In the space of a single year a tiny and initially quite disorganised coalition of activists, university professors and students have won municipal elections and turned themselves into Spain's third-largest party. The populist-left group Podemos is led by Pablo Iglesias, who, tellingly, is as much a cultural critic as a political militant.
For Podemos understands that in postmodern politics the power of the image is all important. Spain's young insurgents didn't sulk about the oligarchic media. Instead they used their unconventional, outsider status to stage creative public interventions. Iglesias, turning his peculiar, ponytailed appearance to his advantage, showed up all over mainstream TV. He became "that ponytailed guy," who made all the withering criticisms of austerity while other commentators and politicians prevaricated.
This persona had been honed on the community TV show La Tuerka (Tue Screw), from which Podemos's novelties were developed into a series of short, incisive arguments. The "Podemos hypothesis", as Iglesias puts it in the New Left Review, was that his group could give political voice to the forces building against austerity in Spanish society - in a word, the famous 15-M movement.
"People no longer engage with political parties," he said, "but they do engage with the media." Through what he calls a "mediatic leadership" Podemos got over the Left's historical cynicism regarding mass culture - and the mass media in particular - realising they could stage creative interventions to mobilise anti-systemic political forces. Iglesias would show up on TV show after TV show, mercilessly repeating the same shtick. As a relatively unknown quantity at first, Iglesias was given an easy ride. Only later, as Podemos gained a little more formality and saw its electoral fortunes rise precipitously, did the media cotton on to the danger they presented. Still, the hard work was already done. Podemos had broken out of the Left ghetto.
Importantly they embraced that breakout, rejecting "radical left" pigeonholing:
"When our adversaries dub us the ‘radical left’ and try, incessantly, to identify us with its symbols, they push us onto terrain where their victory is easier. Our most important political-discursive task was... to fight for the ‘terms of the conversation’. In politics, those who decide the terms of the contest determine much of its outcome. This has nothing to do with ‘abandoning principles’ or ‘moderation’, but with the assumption that unless we ourselves define the terrain of ideological struggle, it will limit the discursive repertoire at our disposal."
How, when the media is so utterly dominated by a few men with a lot of money, can an insurgent force "define the terrain of ideological struggle" within it? The answer is to reject their labels, argue from common principles, tirelessly and gladly repeat key messages, and stage "spectacular", creative interventions. Surprise them. Keep them on the back foot. Use social media to promote mainstream media interventions. Recruit not only sympathetic experts - on economics and foreign policy - but also young commentators in key media outlets. In achieving this, every possible use must be made of the activist base and of enthusiastic supporters. Creative protest must combine with creative media interventions. Above all, never slip into the tedious rhythm of conventional opposition.