Following the huge protests which rocked Trinity earlier this year, we invited William Foley to talk to us about the protests, what they achieved and the lessons that can be learned from this movement.
A central conundrum for leftists since the beginning of the great recession: why (and why not) do people protest? A whole suite of countries were exposed to the austerity treatment and the ravages of capitalism in crisis – and yet there was substantial variety in the scale and intensity of response.
In Greece and Spain, there was the emergence of the movement of the squares. This was an innovative and evocative new tactic, which dovetailed with the incipient political programme of the new movement: a critique of the hollowing out of democracy under neoliberalism, and the demand for a new, citizen-oriented form of popular sovereignty. (How to link this to a class-based analysis of society is a further question for Marxists to consider).
The ultimate political consequences of this were the development of Syriza and Podemos. Both organisations have their limitations and failures, obviously. Syriza ultimately capitulated, and are currently implementing austerity, privatisation, and a rollback of trade union rights. Podemos’ momentum has stalled in recent years, and they have floundered in the context of a resurgent national movement in Catalonia. Both represent reformist rather than revolutionary challenges to capitalism.
Nevertheless, leftists in other countries have (had) reasons to be envious. At least until the emergence of the water charges protests, socialists in the south of Ireland must have often asked themselves why austerity had elicited such a mild reaction, and why the left had failed to develop significantly. When engaging with people on the street or on the doorstep, we would often find agreement when we argued that the bailout of the banks, the slashing of welfare, and the imposition of new taxes was radically unfair and starkly illustrative of the inequalities of power and wealth which characterise capitalism. “Of course it’s not just,” people would say, “but there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not like Greece (or France, or Spain, etc)”. The Greeks apparently agreed – one (possibly apocryphal) story is that Greek protesters held up signs on demonstrations bearing the legend: “We’re not like Ireland”. (Symmetrically, the Fine Gael finance minister under the previous austerity government “quipped” that he wanted to order t-shirts with “Ireland is not like Greece” printed on them).
In order to see collective action as viable, you have to believe that the present order of things is both unjust and changeable. In Ireland, at least before 2014, not many people believed that collective action could be successful, or was even possible. So individual solutions were sought instead: emigration, endurance, or, all too frequently, suicide.
So far – a lot of generalities. But the good thing about even very localised struggles is that much that is of broader consequence can be learned from them. So what happened in Trinity College, Dublin recently, and what lessons can be drawn?
The news was broken on the 5th of March that the college would introduce a new flat fee of 450 euro which everyone who resat even a single exam would have to pay. The new measure provoked an instant and spontaneous reaction. A meeting was held in the largest lecture theatre, and there was a clear mood in favour of radical action. Students – many of whom had, self-avowedly, never had the slightest interest in politics before – established a loose campaign structure, and the first protests began with blocking entrances to the college and to the money-spinning book of Kells exhibition. This escalated in the following week with an occupation of the dining hall building.
It was a well-orchestrated event. We met early in the morning, split into groups, and converged on the hall from different locations with assignments to hold and secure certain exits. As it happened, there was no resistance from the college staff – in fact, they actually supported us. Caterers set up a free tea and coffee station, and security guards privately told us that they supported our action.
The mood – fiesta-like, if a little aimless – changed dramatically the next day. College decided – with the help of private security – to shut down access to toilets within the building, and to set alarms on the doors that would, if tripped, automatically summon an armed Garda response unit. It was an attempt to immediately force out the occupiers. However, the shot across the bow was badly misfired. There was an instant and massive backlash on social media, and the senior college officers – most of whom were touring America at that point – were put under pressure with calls from angry alumni and dismayed administrative officials. A large demonstration quickly assembled outside the dining hall and this group then ended up occupying the centuries-old exam hall on the other end of the square.
The reaction from college administration was panicked. They quickly realised that their heavy-handed strategy had backfired massively and risked spinning massively out of control. The provost agreed to reopen discussion on the question of the exam fee – and also on the question of increased fees for postgraduate students. This culminated in a meeting of the college board on the 28th of March in which the supplemental fees were scrapped, fee increases for multi-year postgraduates were rescinded, and fee certainty for those latter students was introduced. The third immediate demand of the movement – a freeze on campus rent levels – is likely to be implemented soon.
Winning is important for movements, and sometimes the fact of victory is more important than what was won. Movements are, among other things, learning experiences, and this holds true for novices and for veterans. For those who had never been active before, there must have been a heady sense of awakening. There are now a large number of people who believe that collective action is possible, and that collective action can succeed. They know that solidarity – between student and student, and between student and staff – is real, and that what has been suffered individually can be collectively resisted. Others, not directly involved in the campaign, will learn this too. For those who know these things in theory – the socialist activists who were involved in the campaign – it is invaluable to also know these things in practice. Because every belief about what the future should look like involves at least a little bit of faith, and faith is, in many ways, a condensation of the thematic content of experience.
This is not the first attempt by socialists to organise a campaign based around fees in Trinity in recent years: many of the members of the occupation group had founded or participated in an earlier organisation called “Students Against Fees”. One more lesson? Socialist cannot spark off struggle, nor can they always predict it. We know that struggle cannot be crudely formulated as a mere one-to-one response to hardship. Sometimes an “incidental grievance” is needed in order to highlight the broader structural grievances, and to motivate resistance to them. The water charges for the whole of society, supplemental fees for Trinity – both were camel-breaking straws that encapsulated, in form or content, some essential aspect of recent oppression or misery. They were both implemented by administrations who misread quiescence for acquiescence, and who were thus forced into a cascading series of strategic errors in response to protest. Eventually, no matter how competent, the ruling class will be taken unaware. It’s up to socialists to be prepared for such moments.