Book Review: The Dark Side of Podemos? by Josh Booth and Patrick Baert

Review by Federico Brandmayr

The Dark Side of Podemos? Carl Schmitt and Contemporary Progressive Populism by Josh Booth and Patrick Baert was published by Routledge in 2018.

Josh Booth is an academic translator and editor. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, specialising in social theory, political and economic sociology, and the sociology of intellectuals.

Patrick Baert is Professor of Social Theory at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Selwyn College Cambridge. He is the author of various books including The Existentialist Moment; The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual (2015); and The Philosophy of Social Science: Towards Pragmatism (2005). He is also the co-author of The Dark Side of Podemos? Carl Schmitt and Contemporary Progressive Populism (with J Booth, 2018); The Sociology of Intellectuals; After the Existentialist Moment (with S Susen, 2017); Conflict in the Academy; A Study in the Sociology of Intellectuals (with M Morgan, 2015); and Social Theory in the 20th Century and Beyond (with Carreira da Silva, 2010). He tweets @pjnbaert

Podemos has arguably been one of the most puzzling European political parties to emerge in the last few years. Founded in 2014 by a group of young intellectuals, most of whom were studying and teaching politics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the party has been defined by observers as populist, radical, and Eurosceptic, and a profusion of labels is currently used to capture the main tenets of its ideology: for example, The Economist has recently called it “a Leninist-Peronist outfit”. In their latest book, Josh Booth and Patrick Baert argue that it would be better characterised as a Schmittian outfit. Their book explores this connection, retracing the reasons why Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, Podemos’ founders, were inspired by Carl Schmitt’s ideas, and why this inspiration was successful in bringing the party to power.

Booth and Baert list a few features of the party that reveal a marked ideological affinity with Schmittian decisionism: the importance of a strong charismatic leadership for a political movement to succeed; a general dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and representative procedures; the aversion toward institutions, such as constitutions and high courts, that put limits to the will of the people; the inclination to use the tools of rhetoric and rely on emotions. But there are more essential and possibly darker sides of Schmitt’s political theory that feature prominently in Podemos’ discourse, i.e. the idea that politics is always based upon a distinction between friend and enemy, and that political action necessarily implies the existence of different collectivities confronting each other that are (or should be) ready to fight to the very end if need be. In this perspective, the collectivity Podemos has been trying to unite politically is the Spanish people itself. As for the enemy, the leaders of the party distinguish an “internal” one, that is “the elite of politicians and millionaires, la casta” (33), and an external enemy: the EU, a neoliberal bureaucracy captured by financial and political elites, notably German ones.

By pointing out the connection between Schmitt and Podemos, the authors claim that a paradox arises. How is it possible that a far-left political movement could trust Schmitt, a Nazi and a sympathiser of Franco’s regime, as one of its most important intellectual references? This leads them to a more specific question: why did two left-wing academics, Errejón and Iglesias, draw on Schmitt to construct the political agenda for their political movement? This requires a theory of how intellectuals think and act in contemporary societies, but also insights into the vicissitudes of Spanish history in the last century, its collective memory, and its social representations of the past and the future.

Booth and Baert offer a wide range of contextual elements that help to understand the connection: first, Schmitt had a long-lasting and profound relation with Spain, exemplified by his admiration of Donoso Cortés and by the lectures he gave there in 1962, forming what has been known as the theory of the partisan. Second, Podemos’ leaders encountered Schmitt during their education, notably trough contemporary readings of the German jurist: Iglesias studied under Giorgio Agamben in Geneva and both him and Errejón have been avid readers of authors such as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Antonio Negri. However, Booth and Baert argue that intellectual culture has only a limited explanatory power: rather, they suggest to focus on “more deeply rooted understandings of Spanish politics based in lived experiences that lie beyond the printed page” (41). In this respect, Iglesias and Errejón “imagine themselves as continuing the political tradition of the Republican left of 1931” (84), fighting against a treasonous political class and Germany’s economic (rather than military) imperialism. Such a reappraisal of Spain’s past is radically opposed, according to Podemos’ leaders, to the zeal with which mainstream parties have been trying to consign to oblivion the memories of the civil war, and with it the radicalism of the Republican left, thus following a tradition of forgetfulness that was initiated by Franco himself. For a new generation of left-wing intellectuals, the perspective of re-enacting the civil war is a way to obtain highly sought-after goods: the sense of sacrifice and hope, the confidence of fighting against well-defined enemies, and the feeling of belonging to a close-knit community. Schmitt’s decisionism offers the right intellectual tools to think of a form of political commitment that is conductive to these types of experience: “for the Podemos intellectuals, living through Schmittian political theory promises to end the boredom and frustration produced both by the immediate milieu of academia and by liberal politics” (6).

The Dark Side of Podemos is beautifully written. Many passages are highly inspired, such as when the authors write that “[i]f Schmitt stressed that politics necessarily risked the most extreme violence, this was because the pen he wrote with was shaken by the rattle of gunfire” (54). The authors also choose great examples from a vast material to make their case, so that an apparently anecdotal confrontation between Iglesias, Agamben and Judith Butler in Geneva eventually emerges as an important illustration of the fact that the former is much more radically Schmittian than the others. More importantly, the book contributes to open two important avenues for research for the sociology of ideas. The first is how, to what extent and why populist parties, which have become so prominent in so many countries at the European and global level, make use of social and political theories developed by philosophers and social scientists. This is paradoxical as populism is generally defined as being characterised by anti-elite sentiments and by a general distrust towards scientific and intellectual elites. Of course, left-wing and right-wing populist movements differ on many levels, including their relation to intellectual products and academic institutions. Nonetheless, The Dark Side of Podemos shows that there is an affinity between the party’s populism and Schmitt’s down-to-earth, disenchanted and over realistic worldview, which leaves little room for the placid and abstract idealism generally embraced by intellectual elites. This perhaps indicates that to the extent to which populists will uphold social and political theories, these will probably have a realist rather than an idealist outlook. The second promising point tackled by Booth and Baert is the political flexibility of theoretical frameworks: a theory developed by Nazi ideologist can serve to inform the agenda of a radical left-wing party just like, as the authors rightly note, radical right-wing movements have adopted theories developed by authors such as Antonio Gramsci. Claiming that social theories are politically flexible raises many puzzles: how can theories be identified and distinguished from others? How does one trace the line between the core and the periphery of a theory? How is it possible to compare political uses of theories that have taken place in contexts were the structuring political oppositions are different? While many of these issues still remain to be properly understood, Booth and Baert effectively make the case that Podemos’ leaders have been drawing selectively on Schmittian decisionism so to not incorporate aspects of it (such as an excessively rigid definition of friends and enemies) that would have made it impossible for the theory to adapt to a left-wing agenda. This last point is particularly significant as it allows the authors to make a normative claim about the role of populist parties: contra scholars like Jan-Werner Müller, who scorn left-wing populism as dangerous or useless, Booth and Baert argue that movements such as Podemos can be “the agent of democracy’s revitalisation” by promoting authentic participation and keeping elites in check.

Federico Brandmayr is a postdoctoral research associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge, where he works on the project “Expertise Under Pressure”. He is interested in the history and philosophy of the social sciences, the sociology of intellectuals and experts, the public perception of science and the political use of social knowledge.

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