Left Thoughts from Podemos: Fear, Identity and Social change

podemosA short while ago I spent a week in the United Kingdom, presenting Podemos in various cities, where I was able to discuss matters of major importance to Britain’s political tradition, such as the relation between parties and unions. The debate also got us involved in analysing the link between Podemos and social movements, and, above all, how the spreading and intensity of the crisis influenced the irruption of Podemos. In this context, one of the most repeated ideas was that in UK there had not been the same level of social mobilisation reached as had been achieved in Spain and Greece. They cited the general strikes and demonstrations, and they partly blamed this lack on the fact that the British left — both the Labour left and other formations farther left — was so weak. They were impressed by Podemos in the sense that they thought it translated these social mobilisations into the language of the institutions, in the political sense (of a party-form) and in the electoral sense.

I said to them that it was not so easy, that this whole social magma was impossible to represent, and, what was more, it was not at a particularly buoyant moment when Podemos emerged. Simply, there had been something strange in how politics was being practised in Spain, at least from May of 2011 onward, when in the squares the shouts began of “They don’t represent us!” and we were all very clear on who the targets were of our discontent. But this “they don’t represent us” left open entirely the field of the “us”. Just who is it that those who “don’t represent us” do not represent? Our British comrades filled this “us” with the social movements, with the demonstrations, with identities that were of course plural but very politicised and coherent. According to the British interpretation, the Spanish, perhaps on account of unemployment and corruption, mismanagement and abuses, had all become activists or left wing — by dint of logic! They needed to fill the void left by the “they don’t represent us” that was shouted in the squares with a different representative artefact: the left, the movements, etc. However, by now it is becoming increasingly clear that this “we” that we are building in Spain is very different, more plural, contingent and unpredictable than the “we” of our British comrades. It is for this reason that we can speak of hegemony, because what is at stake is not filling a void left by the traditional political system with another identity that is perfectly mapped out, but rather the articulation of a social majority.

The end of trust in traditional politics did not alter the electoral balance, or the balance of economic, political and media forces, but rather a certain frame of common sense. From the middle of 2011 onward, what had seemed — the alternating between two parties of rule, the narrative that “we have been living beyond our means” — and the things that were shameful but inevitable — corruption, misrule — stopped being ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’. But from this denaturalisation, or of any specific social conjuncture, one cannot deduce a homogeneous collective political subject. What opens up, on the contrary, is the opportunity to articulate a process of political change that is neither deduced from the social situation — let us not forget that from the same social situation contradictory political movements can emerge — nor is it based on the identities of Spanish citizens such as they were before the political process in question.

An important part of what is happening in Spain these days has to do with this problem of identification, which is one of the fundamental keys for understanding what a regime crisis is, or what a legitimacy crisis is. On the one hand, what we previously did not identify as problematic or unbearable, we now do perceive it as such, hence the powers that be have lost their ability to decide what is significant and what is not, what can and what cannot be tolerated, what names we give to the things that concern us and what names do we not give … what unites us, in this sense, is a negative perception, a being unable to identify with these problems and these explanations that nonetheless still make their way to the front pages of the newspapers. On the other hand, many of those people who, having taken part in this process of denaturalisation I have described earlier, were unable to identify with each other, are now able to articulate a political project at different levels, that go from the most intense collective involvement to the most virtual of interrelations, from voting in open primaries to our retweet of some content or other, from this new common sense, always open and imperfect, from which our everyday conversations at work or at home emerge, conversations we would never have had four or five years ago. It is politics that makes this articulation possible.

At the same time, there are two aspects that differentiate us from other historical moments with which parallels have been drawn in recent times. On one hand, when the decline of the Roman Empire could be glimpsed, the mortality rate multiplied in barely a decade (suicides, deaths caused by what we would now call stress, etc). No one could imagine a world without Rome, and the end of the world was a more plausible option than a world without Rome. There was, to sum up, a lot of fear of the future: either Rome or chaos. The other difference was expressed by Gregorio Morán in an encounter with Juan Carlos Monedero in the Sala Mirador: in the seventies there was magnificent politics practised, but always with the return to Francoism on the horizon — incarnated, among other things, by the perpetual threat of a coup. There was much fear of the past. Today we are not free from uncertainty, but we have less fear, and at least we do not have that kind of fear. That is why things can be different. That is why we do not believe in updating what there already is to make it more or less decent — a regime of 78 with a human face, let’s say — but in a possible change whose articulation has become the political fact of our time.

This is a translation of an article by Eduardo Maura, originally published in La Circular, the review produced by the Instituto por la Democracia 25 de Mayo, the new Podemos-run think tank. Translated by Richard McAleavey and originally published on Cunning Hired Knaves.

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