Saturday, 19 December 2015

Podemos: Party and Movement

The thing about Podemos is whatever they do, they face intractable difficulties. Podemos, whether it likes it or not, now personifies the set of contradictions that haunt the radical left's wavering voice in Europe. That voice is split between party and movement, personality and plurality, elections and protest, 'mediatic' leadership and grassroots activism. In a surprising twist, it has turned out that the bottom layer - the activists - are everywhere far more radical, demanding and expectant than the party leaders. So much for the Leninist avant garde! Iglesias, Podemos' general secretary, has staked everything on winning elections - to promptly, and with Keatonesque pathos, lose them. 

Around the time Syriza was failing to deliver any of its non-negotiable election promises, party officials were wont to moan about the absent masses. If only the people were on the streets, they said, we'd be winning. Then, with the referendum, the people overwhelmed the party with the some of the largest street demonstrations in Greek history. Shell-shocked by the show of popular force, Syriza promptly threw in the towel. 

However much Podemos may want to distance themselves from Syriza's initial defiance, these are the hopes they carry. It was not Syriza's failure that started Podemos's slippage in the polls, but their embrace of that failure. Iglesias hastily congratulated Tsipras on his capitulation to Europe. A new willingness followed, on Podemos' part, to publicly embrace army and state officials. Iglesias is convinced that winning an election will, by dispelling the myth of ultra-leftism, also win Podemos a hearing with the masses. But the masses have been listening all along. The failure is not with the people, but with the organised left's inability to properly articulate, in electoral terms, its desires.

This is not entirely the fault of Podemos - after all, theirs is an electoral strategy in a context that systematically denies effective power to elected governments. Syriza was the crest of a new left wave that had oriented itself towards elections at a time when election victories meant very little. People understood how little Syriza's January victory would mean. This much is evident from Paul Mason's documentary #ThisIsACoup. People had few illusions about Syriza's ability to beat the European powers. What was really missing was a dynamic link - a dialectical understanding - between the Party and the People. 

This is where Podemos too is failing. Since the beginning of the year Podemos' grassroots - organised into "circulos" - have attempted to reassert themselves in the power structures of the increasingly conventional Party central organs. Iglesias has resisted. Why? The conventional answer - the signs of an emergent megalomania - is too easy. Iglesias has a strategy based on a clear-sighted analysis of the Spanish state (one that, at least rhetorically, tends to neglect the distinction between state and civil society). The "Podemos hypothesis", as Iglesias called it in the New Left Review, was that a popular intervention in the crooked Spanish political system had been made possible since 2011. 

Iglesias was clear that a "regime crisis", not a conventional, far-teaching Gramscian "organic crisis" was gripping Spain. This separation is more than a syntactical expedient, but rather informs the whole response of Podemos to the crisis. In Iglesias' reading, the regime crisis is purely discursive, ripe for intervention at the level of political symbols rather than raw disruptive power. Podemos speaks of restoration rather than transformation; it stages spectacular media set pieces, with the perhaps unanticipated result of a relative decline in street activism. 

Insofar as the crisis has seen a widespread disgust in conventional politics reach a crescendo, Iglesias is right to emphasise the potential uses of the media. But of course the media - at first curious and baffled by the Podemos representatives who showed up on their talk shows - are channelling an anti-Podemos backlash. Without a deepening of Podemos' relationship to the popular movements it surely faces burnout. 

The easy answer to the question of party or movement - "yes to both" - is running into the tangled web of state, civil society, and media. There is no model answer as to how to manage the balance between the party and the movements. Podemos' and Spain's grappling with this problem is bound to be compelling. Whether it can produce victories is an open question. 

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