Can Europe Make It?

Podemos: instrument, work, subject. Aphorisms

Podemos, rather than being a prosthesis for the 15-M multitude, should be conceived as a weapon it needed to be able to navigate this fluid and unstable historical conjuncture. Español

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo
16 December 2015
Pablo Iglesias in Madrid Caja Magica, December 13, 2015

Pablo Iglesias in Madrid Caja Magica, December 13, 2015. Demotix/jorge gonzalez. All rights reserved.Podemos emerged as the instrument of a new multitude that gestated and developed in the weeks of 15-M and after. That multitude did not consist in an aggregated set of demands, or a collection of fragments, nor was it already a constituted ‘people’. Instead, the multitude that emerges with 15-M is a specific kind of invention, which nevertheless corresponds to the definition of a political multitude – something that has existed ever since Spinoza and which, contra Hobbes, sees it as a heterogeneous multiplicity with variable contours which is nonetheless capable of acting as one mind, to organise itself functionally, aggregate, disperse and take decisions. This means that Podemos as an instrument, rather than being a prosthesis for this multitude, should be conceived as a weapon, a necessary weapon for it to be able to navigate this fluid and unstable historical conjuncture.

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As an instrument, Podemos is not, and cannot be, the ‘better half’ of a multitude in search of its weapon. The coming together between Podemos and multitude would be better described as a necessary, yet aberrant and monstrous relation – inorganic, artificial and unsustainable over time (a kairos fugit). It is also a dangerous relationship as it carries with it the possibility of producing the decomposition of the multitude created with 15-M. 

The multitude created with 15-M subjected the relationship of political representation to an impossible tension. The discourse of 15-M, with its famous slogans – ‘They do not represent us’ and ‘We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’ – led to a terminal crisis in the constitutional system of political parties. The discourse of 15-M, with its famous slogans – ‘They do not represent us’ and ‘We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’ – led to a terminal crisis in the constitutional system of political parties. It gave it a lethal blow.

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The emergence of Podemos within the politically open terrain inaugurated by 15-M was accompanied from the beginning by a profound ambivalence. Drawing from the political experiences of Latin America, from countries in which colonial power structured the political system, they understood that the multitude born with 15-M was not a ‘people’ but rather an under-developed political composite. Laclau’s theory of populism and hegemony, which allows us to partly understand the political experiences of acquiring and preserving power in countries like Venezuela and Argentina, was used by the founders of Podemos to shore up three important diagnoses: a political elite is necessary to capture and unite the desire for change; this political elite is the only route to constructing a ‘people’ from fragmentation, a crowd, or a multitude; there is no people that does not base itself on the desire and the libidinal investments that both individuals and social groups project onto the leader’s face and name.

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In other words, we have a ‘people’ (an ‘us’ with a political capacity) only because we have the face and name of the leader that is able to support and saturate the unity of the people and manage the tensions of a chain of equivalence between demands and unmet desires. Such is the political formula conceived by the founders of Podemos. As such, it is just a variant of the theories of the ‘autonomy of the political’ or, according to Iglesias, of a conception of state power as a generic relationship between political wills, in which he who holds the power is able to impose the rules of the game in his favour: ‘First you take power, and then you implement your programme’. The thesis on the ‘autonomy of the political’ allows an abstraction of the political, ethical and narrative contents of the process of construction of a popular ‘counter-power’ to arise from the quantification of positions, movements, resources and magistrates. To the founders of Podemos, this is not optional but, rather, the essence of politics. 

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Here we face the paradox of an instrument that, in order to be effective, wants to transform itself into an organ; the paradox of a prosthesis that, in order to function, needs to transform the body into which it has been incorporated. This is a demiurge political subject, working with the amorphous desires of its subalterns. This paradox may help us understand Podemos’ ‘politico-theological’ function: the opposition between nation, fatherland/motherland and people and la casta (or the ‘caste’, a concept defining political elites working on behalf of economic interests) constitutes the mould with which to explain both the split in the political-parliamentary field and that with which we can construct a new social majority. As we know, for political-theology, the democratic scene is one from a play in which the triumph and defeat of divine mandates are played out in the creaturely world. As we know, for political-theology, the democratic scene is one from a play in which the triumph and defeat of divine mandates are played out in the creaturely world. Today, the stage for these scenes is not the squares or the assemblies, but the commercial TV sets. The crystallization of the political desires of the people and nation happens with the TV appearances of the leaders, and their entourage, and their success in the battle over TV share.

In their discussions with the multiple actors fighting for political change that emerged with the 15-M, the founders of Podemos have made it very clear: for the instrument to work, there can be no competition, there can be no pluralism over the strategies and hypothesis of how to achieve the assault on institutions. There will be no ‘people’ if we have multiple faces and names that can act as the object-subject of the political desires of the subaltern. The main result of this was the ‘contract’ of Vistalegre, in November 2014, which implied: ‘Let us do it, transfer all your strategic and communicative initiatives to us because we are the only ones able to win the general elections of 2015’. It entailed an explicit contract of willing subordination of the ruled to the rulers, that is, the construction of a contract of sovereignty in the classical and abstract terms of the state tradition. 

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The compromise between the party founders’ proposals and the ‘without people’ emergence of 15-M resulted in a hybrid architecture that combines democratic processes of selection and legitimation of the leaders with an electoral state of exception. In other words, the winning formula has been circulos (local or sectorial assemblies) and consejos (citizens’ council) + the ‘electoral and media war machine’. Needless to say that, if the people require TV studios in order to see the ‘empty signifier’ around the name and face of the leader, the entire architecture collapses. Being deprived of any real power, the circulos become fan clubs maintaining a difficult relationship with the party’s central apparatus – the true ‘makers’ of Podemos. Being deprived of any real power, the circulos become fan clubs maintaining a difficult relationship with the party’s central apparatus – the true ‘makers’ of Podemos.

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Podemos’ claim to its exclusive title as representative in the assault on intuitions has only partially been accepted. The pluralism genetically inscribed in the democratic radicalism of 15-M has persisted, as was evidenced by the processes of municipalist convergence that made the difference in the last local elections on May 24, and the internal party disputes over its nature and direction, resulting in a dynamic of opposing blocks and a sort of ‘autonomy of the political’ between representatives of the different blocks within the organisation, as opposed to a healthy and enriching agonism. The internal life of Podemos is thus that of a functional and comprehensive prosthesis.

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Born to win the general elections of 2015, the viability of Podemos depends more on its electoral success than on its problematic relationship with the constituent mandate it had from the multitude of 15-M. Despite the difficulties encountered along the way, and the inevitable mistakes, from where we stand now, with the elections only days away, it would be possible to say that Podemos has been a success in so far as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it would also be worth asking about the price it paid for this achievement, given the high risks.

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The key challenge for Podemos’ assault on the institutions is its ability to invent and preserve the capacity to have shared and shareable experiences, communicable as a communication of experiences – experiences of conflict and struggle as well as experiences of democratic innovation. What we have here is a seemingly counter-intuitive definition of the practice of government or ‘hegemony’. Born to win the general elections of 2015, the viability of Podemos depends more on its electoral success than on its problematic relationship with the constituent mandate it had from the multitude of 15-M. 

Whether it wins of not, whether it governs or does politics from the opposition benches, the next general elections will necessarily impose a temporal mark on Podemos as an instrument. As it prepares for future victories, the abolition of pluralism in favour of a winning electoral strategy will create the requirements for a centralized and vertical power, which will be detrimental to the multitude of 15-M, as has already been seen on numerous occasions. Nobody, not even the most ‘realist’ supporters of the ‘autonomy of the political’ thesis within Podemos, wants to see the multitude of 15-M be made into a mass of TV spectators or social media fans. This is because only the multitude can nurture and create the political desire that the doctors of the ‘chain of equivalences’ need in order to recreate a libidinal relationship between the people and the leader. Nobody could govern if from below diagonal and horizontal ‘counter-power networks’ made it unfeasible, leading to a paralysis or claims about the betrayal of hope. To be more precise, governing would be impossible if the networks of counter-power born with 15-M begin to organise the self-management of large sectors of Spanish society.

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Even more so, the finite nature of Podemos as instrument becomes relevant in the event that the promised parliamentary elections victory does not occur. What follows is a vision of ungovernability in which, given that the forces of change were not able to form a majority, a necessary devolution of the power transferred in Vistalegre, back to the multitude, has to take place – as opposed to a new period of the ‘autonomy of the political’ in the guise of a ‘parliamentary market’. This would constitute a renewal of the rapport between parliamentary and governmental mechanisms and the networks of ‘counter-power’ that are in continuous tension and transformation. Faced with the potential threat of the prosthesis devouring the body that deployed it in order to fulfil its tasks, a severe electoral defeat would create the necessity for this transition without delay. The objective would be to build a real democracy, able to express the constituent power of the losers of the terminal crisis of the neo-liberal, minimal democracy.

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Most political proposals marked by a sign of finitude are oriented towards the construction of what Gramsci has called the ‘organic party’ of the democratic revolution. In practice, and outside of the terms of democratic radicalism invented by 15-M, and materialised in the municipalist experiences in Madrid, Zaragoza or Barcelona (which philosopher Montserrat Galceran has called the ‘Ganemos method’), this can lead to a pact among leftist political forces with a plebiscitary varnish among the constituencies for change. This would be a mistake, fraught with many consequences, given that it is far from clear how a coalition of political blocks or parties would be able to construct an instrument more amenable to be controlled from below than Podemos’ existing ‘media-electoral war machine’. The disastrous experience of ‘Izquierda Unida’ in recent decades serves as a stark warning. As Beckett’s poem says: ‘Imagination is dead. Imagine’.

 

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