Spain: From Networks to Parties … and Back


The suc­cess of “cit­i­zen ini­tia­tives” like Barcelona En Comú in this weekend’s Span­ish munic­i­pal elec­tions seems to con­firm Spain and Greece as the – ten­ta­tive, but still hope­ful – “suc­cess sto­ries” in the global cycle of strug­gles that fol­lowed the Arab Spring. Yet one way in which their nov­elty has been inter­preted sounds rather old. If they sug­gest a model and a way for­ward, this nar­ra­tive goes, it’s because they’re sim­ply cases in which social move­ments dis­cov­ered what they should have known all along. This is, in short, a lin­ear, tele­o­log­i­cal story in which Greek and Span­ish move­ments would have sim­ply run the full devel­op­men­tal course from infancy (loose net­works and social protest) to matu­rity (party-build­ing and insti­tu­tional change) that was cut short else­where. From net­works to par­ties, the time has come to occupy the state.

This nar­ra­tive has three out­stand­ing prob­lems. The first is that it doesn’t quite tally with the one most move­ment par­tic­i­pants them­selves would tell; the sec­ond, that what we saw in Spain was not the growth of one, but sev­eral elec­toral ini­tia­tives with diverse com­po­si­tions; the third, that it’s badly posed.

Any talk of a shift “from net­works to par­ties” is badly posed because the word “net­work” func­tions in two dif­fer­ent reg­is­ters. A net­work is both a speci­fic orga­ni­za­tional form, like “party” or “fed­er­a­tion,” and a much more gen­eral descrip­tive term used to describe any group of peo­ple (or things) that are related to each other. If it could make sense, in the speci­fic reg­is­ter, to talk about “par­ties” replac­ing “net­works” as orga­ni­za­tional forms of choice, in the sec­ond case it sim­ply doesn’t. In the gen­eral reg­is­ter, not only should par­ties (and fed­er­a­tions etc.) be under­stood as kinds of net­work, shaped in a par­tic­u­lar way by their struc­tures, rules and dynam­ics; they should be under­stood as embed­ded in a broader back­ground which is best described as a net­work.

This may sound scholas­tic until we real­ize it has one impor­tant con­se­quence: it forces us to shift our way of think­ing from indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions to an ecol­ogy of them. Each orga­ni­za­tion, whether it is a party, a fed­er­a­tion or a loose affin­ity group, can be under­stood as a node in a broader net­work that will be sparser here, denser there, and can at any given time have sev­eral dif­fer­ent orga­niz­ing cores capa­ble of mobi­liz­ing a long tail of less active, less orga­nized nodes to dif­fer­ent ends – online peti­tions, direct action, vot­ing. These will tend to dis­play dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tional forms, more or less ade­quate to the kinds of func­tions they per­form within the broader net­work.

With that shift of per­spec­tive, the ‘mat­u­ra­tion’ metaphor becomes harder to sus­tain. Rather than an entire ecol­ogy mor­ph­ing into a sin­gle orga­ni­za­tion, what we have is new (or pre-exist­ing, as with Syriza) orga­niz­ing cores that grow in impor­tance within the over­all ecol­ogy as what can best per­form a par­tic­u­lar func­tion – in this case, insti­tu­tional pol­i­tics. This is pre­cisely how Span­ish activists have explained the recent elec­toral drift time and again: “we built a strong, diverse move­ment that was capa­ble of doing many things, but the polit­i­cal sys­tem wouldn’t move an inch; so we real­ized that elec­toral pol­i­tics was some­thing we needed to do too.”

In other words, rather than the net­work logic of com­ple­men­tar­ity being replaced with a logic of uni­fi­ca­tion demanded by accept­ing the cen­tral­ity of state power, what we have here is an exten­sion of the first logic into a field, the state, that had until then been rejected. The change lies, there­fore, in a recog­ni­tion that, as move­ments kept run­ning up against the lim­its imposed by an unre­spon­sive and increas­ingly repres­sive polit­i­cal sys­tem, the state also had to become a site of strug­gle – as a con­di­tion, in fact, for move­ments to be able to con­tinue their work. That’s quite dif­fer­ent from a rad­i­cal u-turn in move­ments’ con­cep­tions of social trans­for­ma­tion, which still go far­ther than mere pol­icy change or insti­tu­tional action.

It is not, then, that yesterday’s crit­ics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the state have real­ized the error of their ways and embraced elec­toral pol­i­tics as the only game in town, nor that they have for­got­ten about its risks. The elec­toral drift should be under­stood, rather, as both a symp­tom of the cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tive pol­i­tics and a strat­egy of con­trolled risk. The exist­ing party sys­tem had become so beholden to cor­po­rate and finan­cial inter­ests that it would carry on regard­less of a groundswell of social dis­sent, hold­ing on to the “legit­i­macy” afforded by elec­tions with (unsur­pris­ing, given the lack of real choice) low turnouts. In response, move­ments made a wager: that the risks of insti­tu­tional pol­i­tics could be staved off for as long as the new elec­toral alter­na­tives were suf­fi­ciently frag­ile as to remain under social con­trol.

This is what is most instruc­tive about the recent Span­ish elec­tions – which marked the growth not of Podemos as such, but of cit­i­zen ini­tia­tives that included it, not nec­es­sar­ily as the main force. Podemos’ sur­prise suc­cess in last year’s Euro­pean elec­tions imme­di­ately led in two com­ple­men­tary direc­tions: join­ing its local cír­cu­los (grass­roots groups) and/or join­ing the first stir­rings of the cit­i­zen ini­tia­tives that came to fruition in this weekend’s elec­tions. Whereas the first indi­cates an effort to secure social con­trol over Podemos from the inside, through par­tic­i­pa­tion, the sec­ond set it lim­its from the out­side, by forc­ing it to coex­ist and com­pose with other, com­ple­men­tary poles of power. The social legit­i­macy of cit­i­zen ini­tia­tives effec­tively pre­cluded Podemos from run­ning alone in big­ger cities, forc­ing it to par­tic­i­pate as one player among oth­ers.

Whereas the tra­di­tional, tele­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive would see “matu­rity” as putting all eggs in the one party’s bas­ket, then, Span­ish move­ments hedged their bets, cre­at­ing an ecol­ogy of alter­na­tives that, by bal­anc­ing each other, increase the pos­si­bil­ity of social con­trol. Since no-one can be sure of hav­ing a cap­tive audi­ence (such as Labour, PSOE or PASOK once enjoyed), would-be rep­re­sen­ta­tives must seek legit­i­ma­tion con­tin­u­ously, and so remain more account­able. If “hor­i­zon­tal­ity” and “ver­ti­cal­ity” cease to be sub­stan­tial­ized or con­ceived as prop­er­ties that nec­es­sar­ily adhere to cer­tain things or orga­ni­za­tional forms (net­works and “the mul­ti­tude,” par­ties and rep­re­sen­ta­tive struc­tures), it becomes a mat­ter of how to con­trol vec­tors of ver­ti­cal­iza­tion. In these terms, the rel­a­tive fragility of lead­ers is a strength for the grass­roots – a point which has in fact been made since the elec­tions by key Podemos fig­ure Teresa Rodríguez her­self.

That goes some way in explain­ing why Podemos’ rise has stalled in recent months. It’s quite accu­rate to describe it as a “star­tup party”: its small band of founders appeared when con­sen­sus around the need for an elec­toral alter­na­tive was estab­lished, and if thou­sands were will­ing to “invest” in them, it was because the party offered direct par­tic­i­pa­tion via the cír­cu­los, and because the more it grew, the more viable it seemed. In short, non-affil­i­ated peo­ple put their faith in it because it looked both cred­i­ble and con­trol­lable, in what was a unique case of “mass entry­ism.” The sub­se­quent move to side­line the cír­cu­los and con­cen­trate more power in the hands of party founders has left many feel­ing they’d lost con­trol over the party and its dis­course; damp­ened enthu­si­asm and dimin­ished par­tic­i­pa­tion have con­tributed to deflate the orig­i­nal ‘bub­ble’. The vic­to­ries of cit­i­zen ini­tia­tives, in which Podemos both played a key role and were not the sole pro­tag­o­nists, offer it both a new shot of enthu­si­asm and a sign which, if well read by its lead­er­ship, could inflect its tra­jec­tory in the direc­tion of greater open­ness, hence trust, hence also sup­port.

The advan­tage of rel­a­tively frag­ile rep­re­sen­ta­tives also offers a key with which to read the Greek sit­u­a­tion. After win­ning an elec­tion that it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have won with a pro-Grexit plat­form, Syriza now faces the choice of either betray­ing their anti-aus­ter­ity man­date or tak­ing the unpre­dictable road of leav­ing the mon­e­tary union. That their staunchly pro-Euro lead­er­ship seem increas­ingly will­ing to con­tem­plate the lat­ter option not only reflects the demo­c­ra­tic deficit of Euro­pean insti­tu­tions, and thus the broader cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, but the acknowl­edg­ment of a polit­i­cal weak­ness: the very real risk of polit­i­cal sui­cide that would result from capit­u­la­tion. That is a weak­ness that could very well turn out to be in the Greek people’s favor.

For rep­re­sen­ta­tives to remain frag­ile, what mat­ters at the end of the day is how strong social move­ments are; and therein lie many risks. Both the suc­cesses and the inevitable dis­ap­point­ments of the elec­toral drift could have demo­bi­liz­ing effects, dimin­ish­ing the pres­sure from below. Besides, win­ning elec­tions entails los­ing key move­ment play­ers to the state appa­ra­tus, and given the dif­fi­culty of get­ting elec­toral alter­na­tives off the ground, peo­ple might even­tu­ally grow used to set­tling for less – both of which lead to a loss of auton­omy vis à vis insti­tu­tions. Finally, whereas move­ments can afford to be com­ple­men­tary, par­ties are by nature com­pet­i­tive; it is in their nature to seek dom­i­na­tion over the elec­toral field, and so there is a limit to how diverse that field can remain.

As Pierre Clas­tres once sug­gested, the emer­gence of auto­cratic, unre­spon­sive and coer­cive forms of power should per­haps be explained less by them­selves than by the social field’s inca­pac­ity to con­tin­u­ously exor­cise them. Apart from how they deal with all the other chal­lenges fac­ing them now, how well Spain and Greece do in that respect will be one of the grounds in which they can be judged as offer­ing a model and a way for­ward.

This arti­cle was co-pub­lished with Plan C.

Author of the article

is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). He is the author of Organisation of the Organisationless. Collective Action After Networks (Mute, 2014) and edited a dossier on the 2013 protests in Brazil for Les Temps Modernes.