Portrait of the Leader as a Young Theorist

Ahead of tomorrow's elections, what do the writings of Pablo Iglesias tell us about where Podemos is going?

From his first declaration following Podemos’s surprise result in the May 2014 European Parliament elections, Pablo Iglesias has been unequivocal: the days of celebrating hopeful scores (in the single digits) for the radical left were gone; the only way to be true to the break represented by the 15-M movement that shook Spain in 2011 would be to translate its social majority into an electoral one.

Podemos wants to be the instrument for the passage of the “new common sense” thrown up by the 15-M into the corridors of state power, a tool for the plebeian democratization of Spanish politics. On the eve of the December 20 (or “20-D”) elections, how should we evaluate the party’s efforts toward that end?

Perhaps uniquely among contemporary parties, and no doubt due to the academic backgrounds of many of its leading figures, Podemos’s rise has been accompanied by a kind of running commentary, often internally produced, in which the party’s objectives and strategies are incessantly publicized and its origin story meticulously and sometimes mythically retold.

The Podemos leadership’s capacity to stick to the deliberately simple building blocks of their political identity make it difficult, especially compared to other left strategies that are so often rudderless, not to be struck by the apparent linearity of the trajectory between 15-M and 20-D — the popular rupture and the electoral reckoning.

From 15-M to 20-D

Especially after the party’s Vistalegre congress in October 2014, in which Iglesias was elected general secretary, virtually by acclamation, many have remarked, and some criticized, the concentration of the project in its political directorate, whose most prominent figure besides Iglesias is his Laclauian campaign strategist and number two, Iñigo Errejón.

That Congress also sealed the marginalization of the radical, activist component of Podemos, principally in the form of Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA), the Trotskyist group that gave Podemos much of its initial organizational momentum and whose leading figure Teresa Rodríguez ran for governor of Andalusia (after defeating Iglesias’s candidate in a primary).

IA was not the only radical, vocally leftist element in Podemos’s very heterogenous base, or among its cadres. Some of the most incisive critiques of the Iglesias leadership have come from Emmanuel Rodríguez and Isidro López of Madrid’s Observatorio Metropolitano, the latter a Podemos councilor in the capital. And the run up to the election has seen the rumblings of discontent from Podemos’s municipal and regional círculos turn into cases of open defiance, with resignations following what were perceived as candidates helicoptered by the center.

For many of its critical voices the possibility of shaping a party in the image of the 15-M, and of its radically democratic spirit, were sacrificed at the altar of Errejón’s vaunted “electoral war machine.” For sympathizers of the leadership line, and indeed the members who overwhelmingly supported Iglesias’s quasi-Leninist plea for centralism and efficacy, the sacrifice was worth it. Whatever the assessment, the struggles over the shape of Podemos are a necessary corrective to the narrative of a straight line between 15-M and 20-D.

The second deviation from the linear trajectory is registered by the most sensitive indicator for the war machine: polls. Around the time of the Vistalegre congress, Podemos rose to almost triple the prospective scores it recorded just three months before, and, after being very briefly overtaken by the social-democratic Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), remained the first choice between January and April (peaking in January with 28.2 percent of the prospective vote).

Only a couple of months ago, it sunk to half its January score (14.1 percent) and has been making a steady comeback on the eve of the election (though Spanish law forbids polling of voters for a full week before the election, proxy Andorran polls suggest Podemos might even overtake the PSOE for second place).

Without relying on any one explanation for the initial slide, it’s enough to say that the distance from the 15-M, the slackening of social movements, the much-touted if highly uneven and unstable economic recovery, the media attacks on Podemos, the fading effects of novelty, and the rise of Ciudadanos, its business-friendly neoliberal replicant, all played some part. The result is an unprecedented political map with (going by the last polls) a rough four-way tie (with the governing conservatives a few points ahead, and the others within the margin of error) between Podemos, the PSOE, Ciudadanos, and the center-right People’s Party (PP).

The third counter to a narrative of linearity was most evident in Podemos’s greatest success after its inaugural EU parliament victory: the municipal victories this May, and especially the party’s critical participation in the civic coalitions that gave the political heirs of the 15-M Spain’s two key cities — Madrid, now governed by left-labor lawyer Manuela Carmena, and Barcelona, whose mayor is the former spokesperson for the anti-foreclosure movement PAH, Ada Colau.

Where internal heterogeneity and dissension was dampened after Vistalegre, Iglesias and Podemos now have to deal with the question of external alliances. The desire to hegemonize the political translation of the 15-M and the regime crisis (not to mention long-running resentments) has led Podemos to spurn the possibility, pushed by Alberto Garzón and IU but also by many left commentators and Podemos members, of popular unity candidatures for the 20-D.

But that hegemony is considerably qualified when it comes to Spain’s autonomous regions and their left-nationalist political formations, with which Podemos has chosen to ally — in a move that is both tactically indispensable and, it could be argued, strategically wise. In the Comunidad Valenciana, Galicia, Catalunya, and Navarra, Podemos will be running in joint lists. Without them, its national score would drop to the low teens.

As one commentator noted, Jacobinism has given way to geography. Plurinationalism — the conviction that Spain is, as Iglesias likes to repeat, “a country of countries” (un país de países) — has accordingly taken a prominent place in the discourse of Podemos.

The fourth and last hitch to the story of a straight line between 15-M and 20-D is the one that has attracted the most attention from progressive critics — namely what many perceive as the watering down of the party’s initial radicalism, not just in its mode of doing politics but in its program. This became a particularly public matter in the context of the resignations of Juan Carlos Monedero from the directorate of the party, and of an interview in which the political scientist and close friend of Iglesias — a staunch supporter of the Vistalegre turn — warned of the danger of becoming like one’s enemies, losing touch with the círculos, and so on.

The question of Podemos’s increasing moderation then crystallized around a debate regarding the watchword of “centrality.” Whereas Iglesias (with Errejòn and others) presented this in terms of a discursive struggle in which one defined the terms of the political debate, forcing the adversary onto one’s terrain, Iglesias’s internal and external critics countered that centrality was but a euphemism for centrism, or — in a more daring move — declared that centrality should take the form of rupture.

As the campaign wore on, this became a more frequent theme in the op-eds of the left online newspaper Publíco, but also in the critical interventions of IU (and Communist Party) candidate for prime minister Alberto Garzón, who, having once somewhat immodestly declared that he wouldn’t enter the Podemos list as though he were Messi being bought by another club, now accuses Iglesias of transformismo, pointing to the considerable watering down of Podemos’s basic income demands, the intra-systemic character of his neo-Keynesian program, but especially to the party’s stance vis-à-vis the foundations of the state.

As Garzón recently declared: “You can’t say no to war and yes to NATO, you can’t say yes to the 15-M if you say yes to the monarchy.” Iglesias and Podemos’s shift from a language of rupture to one of “regeneration,” and particularly his calls for a “new transition,” accompanied by a far more positive balance sheet of what he used to castigate as the “’78 regime,” have also raised hackles — especially as the new watchwords are largely shared (or Iglesias would say stolen, such being the price of victory in the discursive struggle) by Ciudadanos and PSOE, and even, with belated ineptitude and bad faith, by the PP.

Reason Without Strength

Turning to Iglesias’s writing on the eve of his much-anticipated test is a worthwhile exercise. What does it reveal?

First of all, a resolute will, even an obsession, with being done with defeat. Contrary to the largely presentist and instrumentalist populist theorizing of Errejòn, Iglesias’s book Politics in a Time of Crisis reveals a politician with a genuine desire for historical understanding. The book’s dedication to Iglesias’s father, is eloquent in this regard: “for having taught me, as Carlo Levi used to say, that the future has an ancient heart.”

Born in the very year of the democratic constitution, 1978, Iglesias’s relentless critiques of “leftism,” which make typically brisk and impressionistic use of Lenin’s pamphlet against the “infantile disorder,” are the counterpart of his sensitivity to and identification with the history of the left as a history of defeat.

As he declared in a TV debate:

I have defeat tattooed in my DNA. My great-uncle was shot dead. My grandfather was given the death sentence and spent five years in jail. My grandmothers suffered the humiliation of those defeated in the Civil War. My father was put in jail. My mother was politically active in the underground. It bothers me enormously to lose, I can’t stand it. And I’ve spent many years, with some friends, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking about how we can win.

Though he gladly underwrites Perry Anderson’s epochal diagnosis of defeat from the “Renewals” editorial that opened the second series of the New Left Review (the journal in which the two appendices to the book, an interview, and a programmatic essay, were first published), Iglesias remains genuinely concerned with accumulating a kind of archive of the twentieth-century left for the use of future generations, as testified by his impressive interview program Otra Vuelta de Tuerka, where he regularly undertakes hour-long, biographically themed interviews of key figures in critical thought and left politics.

While those with the likes of Antonio Negri, Thomas Piketty, and Chantal Mouffe reveal a somewhat star-struck Iglesias (this is after all a party leader who still records in all of his book bios having been taught by Butler, Agamben, and Žižek during an MA summer course at the European Graduate School in Switzerland), his dialogues with Spanish leftists, from historian Gregorio Morán to IU ex-secretary Julio Anguita, are a testament to his desire to situate the Podemos project within a critical history of the Left and of Spanish intellectual life more broadly — notwithstanding his studied distancing of the classic symbols and gestures of that Left from his political repertoire.

No accident, then, that the largest component of Politics in a Time of Crisis is a compressed sketch of the twinned histories of resilient Spanish oligarchies and valiant if repeatedly defeated left, worker, and anti-systemic movements. The at times wearying focus of the Podemos discourse on novelty, and its attempt to detach itself from twentieth-century political schemas, are here articulated with an archaeology of the populist polarization between the people and la casta, almost as if the tenuous thesis of an invariance at the heart of Spanish politics allowed Iglesias to vault the seeming discrepancy between the declaration of a new politics and his evident affective attachment to the values, icons, and indeed the defeats of the Left.

For the non-Spanish reader it is this political and historical specificity that marks out Iglesias and Podemos, not their theoretical vocabulary. The latter, for better and worse, is that of a generic post-1989 intellectual radicalism making a living in the academic precariat.

Žižek, Laclau and Mouffe, Butler, Agamben, Negri, Anderson, Harvey, Gramsci filtered through his contemporary interpreters — these references are now just as much at home in Madrid, Sydney, or Santiago as are the films and TV shows through which, in two entertaining earlier volumes (Machiavelli in Front of the Big ScreenWin or Die: Political Lessons in Game of Thrones), Iglesias tried to illustrate their political theories: Apocalypse Now, A Few Good Men, Amores Perros, Dogville, etc.

When, in an exorbitant preface to one of his books Alain Badiou enjoined his readers that (in grasping eternal truths) they could all say “I am Alain Badiou” one might have shrunk or recoiled, but there’s surely no end of thirty-something academics in Spain and without now saying “I could have been Pablo Iglesias” (or even Iñigo Errejòn).

Iglesias’s undeniable if anomalous charisma is surely also a product of this generic character, of embodying a kind of post-15-M everyman. Iglesias, rightly confident and indeed cocky (a quality recently muted in his effort to present a more presidential mien) about his capacities as a TV commentator — a domain in which he is pretty unmatched, and which he’s been able in part to transfer into the electoral debates — is admirably honest when it comes to the “modesty” of his theoretical contribution.

Yet he also prefaces his “divulgative notes” with characteristic swagger: “Here you have me, then — ready for a duel in the O.K. Corral, wearing my last grin as an enfant terrible. Make the most of it, because I won’t give you many more chances.”

Contrary to what this suggests, the cast of mind that emerges from these pages is deeply consistent with Iglesias’s public persona, even in his recent efforts at electoral moderation. For some, the geopolitical sketch of the mutations in the world-system spanning the financial crisis, melding Anderson, Arrighi, and Harvey, might jar with the decision to run an ex-general and army chief as an MP and have him declare Podemos’s commitment to Spain’s Atlantic duties. For others, the recent positive reevaluation of Spain’s transition to democracy will rub up against the pitiless description of it in Politics in a Time of Crisis as a continuity of oligarchies and a defeat of the Left.

But the fundamental parameters of Iglesias’s political action are unchanged. The conjuncture is marked by the secular defeat of the Left (not just in Spain) and an extremely rare opportunity for transformation provided by the specter of an organic crisis and the definite regime crisis in Spain.

This objective upshot of the 2008 global financial crisis has a specifically Spanish, subjective dimension: the mutation of common sense expressed and crystallized by the 15-M. This created an implicit new social majority for anti-austerity measures but — and this is crucial — it failed politically, or rather it failed to translate itself into the moment of politics. The autonomy of politics as a moment of power and the seizure of an occasion is Iglesias’s driving preoccupation, not the Laclauian populist hypothesis — though at times he echoes Errejón, populism appears in Iglesias more as an expedient discursive strategy, not as a theoretical commitment.

Though his orientation toward the socialization of democracy and the democratization of the economy is no doubt genuine, it is not an object of critical elaboration: direct democracy, the reorganization of production from below, the transformation of everyday life — these are not theoretical concerns for Iglesias, nor does he think they are on the political agenda.

What he stresses instead is the moment of realpolitik, raison d’état, power (whether, to use his metaphor, in the directly violent mode of boxing or in the circuitously strategic mode of chess; war of movement or war of position), the Machiavellian moment. As he starkly puts it:

Among the precursors or developers of these ideas are usually counted the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, Bismarck and Carl Schmitt. What such disparate figures have in common is their ability, within their different contexts, to understand that politics (or war) is basically the art of power, of how to obtain and retain it — and to say as much without beating around the bush.

Implicit in the book, and in much of Iglesias’s thought and practice, is the idea that the 15-M still needs its realist instrument. In the immediate wake of the 15-M some establishment politicians scornfully noted that if the demonstrators didn’t feel represented, they should go and form their own party. Iglesias likes to present Podemos as a way to make them eat their words.

Rupture, Transition, Refoundation?

In his preface to Iglésias’s recently published collection of speeches and occasional writings, La nueva transición, the journalist Enric Juliana (lauded by Iglesias as a “right-wing Gramscian”), having characterized Podemos as a “postgraduate school, pressure tool and power apparatus” for new radicalized generations, and mused about the “genetic traits” of Eurocommunism in Podemos’s political realism, aptly speaks of Iglesias’s “biographical urgency” — the sense in which it is not just Podemos but its leader that is tensed toward the question of power, eager to interrupt the endless sequence of defeats, however virtuous, and make a break with the corrupt bipartisan system that has ruined many Spaniards and blocks the path to any progressive transformation.

This urgency, in which the critique of defeatism is joined to the autonomy of politics, largely explains Iglesias’s scorn for “leftism,” which he repeatedly castigates for a kind of symbolic narcissism, but above all for failing to effect real change for the sake of its passionate attachments.

In the book, where the dissident IA current is obviously targeted but its name never pronounced, the contrast is with the PAH, as a model of truly transformative and radical civic change, organizing an extremely successful opposition to the brutal imposition of austerity while bypassing the ossified languages of the Left. There is truth in that comparison, and the appreciation of the PAH — arguably the only novel political form emerging from the crisis — is certainly welcome, but that truth might also militate against Iglesias.

Arguably, the PAH has understood the challenges of building a new common sense and organization with considerably greater nuance than what manifests itself in the talk of hegemony in Iglesias or Errejón.

What has been missing in this run up to the elections, notwithstanding the protestations of internal critics who called for a refoundation of Podemos into a movement party internally reflecting the direct-democratic inspirations of the 15-M, is precisely a sense of the building of a “popular subject” beyond the capacity to circulate, represent, and intensify a limited set of watchwords and programmatic commitments (casta, corruption, social rights, tax reforms, new transition, defense of the “public,” etc.) deemed capable of channeling the common affects of large swathes of Spanish society still buffeted by crisis.

The volatility of votes, but also the hijacking and emptying of certain signifiers by Podemos’s rivals, testifies to the way in which what is in the greater scheme of things a stunningly successful discursive and media struggle has not been matched by the cultural and subjective transformation that some have claimed for the 15-M and many wished to see at least partially embodied by Podemos.

Now, it is doubtful that either a social-movement-oriented refoundation of Podemos and the formation of a popular unity coalition would have improved Iglesias’s chances at becoming prime minister, or the overall scores of the alternative to bipartidismo and its new-look offspring, Albert Rivera.

Going back to the “O.K. Corral,” perhaps what Iglesias needs to hide is not so much the swagger but the pessimism of the intellect: the recognition that the strength of Podemos is not an expression of the social force of the 15-M, of a surging new common sense, but a complex refraction of the strength and weakness of that transformation, not so much a substitution as a precarious relay. In that sense there are strong material reasons, not least the immanent limitations of assembly politics, for the autonomy of a political moment.

But the urgency is only rationally and politically justified if a party like Podemos can serve, as Iglesias has declared it should, as an instrument in the consolidation of a much broader civic revolution, in which the party would be exceeded by and articulated with social movements and civil society.

In a somewhat unfortunate turn of phrase, in one of his recent interviews, where his old teacher Manolo Monereo mused about the pitfalls of “reformism in one country,” Iglesias observed that “we lost our virginity in Greece.” One of his refrains in Politics in a Time of Crisis, and in numerous interventions, is that social policies that sounds radical today under the pall of a neocolonial eurozone — and which make up Podemos’s program — would have been palatable to Christian Democrats only a few decades back. Postwar social democracy has taken a utopian cast.

Here we shouldn’t overestimate the discursive sources of this blockage of the political imaginary, underestimating its material enforcement: even Syriza’s moderated electoral program was battered beyond recognition, and a so-called coalition of the radical left now finds itself not just settling for “reformism” but implementing policies that make even some neoliberals blush (not to mention perverting any notion of international solidarity by sidling up to Israel).

Both in his pre-electoral speech in Athens by the side of Alexis Tsipras (whose preface weighs on this book) and in the pages of Politics in a Time of Crisis, Iglesias likes to quote a line by Salvador Allende to militants of the Chilean MIR, as reported by the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán: “We didn’t choose the terrain. We received it. We have the government, but not the power.”

Iglesias’s wager, and surely a hope even of many left skeptics, is that a Podemos victory (which today would perhaps mean becoming the principal opposition party), channeling the new common sense of the 15-M into a political transformation, could make a breach in a stagnant social and political arrangement. Behind claims for the continuity from 15-M to 20-D is perhaps the disavowal of a sociological pessimism (the new common sense does not go as deep as one imagined) that counsels political voluntarism, and urgency.

Chastising leftists (and praising the PAH), Iglesias declares that “what matters is the radical nature of the results.” If Greece has taught us anything it’s that no results, certainly no electoral results, are radical as such. It’s also conveyed, in the grotesque undoing of the Oxi victory, how damaging the demobilization of popular energies and affects can be.

Whatever the results of the 20-D, the problem of translating moments of mass opposition into durable forms of social and political life truly alternative to the regime of austerity remains on the agenda for Spain, as it does for many countries that either fleetingly or tragically experienced the upheavals of 2011. We didn’t choose the terrain. We received it. But we also have to change it, aware, in Shelley’s words, that all reforms are “trophies of our difficult and incomplete victory, planted on our enemies’ land.”

On Sunday, however the pieces fall, Pablo Iglesias Turrión and Podemos will have to find the way to live on their enemies’ land. Spain is certainly not Greece, nor is being a governing majority on Podemos’s immediate horizon. But many of the risks remain the same. Abandoning the doctrinaire or romantic certainties of the eternally defeated has its good reasons. Getting one’s hands dirty may be necessary, as long as you have control over them. Iglesias’s conclusion to his speech at the Syriza rally in Athens, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” now rings with depressing irony.

Without indulging any kind of parliamentary nihilism we can’t but recognize today that regarding taking elections, however significant, as synonymous with political occasions or transitions, is risky business indeed. Even if we follow Iglesias in admitting the necessity of a specifically political, or representational, moment, we will also need to reflect on the inevitable defeat of any rupture, transition, or indeed reform that does not foster the autonomy of political life beyond parties and parliaments.

“Power is power” is a line from Game from Thrones Iglesias has been known to quote. Among those lesson of politics which are so hard to learn, or rather relearn, is that power is not always power, nor victory always victory, and especially not in times of crisis.

However strong the comeback reveals itself to be on polling day, and Iglesias’s biographical urgency notwithstanding, the moment of politics that Podemos has been building toward will inevitably shade into an uncertain time of precarious coalitions and tenuous reforms in a country still wracked by the costs of the crisis and wrestling with constitutional legacies of the post-dictatorship transition. The social and political forces arrayed against austerity will need that slow impatience which alone can transform the very hostile terrain — institutional, material, affective, and not just discursive — which has been foisted upon them.

Podemos has made a signal contribution to deepening the crisis of the political regime. It will now have to show whether “regeneration” means rupture or restoration, whether the “new transition” is a repeat of the old (with Iglesias in the very unlikely part of former Spanish Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo) or the opening up of an unprecedented process, giving social and economic content to the 15-M’s call for “real democracy.” Those signifiers can’t stay empty for too long.