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Podemos's Object Lessons

Learning From Las Europeas

by CHRIS GILBERT

Zaragoza.

Podemos, a new political party, has recently swept into public view in the Spanish state. Striking successes such as placing five members in the European parliament, winning more than a million votes in the European elections, and polling as the second political force in the country speak for themselves, as does Podemos’s charismatic leader Pablo Iglesias, who has become a most-wanted (most hated for some) public personality. Yet what is Podemos? And what lessons does it bring for those aiming to construct an alternative in other parts of the world?

One key to Podemos’s success is that it is popular and even populist in the best sense of these terms. The party systematically refuses to let any single fetishized issue of the traditional Left sideline a truly people-oriented project. A sharp contrast is offered by Left parties in France, which seem to have allowed the immigration issue to displace the problem of workers’ oppression – the historical focus of socialist parties – and have thereby offered a fertile terrain to the Right-wing populists. Not so with Podemos, which though a Left party is unafraid to say it is patriotic, that it defends work and workers, women and mothers, and that it aims to provide a basic income to all citizens.

Podemos has also abandoned a time-honored leftist tradition: defeatism. When Partido Popular leader Esperanza Aguirre attacked the new party for programmatic unclarity on Spanish television, Iglesias replied with wonderful limpidness about what his party was seeking – to preserve social rights, guarantee health care, tax the rich, and limit campaign financing – but he also came forward saying that he had every intention of taking the “caste” that she represents out of power, while cautioning that they had better think about whether they prefer to step down with dignity or without it. This is a refreshingly direct and optimistic attitude in a leftist, reminiscent of the fighting spirit of the late Hugo Chávez.

The intention to vote for Podemos, which translates as “we can,” seems to grow nonstop. Curiously, twice as many people remember having voted for the party in the last elections as actually voted for it. At the same time, Podemos is beset by the very political caste it questions and also criticism, sometimes sectarian, that comes from the traditional Left. These latter sectors doubt that a party lacking in organized bases can actually pressure the state even if it assumes power. They also criticize its leaders for ambiguity about such issues as the public debt, the right of nationalities (Catalan, Basque, Galician) to decide about independence, and the future relation to the European union.

What seems to be lacking in much of this criticism is a reflection on the mediatic context that conditions contemporary politics. Today, mass media saturation makes it almost impossible to distinguish clearly and consistently between maximum and minimum programs, or even between tactical and strategic positions. In fact, nothing indicates that Podemos will not be able to assume positions on all of these issues that would leave the traditional left wholly satisfied. After all, it was none other than Fidel Castro who affirmed that revolutionaries should never lie but do not always have to say the whole truth.

It is common to point to Podemos’s roots in 15M movement of “indignados.” This is correct. Nevertheless, the party’s admirable skill in navigating contemporary politics is in a great measure an achievement of political theory that comes from leftist circles, including those that operate in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the webpage rebelion.org. A key component in their updating of the Left is the recognition that capitalism has not only entered into mortal combat with democracy (an idea one can find in such thinkers as Ellen Meiksins Wood and Atilio Boron) but also with the much-touted empire of law (“Estado de Derecho”).

This theoretical discovery is extremely productive: Since capitalism cannot play by the very rules it ostensibly espouses, Podemos’s leaders easily destroy their opponents by showing how it is the parties in power – and by no means the Left opposition – that are anti-system and anti-common sense. Today the Right-wing can only offer a failed state, one so rife with corruption and irrationality that even the slickest ideological whitewashing cannot cover up its patent barbarity. The Right-wing has also become so madly “revolutionary,” if that means willing to destroy all that exists and embrace even the most dangerous novelties, that it remains for the left to say Stop, “ya basta,” and slow down. When capitalist power turns radically destructive, the Left opposition can become “conservative” and constructive.

Of course, the precariousness of the Spanish state’s subimperialist condition – the fact that it constitutes a weak link in the imperialist chain – makes it an especially fertile territory for an opposition party of the Podemos kind (cfr. Greece’s Syriza). When a country undemocratically subordinates itself to the economic dictates of Germany, many of the contradictions that are much less explicit in other developed countries – say between a meaningful patriotism and the attitude of the governing class – come to the forefront and make work easier for the opposition. However, this does not mean that many of Podemos’s central features, such as its firmness in avoiding fetishized single issues as well as its putting at center stage the conflict between democracy and common sense on the one hand and the conduct of government on the other, are not relevant to a renovation of the Left that goes far beyond the borders of the Spanish state.

Here indeed there are lessons to be learned. For while the U.S. left stumbles over such issues as gun control – perhaps an important but far from central problem – a new European Left advances with the banners of common sense, rights to housing and health care, and (yes, surprisingly) even patriotism. Also important is the repositioning of the Left in favor of the defense of society and the construction of substantial democracy. This notable theoretical and practical shift is an almost straightforward consequence of the extremist, undemocratic and destructive character of the ruling classes in all of the Global North.

Chris Gilbert, professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, is passing July and August in the Spanish state.