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Now, Can Podemos Win in Spain?

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators — whom the world press refer to as los indignados — gathered in the square of Puerta del Sol in Madrid on 15 May 2011, protesting against the banks’ stranglehold on the economy and a democracy they felt no longer represented them. They outlawed flags, insignia and speeches on behalf of organisations and parties, and soon had a slogan: “United, the people do not need parties.”

The square is no longer occupied. The desire for change remains, but unexpectedly has formed around a new political party, Podemos (We Can). While most political parties across Europe are in disrepute, Podemos is having unprecedented success. “It’s hard to believe,” Podemos MEP Pablo Echenique told me in Paris recently. “Our party was created in January 2014. Five months later, we got 8% of votes in the EU election. Today all the polls show we’re the biggest political force in the country.” Podemos’s leaders know that opinion polls and elections are not the same thing; January polls put them ahead of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and People’s Party. The possibility of a Podemos victory in the general election (which must be held by 20 December 2015) remains real.

Podemos’s creation stemmed from the realisation that “15-M [15 May] was locked in a social movement-based conception of politics,” said sociologist Jorge Lago, a member of Podemos’s citizens’ council, part of its wider leadership structure. “The idea that a progressive build-up of strength among the demonstrators would inevitably produce political results proved to be false.” Associations to fight tenant evictions and resistance networks against health sector cuts were established, but the movement ran out of steam and fell apart.
There was disappointment at the ballot box, too. According to Lago, “80% of people said they agreed with the movement, but they continued to vote in the same old way.” The conservatives won a landslide in the November 2011 general election. That prompted the Podemos founders to ask questions: what if some of those who sympathised with the 15-M movement did still want to be represented? And what if using the machinery of the state was a necessary condition for social change?

The spirit of May

Though at odds with the Puerta del Sol call for direct democracy, Podemos wants to be heir to the “spirit of May”, especially over crowdfunding, transparency and collective decision-making. At the same time, its members have recognised some of the traps of doing away with all the old vertical political structures. At the party’s first conference last October, Echenique tabled a motion to increase decentralisation, and the party’s flat structure and flexibility. Pablo Iglesias, Podemos leader, suggested that achieving the movement’s objectives meant focusing less on debate about the organisation’s inner workings. He won by a landslide.

To M-15’s most fervent supporters, this sounded like a betrayal of autonomy: the new party would be no more than the willing stooge of the system. “Podemos has arisen as a way of channelling social energy and the process of large-scale experimentation [of recent years],” said Nuria Alabao, a Barcelona activist (1). Iglesias’s inner circle claims Podemos has not subsumed the 15-M movement but provided a new way of advancing the struggle. “Social movements are perfectly capable of retaining their autonomy while also supporting, if they see fit, a government that is more favourable to them than recent ones,” said Lago.

But what should happen when a government that social movements regard as over-timid comes under fire from conservatives? Should they play into their enemy’s hands by joining the criticism, or keep silent, betraying their cause? There is no easy answer to this.

Even though there is no direct continuity between the 15-M movement and the rise of Podemos, party leaders believe the movement enabled the creation of the party by giving it a political focus that is rarely so coherent in Europe — the people. “It’s not ‘the people’ who produce the revolt, but the revolt which produces its people,” is how the collective Comité Invisible put it in its most recent book (2). Whereas in other countries the word “people” remains hollow, it gained real substance in Spain during the occupation of the squares.
Corruption is structural

The emergence of this collective “we” is a response to the conduct of the country’s elite, which Podemos calls “the caste”. The level of corruption in Spain makes France look virtuous. Nearly 2,000 corruption cases are under official investigation, involving at least 500 high-ranking civil servants and an estimated annual cost to the state of €40bn (3). The main parties — the ruling rightwing People’s Party (PP) and the PSOE — have responded by agreeing to “limit the legal responsibility of individuals who have received illegal donations” (4) and keep the political parties that benefited beyond the reach of the law. Even the monarchy, long considered untouchable, has been unable to restore the reputation of Spain’s elite, since the scandals involve the new king’s sister, Infanta Cristina de Borbón.

Iglesias maintains that corruption at this level is “structural” (5). It becomes indistinguishable from the wider conception of politics illustrated by conservative member of parliament Andrea Fabra in 2012; when prime minister Mariano Rajoy announced further unemployment benefit cuts, Fabra said of the unemployed: “They can go fuck themselves.”

Half of Spain’s unemployed no longer receive benefits, while 33 of the 35 biggest companies avoid tax through subsidiaries in tax havens (6). Half a million children have been plunged into poverty since 2009, but the wealth of Spain’s super-rich has increased by 67% since Rajoy came to power (7). To avoid the wrath of a fractious population, last December’s “citizen security” law outlawed everything that made the 2011 mobilisation possible, including meetings in public places and distributing leaflets.

Podemos reckons that when Spain’s real estate bubble burst it destroyed the foundations of the consensus dating from the 1978 constitution: a transition pact, the monarchy — now so tarnished that Juan Carlos had to abdicate in favour of his son last year — and aspirations of social mobility. “The economic crisis,” Lago said, “has caused a political crisis, the kind of exceptional situation that is a necessary forerunner of any deep social change.” After the “dismissal” process of May 2011, the time may be ripe for a constitutive process: transforming the state through the mechanisms of the state.

Spain’s situation may be risky. It makes the far right, Iglesias has pointed out, “as happy as a fish in water” (8). Yet the Spanish left has an advantage over its French counterpart: a large fringe element of the nationalist far right is formally integrated into the PP, which makes it difficult for them to push an anti-system platform, unlike France’s Front National, which has only ever run local councils.
But the situation in Spain does not explain Podemos’s recent ascent. Izquierda Unida (United Left) has long promoted a similar political programme without managing to change the political order. So it is also a question of method.

The leaders of Podemos believe the left has long been guilty of abstruse analysis, obscure references and opaque language. Iglesias reckons that “people don’t vote for someone because they identify with his ideology, culture or values, but because they agree with him.” And they are more likely to do that if candidates seem normal, likeable and have a sense of humour.

Economic democracy

Podemos’s first task has been to translate the left’s traditional discourse into issues capable of winning the broadest support: democracy, sovereignty and social justice. “To be specific,” Lago said, “we don’t talk about capitalism. We defend the idea of economic democracy.” Nor is the left-right dichotomy discussed: “The divide,” Iglesias has said, “now separates those, like us, who defend democracy … and those who are on the side of the elites, the banks, the markets. There are people at the bottom and people at the top … an elite and the majority.”

Guardians of Marxist orthodoxy criticise this undifferentiated social critique. Last August, an activist challenged Iglesias on why he never used the term “proletariat”. He replied: “When the 15-M movement began, the students in my faculty — we’re talking highly politicised students who’ve read their Marx and Lenin — took part in rallies with ‘normal’ people for the first time. They were soon tearing their hair out: ‘They don’t understand anything!’ They were yelling: ‘You’re a worker even if you don’t realise it!’ People looked at them like they were from another planet, and my students went home discouraged … That’s what the enemy is expecting us to do: use words no one understands, remain a minority, fall back on our traditional symbols. And they know that as long as we do that, we pose no threat to them.”

Though some of its founders came from the far left, including Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left), Podemos managed to draw 10% of its support in the 2014 European elections from people who had voted for the right. The party’s support base has grown all across Spain through the creation of over a thousand “circles”. The young university-educated members from the cities have since been joined by white and blue-collar workers and rural residents.

History shows that such class alliances tend to fall apart when the aspirations of the better off are met. How can Podemos make sure it avoids this fate? “We can’t,” Lago admits. “But that is a question which only gets asked of those who are capable of winning. I’d prefer to have to deal with that than shelter behind the left’s traditional position on the margins.”

Shaped by Gramscian thought, Podemos leaders believe that the political struggle should not be limited to overthrowing existing social and economic structures, but should also be against the hegemony that legitimises the domination of the powerful in the eyes of those they dominate. In this cultural area, the enemy imposes its codes, language and narrative. And one tool stands out for its ability to shape “common sense” — television.

Since 2003, Iglesias and his friends (including university professor Juan Carlos Monedero, now a Podemos leader) have been making their own programmes, including La Tuerka, a political discussion show broadcast on local TV channels, and online. It acts as a focus for “understanding the world from a Leninist perspective, so that we are ready when the time comes,” Iglesias has said. Iglesias and his friends, who sometimes invite rightwingers on too, have become well known and now appear on political discussion shows on major TV channels: the second element of the Podemos strategy is “not leaving the field to the enemy”.

Not that it’s a cosy relationship. Last December, Iglesias was a guest on La noche en 24 horas, an important political programme on TVE (Spain’s main public channel). He made clear that he did not regard the invitation as a favour: “We had to fight for me to come on the show,” he told the sheepish producer, journalist Sergio Martín. “Please allow me to thank the workers in this organisation because, as you know, without pressure from them, you would never have asked me on.”

Spain’s ruling class has an electoral system that favours the two main parties, and parties with regionally limited appeal, such as the nationalists. “The arithmetic is simple,” said sociologist Laurent Bonelli in 2011. “The Navarran nationalists of Geroa Bai need 42,411 votes to get a seat. The PP needs 60,000; PSOE, 64,000; and the IU, 155,000.” Podemos has ruled out alliances — a “soup of symbols” that might risk drawing the movement back into the old left-right divide — and could deprive the party of votes from leftwing nationalists and IU activists, who have criticised Podemos’s “historical irresponsibility” (9). Spain’s elite is worried: in December the leader of the bosses’ organisation, Juan Rosell, called for a “German-style” grand coalition between the PP and the PSOE to counter Podemos.

“There’s nothing extremist about Podemos’s programme” (10), Iglesias has said: a constituent assembly on coming to power, tax reforms, debt restructuring, opposition to raising the retirement age to 67, the introduction of a 35-hour week (40 at present), a referendum on the monarchy, a kick-start for industry, the recovery of powers ceded to Brussels, self-determination for Spanish regions. Foreseeing an alliance with similar movements in southern Europe (Syriza in Greece, which has come to power in the 25 January election), Podemos’s plans do threaten financial powers, what Iglesias calls “German Europe” and “the caste”.

And those powers are already baring their teeth. A piece by journalist Salvador Sostres in El Mundo in December compared Iglesias to the former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, and claimed he had only one idea: “to make the blood of the poorest flow, to the very last drop.” A PP politician was even more direct: “Someone should put a bullet in the back of his head.”

Renaud Lambert is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique.

(1) Nuria Alabao, “Podemos y los movimientos”, Periódico Diagonal, 7 November 2014.

(2) Comité Invisible, A nos amis, La Fabrique, Paris, 2014.

(3) “Investigadores de la ULPGC analizan como estimar el coste social de la corrupción en España”, Las Palmas University communiqué, 29 July 2013.

(4) Europa Press, Madrid, 28 November 2014.

(5) Pablo Iglesias Turrión, Disputar la democracia: Política para tiempos de crisis, Akal, Madrid, 2014.

(6) “La responsabilidad social corporativa en las memorias anuales del IBEX 3”, 10th edition, Observatorio de Responsabilidad Social Corporativa, Madrid, 2012.

(7) Vicente Clavero, “Los dueños del Ibex son un 67% más ricos desde que gobierna Rajoy”, Público, 7 May 2014.

(8) Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Pablo Iglesias come from public speeches online.

(9) Europa Press, 12 December 2014.

(10) Pablo Iglesias Turrión, Disputar la democracia,op cit.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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