Reviewed by James Stockman
Spain’s first mass articulation of social discontent post-2008 erupted in the spring of 2011, when the anti-austerity and pro-democracy Movimiento 15M sprung up in opposition to the brutal fiscal measures imposed by the TROIKA, and to decry the multiple failings of an unresponsive democracy. Capitalising on the cultural shift brought about by the movements, Podemos emerged as a self-styled “electoral war machine” in 2015, obtaining 1.25 million votes in the European elections. They now hold the position of Spain’s third largest electoral force.
Taking the form of a conversation between co-founder of Podemos Íñigo Errejón and political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, Podemos: In the Name of the People offers an important, historically informed, and analytically rich glimpse into the theoretical, strategic and political orientation of Spain’s leading party of the Radical Left. At only 160 pages in length, this is a short, yet surprisingly wide-ranging and informative book. It is of interest to political theorists and activists, but also accessible to those unfamiliar with Podemos or the philosophical underpinnings of their project. At its core, it is driven by the conviction that the Left must overcome stifling orthodoxies if it is to build majorities, redraw the lines of political possibility, and reinvigorate democracy.
As a preliminary remark, it is of interest to note that this book is marked by two interrelated novelties. Firstly, it is by no means an everyday occurrence that politicians, infamous for question-dodging and insincere proclamations, provide what appears to be an uncensored account of their political project and strategic vision. Secondly, while it is well known that political projects are often significantly indebted to specific theoretical perspectives, connections between the two all too often remain hidden beneath a veneer of technocratic language and focus-grouped responses. Fortunately, Chantal Mouffe is to Podemos who Marx was to Lenin, and Friedman and Hayek were to Thatcher and Reagan. Thus, instead of scripted platitudes, what readers find is a lively conversation between two individuals that are ‘ideally placed’ to reflect upon Podemos’ theoretical heritage, and to situate their project in the broader context of European politics. Their discussion simultaneously functions as an illuminating case study, allowing readers to critically gauge the capacity of Mouffe’s theories to disclose political realities and assist in their transformation, to a degree which, as Lois McNay has argued, is often found wanting within her own work.
At the level of contextual analysis, this book tells a story which dates back to the early 1990’s. The USSR had collapsed, communism as a global phenomenon was over, and liberalism was proclaimed triumphant. Unanchored and floundering in a context in which the traditional coordinates of social-democracy were no longer perceived as capable of producing a stable political map, the traditional parties of the European Left ushered in what Mouffe and others dubbed a ‘post-political’ age. Broadly conceived, ‘post-politics’ designates the ‘collapse of the division between Left and Right’, and the rise of the so-called ‘radical centre’. A weak form of leftism, it is notable for its adherence to neoliberalism, its belief in the permanent viability of reaching a consensus in the middle, and its openness to technocratic, post-democratic forms of governance. For Mouffe, the resulting reduction of democracy to the rational administration of competing demands overlooked the inherently ‘conflictual dimension’ of political activity, and thus threatened to deprive democracy of its energies, injure its legitimacy and incite new political, economic and ethnic conflicts (Mouffe, 2005). Conflicts that would no longer be able to find adequate expression and resolution through institutionalised, procedural channels. Current events would seem to vindicate this view, and in chapter 2 Errejón eloquently analyses the demise of the once socialist PSOE as an effective force for social change, and the resulting rise of Podemos as an exemplar of this political mutation (ÍE, 25-36).
The question of how to overcome the inadequacies of post-politics, and breathe new life into a democracy ‘which has been hijacked by the elite and the power of finance’, constitutes the guiding thread of Errejón and Mouffe’s discussion (ÍE, 115). However, given the conversational character of this book, this question is broached at multiple registers and lacks a systematic line of argumentation. For this reason, my review will restrict itself to a brief reflection on three of the central themes covered: the theory of hegemony, populism and radical-democracy.
As is well known, Podemos’ political strategy is greatly indebted to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In particular, Mouffe and Laclau’s post-structuralist adaptation. In short, Gramsci argued that power is not exerted and sustained by means of coercion (economic or otherwise) alone, but through persuasion and the creation of consent. Therefore, a politics based on economic-determinism or revolutionary Jacobinism was deemed inadequate. Instead, he called for a war of position: the construction of a counter-hegemony, achieved by engaging with existing institutions, establishing counter-institutions, and promoting new forms of common-sense. In order to achieve such ends, he argued, radicals must construct a historical bloc: an alliance against capitalist exploitation among the subaltern-classes.
Following Mouffe and Laclau, Podemos integrate the concepts of hegemony, war of position, and historical bloc into their strategic approach, and likewise drop (i) the class-oriented content of Gramsci’s theory on anti-essentialist grounds, and (ii) the revolutionary moment of the war of manoeuvre, due to its perceived irrelevance in the context of contemporary European struggles. In my opinion, the sections of the book dedicated to hegemony theory are some of the most intellectually rewarding. On the one hand, they provide concise reiterations of how and why Mouffe and Laclau ‘combined’ Gramsci’s thought with post-structuralism and became pioneers of post-Marxism. On the other, they demonstrate Podemos’ rich utilisation of hegemony theory as a set of tools used both to comprehend and change political realities in Spain.
Of great importance, is their reformulation of Gramsci’s historical bloc. Cognizant of the need to combine ‘parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces’ in pursuit of an effective counter-hegemony, Errejón and Mouffe remain equally aware of the difficulties posed for the creation of such bonds of solidarity, given the degradation of communal life under neoliberalism (ÍE, 29). In response to this dilemma, they broach one of the most interesting and controversial aspects of their discussion: the populist hypothesis.
Populism, as both theorists are well aware, has become an amorphous term, commonly applied with derogatory intent to any form of politics with a substantially popular content (ÍE, CM, 95-96). Reflecting on the ways in which this term was applied to the Pink-Tide in Latin America, they conclude that such derision comes, in part, from the emphasis placed on popular sovereignty and equality, compared to individual rights and liberty, in populist discourse and practice (CM, 89). However, while remaining sensitive to such considerations, Errejón and Mouffe locate a fruitful approach to building majorities in the context of fragmented, neoliberal societies in Laclau’s On Populist Reason. Namely, his ‘formal’ concept of populism, which, stripped of any particular ideological content, simply designates a ‘mode of demand articulation’, a federation of heterogeneous dissatisfactions that ‘results in the creation of a ‘a people’’ (CM, ÍE, 103 & 94). This approach to building majorities is taken up by Podemos for two main reasons: (i) it aims to impute politics with an affective dimension. A substantial role is ascribed to ‘passions’ and ‘affects’ in Podemos’ approach to politics as they are deemed to be an ‘engine of [political] mobilisation’, and a required adhesive for the maintenance of solidarity (ÍE, 61). (ii) Contra post-political liberalism, it conceives of political-identities as collective, antagonistic and relational. This position compliments Errejón’s belief in Mouffe’s Schmittian inspired political ontology, which contends that relations of a truly political nature take the form of us vs. them (ÍE, CM, 36-39 etc.).
Interestingly, Podemos do not frame their us vs. them relation as the division between Left and Right. Concerned, on the one hand, that adopting this division would leave them open to well-rehearsed attacks on the part of elites who wish to discredit them, and, on the other, that this division is unnecessarily exclusionary, they instead frame this relation as a division between ‘la gente’ (the people) and ‘la casta’ (the oligarchy) (ÍE, CM, 130-143). While this has proven to be a source of confusion and contention in some circles, significantly more controversial is Errejón and Mouffe’s argument that the Left ought to attempt a progressive resignification of the concepts of nationalism and patriotism, lest they cede ground to a noxious Right (ÍE, CM, 117-130). While acknowledging that progressives may find this an uncomfortable proposition, Errejón argues that political identities have an important ‘national content’, and that Podemos’ aim is to construct a ‘democratic, progressive and popular patriotism’ in opposition to establishment politics and right-wing populism (ÍE, 68).
Having touched upon the central components of Podemos’ political strategy, the question remains as to what type of politics they ultimately hope to achieve. Although a coherent model is not laid out during their conversation, it is clear that Errejón shares Mouffe’s belief that the ‘socialist project’ must be reformulated ‘in terms of a radicalisation of democracy’ (CM, 20). Evidence of this is visible in the picture Errejón paints of a vastly democratised, egalitarian conception of liberal-democracy. Based upon an agonistic public-sphere, inclusive of ‘populist passions’ and ‘transformative politics’ (ÍE, 160). In short, he demarcates an approach that, in opposition to post-political liberalism, recognises the necessary relation between democracy and genuine political pluralism.
Democracy is not about everybody agreeing, but about building the procedures and mechanisms which allow for a never-ending dispute over the broadest possible range of topics. A never-ending dispute for establishing the distribution of collective assets and positions (ÍE, 37).
Thus, to conclude, in a time of widespread legitimation crises, this book will be welcomed by all who wish to reinvigorate and strengthen democracy. That said, significant concerns arise ranging from the central role ascribed to conflict as opposed to collaboration in their approach to politics, to the crude representation of societal dynamics offered up to ‘the people’ by populism. However, given restrictions of space, I will only reflect on two central concerns.
First, the questionable replacement of a class-oriented politics with one of national identification. In light of Corbyn, Sanders and to a certain extent SYRIZA, it is now apparent that mentioning the c-word still has the capacity to provoke solidaristic passion whilst aiding from the benefit of actually referring to a structural condition, rather than an imaginary community. Patriotism, on the other hand, may have more progressive traction given its occasional connection to subversive historical narrativisation. However, without a clear internationalist dimension, both signifiers not only harbour reactionary residues, but are simply not up to task of aiding in the democratic levelling of neoliberal globalisation.
Second, despite providing a number of plausible solutions to the inadequacies of post-politics, there are severe limitations to their approach to radical-democracy. For example, they uncritically accept the notion of state-sovereignty and advance no further than a proposal for the qualitative intensification of political processes within the institutional framework of liberal-democracy. This problem is visible in Errejón and Mouffe’s premature dismissal of the long-term political relevancy of the horizontal movements and popular-assemblies that erupted in 2011 (ÍE, CM, 70-80). This critique is unfortunately not extended to the party-form. This is not to say that the concerns they raise regarding the limitations of the movements are unwarranted. However, one of greatest challenges facing the Left today is to conceptualise the democratisation of parties in such a way as to defy the typical structures of electoral politics, and thus one of the bases of state-sovereignty, whilst not shying away from the important task of ‘the long walk through the institutions’. This is something that Podemos and the movements alike are yet to achieve.
30 July 2017
- 2005 The Return of the Political London: Verso.