“This is not a book about Podemos”, author Iñigo Errejón clarified during the launch of this book in 2016. In a way, he is right: the book is about broader political and philosophical debates. Nor is it merely a conversation between two political scientists—Mouffe and Errejón. Rather, it is a conversation with the European left about new ways of thinking about politics. What are the tasks that progressive forces and movements have to face in this specific juncture? Indeed, what is this specific juncture? And what strategies should they adopt? Hence, the book is structured around concepts used by Ernesto Laclau and Antonio Gramsci, such as “hegemony”, “antagonism” and “war of position”, among others.
On the other hand, a book about Podemos is precisely what this is; or, more accurately, it is a book in which this battery of concepts and debates interrogate Podemos as a new progressive force in Europe. And, in my opinion, that seems to be the underlying aim of the book: to let theory question the praxis and vice versa.
This book sheds lights on how Podemos theoretically conceives its own political practice; an often blurry if not ambiguous issue. Do its members think of themselves as left-populist, after Laclau’s conception? Do they even conceive themselves as a leftist party? And do they truly believe that they speak “in the name of the people”, as the title suggests?
The conversation involves two exponents well able to do this: Íñigo Errejón, the Political Secretary of Podemos, and Chantal Mouffe, a Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster and co-writer, along with Ernesto Laclau, of the renowned Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), a foundational milestone of the so-called post-Marxism.
Finally, this book has another appeal: it sheds lights on how Podemos theoretically conceives its own political practice; an often blurry if not ambiguous issue. Do its members think of themselves as left-populist, after Laclau’s conception? Do they even conceive themselves as a leftist party? And do they truly believe that they speak “in the name of the people”, as the title suggests?
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, hegemony and antagonism
Thirty years on from the publication of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Errejón and Mouffe debate the validity of the book’s main postulates and concepts for the politics of today. The main themes of their approach, forming the very heart of their discussion, are the concepts of antagonism and hegemony.
The Spanish hegemonic crisis, where “those in power still rule but no longer convince”, opens a window of opportunity to counter-hegemonic construction.
Hegemony, clearly associated with the Gramscian tradition, can be defined as the capacity of a group or sector to construct itself in the public interest—in the name of people—for a given period; its capacity for persuasion and the manufacture of consent; and therefore, the construction of the very terrain on which political disputes take place.
In order to establish a hegemony, it is necessary to identify the various groups and create a collective will among them; that is, to create a people, as we will see below. Those capable of persuading the majority to identify itself with their notion of the common good achieve hegemony.
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was written under the so-called social-democratic hegemony of the 1980s. At the time, the main standpoint of the book—according to Mouffe—was the need to reformulate the “socialist project” in terms of a radicalisation of democracy. It was an attempt to radicalise the welfare state and move social democratic hegemony toward a “pluralist democracy”. This vision postulated a rupture with the Jacobin tradition (abandoning the war of manoeuvre, in Gramsci’s terms) and orthodox Marxism in general.
With the arrival of a new hegemony, the neoliberal one (and the so-called post-politics), a question arose: what sort of strategy should the left pursue to create (counter) hegemony? This in turn led to another question: what kind of left could do this? Podemos?
The second key concept, antagonism, describes the existence of conflicts for which there is no rational solution. Mouffe argues that antagonism cannot be eliminated (“there cannot be a society where the possibility of antagonism has been eradicated”), but can only be sublimated under the form of agonism. While antagonism manifests itself in friend/enemy form, agonism takes place between adversaries (“opponents know there is no rational solution to their conflict and that they will never be able to agree, but accept the legitimacy of their adversaries in defending their position”). The fight, which she calls agonistic, is a fight to define the common good. Those capable of persuading the majority to identify itself with their notion of the common good achieve hegemony. And that is the central idea behind the populism premise.
Populism and the creation of a people
In On Populist Reason, Laclau argues that populism is a way of constructing politics. It is not necessarily linked to some specific ideological content; it is simply a mode of articulating demand that can take a wide range of forms. Furthermore, it is a mode of articulation that follows a logic of equivalence resulting in the creation of “a people” (a common good, according to Mouffe), through a chain of equivalence linking a multiplicity of heterogeneous demands.
Creation of a people (indeed, the original title of the book in Spanish is Construir Pueblo) seems to be the very bridge linking Podemos to the approaches of Mouffe and Laclau.
In the name of the people is a tricky expression. There is no people; or at least, there is a people in so far as people is a contingent construction based on an articulation of the demands of heterogenous subordinate groups. The antagonism (or agonism in this case) is fundamental in order to create a people (people vs the casta). Once a group can speak in the people’s name, it means that it has consolidated hegemonic power. And that is the ambition.
The Spanish hegemonic crisis, where “those in power still rule but no longer convince”, opens a window of opportunity to counter-hegemonic construction. In line with this view, Errejón and Mouffe discard Gramsci’s notion of a war of manoeuvre and instead appropriate his concept of a “war of position” to describe the struggle inside institutions. “Nobody with any pretension to win at some point can accept a definition which in the collective imagination is immediately taken to mean demagogy”.
Summing up, the book offers good insight into the main debates taking place not only in new progressive movements not only in Europe but also, to a certain extent, in Latin America (as covered in a section of the book). It also develops relevant and contemporary debates around the provocative and often blurry concept of populism. And it reveals a new dimension to the latest changes that have been taking place in European countries since the economic crisis, especially the rise of populism. Finally, it sheds lights on the political theories and strategies of Podemos and the new left movements.
Photo Credits CC Ahora Madrid
Also published on Medium.