Podemos and the ‘passive revolution’

World politics is in the middle of a massive historical shift, marked by the economic and demographic decline of the Old Continent and the backlash against globalization and its uneven development of capitalism.

Domestic politics cannot remain unaffected, a fact directly reflected in the rise of anti-systemic parties nationally – UKIP, Front National, Podemos, Syriza, and 5 Stars Movement among the most important. And though each of these parties emerged from their specific national and historical contexts, all resulted from the omnipresent interaction of the current economic structure (a global economic crisis) and political agencies (the crisis of the liberal political class).

In Spain, the economic crisis hit hard on housing and employment, made more miserable by the chorizos – the term angry citizens use to describe their political representatives. These two events provided a very fertile social and political ground for a movement led by a leftist intelligentsia but which is described as socialist by the neoliberal hegemonic megaphones.

Podemos, the Spanish left-wing populist party led by Pablo Iglesias.

But what is Podemos from an ideological and operational point of view?

Podemos leaders follow, ad literam, the precepts of Ernesto Laclau and Antonio Gramsci, authors that they have studied professionally. On the one hand, one finds in Podemos the populist Marxism constructed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), the ideological basis of Latin American socialism. Laclau’s innovation was to move the focus of struggle from class conflict to the more general concept of “radical democracy”. His thought was akin to the tradition of operaismo (workerism), an Italian current popular in the 1960s and led by Antonio Negri, which portrayed the working class as the engine of economic development because worker struggles triggered capitalist reactions and technological advancement. This working class has nowadays become a “multitude” formed by any precarious and exploited individual – as Negri called it – or all those which are de facto outside the social contract, to put it in Rousseau’s terms. For Laclau, the task to lead such an undefined mass required a charismatic leader.

Meanwhile, the Podemos planning office is clearly haunted by Gramsci’s specter. The Sardinian thinker argued that the control of those hegemonic instruments, which allow states to reproduce domestic orders without using force, was crucial. But because a sudden change was no easy matter in the middle of subtle capitalistic ideological bombing, he theorized a “passive revolution”, a long-lasting process of penetration of the institutional fabric and a realistic plan against a society afflicted by widespread false consciousness and difficult to change.

All this considered, then, how does Podemos reflect this ideological package?

Beginning from “leadership”, Podemos’ leader Pablo Iglesias is a charismatic character who enjoys being in front of cameras and microphones. He is the one and only face of the party in most TV shows of the week. His “strategy for struggle” has focused on the cast, de facto highlighting that the conflict is not between low-wage workers and capitalists, but between ordinary people and a greedy casta which systematically puts its privileges and interests beyond those of citizens. Iglesias has succeeded in depicting politics as the problem of all, and this is how a group of leftist intellectuals has become a transversal political force despite the fact that some still describe members of Podemos as perroflauta, referring to their ponytails, dreadlocks and an apparently hippie-like life-style.

What Iglesias has done very well is to show how well he digested the Gramscian vocabulary and made the most out of “hegemonic instruments” thanks to an admirable ars rhetorica.

He has carefully chosen the issues that Podemos should bring onto the table of public debates – the constitutional reform remains a priority – leaving on the side issues which do not maximize consent. So far Iglesias’ strategy has worked, as demonstrated by the seats in the European Parliament and by the 70 seats in the Spanish one. This is just the beginning of his version of “passive revolution”. How will it work? He told the New Left Review that first it is important to grab the reins of government, only then it will be possible to shift to more socialist politics.

In a very spontaneous movement, tactics has now become the key word and Iglesias knows how to do them. The plan in fact sounds brilliant, but is Iglesias’ insistence on tactics to the detriment of important contents? As Iglesias’ second in command puts it: “we need to build an electoral war machine before the window of opportunity which has opened will close”.

But does not the authenticity, spontaneity, and differences that Podemos enjoy vis-à-vis mainstream parties risk being wiped away because of a religious use of tactics? For those that would like to see Podemos as the agent of a socialist turn in politics – like me – ahead of all these tactics looms dissatisfaction. Over the last year the divergence between mainstream parties and Podemos has unfortunately diminished. This can be seen from Iglesias’ personal use of space in television, the prevalence of electoral calculations over internal democracy, the support of Syriza despite the insistence of Greece accepting EU blackmail, the moderation of Iglesias’ posture regarding the European question and the guaranteed minimum salary. The much criticized 5 Star Movement, often told to be more right-wing, appears to be clearer and more radical on these points. While parties in Spain are struggling to form the government, Podemos put as an essential requirement for governing with the PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party) the resolution of Spain’s regional questions, but it seemed odd not to have first stated that it will accept to rule with the PSOE only if there would be a restructuring of policies with a worker-friendly logic.

Here lies the problem of Podemos. If it continues to put tactics beyond anti-capitalist contents it will be difficult to see substantial changes in Spain. However, what is currently a small revolution remains a positive phenomenon in both Spanish and European politics.

 

Zeno Leoni, PhD candidate at the European and International Studies Department, King’s College London

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