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The people united: on the populism of the Mediterranean purple wave

The populist discourse of Podemos and Syriza is the attempt to cope with a post-industrial and crisis-ridden economy in which traditional class identifications fail to mobilise the electorate.

Podemos supporter's banner reads.'I was part of the year of change.' Podemos supporter's banner reads.'I was part of the year of change.' Demotix/Marcos del Mazo. All rights reserved.It is a telling sign that we are living through one of those moments of rapid historical transition when political categories are being remade at break-neck speed, that the beleaguered term ‘populism’, long associated with xenophobic parties, from Lega Nord in Italy, to the Front National in France, and the FPÖ in Austria, is being reclaimed as a positive label by a growing number of left-wing activists in southern Europe and beyond.

For many people in what we could call the Mediterranean ‘purple wave’ of Podemos and Syriza--owing to the use of this colour in their symbols, and in analogy to the Latin America ‘pink wave’ of Chávez and Morales--calling themselves populist has become a catchy and provocative way to express the difference between their ideology and the one of the traditional Left. 

But what do we actually mean when calling Podemos, Syriza and similar political phenomena ‘populists’ and more precisely ‘left populist’? What is the difference between them and more traditional leftist forces which have failed to exploit the political opportunities offered by the 2008 financial crisis and the politics of austerity?

The key element that makes the political discourse of Podemos, Syriza and similar formations ‘populist’, is very simply their appeal to popular unity (rather than class unity), to the People as a whole against common enemies. This is an orientation that deserves to be carefully excavated if we are to comprehend the ideology of emerging progressive parties, and their attempt to construct a new emancipatory politics capable of overcoming the failures of the traditional Left. 

‘People, citizens, folks’

The appeal to people’s unity, to the unity of virtually all the members of a political community, which resonates with Salvador Allende’s slogan and the homonymous song by Chilean folk band Quilapayún ‘the people united will never be defeated’ (¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!) is a feature that has been long noticed as key to populism by many of its theorists, from Ernesto Laclau--as frequently quoted by young Podemos and Syriza activists today as Antonio Negri once was in the anti-globalisation movement--to Daniele Albertazzi, Duncan McDonnell and Margaret Canovan. 

This appeal to popular unity has been clearly manifested within the purple wave in the use of an inclusive language trying to interpellate – to use a fitting Althusserian term – not just a specific section of society, defined in terms of class or cultural identity, but virtually all sections of society; or even better, all sections except one: the few, the elites, the rich, the 1%, all those who because of their privilege and corruption have placed themselves beyond the pale of a suffering society. 

In the case of Podemos, this inclusive appeal has been performed through the adoption of what the party’s chief ideologue,Íñigo Errejón, has described as a “discursive triad” comprising three terms, ‘people, citizens, folks’ (pueblo, ciudadanos, gente). In the case of Syriza similar discursive effects have been obtained through appeals to “every democratic citizen” as discussed by Greek political scientist, Yannis Stavrakakis. Finally, in the context of the successful municipal platforms in the recent local elections in Spain, the appeal to popular unity has been conveyed instead through references to the city and to its local community as seen in the very name of the formations Barcelona En Comú (Barcelona in Common) and Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), as well as in frequent references to the “vecinos” (the neighbours or local inhabitants) seen in the discourse of the new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. 

The populist language adopted in the purple wave is not coming out of the blue. It carries strong overtones of the discourse of the movements of the squares of 2011 with their famous appeal to the 99%, against those responsible for the crisis of 2008 and widespread political corruption, movements to which both Podemos and Syriza are strongly indebted. More generally it reflects a situation in which, as suggested in a famous campaign tune used by the new mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, ‘defending the common good’ has become a new common sense, progressively displacing the rapacious individualism of the neoliberal era. 

The unifying appeal to the people is the discursive element that is partly shared by the likes of Podemos and Syriza with rightwing populist movements such as UKIP and Front National, hence the similarity in some of their rhetoric. However there is a fundamental difference between righwing and leftwing populist appeals to popular unity, which has to do with the way in which the ‘frontier’ of the People, which defines who pertains to it, confronts ‘the Other’, who lie outside of its pale and constitute its irreducible enemy. 

In the case of rightwing and xenophobic populist movements, the ‘them’ is an Other defined almost exclusively in racial or ethnic terms - migrants, Jews, Muslims, and other scapegoats of the day. In the case of Left populist movements, ‘the Other’ is instead defined in terms of power relations, based on the opposition of the large majority of the population to those who oppress it economically and politically. 

This axis points to some important differences between the pink and purple wave of leftwing populism and their construction of the enemy. With Latin American populist movements the Other was first and foremost an external enemy, the scourge of US imperialism, depriving countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador of control over their own destiny, and, in second position, the local Lumpenbourgeoisie (burguesia compradora) complicit with it. With Podemos and Syriza ‘the Other’ also comprises foreign forces acting against national interests such as international financial institutions (ECB, International Monetary Fund) and speculators. However more importantly it coincides with the national ruling classes responsible for the economic crisis and widespread corruption: greedy bankers, crony entrepreneurs, corrupt politicians, all accused of acting against the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.

A political antidote to social fragmentation

The question that begs to be asked is how it is possible that such grandiose appeals to popular unity, that for long we Europeans took as a picturesque feature of social struggles in less economically advanced parts of the world, have become so resonant in the Old Continent too. 

The sociological answer lies in the fact that these appeals to unity provide a compensation for the extreme level of fragmentation and atomisation of our societies, resulting from two factors: the post-industrial transformation of the economy, with its weakening of the industrial working class, and the rise of a new service class fractioned in many different sub-categories; and the disruptive effect of the 2008 crisis on the class structure with rising unemployment and poverty. 

As a result of this double movement, rather than dealing with relatively discrete class formations we are confronted with a ‘gelatinous’ compound comprising very disparate class fractions, part of what Italian sociologists Emanuele Ferragina and Alessandro Arrigoni have called the ‘invisible majority’, a term including precarious workers, the unemployed, the working poor, small businessmen on the verge of bankruptcy and the proletarianised middle class. These are categories which, taken individually, are too small to constitute the support-base of a party as was the case with social-democratic parties relying heavily on the industrial working class and public sector workers. Furthermore, these class fractions seem to share little in the narrow terms of ‘class interests’, given their diversity of life conditions and grievances. 

Appeals to popular unity have provided a powerful narrative to cope with such a situation of social fragmentation that for long has proven a powerful resource in the hands of greedy bankers and corrupt politicians. They have furnished a discourse that could accommodate people who despite their difference in economic conditions and social values objectively share common ‘popular interests’, an almost visceral hostility against the 1%, accumulating enormous wealth and power at the expenses of everybody else.

The populist horizon

The call to popular unity of the purple wave should ultimately be understood as a ‘political myth’, a sort of necessary illusion, but a far more productive one than the worn-out narrative of the working class still peddled by many twentieth century nostalgics both in the Ultra Left and within social democratic parties. 

The purple wave will obviously never manage to fulfil its nominal ambition of unifying the totality of the people. Far from coming close to the mythical ‘99%’ to which they want to appeal, Podemos, Syriza and similar parties are in fact still far from the more limited feat of winning the backing of the majority of the population. In the recent Greek elections, Syriza won 36.3% of the votes, while in a poll of January 2015, Podemos’s vote was estimated at 23.9%.

Yet these numbers are simply on another order of magnitude from anything achieved by European leftwing forces in previous decades such as Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, Synaspysmos in Greece or Izquierda Unida in Spain. This is the real term of comparison to evaluate the success of left populist parties, and the real measure of the impressive success of their populist discourse. 

The appeal to popular unity has equipped Podemos, Syriza and similar formations with an effective way to interpellate its base of support within the dispersed and fragmented social landscape of post-industrial and post-crisis Europe. Overcoming the divisiveness of much recent Leftist politics, and focusing our attention on common enemies, left populist discourse and its appeal to popular unity provides an expansive and hopeful horizon with which to construct a new emancipatory politics for the twenty first century.

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About the author

Paolo Gerbaudo is a cultural and political sociologist and a lecturer in digital culture and society at King's College London. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets, a book about social media and activism published by Pluto press in October, 2012 and of the forthcoming The Mask and the Flag.


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