Understanding Podemos (2/3): Radical populism

(Published in left flank by luke stobart · November 14, 2014. Other articles by same author) (go to: fist part)

Monedero, Iglesias, Errejón

This is the second part of Left Flank’s series exploring the rise of Podemos. Part 1 can be found here.

The “secret” of Podemos according to Pablo Iglesias:

I have defeat tattooed on my DNA. My great-uncle was shot dead. My grandfather was given the death sentence and spent 5 years in jail. My grandmothers suffered the humiliation of those defeated in the Civil War. My father was put in jail. My mother was politically active in the underground. My first experience of political socialisation as a child was in the mobilisations against NATO [in the 1980s], which was the last time that the Left in this country thought we could win. It bothers me enormously to lose. … And I’ve spent many years, with colleagues, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking how we can win … The things I say in the mass media and how I say them require a great many hours’ work where we think about how to move through an absolutely hostile terrain. … We were in Latin America and we watched and watched how they did things there to win. And here is the secret. The first thing is not to feel any fear …. [Second] I know that all Left activists want the whole of the Left to be united. … If all of the Left organisations were, then we can beat the rogues in charge. Rubalcaba and Rajoy love it that we don’t think like that because they know that then we would be limited to 15 or 20 per cent [of the vote]. … I don’t want to be the 20 or 15 per cent. I don’t want my biggest political aspiration to be taking three regional ministries from the Socialist Party. I don’t want to be a “hinge”. I want to win. And in a context of complete ideological defeat in which they have insulted and criminalised us, where they control all of the media, to win the Left needs to stop being a religion and become a tool in the hands of the people. It needs to become the people … I know that this pisses off people on the Left. We like our slogans, symbols and anthems. We like getting together as a group. We think that if we get several party initials on a poster this means we are going to win. No way. [Winning] is about people’s anger and hopes. It is about reaching people who otherwise would see us as aliens because the Left has been defeated. … What should democrats do? Democracy is taking power off those that monopolise it and sharing it out among everyone, and anyone can understand that. … 15-M sent a damned message — firstly to the Left and there were left-wingers that took it badly. I remember Left leaders saying “I’ve been ‘indignado’ [outraged] for 30 years. Are these kids going to come and tell me what being outraged is all about?” OK, but it wasn’t you that brought together hundreds of thousands in the Puerta del Sol. The fact that [15-M] held the largest mobilisation since the NATO referendum and that this has been able to change this country’s political agenda to put the demand for democracy first, does that reveal [the Left’s] strength? No, it shows our damned weakness. If the unions and social organisations were organised, we wouldn’t need things like [Podemos]. The problem is that in times of defeat so you don’t get defeated again, …. you have to think and say “we can be the majority”.

— Iglesias, speaking in February during a debate with Alberto Garzón of Izquierda Unida (IU; United Left)

Although the Trotskyist Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA; Anti-Capitalist Left) played a significant role in shaping Podemos from the beginning — for example when IA’s Miguel Urbán led the coordinated the Podemos “circles” as local bases to actively create “popular power”, the leadership of Podemos is dominated by the grouping around Pablo Iglesias. He, as part of a network of Madrid Complutense university lecturers — including Iñigo Errejón and Juan Carlos Monedero, his collaborators in the alternative TV debate shows La Tuerka and Fort Apache — have quickly hegemonised the Podemos apparatus, particularly after several IA members were sacked as full-timers and La Tuerka supporters monopolised the Podemos Citizens’ Assembly organising committee, introducing on-line slate voting that strongly benefited Iglesias.

The La Tuerka grouping has several ideological influences. Iglesias and Errejón —Podemos’s bright young chief strategist — played a leading role in activist movements (such as the Spanish version of the autonomist Tute Bianche (“white overalls”) movement in the anti-globalisation protests at the beginning of the noughties, and Juventad Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future) — one of the groups that helped initiate the 15-M protests. At the same time Monedero and Iglesias have been members of Communist organisations and advised Izquierda Unida. All three have worked as political advisors to new Left governments in Venezuela and Bolivia. Errejón did his PhD thesis on Bolivia’s MAS party and is an admirer of “neo-Gramscian” vice-president García Linera. Monedero has had a relationship with chavismo, but was lambasted by Chávez for organising conferences of intellectuals analysing the shortcomings of the Bolivarian revolution. He is known in Spain for his thesis that the failure of Spanish democracy stems from the dominance of the “Transition” process by sections of the Francoist apparatus — an idea used to justify the strategic centrality given by leading Podemos members (including its most radical) to holding a Constituent Assembly. (This historical revision has been criticised by Xavier Domènech as too instrumental and “top down”, and as downplaying the structural contradictions common to all liberal capitalisms).

This background provides pointers as to the politics driving Podemos. It is also possible that, despite essential differences, the Podemos leadership has learned practical lessons from the experience of the Italian Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo. Errejón has rightly rejected simple comparisons between this movement and Podemos — indicating that Grillo only opposes the political caste whereas Podemos also targets the “privileged economic minority” behind it. Unlike Podemos, the Five Star leadership wants greater immigration controls and to leave the Euro[i], and has joined the same parliamentary group as UKIP in Brussels! Podemos, meanwhile, is in the European United Left. Grillo’s movement has a highly centralised top-down organisation structure. Not surprisingly people have described it as fundamentally “right-wing” — even if many supporters see it otherwise.

Yet there are some similarities between the concepts and methods of the two “citizens’ movements”, which — however unintentional — should be acknowledged. Grillo’s movement has also enjoyed rapid electoral growth, centres on the popular on-line blogging of the popular comedian (media intervention using alternative channels), rejects the relevance of “Left and Right”, etc. His authoritarianism, which has led to expulsions of dissenters and produced serious internal division, has been a major feature of the Italian experience. Iglesias has been more democratic but his call for those criticising his party model to “step aside” from the leadership (backed up by his — accepted — proposal to ban members of IA and other political organisations from the leadership (including the great young MEP Teresa Rodríguez), and his controversial full leadership slate (which led the alternative Sumando Podemos partial slate to be withdrawn from the elections) has been seen as authoritarian and of the “old politics”. The question is whether these manifestations are due to tactical issues or are a hallmark of the populist model itself. All the same, the similarities between the two movements must be strongly nuanced by factoring in the existing libertarian dynamic inside Podemos, which means that increasingly the circles are distancing themselves from the organisational strategy of La Tuerka, although some people are also dropping out of activity.

Laclau and Mouffe

Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘radical democracy’

Much of La Tuerka and Podemos’s strategical approach is laid out by Errejón in an intriguing piece in Le Monde Diplomatique. Behind this lies crucially the theoretical influence of the “post-Marxist” “radical democracy” of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau — who Errejón regularly cites. These Essex-based intellectuals argued in the 1980s that the traditional socialist transformative project based on the centrality of class did not explain the separate logics shaping different injustices and therefore could not unite the “new social movements” in a common challenge against the elites. They used Gramsci’s ideas on the fight for socialism in “the West” — in particular the way that class rule was not mainly achieved through coercion but “hegemony” (leadership) in advanced parliamentary democratic systems. The corresponding strategy in response should thus be a “war of position” — the gradual gaining of influence in society — as opposed to social combat (a “war of manoeuvre”). Mouffe and Laclau thus counterposed to revolution a “radical democracy” centred on the parliamentary arena. (Their view in fact represented a break with Gramsci — who never subordinated “the war of manoeuvre” to that of “position” and who insisted on revolutionaries organising separately within wider hegemonic projects in order to lead wide layers of the working class beyond these.) For the Essex School it is possible to achieve alternative hegemony through forging “a collective will” and “mobilising the affective dimension” (or “passion”). The mechanism to do this is firstly defending and radicalising “ideas and values which were already present, though unfulfilled in liberal capitalism” such as “liberty and equality for all”. Additionally “for a hegemony to have a radical focus it needs to establish an enemy”.

The approach is easily recognisable for those involved in Podemos. The speeches of Errejón and Iglesias often include ideas such as putting “passion” into politics, the “caste” as the identified enemy, calls for liberal-bourgeois ideas to be applied (e.g state sovereignty — against the impositions of the Troika, Iglesias’s “progressive patriotism”, defence of compliance with the law — by the non-tax-paying rich) and an explicit rejection of class politics. Errejón compares Podemos with an emerging “populist Left” that “seeks to create [a] dichotomy — articulated in a new political will with a majority vocation”. This is crucially done through interventions in the media — both in the alternative shows of La Tuerka and Fort Apache and in new commercial channels such as La Sexta, which has gained commercial success by including Iglesias in its programmes. Errejón theorises the interventions by Iglesias and his team as “theoretical-communicative practice” to “translate complex analysis and diagnostics into discursive narratives and direct stories”. Crucial to his “discursive style” was using emotions, symbols and a lexicon “to give ‘new meaning’ to the main signifiers of the moment and so to lead the fight on favourable terrain and not one where our opponents or ideological inertia led us”. (Mouffe and Laclau might well feel flattered!)

There are differences between the Podemos approach and Laclau and Mouffe (for example the latter defended the traditional parties against criticisms from 15M and Occupy). The related but distinct influence of the South American Left on La Tuerka can be identified in approaches such as support for a “Union of the Mediterranean [States]” against German-led “colonisation”. This idea looks borrowed from the Venezuela-inspired drive to reduce (US) imperial dominance of the Americas through creating “anti-imperialist” regional blocs and alliances (e.g. Unasur). Errejón described as a third “pillar” in Podemos “a thorough analysis and learning of recent Latin American processes of popular rupture and constitutional overhaul”. These processes, he said, involved “a war of positions for the conquest of the state” — again conceptualised according to Laclau and Mouffe’s mis-interpretation of Gramsci’s ideas.

Pascual Serrano provided an interesting and sympathetic description of Podemos’ initial success that identified the practical impact of chavismo on the new project:

[T]he leaders of Podemos … know that as with [the popular neighbourhoods of] Caracas, thousands, millions of people do not believe in the system, they do not mobilise, but they are in a position to stand up if they see a hope. That is why Pablo Iglesias showed no indication of triumph with five MEPs and a million votes. His [election-night speech], in contrast to that of the traditional Left, is maximalist. … Like Chávez, Podemos talks about winning, about razing to the ground, about bringing down the system … In the same way, the ambiguity of Podemos’s discourse, which is as sensational for some as it is irritating for others, is also a lesson learned from the Bolivarian process. Chávez made it to the presidency of Venezuela with the electoral promise of a ‘third way’, something no-one knew what it was. It was only a few years later that he dared to speak of socialism, socialism of the 21st century, and no-one knew what that was either.

Podemos assembly in Valencia

An original contribution

As well as these political influences, La Tuerka (and other leading Podemos members) must be credited for providing their own original political contribution. Alongside a significant section of the Spanish radical Left — including the Madrid autonomists in Observatorio Metropolitano (OM), IA and the Catalan activists who set up a “Constituent Process” to introduce progressive radical institutional reform within the independence process — Iglesias’s team developed a popular analysis of the post-15M conjuncture in which regime crisis opened “a window of opportunity” for radicals. This crisis (which another leading Podemos intellectual describes as “organic”) is interpreted by Errejón as being one of “post-politics” in which, during the economic crisis, the state became dominated by “a smaller oligarchy” leading to what is increasingly recognised as a “structural crisis” for PSOE and consequently the whole post-dictatorship regime. 15M is seen as “a historical event that reconfigures the entire Spanish political system”. Interestingly La Tuerka (and OM) analysed the crisis as being “mainly political” (although ultimately shaped by the “financialisation” of politics, according to OM’s Emmanuel Rodríguez).

These views contrast with much radical writing on the crisis (including by Marxists) that mechanically explain political turbulence in relation to economic contradictions and fail to recognise (or remember) that popular alienation with official politics had been growing for years before the crisis (as illustrated by growing levels of voter abstention and the electoral success of several new anti-neoliberal Left parties in Germany, Portugal and Britain). At the same time, the Spanish analyses are limited by situating the root of the political-institutional crisis in the deficiencies of the post-Franco settlement. These deficiencies, which include outlawing the right to self-determination for the Basque Country and Catalonia[ii], are real. However I believe the crisis is more systemic and universal and stemming fundamentally from the collapse of the post-war parliamentary illusion under neoliberalism and austerity. The crisis of politics is felt among most of Europe, including in countries whose democracy was created against authoritarian regimes: including France, the home of Republicanism, where the fascist Marine Le Pen could win the first round of the coming presidential elections; the Republic of Ireland, where the left-nationalist Sinn Fein topped a recent poll; and post-revolutionary Portugal. Pointing to experiences in their own country, Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze have explained that even where the economy has not suffered a serious crisis, there can be political turmoil due to the emptying out of “politics”.

This is because (parliamentary) politics plays the role for the bourgeoisie between of seeming to mediate between the state and civil society (the non-state part of society) to “democratically unify” a population fatally sub-divided between competing classes (and capitals) within the imagined community of the “nation”. Once people see through that appearance, and identify that “politics” only represents elite interests rather than both those interests and the interests of the majority, a crisis for the party system is served. Italy has had two major political crises in recent decades: first, in response to discovering that leaders of the main parties of the post-war period were in the pay of the mafia (a particular economic elite) and second, when Berlusconi, who — due to his media fortune — was supposedly able to rise above the hated “politics”, showed to be ruling mainly in his elite interest! In both cases the myth of popular representation collapsed.

Returning to the Spanish state, for some time before Podemos was launched Iglesias insisted that the window of opportunity offered by the crisis was giant, on which he has been proven correct, but could also soon close due to the possibility of a project led by political and institutional elites to reform (or “regenerate”) the ‘78 regime, which actually would very likely fail because of popular rejection of the neoliberal project such elites are weddded to. Based on this assessment, he argued aggressively for a new audacious and non-self-referential project, a discourse that when I witnessed it in Barcelona in 2012 clearly touched most of the packed audience watching — including this author.

In part 1 I described the many features of Podemos that represent continuity with 15-M. La Tuerka clearly link their strategy for Podemos with the 15-M experience. For instance, Errejón identifies the main achievement of 15-M as being the undermining of the existing political orthodoxy. For him, and Iglesias, the movement meant people stopped blaming their personal plight on their own supposed shortcomings and instead developed an understanding of problems being societal and requiring a collective solution. However, Errejón then insisted that these shifts would not automatically lead to any progressive political expression (and might end in apathy or reactionary voting — as elsewhere in Europe). The crucial point, he added, was that the squares had “symbolically” created “the existence of a people not represented by the dominant political castes” or had created the progressive “common senses” that made possible the left-populist project.

15-M would then become important not because it had created a social movement as a subject in itself (or for encouraging the forging of new social subjects) but because it had created the object of a new project. The new project would be of a very different nature — centered on winning leadership of society through political argument and electoral mobilisation. Errejón echoed the Laclauian philosophy behind this approach when stating that “in politics, there is no [political] ‘space’, but sensibilities that emerge and confront each other”.

This approach underlay the Claro que Podemos political document passed at the Assembly. This treats the social mobilisations of the last few years as having transformed the political context but also of belonging to a past phase in the political process, now followed by a mainly institutional phase. (The runner-up Assembly document ‘Construyendo Pueblo’ took a different approach — insisting on local agitation by circles before — as well as after — reaching office.) According to the view adopted, the street mobilisation phase was thwarted due to “institutional blockage” by the caste.

There are big problems with this strategic perspective and the arguments used to back it. These are not about engaging with the electoral struggle per se — as the popular libertarian critic Carlos Taibo has attempted to argue with little success. In Catalonia the radical MPs in the CUP have shown on many occasions that by seeing themselves as “Trojan horses” in the elites’ parliament they can act as an amplifier for workers’ and other struggles without subordinating themselves to the idiocy and theatre of parliamentary politics. An example of their frequently disobedient approach was when MP David Fernández waved his shoe out of contempt before the corrupt head of Bankia in a parliamentary commission hearing.

The weaknesses in Errejón’s vision lie elsewhere. The first problem with Errejón’s account is that just because the squares did not initially impact on the parliamentary sphere, it does not mean that they were not having other positive effects. As I have shown in part 1, 15M in fact encouraged a range of large-scale extra-parliamentary “horizontal” activity — from la PAH to the assembly-based teachers’ strikes. It is true that activists were showing substantial frustration by the time Podemos was launched in January because even historic movements such as the PAH housing movement were thwarted by an increasingly unresponsive political order. Yet frustration was also leading to more militant and working-class protests (such as riots, indefinite strikes and the March for Dignity — in which radical working-class groups led 1.5 million people in Madrid to protest against unemployment and for better working conditions). Such developments — however uneven and limited — could still feed into a wide struggle of a more imposing nature (including in the workplaces where struggle can directly sabotage the economy), and help break the impasse. The question now is whether the rise of Podemos might be inadvertently discouraging that as hopes are increasingly being invested in a change of government, and demonstrating and striking may well become seen as less important to bringing about social change.

Nor was it inevitable or straightforward that without Podemos there would have been an electoral shift rightwards — at least in the short term. In a context of collective resistance to and understanding of social problems, people’s cultural outlook was being shaped according to solidarity and unity — not division. Hence, although anti-immigrant attitudes are still common, according the opinion polls they have not advanced under crisis and austerity — as they have in other European countries (and as they developed in Spain in the previous decade). Similarly it is likely that the limits to atomisation and despair have also provided limits to the growth of the (still weak) far Right[iii].

Another major weakness in the Podemos leadership’s strategy is that its stageist approach to the social and political struggle — however radical and modern it might sound — has a strong parallel with traditional reformism. This is because the self-activity of the movement is substituted for by the activity of political operators (politicians), and once again the popular classes are to be represented as opposed to representing themselves. Of course Podemos is also trying, with considerable success, to involve large numbers of people in its movement, and there are other differences with social democracy, as I examined in part 1. But the political initiative is increasingly being dominated by the Complutense intellectuals and — like in Latin America — the need for popular mobilisation is framed mainly in terms of supporting the public actions of the left-wing political leadership: mobilising the vote; acting to defend the elected left-wing government against right-wing counter-attack; etc. Even if the starting point was opposition to the elites, the inevitable direction is towards a new elitism — particularly as La Tuerka’s concept of hegemonic opposition inevitably depends on projection gained through the mass media and the institutions. As I examine in part 3, in which — among other things — I look at the limits of parliament and “politics”, it is not a strategy that can win long-standing reforms, much less a radical transformation of society.

Pablo Iglesias speaking alongside Miguel Urban at an IA meeting

Different strategies, different organisation models

Summarising much of the discussion so far, Brais Fernández has described the key dilemma in Podemos as being between having an organisation that “recognising the politicising potential of the electoral route and the importance of conquering spaces in the institutions, opts to build a project rooted in the daily life of the working social majority, in their struggles …., based on community self-organisation from below ….”, and “[a]nother that sees that such building should not necessarily be done in parallel, but should subordinate itself to an immediate electoral victory in the general elections …, and that the reconstruction of social relations in a post-neoliberal order … should begin once conquered the state apparatuses and originating from these.”

For the Podemos activist, this difference in perspective is the main reason why competing factions emerged during the pre-Assembly period over organisational and “ethical” questions. Such issues included over the regularity of the Citizen’s Assembly (which very worryingly may now be held only every three years) and in favour of having a collective national secretariat or powerful national secretary that can choose his own executive (this position also won). Despite the fact that the more democratic proposal — presented by Teresa Rodríguez and fellow MEP Pablo Echenique — received some of the strongest applause at the Assembly, it received the relatively small 14,000 votes on-line (compared to 90,000 for Iglesias’s Claro que Podemos). The result has understandably led to demoralisation among some activists.

Also disappointingly, by passing Claro que Podemos’s “ethics” document Podemos has managed to exclude from leadership positions members of “political organisations” (a policy clearly aimed at further marginalising IA and one that successfully played on the “anti-political” sentiment previously described).

Fernández is right that behind these “technical” arguments again lie strategic differences between populism and 15-M type radicalism. Those that emphasise winning office (and see mobilisation as having at best a secondary role in achieving and keeping this), and who see strategy as carefully controlling discourse to agitate the “common sense” that makes electoral majorities possible (and avoid alienating support by articulating minority positions), have logically pushed for an increasingly vertical organisational model — articulated around the interaction between the charismatic Iglesias and wide layers of generally passive people. The victorious Claro que Podemos model may make Podemos more electable in the short term, but it will likely weaken the network of circles that have given Podemos its dynamism and positive character as “citizens’ movement”. This can only undermine the ability to create a counter-political movement that can intervene in the struggle from below to move towards creating a completely new institutional framework, also controlled from below. The model is also likely to weaken popular support for the Podemos project — although that may be a longer-term process (thanks to deep residual hatred towards the current political class).

Guanyem assembly in Barcelona

Municipal strategies

The differences in general strategy also shaped the Assembly debate that led to adopting the decision for Podemos not to stand with its own initials in the May 2015 local elections — the first major election since the explosion in its support. The political formula voted on is for the circle to join wider “municipalist” campaigns alongside other Left organisations and networks. The model is that of Guanyem/Ganemos (“Let’s Win”) in Barcelona, Madrid, Valladolid, Logroño and Malaga, which (in Barcelona and Madrid) include large numbers of housing and other activists (often from an autonomist background) and a section of the Left. The inclusion of local branches of IU and its “regional” equivalents has been controversial, and is problematic due to the experiences of the Communist-led parties participating in neoliberal and corrupt Town Halls.

The more radical Construyendo Pueblo document highlighted that considering there are not projects of the Ganemos-type in most localities, and some such projects are based on “un-reconstituted sections of the radical Left” voters would expect Podemos to stand under its own name to remove the hated crony local caste. Furthermore, municipal experience would allow Podemos to demonstrate different ways of doing politics and to build the grassroots “counterpowers” required to implement change against the interests of the privileged minority. Claro que Podemos, on the other hand, maintained that opportunistic “careerists” had joined the project in many localities and that it would be difficult to avoid the kind of local scandal that could fatally undermine Podemos on a national level. Effectively Iglesias was arguing that change should come first at the national or regional levels. This was unconvincing to a great many. The anti-capitalist pro-independence La CUP built a significant electoral base in the Catalan parliament after gaining councillorships in dozens of municipalities and demonstrating they could democratise and radicalise local politics through assembly-based local participation. In some ways it is easier to control local processes because activists are likely to know more about the people who wish to be involved.

According to several reports I have received, some dubious persons do seem to have hitched themselves to what is a very open and mixed project (including a fascist in Galicia, who was expelled). This has meant that most people, nervous about potential disasters, have backed Iglesias’s idea. Yet if we bear in mind the nature of the left-populist project outlined — and in particular Podemos’ strong tendency towards presidentialist centralisation, it is hard not to see other motives behind Claro que Podemos’s attitude.

Concretely, I suspect that the leadership is reacting to the possible decentralisation of power and influence that would likely occur within Podemos if the movement gained substantial local representation, and that might also reinforce the “15-M” soul of Podemos to the detriment of the populist approach. Alternatively (and admittedly this is based on no more than logical deduction based my knowledge of populist politics), there may be fears regarding the inevitable conflict that will arise between local and State authorities if Podemos representatives were to perform the necessary non-payment of (at least) much of the municipal debt to fund radical municipal change. If these fears do exist and are shaping policy, it would be a mistake. Any attempt at implementing policies against the interests of “the 1 percent” will be met with resistance. The same will happen on a European level if a Podemos national government refuses to pay illegitimate debts to European banks. In both cases by planning non-payment properly and mobilising disobedience on the street, the necessary steps can be taken to push through the necessary changes and thus strengthen the Podemos project.

We could add that it is easier to attempt such disobedience first where we can most easily build a rooted movement to win arguments among the population. The example of the Andalusian town of Marinaleda under the “Robin Hood mayor” Sánchez Gordillo shows that radical municipal practice can win out and be popular. Due to radical municipally-funded policies in housing, land and employment the town has communal ownership of all land, near full employment and anyone can have a house by paying €15 a month! Sánchez Gordillo has been reelected repeatedly since 1979.

The question now is whether local Podemos and other activists can build municipal projects that are sufficiently militant, ambitious and democratic to forge rooted counter-powers. The strategic question of alliances is important. Out of the “majoritarian“ culture of 15M (and further encouraged by Podemos’s rapid rise) it should be no surprise that people are embracing broad (“winning”) projects as opposed to more radical and politically coherent projects. Consequently in Barcelona Guanyem, led by the inspiring anti-eviction campaigner Ada Colau, is already hegemonising the discussion on the Left — leaving the Barcelona CUP stumbling to know how to react. Despite the rejection of traditional politics, the social activism of significant numbers of Iniciativa-EUiA (IU) members means that many activists are putting aside their differences to support a common project. To help avoid the negative political and organisational influences of the “eco-Communist” leadership there are attempts to democratise the new project by means of introducing open primaries and other mechanisms (as have been implemented in Podemos). Wanting to unite with the ex-Communists (and other Left reformists) is an understandable response in the specific present conjuncture described, and should not be treated dismissively (as some activists in and around the CUP have done). However, alliances with traditional Left reformism are problematic in that they will likely reinforce the conservative and top-down tendencies that already exist in the new political projects.

Such limitations, which will hinder adopting the kind of radical action required by the scale of the socio-economic collapse, will be further reinforced if processes are decided “backroom” — as has been occurred during the Guanyem process. For me the best option is to unite with all those that wish to fight, and work alongside the rest in individual campaigns. By doing so I think we will be more likely to create an effective political movement that can win in the long term. Because of the growing verticalism inside Podemos, being in broad campaigns with social activist roots may make things easier for Podemos activists, rather than more difficult. The election campaign for the May elections should thus be an important event. But even more important for Podemos activists will be to help intervene to strengthen the social struggle throughout the following period and not be absorbed in electioneering. In the exciting present circumstances that is easier said than done.

[A third and final installment to be published shortly will critically assess the dominant approach in Podemos over the nature of the state and institutional politics, and the related issue of mobilising “common sense” as an overall political strategy. This examination will be made concrete by looking at debates in Podemos on economic policies and how to approach the movement for self-determination in Catalonia. It will end by tying together the different analyses in this series and offer some strategic and practical suggestions for activists.]

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.