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Podemos’ dilemma and why leadership still matters

Running for office means engaging in an operation that is intrinsically reductive and hegemonic, whether we like it or not.

Mayor Ada Colau visits FaPaC festival just like another citizen. Mayor Ada Colau visits FaPaC festival just like another citizen. Demotix/Alejandro Ascanio. All rights reserved. In a recent article on openDemocracy, Barcelona-based activist and theatre director Simona Levi invited the Podemos leadership to adopt a non-hegemonic attitude toward the civic lists that won the recent municipal elections in Spain. Claiming that the affirmation of Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid, and other civic lists is in continuity with the “transversal” spirit of the 15-M movement, Levi invited Secretary General Pablo Iglesias to refrain from using these successes to promote his party’s agenda. 

To back her claims, Levi noted how, in the city of Madrid alone, Ahora Madrid won 519,000 votes, almost double those won by Podemos (287,000) in the regional election the same day.

Similar results in the rest of Spain suggest that while Podemos is indeed an important player in the renewal of the Spanish political class, it is by no means the only one. As Jordi Vaquer has recently noted, the rise of Ciudadanos and the resilience of the PSOE in many regions pose a veritable dilemma for Podemos vis-à-vis the general elections in November.

Will the purple party run alone? Or will it try to replicate the model of the civic lists at a national level, joining forces with other political formations? By choosing the former, Podemos’s populist aspiration to represent the vast majority of the Spanish population may be undermined by less than impressive electoral results. By choosing coalition politics, the party may have to make compromises that are also in contradiction with its populist appeal and strategy. 

The name of the leader

In this respect, Podemos’ dilemma goes to the heart of what defines the identity of a populist party. Ernesto Laclau—a political philosopher who has influenced both Iglesias and Podemos’s political secretary Íñigo Errejón—is very clear on this point. For Laclau, the main feature of populism is that it tends to divide the political field into two opposing camps: the people vs. power. In constructing this “internal frontier” populism establishes a “chain of equivalence” among a plurality of unfulfilled demands. This operation revolves for Laclau around the name of a leader. It is the name of the leader—whether it be Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau or Manuela Carmena—that gives demands that would otherwise have little in common a positive symbolic expression, allowing that which is denied by power to enter the field of representation.

Because the name of the leader is central in projecting a “retroactive unity on an otherwise heterogeneous set of demands and subjectivities, the populist operation is always reductive and thus hegemonic in character. This may explain why the current leadership of Podemos rejected the proposal—advanced by Pablo Echenique, Teresa Rodríguez and Lola Sánchez last October—to put three leaders at the helm of the party instead of one.

The recent refusal of Pablo Iglesias to form a coalition with the United Left for the general elections in November could be read along the same lines (along with the rejection of the “Left” as a political category).

Yet, if we consider that the same leadership has also chosen to support the civic lists in the 24M municipal elections and is likely to replicate this model at the upcoming regional elections in Catalonia, we can see how the populist playbook is being applied with a certain degree of flexibility.

The struggle for hegemony within the popular camp

But is it? In a recent interview, Iglesias noted that the victory of Barcelona en Comú should not be attributed to the coalition of parties that have supported the candidacy of Ada Colau, but to Ada Colau herself, “who was a referent for something new.”

Certainly, Colau’s personal story as an activist and spokesperson of the PAH, the widely popular anti-eviction campaign, has played a major role in projecting her to the highest office in Barcelona. At the same time, the open assembly process that went under the name of Guanyem Barcelona/Barcelona en Comú has allowed city residents to develop a shared program, select a leader, and crowdfund this process without the mediation of political parties.

To be sure, Colau’s candidacy was supported by a coalition of parties, which included Podemos among others. Yet the novelty of her candidacy is that it was advanced in Barcelona’s neighborhoods through a widely participatory process that was very similar, as Levi notes, to the 15M.

Thus, even if Iglesias does not say it, the name of Ada Colau is an index of the autonomous capacity of civil society to build an inclusive process—a popular (constituent) process that has already taken over institutional power in several Spanish cities. But if this is true, then Podemos cannot lay claim to be the exclusive representative of the voluntad popular against the vested interests of the 1%. As Levi puts it in the open letter cited at the beginning of this article: “Podemos alone cannot and should not represent Everything.” So indeed, the struggle for hegemony within the popular camp has begun.

Yet for this agonistic challenge to be real and overt, the forces that have started the Guanyem civic lists in Barcelona and other cities would have to scale this autonomous process to a national level. That is, they would need to prove that the mass experiment in participatory democracy that began with the indignados movement in 2011 can now engage with electoral politics outside and beyond the purview of the traditional party system. Is this a realistic hypothesis?

The power of organizing without organizations

It is and it isn’t. To begin with, creating a national political force from the ground up implies an exponential multiplication of the levels of mediation among the actors who engage in such process.

Because this work of mediation demands a high level of personal commitment and is very time-consuming, it has historically led to the formation of a professional class of mediators, or career politicians. For civil society to do away with this class—which is often belittled by populists as parasitical, greedy, incompetent, and corrupt—a different distribution of time and resources would be necessary.

In his best-selling book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Clay Shirky argues that the social web has dramatically lowered the transaction costs—in terms of time, money, and resources—that are necessary to coordinate group activity. Because native features of the social web such as tagging and sharing incorporate cooperation “into the infrastructure” Shirky claims that activities that could once be historically undertaken only by large-scale organizations are now increasingly coordinated by nonprofessionals outside of an institutional framework.

The mass amateurization that we see at work in Wikipedia, Instagram, YouTube (and in commercial services like Uber and Airbnb) is for Shirky nothing but the outcome of the extension of cooperation on a scale that is unprecedented in human history.

But if the power of organizing without organizations has significantly impacted on traditional institutions and companies, it is not unreasonable to believe that it will soon have its impact on traditional party politics.

Two kinds of technoparties

Indeed, the rise of “technoparties” like Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy shows that this process is already under way.

These formations have been steadily employing a vast array of software tools and online platforms that allow their members to discuss and draft policy proposals, hold their primaries online, crowdfund initiatives and campaigns, and even vote on decisions that are to be taken by their elected representatives.

To be sure, while these political parties openly encourage the networked participation of their own activists they still remain parties, with a recognizable leadership and a stable organizational structure. For these structures to be dissolved and replaced by an ad hoc coordination of citizens and nonprofessional activists, these software tools would need to allow citizens not only to deliberate but also to vote on specific initiatives. Indeed, software like Liquid Feedback, AdHocracy and DemocracyOS have been designed precisely to scale decision-making and implement a flexible system of delegation that in theory allows any member of a network to make a proposal and assume a leadership position on a given topic.

It is too early to say how effective and “revolutionary” these software procedures that promise to scale direct democracy are. Certainly, there are European parties like the German Pirate Party and the Citizen Network X Party (a post-indignados Spanish party that was founded in 2013) that have been experimenting with these advanced decision-making technologies. Commited to a radically democratic politics that eschews the formation of a  “professional” leadership, these parties have been the closest instantiation of a “liquid” party that is nothing more than a free and variable association of citizens.

And yet, after promising starts, the Swedish and the German Pirate Parties and the X Party have been unable to win a significant consensus in the most important test for a political party: the national elections.

Even though there are many contingent reasons for these disappointing performances, I believe that  Podemos, M5S, and Ciudadanos have a relative advantage over these smaller technoparties—namely, that they are led by a charismatic and “telegenic” leadership. 

Why leadership still matters

Not only are leaders like Pablo Iglesias and Beppe Grillo able to appeal to constituents who may not be so engaged with network-based politics, but, as Paolo Gerbaudo has recently noted, their populist rhetoric sutures widely different demands and subjectivities in their opposition to a common enemy.

In this respect, whether we like it or not, these technoparties seem to have a better chance at providing a blueprint for many technoparties to come than those formations that identify networked participation with an impersonal, process that needs no central anchoring point.

From this perspective, I disagree with Levi’s claim that Barcelona en Comú cannot be exclusively identified with Ada Colau. Even if this is materially true, it is not so discursively. The name of Ada Colau in fact guarantees that the popular process behind her candidacy has effectively taken control of a local network of state power. As Manuel Castells points out, the state is the network to which all other networks (financial, military, communicative) turn, as the state has the power to define the rules and norms of society by retaining the monopoly of violence.

Thus, whereas the indignados could develop practices of mutual solidarity and advance a plurality of demands in an open social field, running for elections entails a shift in the nature of political participation.

Because institutional power symbolizes the community in its entirety, running for office means to engage in an operation that is intrinsically reductive and hegemonic. This does not mean, of course, that state power is autocratic and party leadership should be unaccountable and unchangeable. But the pluralist politics of multiplying the fronts of struggle is only fruitful insofar as these fronts, or rather the organizations behind them, do not compete for the same seats.

Of course, a civil society that aspires to map itself onto the network of state power can guarantee a level of inclusivity that no political party will ever be able to guarantee. But for this to be possible, the actors involved in the process need to recognize that their own candidates are competing to represent the totality of the community exactly as the candidates of the other parties do. In this sense, populist discourse is not just a political strategy among many, but as Laclau points out, an inextricable and ontological dimension of modern democracy.

Widening participation, ensuring the ongoing renewal of leadership, and guaranteeing that the norms of conversation and the decision-making protocols can always be subject to revision is not going to change this fundamental fact.  

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The author would like to thank Vicente Rubio for feedback on this article. 

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About the author

Marco Deseriis is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence and an assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston. His current research project examines the rise of participatory forms of networked democracy through a comparative analysis of a new generation of decision-making software for political participation. 


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