Understanding Podemos (3/3): ‘Commonsense’ policy

by · January 2, 2015

Anti-eviction activists occupy Madrid bank branch in early 2013

Anti-eviction activists occupy Madrid bank branch in early 2013

This is the third part of Left Flank’s series exploring the rise of Podemos. [i] The first part looked at how the new organisations drew on the inspiration and power of the 15-M (“Indignados”) movement. The second part critically examined the Podemos leadership’s deployment of radical populist strategy. In the third part Luke Stobart examines the policies it has developed to tackle Spain’s enormous social crisis. He asks why Podemos has so quickly moved to moderate these, and what implications such changes have for activists seeking fundamental social transformation in Spain.

A Keynesian return?

As Podemos has risen in the polls, and particularly since its October Citizens’ Assembly, it has moderated some of its key policies (or anticipated moderation through “experts” drafting new plans). General Secretary Pablo Iglesias has justified the change on the basis of guaranteeing “governmental responsibility“ and therefore Podemos needing to “grow up”. The Spanish and international media, and some radicals, has exaggerated the shifts backwards, but they are significant. Below I look at the evolution of the crucial area of economic policy and what changes here tell us about whether Podemos can be an emancipatory tool — or even one that can usher in the minimum reforms needed to allow the majority of people to exit the crisis in the medium term.

Before late November the economic program had been developed collectively but with input from revolutionary Izquierda Anticapitalista economists (such as Bibiana Medialdea). Since then, the popular Left Keynesians Viçenc Navarro and Juan Torres López have been assigned to produce a draft economic program, based on their popular book Hay Alternativas — also co-authored by (Communist) IU leader Alberto Garzón. The new “emergency plan” was presented as a “discussion document” in a press conference, but in practice is being treated by Iglesias as Podemos policy. Its analysis is that the crisis is fundamentally one of “under-consumption” (which Iglesias agrees is the problem”) caused by mushrooming socio-economic inequalities under neoliberalism (including a sharp decline in wages’ share of GDP) — a view that overlaps with those of Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. The solution is thus to increase consumer demand through expansionist public spending (a la Keynes). They then neatly tot up how exactly this can be funded though measures such as combating relatively high levels of tax fraud (mostly carried out by the rich), reintroducing inheritance and property taxes, and debt restructuring.

The measures clash substantially with the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. For example, they have continued with the Podemos policy of introducing the 35-hour working week (without wage reduction[ii] and include large-scale state investment in employment so that the proportion of public-sector employees rises from 1 in 10 (at present) to 1 in 4 of all workers! They also propose the unions playing more of a role in decision-making; and the creation of public banks under citizens’ control, a housing law to apply constitutional protections against homelessness, controls against over-pricing by monopoly firms in the energy and other sectors, and a tax on financial speculation. The report “aims” to reach providing universal access to public nurseries from birth (to ensure gender equality) and universal benefits for the disabled and other “dependents”. Not surprisingly the program is being met with universal hostility from the Spanish elites and their loyal media pundits.

Iglesias has downplayed the program’s radicalness, constantly emphasising its economic “efficiency” and presenting it as similar to that of international social democracy until the 1980s (or even to the policies back then of Christian Democrats). Arguably the policy goes somewhat beyond that — possibly being more accurately compared with the policies of the traditional Communist parties or progressive Latin American populism. Nevertheless, it is clearly a strategy based fundamentally on saving capitalism from its inbuilt excesses (as Keynes intended) rather than overcoming capitalism as a system.

More radical policies collectively developed for the European elections have been abandoned. For instance, gone is the previously policy of providing all people with a universal “basic income” (for all people to cover their basic needs regardless of their relationship to employment) in favour of strengthening income support; and the proposed lowering of the age of retirement has been limited to (“a flexible”) 65 years instead of 60. Most crucially, whereas the European program called for a “citizens’ audit of the public and private debt to delimit which part of this can be considered illegitimate in order to take measures against those responsible and declare its non-payment”, the new plan avoids talk of “illegitimate debt” and non-payment, preferring “to raise in Europe that the restructuring of debt … is not a fanciful proposal” and needed to avoid a worsening of crisis. A rhetorical shift towards emphasising negotiation and debt restructuring as opposed to non-payment occurred before the new advisors were taken on, partly in response to frequent accusations of “extremism” in the media.

The Podemos leadership’s now constant equating of measures promoting “social justice” with economic “efficiency” represents a real danger that could end in renegotiating debt repayment around what is payable, as opposed to ending the continued burden to ordinary taxpayers of historic bailouts in which banks would receive near zero interest European loans and then lend the money to the Spanish government at over 4 per cent. Enormous amounts of public money thrown at Spain’s ailing financial sector has done nothing to restart the flow of credit or stop the banks evicting increasing numbers of people from their homes.

Iglesias does not rule out taking more radical action on the debt and still talks of the rights of lenders coming after “the right of Spanish families to take a grandparent to hospital or buy school equipment for their children”. But the policy shifts described are important and not just “concretisations” as the Podemos leader argues.

In some areas Podemos economic policy has always been more moderate than would be required to exit the social crisis. Breaking with the euro and the European Union has been a minority position even among the radical wing of the party — partly due to the mistaken idea of the EU being a “supranational space” rather than an alliance of hierarchically organised states aimed at competing economically and politically with other regions. By refusing to contemplate adopting its own currency, the Spanish state will have less control of its economy. Indeed one of the drivers for holding down wages in crisis-hit countries (the anodyne-sounding “internal devaluation”) has been the lack of ability to devalue the currency. By refusing to contemplate breaking with the European framework, Navarro and Torres López end up pinning their hopes on greater European fiscal integration, institutional reform of the European Central Bank, and European-wide “labour, social and civic” reforms to overcome the deficiencies of the current European framework “from which originated much of current debt”. In a useful critical summary of their document Podemos Seville’s Jesús Castillo has suggested how distant such changes are within the current continental conjuncture, despite the authors’ stated aim of offering a “realistic” and “emergency” programme. Podemos’s “pro-Europe” stance both expresses its limited radicalism and further discourages radical action (because any controversial economic decisions by the state very directly affect other Eurozone states). In the case of Syriza, a similar approach has led the party to exclude from its planned audit the debts “owed” to European banks, despite the particularly abusive relationship the latter have maintained with the Greek masses. This will make it hard, if not impossible, to overcome the crippling burden of its sovereign debt. Worryingly the Podemos document is already talking of it being “essential that Spanish society … is aware of the costs and sacrifices that lay ahead” due to “previous decisions not sufficiently thought out and discussed, such as entering the euro or the acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty” — precisely the very decisions it is unwilling to unravel.


Inadequacy and appeal of expansionism

A further problem, identified by Isidro López, is that even a massive increase in public spending may well not activate the private sector. Responding to the appointment of Navarro and Torres López as economic advisors, López and Emmanuel Rodríguez have argued that the

unending spiral of attacks on organised labour, on wage levels, the throwing of most of the population into a seemingly bottomless precariousness … have not occurred due to a problem of de-investment, but because of the profound impossibility of historic capitalism to put forward viable social models. Financial hegemony and its excesses are no more than a symptom of this phenomenon.

As I have written elsewhere, the Spanish housing excesses that acted to dynamite the Spanish economy were themselves a desperate attempt (through what has been described as “asset-bubble Keynesianism”) to boost growth in a period of wage constraint and increased precariousness, resulting from labour policies that were themselves an attempt to counter declining returns on investment. Such a decline has been shown empirically by a range of Marxist studies[iii], and is logically rooted in the rise in “input” costs during economic expansion (leading to repeated recessions), and the long-run tendency to replace profit-producing workers with machinery. It was these tendencies that emerged in the global recession of the 1970s, putting an end to Keynesian hegemony in economic policy and allowing for the rise of the “monetarist” policies that are considered to be the first phase of “neoliberalism”.

It is precisely the underlying reality of falling returns as a proportion of investment that lead critics such as Isidro López to question the growth logic of Navarro and Torres López’ approach:

The document talks about public investment complementing private investment. But, in fact, it is very possible that, due to its structural weakness, private investment would not appear in the necessary volume and that it would be public investment that had to shoulder the recovery of employment. The chosen sectors: health, education, dependence … Nobody doubts that the public investment in these sectors is fundamental. What is doubtful is whether they can be the engine of transformation.

The Observatorio Metropolitano writers add that while being insufficient in tackling the roots of the crisis, a secondary effect of massive public spending would be spiralling inflation. Recent experiences of demand-centred economic policy in countries such as Venezuela and Argentina would appear to prove them right.

If the economic programme is unlikely to deliver a solution to the social crisis, aspects of it interest a section of mainstream liberal economics. Even before Navarro and Torres López’s incorporation, the perceptive Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau penned an article entitled “Radical Left is right about Europe’s debt”, writing that Podemos “may be the [Left party] that comes the closest of all those in the Eurozone to offering a consistent approach to post-crisis economic management”. This, he argues, is because of its support for European institutional reform (which he favourably contrast with “real radicals” who call for a break with the euro); and because future debt restructuring is inevitable due to the dangerous combination of debt burden in the “periphery” and stagnation across Europe (which may worsen due to growing austerity in major economies such as France and Italy). Münchau compares favourably the policies of Podemos (and Syriza) to “the establishment parties of the centre-left and the centre-right” that “are allowing Europe to drift into the economic equivalent of a nuclear Winter”.

Many Podemos supporters (although not all) have welcomed what is treated (not wholly accurately) as an endorsement of Podemos policy by the financial establishment. Yet the coincidence between such policy and the views of a section of the establishment should be treated as problematic. The calculation made by Münchau (as he has argued in FT opinion pieces over several years) is based on the best probability for European capitalism to prosper, not on concern for European citizens. Debt, when it surpasses a certain threshold, becomes more of a threat to the creditor institutions than it does to the debtor state, company or individual, due to the spectre of sudden and disorderly unravelling. Münchau and other FT writers such the pro-globalisation guru Martin Wolf have become increasingly concerned about such a prospect in countries like Greece and Spain (where public debt increased by 7 per cent in the first quarter of 2014 and is about to reach 100 per cent of GDP, or €1000 billion). Consequently Münchau calls on Syriza and Podemos to lead a strategic alliance with the centre Left in the interest of European capital!

Thus Podemos’s economic policy is more likely to provide tactical support to European regeneration strategies than offer a serious chance of reversing the economic crisis. Arguably Iglesias acknowledges this when he says that “some of the PP and PSOE will end up agreeing with us over debt”.

That, of course, does not mean that current policies could not be of benefit to lots of people, and to represent a step forward from the current status quo. But overall they represent an inadequate and problematic strategy for which there needs to be an alternative.

For those that — justly or unjustly — end up sniping at Podemos from the sidelines, it should be pointed out that the weaknesses in Podemos economic policy cannot just be attributed to a “right-wing leadership” or any such crude over-simplification. Support for the European project appears to be strong among the majority of its membership (and among sections of the radical Left and social movements), and nerves over what constituted “illegitimate debt” appear to have been present in the Podemos grassroots from the beginning.

Partly Podemos’s moderation originates from the way in which mass political organisation in the Spanish state has developed out of a radical Left “desert” (and involving large numbers of people with very wide-ranging degrees of economic consciousness and radicalisation). The respected Greek economist Costas Lapavitsas professed being “amazed by the vitality of social movements” when he visited Barcelona in early 2014, but also concluded that “the level of understanding of Spain and Catalonia’s economic problems is not as high as it should be”. Despite its frequently impressive pedagogical ability, the Podemos leadership is failing to overcome this.

In recent weeks Podemos received its first reverse in the polls when both El País and eldiario.es polls suggested it had fallen back into third position. Both polls were interpreted by leading Podemos intellectuals as demonstrating the first snag in Podemos’s rise. Yet these observers presented the El País result as being purely related to a nasty campaign to (falsely) present Iñigo Errejón as having improperly claimed a university research wage, prompting calls for Podemos supporters to rally behind the leadership. The question was not asked as to whether Podemos’s substantial moderation (and increasingly presidentialist internal culture) was also a factor. Indeed the halting of the fall in support for the Communist-led IU detected in the eldiario.es poll suggests some left-wing support for Podemos may be starting to fall off or shift back to the less-populist Left). I have received reports of great disappointment and anger towards Podemos among social movement activists (yet this is normally a contradictory sentiment — mixed with the enjoyment of seeing the status quo on the back foot).

What is clear is that population is looking towards a radical progressive alternative. Despite an attempt by PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez and the media to undermine Podemos by pointing to its “extremism”, polls have showed the population situating the movement on the radical Left. The “social majority” clearly want a sharp turn in policy and trying to show “responsibility” may alienate rather than win support. What Podemos’s Santiago Alba laments as a process of “ageing” may be weakening the party’s populist appeal. 

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

Beyond ‘common sense’

The moderation identified in Podemos’ economic policy is also present in the organisation’s approach towards other policy areas, including its less developed foreign policy (which for Iglesias includes creating an EU military alliance). In a soon-to-be-published article I shall properly examine its crucial, contradictory and fascinating relationship with the weighty and multi-layered issue of Catalan statehood — especially in the light of Iglesias’ dramatic visit to the territory in December. For the time being it suffices to say that Podemos is recognising Catalonia’s national status, and promising a Constituent Process (across Spain) in which Catalan self-determination would be “on the table”. But the Podemos leadership openly opposes independence and has done almost nothing to oppose the state’s criminalisation of a symbolic referendum on statehood, nor offered support to the 2.3 million Catalans who disobeyed prohibition of this on 9 November. While the growth of Podemos (Podem) in Catalonia has encouraged a much-needed debate about whether the pro-sovereignty movement led by pro-austerity president Artur Mas is failing to connect with those most affected by the cuts, it is clear that Podemos is angering a substantial section of the Catalans who have most mobilised against austerity.

The moderate and contradictory nature of the positions on the issues described fits my general analysis — developed in parts 1 and 2 — of the dominant politics in Podemos. Rather than treating the capitalist mode of production as the problem, the Podemos leadership focuses on neoliberalism; rather than mobilising against the whole of “the 1%” (or the ruling class), its target is a more limited “caste”, at best extended to include capitalist “oligarchies”. In another upcoming piece I will examine how the Podemos leadership approaches the state and conclude that effectively it ignores the institution’s capitalist nature and powerful non-elected bureaucracy. Rather than properly identifying and challenging these crucial problems, the dominant Claro que Podemos (Iglesias grouping) strategy centres on critiquing and reversing the post-’78 political settlement. Rather than state and private elites having the same interests, “companies buy the publicly elected”. Put crudely, power relations are fudged in this approach.

The mixed nature of Podemos’s approach is summed up in its often-repeated approach of defending “common sense”; e.g. Iglesias describes his economic policies as “commonsense Keynesian measures”. Ironically the person who best highlighted the limits to common sense was the Marxist most quoted (or misquoted) within Podemos: Antonio Gramsci. He identified that under capitalism the subaltern classes tend to develop “common senses”, which contain within them “good sense”, based on identifying clearly what is in one’s objective interests (e.g. opposing financial appropriation, labour exploitation and prejudices that weaken such tasks). However they also are shaped by the ideology of the hegemonic groups in society (belief in natural hierarchies, capitalism as an eternal system, national chauvinism…) and are therefore constructed as contradictory consciousness. It is not coincidental that the Podemos leaders, who at most partially reject the existing political economy, seek to express and activate people’s “common sense”, thereby “naturalising” their own political adaptation (maybe unconsciously).

As well as the embrace of “common sense” revealing the contradictory nature of the political project, it also creates problematic dynamics in itself. It means the political project comes under pressure to reflect the conservative as well as progressive threads in people’s consciousness (or at best to stay quiet about the former). As the Left populist project gains support (due to its success in organising the existing consciousness) the pressures to shift Rightwards grow, especially as it becomes an option for governmental office. In Greece such a process has seen Syriza shift considerably Rightwards.

Sometimes the Podemos leadership’s tolerance of contradictions has been a blessing in disguise. For instance it has eschewed the usual secular fundamentalism so prevalent on the Spanish radical Left (and which is partly a response to the continued political influence of a reactionary local Church), making people with religious ideas welcome. This has meant, for example, that progressive Muslims have been able to set up the Podemos Musulmanes circle — although not without encountering dreadful hostility from some members.

Sometimes the openness of the leadership to those with religious beliefs has spilled over into opportunism — such as Iglesias’s flattery of Pope Francis (which sat alongside his lack of criticism towards the Catholic leader’s stance on abortion). Furthermore, commonsense populism can easily cross over into reactionary domains or blur the boundary between the two. An unpleasant example took place when Iglesias announced Podemos was to have a well-known racist as electoral advisor. Jorge Verstrynge, a lecturer colleague of Iglesias’s at the Complutense, had advised the Communist leader Paco Frutos but before that had been the youth leader of the far Right Alianza Popular. Even after his supposed conversion to Communism, Verstrynge co-wrote a piece in Viejo Topo magazine calling for the expulsion from Spain of one million undocumented migrants, and for the introduction of a “zero immigration” policy. He has not broken with his racism since and boasted on La Tuerka this year that he encouraged his non-European students to leave the country. A number of circles, alongside IA activists and the authors of a public letter (including Juan Domingo Sánchez), rebelled against Verstrynge’s participation, and Iglesias backed down and made a public apology. However, Iglesias has since performed a polite interview with Verstrynge on La Tuerka and for several weeks La Tuerka’s portal has featured a photo of the two in what is probably a subtle first step in rehabilitating him. Iglesias has far better positions on immigration than Verstrynge but he is in danger of allowing himself and Podemos to become associated with a figure that may connect with some people’s common sense but not the majority’s good sense.



In this three-part series I have tried to demonstrate that radical populism in the context of organic crisis and mass social movements can galvanise and electrify mass support. However, part of that success rests on the impact in Podemos of 15-M “anti-politics” (including its passionate practise of “real” participatory democracy), which the new vertical party model has been eroding and even suffocating. The continued disempowerment of the circles could encourage further Rightward drift. Accompanying the significant retreats in economic policy discussed above, Iglesias and co. have gone from talking of “turning over the [political] chessboard” to attempting to occupy “the centre of the political chessboard” — a revealing symbolic shift. Likewise, Iglesias and supporters have suggested that Podemos has already stopped being a “citizens’ movement” and become a “party”.

Such a general perspective could be interpreted as being wholly negative. However, the bigger picture suggests that this would be mistaken. Let us remind ourselves what has been achieved in the first year of Podemos’s existence. It has demonstrated that Spanish people want radical change more conclusively even than 15-M. Its advance has lifted the spirits of a mass of people, including social-movement activists critical of the organisation. “Fear” and now “smiles … have changed sides”. Podemos is helping to feed a new crisis for the Partido Popular government and perhaps even more so for the Left flank of the status quo, PSOE, which has even led Mariano Rajoy to publicly consider a PP-PSOE coalition (a suicidal idea, to which the right-wing of social democracy appears sympathetic, but which would probably bury the Socialists, as it did its Greek sister organisation after a similar coalition). Podemoss’ rise has likely been a factor in the resignation of PSOE leader Rubalcaba — the ex-super-minister who sent the military to break a strike of air-traffic controllers — and the abdication of the elephant-killing King Juan Carlos, thus weakening the mythology of a 1970s democratisation process supposedly led by the monarch. Podemos has popularised the idea of the establishment (or “caste”) as “enemy” and put clear arguments against austerity regularly on TV. It has helped the young Left leaders in Izquierda Unida to topple the party’s hopeless old guard and encouraged inspiring united municipal projects like Guanyem in Barcelona and Ganemos in Madrid. Its growth in the Basque Country and Catalonia is creating a healthy debate on how to fight for national liberation without relegating opposition to the social crisis to second place.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Podemos has managed to involve tens of thousands of mainly young people in regular activity (and a far greater number to participate more sporadically). For this author being in a collective project of such originality, audacity, (imperfect) strategic intelligence, seriousness and ability to communicate with a mass audience has provided an invaluable political education and clearly many people (from very different backgrounds) feel the same.

Very many of those who joined Podemos hoped for a different kind of Podemos to the one that is emerging. Some of them are finding what they were hoping for in the wider and more bottom-up municipal processes. Key activists are opting not to participate in the bureaucratic and electoralist processes demanded by the Madrid centre. Some good people are walking away together. But all of us have been through an important learning curve, and in the process have created formal and informal networks of activists that did not exist a year ago.

The exciting social struggle that exploded after 15 May 2011 had hit an impasse by 2013, partly due to the dire state of the union movement but also because of the array of national and international forces lined up to drive through austerity against a socially precarious population. Now a new anti-austerity Left is being forged —however contradictory its recent evolution — and our social enemies are seriously on the defensive. In such a context the social struggle can win victories — as the women leading the fight over abortion or the Madrid health workers have shown. That situation is not likely to change in the next year or two. And if Podemos advances in the 2015 regional and general elections, and/or the Ganemos-type platforms gain office locally in the May municipal elections, the social movement will have to hold its representatives to account. With the above objective and subjective conjunctures in mind, the best contribution that Podemos activists can make in the meantime is to use the impressive organisational platform it has created, and its continued appeal within the popular classes, to strengthen the struggle and self-organisation of those from below. After all it is they who always have been and always will be the key to achieving fundamental change.

As mentioned above, Left Flank will return to its analysis of Spanish politics with a post on Podemos and the Catalan national question.


[i] Thanks to Nagore Calvo Mendizabal, Tad Tietze, Andy Durgan, and Colin Barker for useful critical comments on an earlier draft of this article (which has led to a dramatic restructuring!) Thanks also to Franco Casanga for pointing me to Mouffe and Laclau’s theoretical influence on Podemos, without which the overall analysis would have been much harder, and to Tad and Elizabeth Humphrys for many helpful political conversations and their patience as editors.

[ii] Iglesias has made clear that the measure would be introduced without a reduction in wages yet his model is the policy introduced in France in 2000 by Socialist president Lionel Jospin, which was not accompanied by mechanisms to ensure wages were not constrained after the initial implementation.

[iii] See for example Harman, Chris, Explaining the Crisis: A Marxist Re-Appraisal, Bookmarks. (London: 1999); Carchedi, Guglielmo (2011), ‘Behind and Beyond the Crisis’, International Socialism Journal, http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=761; Foster, John Bellamy, and Fred Magdoff (2009), The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (Monthly Review)