Claude Lynch examines the big theory behind Spain’s larest political upset.
I should open with a confession: this piece has its roots in my dissertation, a literal and metaphorical piece of work that I’ve been writing for a year and a half. Turning it into a piece for Pi has raised interesting questions, like “is this really a good form of procrastination?”, “where did 18 months of my life go?” and most crucially “can you cite yourself?” Any good humanities student will tell you that the answer to that last question is almost certainly yes – but before I incriminate myself any further, on with the show: you’re probably here about the chess boxing. I promise I won’t be edging in on Pi Sport in the slightest here. Come for the idiomatic sports references, stay for the hot political commentary. Podemos, if you haven’t heard of them, are the biggest success story in European politics since our last big bout of populism. And chess boxing is why we should take them so seriously.
A short history lesson. Back in the 1930s, there was an Italian philosopher by the name of Antonio Gramsci. The man was imprisoned by Mussolini for a) not being a fascist and b) writing about how much of a fascist he wasn’t. Because of this sombre life story, Gramsci’s most famous work is called the Quaderni del carcere, or “the prison notebooks”. They were loaded with musings on politics, society and philosophy, but the idea that people hold onto today is Gramsci’s theory of political hegemony. He says that political control – in other words, how a government keeps its citizens in line – is not only something that takes place in the political system, such as through the police or the legal system. Gramsci claimed that the state also controls us in civil society, through education, the nuclear family, and other structures. Even the media we can consume and the food we can eat is shaped by how the state behaves.
The state can, however, quietly tell us what is reasonable to think, in addition to what is legal. There are some things that are legal, but are usually considered unreasonable. Like instituting a fascist government, for example; our society doesn’t technically call that illegal, and if we voted for it, we could have it. You could say the same for socialism, or anarcho-syndicalism, or pastafarianism, what have you. But it sounds outside the scope of what we expect. Gramsci’s saying that we expect certain things because of how the state shows us the world.
But what of chess boxing? In short, Gramsci’s other key contribution was how he saw ideological struggle; in layman’s terms, how political change comes about. He grouped political action into two categories: the first, “war of movement”, denoted the traditional revolutionary tactics like strike action and more forceful acts designed to seize power. The second, “war of position”, was used to describe what we might call “reformism”: entering state institutions democratically, mostly through election, with the intention of bringing the government, and the people with it, around to one’s own political view.
There was another reason why Gramsci was in prison in Mussolini’s time, mind you: he was a Marxist. That’s right; Gramsci’s theory was created to find ways to help Marxists seize power. When he said “war of movement”, he was thinking about the October Revolutions. When he said “war of position”, he was thinking about parties like the modern Labour Party in the UK, or the SPD in Germany, which then became complicit in the fall of the radical left and eventually enabled the fall of the Weimar Republic. But Gramsci did not prioritise one over the other. He said that they both had their ups and downs, that it was about seizing the moment more than anything. Some times are right for revolution. Other times are right for peaceful change. You can have your cake and eat it too, so long as you don’t try and eat it while you’re in the midst of having it. This analogy is terribly confusing, so I’ll move on.
600 words in, (what dissertation?) it’s time to finally explain chess boxing. Contrasting the two in a political sense is an original effort by Pablo Iglesias, the long-standing leader of Podemos. For Iglesias, chess is the war of movement, and boxing is the war of position. It’s necessary to play a chess match with the political establishment – for the left, that means the groups that, by design, hold the capitalist system in place – but “in order to finally prevail, there (is) no avoiding the boxing match”. That is to say, eventually, there will be a moment where power will rupture and the streets will fill with discontent.
Podemos took the boxing match and played some chess with it. They galvanised the great protests of May 2014, known as 15-M, which saw the attendance of at least 6 million Spaniards, and used their principles of anti-austerity, anti-corruption, and bottom-up politics to create a political party espousing the very same things. At the first general election they contested, they received over 20% of the vote. The time was right. The window was proverbially leapt through. Like if Kasparov did activism. The chess match had begun.
Since their breakout result in 2015, Podemos have continued to build momentum, maintaining a presence in the Spanish media and using social networks to organise “circles” instead of local parties. As the economic crisis in Europe closed up, Podemos saw the window of opportunity closing; in response to this, they built a political platform that combined the dreaded spectre of populism with egalitarian, progressive social and economic policy. To unite a disparate group of individuals behind Podemos’ banner was the objective. The vote share of Podemos and its allies grew to almost 22% in the next set of elections. Following this, 2018 saw a successful vote of no confidence in the former Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, in response to severe corruption allegations – an issue brought to the fore by the 15-M protests, and crystallised in congress by Podemos. Just four years to crush a corrupt government. Checkmate.
Unfortunately, chess is a game of multiple rounds, and the shadow of a boxing match always looms in the background. Podemos now constitute one of the key players propping up a minority government from the centre-left, representing popular, progressive interests from inside the institutions that define the very opposite. Despite this contradiction, Gramsci claimed that the objectives of parties like Podemos in government is to show the people the cracks the system. It’s important to peer through those cracks before we hit them with a massive, popular hammer. By highlighting the ways the state can control us, we can bring the people into the ring in time for the boxing match; so keep an eye on that chess clock.