The Consequences of the Podemos Movement-Party

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The following is a transcript of a speech I gave at the Historical Materialism Sydney conference on ‘Populism, Capitalism and the Alternative’. The conference was fantastic – with a program of dozens of other speakers which I shared here.

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The Consequences of the Podemos Movement-Party

Introduction and background on the Podemos Movement-Party

The question I’m exploring in this paper is: “what have been the consequences – at the level of culture, institutions and policy – of the Podemos Movement-Party (PMP)?” or to put it in broader terms – “How has this movement transformed society?”. In order to answer that, during and after the December 2015 Spanish federal elections I conducted participant observation of rallies and mobilisations and interviewed nine militant activists from both the leftist and centrist tendencies in Barcelona and Madrid about what they felt it had achieved. Podemos for anyone unfamiliar is a very new party – having been founded in January 2014 by a clique of Gramscian intelligentsia at the Complutense University of Madrid including Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon who represent its leftist and centrist tendencies. They saw an opening created by popular disaffection with the old parties and sought to present Podemos as the primary legitimate political expression of the anti-austerity 15M indignados movement which occupied over 50 city squares across the country at the height of the GFC before dissipating.[1] They sought to unite social democrats, liberals, communists and anarchists in what they referred to as an entirely ‘new subject’ in Spain, which builds on the anti-political direct-democratic ideal of the 15M movement, and seeks ‘to take control of the machinery of state power’ to enact a basically social democratic neo-Keynesian program (the radicalism of which both the bourgeois press and activists have wildly exaggerated).

The theoretical framework for this paper comes from the thesis that I’m currently writing at RMIT. Marxism and Social Movements (2013) by Colin Barker, Elizabeth Humphrys and others’ We make our own history: Marxism and social movements in the twilight of Neoliberalism by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunwald Nilsen’s (2014) are primary texts I draw on. In them the authors pose the problem that we have these two discourses and fields of social movement studies on the one hand and Marxism on the other which are contemptuous of one another. They point out how:

“Although Marxism is a theory developed from and for social movements, and its critical perspective is regularly stressed, in practice most actually existing Marxism has very little of theoretical substance to say about social movements. In Leninist traditions, collective action has often been reduced to a discussion of political parties, usually without reference to the enormous distinction between what ‘party’ meant in the Communist Manifesto circa 1848, what it meant in 1917, and what it means today. A rethinking of both Marxism and social movement research is needed, aiming to explore how human beings make their own history, from above as well as from below, intentionally and unintentionally, and to do so in a way that might actually be useful to participants in contemporary movements. We situate social movements at the centre of an explanation of social change. Rather than a field-specific theory of social movements as a self-contained space, cut off from revolutions, radical parties, labour conflicts, community organising, popular subcultures and so on, we treat these as interrelated aspects of popular agency.” [2]

This paper seeks to build on this literature in bridging that gap between these two mutually contemptuous fields of inquiry. It does so to show how social movements like the PMP, are not mere objects that must attempt to position themselves within a static set of material conditions or political opportunity structures, forever stuck merely reacting to rules set by others that they possess zero power to alter. In fact, I seek to show that they are able to change the conditions by impacting culture, institutions and policy, and establish a new framework within which future movements will operate. Here, I am firmly rejecting the liberal-pacifist ideology of ‘liberal-capitalist democracy as eternal natural order’ framework which Cox and Nilsen (2014) suggest predominates in conservative sociology and political science. The PMP and similar anti-austerity movements can be thought of as pre-revolutionary forces that lay the groundwork for future system change. [3]

Today, Podemos is not a revolutionary movement, although the central leadership display some of the characteristics of a vanguard party; such as seeking to find and cultivate the most politicised layers of the working and proletarianized, precarious middle classes (which it refers to as the ‘popular class’) into the centralised Gramscian intelligentsia I alluded to, capable of laying the groundwork for the pre-revolutionary conditions of the present. The argument for the party becomes ‘if not revolution today, then why not take power over some of the institutions under capitalist democracy we immediately can contest as fields of struggle (both within the state and beyond), and then use that power to create a culture ripe for more radical social and economic transformation in the medium term’. Before rushing to dismiss the Podemos movement-party as tepid liberal reformism, defeatist and so on, we should bear in mind, that the Trotskyist Anticapitalistas network in Spain played a part in the founding of the party, and continues to operate as an independent and influential faction within Podemos, standing candidates and recently winning local elections. Many militants within Podemos more broadly also came from the anticapitalist movement and grew tired of what they viewed as the performative or minoritarian politics of fringe protest groups which can too easily be marginalised and dismissed by the media, the bourgeois political parties, and ultimately the public (which is conditioned by these hegemonic institutions). In this sense, we could think of the PMP almost as a form entryism; a way of circumventing and rupturing with the paradigm of either or: neither reform nor revolution, neither fringe protest group nor bourgeois party. Here, we can observe the influence of prefiguration as social movement strategy in the formation of Podemos. Much like the 15M before it, it attempts to build a visionary model for how to transform society along direct-democratic lines, and is seeking to spread that as far as possible.

What was the movement’s Strategy and how effective did activists feel this had been?

Electoral fundamentalism was the strategy at the time, and activists felt that it had a pacifying effect which negated some of the movement’s capacity to achieve a greater cultural and institutional impact. It was not to stage rolling general strikes, demonstrations and petition existing social democratic parties to change their policies along anti-austerity lines, or to engage in direct actions to sabotage movement opponents – all tactics which could have been used and possibly would have helped to achieve movement goals.[4] The weakening of the movement’s strategy is because bureaucratisation (the transition in form from fluid, horizontality illustrated by the circles – over 1,000 proliferated after the party was launched, to rigid party with a presidential-style executive) establishes social divisions between those in the minority doing the administrating and the large majority of those being administered. This trend pushes Podemos towards becoming more like any ordinary bourgeois party (whether conservative or social democrat) where the leaders treat the membership as pawns to be sent out on voting day, raise money in the lead-up to elections, and do little else in between. Going back to Humphrys and Tietze (2013), this is the contradiction of all social democratic parties that must seek to balance representing the interests of subaltern sectors against reproducing and stabilising the capitalist state which maintains their position of power. Thus the utopian dimension which drew activists to the 15M – the goal of transforming society into ‘Real Democracy Now!’ – is postponed.

The Podemos hypothesis as articulated by Iglesias, writing in the New Left Review (2015), was to take control of the machinery of state power through winning elections. Among critics of this strategy, a young socialist from the Madrid Arganzuela circle who participated in the indignados, described how she felt that in shifting the circles’ practice of direct democracy in the city squares of 2011 to internet driven voting after the Vistalegre conference, they had become atomised as a political force, susceptible to the direction of the executive. She pointed out how:

“I remember watching the conference at the time and how the strategists loved talking about the social stratas that supposedly contain this vast untapped voting reserve waiting to be won. In order to win the argument about prioritising that sector, they contrasted the circles or (the militants) with the citizenry. In other words, they were telling us that we’re not normal or representative of the people on the street.

Here I think the executive makes a fatal error in artificially isolating the militants from the citizenry. Activists are normal people; they’re students, teachers, nurses, public servants, service workers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. They live in the same streets, go to the same schools and hospitals, associate with overlapping networks of the very same people as this mythical post-political ‘citizenry’, that we are led to believe is perfectly insulated from all politics and has only the television to receive political messages from. The activist from Arganzuela continued:

“This cartoon-like depiction of activists as an Other to be shamefully hidden from view; perhaps of tattooed, pierced, coloured and shaved-hair, punk-rock anarchists, falls right in to the game of respectability politics. Of course most activists don’t look like that. Okay some do – but so what! This has a conservatizing effect on our movement, and rather than contributing to mythic future growth it effectively numbs the movement’s revolutionary and destabilising potentiality. The whole purpose of Podemos is to democratise society; to be the spark which sets off a fire across the continent ending in a Social Europe. No version of that process is going to be easy. No version of that will be respected. On the contrary, we will continue to be under attack for supposed illegitimacy every step of the way. It follows that the power we seek has to be taken, not given.”[5]

Consequences of the Podemos Movement-Party for Culture, Institutions and Policy

First, the movement’s consequences for culture. The activists interviewed highlighted the mainstreaming of a set of previously radical ideas; especially Podemos’ unique iteration of populist class conflict between the universal ‘people’ opposed to ‘the caste’ (the oligarchs, establishment political class, hangovers of the Franco era and so on). Activists felt that the discursive patterns first advanced in the 15M movement had been granted a wider legitimacy than they could have imagined through the direction of its energy into a formal political project to take power. One from the Anticapitalistas faction remarked on the cultural impact on internal subjects within the movement argued:

“For us, one of the most exciting things to observe has been the radicalisation and politicisation that less experienced layers in the party (as a microcosm of the whole society) have undergone as a result of our participating in the original coalition that established Podemos; especially students and young workers who may never have protested before. I feel like we have a much better chance of taking power compared to our past of engaging in activism as a smaller individual organisation. Being part of the new broader coalition has enabled us to disseminate a radical critique of society to a much larger audience, albeit in a new language that doesn’t necessarily use our traditional propaganda terms. Being inside the big tent has also enabled us to push for a cultural hegemony within the party and in terms of the candidates chosen to stand for council or federal elections and so on.”

Tied into this phenomenon, culture has also been impacted through the movement shifting the discourse on austerity. The debate was decisively shifted when Podemos displayed its movement features during the March 2014 ‘March for Dignity’ and the January 2015 ‘March for Change’, when several hundred thousand people descended from around the country to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, where the 15M movement began. Although trade union federations and social movement organisations formally acted as the anchor institutions for the marches, they attracted mass popular support from wider civil society. The slogan they chanted was ‘Bread, Work, Housing’. The thematic tropes (for dignity, human rights, the citizenry against the caste and so on) used in Iglesias’ television program La Tuerka formed a key part of the movements strategy to change the discourse, and it worked. It is no longer feasible to advocate or even to raise the subject of cuts to public spending without fear of criticism, as the PP and PSOE did during the years leading up to Podemos’ rise.

These impacts on the culture have in turn flowed through to impacts on institutions; most notably on the movement’s political targets within the federal congress. In becoming the third electoral force in Spain, Podemos has disrupted the cosy state of affairs for PP and PSOE the neoliberal duumvirate of conservatives and social democrats which has managed capitalism within the Spanish state since Franco’s departure in 1978. The leadership of PSOE has been forced to defend the party’s left flank against the significant and ongoing defection to Podemos, while PP has been forced to defend itself also from a minority of its supporters who have defected to both Podemos and Ciudanos (the centre-right, neoliberal version of Podemos) who have concluded that the PP is too plagued by corruption scandals and terminal unpopularity to remain viable in the long term. The PMP has almost single-handedly brought about a multi-party system, where it is only possible to form government through intensely scrutinized negotiations with other parties. In forming its electoral alliance with the United Left, what is now called “Unidos Podemos” has become the de-facto opposition to the conservative government, while the PSOE is undergoing an inter-factional civil war and the gradual stagnation of death by a thousand cuts.[6]

The reformulation of Europe’s fourth largest economy into a multi-party system, has in turn had consequences for the governance institutions from across the continent: the EU, European Parliament, the European Central Bank, the IMF and so on. Here it is necessary to allude to the experience of the similar anti-austerity, radical left coalition in Greece, Syriza (see for example Milios 2015), which won the national elections there of January 2015. I will assume everyone in the room knows about the 3rd memorandum and the immense humanitarian cost of austerity in Greece.[7] When asked why the Troika reserved such severe treatment for Syriza, interviewees described how:

“The institutions want to send a message to Spanish voters, and those from across the rest of Europe; remember we have many elections coming up in the next year or two. The message is ‘look – this is what will happen to your economy, your schools, hospitals and so on, if you dare to elect a radical anti-austerity government. We will destroy your economy so badly that it will take decades to recover. Don’t even take the risk.’ Its plainly a form of punishment for the crime of asserting national sovereignty over the institutions, and challenging their rules”.

The PMP in this regard must be seen as one of the key components in a bloc of new, or insurgent left-populist parties across the continent, which have as their end goal the creation of a Social Europe, in place of the neoliberal austerity version tied to the EU as it currently operates. These parties include the UK Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, the 5M party in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, the Left Bloc in Portugal, among others. This is the new spectre haunting Europe, the threat that the Troika institutions fear, and explains why they have been so aggressive in punishing Greece.

Moving on to the PMP’s impact on policy, activists felt this was the weakest level of consequence for the movement. Outside of the local electoral victories in Madrid and Barcelona the party is yet to win state power in order to implement its program. This applies to the neo-Keynesian approach to anti-austerity, the universal basic income, nationalisation of the energy sector, measures for increased democratic participation in governance, transparency and anti-corruption. At the national level having 69 deputies in congress has enable the movement to advance opposition to the PP government’s more reactionary legislation. However, at the municipal level, the victory in Barcelona is noteworthy for its policy consequences. For instance, the salaries of all party officials were capped at €2,200 per month. Measures to streamline the process for citizens to participate by making proposals for council to debate were set up, a bill was implemented which targeted property speculators and fined them up to €100,000 for land-banking empty homes. We can see this as a substantive step towards enacting a Podemos vision for the city; which is obviously very different in social justice terms to that envisioned by the real estate speculators and the tourism industry. Of course, as a local government, not all of these policies can be enacted due to the finance and legislative powers being concentrated at the federal level. This is one reason it is important for Podemos to take power in order to enact its policy of democratic autonomy for the regions. But as Raventos and Wark (2016) argued about the importance of ‘rebel cities’:

“Hundreds of cities, municipalities and regions across Europe have joined forces, creating alliances in promoting the social economy, sharing knowledge and resources, building alternative social and economic models from the bottom up, and declaring TTIP, CETA, TiSA-free zones. The municipal vision is spreading. If cities are the foundational elements of Europe, their destiny is increasingly seen as tied to that of the whole continent. The rebel cities are claiming what David Harvey (2012) defined as ‘the right to change ourselves by changing the city… a common rather than an individual right, since this transformation inevitably depends on the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation’.”

 

Critically evaluating the activists perspective in light of media coverage and subsequent developments

When we consider the political opportunity structures and the conjunctural environment in which the movement happened to find itself in its early days of 2014, these were clearly favourable to the PMP in the sense that the financial crisis created a window of opportunity which the executive deftly exploited by founding the party. However, the key weakness which led to the disappointing election results was the disempowerment of the circles and the ideology of centrist-populism which led the party to betray its base, become distracted by the goal of replacing the PSOE as the main left-opposition party, and pursue sectors of the population who may never have been inclined to support it.[8] To overcome this, many activists felt that the PMP’s mass membership of over 430,000 could cohere and assert sovereignty over the liquidationism of the central leadership; who could be compelled to repudiate the strategy of the anti-democratic turn against the circles at the Vistalegre party conference. Then, possibilities could be opened up once more for the 15M movement’s more radical ideas of a universal basic income, participatory governance structures, withdrawing from NATO and cancelling the national debt. Isidro Lopez and other prominent intellectuals and activists within Podemos writing in Jacobin after the Vistalegre conference stated:

“The catch, or one of them, as was well understood by the mass movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is that organizations that flow from the grassroots upward are not only more democratic, but also provide direct sources of information about the political landscape and how to navigate it. Transformational movements have always understood that direct information about social phenomena and the political situation is required — at least if you want to build and organize emerging political realities, and not simply reproduce the most static ideological elements of the moment. In other words, an organization that draws its information and decisions from below doesn’t only reflect a taste for democracy. It becomes indispensable for a party movement that is the catalyst for transformation rather than its gatekeeper. Voluntarily sequestered from its organizational base, Podemos has made a succession of decisions based solely on opinion polls, talk shows, and electoral polling. The biggest problem with this strategy is that in complex and fragmented societies, this ideology of direct communication with “the people,” which presumably transforms their inherent agitation into electoral hegemony, is little more than an illusion.”

At the time of writing in November 2016, the party executive superficially appears to be learning the lesson that a mass membership that is passive and disempowered will not win elections, while the same membership if organised and empowered can have an incalculable campaigning force-multiplier effect. In the regular email newsletters they (almost audibly pleading) request that members ‘Activate Your Circle!’ It remains to be seen whether the party’s membership will mobilize on the scale needed to implement its agenda.

Conclusion

As we have seen, the PMP has had a number of consequences at the level of culture, institutions and policy. Overall the PMP has not achieved its key goals, as identified by the activists (a neo-Keynesian anti-austerity economic policy, universal basic income, participatory democratic governance structures, nationalisation of the energy sector and major public investment in green energy and so on), and faces a mix of favourable and unfavourable political opportunity structures; a precarious economic situation marked by anti-political system sentiment ripe for radical proposals and structural critique of rising inequality under austerity, but also the ominous threat of Syriza-style punishment by the Troika in the event Podemos should win the next election, whenever that comes. The executive makes a sound argument for ‘taking power’ and not waiting for the conditions to be just right for a traditional revolution. Hobsbawm’s  ‘short century’ from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 is indeed over; and demands sober reflection on how to pursue a more just and democratic society. The Podemos movement-party’s approach therefore should not be so swiftly dismissed by international Marxists as liberal-reformist defeatism, but offered the same critical support that the Anticapitalistas faction have offered it. The results of the past two federal elections appear to have shifted the executive’s position on the role of the circles, and the necessity for a fighting, empowered and engaged, rather than passive and acquiescent, mass membership. It is also promising for their future that the early antagonisms with the other main radical left political parties (most significantly United Left, eQuo and the regional coalition partners) appear to be subsiding in a process that has reinvigorated Spanish democracy in a way that portends a second great transformation; the unfinished transition to ‘Real Democracy Now!’ (as the indignados chanted in the squares) out of the Franco regime.[9]

Still, significant structural barriers to implementing its agenda persist, such as the PSOE’s stabilisation and failure to collapse as did Greece’s equivalent social democratic PASOK party during Syriza’s rise. The movement’s ideology of Left populism must also now be re-evaluated in light of these developments; will it continue to pursue a maximalist appeal, or will it more tightly target the working and precarious classes in order to grow?  However, as we saw with Syriza, should Podemos eventually win power, this would certainly detonate the next and more dramatic period of struggle against the power of the transnational capitalist class and their intergovernmental financial institutions for maintaining control and hegemony over nation states. This is why the circles are so critical. If the mass movement is not sovereign over the political leaders and actively using a diverse set of strategies to achieve the movement’s goals (rolling general strikes, mass civil disobedience – whether violent or nonviolent, direct action, industrial sabotage, exerting intense pressure over every single politician – whether Podemos or opposition), then it too will fail.

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References

Cox, L. & Nilsen, A. G. (2014) We make our own history: Marxism and Social movements in the twilight of Neoliberalism, pp. 9-11, London: Pluto Press.

Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution, pp. 15-38, New York: Verso.

Hassan, O. (2016) Podemos and Left Populism, Marxist Left Review, 11: Summer 2016, 1-24.

López, I., Rodríguez, E. & Carmona, P. (2015) The Future of Podemos, Jacobin Magazine, Accessed November 2016 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/podemos-iglesias-spain-elections-populist/

Milios, J. (2015) The Greek Left Tradition and SYRIZA: From “Subversion” to the new Austerity Memorandum, Defend Democracy, Accessed November 2016 http://www.defenddemocracy.press/greek-left-tradition-syriza-subversion-new-austerity-memorandum/

Pickerill, J. & Krinsky, J. (2012) Why Does Occupy Matter?, Social Movement Studies, 11:3-4, 279-287.

Podemos (2015) We want, We know, We can: A programme to change our country [December 2015 General election manifesto], Accessed November 2016 http://lasonrisadeunpais.es/wp-content/plugins/programa/data/programa-en.pdf

Raventos, D. and Wark, J. (2016) Europe’s Rebel Cities, Counterpunch, 23:5, pp. 10-11.

Rowe, J. & Carroll, M. (2014). Reform or Radicalism: Left Social Movements from the Battle of Seattle to Occupy Wall Street, New Political Science, UC Santa Cruz: Center for Global, International and Regional Studies. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4pw6j9s1

Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, pp. 26, London: Bloomsbury.

Tietze, T., Humphrys, E. (2013) Anti-politics: Elephant in the room, Left Flank, Accessed November 2016 http://left-flank.org/2013/10/31/anti-politics-elephant-room/

[1] A little background on the structural and conjunctural contexts which contributed to Podemos’ formation: the Spanish 15M or ‘indignados’ movement, part of the anti-austerity ‘movements of the squares’ which swept Europe at the height of the GFC. Starting in May of 2011, the original occupation of Puerta del Sol (the main city square) in Madrid spread to over 50 cities across Spain. In an inventive iteration of populism, and a faith in prefigurative experimentalism, and anarcho-liberalism as strategy, the 15M movement actively resisted engagement with everything in the formal political system which it deemed part of the tainted old regime. They felt they were doing something entirely new in the commune – and wanted to pretend that the state and the surrounding society wasn’t waiting in the background to reassert the ‘normal’ order. Reluctance to accept support from trade unions was illustrative of this milieu.

[2] Hetland and Goodwin in Marxism and Social Movements (2013) argued that reference to capitalism and a political economy framework has disappeared from social movement studies publications over the neoliberal period (the 1970s onwards). They suggest that capitalism should concern social movement scholarship for among the following reasons. Firstly, capitalist dynamics alternately inhibit or facilitate the formation of new collective identities and solidarities, including both class and non-class identities. In this way, capitalism shapes the very conditions of existence of social movements. Secondly, the balance of class forces in a society powerfully shapes the way movements evolve over time and what they can win for their constituents. Thirdly, class divisions generated by capitalism may unevenly penetrate and fracture movements. The balance of class forces within movements – sometimes more and sometimes less organised and self-conscious – may powerfully shape movement goals and strategies. Finally, ideologies and cultural idioms closely linked to capitalist institutions and practices may also strongly influence movement strategies and goals.

[3] From the beginning of the Podemos movement, its executive (who had previously been heavily involved in the Global Justice Movement, Latin American national-populist movement activism (in Bolivia and Venezuela) and the Anticapitalistas organisation in Spain) adapted and oriented its project towards the anti-politics of the 15M; seeking to portray itself as the primary legitimate expression of the protests. Writing in the New Left Review, Iglesias (2015) sought to rupture with the left-right framework to showcase the party’s uniqueness:

“Those of us who advocate a post-neoliberal transformation through the state—defending human rights, sovereignty and the link between democracy and redistributive policies—have not the slightest chance of electoral victory. When our adversaries dub us the ‘radical left’ and try, incessantly, to identify us with its symbols, they push us onto terrain where their victory is easier.”

Here we see the fingerprints of Ernesto Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe, the founders of the post-Marxism tendency crystallised in their seminal 1985 work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. In it, they approach classical Marxism in a similar manner to Gramsci, 60 years prior, in that they seek to demonstrate some limits of the existing paradigm and why previous Marxist calculations about capitalist society and revolution hadn’t unfolded as theorised. In this endeavour, they reject wholesale economism, class reductionism, determinism, the framework and many of the assumptions of historical materialism; such as the foundational Marxian premise of the material economic conditions or the ‘base’ determining a society’s cultural, ideological superstructure. In the Laclau-ite framework then, political struggle is reduced to shaping that discourse (and obsessing over communications and stylistic considerations) through shrewd interventions. In the heady days immediately following the party’s launch, the populist reformulation of class struggle had its intended mass appeal. Continuing the framing Iglesias had used in his television program La Tuerka, the party repeatedly sought to propagate ‘the people’ (or ‘the citizenry’, in a monolithic sense which erases class distinctions) and ‘the caste’ (taken to mean the oligarchs, the establishment; especially the hangovers of the Franco-era, and the political class). The party seemed to many people a legitimate expression of the 15M movement that sought to institutionalise and formalise the experiment in mass direct democracy, giving it direction. Initial reception to this pitch was enthusiastic. Four months after the party was formally founded in January 2014, it won 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European Parliamentary elections. Opinion polls in those early days peaked at over 28% of the primary vote. This proceeded to decline steeply to roughly 15% where it hovered for over a year. As all populists eventually learn, it is impossible to please all groups all the time. At the December 2015 elections Podemos achieved 21% of the primary vote, winning 69 seats in the national congress and over 5 million votes. But this did not defeat the sitting conservative PP government, and worse yet it was still fewer than the seats and votes than won by the PSOE. The party’s concentration in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and the Basque country, and corresponding lack of support in the remaining more conservative regions was a contributing factor to this result. After months of negotiations, no party combination was able to form a majority coalition government, so the country was forced to vote once again in June 2016. Podemos’ changing relationship to PSOE and a whole host of local coalition partnerships has been instructive for imposing a reality check on the rhetoric of having transcended the left-right spectrum supposedly made obsolete by austerity conditions of precarity, rapid decline of the middle class, deindustrialisation’s negation of the industrial working class and so on. Antagonism between it and the main left opposition party the United Left (IU) (dominated by the Spanish communist party) reached its high pitch at the December 2015 election, before the two formed a new coalition referred to as “Unidos Podemos” (United We Can) at the June 2016 election. Even with their combined forces, Podemos still lost, and the conservatives, having achieved a slightly higher vote, were just able to form government, with the support of Ciudanos, and the abstention of PSOE.

[4] In other words, it marks a break from the 15M movement which had adopted as its strategy the occupation and prefigurative experimentalism for an alternative way of organising society within the microcosm of the commune for the few months it remained in the city squares. PMP is different; cognizant of the fact that the state was always there, in the background – waiting to reassert the “normal” order – even when it felt to its participants like the commune was autonomous, free from the daily interventions and threats of state power. This is the dangerous illusion that activists can simply ignore the state, and ignore the power structure surrounding their campaigns and build something separate without, eventually, coming into any form of conflict with those whose power is threatened by their proposals. The executive portrays the electoralism strategy as hardened realism.

[5] The mood among activists interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the December 2015 election was sober disappointment at the failure to gain a greater share of the vote, and especially to displace the PSOE as the main opposition party. One activist from the Barcelona circle, stated:

“The strategy of singularly focusing on winning the election – and especially pivoting to the centre and the right, despite the fact that our base is primarily the precarious young working or lower middle class, had an alienating effect on many of the people we should have been reaching out to. I felt like the hype around that was setting us up for a period of retrenchment and stagnation as people will just go back to being passive until the next election. A part of what drew me to join Podemos after my experience in 15M was that there was a commitment to a diversity of tactics. This is important both in terms of day to day experience of activism and then also theoretically. There was no one strategy for transforming society when we were in the square”.

[6] It is instructive to remember that Spanish liberal democracy is relatively young in comparison to other similar states in the OECD. A part of what the PMP represents is the unfinished transition out of fascism; that was supposed to lead to democracy but, in the words of an interviewee from Podem Gramenet,

“It produced a soft form of dictatorship with the illusion of freedom and choice. Upon forming the basis of the new representative system, PP and PSOE tried to save as much of the institutional relics of the Franco regime; the oligarchs, corrupt state bureaucracy and its upper management, as possible. Podemos is continuing with the unfinished business of 1978, extending the process beyond the apparent limits of liberal democracy to create a real democracy where the people have the power to vote on legislation and the representatives have direct accountability to their local circles.”

[7] Greece had been the country most severely impacted by austerity of all the EU member states. Between 2010-2015 its GDP declined 25%, unemployment rose from 12% to 27%; youth unemployment, double that, with all of the attendant social costs such as a spike in suicides, homelessness, malnutrition, child poverty and so on. After seemingly endless rounds of negotiations with the Troika institutions, Syriza was forced into a position of signing a document known as the third memorandum, which essentially renders the international financial institutions sovereign over the national parliament. The Greek government is unable to enact any piece of legislation without first seeking approval from its creditors. On top of all this, the Greek national debt continues to grow. As a growing consensus even in mainstream economics shows, austerity does not work according to its own criteria of reducing the national debt, as the flow-on effects of reduced state intervention produce an according loss in GDP growth.

[8] At the height of the rebellion within the party against the executive, Isidro Lopez and other prominent intellectuals and activists writing in Jacobin (2015) described how:

“The populist strategy of the blitzkrieg-style “electoral war machine,” determined as it was to affect a quick and devastating victory, has turned out to be mistaken on its own terms. The very battlefield such a strategy was designed to navigate — that of electoral polls and political marketing — has turned the blitzkrieg against itself. It would behove us to remember the high cost of this strategy: surrendering the original form of the party — at its height in the post-15M moment — capable as it was then of providing an organic, geographically coherent, cross-sectoral feeling, that led to circumstances of overflowing voluntary participation. More than a thousand citizens’ “circles” appeared far and wide across the country in only a few months and tens of thousands of people were drawn to this new party whose name evoked action. Despite all this, from the point of view of the strategic blitzkrieg, the circles were flagged as a “militant obstacle.” Because they had real weight in the organization — so it was said — they impeded wider communications with the unmobilized majority.”

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