Can they?

Dan Hancox

  • BuyPolitics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of a Democratic Europe by Pablo Iglesias, translated by Lorna Scott Fox
    Verso, 237 pp, £10.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 78478 335 8

‘I have defeat tattooed in my DNA,’ Pablo Iglesias said in a debate on television last year, a month after announcing the formation of a new political entity called Podemos. ‘My great-uncle was shot dead. My grandfather was given the death sentence and spent five 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. It bothers me enormously to lose, I can’t stand it. And I’ve spent many years, with some friends, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking about how we can win.’

Spain goes to the polls on 20 December in what will be a historic election. Since the 1980s, general elections in Spain have been two-way races between the conservative Partido Popular (the People’s Party, or PP) and the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE). The PP won the most recent election, in 2011, with 44.6 per cent of the vote; the PSOE gained 28.8 per cent. But in December the two parties’ combined share of the vote is unlikely to exceed 50 per cent. The two new contenders are Podemos and the centre-right populists Ciudadanos (Citizens). Ciudadanos have been doing better in the pre-election polls, but Podemos has been the big story since its formation and astonishing rise in 2014. Like Syriza, it has given organisational form to a new European left-wing populism. In the European elections of May 2014, with a tiny, crowd-funded budget and just four months of existence, it gained 1.2 million votes and five MEPs. By the end of the year it led the two establishment parties in the polls.

The roots of Podemos lie in the huge 2011 indignados protests against the Spanish political system in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. The crisis left a quarter of Spanish families living below the poverty line, and a majority of the rest earning no more than a thousand euros a month; 400,000 families were evicted over the next few years, while more than three million homes lay empty. Unemployment rose above 26 per cent, and above 60 per cent for 16-24-year-olds; a significant proportion of Spain’s graduates left for the US and Northern Europe. In 2012, under the guidance of the Troika, the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who has led the PP since 2004, made deep cuts to public sector jobs and public spending while also introducing labour reforms to make it easier to sack employees.

The Spanish establishment, meanwhile, thrived. The market for luxury goods soared, and rates of corporation tax plummeted: revenues dropped from €40 billion in 2007 to €22 billion in 2012, while income tax revenue rose by €10 billion. Spain’s nightly TV news was dominated by corruption scandals affecting both of the main parties, the judiciary, the unions, the royal family and any number of private sector corporations. Few of these scandals have been prosecuted, let alone ended in convictions. It is unsurprising that a new political formation emerged to challenge the complacency and corruption of the politicians, bankers, royals, media barons and judges: the political and economic establishment Podemos refers to as ‘la casta’.

The Podemos project began with a small group of young politics lecturers at Madrid’s Complutense University – Iglesias, along with Luis Alegre, Germán Cano, Juan Carlos Monedero and Iñigo Errejón – who were interested in the question of how to channel the energy of the indignados. Drawing on the ideas of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe about hegemony and populism, and what some of them had learned by studying Latin American left-wing populist governments, they proposed putting aside notions of ‘left versus right’ or ‘workers versus bosses’ in favour of a single opposition: the people versus la casta.

From the outset, Iglesias and his comrades understood that it was vital to know how to operate on hostile media and political terrain. They had to be realistic about the hegemonic strength of Spanish neoliberalism and the gap between what was being said in the streets and squares about the struggles of everyday life and what was making it into the mainstream media. Much has been made of the indignados’ exploration of digital democracy (they have used such platforms as Reddit to discuss policy proposals, and the online forum Plaza Podemos to vote on them), but Iglesias makes it clear that he believes TV remains ‘the great medium of our time’, the primary place for challenging establishment narratives and language. ‘When our adversaries use terms like la casta, revolving door, the “Berlusconisation” of politics, eviction, precarity,’ he writes, ‘they’re acknowledging the displacement of the fight onto a terrain that favours us.’

The Complutense group started on its media campaign in 2010 with an amateur TV discussion programme, La Tuerka, recorded in a disused garage in Madrid and broadcast on the tiny local cable station Tele K. La Tuerka (and later Fort Apache) became the group’s de facto think tank, as well as enabling them to build up a substantial following online. The show was run, Carlos Delclós writes in Hope Is a Promise, by a crew of volunteers, operating on a set comprising ‘two long tables with red and black cloth draped over them … black walls with egg cartons stapled to them for soundproofing. The sound was consistently awful, the editing amateurish at best.’[*] Jorge Moruno, now Iglesias’s chief speechwriter, who worked on the programme, told Delclós that the left had for too long ‘sought refuge in the warmth of their own codes and spaces’, and needed to learn to get its message out to unbelievers. La Tuerka permitted them to test out ideas, introducing (and in the process training up) the advocates of la nueva política: academics, journalists, lawyers, activists and union members, as well as people like Monedero, Errejón and Iglesias himself, who went on to be an increasingly popular guest on mainstream TV.

Winning on enemy terrain also meant breaking what Errejón, now Podemos’s political secretary, has called the left’s ‘leadership taboo’, the idea prevalent among the indignados that ‘a charismatic leader is incompatible with real democracy.’ Errejón ran last year’s European election campaign and – to the discontent of some – put a photo of Iglesias’s face on the ballot, reasoning that in those early months his regular appearances on political talkshows to put the case against austerity had made Podemos and ‘Pablo’ indistinguishable. In an election with so many undecided voters, it might make the difference. Errejón has argued that Iglesias’s leadership is a strategic construction, a tool that, far from usurping popular left-wing hegemony, helps build it.

By the time Politics in a Time of Crisis was published (as Disputar la Democracía) in Spain in October last year, the party was close to overtaking the PP in the opinion polls. But the bulk of the book was written in 2013 when ‘Podemos was little more than a vague, nameless hypothesis.’ As such it outlines the perceived need and historical context for the emergence of a party like Podemos, but doesn’t articulate the party’s policy platform. In the book, as on TV, Iglesias mixes the serious with the playful, political theory with pop culture. He cites Billy Elliot and The Wire alongside Francis Fukuyama and David Harvey to discuss neoliberalism’s corrosion of the postwar social democratic consensus, Game of Thrones alongside Gramsci to illustrate the meaning of power. The book is aimed at the ‘youth without a future’, the generation for whom adult life will begin with the considerable difficulty of getting away from the family home.

A large part of the book is devoted to a tour of Spain’s 20th century and its glaring precedents for the present: a succession of grim lessons concerning the use of crises by the strong to repress the weak, unnecessary compromises and the betrayal of mass movements. There are contemporary resonances everywhere: especially, given the likelihood of a coalition government after 20 December, in a passage about the subduing and incorporation of marginal parties in the 1910s to prop up national governments. One message is clear throughout: under capitalism, democracy is always incomplete, and always contingent.

Capitalism is rarely named explicitly as the enemy ideology, in part because attacking capitalism head-on is identified with the (failed) way of the old left, but perhaps also because it hardly needs spelling out. Fundamental to Podemos – as it was to the indignados – is the sense that Spanish democratic sovereignty has been usurped by the forces of global capitalism, represented recently in the form of the Troika, with the co-operation of the country’s own political and economic elites. As if to demonstrate this, in 2011 the PP and PSOE agreed a constitutional reform that made it a legal obligation for Spain’s governing party to designate balancing the budget a priority over public spending and investment – in Iglesias’s words, formalising ‘the victory of a Hayekian Europe’.

Podemos aims its critique not just at European austerity, but also at the failures of Spain’s post-Franco settlement. Almost as prominent as la casta in the Podemos lexicon is el régimen del ’78, a reference to the year the democratic constitution was established after Franco’s death in 1975. The term carries contempt for the shrinking of the differences between the PP and PSOE over the last thirty years, and the democratic deficit left by their domination. It also speaks of the chasm between the radical, organised working class that came alive again in the late 1970s, marching and striking in their millions, and the post-Franco consensus stitched up by the political classes, the monarchy and union leaders. There was neither atonement for the sins of the dictatorship nor a purging of torturers from Franco’s police force. ‘In the case of the Spanish transition,’ Iglesias writes, ‘it wasn’t the democrats who set the rules.’

The generation of 1978 also includes the (then powerful) communists. The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had been legalised in 1977 by Spain’s first democratic leader, the conservative Adolfo Suárez. In the frantic pragmatism of the period, the PCE’s leader, the Eurocommunist pioneer Santiago Carrillo, formed an alliance with Suárez and – along with all the other major parties and the union leaders – signed the Moncloa Pact of 1977, an economic austerity package to be imposed at a time of great unemployment and poverty. The communists helped write the 1978 constitution, along with representatives of the centre-left and centre-right as well as the Catalans and the Basques.

*

The formation of a new party called Podemos was announced at a meeting in a small neighbourhood theatre in Madrid on 17 January 2014. It had come about through an unlikely pact between Iglesias and the Trotskyist group Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left), which was tiny but had the national structure in place that provided an organisational base for the Complutense set. Iglesias announced that he would stand for Podemos in the European elections if fifty thousand people signed up on its website: the target was achieved within two days. The party’s grassroots set up assembly-style círculos, or circles, a network of groups convened online or in person, defined either by geography or by area of interest or identity: science, sport, LBGT etc. This ‘distributed network’ model replicated the methods of both the indignados and the phenomenally successful housing activist group PAH, whose former spokesperson Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona in May.

The Podemos manifesto proposed to ‘convert citizen indignation into political change’. Iglesias called for the participation of anyone who had opposed austerity and defended ‘social rights’ during the crisis. Although the polls had consistently shown that a substantial majority of the population had supported the indignados, Podemos’s breakthrough in the European elections shocked the Spanish establishment. As 2014 wore on, the party’s poll ratings climbed at an incredible rate while the PP suffered from the effects of its cuts (and Rajoy’s unpopularity), and the PSOE’s appointment of a younger, slicker leader in Pedro Sánchez failed to make an impact.

Once the PP had been eclipsed, it was inevitable that the Spanish media’s attitude to Podemos – a mixture of fascination and scepticism – would quickly give way to hostility; since the turn of the year, Podemos has had to weather a sustained backlash. It has had disappointing results in regional elections in Andalucía and Catalonia; Syriza, its fellow traveller, has all but collapsed in the face of pressure from the Troika; and it has struggled to resolve a fundamental contradiction: that its origins are in the grassroots, leaderless indignados movement, while it is guided by a small central core of intellectuals. The relationship between the centre and the base grew tense almost as soon as the euphoria of the party’s initial success had passed. In October 2014, the party finally gathered at the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid to vote on a formal structure. The Iglesias bloc, Claro Que Podemos, faced a rival proposal from a slate including three of the party’s MEPs designed, according to one of them, Lola Sánchez, to ‘ensure diversity and prevent monopolies’. It proposed three party leaders rather than one, and devolved more decision-making power to the círculos. For Iglesias, the commitment to pluralism and decentralisation had clear limits. ‘Heaven is not taken by consensus, it is taken by assault,’ he told the assembly. ‘You don’t defeat Rajoy or Pedro Sánchez with three general secretaries – only one.’

Of the 205,000 people registered at the time as supporters on the Podemos website, 112,000 voted on the proposals; Claro Que Podemos won with 80 per cent of the vote. But the tensions didn’t abate, and in April this year, one of the party’s most prominent figures, Juan Carlos Monedero, resigned. He had been on the Claro Que Podemos team with Iglesias, but appeared to have changed his mind, calling for the party to ‘go back to its origins’, not to pursue electoral success at all costs and become ‘hostage to the worst aspects of the state’. While insisting that Podemos were still ‘the most decent force in politics’, Monedero worried that it was ‘falling into these kinds of problem because it no longer has the time to meet with the small círculos, because it is more important to get one minute of TV airtime’. The selection of Podemos candidates for the general election has led to further problems at local level: in the Basque Country and Aragon, candidates have resigned as a group. ‘The new Podemos,’ a spokesman said, ‘with its vertical structure, which they began to construct at Vistalegre’, had implemented a ‘shameful and undemocratic’ method in its selection of candidates.

The rapper Nega from the group Chikos del Maíz, a personal friend of Iglesias, told Delclós that the problem has less to do with the party’s internal democracy than with the moderation of its discourse: ‘You can’t treat people like imbeciles and go from supporting a universal basic income to saying, “We’ll see,” or from saying that we should nationalise strategic sectors of the economy to supporting Tsipras in the third bailout “because he had no option”. Where are you positioning yourself when you tell your voters: “No, we can’t”?’

Such tensions are the symptom of another contradiction at the heart of the Podemos project: the attempt to provide an outlet for Spain’s great well of untapped radicalism, while at the same time exercising a ruthlessly unsentimental realpolitik. In the opening pages of Politics in a Time of Crisis, Iglesias dismisses the ‘infantile disorder’ of ‘leftism’, pointing out that the most striking victories for radical politics in Spain since 2008 have come not from the communists, or ‘the lonely prophets of revolutionary purity’, but the family-friendly, ‘reformist’ PAH, which has blocked evictions, been creative in its use of direct action and changed the country’s housing laws – and all with the support of the vast majority of the Spanish population. Yet for all Iglesias’s optimism that there is a progressive, essentially socialist majority out there (if only his party could find the right formula to tap into it), it is unimaginable that Podemos could achieve anything close to the popularity of the PAH, who have been fighting manifestly unjust housing legislation in the context of a housing crisis that affects everyone (in one opinion poll the PAH received the backing of 87 per cent of PP voters). Instead, Iglesias has to hold together a delicate populist coalition containing old and young, perennial non-voters, disenchanted PSOE supporters, and anyone else disillusioned with la casta.

The strategy of the PP, PSOE and their acolytes in the media for combating Podemos has been simple: emphasise its stars’ links with Venezuela and Bolivia, and keep mentioning Chavez and Castro. The idea is to brand Podemos as old wine in new bottles, the latest iteration of the extreme left. The media have tried to resurrect controversies over pronouncements from Podemos figures years ago about the importance of negotiating with ETA, in much the same way the British media have tried to taint Corbyn by associating him with Hamas or the IRA. To the extent that this strategy has succeeded, it has opened the way for Ciudadanos to steal centrist votes from Podemos, as a more palatable ‘vote for change’. The rise of Ciudadanos – helped by the popularity of its TV-friendly leader, Albert Rivera – has correlated exactly with Podemos’s decline.

Formed in 2006, as a Catalan party whose primary motivation was to oppose Catalan independence, Ciudadanos has grown considerably in stature since it became a national party a year ago. It received 9 per cent of the vote in the Andalusian elections in March (Podemos got 15 per cent), and 18 per cent in September’s Catalan elections. The party purports to have revived commonsense liberalism, calling for deregulation, lower taxes and an end to corruption, along with liberal social policies such as the legalisation of prostitution and marijuana. But behind the progressive façade there is a xenophobic undercurrent; and the revelation that Rivera had been a PP member for four years directly before switching to Ciudadanos helped cement the idea that they are a younger, populist version of the PP. After the Paris attacks, Rivera sought to outflank the PP and urged them to change Spain’s emergency laws, to allow for the suspension of social media and the closure of websites and individuals’ accounts.

In its effort to reach beyond the young and indignant, Podemos has found judges, military officers and even a member of the loathed Guardia Civil to run for Congress under the Podemos banner. Whether the party could stretch to an alliance with the PSOE, or even to inclusion in a three-way coalition with the PSOE and Ciudadanos, remains to be seen. Perhaps more likely is a government comprising the PP and Ciudadanos, in which event Podemos will have to work hard to avoid becoming what it least wants to be: a hectoring opposition voice against austerity with 10-15 per cent of the vote and no power. But with the success of the citizens’ platforms in Barcelona, Madrid and beyond, the victories of the PAH, and the still recent memory of the sheer size and popularity of the indignados movement, there remains plenty of energy in la nueva política for Podemos to draw on. Its challenge to la casta will not end with this election, whatever its outcome.

[*] Zed, Kindle edition, 73 pp., £1.91, October.