Podemos: In the Name of the People by Íñigo Errejón and Chantal Mouffe, Soundings, Lawrence and Wishart, £10.00, 9781910448809
At the time of writing, Spain’s acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, is set to end ten months of political deadlock by forming a minority government – an opportunity he owes to the divisive decision of his rivals, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), to abstain from a parliamentary confidence vote. Podemos, Spain’s third biggest party, looks likely to capitalise on PSOE’s division. Readers looking for an introduction to the political theory and practice of this staunchly anti-austerity party will find a valuable resource in Podemos: In the Name of the People, a welcome translation by Sirio Canós Dannay of 2015’s Construir Pueblo.
The discussion between Íñigo Errejón (Podemos’s Political Secretary) and Chantal Mouffe (Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster) situates Podemos’s rise within the broader context of Europe’s ‘new radical political initiatives’. Mouffe’s writing on hegemony, as set forth in her 1985 book with Ernesto Laclau, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is the starting point for much of the discussion and a subject on which Errejón finds common ground from the outset.
‘[H]egemonic power,’ says Errejón, ‘is the kind of power that, even when it is being defied by its adversaries, must be edified in its own terms … [a] clear example is Margaret Thatcher’s response when asked what she regarded as her greatest achievement. She replied, without hesitation: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’’.
This homogenisation of political parties is a frequent target in the discussion and is presented as both an example of the success of neo-liberal hegemony and as the source of current political unrest. ‘When there’s no longer a fundamental difference between the programmes of right and left-wing parties,’ Mouffe reasons, ‘citizens think their vote won’t make a difference. They feel excluded by the elites in power, and that creates a fertile ground for parties that present themselves as the voice of the people against the ‘Establishment’.’
This fertile ground exists in an increasing number of countries, from Europe to the Americas, and both Mouffe and Errejón acknowledge that it welcomes seeds of protest from both the right and left of the political spectrum. The left’s responsibility is, therefore, to make the argument more effectively than its opponents.
Thus: ‘[T]hose in power still rule, but they no longer convince,’ says Errejón, who sees their failure as an opportunity for new frontiers to be drawn. This, in turn, necessitates the redefining of the adversary: ‘in our case,’ he argues, ‘that meant pointing to the evident oligarchic evolution: the casta, the privileged.’ It also meant the redefining of his own party. Despite being viewed by many political commentators as a party of the left, Podemos, in Errejón’s opinion, occupies the ‘centre of the board’ while the austerity parties are the true fringes. A rejection of the old borders is, therefore, a rejection of their policies: ‘Is it centrist to evict families?’ he asks.
This manufacture of new battle lines and new adversaries is crucial to Mouffe’s assertion that ‘we need to see that impossibility of reconciliation as a tension rather than a contradiction – a productive tension that creates the necessary space for pluralism.’ Errejón agrees and criticises those political activists who reject that tension in favour of an obsessive faithfulness to ideology: ‘daring to win involves getting your hands dirty … you have to roll up your sleeves and swallow the messy reality … this is definitely less comfortable than the ‘purity’ of defeat.’
Pragmatism of this sort is a familiar refrain from both thinkers who, in the short term at least, seek to alter hegemony by taking control of existing societal and political structures. It is also, however, responsible for one of the occasional points of disagreement between the two.
In their discussion of ‘populism’, Errejón acknowledges that despite identifying with the term he has had to abandon it, owing to its cultural and political baggage. Mouffe sees this as a defeat: ‘it is very convenient for the parties of the centrist consensus to use the term populist to disqualify their opponents,’ she argues. ‘[W]e shouldn’t accept the semantic field the adversaries try to impose on us.’ Errejón would like to agree but can’t. ‘[T]ry to explain those theories in a TV studio,’ he says, ‘in three minutes and with seven people shouting at you.’ Pragmatism prevails again. The reasoning is sober, refreshing and welcome.
Robin Jones lives in Paris where he works as an English teacher. His fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in the Edinburgh Review, Gutter, Jacobin, the Dark Mountain Project and Huffington Post.