The Populist Debate in Spain After 20-D. Draft Paper for MLA 2017. By Alberto Moreiras.

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I think the clear and distinct crisis that has seized Podemos over the last few weeks makes it necessary for us to reflect on it, in anticipation of the Vistalegre 2 process that will take place in February. Vistalegre 2 could become a make or break moment for Podemos even if it does not solve anything. But there is a way for situations that apparently do not solve anything to become decisive in the medium term. Political passions are running high. And yet one gets the feeling that, if the different actors were to hold back for reasons of restraint, in order to save face, or to save the party from itself, then nothing real will be accomplished.   Things would only have been deferred for a later reckoning. I think it is this later reckoning that should be the reference for us.

I do not pretend to have any clues other than what I read in the press or in the internal party debates—I do not live in Spain, so I do not even have normal or easy access to tv and radio programs where so much of the more relevant political discussion today actually takes place.   So the following remarks are only my own initial contribution to the discussion that may happen—in the understanding that there are many factors we cannot provide a proper account for: it is too early. I will not claim any particular authority as a potential theorist, for example. I am simply observing events, although I can only do it as an interested spectator, hence, from my own perspective.

But let me start off by venturing the gut feeling that I do not think Vistalegre 2 will really solve anything even if it does seem to do so—the situation is now rather too vertiginous, too confusing, and there is little doubt that most of its actors will probably adjust their positions but only on grounds of prudence and political effectiveness, that is, tactically or rhetorically.   It is probably too early for political truth, or for a political truth that will damage the party, perhaps terminally. We will see those calculations taking place during the Vistalegre meetings, and of course things will happen, but in my opinion whatever happens will not be decisive—it will just open another stage. My hope is that in the medium term this crisis will prove to be a positive one, and that it will consolidate Podemos as a serious political party with a clear shot at becoming a preferential option for government.   But that is only a hope, and I am not at all sure it will come to safe harbor. The stakes are very high. Yes, this is a dangerous moment, a defining moment, but I think the definition will not happen instantly. Vistalegre will only be a factor in the story, even if it has significant, even scandalous political repercussions. Or even if it doesn’t.

Let me suggest two possibilities that are equally fraught with danger for the future: in one possibility, Iglesias wins and he continues to be the leader on the votes of faithful followers plus a number of people that decide it is important to keep Iglesias’s leadership in place because Iglesias’s leadership brought the party to its present situation and it would be too risky to do without him.   If the number of people in the second category becomes too significantly high, this would be a hollow victory, a damaged victory. Iglesias would continue to be the leader of a party where a significant number of people do not believe in his leadership, no longer do, but are willing to sacrifice their thought for the sake of political unity and a dream of effectiveness.

In the second possibility that potentially significant sector of people whose preference takes them elsewhere decide to act on their position. They shift their votes to Errejón, for instance. Iglesias loses and the party pretty much splits down the middle. Errejón becomes the new leader, and he is asked to become the new secretary general.   The pablista faction becomes disgruntled, they are resentful of the new leader and their followers, they talk about betrayal, a yielding to obscure regime forces, a Bourbonic restoration, a swerve to the right. It will be a matter of time before the party splits. Podemos will effectively have lost its chance as an alternative for government, and the political scene will change considerably.

As I sit down to write these six or seven pages, I read two press items. One of them, in El País, is a report of certain recent declarations by Miguel Urbán, the leader of the Anticapitalista faction or family, which, as we know, has about 10% of the votes within the Podemos general membership. Urbán claims to be incensed at what he calls the “soap opera” between Iglesias and Errejón, a rift, he says, ridiculous in nature, similar to what may go on in a “school yard,” a merely whimsical “power struggle” which is causing great “disaffection and disappointment” among the voters and the militants.   Urbán says he could not care less whether Iglesias and Errejón get along with each other, that that is not important. He thinks the discussion must become “political,” implying that what is going on is anything but political. This is what interested me in the press item: the pretension that the conflict between Iglesias and Errejón, or between pablistas and errejonistas, is anything but political, because it is merely about party power and party control.

As it happens, at the end of that report on Urbán El País adds an unsigned editorial note referring to an opinion piece by Juan Carlos Monedero in 20 minutos. The opinion piece is titled “If Iglesias falls, Podemos falls (and you get fucked).”   What is surprising is Monedero’s analysis, or rather the lack of it. He claims that, behind the dispute between Iglesias and Errejón, we have a regime or system conspiracy: “the impenitent attempt of the system to finish Podemos in any way or manner.” One imagines this is presented as one of those opinions that are true or as one of those truths that disguise themselves as opinion, because Monedero offers no explanation. He simply states his case and then says: “Fortunately, grandma Teresa came by and told everybody to shut up.”

Both Urbán and Monedero could probably be said to be closer to Iglesias than they are close to Errejón.   It is noteworthy: both of them claim that the errejonistas either have no political position or have a position that is only political by default, as they are toys and tools of undoubtedly political forces that manipulate them. Their politics is a form of antipolitics.   They are merely seeking power. They are or would be playing a politics of antipolitics in their expressed opposition to the present party leadership.   The only possible politics, therefore, is a politics of party unity, a politics of community, a politics of faithful allegiance and fierce support of the leader that has already brought them to a kind of collective power, and that it is only through it that proper politics can then open up. It is only through the reaffirmed and unconditional unity, against the regime, against all kinds of external enemies (any internal enemy is immediately a toy of the outside: any internal enemy is by definition an external enemy), that Podemos can revert to proper politics and discuss, in Urbán’s terms, “evictions, the banking rescue, illegitimate debt, basic rent, or human rights.” Grandma Teresa would have made that clear. Who is Grandma Teresa?

Monedero is of course referring to a character Iglesias brought up in a rather perplexing document, a “Letter from Pablo Iglesias to Teresa and to all the people of Podemos” sent by Iglesias to the membership on December 28, 2016.   The first part of the document refers to a video sent through Whatsapp from Teresa Torres, a 76-year-old-woman that Iglesias immediately calls “Podemos’ Grandma.”   In the video Mrs. Torres scolds Pablo for the “trouble” they are having and reproaches them: “No estáis todos a una como en Fuente Ovejuna” (“You are not all together like they were in Fuente Ovejuna”). Mrs. Torres then adds that “sabemos que eres el que tiene que estar. Pero es que, si no te ayudan los demás y empieza a tirar cada uno por su lado, eso es una jaula de grillos” (“we know you are the person that must be there [that is, the leader]. But if the others do not help you and everybody goes his or her own way, that is a cricket cage [a madhouse]”) Iglesias then confesses that “[se ha] quedado hecho polvo” (“[he] was crushed”) by Teresa’s message and felt forced to write a letter to the general membership asking for forgiveness. The letter is based on the refrain “forgive me for making you suffer this shame,” a sentence that is repeated four times in order then to make the point that “your dignity and the dignity of this project are above any political position.”   Let me retain two things from this letter: the idea that it would be, somehow, better to be “todos a una como en Fuente Ovejuna,” and the idea that the dignity of a political party should be above any political position. It is Iglesias himself, here, who invokes an excess from politics, something that should be beyond politics, beyond political conflict: dignity, the dignity of the party. And one gets the sense that, here, the beyond-politics is the very goal of politics: community, unity, consensus, unconditional acceptance of the leadership.

It is starting to look to me as if the iglesistas are coalescing around the notion that community is superior to politics in a very specific sense: any politics that attacks unity, the internal unity of the party, is immediately disqualified as antipolitical. Politics, then, can by definition only be conceived as community-building, anti-politics is, however, community-shattering. Discussing evictions, the basic rent, and human rights is community-building, but discussing Iglesias’ leadership is community-shattering.   The party’s dignity is not compatible with a public discussion of internal structures of power—an open discussion of internal administration, in other words, to the extent that it questions present leadership, or the practices of present leadership, is inimical to fuenteovejunismo, and fuenteovejunismo is the coalescing glue and the very goal of political development.

It might be time to appeal to some other conception of politics, and of political success: a politics that abandons any kind of fuenteovejunismo as a founding principle. This will require a fundamental revision of hegemony theory, and the very dubious extension of hegemony theory into the personality cult of the leader, which has many times been referred to as “hyperleadership” or “mediatic leadership.” From an overly inflated notion of the importance of leadership we can only move towards a hyperinflation of the importance of community, which is, in itself, the true antipolitical notion. In my opinion, the future of Podemos hinges on this, perhaps not so much in the short run, to the extent I doubt Vistalegre could have a frank and open discussion on these issues, but certainly in the medium and long terms.

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