CAHWT – inspiring people to demand participatory democracy


At a public meeting of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes (CAHWT) in Kildare last month, a query was raised from a woman anxious about the upcoming local elections. She explained her complete frustration with the austerity policies of the Fine Gael-Labour Government, and described her despair at not having the power to challenge policies that were ravaging her community, stating there “really is no one legitimate left to vote for.”

I think her anger with the Government, and the despondency the austerity policies, such as the property tax legislation, elicits from working class people in Ireland and across Europe, can be instructive for all those of us who wish to resist these policies. It is a realisation that the ruling class has kept the majority of us from questioning the inequality of a system where we are threatened into paying heavy taxes for which we get almost nothing in return – the insanity of paying more and more, whilst getting less and less.


However, being angry with elected representatives is not enough. Simply threatening to vote for yet another party will not pose the sort of significant challenge necessary to reject austerity and its roots in neoliberal, transnational capitalism - a system that has proven time and again to ignore the votes and democratic decisions of communities across Europe.

American trade unionist and philosopher Rick Roderick has said, “Once capitalism invades the whole of life, then struggle involves the whole of life.” It is easy to see the numerous ways in which austerity is ravaging our community, from the property tax legislation and water charges, to cuts to social welfare and wages of public sector workers. It isn’t always easy to see how to resist, especially when we have been told that the centre of gravity of our political participation is found in the ballot box.

The example of what this Fine Gael/Labour government has done should be enough to confirm to us not only that voting is entirely inadequate (at best) as a way of changing our society, but also that a sort of political participation that is participatory and empowering, where we feel we can have power over the decisions that effect our lives, is a far more meaningful democracy.


I think that our anger at the present policies can make us feel quite alienated from politics because we begin to feel that so many of the conditions of our existence are not under our control, and the possibilities we imagine for changing that situation feel a lot more distant. I think representational democracy exploits the separation between those of us whose capacity to have power over our own lives has been stolen from us, and those in control of these processes who benefit from this separation by accumulation either of power or wealth – or both! We begin to feel like we are spectators on our own lives, and our ability to imagine other possibilities diminishes until we get to the same desperate state of that woman from Kildare who knew there had to be more to democracy than choosing between party A or B.

That is why I felt I needed to not only be critical, but to mobilize my frustration into action, and why I got involved with the CAHWT. For me the campaign represents the possibility to profitably reset my political compass, and that of our country, to not only boycott the property taxes and water charges, but to demand a more meaningful and accountable democracy.


The grassroots nature of the campaign, and the democratic structures it has in place - where any person from a local area can put forward ideas and help make decisions that will be implemented nationally - is a small example of the sort of participatory democracy I would like to see in other spheres of my life – my workplace, my university, and my neighborhood.  Don’t get me wrong, debating things out with people who may have quite different ideas of what to do hasn’t been easy, but it has forced me to see issues more complexly through the eyes of lots of different people, and seek compromise and imaginative possibilities that are never presented in traditional “winner” and “looser” sort of electoral democracy.

Participatory democracy also makes me accountable to my local community, whether it’s simply showing up at a meeting every week or making sure to accomplish the tasks I’ve been given the responsibility for.

I think CAHWT has the potential to inspire significant resistance in this country not only through boycott of the property tax, but through strikes, walk outs, occupations and other forms of protest. And I think we can only win by way of the meaningful involvement of the broadest layer of activists, who feel ownership not only over the campaign, but more and more, over their own lives. I see the possibility that this campaign can inspire people to demand the same participatory democracy in their unions, in their schools, in their workplaces and local communities. 

WORDS: Farah

This article is from
Workers Solidarity 129, April May 2013