Our political and economic system is in crisis. There is a crisis of affordable housing, of decent jobs, of cuts to public services and cuts to social welfare provisions. There is a crisis of democracy which shows itself at every level from the impotence of local democracy through the county councils right up to the technocratic structure of the EU and the impenetrability of the ECB to any form of democratic input. There is a debt crisis of the states of Europe, precipitated by the financial crisis of 2008 which has seen enormous amounts of public funds diverted to paying private investors; investors who had gambled spectacularly found their losses covered by the public.
The water charges campaign in Ireland saw the first major evidence of a backlash to this state of affairs. People began resisting the imposition of a new charge, which was indicative of the spate of increases in taxation to the general public while public services were simultaneously being cut. However, despite the mass mobilisations and many climb-downs by politicians in direct response to this militancy, we still face momentous challenges in finding a way out of our crisis.
Power today clearly lies in the hands of multinational corporations and international finance. This view is widely held, with adherents from popular economic academics such as Piketty, to your average punter on the street. Any time someone stands up and says: “But we should tax the profits of corporations and investors so we can fund public services” we are told that this is impossible because it would render us uncompetitive. Each country is forced to provide the lowest corporate tax regime possible, all competing with each other to attract capital from one another. We find ourselves in an endless race to the bottom. The countries of the EU do not have any fiscal autonomy, and the capacity to “print money” to restart the economy is non-existent.
And while all of these facts about the invincibility of investors and the vulnerability of the public are well known, in Ireland there is no strategy to get out of our predicament which enjoys sufficiently widespread popularity that it might lead to an alternative. The articulation of egalitarian political alternatives is of course the historical role of the left broadly defined.
Public Discourse as the Alternative
Because of the weakness of the left in Ireland, many have looked abroad for inspiration. In other countries there are left wing movements which have significantly more traction and who have articulated an alternative. One of these is Podemos, a Spanish party which has come out of the social movements in Spain against austerity and which has grown meteorically. Since its foundation in 2014, it has managed to capture the imagination of between 15% and 25% of the electorate according to polling data. Because of this rapid rise, it is of particular interest to those impatient for change.
The main thrust behind Podemos is an idea that a major, perhaps even primary problem of the left is the inability to communicate effectively with the electorate. The thesis is that our difficulty is in essence a question of proper messaging. Podemos are not the only group to propose such an idea, but they exemplify the approach, and are certainly among the most successful in demonstrating it. Further, the approach taken by Podemos has been theorised, incorporating ideas from the Latin American left, from the theorists Laclau and Mouffe, and Podemos’ own Íñigo Errejón.
The messaging of Podemos, which they have theorised as a counter-hegemonic narrative, spells out in both abstract and concrete terms a means of contacting the public imagination. It echos Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about creating a discourse with the potential to communicate a new “common sense” with a new “historical subject”. The new “common sense” is meant to articulate in simple terms the broad discontent that people have with their subordination to elites, and the new “historical subject” are the people who find themselves currently powerless, but who could become the protagonist for transformative change.
Part of the concrete strategy taken by Podemos is the promotion of universal values, such as peace, equality and solidarity. The other is the promotion of democracy and a highlighting of the attenuation of democracy in various spheres. These approaches follow closely on the theories of Laclau and Mouffe. ￼￼Laclau and Mouffe attempted to overcome what they judged the archaic dichotomy between working class and capitalist class. For them, for any theory to have the capacity to be “non-alienating” – ie not creating a false “other” – it would have to be based on universalisms. At its extreme this has led even to arguments of abandoning the left/right dichotomy in politics as old and outdated.
There is also a highly technical (and indeed, empirical!) component to this approach, which seeks to utilise knowledge of mass communication, of sound-bytes and imagery and of distillation of message, in such a way that it is most immediately palatable to the greatest number of people.
In addition, Podemos has an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of the party form. The widespread discontent among the public regarding the political choices that they currently have (in both Spain and Ireland), the consistent shift to the right of the previously social democratic parties, and the widespread feelings of powerlessness have given rise to a general antipathy towards political parties. People feel that political parties and politicians don’t represent them, that they are not trustworthy, and that they are, at the end of the day, worthless from the standpoint of making their voices heard. Podemos has attempted to “square the circle” by casting itself as a new type of social movement, one capable of articulating a programme and of engaging people in politics, but not in the old way. Theorists attempting to square this circle have, however, failed to articulate what sort of pragmatic techniques are necessary to improve the internal functioning of parties, or indeed, how we would know if we saw an improvement. It presents itself as a critique without putting forward a constructive solution aside from vague platitudes about participation and engagement and in not doing things the old way.
The Alternative Alternative
It is clear that there are numerous truths to be found in the critique of discourse which Podemos has promoted. It is a fact that the left has done a terrible job at capturing the public imagination in recent times. If left ideas are to take hold, it’s clear that they must be made popular. Certainly the technical approaches to messaging are not just a reasonable idea, but a necessity to compete with the general narratives which support the status-quo, and by extension, the elite, whose voice we hear daily in the media.
It is pointless to throw up unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of an idea. If your method ensures that you cannot reach anyone, then the method is itself worthless. History should teach us that the accuracy or truth of an idea does not in itself demand that it is accepted any more than the erroneousness or falsehood of an idea ensures that it will find no currency.
The way in which something is said may be important, but even more so is what is being said in the first place. What, in fact, are the ideas that are being promoted? Which ideas are capable of transformative change is not merely a matter of what can be widely accepted. Popularity is an absolute necessity but it must be the popularity of ideas which are in fact capable of transformative change. Populism is the attempt to build popularity around ideas which are “common sense” and find broad acceptance without too much attention to analysis. A project capable of changing the current state of affairs requires getting below the surface appearance, to the root causes of our powerlessness.
What of the promotion of the universalist values of democracy, equality and solidarity? These concepts should now be quite familiar as the clarion call of the French Revolution. They are republican values which have enormous merit – demands which were made in opposition to autocratic rule of absolutist monarchies and the power of the church. They are not, however, capable of forming a new counter-hegemony in and of themselves, or providing for the formation of a new historical subject. Far from being new, and set in opposition to the old ideas of the socialist left, these republican values were incorporated by the socialist left as desirable and necessary pre-conditions, but insufficient in themselves. At this point the idea of the liberal republican values of the French revolution providing the impetus for transformative change without taking on the question of class and capitalism is well past its “sell-by date”.
Perhaps even more problematic, our enemy is not clearly expressed in the political verbiage of this republican universalism. The elites and those opposed to democracy are often identified as the antagonist. However, this could easily be interpreted as the corrupt, the bad capitalist, or the irresponsible politician or simply the immoral. The enemy which is destroying democracy needs to be made much more clear – it is our economic system itself and those who seek to ensure we remain in a system which elevates the domination of profits over people.
The Big Idea
There is an idea which is capable of reconfiguring society in such a way that we eliminate the institutions and processes that are the real cause of our powerlessness. It is not a new idea, though it is newer than republicanism as it is an historical development which arose from it, incorporates it and extends beyond it. It is the idea of socialism. That is, the democratic control of the economic sphere through public and accountable institutions which manage investment and production. This idea grabs the nettle and goes to the core of our predicament. If democracy slips from our grasp because of the control of corporations and finance, investors and technocrats, then surely the solution is for the control of investment and management of the economy to be in the democratic sphere.
This big idea is difficult and uncomfortable precisely because it is talking not merely about extracting concessions, or a better fairer way within the present system, but it actually seeks to completely depose the oligarchs of the modern age. It goes beyond universalism and lays out precisely what the enemy is – capital. Such an idea is, however, an immense threat to present power precisely because it goes to the root of where elites get their leverage. While it is possible to present the idea in a form palatable to the public, the media will not give the type of space to the notion of socialism that they do to republican ideals and values which our modern political states are founded upon. Democracy in the west is taken as a given, and while it is weakened, deflected, and sometimes outright ignored, modern Western state formations rely on the existence of some level of democracy for their own legitimation, and therefore must tolerate, at the very least, the expression of these concepts. By contrast, socialism is not a foundational principle of the modern western states and will not enjoy any lip service from elites.
The socialist idea is that our democracy doesn’t function, not because it is politically undemocratic (though it may be in various measure), but because democracy itself is limited by another dynamic: the ability to command investment, and thereby jobs, housing, food, transport, and the entire production system which we rely on for our existence. The group which controls investment is a class who make their money through profits, and they are sometimes called investors, bankers, financiers, stockholders etc., but in more archaic and blunt terms, are known as the capitalist class. The solution is therefore to democratise the system of investment itself, so that the social surplus (all of that which is produced and not directly consumed) should be directed by the public, for the public benefit, rather than the aggrandisement of the rich. This would be an elimination of the most fundamental class distinction in our society.
This task must be undertaken in the main by the large number of people who do not obtain their livelihoods by way of investment. It would hardly be reasonable to see these investors as the group which abolish themselves. This other group, the group which makes its income by working, or as dependents of those who work, is the working class.
This story, the socialist idea, is “counter-hegemonic narrative”, the “new common sense” that Gramsci was talking about. The protagonist of this narrative, the “historical subject” was the working class. This thesis is not simply a discursive method that can attract popularity, it is an ideology, and it is the ideology which directs the way in which we look at messaging. It is the idea which must lie behind the message we seek to popularise.
The idea of socialism gives us the goal to which we should navigate. A navigator does not merely plot a straight line course from where they are to what they want. They take into account the features of the terrain, and carefully find the best route possible to achieve the goal. Similarly, merely taking the most convenient route possible without thinking about where we want to go is not navigation, it is aimless wandering. We have a duty to do more than proclaim the existence of a destination, or to begin hiking without a clue where we are going. We have to make the aim clear, look at the features of the social terrain and help to gather people together to get to this destination.
In terms of communication, this means we must go beyond merely “talking about socialism”, we have to make socialism the common sense as the aim to which we aspire. The route to making socialism the common sense comes from demonstrating where capitalism fails to provide for the common good in peoples own lives and offering it as the only real antidote to these problems. There are of course the well known examples of where investors, corporations and the rich use their money to dominate politics. However, there are also more mundane things such as the fact that health care is more profitable the more sick people become. That caring for old people is merely a drag on profits from the perspective of investors. That privitisation of bin services leads to dumping and decreased wages. That public transport makes transport faster, less energy intensive and increases the overall efficiency of the economy, yet is less profitable from the standpoint of individual financiers and so is undesirable. Anywhere that the common good contradicts the ability to make returns on investment, our system sides with the investor.
We must also remember that we’re not the only one talking to people. What we say will be heard in a context of five, six or even many more opposing messages for every one of ours. So we position ourselves not only in relation to our own analysis and messaging, but also in relation to a series of others. In a similar way, our messaging positions itself in relation not just to what we tell people now, but what they have heard about us historically and what we have done historically. Our aim is to achieve the correct communication – not simply to say the correct thing. This means that we start from what we know to be people’s assumptions, think about where we want to go, and phrase our ideas in the way that achieves that result. Ultimately messaging is important, but the message must have content.
Values and the Retreat From Class
Within the Podemos thesis, in other groupings such as Claiming Our Future, and more broadly in various populist and social democratic circles, there has been a focus on values first. The story goes that instead of getting bogged down in the method or strategy for change, we should assemble on the basis of what things we would like: again, ideas such as democracy, equality, responsibility, accountability etc.
This is not a new approach in the least. In 1993 the Fabian society, in a pamphlet written by Tony Blair, promoted the idea that the Labour Party should remove Clause IV from its constitution as it confused ends with means, and that it should rather be replaced with a set of values. This move lead to the elimination of Clause IV, and indeed, the massive shift to the right of the Labour Party. As we can see from the text of Clause IV below, its removal, was a move away from the socialist idea.
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
– Clause IV, Labour Party Manifesto
In order to obtain a route out of our present situation we need to come together not merely on the basis of values, but on how we can enact those values. The aim which we seek must again be made clear, we need democratic control of the system of production and distribution and an end to the dictatorship of capital over the production system, and by consequence, politics. An organisation which merely asserts the desirability of nice things is not enough.
This is not to say that the leadership of Podemos are in the mold of Tony Blair in the least. The leadership are in fact, for the most part, dedicated socialists. However, the replacement of class and socialism as the core of a left project leads to serious dangers from the point of view of creating a transformational movement. Without the project being socialist, the leadership of Podemos will find themselves hoisted by their own petard, unable to move a group assembled on the basis of something other than socialism to enact socialism.
Putting Out Fires
If your neighourhood was experiencing a fire, you would not gather people together for the purpose of being opposed to fires and the elevation of the principles and values of fireless neighbourhoods. The organisation necessary is a fire brigade and an active strategy to stop the fires!
Similarly, we need to organise, and we need to organise on the basis of what needs to be changed. This doesn’t tell us where to get our metaphorical water, but it at least is pointing in the right direction of organising ourselves to put the fire out.
There is no point in attempting to square the circle around the question of organisation. The party form is an organisation on the basis of an ideology: in this case, the ideology necessary to achieve transformative change.
Despite being unfashionable, stating the necessity of party organisation outright has a number of important advantages. If an organisation forms itself in an explicit, and self-aware manner, it has the capacity to be far more democratic, to organise more coherently and to avoid confusion among its membership. Those who engage in the project know what the project is about and the direction that it hopes to go. Their input and engagement can be constructively harnessed as a collective project.
This is not mere theory. Podemos is already suffering significant problems due to their ambiguity regards organisation. For something that purports to be a new participatory approach to the inclusion of social movements in politics, the leadership is oddly unaccountable. A number of prominent members are now running for elections on lists which the leadership has not endorsed. A large section of the membership has felt alienated from the direction being taken and while Podemos saw a meteoric rise in the polls; the prospect of them in power has turned the media against them when previously it was being less abusive.
We do not have money, but we have numbers. However, those numbers can not be effective without effective cooperation and effective cooperation means effective organisation. The party form is precisely cooperative organisation on the basis of a collective political objective.
We have a long way to go in Ireland before socialism is a widely held and popular idea. Despite the recent rise in public protest, coherent organisation is very thin on the ground. Socialism is certainly not the most common idea out there, and instead anti-institutional and anti-austerity rhetoric which lacks a core demand aside from antagonism is far more common. These facts should countenance a strategy of patience. We need to build up our forces carefully if we want to have a chance of winning.
There is a rationale for the emphasis on democratic norms which Podemos takes – democratic norms were hard won are deeply rooted and rightly prized. However, Podemos do not make clear the reasons for the attenuation of democracy and what will allow us to have a real flourishing democracy. Democratic norms should be used as an example of what capitalism does not give us and we must look at the economic root causes that this be so. There can be no democracy without democratic control of the economy and the power of finance capital can not be stopped by merely extending formal political democracy; it must mean democratic control of investment, production and distribution.
This emphasis on socialism requires activists to engage in organisation to promote these ideas. Explicit organisation with explicit aims of influencing the population and the various peoples’ institutions, from trade unions to community groups is a precondition of success. Anti-politics and anti-organisation gives us no cooperative base from which to fight. If we cannot learn to fight together we will necessarily fail.
Easy answers which launch vague left projects will not be capable of providing a sound basis for a popular socialism. Without popularity, it is not possible for a democratic socialism to exist at all. Likewise, a popularity without socialism will lead to a useless cul-de-sac. We should not be afraid to join together in organising working-class-lead institutions to get socialism. We must not be afraid of the party form and socialism if we are going to win the fight for democracy itself.