What we must learn from Podemos, and the Lib Dems

Truly radical change will only come when radical parties accept that they need to give power back to the people - not as a slogan but as a democratic process.

Roger Hallam
23 January 2015

Flickr/Abode of Chaos

Before getting down to business lets allow ourselves a moment of uninhibited enthusiasm as the latest polls for Podemos, the new radical left party in Spain, show that it is now the most popular party in Spain. Well how fucking fantastic! After all, haven’t we all been waiting for such a genuinely radical and democratic party to come top in the polls of a European state at least since 1989 if not 1968? By any measure this is a momentous moment.

And yet we all know, or at least we should know, this is just the second act of the great archetypical political drama of the Left. Let’s refresh ourselves, or rather bring ourselves back down to earth, by looking again at the familiar acts of this tragic play.

Act one is the outburst of popular anarchistic anger - expressive, performative, exuberant, rageful... and directionless. At first this directionlessness doesn’t matter – it’s just so good to feel alive and free and in a vibrant political community.

Act two is where we are now. The thought that comes from act one is – so what now? No doubt along with many seasoned radical activists I felt I had to support Occupy and the related protests of 2011-12. But in my head I was thinking “is that it?” So we are onto the next step. The decision to form political parties; the aim to take political power. Again there is great excitement. The party breaks through electoral collective action problem – that no one supports the radical left because no one else is, so no one does. Now suddenly people can show their true colours – collective action creates hope – “we can” -  which creates more collective action. This thereto hidden radical constituency, maybe 30% of the electorate in most European countries, has now been mobilised in Spain. (In case you believe this grouping does not exist in the UK  - consider a recent poll that 48% of the electorate would consider voting for the Green Party).

Act three. Power. This is the peak of the excitement. Remember the election night of Obama – to give yourself a taste of how sweet political victory can be. And it is here that things get complicated and go pear-shaped. Even if the party is the outright winner it quickly realises that it is confronted by the twin enemies of international capital and state bureaucracy. More likely it finds itself in coalition with one of the old parties. But let’s cut though this mass of political detail to the pivotal moment. The leader makes “The Statement”. It can take various formats but the basic structure is always the same. Here is the general gist:

“Due to the difficulties of dealing with our opponents we have decided to do the responsible thing and compromise on our programme”

Act four. All hell breaks loose. The right wing of the party claims to be responsible, doing the right thing, not copping out, making possible the changes we can make, and so on. The left wing cries betrayal, splits off, and takes to the streets. In vicious forms of act four blood is spilt, in milder forms, for example with the UK’s Liberal Democrats, the membership collapses. Either way, former collaborators don’t talk to each other for the next thirty years and the vibrant political energy of a generation is destroyed.

So far so familiar assuming we have the maturity to look dispassionately in these heady times at the historical record. Of course there are variations on the theme but the story line is clear enough. And yes of course it is not a zero sum game – incremental progress can and has been made. After all the Liberal Democrats have done something to the 10p tax rate – even if I can’t really remember what it is and no doubt neither can 90 per cent of the electorate. Needless to say we are not looking at major social transformation.

However there is something much more interesting in the historical record. At the margin there are occasional, remarkable stories where something very different happens – the Left wins, real change occurs, and the Left lives to tell the tale. Understanding what happens in these stories is the key radical political intellectual challenge of our times.

I am going to simplify somewhat here so apologies in advance for sticking to the basics. What I want to suggest we need to look more closely at is that key pivotal statement in act three. This is the vital fork in the road in the story of radical political success or failure. Consider the following alternative statement:

“Due to the difficulties we are experiencing with our opponents we think it best the people decide the best course forward”.

This in a nutshell is the killer blow that the Left give to the Right. Except of course there is no killer blow. It is a feigned retreat which actually sets up a no win trap for the Right. They are caught in the mother of all modern political dilemmas. Go against the people and claim they know best, or allow the people to decide and bet on them going against their own interests.

Let’s put more flesh on these bones. This “going to the people” pivot traditionally takes the form of a referendum but a more sophisticated modern Left is going to include formal deliberative elements as a counterweight to the power of the right wing media. Again there are variations on the theme but the key mechanism is to bring together nationally, or on a regional basis, assemblies of people who reflect the makeup of the population as a whole to hear evidence on the issues, discuss, debate and deliberate (all live streamed on social media). In the academic literature these processes are variously called sortition, deliberative polls, or citizens juries. They can and should be subject to many nuanced variations to best suit different contexts and can be enhanced by combination with general assemblies and direct voting. To sum up a growing literature on the subject they work brilliantly but only if properly funded, designed, and publicized and, most crucially, only if people are given real power to decide (no insulting “consultations” please).

The central strategic move then is that the party retreats into the people – just as a guerrilla army retreats back into the city/the mountains in asymmetrical warfare. It’s also a move which prepares the ground for the key strategic dynamic that is identified in studies of successful civic resistance campaigns over the past century. This is where the oppressors overstep the mark, whether by design by the resistance (remember Rosa Parks), or inadvertently due to their own arrogance or lack of discipline. This event provides the key pivot or tipping point. The suppressed rage of the people is ignited. There is a surge of mobilisation. Attempts at repression simply ignite further rage and the oppressors lose control of the street and then power. In the academic literature this is variously called dilemma actions, political jui-jitsu, backfire, or blow back, but the basic dynamic is the same.

To be convinced of this central strategic move it is vital to fully understand what is going on here as it is profoundly counterintuitive to how we have been socialised into thinking about political power. We need to look at how power really works not how we have been told it works.

There are a number sequential elements here. First the party/movement retreats into the people. This means that the Right both cannot isolate and discredit the Left because it has in effect given up its power. The Left can say 'sorry mate it’s not us now – it the people who are deciding'. So the Right has to turn to the new enemy – but this is a problem because this new enemy is the people themselves. The Right thrives on the massive conceit and deception that it represents the people while really representing the interests of Capital/the rich. The people are then given real power to decide – real power because the government has given it to them. It is genuine. And also crucially it has the capacity and credibility of being properly organised and designed by state funds. This is where, in its rage and desperation, the Right always oversteps the mark. It attacks the people – it tries to undermine the process of the deliberation and/or the outcome of the people’s deliberation. Or less likely but equally disempowering for elite power, it chooses to watch impotently and pretend to support the “democratic process” while hating every minute of it. Either way it loses. As its strategic losses become more apparent, however, attack through lack of discipline becomes ever more inevitable. As history shows – elites have no commitment to due process when their core privileges are threatened. But the beauty is that they are up against the only political force that can defeat them – the people united in themselves. The rage of the Right provokes the rage, mobilisation, and conversion of the people to radical solidarity. It both radicalises and strengthens. The Right shows its true colour and this provokes democratic unity. Note that in all this the party/movement must resist the temptation to protect the people, to speak for the people, to take charge of the situation. To do so would be a disaster. Suddenly the Right can redirect its power and the people’s attention to “those nasty radicals who are destroying our way of life”. To get this thing to happen the role of the party/ movement has to maintain an iron discipline – to facilitate, train, organise, reflect, and describe, and to emote with not for the people. To focus on the process not the product.

This leads to the core strategic point. In the modern state there is only one source of political power and legitimacy which can effectively win against the Right/Capital/the elite. That is the legitimacy that comes from the transparent will of the people themselves, nothing more and nothing less than the democratic principle itself. The central focus of the party/movement must be the perfect actualisation of this principle in the sphere of political power.

On the face of it this may seem clear enough but I would suggest that in practice it requires a deep and profound shift in the political consciousness of the activist or leadership core which drives any social movement or radical political party. History is littered with a double tragedy for the Left – the first, that of taking power using the violence of the state to impose its programme, and second, the refusal to take control of the state and so never getting to make real political change. The split goes back the raging debates about strategy between Marxist state socialists and the anarchists in the 1870s. The two dogmas have tortured and undermined the unity of the Left ever since: you have to take state power to make the change versus if you take state power you become the enemy. The paradigm shift formulation is this:  sure you have to take state power to make change and then you have to give it away, otherwise you will become the enemy. Both sides were right and both are wrong. This new formulation overcomes this great historical split of the Left and provides a new vital energy that comes from unity of purpose. We can work like hell to take state power and then work like hell to get rid of it. Radical power is increased not by the exercise of power but by the dispersal of power. The beautiful realisation is that if you give it away you will get more back (sound familiar?).  The new division is between those who fundamentally get this and those that fundamentally do not.

So let get back to the real world. Let’s look at the most recent thrilling example of this dynamic – the Scottish referendum. The SNP did not say “leave it to us guys, we will sort out this independence thing, the people can passively watch and wait”. No, at the key pivotal moment described above they chose the smart option, to put real power back into the people’s lap. The establishment was immediately thrown into a dilemma. Refuse the referendum and appear undemocratic or risk independence by letting the people decide. They made the classic establishment/elitist cognitive error of thinking the people too stupid and passive to take the radical option when they have a real choice. Surprise surprise, when people were indeed given real power to decide their future they rose to the challenge and engaged in an unprecedented surge of grassroots deliberative politics, enhanced and amplified by the new, ubiquitous social media. The result is a political explosion not seen in the UK for generations. As a consequence we are in the middle of a series of 'lose lose' dilemmas for the Establishment. They offered big concessions in a transparently obvious attempt to buy a No vote – but the game was already up. People have realised their own power and even though they narrowly lost the election no one is in any doubt which side won in political terms. The SNP made the right pivot – they gave the power back to the people and this smart move is propelling them back into greater power in the forthcoming UK elections with the added bonus of 100,000 members. You have to say wow! Also look at the demonstration effects. In Catalonia, in a more difficult political environment, the Scottish example inspired the recent “voluntary” referendum. Again the state was put into lose-lose bind. By going against the democratic will of the people they have made heroes of the previously unpopular moderate nationalists. Again they made the smart move to give power to the people and are being rewarded by now riding high in the polls. Different context, same dynamic.

A longer term example is the now famous participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre in Brazil.  The key move here was when the Workers Party, having gained power in the city election, gave it back to the people. Neighbourhood assemblies were given the real power to propose project priorities and delegates from these assemblies decided on a city wide level the annual budget for the city. This exciting example of a complex integration of decentralised and centralised political mechanisms is increasing well known and being copied around the world. What is less well known is that the Workers Party won three elections in a row. They gave the power to the people and they were rewarded with being given that power back. This gave them a vital 15 year time span to embed into the city’s institutional and cultural system profoundly effective forms of participatory governance. For those who have no time for all this process stuff it is worth noting that the outcome has been a massive decline in poverty and corruption, and increased local tax receipts (people will pay taxes if they trust and own their political system).

So let’s finally put some specific grounding figures into this strategy. In broad terms we can say that in Western states the radical left’s natural constituency is around 30% of the vote. The collective action problem usually keeps it at the false low of 5-10% but, as we have seen recently in Scotland and Spain, if this constituency breaks through to its upper equilibrium then support as a general rule raises to 30% of the electorate. Unfortunately a lot on the Left has a problem is the basic maths here. So just to be clear 30% is not a majority and no amount of “false consciousness” analysis  or other winging it makes 30 into over 50. So task two, after mobilising the 30%, is to give the power to the 100%, and through the mechanisms described above this support then rises to the magic 60-70%. We need to accept that a hard core of the right wing opinion, say 20% of the people, are never going to be happy with a progressive politics however much the Right/elite shows its true colours. This then is the Holy Grail – getting the radical left to a substantial majority. It really can be done but the method is counter intuitive.

We’re been waiting for a long time for the present historical moment. Let’s not mess it up again.

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