It’s fair to say that much of the left mistrusts Podemos. In contrast to other anti-austerity parties, Spain’s new third party spurns the traditional language and symbols of the left, communicates through TV talk shows and relies heavily on the ‘celebrity’ of a single leader.
Politics in a Time of Crisis, then, is a chance for that leader, Pablo Iglesias, to explain himself. In doing so he places his politics in an explicitly Gramscian theoretical framework, indebted particularly to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. What appears rightist on the surface is, at every step, a deliberate strategic construction – a professor of political science conducting a real-world experiment in seeking hegemony.
We know, too, that this is not simply a retrospective justification. Politics in a Time of Crisis is a chronologically unusual book, beginning by declaring that it was written in summer 2013, when Podemos was, says Iglesias, ‘little more than a vague, nameless hypothesis’ in response to Spain’s ‘regime crisis’, its social expression as 15M (the indignados) and all that followed. After getting very busy during the emergence of Podemos in the first half of 2014, Iglesias finally went back and published the book more-or-less as-is in August 2014, ‘because it was already written’. After a further delay, this English translation reaches us, with some additional appendices.
This makes the book sound hopelessly out of date, but also explains much of its value. What we are reading is not the thoughts of a politician, but the theories of an academic who went on to prove their power – if not yet their ultimate correctness – in practice.
Perhaps the best-known of these ideas was embracing the use of ‘la casta’ (the caste) to describe Spain’s elites, and the accompanying redefinition of politics to ‘the people versus the caste’ in a battle for democracy. This, however, is only one part of Iglesias’s wider focus on the lexical: ‘When our adversaries use terms like caste, revolving door, the “Berlusconisation” of politics, eviction, precarity, etc, they’re acknowledging the displacement of the fight onto a terrain that favours us.’
How, then, should we ‘contest the lexical terrain’? Here we come to television. ‘TV talk shows are probably the major producers of arguments explicitly for popular use,’ contends Iglesias. If you want to change what people are saying in the workplace or the bar, it follows, you need to find a way to make your arguments on TV, to give the indignant ‘weapons to wield on the ideological battlefield’. Iglesias isn’t saying here that we should all go away and focus on telly, but spotting that Spain’s crisis (and the elites’ corresponding loss of hegemony) opened a space where alternative commentators such as himself could get a hearing in the mass media, even on the private channels.
From there it is not difficult to work through to the need for a television personality – or, as the author puts it, ‘the signifier “Pablo Iglesias”’, the pony-tailed professor the ratings-chasing talk shows clamour to invite. (Podemos’ strong Latin American influences are especially visible here.) The famous Podemos circles are seen primarily as having been called into being by such high-profile communication – an analysis that is uncomfortable, but difficult to dismiss.
This is a consistent feeling in reading the book, most noticeable when Iglesias skewers the existing left as ‘white knights of the purity of principle’, ‘lonely prophets of revolutionary purity’ and such. Yet, placed in context, the targets of his ire are those who refused to recognise the importance of 15M or the Mortgage Victims’ Platform (PAH) – who dismissed them as ‘reformist’ and criticised their use of language like ‘the 99 per cent’ instead of ‘workers’. (It is easy to be reminded of some left critiques of Occupy’s approach to class.)
‘The 15M held up a mirror to the left, revealing its deficiencies,’ argues Iglesias. His annoyance at hammer-and-sickle ‘leftism’ is a product of his recognition of movements such as PAH – which focuses on fighting evictions through direct action and has won a large majority of public support in doing so – as ‘effective radical politics’. The abandonment of the left-right axis is, here, not a question of political moderation but once more of lexical terrain.
A moment towards the end of the book shows the culture clash. In a reproduction of an interview from New Left Review, the interviewer chides Iglesias for choosing a ‘terrible name’ for Podemos, because its meaning (‘We can’) echoes Obama’s old campaign slogan. ‘It’s a good name,’ responds Iglesias. ‘It comes from the mass movement – Sí se puede! [roughly: ‘Yes we can!’] is the slogan of PAH.’ He can’t quite resist adding – probably with a little smile: ‘And the first black president of the US is quite popular in Spain.’
The book as a whole is something of a mixed bag, and I have not touched on its analysis of neoliberalism (fine but likely familiar to Red Pepper readers) or of Spain’s transition to democracy (material that Iglesias himself essentially dismisses in the second appendix as no longer useful). Nevertheless, the sections on strategy make it worthwhile reading for anyone interested in what makes Podemos much more significant than just another radical left party.
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