A Transformative Left Needs to Speak for People Outside the Palaces of Government

Left-wing forces in Spain, France, Germany and Greece all recently suffered damaging splits. They each stumbled over a common problem: how to influence institutions while focusing on priorities ignored by the dominant media-political class.

Former vice president of the government Pablo Iglesias (L); Podemos candidate for mayor of Madrid Roberto Sotomayor (R); and candidate for the presidency of the Community of Madrid Alejandra Jacinto (C) participate in a rally at Espacio Rastro on May 25, 2023 in Madrid, Spain. (Fernando Sanchez / Europa Press via Getty Images)

In 1975, just months before he was brutally murdered, Pier Paolo Pasolini was sitting on a terrace in the port of Ostia, today an outlying suburb of Rome. With a magazine in hand, the Italian filmmaker ruminated over what he should write in his column for the Corriere della Sera. He noticed that the weekly he was reading only talked about “important” people, those “serious” individuals who define history. When he looked up and saw the ordinary people around him, he asked himself where these highfalutin individuals were, where they lived. His answer was striking: “An unexpected idea, a lightning flash, confronts me with words which are, I believe, not only clear but anticipate my answer: ‘They live in the Palace’.”

Pasolini concluded that for the major Italian press outlets, “Only what goes on in ‘the Palace’ seems worthy of attention and interest: all the rest is minutiae, a swarming mass, shapeless, second-rate.” Based on this insight, Pasolini wrote his article “Outside the Palace,” which the brilliant Italian describes as the place where we find (political, economic, and cultural) power, its bearers, and its many courtiers.

This allegory drawn from Pasolini is perhaps useful in explaining what is happening to the Left today, in Western Europe and in my own country, Spain. And believe me — here in the Old Continent, the radical left is living through strange times. It is in government in Spain, it has been in government in Greece, it is challenging the powers that be in France, and in Germany it constructed an opposition force. And yet . . . in each of these four countries the parties of the Left have splintered, taking us into what I venture to call “the time of splits.”

So, I suggest it’s worth stealing Pasolini’s glasses from his terrace in Ostia. Looking through them at what has happened just might help us understand the strange moment we are now in.

The Left and the Palace: The Government in Spain

I am writing from Madrid the week in which the second progressive coalition government between the Socialist Party (PSOE, center left) and Sumar (a broad coalition of left-wing forces) was formed. This is a unique case in the West: a government between social democrats and the radical left, with communist ministers in the cabinet, too. In the last parliamentary term, such a coalition achieved some of the most progressive policies in Europe, which I think are worth illustrating.

In 2019, after a decade of massive mobilizations, the Left reached political power in Spain, driven by the development of a new party, Podemos, which tried to channel the spirit of the revolts of those times. The resulting government achieved new rights and social advances that would have been impossible had the Left not taken over five ministries. During the pandemic, the social shield deployed to protect workers, the self-employed, and small businesses was truly exceptional. But perhaps its best conquests were achieved in the world of labor and gender equality policies.

The labor reforms promoted by the Ministry of Labor, in the hands of a minister from Unidas Podemos (which was the Left, at the time) passed a labor reform that for the first time legislated in favor of workers and not employers. It restored union power by prioritizing sector-wide collective bargaining over company-level agreements; banned abusive temporary hiring, turning millions of temporary workers into permanent workers; and raised the legal minimum wage. In addition, it passed the “Rider Law,” giving full rights to hitherto rightless workers on digital platforms. It was the best labor ministry in Spanish history, making its head Yolanda Diaz the country’s highest rated political leader.

Alongside this, some of the most advanced feminist policies in the West were promoted, with the approval of the “Only Yes Is Yes Law” (whereby sexual aggressors have to prove consent) and myriad measures in favor of women and LGBTQ people.

Being dissatisfied is a favored method on the Left. And there are those people who quite legitimately question the usefulness of being in government. I am not one of them. Despite its great inadequacies (between what was achieved, what was frustrated, and what was possible), this was not a bad government.

Despite this, due to the huge media offensive against the progressive government (a constant throughout history), all forecasts pointed to the right and far right winning the general election this past July 23. So, before election day was over, I went to the headquarters of the left-wing coalition Sumar, with every intention of being a shoulder for my friends to cry on. When this prediction fell flat and the possibility of a new progressive government emerged, the feeling was not of victory, but of relief. And relief and victory are different things.

The new coalition government, this time between the Socialist Party and Sumar, has been formed with a commitment to reduce the working week from 40 to 37.5 hours. I still think even this measure alone would make it worth it. And yet . . .

The Time of Splits

Only a week after the new government was formed, Podemos — one of the main forces in the Spanish left — announced its split with Sumar. Their break coincides with simultaneous splits in the German, Greek, and French left; an exceptional situation, on which I base my assertion that these are strange times indeed in the European left.

In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht, the most popular leader of Die Linke, has left the party and announced the creation of a new one under her powerful leadership, intent on winning voters from the far right in the former East Germany. Meanwhile, in France, the left-wing New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), led by Jean Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise, has broken up just eighteen months after it won 151 MPs in the National Assembly. In Greece, after poor election results, Syriza (which governed the country from 2015 to 2019) began a process of choosing a new leader that has in turn led to a split and the creation of another party with the telling name New Left.

Of course, each of these are national cases with their own particularities. But when four splits in the European left occur at the same time, you can’t help but think that maybe there is one same tectonic rift causing each of them. There are multiple forces behind this divide, but I will highlight just one of them: the crisis of the left populism that emerged over the last decade as a proxy for popular revolts in response to the financial crisis.

The Year the Palace Shook

Let’s look back to 2011, when squares across the globe were filled with protests, in what French thinker Alain Badiou called “the rebirth of history.” Pasolini tells us that when the invisible get moving, or vote the way they are not supposed to, they can make “the Palace shake, causing tremors in the hierarchies of power . . .”

That year, the popular “swarming mass” took over squares from Tahrir in Cairo to Zuccotti Park off Wall Street, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Athens’s Syntagma Square. This provoked an earthquake — a medium-intensity one, yes, but an earthquake even so. These historic revolts (I steal the term from Badiou) transformed into electoral triumphs, at least in Spain and Greece. These revolts outside the Palace directly or indirectly gave rise to new left-wing formations that challenged for power.

Looking at the crisis in which these left-wing forces are today makes me think about the Palace carpet. Putting one’s feet on this carpet, and not being seduced by its softness, requires an ideological level that far exceeds the will of the individual actually making their entrance. It requires a movement that reminds them where their steps come from and, above all, where they ought to be walking toward. It depends on that collective intellectual to which another great Italian, Antonio Gramsci, appealed in the interest of creating hegemony. This collective intellectual is, I think, the very thing that our postmodern condition managed to ward off.

The ultraleaderships that characterize left-wing populism (Mélenchon in France, Pablo Iglesias in Spain, Alexis Tsipras in Greece, or Wagenknecht in Germany) may be useful for making electoral advances. But they require more fluid political formations than traditional ones. Here, the leader’s word is what counts, in a direct and almost unmediated relationship between leader and voters. This explains why, in the aforementioned splits, the common element (the seemingly inexplicable force behind each of them) is that they are not produced by insurmountable ideological differences. Rather, they owe to disputed interpretations about the form of the party, whom the party should be addressing, and who bears power within the Left.

I am not one of those who believe that strong leaderships are especially important to achieving common goals. Call me old-fashioned, but leaderships have to be built collectively rather than imposed from above. I suspect that in many cases they are the excuse that conceals a kind of enlightened despotism — not exactly the ideal form of exercising power.

To interpret the world from within Palace distorts their gaze, casts a veil over it. To use Pasolini’s stark words, it makes them preoccupied with “what goes on ‘in the Palace’; the lives of the most powerful people there, those who occupy the peaks of power. To be ‘serious’ means, apparently, to be concerned with their people, their intrigues, their alliances, their conspiracies, their strokes of luck and, finally, also, with the way in which they interpret the reality that exists ‘outside the Palace’ — that boring reality.”

By this, I do not mean that the Left’s problem is that it has ventured into the Palace. Rather, the problem is that it starts thinking from within the Palace.

The Embers of Postmodernity

It is well known that postmodernity abandoned the idea of changing the world. It is perhaps less well known that the postmodern offensive abandoned even the idea of understanding it. And that is what I believe happens when you look at reality from the Palace, prioritizing, as postmodernity did, form over content, communication over proposal, electoral campaigning over action.

From the Palace, the world is only interpreted through opinion surveys, as a strange and distant object. Pasolini warns us: “Italian intellectuals have always been courtiers — have always lived ‘in the Palace.’ . . . if they are concerned with ‘people’ it is through the pollsters.” But, he adds, the true history is “infinitely more advanced than our smug history, because the chronical of reality lies in what goes on ‘outside the Palace’ and not in partial interpretations of it or, worse still, in its dismissal.”

For the Italian thinker there is a diachronism, “an immense gulf” between inside and outside the Palace. Back here in Madrid, I would suggest that it is perhaps this “diachronism” that is causing the crisis in the Left, this “immense gulf” between what the Palace interprets and the reality in which those of us outside it live, create, and want to transform.

I worry, because, like all left-wingers, I tend to think that unity is a good thing, ever since Marx appealed to it in the final line of the Communist Manifesto. But today, I would venture that these splits in the European left are a consequence — perhaps not a negative one — that clears or corrects the path that has been trodden. That is my hope, at least, which I propose to you together with the following conviction expressed by Pasolini:

What happens “outside the Palace” is qualitatively, that is to say, historically, different from what happens “inside the Palace,” and infinitely newer, terrifyingly more advanced.

What I draw from this — handing Pasolini his glasses back — is that thinking from “outside the Palace” is also “infinitely newer, terrifyingly more advanced.” And this is a thought worth holding on to.