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The #progressive #policy #paradox: a thread for the day that’s in it

Or: why #popular #power comes from below

In honour of our “#left and progressive unity” friends and GP voters
Full disclosure: I was once in the Green Party.

In another century, I hasten to add.

I represented the Irish party at the European Federation of GPs and edited what we laughingly called its theoretical journal.
I also spent a year in the French party and, more interestingly, on the far left of the German party. I thought the Irish party had the potential to become a party of and for #SocialMovements. I found I was wrong, and left.
There was no appetite for a serious relationship with #ecological #movements outside the party, let alone other #movements. To the point where the party refused to take a position on #abortion.
The nail in the coffin was the party refusing to rule out coalition with FF…

So what’s the problem?
One of the things the Irish party sold its soul to FF for was the promise that the Dept of Finance would cost a carbon tax. Not actually implement one, just cost it. This alone was worth being in a government that used the military (navy) against protestors at Rossport.
The policy was all that mattered, not the movement. A few years later I heard plaintive questions about why nobody was coming out to climate justice events. Well, folks, if you don’t get it by now…
Something similar happened with water charges. The party had convinced itself that water charges were the way to go. That a neoliberal, individualising and consumerist view of human nature was all that worked.
They didn’t change their view when it turned out that Irish people have a far more collective “moral economy” around human needs, service provision and social action.
Maybe the government should have dissolved the people and elected a different one.
By this same logic, Macron was right at the start against the yellow vests. The only thing that counts is the policy, and the people are an inconvenience.
Two things about this worship of policy. One is that you might actually be wrong about what works, particularly on something like this. Convincing yourselves that “if only the government does X, everything will be fine” doesn’t make it true. It just means you’re easy to convince.
The other is that you are being utterly naïve if you think you can change deeply-seated social structures (be it fossil fuel industrialism or a capitalist housing market) *without* massive and active popular support. You will meet resistance at every stage of the way.
Resistance from your colleagues in cabinet, resistance from civil servants, hostility from the mainstream media, resistance in implementation – and then you will need to make changes because sure as eggs are eggs it won’t work the way it’s supposed to.
Sorry, I don’t make the rules – that’s just how history works.
If you want to get through those barriers, there is no substitute for large-scale, organised popular pressure. That means social movements.
If your strategy – like the Irish GP – is one of fundamental hostility to social movements, a belief that all people are good for is turning up and voting for you once every 5 years and then going back into their box – you will lose.
A short aside, for progressives and leftists of all stripes: read Hal Draper’s “Two souls of socialism” where he talks about social change from above (the kind of thing we’re talking about here) and social change from below.

This stuff really isn’t news – we have known it for over half a century. You just haven’t been paying attention, because you reckoned that you could work out *in your head* how people are, how politics works and how you can change the world.
Without any serious knowledge of history, without any serious knowledge of how this is going in other countries, without any serious knowledge of radical politics.

Spoiler: you can’t work this stuff out in your head.
The other reason you can’t work it out in your head is that *you need to talk to other people*. In very large numbers. And you need to *listen*. Not just on the doorsteps, individualising and promising.
You need to see what happens when people start to put their voices together and get on the street. You need to listen to that with serious respect and attention. And you need to work with that.
The question any left or progressive party should be asking is: how can we help? Not: “how can we get rid of these annoying people so we can get on with what a tiny number of us have convinced ourselves is the way to change the world?”
You cannot change the world without *honest* dialogue.
Now: one of the big difficulties here is people confusing politics with policy.

Much of the “radical” discourse around ecology and housing is focussed on policy alone. We have a million policies!
And every day another policy wonk pops up to say “We need a vision! We need an alternative!”
No you don’t. I’ve been in radical politics for a third of a century. We have always had *more* visions, alternatives and policies than we ever needed – and far more than we were ever able to put into practice. There is never any shortage.
More to the point: the supply of policies has always far outstripped our capacity to actually get them implemented. Maybe think about that for a minute?
Don’t get me wrong: we need policy wonks for any change this side of a total social revolution (that’s another conversation). We might even need parliamentarians, media people, fundraisers and all the rest.

What we don’t need is that tail wagging the dog.
We don’t need cobblers going “leather is the only thing” when the problem isn’t the lack of shoes.
The difficulty is with a model of politics that is all about positioning policy – and policy specialists – at the centre. That is precisely the model of politics that is going down the tubes everywhere in the global North.
It is the politics of “dissolve the people and elect a better one” if they won’t conveniently line up behind my plan. Or if you prefer, the politics of treating popular agency as an awkward hurdle to be overcome, not the central point.
This is why I left the GP and stopped trying to have “left and progressive unity” conversations. Reader: everyone is allowed to make this kind of mistake once, when they’re young.
Joining a party or believing “it will all be different this time” without actually doing anything different – these are the mistakes to make in your twenties. They’re understandable. Not so understandable or forgiveable from specialists in their forties and fifties.
People: if someone is making a living doing this, as politician or policy expert, over decades, and hasn’t learnt anything, they’re very unlikely to start now. Not worth wasting your energy on.
It’s worth having conversations with people who haven’t built their professional careers around excluding popular power.
So to housing: we’ve seen many a wonderful paper on what is wrong with the Dublin housing market. And we’ve heard many a fantastic vision of how things could be. Is there something missing here?
Might what’s missing be an honest and well-informed discussion of how to bring together the power to change things? Rather than simply assuming you already know the answer?
Perhaps, I don’t know, looking at the political forces that were needed to bring about major shifts in housing policy in other countries? Thinking seriously about the levels of popular mobilisation that lay behind that?
Not just celebrating the PAH and then talking to the Irish Labour Party, but seeing the PAH’s background in the 2011 uprising? And then perhaps thinking what that might mean in Ireland?
For the last ten years I’ve heard the same people tell us “housing will be the next big movement”.
It’s always been *going to be* the next big movement. It’s never actually *been* the big movement. They said this at the time of anti-austerity protests, at the time of Occupy, at the time of water charges, at the time of marriage equality, at the time of repealing the 8th.
Movement after movement that *were* the big movements of the day – and housing constantly stumbling along, at best pulling together “thousands” (not tens of thousands) for a demo that was supposed to be the big one. And, yet again, it wasn’t.
People may be punishing FG at the ballots today, but that demo will not be forcing any changes in housing policy any time soon. The interests involved are far too entrenched for that.
A show of strength that doesn’t actually show real strength is … not a great political move.
What did show strength were the popular support for Apollo House and the direct action on Frederick St. – and they pushed the political class back in unusual ways. It’s not that housing *can’t be* the next big movement – it’s that you can’t *assume* it will be.
Here’s what Cabral said:
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…”

That means being more reflective, not just doing the same damn “left unity” thing again and again.
Don’t tell people that just because something is a huge problem that automatically means there will be a massive movement around it. It wasn’t true before the crash, and it isn’t true now.
What is true is that if something is a huge problem for many people it has the *potential* for a massive movement. But often enough those massive movements don’t materialise.
They are particularly unlikely to materialise if you put the policy cart before the movement horse that needs to pull it.
And if you make alliances with the very people who have just been involved in massively attacking the very communities you need on your side – and who have shown at every turn of the water charges road their bitter hostility to popular struggle.
Don’t lie to the people.
Don’t keep doing the same damn thing that hasn’t worked for you.
I try not to write about movements I’m not active in, for obvious reasons. Sorry to break that rule, but the self-righteous priestly blether about left unity and the need to forgive and forget is … so anti-political.
Folks: doing that will get you invited to give another talk to another well-established organisation. Congratulations. It will not change the capitalist housing market. Which of those do you really want?
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