Podemos

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= the post-15M party that captured five seats in the European Parliament in its very first election in 2014

Description

Luke Stobart:

"Podemos was launched by Pablo Iglesias, who gained mass popularity through hosting alternative TV debates and by savaging establishment politicians and journalists on mainstream shows, along with members of the revolutionary Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left) and other activists. The aim of this audacious radical project was to turn a “social majority into a political majority”. Yet the defining feature of Podemos has been its roots in the 15-M (Indignados) movement that occupied city squares in 2011, in which most of its activists participated.

The 15-M fought the lack of “real democracy” in the May elections that year, using the slogan “they [the politicians] don’t represent us”. In opposition to the methods of “representative politics”, protests were organised through mass participatory democracy, as have those of subsequent social movements. This spirit has infused the activity of 400 Podemos “circles” (local groups) set up across Spain and among young emigres in several European cities. Around 33,000 people participated in open primaries to select electoral candidates consisting of “ordinary non-politicians”. (http://left-flank.org/2014/05/28/podemos-anti-politics-spanish-left/)

Characteristics

The Class Basis of Podemos

Luke Stobart:

"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." (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/)


History

Luke Stobart:

"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)." (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/14/understanding-podemos-23-radical-populism/)

Discussion

Cristina Flesher Fominaya:

"If one wants to look for ideological points of reference for the team behind Podemos probably Gramsci and Subcomandante Marcos would be the logical place to start. But it is precisely an anti-ideological stance, a refusal to self-define in terms of political ideologies, typical of autonomous social movements and 15-M that has marked an important element of the effective Podemos strategy.

It is here that Podemos has distinguished itself from it’s closest political rival, leftist coalition formation Izquierda Unida (IU). If many of their positions are the same, the language and framing has been very different. To many, IU seems old, tired and stuck in the past, and has for quite some time. By contrast, Podemos has understood that if people are not willing to think in terms of anti-capitalism, they are very open to criticisms of fraudulent bankers and corrupt politicians.

Podemos has presented itself as a party of “decent ordinary people”, who understand the needs of ordinary citizens and are open to taking their lead from them through the participatory process (as opposed to positioning themselves as the intellectual vanguard). They want to go “beyond acronyms” (again a very typical stance of progressive autonomous social movements in Spain[1].)

Clearly the strategy has worked very well, and the capture of 1.25 million votes for a very young party is nothing short of remarkable. The political fallout has been immediate. PSOE leader Rubalcaba announced he will be stepping down and opening the process for the election of a new leader (many bets are on Susana Díaz, after her excellent results in Andalucía). IU is also going through a significant internal shakeup and period of self-reflection. And, of course, what everyone wants to know is who actually voted for Podemos.

From early data on Madrid analyzed by Fernández-Albertos[2], the voter profile of Podemos highlights some intriguing features. First, the campaign slogan, “when was the last time you voted with excitement[3]?” seems to have worked, as Podemos appears to have activated the abstentionist vote. There is a strong correlation between increased participation and support for Podemos.

Second, districts where there has been an increase in unemployment are also strongly correlated with the Podemos vote, showing that the crisis is an important element.

Third, Podemos has mobilized the youth vote, so that even holding income constant, the younger the voting district the stronger the vote for Podemos. Finally, it is possible that some PSOE voters switched their vote to Podemos. In the analysis by district, there is a weak correlation between increase in the vote for IU and Podemos and a slightly stronger correlation between a decrease in the vote for the PSOE and an increase in the vote for Podemos. But as yet there is insufficient data for any firm conclusions.


Why Podemos and Why Now?

It is impossible to understand Podemos without taking into account the crisis and the social response to the crisis in the form of the Indignados/15-M movements and related or constituent movements such as the remarkably successful Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and the Movement for the Right to Housing.

These movements prepared the terrain for Podemos, through a sustained critique of the existing parties and party system, and direct actions such as the PAH’s “escrache al bipartidismo” a form of direct action protest against the bipartisan system of the PP and the PSOE (referred to as the “PPSOE”) who supported austerity measures and have not taken care of citizen needs in the wake of the crisis, instead using public money to socialize private banking debt. They even changed the Spanish constitution (art. 135) to limit the deficit (thus ensuring austerity in times of crisis).

The name of the party “Podemos” reflects the PAH’s slogan “Sí se puede!” (Yes it can be done! as well as recalling Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, we can!” and 15-M Acampada Sol’s humourous take on it, “Yes, we camp” .

The influence and importance of 15-M on Podemos cannot be overstated: Podemos and other similar formations such as Partido X are known as “15mayistas”. As one observer stated when summarizing the consequences of 15-M, “without 15-M there would be no Podemos”[4]. Indeed, without the existence of anti-austerity and pro-democracy (radical, alternative or reformist) social movements there would be no 15-M, and without the crisis and 15-M, there would be no Podemos. This does not in any way diminish the extraordinary effort and talent of Iglesias and the Podemos team, who have read the national mood (an astonishing 80% of support for 15-M in 2011), learned from social movements and known how to use alternative and mass media to maximum effect.


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The other crucial “15-M style” mechanism of Podemos was the participatory method for developing the electoral programme, one that used web tools that permit the collective development of documents, with a team of “synthesizers” from Podemos pulling together the final programme. This open and participatory method, in which any citizen could take part, was an attractive and successful aspect of the new approach. Citizens do not need to be card carrying members of Podemos to participate in the party, a dynamic far removed from the traditions of party militancy of formations like IU, PSOE or even the PP.

If Iglesias and his team are modern politicians, who know how to use new media to good effect, they also campaigned “old school”: travelling thousands of kilometres to meet people all around Spain, relying on mailbox leafletting, volunteers, word of mouth and local campaigning.


For and Against

Podemos can be considered a 15mayista party for all the reasons above, but it is also true that the very idea of a 15-M party is in many ways a contradiction in terms.

Within the 15-M related social movement networks activists are very divided about the rise of this new party. While there is generally positive feeling about Iglesias himself, and a sense that he is “one of us”, there is also considerable reticence about Podemos and other 15-M related political parties.

The lines of debate run roughly thus: for those against, or at least those who did not vote for Podemos, the arguments include the following:

  • Podemos co-opts a movement that, while not anti-political (as some claim) was autonomous or apartidista (non-aligned to any party and refusing to allow parties to co-opt or act in a representative capacity).
  • 15-M was about imagining a new form of direct democracy and people power from below, not entering into the political circus of party politics.
  • Podemos is actually just IU (or another leftist party, Izquierda Anticapitalista) in new clothing, since the main actors are in fact ex-IU affiliates or formerly close to IU (or Izquierda Anti-Capitalista).
  • Podemos is therefore a populist party that fails to actually say anything new or different from existing formations.
  • Podemos reproduces a Spanish trait of party politics known as “personalismo”, which is all about a politics of charismatic leadership, generally with a retinue of acolytes, and which exalts the leader above the base of support.
  • When social movements invest their energy in political parties, the movements inevitably decline and activist leadership is coopted into party politics. This argument was reflected well in a tweet of a 15-M activist following the elections: “I wonder how long it will take for some people to stop doing things for themselves and start expecting Pablo Iglesias to do it for them.”


The main arguments for Podemos (or in response to the above) go something like this:

  • The 15-M movement was great but it is over, and it is necessary to channel some of that energy into party politics and institutions to make lasting change, rather than see it dissipate.
  • The 15-M movement is not over, but has evolved into a myriad of projects and outcomes, one of which is the creation of grassroots parties such as Podemos or Partido X. Podemos embodies the spirit of 15-M and is therefore “15mayista”.
  • Media demands leaders and it is unrealistic to expect a party to be successful without entering into that dynamic, (and besides)
  • Podemos is the most horizontal party in practice out there.
  • There is no reason to think there is only one line of resistance, there is no contradiction between strong social movements and a progressive political party (“one foot in the institutions and 100 in the streets” as the saying goes).

Knowledge of the relation between Spanish autonomous movements, progressive movements and the state help make sense of both sides of the debate.

Unsurprisingly, many activists in a horizontal leaderless movement based on direct rather than representational participation do not support Podemos.


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On the other hand, many people who participated in 15-M, whether as committed activists or more peripheral supporters, felt strongly that the movement needed to articulate an effective institutional alternative to the existing political parties.

The imposition of austerity measures comes through parliament, after all, and is unlikely to be stopped purely by people power (the argument goes). After countless mass demonstrations in which millions of people’s rejection of the governments’ policies have fallen on deaf ears, even some of those who might initially have had more faith in the power of protest alone have undoubtedly felt that an institutional option was necessary. Spaniards in their millions have been asking for the defense of public services and rights, the elimination of corrupt politicians (amidst high profile corruption scandals), a greater distribution of wealth and opportunities, and a rejection of austerity policies as dictated by the Troika and financial elites.

Podemos has campaigned on precisely these issues. For those who were already voting in protest, rather than enthusiastically for other leftist parties, Podemos, and other options such as Partido X, represented an alternative that offered some hope for change.

In fact, many activists have long been multi-militants, with one foot in the social movements and the other in political parties, and supporting Podemos is a continuation of this long-term practice.

Iglesias and the rest of the Podemos team were around long before 15-M and have spent decades now developing their political expertise. The question is how long they will be around after 15-M. As one young voter told me, “I did not vote for Podemos because first I need to see what they actually do”.

Another outstanding question is the extent to which people voted for Podemos or voted for Pablo Iglesias. As Weber pointed out in relation to charismatic leadership, its key flaw is that without the leader, the political project fails." (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/eurocrisispress/2014/06/04/spain-is-different-podemos-and-15-m/)


Using a new post-leftist language

Owen Jones:

"Podemos has undoubtedly thrived only because it has shredded the old left rulebook. Spain’s traditional Communist-led United Left has itself received a boost, winning 10% of the votes in the European elections, and even beating Podemos. But it’s clear that Podemos is now surging because it eschews standard leftwing terminology. “In order to do politics differently, we need to do language differently,” Podemos’s Eduardo Maura tells me. “When you do politics, one of the things you have to ask yourselves is – what are you aiming at? You could aim at people who already have a political identity, who are an already signed-up leftist. We are trying to talk to people who don’t necessarily have this kind of identity.”

Instead, Podemos talks of rescuing Spain’s democracy from la casta, or the establishment; of winning over “social majorities” who oppose cuts, including people who don’t identify with the left. Rather than talk of nationalisations, Podemos preaches public control and accountability.

It is a strategy that makes sense. Across western Europe, the old industrial working class – with its relatively stable jobs and cohesive communities based around workplaces – has given way to a more fragmented and insecure service-sector workforce. The decline of trade unionism and the ingenious spinning of the climax of the cold war to mean “the end of history” means that the new generations grew up without the old culture of the traditional left. That means the forms of organising and communicating that often defined the old left and labour movements are now out of date. Podemos’s message is: adapt and thrive.

Other approaches have upset the more traditional left. Podemos has focused much of its appeal on its charismatic frontman, Pablo Iglesias, an academic who rose to prominence as a panellist on TV political debates. It was a pragmatic decision – Iglesias was far more recognisable than the party – but it represents a departure from the left’s traditional collective approach. They have learned, too, from the wave of progressive governments that have swept to power in Latin America.

Podemos is not alone. In Greece Syriza has long eclipsed Pasok, the country’s social democratic party that turned on its own supporters by implementing disastrous austerity policies. Slovenia’s newly formed United Left has risen to prominence this year. And in the Netherlands the Socialist party has experienced occasional surges in popularity." (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/16/podemos-left-crisis-ukip-anti-immigrant)


The 15M Legacy and Podemos

Luke Stobart:

"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”. (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/)


Podemos as Anti-Politics

Luke Stobart:

"“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.


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." (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/)


A Comparison with the Five-Star Movement

Luke Stobart:

"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." (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/14/understanding-podemos-23-radical-populism/)


The Gramscian Approach of Podemos

Luke Stobart:

"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. (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/14/understanding-podemos-23-radical-populism/)

Questions and Answers about Podemos

Carlos Declos, writing for ROAR Magazine

Some frequent questions about the political singularity that now leads the polls in Spain. Just who are Podemos? And could they be a force for change?

In April of 2013, the far-right Spanish television channel Intereconomía invited an unlikely guest to their primetime debate show: a young, Jesus-haired college professor with an unequivocally leftist background named Pablo Iglesias, just like the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Their goal was to corner him and hold him up as an example of an antiquated and defeated leftist past. Yet Iglesias responded to their rhetoric in a simultaneously polite but firmly antagonistic tone that appealed to both the younger generations who became politicized through the indignados movement and the older generations who did so during Spain’s transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy.

Over the following months, Iglesias and the team of academics and activists behind him were able to use this window of opportunity to catapult the message of the social movements and, most importantly, the people left behind by years of austerity and neoliberalism, into the mainstream media. Shortly after gaining access to the media, they formed the political party Podemos (“We Can”), initiating what polls are showing to be an authentic dispute for control of the Spanish government. How they were able to accomplish this in such a short amount of time will be studied in the political and social sciences for years to come.

Because it is a process that I have followed very closely for a number of years, I have often been asked by independent media-makers, academics and activists about how all of this came to be and what the implications are for movement politics. In this piece, I try to address some of the main questions I get from people who are actively engaged in the struggle for a real democracy.

Who are Podemos? Who are its leaders? Is this just another typical leftist party?

Podemos is a new political party that emerged at the beginning of 2014, initially as an alliance between the trotskyist Izquierda Anticapitalista and a group of academic “outsiders” with an activist background who had built a vibrant community through a public access television debate show called La Tuerka (“The Screw”). When I refer to this second group as outsiders, it is not to suggest that their academic output is eccentric or of a low quality. Rather, they are the types of academics who do not fit the mold favored by the so-called Bologna reforms of higher education in Europe, with its emphasis on highly specialized technical “experts” and empirical research, and its hostility towards a broader, theoretical and more discursive approach. These academics are currently the party’s most recognizable faces due to their formidable skills as communicators and their access to the mainstream media.

Recently, Podemos held elections for their Citizens’ Council, which is effectively the party’s leadership. Over 100.000 people participated in those elections through online voting. The team selected by Pablo Iglesias won by an overwhelming majority. It includes an interesting mix of academics, activists and some former politicians. For instance, Juan Carlos Monedero worked as an adviser to Hugo Chávez between 2005 and 2010, and he also advised Gaspar Llamazares of the Spanish United Left party. Íñigo Errejón is a very young and highly promising political scientist who carried out research in Bolivia and Venezuela, though prior to that he was one of the founders of Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), who had a major role in spearheading theindignados movement. Other activists from Juventud Sin Futuro include Rita Maestre and Sarah Bienzobas. Rafa Mayoral and Jaume Asens worked as lawyers for the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), the highly successful civil disobedience movement for decent housing. And Raimundo Viejo and Jorge Moruno are prominent intellectuals associated with the autonomist left.

Whether or not Podemos can be considered a typical leftist party will depend on its evolution. What is clear is that they do not adopt the rhetorical and aesthetic baggage of the marginal leftist and green parties that currently decorate European parliaments. Also, in contrast to SYRIZA, Podemos did not exist prior to the 2011 wave of protests; they emerged based on a diagnosis of the movements’ discourse and demands. Much of what has made Podemos so effective in the post-2011 political arena has been their ability to listen to the social movements, while the pre-existing Spanish political parties were busy lecturing them. Yet, as time progresses and support for the party grows, Podemos is finding itself increasingly tempted to assume the structures that are best adapted to Spain’s formal institutions. Unsurprisingly, these structures are those that currently exist. Whether or not this institutional inertia can be overcome depends on the degree to which the party’s constituents are capable of maintaining tension with its leadership structure and guaranteeing their accountability.

Why did Podemos explode onto the scene in the way they did?

Podemos burst onto the political scene because they understood the climate in the aftermath of the 2011 protests better than any other political actor. For example, the role of the social networks in connecting those movements was extremely important, but a lot of people and political organizations misinterpreted that fact as support for a techno-political, decentralized peer-to-peer ideology. In contrast, I think Podemos saw the social networks as a discursive laboratory through which to build and strengthen a common narrative that they would then take to the public arena in order to maximize its impact. To put it bluntly, they were not content with memes and likes and long comment threads. They wanted to take that discussion to the bars, the cafés and the unemployment lines.

In a sense, the key to Podemos’s emancipatory potential can be summed up in a phrase popularized by Raimundo Viejo and later put into a song by Los Chikos del Maiz, a Marxist rap group that has been very close to the party’s emergence: “El miedo va a cambiar de bando,” which translates to, “Fear is going to change sides.” Currently, they are accompanying that phrase with another, saying that the smiles are also starting to change sides. Using this approach, what they have managed to do is take the insecurity and fears produced by precariousness, unemployment or poverty and, in contrast to projecting it on immigrants (which is what Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, Beppe Grillo have done), they project it onto what they call “la casta” (the caste), which is basically the ruling class. And they have done this while, at the same time, “occupying” feelings like hope and joy. Who supports Podemos? What segment of the population would consider voting for them?

In most of the reports I have seen or read in English, Podemos is described as a sort of outgrowth of the indignados movement, in something of a linear progression. I think this is wrong. While their message resonated far beyond their class composition, the indignados movement was largely composed of a relatively young, college-educated precariat. Their emphasis on direct action and slow, horizontal deliberation introduced something of a selection mechanism into actual participation in the movement, whereby people who were less versed in the culture of radical politics, had less time to spend in general assemblies, were not entirely comfortable with public speaking, were not particularly interested in learning new internet tools and were not willing to take the risks associated with civil disobedience were filtered out over time.

In contrast, Podemos’s access to television guaranteed contact with an older audience, which is extremely important in a country such as Spain, with its older population structure and decades of low fertility. And the types of participation that Podemos enabled (namely, ballot boxes and smart phone apps) have a low learning curve, require less time and involve fewer risks than the more autonomous politics of the indignados. Because of this, Podemos attracts a crowd that includes a much larger component of underprivileged, working class and older people, in addition to a very strong, college-educated youth demographic.

The ideological composition of the people who support Podemos is also interesting. While the bulk of the support they draw comes from people who used to vote for the center-left “socialist” party, nearly a third of the people who currently support them had previously abstained from voting, turned in spoiled ballots or even voted for the right-wing Popular Party. Furthermore, while Podemos openly rejects the standard “left-right” division that has characterised Western politics for years, surveys are showing that their voters mostly view themselves as leftists, that is, neither center-left nor far left. Taken together, this might suggest that Podemos are drawing on something of an untapped leftist imaginary, or that they may very well be redefining what it means for people to consider themselves “leftists” in Spain.

What is Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements?

Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements is a tricky question to tackle. In addition to the establishment parties and the mainstream media, some people who are active in the grassroots and social movements have been quite critical of Podemos. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I think it is an issue that requires much more reflection than what I can offer here, which is entirely my opinion at the moment. But at its heart, Podemos is part of a growing exasperation with an institutional “glass ceiling” that the social movements keep bumping up against and have not been able to shatter. This exasperation is visible not only in the rise of Podemos but also in the emergence of municipal platforms intended to join outsider parties, community organizations and activists in radically democratic candidacies. In this context, people from the social movements are generally split between those who favor that type of participation and those who prefer a radicalization of non-institutional action.

The main criticism I see coming from the second group is that Podemos started “from the top and not from the bottom.” I think this is wrong. A comically low-budget local TV show and a Facebook page are not what I would consider “high” in a neoliberal chain of command. What Podemos have done is rise very quickly from there, and as they have done so, they have had to deal with questions related to institutional inertia and the autonomy of their own organization. And that is where I think critical voices coming from the social movements are right to be nervous.

While Podemos initially drew its legitimacy, structure (the Círculos they started in various cities were basically conceived as local, self-managed assemblies) and demands (a citizen-led restructuring of the debt, universal basic income, affordable public housing, an end to austerity policies, etc.) from the social movements, their intention was always to draw people from beyond the social movements. They have succeed wildly in doing so, and it turns out that the world outside of the social movements is huge. And despite the fact that they agree with the demands of the social movements, that world appears to be less interested in the social movements’ methodology than the social movements would like. This is enormously frustrating, because it confronts us with our own marginality. It is also unsurprising, because if people who are not activists loved our methodology as much as our message, there would probably be a lot more activists.

The main example of this tension is the internal elections. So far, Iglesias’s lists have consistently won with close to 90% support, and many people who have been influential in shaping the discourse of the social movements (and even that of Podemos itself) are increasingly being left out of decision-making because they are not on those lists. Once out, they discover how little influence the social networks and the Círculos actually have not only relative to that of the members who appear on TV, but also on the people who are not actively involved in theCírculos, yet still identify with Podemos enough to vote in their elections. So far, this has led to some internal accusations of authoritarianism, which I find misguided and think are kind of missing the point. I think the real problem is that we are finding that, in the present climate, people are generally happier to delegate responsibility than we suspected, at least until they can vote on specific issues that affect their daily lives.

At the same time, this propensity to delegate depends a lot on the legitimacy and trust people have in Podemos, which to a large extent was built through their relationship with the streets. So I think the influence the social movements have on Podemos is going to depend on their ability to engage in street politics in such a way that they are able to meet dispossessed people’s needs, on the one hand, and shape the public conversation in a way that forces Podemos to position itself. An example would be the PAH. Podemos cannot stray too much from their demands for decent housing because everybody knows and agrees with them. If Podemos were to stray too far from their demands, the PAH could mobilize against them or simply put out a harsh press statement, undermining their legitimacy considerably.

Where do you see this going? Could Podemos actually win the elections?

I think this is going to change Spain and Europe as we know them, no matter what. Polls are showing that Podemos have a real shot at being the most voted party in the country. Some show that they are already the most supported, and Pablo Iglesias is by far the most popular politician in Spain. If Podemos were to win, in all likelihood the Popular Party and the “socialists” would try to form a national government centered on guaranteeing order, making a few cosmetic changes to the constitution and sabotaging any chance for Podemos to ever beat them. They would also probably try to destroy any chance at something like Podemos rising again. As it stands, the establishment is doing everything in its power to discredit them: associating them with terrorist organizations, accusing their spokespeople of misconduct based on nothing, fabricating news stories. Fear really has changed sides, and it is clearly the establishment that is frightened.

In this sense, I think it’s very important for movements, and for Podemos themselves, to think of what is happening as a kind of political singularity. This is not Obama putting the Democrats in the White House. It is a group of people who have been actively engaged in the struggle against neoliberalism that have managed to turn a populist moment during a period of economic crisis into a hope for a better democracy and an end to neoliberal austerity. At least in Spain, to blow this chance could be a major step backwards for emancipatory politics, towards another long journey through the desert.

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