disquiet from activists who saw this comparative value neutrality as a weakness.  One contributor asserted that the Irish left is characterised by ‘too much talk and not enough action’, and urged the ISF to attach to its support to an upcoming campaign that his group was championing.  At this all too predictable interjection, I sighed deeply and muttered angrily to myself about ‘those blasted cultists’ and how ‘they always try to hijack something new for their own narrow motives’.  Nonetheless, I did have some sympathy with the speaker’s point. He was fearful that his energy and time were going to be exhausted in yet another talking shop that produces little in the way of tangible outcomes.  The World Social Forum itself has been criticised for its top heaviness, for its secret love affair with bureaucratic organisation and for its failure to generate much in the way of programmes or clear proposals.  Clearly there is every possibility that an Irish Forum might replicate these shortcomings. I believe, however, that the failure of the Forums to deliver ‘actions’ reflects not the surfeit of conversations within the left, but their absence.  We cannot know what we want as a collectivity, unless we begin to appreciate who we are.  Even if the ISF or WSF do not provide the optimal conditions for such open and productive discussion, they are at least reminders that talk may bring its own rewards. 

 

Since no one among us can say with certainty where the left begins and ends, we must show modesty as we begin the slow unwieldy process of building and securing alliances.  We must become less defensive, stop cheerleading our pet parties or projects and instead work towards the creation of discussion spaces where the certainty of action is replaced by the uncertainty of exploration.  It is because Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2001 and 2005) have attempted to acknowledge and celebrate a pluralized conception of the left, that I draw particular inspiration from their work.  They have theorised the form and political character of ‘the’ counter hegemonic movement that is most appropriate to the complexities of contemporary globalised society – or what they term ‘Empire’.   The Marxist left’s longstanding fixation with the ‘industrial working class’ as harbingers of revolution has, they argue, effectively denied the political subjectivity of a range of actors, including peasants, unwaged domestic workers, and the unemployed.  Like good Marxists, however, they also recognise that dominant systems of production and exchange tend to generate the forces of their own undoing.  Domination and resistance, it seems, are perpetual bedfellows.  Because Empire is ubiquitous, because its commodifying and anti-democratic logic insinuates itself within all aspects of individual and collective life, we may legitimately hope that the currents of our opposition are similarly far-reaching and diversified.  Hardt and Negri (2001, 2005) also seek to redefine ‘the proletariat’ in terms that are more inclusive and so they invoke the ‘Multitude’ as the ultimate author of political opposition in our times.  ‘Multitude’ signifies a collectivity that is pluri-vocal and heterogeneous, where a multiplicity of interests acts simultaneously in defiance of imperial power. This theorisation is also self-effacingly non-prescriptive, refusing to delimit the mechanisms through which individual elements of the multitude might converge or to prematurely determine the content of a shared political programme. 

 

‘We do not have any models to offer for this event.  Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.’ (2001; 411)  Perhaps this might be construed as vague or fuzzy thinking.   However, I would prefer to believe that their work is infused by optimism of the intellect and of the will: the kind of optimism that is the foundation of a genuinely reflexive political praxis.

 

Conclusion

I do not think that it is possible to deliver a definitive appraisal of the state of the Irish activist left, largely because my own analysis swings over and back between despair and hope.  There are specific campaigns, most of which I have not mentioned in this article, whose aspirations I share or whose tactical energy I admire.  Nonetheless, I also believe that there are too many groups whose actions are over determined by pragmatism and by a thirst for power.  My search for seeds of inspiration has been intentionally dialectical, largely because I believe that tactical choices always must be negotiated with reference to the specific historical circumstances within which activists operate.  Of course, I am concerned also that I might be judged guilty of sectarianism if I endorse specific tendencies or celebrate particular campaigns too wholeheartedly.  Building a discursive, dynamic and mutually supportive activist community will be no easy task.  Our allegiance to the party or to the latest trend in tactical expression, very often the stuff that gives us our identity as activists, may become depleted as we seek to engage honestly with potential allies. However, without such potentially risky dialogue, the Irish left will stagnate.  Whether they are local, national or international, forums that take seriously the project of alliance building are to be welcomed. They may be tentative and awkward, and might not amount to much in the way of a new utopianism, but wherever I find such efforts, I also find something to inspire me.

 

Sources:

Corcoran, Mary (2004) ‘The Political Preferences and Value Orientations of Irish Journalists’, Irish Journal of Sociology, 13(2): 22-42

 

McKay, George (1998) DIY: Party and Protest in 90s Britain.  London; Verso.

 

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire. Harvard University Press.

 

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2005) Multitude. London; Hamish Hamilton.

 

Reed, Adolph (2000) Class Notes. New York; The New Press.

 

Rugoff, Ralph (1995) Circus Americanus. New York: Verso.

 

 

1 I cannot do justice to the complexity of political activism and its associated tendencies in the North of Ireland.