Participatory representation: an interview with Paolo Gerbaudo

For too long we have regarded participation and representation as mutually exclusive concepts. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

Paolo Gerbaudo
29 July 2015
beyond squares

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Was there anything that you found particularly thought-provoking said here today?

Paolo Gerbaudo (Paolo): One key topic of discussion, which is also feeding into a more general debate among activists is the whole issue of political ‘organisation’. On the one hand, there are people who are still defenders of horizontality; then there are NGO representatives trying to defend more organised forms of civil society; and the people who have had experience of political parties and who hope that Podemos might constitute a new format of a party that is very promising going forward. I feel that this is a debate that we really need to have.

It is far too easy for people to fall into these binaries that can be very sterile, I mean these geometrically perfect metaphors such as horizontal vs. vertical; hierarchy, network. It is interesting to see a learning process going on. Take the activist Noam Titelman from Chile, who reported that in his country neo-horizontality is now being deployed even in very vertical organisations as a sort of PR formula, so that basically Leninist organisations feel that being horizontal is ‘so cool’, that they are eager to go out there, pretending they have horizontal democratic structures. The people from Greece have been talking about the difficulties for people in the social movements to deal, for example, with Syriza, but simultaneously that they too are beginning to be more pragmatic and thinking about funding. Something that constituted a red line for the Occupy wave is at least now acceptable as a point of discussion.  This question of organisation is possibly the most strategic issue of all at this juncture. It’s not by chance that this has constituted a major part of our discussions today.

RB: If you want to set the reductive horizontal/vertical binary to one side, how would you approach analysing the contrast that Jordi Vaquer describes in his reading of Spain’s recent regional and local elections, “The contrast between somewhat disappointing regional results, where Podemos ran under its own name, and the success of the civic lists, where Podemos joined other parties and civic groups under shared labels…”?

Paolo: As Anthony Barnett mentioned in discussion, the fact that Spain is an amazing laboratory for organisational political forms is very true. So much so that at this point in time we should definitely be keeping an eye on what is happening in Spain because it is a kind of cultural and political vanguard. It is the place where the social movements have been the most successful with the population in terms of their creativity and also in terms of projecting this power into what in Spain is called, ‘the assault on the institutions’. It is not easy to render this engagement visible, as understood in the old, quite moderate way which involved us saying, ‘Alright, we are just sitting here with this politician, or with this policy maker…’ No – ‘we don’t want to discuss, we want to take this decision for ourselves. They don’t represent us – but we are going to represent ourselves.’ You can understand this sort of feeling.

Of course there is a huge diversity of organisational ways and means going on in Spain. One shouldn’t deny these different trends.

Podemos is the first political organisation to have demonstrated that these sorts of institutions could be a successful strategy. They have gone from 8 percent support in the European elections of May 2014 to a situation in which they are approaching 20 percent. But then there is this municipalist tendency which we saw in the success of Ahora Madrid, Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comu and which has evidently some different elements. One thing it does share is a populist element in this discourse. So for example Ada Colau refers to the scenos, to the neighbours, to the inhabitants of the city – that is a populist category – not the citizens, the folk or the people – but the inhabitants of Barcelona. At the same time, compared to Podemos, they have more of an emphasis on a kind of radical participatory character. Internally, Barcelona en Comu also utilised consensus-based decision-making. Now they are talking about consulting the citizenry on every decision.

It is not that Podemos doesn’t have an element of that. Podemos also has quite a strong libertarian element. In fact many of the leading activists of Podemos come from anarchist movements rather than socialist movements and it is quite striking the way they have applied participatory elements in their own structure. For example, the circles which constitute one of the most important organisational structures of Podemos are basically the assemblies of 2011 turned into party branches. And you have the regional days when all the members of the party can vote and so on. The difference is that they have more of a sense that you need strong leadership as well as strong participation. So that on certain issues you need to delegate to the leader for strategic reasons. I feel that the difference is not as big as it might seem at first sight.

Moving on From the Squares discussion. LSE, 2015. All rights reserved.

Moving on From the Squares discussion. LSE, 2015. All rights reserved.RB: There are critics in the 15M movement who accuse Podemos of wanting to absorb every radical initiative into their own ranks and sort of appropriate it – that they can’t tolerate working with other power centres and decision-makers…

Paolo: The relationship between civil society and political society is always very complex, between movements and parties, to use the terms Noam deployed today, between social militancy and political militancy. Having said that, to describe Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comu as capable of taking power without any form of mediation is wrong. Because it is not that their people move directly from the squares to taking over the cities. These are political formations which obviously incorporate many people who were in the squares. But in those squares were many more people who didn’t vote for those formations. The movements were much wider, much broader in their composition and their overt support than these formations will ever be. The same applies to Podemos only more so.

So what you see in the personal and political conflicts at the interface between these formations are power dynamics that we have always seen in politics, and that are in a way ineliminable. Podemos has made quite a point of seeing hegemony as the key concept for the construction of progressive politics. And hegemony means that you need to construct a centre, and a unifying process that obviously produces groups of people who are in competition with each other over who will build that centre. There will be forms of cooption, co-optation and so forth.

There is nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that we are living in a time that is not used to it. We are not used to the possibility of taking power.  We are not used, as people coming from the left in contestatory protest movements, to dealing with these problems. We have no kind of moral grid to basically say what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what are the red lines that can never be crossed.

RB: We are not used to taking power is what you are saying? Well may I cite another oD article, an open letter written on the Greek island of Samos by a constituent to his Syriza MP which says, roughly, “ Whatever happens between you and the Troika – please don’t forget to come and help unleash our energies for changing Greece together with you…” Isn’t that the real challenge, to empower the people in a different way?

Paolo: I completely see your point. I think that for too long we have regarded participation and representation as mutually exclusive concepts. Either you are in social movements fighting for a radical change, or you have settled for representation – therefore you just content yourself with a small place in the parliamentary system.

Actually, the possibility that we see now is what we could call participatory representation – that is finding a new combination between the strategic means of leadership of representative politics, and grassroots energy. The new wave of democratic parties needs strong participation from below – because without strong participation of this kind, we cannot overcome the major enemies that we face and there is no moral legitimacy for our taking bold political action.

At the same time, participation alone can turn into what Christopher Lasch in 1979 called, "The Culture of Narcissism", in which participation becomes an end in itself, a religious thing which is not basically narcissistic, so much as it reduces that process to people’s experience of self-realisation through participating in political processes.  The greatest single rewarding experience people get from participating in Occupy or indignados, is the experience of being heard by other people, feeling part of the community – and that is a great experience. I don’t want to bar people from enjoying that experience. But the crucial thing is that this cannot be the end goal of activism. The processes should lead to some external outcomes – to structural change, right? Otherwise what we are doing is just basically enjoying ourselves in our world of self-realisation.


Electoral night of Barcelona en Comú. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

RB: openDemocracy is here to create a platform for a transnational conversation about activism and political renewal. Do you think you saw the evidence today that this is good timing for such a project?

Paolo: Definitely now is a moment in time in which we need strong transnational debate, and in which outlets for debate on the left are somehow drying up. I was writing regularly for Il Manifesto on these subjects, a left newspaper launched in the 1970s – but its readership has been shrinking and shrinking and ageing. It is however this twentieth century leftwing culture, I think, that is drying up. With no schadenfreude, I would like to say – it’s not that we need to party because of the death of the left. No – what we need is to construct a new progressive politics and for doing that we need new spaces for intellectual debate.

These spaces are few at the moment, and openDemocracy is one that has the advantage of being recognised by many people as a sort of unifying arena, right? Many people who share a certain political view in very broad terms, can have an intellectual debate which is sufficiently debated, but also popular enough, plain enough in terms of language, to reach out beyond the very narrow scope of academic articles which we waste so much time on. It should be part of what we do, but then we have a commitment to public impact which we should also fulfil.

I would like to use such a space to understand these movements within a historical trajectory, their roots, how the different political traditions encounter each other. Then there is digital protest culture. What are the new forms in which to express grievances, demands and a movement’s values, in a digital context?

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