Housing and the left: Beyond reformism
There was bitter complaint among the ranks of the TDs of the Solidarity/People Before Profit when a resolution on the housing crisis was dismissed by the Irish Dail when it resumed its deliberations after the summer recess.
Amidst the furore there was little consideration or discussion of the proposal itself. Essentially it called for a referendum to insert into the Irish constitution a declaration on the right to a home.
This is a profoundly mistaken strategy.
To see why we need to consider the different approaches available to the left:
A revolutionary approach would demand in the Dail the immediate recognition of the right to a home and the suspension of capitalist property rights, the seizure of empty property, to achieve that goal. The parliamentary proposals would be aimed at supporting a movement of workers on the streets to take control of empty properties, many of which are public property because of the bank bail-out.
A reformist approach would combine work in parliament with campaigns on the streets to persuade the government that capitalism could be improved to allow a mass housebuilding programme.
The referendum proposal is clearly beyond (or rather below) reformism. It is a mixture of nationalism, populism and legalism, imagining a society without class division and class exploitation where a set of rules in the constitution would lead to utopia. In the real world constitutional principals have an Alice in Wonderland logic. They mean whatever or rulers say that they mean - no more and no less. For example, in the US, the claimed constitutional right to bear arms means everything and the first amendment right of football players to protest oppression means nothing.
The reformist left know this, so why are they adopting this approach?
It arises out of their uncritical support for the trade union bureaucracy in general and the left bureaucracy in particular. With the support of the left unions they were able to achieve major mobilizations around water charges but only through limiting the campaign to a process of lobbying the government for reform.
That approach did not succeed. Although the government had to retreat on the issue of charges in general, they were able to keep Irish Water, metering, the charging structure and thus the road to eventual privatisation.
The union involvement in the Apollo House housing campaign and direct action to seize NAMA property (that the workers had paid for) ignited mass enthusiasm and had insurrectionary implications. However a deal with the government brought the process to a rapid end.
Suspicions that left union leaders found the issue too hot to handle were dispelled by claims from Brendan Ogle of UNITE that the movement would be built more widely. Nothing came of these claims and the Right2Water unions later deposited €80 000 in donations to housing charities. The trade union left, and the reformist left, are now focusing on the strategy developed when the Right2Water campaign was wound down and the Right2Change platform drawn up. As with the Solidarity/PBP motion on housing, it defined all the needs of the workers in terms of human rights and their solution as an amended constitution.
This platform only makes sense as a way of building an electoralist and parliamentary alliance. To make this task as easy as possible it contains no firm demands or commitments to action.
The Right2Change platform is a profound diversion from the needs of workers and is already in chaos as Sinn Fein eye a coalition with parties of the right. The way forward was demonstrated by the short-lived Apollo House campaign - unambiguous statement of the right to a home and direct action by workers themselves to achieve that goal.