On May 1st, Eduardo Maura from Podemos spoke at a conference organised by trade unions supporting the Right to Water campaign. He told participants that Podemos in Spain grew because it realised that ‘there was a new political space that was neither on the left side of the board or the right side of the board but at the centre’. His remark drew strong applause from one section of the hall but deadly silence from another. It was a glaring indicator of the different strands that composed the anti-water charges movement.
The theoretical argumentation that underlay Maura’s call was originally developed by a group of academics at the Complutense University of Madrid. These had been influenced by two former Marxists, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who re-worked the theories of the Antonio Gramsci, about ‘hegemony’. He had used this concept to explain how the viewpoints of the ruling class dominated the whole of society. (The unquestioned use of the term ‘competitiveness’ serves as an example because it shows how the mind-set of corporate executives permeates our very thinking. Why, we might ask, is there no equivalent term which values ‘co-operation’? ). However, while Laclau and Mouffe used the concept of hegemony, they dismissed all talk about social class and argued that populist leaders could construct an alternative hegemony. The intellectuals who founded Podemos adopted this approach and defined their movement as ‘neither left nor right’. They wanted to create an alternative common sense that pitted ‘the people’ against a ‘political caste’. However this also implied their politics had to be kept vague because otherwise one would have to enter the murky world about which social class might benefit or loose from specific policy proposals. The project of creating a political force that goes ‘beyond left and right’ ,therefore, depends on a slippery use of political meaning where what is unsaid becomes as important as what was articulated. Here, for example, is one of the Complutense intellectuals, Inigo Errejon, explaining the strategy.
We need, he argued, an understanding of politics as a battle for meaning, in which discourse is not that which is said – true or false, revealing or obfuscatory – about positions that already exist and have been constituted in other spheres (the social, the economic, etc.) but rather a practice of articulation that constructs one or another position, one or another meaning, on the basis of ‘facts’ that can take on very different significance according to how they are selected, grouped together, and, above all, counter posed. That meaning is not given but rather is dependent on clashes and balances.
One may need to read this academic-speak a second time for its meaning to become be clear. Essentially, it is suggested that politics is not about definite positions but how meanings shift and change according to the balance of forces.
There may appear to be a long road between the academy in Madrid and working class communities in Ireland but ideas and strategies from one movement can pass over to another. But in a country that has never had a proper, strong left, the call to go ‘beyond the left’ is misguided.
Let us, however, define what is meant by the term ‘left’? In the Catholic rhetoric that pervaded Ireland for many decades, the term referred to political movements that, in varying degrees, aspired to a version of the old USSR. ‘Left wing’ meant favour state ownership and lack of democracy. Even in that era this was a distortion of what genuine socialists stood for and it is certainly not what the modern radical left in Ireland advocates.
By left wing we, therefore, mean a politics that starts from the reality of class division and articulates the interests of the working class. That class is not simply confined to factory workers but embraces all who must sell their labour and whose labour is controlled by others. At a minimal level, ‘left’ means a re-distribution of wealth to favour workers. Most left wingers, however, go further and argue that the problems of inequality and economic insecurity arise from the capitalist system itself. Left politics, therefore, envisages a different way of organising society rather than simply managing capitalism. This new society must put the control of enterprises in the hands of the mass of people. This can only occur through an extended form of democracy – one that goes beyond the limited political democracy to include economic democracy as well. In simply terms, left wing equals more democracy and workers control.
There are three problems with the suggestion that Ireland needs a new force that goes beyond ‘left and right’.
First, it assumes that Ireland’s austerity regime was simply caused by a few corrupt politicians and greedy bankers. The remedy, according to this view, lies in the political sphere. One can either elect honest representatives who are not beholden to any vested interest. Or one can change the constitution to bring about regular referenda to make politicians accountable. There is some truth in this analysis because the political elite in Ireland are corrupt and the greed of bankers is insatiable. Regular referenda would also be a democratic improvement. The problem, however, is that even if the political establishment were honest and even if there were regular referenda, there are underlying structures that led to Ireland’s period of austerity.
The demands for greater profits in Irish banks, for example, was not driven solely by greed of a few executives but was hardwired into the system itself. Even if corporations were run by angelic figures that lived a life of absentenence, they would still try to gain more profit because, otherwise they would be destroyed by their competitors. The logic of capitalism is one of frenetic accumulation and therein lies its extraordinary drive for efficiencies – and its utter madness and irrationality.
When economic crisis occur, the state elite always tries to restore rates of profit because this is the very motor that drives the system forward. Where there is no profit, there is no investment and so the chaos of society increases. This inherent logic means, that despite its own rhetoric, the function of the state is not to serve the ‘common good’ but to serve the needs of capital. It also means that there cannot be purely political solutions.
Second, contrary to the ‘beyond left and right’ rhetoric, there is not one ‘people’ or ‘one nation’ but different social classes with opposing interests. As soon as one moves beyond blaming the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, for all ills – and she is responsible for some – and enters the world of specific proposals, this becomes clear. Take, for example, the problem of Ireland’s national debt and how it is to be solved. Are the multi-nationals who enjoy an effective tax rate of just 6 percent to pay up – or should there to be extra taxes on PAYE workers?
Should public sector workers get a restoration of their pay and conditions – or should they be regarded as a privileged layer? Should the national debt be repudiated – or must be we respect the rights of Irish and foreign bondholders? Beyond the issue of revenue and public spending, there is an even deeper left-right divide. Everyone agrees that Ireland’s calamitous economic collapse was triggered by a few top bankers but there are disagreements on its implications. If so few people can cause such chaos, should there not be permanent public ownership of banks? Or must they revert again to private ownership?
And, if it is necessary to have public ownership of banks, why not pharmaceuticals or insurance? The answers given to these questions shows the fallacy of talk of moving beyond left and right.
Finally, a politics that is neither left nor right is almost always linked to a desire for charismatic leaders. The term charisma was originally coined by the sociologist Max Weber who took it out of its original religious context. In Christian theology, charisma meant having a divine gift of grace but Weber used the term for leaders who had extra-special qualities. They were like the famous pied piper of Hamlyn who could whip up followers into such a frenzy that they forgot all about their material concerns. Populist movements need such spell binding because their political positions invariably contain ambiguities and omissions. Unless there is a leader who stands above the movement and is almost venerated, questions about these ambiguities inevitably arise.
In the case of Podemos, the need for a charismatic leader was built into its theoretical foundations from the very start. Errejon claimed that they innovative in their challenging the ‘ leadership taboo’ that charismatic leaders were incompatible with democracy. He added , ‘For Podemos, the use of the media leadership of Pablo Iglesias was a condition sine qua non of the crystallization of political hope that allowed the aggregation of dispersed forces, in a context of disarticulation of the popular camp.’ In more simple language, the charisma of Pablo Iglesias was needed to pull together a movement that was neither left nor right.
Once charismatic leaders are in place, they must develop an extremely hierarchical and centralised organisation. As the leaders are seen as the font of wisdom, they have to be allowed to pick their key staff members. The grassroots of a movement must be directly and constantly linked to the leader rather than having this relationship mediated by local branch structures. In an age of information technology, the simplest way to do this is through internet plebiscites. Instead of intense local discussions and choosing delegates to represent views, the grassroots simply votes on proposals framed by the leadership.
In the case of Podemos, this has produced a strange irony. It grew of the 15- M indignados movement that was inspired by the idea of participatory democracy and autonomous spaces. When the party was first established it was, therefore, built around local ‘circles’ that choose their own candidates and made their own decisions. But when Pablo Inglesias emerged as its charismatic leader, the influences of the circles decreased. Instead a structure emerged whereby Inglesias directly choose a fifteen person executive which was ratified by a citizen council who were chosen directly by internet voting. Local activists in circles gave way to a direct link between the leader and a more atomised mass membership. The logic of populism undermined grassroots control.
What Ireland needs today is not more talk about being ‘neither left nor right’ but a strong radical, anti-capitalist left that promotes grassroots action and democracy.