• Discussion with Alberto Garzón and Íñigo Errejón
  • “If in Doubt: Populism”

  • 17 Aug 15 Posted under: Spain , Democracy , Theory
  • A discussion about Podemos and the dangers of populist politics.

    Both discussion partners see Spain in a 'populist situation'; however they interpret the stimulus of the 15M movement differently. Íñigo Errejón considers populist elements such as the term of a 'real democracy' or also that of the 'caste system' and how they are used in the Spanish discussion in order to mark the opponent, to be politically important. Such 'empty significances' (Laclau/Mouffe) are central to constructing a new 'people's will' (Gramsci), a common reference point to constitute the Subordinates. In contrast to this, Garzón refers to the dangers which accompany such constituted populist commonalities: these are necessary, very general and unclear in the analysis of the problems being dealt with. They also vary beyond the differences within the Subordinates. After the populist situation, however, the next steps must also be taken and perspectives actually combined. This is a big challenge.

    Íñigo Errejón: Populism concerns an articulation, a restriction. It deals with the capacity to produce a new totality. A totality which is more than the sum of its actors. It does not concern forging associations, rather a new intellectual horizon. It means establishing a new 'people's will', which can successfully claim to represent the collective interest. Hegemony is the capacity of part of the society to construct and embody a universal interest: a universal and transcendental idea. If this process is to be driven by actors and social groups who have previously played a subordinate role this always means tumultuous times, chaos, confusion and fear for the privileged. An expansion of democracy scares them.

    Alberto Garzón: In a situation where society collapses, there is no fixed anchor point from which a social class with objective interests could be determined. In such periods of transformation, a populist strategy can focus and channel different demands, this is true. However, subsequently there are the really decisive questions: those of strategy and 'where are we actually heading?'

    IE: Yes, interests do not simply result from the economy, geography or society. For this reason it is not about representing interests, rather about their construction. What we say about things produces sense. Politics is basically a fight for sense. This fight is carried out with certain elements. They work like 'ingredients', however they do not determine the ultimate recipe – that remains contingent. What the recipe actually looks like at the end depends on how the different elements are combined. Which elements are required to create such an articulation? Which significant actors could there be in certain moments to bear its legitimation without actually determining its actual meaning? The latter is always a subject of a fight. Democracy is probably the significant thing here which has been most depleted in the sense that it permits different interpretations. Nonetheless, it remains a universal bearer of legitimation. There are many further terms, such as citizenship, the idea of nation and national interests – all these are wide open termini.
    If the significant points are too broad and can take on any meaning, the internal antagonism is too strong. If they are too closed, they do have the capacity to contribute towards a sense of identity for a minority but they hold little temptation for others. Finally, this concerns which terms give legitimation to whom.

    AG: Democracy is a very clear example. When the countries of the so-called real socialism fell, the opposition used the same significant elements as the government – democracy and freedom. These elements are contested. You can understand them as spaces into which many different interpretations can fit. Freedom can mean negative freedom for a Liberal – 'freedom from something' ;  for a Republican it can concern positive freedom – 'freedom to do something'. This empty or also floating significant element leaves room for the articulation of a series of possibilities and therefore also for confusion. If a political strategy is then built on such empty significant elements and is thereby successful it is accompanied by a powerful hypothetical situation in regard of the next step. There is an inherent risk here.

    IE: Well, the existing institutions are incapable of giving a credible promise for the future to the people who do not feel they are represented. At the same time, there is no other offer which would integrate part of the dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, however, does not show itself as properly defined, it bursts its banks which are actually there to channel it – be it institutions or existing protest organisations. This is the populist situation. It enables the possibility to give diverse, reluctant dissatisfaction a shape. If all terms bear the possibility to take on new meanings, that is, if they do not have a fixed location, rather are always a subject of discussion, which political burdens should be traded here? I believe: all of them. But this is always the case. What I mean to say is: perhaps what is unnerving about this ghost of populism is the fact that the political discussions, in which the meaning of society is grappled with, are always open. This throws us into an uncertain process. Each regime constitutes itself by calling up a new 'people'. However, as soon as this has been constituted, the regime says to the people: go home, let the institutions work. This works for a while, however as soon as the institution and the available narratives no longer hold, a new collective – insofar as there is the opportunity to do so – can step forward. We are at this point.

    AG: The deterministic orthodoxy of economism has resigned, that is clear. However, one needs to be clear about the economic structure in order to prevent ending up with political volunteering with which we can only construct the world to the point where we would like to have it. Are we currently experiencing a populist situation in Spain? I think we are. We are in a moment of the construction of a neo-liberal, post-Fordist society of precariousness. This affects the young generation in particular. For the older generation, who were socialised under the political regime of 1978 and still have a few fragile safeguards, it is a sort of late-Fordist situation. Thus, there is a type of generation divide. We are experiencing a collapse of the increasingly drained institutions which no longer speak to the youth and also no longer correspond to their economic reality. This is an important aspect of the populist situation. Why would you burden yourself with hypotheses in such a situation? An example: a very effective and floating significant factor is the 'caste system'  [1] or, to describe it more clearly, the Oligarchy. Insofar the caste system is a floating significant factor as if I were to meet a doctor, baker or anybody else on the street who can project all their political demands onto this word, onto these significant factors. A burden for the future therefore remains completely unclear, who actually make up this caste? Who defines them and where are they defined? In political discourse the caste is often reduced to the political classes. This then applies as structurally corrupt. However, behind every corrupt politician is somebody watching over them. Thus, we must also speak of the financial Oligarchy. However, it does not only concern corruption but also structural power relationships which influence the economy etc. Thus, the term of a caste system created by commonality remains extremely vague. This is a problem. Ultimately, populism is a reaction ex negativo, not a project in positive action, such as socialism could be. Nothing that draws a person towards it. Populism can channel numerous dissatisfactions which are directed against a common opponent. Then what? At first, it seems  Laclauʼs hypothesis that the politically excluded are once again included, cannot be confirmed in Spain. Podemos receives a lot of encouragement but large parts of the popular classes stay away from the elections. Moreover, it remains open what would actually happen after a possible election victory [2]. One does not only have to win the elections but also be able to take the next step: what needs to be done following the elections and most importantly, what social basis will support this? Because there is one further burden: that of the strength of the leader upon which everything is concentrated, who will dominate the current and future decisions.

    IE: That is the basic question, which Laclau also formulated: how do we get out of dissatisfaction, out of the different sufferings to a common will which can reclaim the external horizon of universality for itself? Every regime is constituted by the fact that it makes certain suffering invisible. Only through a new dichotomisation, a new drawing up of boundaries between two groups, which is inherent in all transformational politics, is it possible to articulate suffering which could not previously be expressed politically. How the many demands and requirements will be articulated is initially uncertain. It concerns a continuous process of construction. It is this which makes Liberalism just as nervous as Marxism. Liberalism: because it wanted to conclude the history. According to Liberalism, every enforcement of universals is totalitarian. Full-stop. There are individuals who make rational decisions in the election market place. Conversely, a relevant part of Marxism states: no, if the universal should always be subjected to politics, if it were always subject to discussion, this would result in an incurable mess. And without any sort of solid political experience to support it, many Marxists maintain that the existing paths for political negotiations are the best. Apparently, we know here what is waiting for us at the end of the path. 
    However, even Socialism functioned primarily as a myth. Did the masses subscribe to socialist ideas due to a complete programme of transformation? No. The significant elements of it were a myth, that those without possessions could rule themselves. As well as the culture that this myth symbolised: the songs, the symbol, the flag, the promises of a different future. All of this constructed a fundamentally dichotomous promise. The difference is that its history at this point should have ended. A certain class, a universal class, should be predestined for this, to free themselves and end the story. However, there is not such an ending. The conflict remains part of the politics. It cannot be resolved but will always simply articulate itself differently. A sort of commuting movement: first there is an upheaval, the 'people', the subordinates rise up and with them a new will and then comes the moment of institutionalisation and vertical channelling, as no society can live in continual upheaval.

    AG: If what, up to now, have been certainties and securities dissolve, a window for new opportunities also opens up. Society tries to protect itself from this, as Karl Polanyi shows us in 'Die große Transformation' (The Great Transformation). We experience societal leaps which are, as Marx says, "All that is solid melts into air". We are presently experiencing such a moment. This is our 'organic crisis', as Gramsci would call it. Up to now there was a so-called middle class, or we should say, people considered themselves as such. These securities are lost. The search has begun. New meanings will be found. Why? Because the caste system is corrupt? Or because the social achievements have become superfluous for Capitalism on its path forward: public health, public education, all superfluous? The dissatisfaction must be directed. But to who? One also needs to provide an answer as to how things will be manufactured, distributed and consumed. This does not only concern the construction of a dichotomous political field and an opponent - the 'caste'. It also concerns an alternative or alternatives, which can rival with the ruling structures behind the political class.


    This discussion took place on 19th November 2014 in the Spanish television programme 'Fort Apache' by Pablo Iglesias, Secretary-General of Podemos. The German translation was initially published in the LuXemburg 22/2015 (July).



    Alberto Garzón has been an activist within the 15M or indignados movement. He is a MP for the United Left (Izquierda Unida) and with 28 years the youngest deputy in the Spanish parliament. In movements and parties he is working on the reorganization of the Left.

    Íñigo Errejón is a political scientist and campaign manager of Podemos. Behind Pablo Iglesias, he is considered the “number two” and one of their theoretical heads. Errejón has been active in the 15M movement.


    1. The 'caste system' was characterised as a central term for its political strategy by Podemos. It serves to determine the opponents and fulfils the function as a political element, that many can refer to with their concerns (note from German translator).

    2. The discussion was carried out before the local elections in May 2015 in Spain. For the situation after the elections cf. Candeias, Mario 2015: Demokratische Rebellion and similarly: Zwischen Marke und verbindender Partei.

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