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Ireland, Media, Opinion Pieces, Politics

Working Class Have Shown They are the Force for Change in Society

The first water charges protests in Dublin West, November 2013

The first water charges protests in Dublin West, November 2013

Finding articles from the Irish Independent to be disagreeable is an everyday occurrence.  But here’s a particularly questionable article from the newspaper by Shane Ross, claiming it isn’t the Irish working class (inspired by people such as Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger etc.) who are responsible for the defeat of the water charges, but the middle-class, who have staged a rebellion.

‘Irish Water’s days are numbered, slain not by Paul Murphy and his band, but by a middle-class rebellion.’ – Shane Ross

It’s easy to see how people can mistake the middle-class as the “real progressive force” in society, especially if you’re from the kind of bourgeois background as Ross is.  Ultimately, isn’t it the middle-class generally who form laws, debate legislation, treat illnesses, manage businesses, etc.?  So therefore one might easily confuse the middle-class as the force for change in society.  We do after all, live in a bourgeois society.

I believe if we are to achieve positive and meaningful change in society, we should confront such views as the one expressed by Ross.

I should be clear, the campaign against the water charges would be nowhere without the courage and integrity of ordinary working-class people, who have ignited, developed and led the movement through protests and civil disobedience.  Last Saturday’s protest in Dublin, when 2,000 or so working-class people turned out to support those Jobstown residents is just one example of that uniquely working-class solidarity, leadership and class consciousness.  The 2,000 or so attendees were ordinary people fighting to protect the limited democratic rights that they have left, namely the right to effective and peaceful protesting.  The crowd was neither largely comprised by, nor led by, middle-class people.

If it was a ‘middle-class rebellion’, Ross surely doesn’t think much of the kinds of values or principles on which the middle-class have based their rebellion.  According to him, it was a rebellion driven by cynicism and greed on the part of the more privileged class:

You did not pay? You are carefree, cavalier and cunning. You know there is safety in numbers. The Irish Government is hardly poised to prosecute half its electorate just before an election. The battle is over. Civil disobedience has triumphed.

Some of those who have already paid up are looking ruefully at their respectable, middle-class neighbours. The neighbours – with two cars in the driveway and kids at private schools – are not paying their water charges. They see no point. They justify their refusal by citing the woes of Irish Water. They loathe the bonus culture, the waste, the daily litany of disasters dripping out of the Talbot Street headquarters. They deeply dislike Paul Murphy TD, his ilk and his antics, but they see a refusal to pay water charges as a gesture of defiance, a riposte to the constant crucifixions of the coping classes. They know they will never see the inside of a courtroom.

(This is ironic too, because it is the middle-class who benefits most of all from that “bonus culture” which exists, although it is indeed reviled by most working-class people)

Certainly, some of those more cynical reasons laid out above by Ross have been a reason in encouraging elements of the working class too.  But if you ask most ordinary people about their main considerations for why they didn’t pay the water charge, their motives were not greed or cynicism; their motives were based on the moral belief that to ask the 99% to continually bail out an economic system that they work for, and reap little or no reward from, is wrong.   Many others cannot afford to pay a water charge, and so they have no choice – but they have supported a movement which supports them.  Many feel betrayed and ridiculed by a political party which they elected, which is now implementing austerity initiatives they were purportedly against before they were elected.  There are other principled reasons such as, “we pay for water through taxation anyway”, that “Irish Water is not really about water conservation”, that “Irish Water will be privatised and driven by profit, just as the foundation of bin charges led to privatisation”.  The working class are angry too – perhaps more acutely – at the sheer expense, waste and incompetency shown by the ‘top brass’ managing Irish Water; angry at their contemptible display of entitlement when taking large bonuses more-or-less from the pockets of an increasingly beat-down population.  These are working-class grievances – and let’s not mention the anger over the role of Denis O’ Brien and his company Siteserv in all of this.

water charges protest blanchardstown

Protest against water charges in Blanchardstown

Middle-class representatives like Ross have had to resort to digging for reasons why the middle-class should be concerned about the water charges issue, beyond the powerful class-conscious reasons that the working-class have. The middle-class cannot argue that they cannot afford to pay, and they cannot say they are being hit the hardest by austerity.  Even arguing against a “bonus culture” is a little shallow given that it is middle-class individuals who benefit the most from this culture.  Thus cynicism, greed, frustration with the ‘sisterhood of quangos’, (an admittedly a costly bureaucratic ordeal for the middle-class with potential political ramifications within those circles) and an alleged sympathy for the crucified working-class become causes for concern for the middle-class in Ross’ view.

Ross is correct in the sense that some of the middle-class has played a part in defying the implementation of water charges – but who has shown them the way?  Who has made it a national issue with the potential for real change?  The protest movement began with brave acts of defiance in working class estates and spread throughout other working class areas in the country.  Jobstown is now perhaps the most well-known of these.  We should not forget the massive crowds that turned out for protests in Dublin on multiple occasions – more than 100,000 on at least one occassion.  Other protests saw tens of thousands attend in working class areas such as Blanchardstown and Clondalkin.  The working class people of Limerick and Cork, who have suffered harshly from austerity, have also been an inspiration.  And yes, actually, much of it was led by Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger among other working-class leaders – indeed, the first recorded protest against water charges was in Coppinger’s constituency, Dublin West, in November 2013.  All the  middle-class could do was follow this huge working-class movement.

‘All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!’  

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