No Big Words Please, We’re British

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones and Iñigo Errejón

Owen Jones has an article on The Guardian website today, contrasting Podemos’s approach to political communication with that of ‘the British left’. He says that the latter must ‘abandon the old shackles of the left’, and that its language ‘often seems intended to exclude, full of rhetoric and terminology that only those who have associated with leftwing milieus could ever hope to digest’. He also criticises the culture of ‘the British left’, describing it as ‘operating in the most rampantly individualistic way’.

The first thing that struck me when reading this is that in fact, there are parts of ‘the British left’ – I apologise if my scare quotes appear post-modern, let me assure you they are necessary- who are communicating just fine. For example, in Scotland.

Secondly, it is not as if Podemos itself speaks with one voice. True enough, Pablo Iglesias and others are skilled media communicators. But some of the main figures also write things that are as indigestible for the uninitiated as anything you will ever come across in Britain. Take for example the writings of its political secretary, Owen Jones-lookalike Iñigo Errejón. Here is a translated excerpt of a sentence of his:

Let us recall that old conservative liberal fantasy that flirted with the possibility of the existence of a democracy without a people –it is surely from here that we get the hysteria unleashed in the use of the term ‘populist’-, a democracy of citizen consumers lacking in collective will.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing something like the above: on the contrary. Some concepts are difficult, and they need to be explored with specialised language. The world, including the political world, is complex, and not every decent idea can be pared down to one syllable words with the meaning left intact.

Raymond Williams knew this. In his collected series of interviews Politics and Letters, the Welsh cultural critic mentions his impression that when listening to a French militant or trade union leader being interviewed:

‘they command a much greater vocabulary than their English social equivalents, which may eventually have an effect of the quality of what they say.’

Williams also speaks of his ‘distress’ during his years in adult education, at

‘the blocks people encountered when some perfectly necessary concept was used, and the easy way that could slip into anti-intellectualism, or the more unfortunate case of somebody who comes across a word but doesn’t fully understand it, yet starts to use it, often in the labour movement.’

When Williams sought

‘to write a series in Tribune on words that caused difficulty – typically enough, they were not interested. I had a very strong sense, as in everything else, that working-class people needed to command all the tools with which social transactions are conducted’.

That is, the development of a specialised vocabulary is something working-class people –or, if you like, everyday people- actually need in order to empower themselves.

What Owen Jones describes as ‘online “safe spaces”’ aren’t necessarily a bad thing. True, there may be plenty of jargon-heavy writing, and confused writing, and people showing off. But again, not everyone can describe their predicament, the way they encounter the world, in the simplest of terms. This is because things are rarely that simple, as people’s lives are full of complexity and contradiction. To put it another way, let’s use the analogy of a musical instrument. You need to spend a great many hours playing badly before you start playing well. That is not to say that everyone will become a virtuoso, or even competently, but sometimes just trying to put things into words helps clarify things in your mind.

Also, not all the ‘British left’ is averse to keeping things simple. If you read a copy of Socialist Worker, for example, the prose is usually clear enough. Whether people are convinced by it and want to come back for more is another matter.

When Owen Jones talks about the way Podemos communicates, he seems to have severed it from everything else that has been going on in Spanish society for the last few years, including many phenomena that really have not come to the fore in British society, at least not on the same level. I am thinking here, of course, of 15M, without which Podemos would simply not exist.

Owen Jones cites the need for

‘a wide-ranging discussion about how we best achieve political representation for working people and all those denied a voice.’

But by placing this as his foremost concern, or even his only concern, he ignores one of the crucial factors in 15M’s explosive impact on Spanish politics as society: not the idea that such people need proper representatives, but that they are unrepresentable, that they have the capacity speak with their own voice. That is, a rejection of representative democracy as the sine qua non of popular emancipation. We see this crucial element expressed in a recent interview with the mayor-elect of Barcelona, Ada Colau:

‘We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this’

But also in writing from other members of Podemos:

‘the Podemos method has given expression to a common sense that has been hegemonic in this country for some time, but which political representation and electoral arithmetic have however systematically prevented from making a reality. The central themes of Podemos’s programme and campaign (the fight against corruption, the audit of debt, the sharing of work and wealth, the defence of social rights and public services) expresses clearly, precisely and resoundingly a common sense of the majority that does not fit within the institutions. And these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’

To repeat: ‘these matters have not been defined and articulated from above, but through the active work and participation of ordinary people.’ Most of this work was done pre-Podemos, before figureheads such as Pablo Iglesias came to the fore, and the major controversy within Podemos, since the Citizen Assembly that established the organisational structure of Podemos, has been the way in which all this involvement of everyday people, a politics of everyone and anyone, has been subordinated and marginalised, so as to give way to the primacy of the mediated spectacle of Iglesias and others.

There were resounding successes in the municipal elections in Spain: in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza, to name the three most important places. These platforms included participants in Podemos, but their crucial success factor was widespread participation from a great many others outside these ranks. By contrast, there were much more modest wins for Podemos proper in the regional government elections, far below the expectations raised by the high-flown rhetoric of the top tier.

If this tells us anything, it is that the terminology and rhetoric of Podemos’s top tier –which is indeed geared towards what Owen Jones calls ‘political representation for working people’, is not the most important thing, but rather. the realisation that it is when those excluded from representative institutions re-establish politics on their own terms, in their own language, that real democratic empowerment is realised.

It is a terrible thing that the Tories have taken power in Britain again, dismantling what remains of the welfare state and embarking on the most brutal and vindictive measures against the poorest in British society. Bar an initial flare-up of protest, there does not seem to be any grasp taken as yet of what so many people in Spain already know: that representative democracy –with its supporting media institutions- is not real democracy, that it is not designed to give people a voice, but to take it away from them. And hence some radical reconfiguration, that goes way beyond the kind of language used, is needed. But first comes the break with the legitimacy of the established order.

People in Scotland certainly seem more aware of this than the more established formations on the British left. On the whole, though, the broad understanding of democracy appears stuck within Churchill’s formulation of ‘the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper’, and Orwell’s urging for plainness and simplicity. Is it not high time to get beyond the idea of democratic politics as coming up with the right little words to convince the little people?


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2 responses to “No Big Words Please, We’re British

  1. you sure do have a way much better grasp of the role and importance of the 15M than Owen Jones. Podemos was not an established party of the left that changed and modernised, but rather a product of the most active and ambitious grassroots movement; the 15M. without which none of the radical changes in spanish politics would have happened. and without something similar, no change can be properly iniciated in Britain. This as you say, has to start from the bottom up.
    Good article.

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