Understanding Podemos (1/3): 15-M & counter-politics

(Published in left flank by luke stobart · November 5, 2014. Other articles by same author) (go to: second part)


What Podemos’s present success reveals is the breakdown, the crisis or the collapse (choose the term you prefer) of the Spanish party system. Because in reality the Transition regime is sinking like the Titanic and Podemos is merely the iceberg that caused this. So as soon as the cock crowed on 25-M, all the captains aboard began to jump ship: firstly [PSOE leader] Rubalcaba, then the King, later [the Catalan conservative] Durán, … It is a regime crisis because its previous dominant coalition, until now formed by an imperfect three-party set (PSOE, PP and [regional nationalists]), has lost the ability to impose its cultural hegemony.

—Podemos critic Enrique Gil Calvo in El País, 18 August 2014

Three years ago, the PSOE and the PP said to the people in the squares with 15-M that they should stand in the elections, and they don’t say this any more.

—Pablo Iglesias, Podemos leader, quoted in El Economista, 22 May 2014

One of the most inspiring political events internationally this year has been the meteoric rise of Spain’s Podemos — the new radical “citizens’ movement” (party). The facts speak for themselves. Despite only being created in January and having a crowd-funded electoral budget of just €150,000, Podemos obtained 1.2 million votes and five seats in the May European Parliament elections (the day referred to as “25-M” in Spain).

Subsequently it became the target of a wild (and desperate) campaign against it in the mainstream media, including attempts by leading politicians to link it with the Basque terrorist group ETA and the other usual “bêtes noires” of Spanish society — Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, etc. The counter-reaction has been an abject failure, particularly as Podemos representatives have deftly used their media exposure to talk exclusively about the social changes they plan to make — leaving their adversaries to look down and suddenly realise they are entering free fall like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, suspended in mid-air after running off a cliff. Astoundingly a new El País survey has put Podemos in the lead, and it is way ahead of the other parties in terms of first preferences (although a combination of misinformation and tactical voting may complicate an actual victory, and a growing counter-offensive is developing from PSOE (the Socialist party), the new King and others spearheading an attempt to counter Podemos by attempting the “regeneration” of institutional politics through constitutional reform and anti-corruption measures). Podemos’s membership is also growing — in the last two weeks by over 70 per cent in Andalusia.

For a great many people — including most PSOE voters, according to another survey — Podemos has already become the main opposition party.

Increasingly the media focus has been on whether Podemos can form government and what its policies will be, the subject of a fascinating full interview of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias on Salvados watched by a record five million people. Because of its breakneck growth, the strategy of the other parties is increasingly hinging around how to respond to the political “upstart”. For example, calls by those on the Right of PSOE for an alliance between the party and the governing centre-right PP (Popular Party) are growing, even though this would probably bury PSOE, like similar alliances with the Right led to the punishment of Greece’s Socialist party, Pasok. Considering that the arrival of a left-wing (Syriza) government is likely in Greece in the short term, the breakneck emergence of the more radical Podemos (in a substantially larger European economy than that of Greece) is understandably being treated as a possible “game changer”.

But, crucially, Podemos is an exciting development also because of the level of participation in the project. Over 7000 people attended the lively, emotive and sometimes sharply contested inaugural Podemos “Citizen’s Assembly” last month, and 112,000 voted on-line for the different “ethical”, “political” and “organisational” documents presented (with an even larger number connecting to watch at least some of the assembly streamed live). Since January over a thousand local branches (“circles”) of Podemos have been set up, including among Spanish economic émigrés in cities outside Spain. These circles’ frequent mass meetings, sometimes in public squares, have had much of the air of the Indignados (15-M) occupations. It is difficult not to feel inebriated (as well as somewhat overwhelmed!) by being part of such a large, passionate and sometimes chaotic project.

Despite the significant interest in the new movement internationally, many observers of Podemos are unclear about its true nature. Critics have been positively surprised by some aspects, and sympathisers disappointed by others. There is a need for deeper analysis of this phenomenon, particularly as new Left projects internationally are using Podemos as a positive reference.

In this series of three articles I will make an attempt to theorise this original project based partly on my own experience as a founding activist of the Podemos circle in London.

Because of the magnitude of the project, the speed with which events are unfolding, the contrasting views between different participants, frequently inaccurate (and malicious) reports in the media, and the scarce research on the topic to date this analysis should be taken as a first attempt rather than a definitive view. With those caveats in mind, however, I hope to shed some light on Podemos for both its activists and those who observe it with interest from the outside. It is my contention that there are two (joined but distinct) souls in Podemos. Below I look at its most radical-participatory side — thus completing my Left Flank series on the social and political legacy of 15-M. In the next post I will look at the more contradictory Left populism that is increasingly guiding Podemos’s advance and how this connects and clashes with the spirit of the squares.

Iglesias interviewed by Salvados

Podemos’s ‘anti-political’ soul

I have already outlined how 15-M should be understood as a movement shaped principally in reaction to the hollowing out of official politics (and considerably less as an “anti-austerity” movement — even though the crisis and cuts have contributed to accelerating political detachment). The fact that 15-M began in response to the May 2011 local elections and not as a response to specific cuts provides a further illustration of this idea.

The label I used for such a movement, as borrowed from the writings of Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze, was “anti-politics”. This term has been the subject of criticism partly (and unfortunately) for semantic reasons; i.e. that “politics” is seen by many as including radical grassroots activism as well as institutional politics. Tietze prefers to follow the early (and possibly late) Marx’s distinction between “politics” — as a separate sphere of activity around the state — and “the social struggle” in which subaltern groups fight for their direct interests. Like others, I am tired of the linguistic discussion that has followed. It has been disappointing to see critics prefer to debate the term (semantics) rather than the ideas behind it (content). This is particularly disappointing when non-activists (i.e. most people) seemingly have a conception of “politics” closer to that of Humphrys and Tietze’s, and that of the young Marx. Easy dismissals hinder understanding new political actors and processes based on the shifts in popular consciousness identified by Humphrys and Tietze.

To use a recent example, even though the mass movement for Scottish independence shared the “political” objective of a new (Scottish) state, the mass revulsion at the defence of the Tory-governed Union — including the sight of Labour leaders heading the “no” campaign — clearly propelled the mass mobilisation for a ‘yes’ vote. Sending Westminster politicians north to “woo” the electorate achieved quite the opposite (although alarmist threats about the consequence of independence clearly scared some voters — particularly the elderly and the middle classes — into voting “no”). Labour’s naked defence of the neoliberal state —rather than positive identification with the ambiguous Left politics of the SNP — has most likely been the main reason for the acceleration of the long-term collapse in its support. Such a decline of a key prop of the establishment is an event of historical significance, and has also opened the door to building a new radical Left. It is comparable to the collapse of the establishment Left in the Spanish state and, as in Spain, is partly fuelled by rejection of the (Westminster) political class. Curiously, one person who understood this was Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted as the “yes” vote closed on the “no”:

Scottish poll reflects world-wide disillusion with political leaders and old establishments leaving openings for libertarians and far left.

Sometimes the linguistic discussion over counter-politics conceals a failure to understand the new moods, movements and politics. These, which vary from Russell Brand and Occupy Parliament’s “revolution” to UKIP’s fake-outsider reaction, are based on hostility to the major parties but also (in the case of progressive counter-politics) the perception of failure or irrelevance of the existing radical Left. The latter was expressed in a blanket ban of all political organisations in the 2011 square occupations in Spain. Part of the hostility towards the anti-politics thesis comes from the difficulty of acknowledging this painful fact for those of us who have been in the organised Left for years, but we need to overcome this in order to orientate successfully in the coming period.

The anti-politics shorthand is also arguably essential to fully grasping the ideas and practice of Podemos. At rallies with Podemos representatives in Britain, those attending have been bemused by the guest speaker identifying him/herself as “neither Left nor Right”, and some have been uncomfortable with Podemos’ outright opposition to social democracy. It is clear that some international Leftists, while sympathetic to Podemos, mistakenly categorise it as an immature political movement.

To fully understand Podemos (and why in many ways it reflects a more mature consciousness) the “anti-politics” concept must be applied, even if the term has been even more controversial when applied to an electoral project. The parallels between Podemos and 15-M are numerous. To recap, that movement was in many ways the antithesis of what hundreds of thousands of participants understood as politics: practising participatory democracy as opposed to representation, swapping the traditional left-wing ideological identifications with that of a “citizens’ movement”, advocating “revolution” instead of reform, rejecting traditional “representatives” (including the union leaders), and using commercial social media as a basic organising tool. The movement’s slogan “real democracy now” suggested we didn’t really live under a democracy.

To a greater or lesser degree all of the above features have been incorporated in Podemos. The Citizen’s Assembly and campaign for the European elections was organised through a large number of circles writing documents and resolutions, then combining them and voting on them. The decision to replace the “Left-Right” dichotomy with a “People-Caste” dividing line is not mainly about political marketing (although it may have helped Podemos pick up some centrist votes — 17 per cent of its support comes from former PP voters). It is more an attempt to denounce a political system that presents itself as plural, fluid and democratic but has revolved around near-meaningless alternation between one neoliberal government party and another. For example, it was not the conservative PP that privatised industry and brought in insecure work contracts on a mass scale, but “the Left”. Indeed, in a fascinating, soon-to-be-published New Left Review article, Emmanuel Rodríguez dissects how the PSOE was the main shaper of the post-1978 political “regime” and the severe economic imbalances it has produced, in particular over-dependence on financialised real estate, as well as unsustainable levels of tourism.

Treating today’s social democracy first and foremost as an integral part of the establishment — rather than mainly a party of working-class and progressive aspirations — is a sign of the social and political movement’s clarity, maturity and sense. Hostility to the parties is also based on understanding that the only role for the smaller Left parties under “duopoly” (or “bipartisanship”) was to act as an accessory to that; e.g. in numerous regional alliances between the post-Communist IU (United Left) and PSOE. Revealingly, IU leader Cayo Lara has responded to attacks on “la casta” by saying the IU has done a good job within it!

The framework of “el pueblo versus la casta” is reviving and mobilising the millions who participated in some 15-M activity through framing the social division in this way. Both 15-M and Podemos see the country as suffering from what Josep Ramoneda describes as “the permanent promiscuity between politics and money”. Iglesias and his colleagues regularly denounce the “revolving doors” between governments and the advisory and executive boards of corporations — but such an idea can also transmit an instrumental rather than structural relationship between economic and political power; i.e. a link that can be broken through mere political will. The perception of there being a corrupt political-oligarchical caste in society fits with Humphrys and Tietze’s assertion that people are seeing through “the myth of representation” — or at least the present form of representation.

Based on the same anti-partisanship, Podemos has consciously tried to mould its project in opposition to the political caste. As Jaime Pastor identifies, “[R]ejection of ‘professional politicians’ and [party] funding through banks, together with the choice of transparency [including party accounts], the limiting of periods in office and their revocability, as well as open participation in creating its programme and choosing candidates are in Podemos’s DNA”.

Latest Metroscopia poll for El País

The return of workers’ resistance and the crisis of the unions

“Anti-politics” is not just a counter to the parties but to the institutions and organisations tied to both them and the state (what Gramsci called the “outer fortresses” of “the integral state”). Crucially for those interested in emancipatory politics, this includes the union bureaucracies. The contradiction between representing workers’ interests and containing their demands has always been present in mass trade unionism. However, Humphrys and Tietze have shown using the Australian example that from the beginning of neoliberalism the balance has shifted in the direction of the latter function. Indeed, in Australia the unions maintained an “Accord” with the Labor government while the latter restrained wages and brought in the first big neoliberal reforms. As a consequence, over the last three decades union coverage has decreased from over 50 per cent to just 17 per cent of workers.

The increasingly problematic role of union bureaucracies is inevitable if the party politics it relies on becomes emptied of content due to the incorporation of the Left into the ruling-class social project. After all, traditional union movements effectively subordinate themselves to the parliamentary Left by limiting their struggle to resisting exploitation in the workplace and leaving the struggle for political reforms to the delegated professional politicians. Arguably it is inevitable that with the full capitulation of social democracy, the organised labour movement would also start rotting from the head, although more so in some countries than others. When unions are directly affiliated to the neoliberal Left the damage is greatest but all unions have an effective dependence on professional politicians.

The emergence of 15-M has encouraged successful attempts to circumnavigate the union structures, often while working alongside them. The most impressive was the Marea Blanca (“White Tide”) in Madrid. This saw health workers and supporters successfully resist a wave of privatisations. They did so by adopting methods closer to those of 15-M than traditional union practices. Firstly they organised in a non-corporatist and non-syndicalist manner (uniting in the same movement different groups of health professionals that traditionally had been organised separately, alongside non-staff supporters). Then the broad movement did mass agitation aimed at getting majority support for their demands. An astounding 940,000 Madrid residents participated in a referendum on privatisation and 1.4 million signed petitions (including a very defensive conservative mayor!). Tens of thousands took part in hospital occupations whose assemblies one health worker described as “workers’ parliaments”. All these features take us back to high points of the class struggle in history but are also based on the contemporary example of the Indignados.

The development of this alternative form of class struggle (also adopted by other collectives — particularly in the public sector), the relative passivity of the unions (in a period of harsh reforms that have driven down wages), and a series of major corruption cases that have reminded people of the extent to which the UGT and CCOO union upper layers are part-and-parcel of the rotten status quo, have led to a crisis for the unions. Despite the inherent need for workplace resistance that follows economic depression and austerity, union membership is not rising but declining (from 3.2 to 2.9 million between 2007 and 2010). In surveys 70 per cent of the population say that have “little” or “no trust” in the unions. Furthermore, surveys on support for different institutions identified that even such limited support is declining: from 28 per cent in July 2013 to 17 per cent this July. The unions were less popular than employers and multinationals! For many working-class people social movements such as the Mareas or the anti-eviction PAH have displaced the unions as their representatives and organisers. Revealingly a UGT leader has responded to this shift by suggesting that the unions will still be key to negotiations because the social movements would not be recognised as partners for negotiation. In other words he sees the unions’ continued relevance fundamentally in relation to their perceived usefulness for employers and the state.

The decline of the big unions weakens workers’ ability to resist, as holding strikes and gaining solidarity for disputes still mainly depends on mobilising the bureaucratic union structures. But it is also opening the door to non-bureaucratic struggle and organisation, and Podemos is increasingly in a position to influence that.

There are several reasons why.

In the first instance, circles organising trade unionists (such as Podemos Sindicalistas or the active and high-profile “Podemos Nurses”) are playing a prominent role in Podemos, and were very visible in the Assembly. The former circle has denounced the effective dependency of UGT and CCOO on the social-liberal Left and has initiated a public discussion over whether to create a new union federation, which has just led to a small group launching a new union. Even though the media are exaggerating the size of such initiatives, the moves are a logical next step in Podemos’s attempt to remove the caste — by tackling “the union caste” — and could gain traction. However, practically speaking, it would be important to consider how to work in or with the more militant unions — such as the Andalusian SAT, the Basque LAB or the anarcho-syndicalist CGT.

Secondly in the growing discussions on the new institutional framework that could be built through constituent processes, the need for an alternative to the current labour representation frameworks should be recognised. Thanks to these, since the 1978 Transition most union funding is channelled through the state (including large sums for the unions to offer a range of training courses, which governments have used as a lever in negotiations), and workers not in a union are allowed vote in elections for shop stewards (a system that favours the election of shop stewards from the more moderate unions and helps ensure that these receive bigger state funding). Such mechanisms have been important in terms of domesticating and absorbing the large union federations. Militants in Podemos could coordinate more to attempt to raise these questions and encourage Podemos to be more hostile to the economic caste (or “1 percent”). Unfortunately some of the Podemos leadership seriously muddy the water by treating most employers as allies (or “decent” and “in favour of defending human rights” — in the words of Carolina Bescansa).

What should give us hope is that the organic class base of Podemos is more favourable than might seem. Working-class identification with Podemos is notable — whether of an active or passive nature. For example, circles are more common and better attended in the “industrial belt” of Madrid than the middle-class areas. Votes in the Barcelona area — where Podemos competes with other radical Left projects — are concentrated in similar areas. According to some July research, 19.1 percent of unskilled workers and 16.7 percent of skilled workers then supported Podemos, compared to the average 12.7 percent for the total population. It would be fair to say that Podemos’s main bastions of support are workers and young people (including 25.8 percent of students). This puts Podemos in an advantageous position to encourage workers’ self-organisation and struggle — including among precariously employed youth.

Marea blanca

The contradictions of ‘anti-politics’ politics

It is not just progressive or genuine “anti-political” parties that are showing they can mobilise support from the working class. Worryingly, UKIP appears to be increasingly able to win votes among a section of English workers (including ex-Labour voters). What these diametrically opposed projects have in common though is hostility to our “representatives”. Because detachment from politics in the form of electoral abstention is so prominent among the poorest, this pattern suggests that “anti-politics” is a class issue. I believe that one of the reasons for Podemos’s rapid advance is that it is the purest expression of this on a mass level. Because far Right parties like UKIP are only posing as “anti-establishment” (while aiming to become the new establishment) there are greater limits to the passions they can awaken.

The above analysis suggests that the Podemos project could play a role in reinvigorating the class struggle. This may seem paradoxical as Podemos leaders — and most ordinary members — explicitly reject the language of “class” in favour of the more populist conceptions of “people” or “citizens”. Yet the underlying objective social contradictions in society tend to express themselves once the masses are engaged in democratic struggle of any kind — including to an extent in an electoral project based on mass participation.

However, having a positive impact on the class will not be automatic at all. In fact being able to envisage our representatives in office (as is becoming increasingly the case) can easily encourage the idea that it is their activity, not ours, that will provide improvements to the lives of the majority. It has been reported that insiders in the Interior Ministry claim that street protests have fallen as Podemos has grown in popularity. Accordingly labour and other social initiatives taken by radicals in Podemos could be very important to ensure that Podemos propels the social struggle forward, not backwards. Mobilising through the circles for the decentralised March for Dignity protests at the end of November (led by radical workers and unemployed organisations and that hope to bring millions of working people out on the street) will be a first test in this regard.

“Anti-politics” thus contains an emancipatory seed. Yet it should not be assumed to always act in a progressive and empowering direction — even in a project like Podemos. As has been the case with the highly contradictory Five-Star Movement in Italy, avoiding the ways and means of “the traditional Left” can be abused. In Italy and Spain online voting has been adopted as the main way to make decisions (whose “novelty” was contrasted, in the case of Podemos, with the supposedly “old Left” system of delegate councils and conferences — even though that Left often organised through hierarchical methods). Under both the populist Grillo and the left-wing Iglesias the online media-dominated modus operandi has in fact led to the age-old phenomenon of dominance by the charismatic “big leader”. This has led to major infighting in Italy, and is creating discomfort among a large section of activists in the Podemos circles.

Some initial observations

What is very likely is that hostility to the existing politics (and in particular “the caste”) has not jeopardised the backing of voters of the traditional parties but strengthened and mobilised support for Podemos. It is not a coincidence that what must be the fastest growing political project in Europe at the moment is the one most antagonistic towards the political class (and emerges out of social movement based on the same opposition). This seems to me a crucial lesson for everywhere, even where only an anti-political mood rather than movement exists (such as in Britain). It should give us hope in a period where right-wing forces have made a lot of the running by feeding on the same shifts in consciousness (alongside the xenophobia and racism promoted by the major parties), but also require us to factor “anti-politics” into our analyses, strategies and tactics.

The “anti-politics” term applied to Podemos is also controversial, as I discovered on many occasions in response to a Guardian article I authored. It is notable that in Spain I have only seen Podemos associated with “anti-politics” by adversaries trying to discredit us for “lacking positive ideas”. But if we treat the shift in attitude as a response to popular perceptions of “politics”, I believe it can clarify much of new politics of today and probably more in the future.

But the influence of 15-M in Podemos is only half of the story. It only occurs in combination with the political strategies of Podemos’s promoters based on their own original theoretical-strategic contributions. In my next article I will attempt to dissect what I interpret to be a second — and more contradictory soul — of Podemos, and will conclude in the third of this series by identifying how the two big influences have created both historic possibilities but also internal tensions and potential pitfalls in the fight for people’s power.

Thanks to Andy Durgan and Colin Barker for critical comments on an original draft for this text.

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