Understanding Podemos (2/3): Radical populism

by · November 14, 2014

Monedero, Iglesias, Errejón

La Tuerka: Monedero, Iglesias, Errejón

The first part of Left Flank’s series exploring the rise of Podemos looked at the positive incorporation in the project of the “Indignados” (15-M) movement’s participatory democracy and radical opposition towards “politics”. Here Luke Stobart looks more critically at the “radical populism” that has shaped the approach of its dominant grouping (and now formal leadership) and how this represents a break as well as continuity with 15-M.

The “secret” of Podemos according to Pablo Iglesias:

I have defeat tattooed on my DNA. My great-uncle was shot dead. My grandfather was given the death sentence and spent 5 years in jail. My grandmothers suffered the humiliation of those defeated in the Civil War. My father was put in jail. My mother was politically active in the underground. My first experience of political socialisation as a child was in the mobilisations against NATO [in the 1980s], which was the last time that the Left in this country thought we could win. It bothers me enormously to lose. … And I’ve spent many years, with colleagues, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking how we can win … The things I say in the mass media and how I say them require a great many hours’ work where we think about how to move through an absolutely hostile terrain. … We were in Latin America and we watched and watched how they did things there to win. And here is the secret. The first thing is not to feel any fear …. [Second] I know that all Left activists want the whole of the Left to be united. … If all of the Left organisations were, then we can beat the rogues in charge. Rubalcaba and Rajoy love it that we don’t think like that because they know that then we would be limited to 15 or 20 per cent [of the vote]. … I don’t want to be the 20 or 15 per cent. I don’t want my biggest political aspiration to be taking three regional ministries from the Socialist Party. I don’t want to be a “hinge”. I want to win. And in a context of complete ideological defeat in which they have insulted and criminalised us, where they control all of the media, to win the Left needs to stop being a religion and become a tool in the hands of the people. It needs to become the people … I know that this pisses off people on the Left. We like our slogans, symbols and anthems. We like getting together as a group. We think that if we get several party initials on a poster this means we are going to win. No way. [Winning] is about people’s anger and hopes. It is about reaching people who otherwise would see us as aliens because the Left has been defeated. … What should democrats do? Democracy is taking power off those that monopolise it and sharing it out among everyone, and anyone can understand that. … 15-M sent a damned message — firstly to the Left and there were left-wingers that took it badly. I remember Left leaders saying “I’ve been ‘indignado’ [outraged] for 30 years. Are these kids going to come and tell me what being outraged is all about?” OK, but it wasn’t you that brought together hundreds of thousands in the Puerta del Sol. The fact that [15-M] held the largest mobilisation since the NATO referendum and that this has been able to change this country’s political agenda to put the demand for democracy first, does that reveal [the Left’s] strength? No, it shows our damned weakness. If the unions and social organisations were organised, we wouldn’t need things like [Podemos]. The problem is that in times of defeat so you don’t get defeated again, …. you have to think and say “we can be the majority”.

— Iglesias, speaking in February during a debate with Alberto Garzón of Izquierda Unida (IU; United Left)

Although the Trotskyist Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA; Anti-Capitalist Left) played a significant role in shaping Podemos from the beginning — for example while IA’s Miguel Urbán 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 gained control of 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 movement in the anti-globalisation protests at the beginning of the noughties, and Juventud 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 being too instrumental and “top down”, and as downplaying the structural contradictions common to all liberal capitalisms).

This background provides pointers as to the politics driving Podemos. It is also possible that the Podemos leadership has learned practical lessons from the experience of the Italian Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo –despite essential differences between the two projects. 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 — it is useful to acknowledge. 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), and his controversial full leadership slate (which led the alternative Sumando Podemos partial slate to be withdrawn from the elections) has been seen as somewhat authoritarian and alike the “old politics”. The question is whether these manifestations are due to tactical issues or due to deeper problems with the model. 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 many in the circles are distancing themselves from the organisational strategy of La Tuerka, and even dropping out of activity.

Laclau and Mouffe

Laclau and Mouffe

Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘radical democracy’

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 parliamentary democracies. 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, …). 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, as La Tuerka have implemented this approach successfully).

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). Indeed 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.

Pascual Serrano provided an interesting and sympathetic description of Podemos’ initial success that identified the practical impact of chavismo on the new project:

[T]he leaders of Podemos … know that as with [the popular neighbourhoods of] Caracas, thousands, millions of people do not believe in the system, they do not mobilise, but they are in a position to stand up if they see a hope. That is why Pablo Iglesias showed no indication of triumph with five MEPs and a million votes. His [election-night speech], in contrast to that of the traditional Left, is maximalist. … Like Chávez, Podemos talks about winning, about razing to the ground, about bringing down the system … In the same way, the ambiguity of Podemos’s discourse, which is as sensational for some as it is irritating for others, is also a lesson learned from the Bolivarian process. Chávez made it to the presidency of Venezuela with the electoral promise of a ‘third way’, something no-one knew what it was. It was only a few years later that he dared to speak of socialism, socialism of the 21st century, and no-one knew what that was either.

Podemos assembly in Valencia

Podemos assembly in Valencia

An original contribution

As well as these influences, La Tuerka (and other leading Podemos members) must be credited for providing their own original political contribution. Alongside a significant section of the Spanish radical Left (including the Madrid autonomists in Observatorio Metropolitano (OM), IA and the Catalan activists who set up a “Constituent Process” to introduce progressive radical institutional reform within the independence process) Iglesias’s team developed a popular analysis of the post-15M conjuncture in which regime crisis opened “a window of opportunity” for radicals. This crisis (which another leading Podemos intellectual treats as “organic”) is interpreted by Errejón as being one of “post-politics” in which, during the economic crisis, the state became dominated by “a smaller oligarchy” leading to what is increasingly recognised as a “structural crisis” for PSOE and consequently the whole “democratic” regime. 15M is seen as “a historical event that reconfigures the entire Spanish political system”. Interestingly La Tuerka (and OM) analysed the crisis as being “mainly political” (although OM’s Emmanuel Rodríguez would add that this is ultimately shaped by “financialisation”).

These views contrast with much radical writing on the crisis (including by Marxists) that mechanically and simplistically explain political turbulence in relation to economic contradictions and fail to recognise (or remember) that popular alienation with official politics had been growing for years before the crisis (as illustrated by growing levels of voter abstention and the electoral success of several new anti-neoliberal Left parties in Germany, Portugal, Britain and elsewhere). At the same time, the Spanish analyses are limited by situating the root of the political-institutional crisis in the deficiencies of the post-Franco settlement. These deficiencies, which include outlawing the right to self-determination for the Basque Country and Catalonia[ii], are real. However I believe the crisis is more systemic and universal and stemming fundamentally from the collapse of the post-war parliamentary illusion under neoliberalism and austerity. The crisis of politics is felt among most of Europe, including in countries whose democracy was created contra authoritarian regimes: including France, the home of Republicanism, where the fascist Marine Le Pen could win the first round of the coming presidential elections; the Republic of Ireland, where the left-nationalist Sinn Fein topped a recent poll; and post-revolutionary Portugal. Pointing to experiences in Australia, Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze have explained that even where the economy has not suffered a serious crisis, there can be political turmoil due to the emptying out of “politics”.

This is because (parliamentary) politics plays the role for the bourgeoisie between of seeming to mediate between the state and civil society (the non-state part of society) to “democratically unify” a population fatally sub-divided between competing classes (and capitals) within the imagined community of the “nation”. Once people see through that appearance, and identify that “politics” only represents elite interests rather than both those interests and the interests of the majority, a crisis for the party system is served. Italy has had two major political crises in recent decades: first, in response to discovering that leaders of the main parties of the post-war period were in the pay of the mafia (a particular economic elite); and second, when Berlusconi, who — due to his media fortune — was supposedly able to rise above the hated “politics”, showed to be ruling mainly in his (elite) interest! In both cases the myth of popular representation collapsed.

Returning to the Spanish state, for some time before Podemos was launched Iglesias insisted that the window of opportunity offered by the crisis was giant, a view that has been proven very correct, but could also soon close due to the possibility of a project led by political and institutional elites to reform (or “regenerate”) the ‘78 regime, which actually would likely fail because of popular rejection of the neoliberal project such actors are wedded to. Based on Iglesias’ assessment, he argued aggressively for a new audacious and non-self-referential project, a discourse that when I witnessed it in Barcelona in 2012 clearly touched most of the large audience watching — including this author.

In part 1 I described the many features of Podemos that represent continuity with 15-M. La Tuerka clearly link their strategy for Podemos with the 15-M experience. For instance, Errejón identifies the main achievement of 15-M as being the undermining of the existing political orthodoxy. For him, and Iglesias, the movement meant people stopped blaming their personal plight on their own supposed shortcomings and instead developed an understanding of problems being societal and requiring a collective solution. However, Errejón then insisted that these shifts would not automatically lead to any progressive political expression (and might end in apathy or reactionary voting — as elsewhere in Europe). The crucial point, he added, was that the squares had “symbolically” created “the existence of a people not represented by the dominant political castes” or had created the progressive “common senses” that made possible the left-populist project.

15-M would then become important not because it had created a social movement as a subject in itself (or for encouraging the forging of new social subjects) but because it had created the object of a new project. The new project would be of a very different nature — centred on winning leadership of society through media argument and electoral mobilisation. Errejón echoed the Laclauian philosophy behind this approach when stating, “in politics, there is no [political] ‘space’, but sensibilities that emerge and confront each other”.

This approach underlay the Claro que Podemos political document passed at the Assembly. This treats the social mobilisations of the last few years as having transformed the political context but also of belonging to a past phase in the emancipatory process, now followed by a mainly institutional phase. (The runner-up Assembly document ‘Construyendo Pueblo’ took a different approach — insisting on local agitation by circles before — as well as after — reaching office.) According to the line passed, the street mobilisation phase was thwarted due to “institutional blockage” by the caste.

There are big problems with this strategic perspective and the arguments used to back it. These are not about engaging with the electoral struggle per se — as the popular libertarian critic Carlos Taibo has attempted to argue with little success. In Catalonia the radical MPs in the CUP have shown on many occasions that by seeing themselves as “Trojan horses” in parliament they can act as an amplifier for workers’ and other struggles without subordinating themselves to the idiotic theatre of “politics”. An example of their frequently disobedient approach was when MP David Fernández waved his shoe out of contempt before the corrupt head of Bankia in a parliamentary commission hearing.

The weaknesses in Errejón’s vision lie elsewhere. The first problem with Errejón’s account is that just because the squares did not initially impact on the parliamentary sphere, it does not mean that they were not having other positive effects. As I have shown, 15M in fact encouraged a range of large-scale extra-parliamentary “horizontal” activity — from la PAH housing movement to the assembly-based teachers’ strikes. It is true that activists were showing substantial frustration by the time Podemos was launched in January because even historic movements such as the PAH were thwarted by an increasingly unresponsive political order. Yet frustration was also leading to more militant and working-class protests (such as riots, indefinite strikes and the March for Dignity — in which radical working-class groups led 1.5 million people in Madrid to protest against unemployment and for better working conditions). Such developments — however uneven and limited — could still feed into a wide struggle of a more imposing nature (including in the workplaces where struggle can directly sabotage the economy), and help break the impasse. The question now is whether the rise of Podemos might be inadvertently discouraging that as hopes are increasingly being invested in a change of government, and demonstrating and striking may well become seen as less important to bringing about social change.

Nor was it inevitable or straightforward that without Podemos there would have been an electoral shift rightwards — at least in the short term. In a context of collective resistance to and understanding of social problems, people’s cultural outlook was being shaped according to solidarity and unity — not division. Hence, although anti-immigrant attitudes are still common, according the opinion polls they have not advanced under crisis and austerity — as they have in other European countries (and as they developed in Spain in the previous decade). Similarly it is likely that the limits to atomisation and despair have also provided limits to the growth of the (still weak) far Right[iii].

Another major weakness in the Podemos leadership’s strategy is that its stageist approach to the social and political struggle — however radical and modern it might sound — has a strong parallel with traditional reformism. This is because the self-activity of the movement is substituted for by the activity of political operators (politicians), and once again the popular classes are to be represented as opposed to representing themselves. Of course Podemos is also trying, with considerable success, to involve large numbers of people in its movement, and has other positive differences with social democracy -as examined in part 1. But the political initiative is increasingly being dominated by the Complutense intellectuals and — like with the Left in Latin America — the need for popular mobilisation is framed mainly in terms of supporting the public actions of the political leadership: mobilising the vote; acting to defend the elected left-wing government against right-wing counter-attack; etc. Even if the starting point was opposition to the elites, the inevitable direction is towards a new elitism — particularly as La Tuerka’s concept of hegemonic opposition inevitably depends on projection gained through the mass media and the institutions. As I examine in part 3, in which I look at the limits of parliamentary politics, it is not a strategy that can win long-standing reforms, much less a radical transformation of society.

Pablo Iglesias speaking alongside Miguel Urban at an IA meeting

Pablo Iglesias speaking alongside Miguel Urbán at an IA meeting

Different strategies, different organisation models

Summarising much of the discussion to date, Brais Fernández has described the key dilemma in Podemos as being between having an organisation that “recognising the politicising potential of the electoral route and the importance of conquering spaces in the institutions, opts to build a project rooted in the daily life of the working social majority, in their struggles …., based on community self-organisation from below ….”, and “[a]nother that sees that such building should not necessarily be done in parallel, but should subordinate itself to an immediate electoral victory in the general elections …, and that the reconstruction of social relations in a post-neoliberal order … should begin once conquered the state apparatuses and originating from these.”

For the Podemos activist, this difference in perspective is the main reason why competing factions emerged during the pre-Assembly period over organisational and “ethical” questions. Such issues included over the regularity of the Citizen’s Assembly (which very worryingly may now be held only every three years) and over having a collective national secretariat or powerful national secretary that can choose his own executive (the position that was won). Despite the fact that the more democratic proposal — presented by Teresa Rodríguez and fellow MEP Pablo Echenique — received some of the strongest applause at the Assembly, it received the relatively small 14,000 votes on-line (compared to 90,000 for Iglesias’s Claro que Podemos). The result has understandably led to frustration among some activists.

Also disappointingly, by passing Claro que Podemos’s “ethics” document Podemos has managed to exclude from leadership positions members of “political organisations” (a policy clearly aimed at further marginalising IA, and in particular the popular MEP Teresa Rodríguez, and one that successfully played on the “anti-political” sentiment analysed).

Fernández is right that behind these “technical” arguments again lie strategic differences between populism and 15-M type radicalism. Those that emphasise winning office (and see mobilisation as having at best a secondary role in achieving and keeping this) and thus see strategy as carefully controlling discourse to agitate the “common sense” that makes electoral majorities possible (and avoid alienating support thru the articulation of minority positions), have logically pushed for an increasingly vertical organisational model — articulated around the interaction between the charismatic Iglesias and “the general public”. The victorious Claro que Podemos model may make Podemos more electable in the short term, but it will likely weaken the network of circles that have given Podemos its dynamism and positive character as “citizens’ movement”. This can only undermine the ability to create a counter-political movement that can intervene in the struggle from below to move towards creating a completely new institutional framework, also controlled from below. It is thus important that activists make an extra effort to orientate on the social struggle. The model is also likely to weaken public support for Podemos— although that may be a longer-term process (thanks to deep residual hatred towards the current political class).

Guanyem assembly in Barcelona

Guanyem assembly in Barcelona

Municipal strategies

The differences in general strategy also shaped the Assembly debate that led to adopting the decision for Podemos not to stand with its own initials in the May 2015 local elections — the first major election since the explosion in its support. The political formula voted on is for the circle to join wider “municipalist” campaigns alongside other Left organisations and networks. The model is that of Guanyem/Ganemos (“Let’s Win”) in Barcelona, Madrid, Valladolid, Logroño and Malaga. In Barcelona and Madrid these interestingly include large numbers of housing and other activists (often from an autonomist background) and a section of the Left. The inclusion of local branches of the Communist-led IU and its “regional” equivalents has been controversial and problematic due to the participation of these in corrupt Town Halls.

The more radical Construyendo Pueblo document highlighted that considering there are not projects of the Ganemos-type in most localities, and that some such projects are based on “un-reconstituted sections of the radical Left”, voters would expect Podemos to stand under its own name to remove the hated crony local caste. It added that municipal experience would allow Podemos to demonstrate different ways of doing politics and to build the grassroots “counterpowers” required to implement change against the interests of the privileged minority. Iglesias’ Claro que Podemos, on the other hand, maintained that opportunistic “careerists” had joined the project in many localities and that it would be difficult to avoid the kind of local scandal that could undermine Podemos on a national level. Effectively Iglesias was arguing that change should come first at the national or regional levels. This is unconvincing. The anti-capitalist pro-independence La CUP built a significant electoral base in the Catalan parliament after gaining councillorships in dozens of municipalities and demonstrating they could democratise and radicalise local politics through assembly-based local participation. In some ways it is easier to control local processes because activists are likely to know more about the people that wish to be involved.

According to several reports I have received, some dubious persons do seem to have hitched themselves to what is a very open and mixed project (including a fascist in Galicia, who was expelled). This has meant that most people, nervous about potential disasters, have backed Iglesias’s idea. Yet if we bear in mind the nature of the left-populist project outlined — and in particular Podemos’ strong tendency towards presidentialism, it is hard not to see other motives behind Claro que Podemos’s attitude.

Concretely, I suspect that the leadership is reacting to the possible decentralisation of power and influence that would likely occur within Podemos if the movement gained substantial local representation, and that might also reinforce the “15-M” soul of Podemos to the detriment of its populism. Alternatively (and admittedly this is based on no more than logical deduction based my knowledge of populist politics), there may be fears regarding the inevitable conflict that will arise between local and State authorities if Podemos representatives were to perform the necessary non-payment of (at least) much of the municipal debt to fund radical municipal change. If such fears do exist and are shaping policy, it would be a mistake, as any attempt at implementing policies against the interests of “the 1 percent” will be met with resistance. The same will happen on a European level if a Podemos national government refuses to pay debts to European banks. In both cases by planning non-payment properly and mobilising disobedience on the street, the necessary steps can be taken to push through the necessary changes and thus strengthen the Podemos project.

We could add that it is easier to attempt such disobedience first where we can most easily build a rooted movement to win arguments among the population. The example of the Andalusian town of Marinaleda under the “Robin Hood mayor” Sánchez Gordillo shows that radical municipal practice can win out and be popular. Due to radical municipally-funded policies in housing, land and employment the town has communal ownership of all land, near full employment and anyone can have a house by paying €15 a month! Sánchez Gordillo has been re-elected repeatedly since 1979.

One question now is whether local Podemos and other activists can build municipal projects that are sufficiently militant, ambitious and democratic to forge rooted counter-powers. The strategic question of alliances is important. Out of the “majoritarian“ culture of 15M (and further encouraged by Podemos’s rapid rise) it should be no surprise that people are embracing broad (“winning”) projects as opposed to more radical and politically coherent projects. Consequently in Barcelona Guanyem, led by the inspiring anti-eviction campaigner Ada Colau, is already hegemonising the discussion on the Left — leaving the Barcelona CUP stumbling to know how to react. Despite the rejection of traditional politics, the social activism of significant numbers of Iniciativa-EUiA (IU) members means that many activists are putting aside their differences to support a common project. To help avoid the negative political and organisational influences of the “eco-Communist” leadership there are attempts to democratise the new project by introducing open primaries and other mechanisms (as have been implemented in Podemos). Wanting to unite with the ex-Communists (and other Left reformists) is an understandable response in the specific present conjuncture described, and should not be treated disrespectfully (as some activists in and around the CUP have done). However, alliances with traditional Left reformism are problematic in that they will likely reinforce existing conservative and top-down tendencies in the new political projects.

Such limitations, which will hinder adopting the kind of radical action required by the scale of the socio-economic collapse, will be further reinforced if processes are decided “backroom” — as has been occurred during the Guanyem process. For me the best local strategy would be to unite with all those that wish to fight, and work alongside the rest in individual campaigns. By doing so I think we will be more likely to create an effective political movement that can win in the long term. Because of the growing verticalism inside Podemos, being in broad campaigns with social activist roots may make things easier for Podemos activists, rather than more difficult. The election campaign for the May elections should thus be an important event. But even more important for Podemos activists will be to help intervene to strengthen the social struggle throughout the following period and not be absorbed in electioneering. In the exciting present circumstances that is easier said than done.

[A third and final instalment to be published shortly will critically assess the limitations of a political strategy centred on parliament, and the contradictions of mobilising “common sense” as a general political strategy. This examination will be made concrete by looking at debates in Podemos on economic policies and how to approach the movement for self-determination in Catalonia. It will end by tying together the different analyses in this series and offer some constructive suggestions for activists.]

Thanks to Tad Tietze, Guillem Boix and Jonas Liston for useful comments on an earlier draft.

[i] This policy makes economic sense for Italy and Spain, but seems driven here at least in part by a nationalist agenda.

[ii] I shall return to the issue of Catalan self-determination (but in relation to Podemos) in part 3 of this series.

[iii] The only partial exception to this has been Catalonia.

Discussion14 Comments

  1. Dr_Tad says:

    Luke, I think there is an unresolved tension in your piece that perhaps reflects the limits of the main poles of the internal debate inside Podemos. As far as I can see, even the radical pole accepts the premise that the political sphere can somehow be taken over, even if it thinks this means also building much stronger movements in civil society to bolster that process.

    The trickier thing to take on is how 15-M made apparent that there can be mass social resistance on a basis that at some level understands the fundamental antagonism between civil society and state (an antagonism built on the fact that capitalist exploitation produces a civil society of hostile, competing, particular interests, and so the state can never rise above being another particular interest in capitalist society — hence why capitalists as much as workers can see the state as getting in the way of their personal interests). In this sense, the Complutense strategists have merely been paying attention to that social movement, and trying to imagine a way to channel that antagonism into a more limited project — which you outline very well indeed.

    Where the tension comes out most acutely in your post is the section on local elections. There is a sense of more and less radical strategies, but not of a strategy that rejects “politics” as a useful positive practice. You seem to have a position that getting into power at some level and confronting capital from that state-bound location is an inevitable part of the process. Yet by doing this, progressives will continue to try to replicate the attempt to find a mediation that resolves the contradiction between civil society and state, when no such mediation is possible.

    If there is a political strategy to be argued for, it is the one already immanent, in an embryonic way, in the actions of 15-M: A movement autonomous of the state and politics but also directed (in a negative way) against them, and a movement that also starts to build institutions of a social type — i.e. social self-organisation from below, rather than just renovating bourgeois institutions.

    Iglesias and co see a real risk for their political project in entering local government because running the state could taint them in practice, and so better to aim high from the start and gain power across the Spanish state rather than take responsibility for failures at a local level, because they would know that the Marineleda experiment is not replicable everywhere. They are correctly concerned that they could become victims of the anti-politics upsurge once put to the test; worse yet, damage caused by party activists they have little control over.

    Surely for us the question is how to enter politics to act negatively on it, to disorganise politics with real social forces? The question is a concrete one when social movement activists are being told they need to focus on helping Podemos get elected. The current shift of Podemos poses the question of what kind of party does the working class need? One based on its own activity or based on resting on that self-activity in order to channel it into a radical political project that leaves prevailing social relations relatively undisturbed?

    • Luke Stobart says:

      I said it was more important for Podemos activists to be involved in the social struggle than the municipal campaign. This is precisely because my approach, like yours, is to create “self-organisation from below”, not to replicate illusory parliamentarian politics. I agree that the state has its own particular interests and is not a mediator between state and civil society. Crucially I share seeing municipal politics as “state bound” rather than as a sphere that can be fully democratised due to its territorial localness -as many Spanish radicals from different traditions argue. So, yes, the key as to whether Podemos’ radical populism eclipses the necessary social approach to politics is to what extent the social movements can push beyond what is increasingly called the “democratic revolution” to the social revolution. That means seeing the secondary intervention in the institutions as being about blocking a political class that disorganises the social movement in the name of the 1% (or, in the fine words of la CUP, it means acting as a “Trojan horse”). Concretely in Podemos this requires the more “movimentista” wing of the project to focus primarily on the neighbourhood, worker and radical political struggles (as an alternative to a “bourgeois political” strategy). This necessarily should involve wider (non-Podemos) forces. I discuss this issue properly in part 3, which I hope to publish very shortly.

    • Luke Stobart says:

      A more minor point: You say “15-M made apparent that there can be mass social resistance on a basis that at some level understands the fundamental antagonism between civil society and state” and later suggest that 15-M is “a movement autonomous of the state and politics but also directed (in a negative way) against them”. The emphasis in the first comment should be on the “at some level”, and the second comment needs nuancing. 15-M was willing to disobey the law (eg surrounding parliaments or ignoring the prohibition on street protests that coincide with elections), and in that regard can be seen as anti-state. But for the majority of participants hostility was towards our supposed “representatives” (politicians and union leaders) and the banks and other minority economic elites and did not develop into a full rejection of the state. Therefore the shift between the 15-M approach and that of Podemos is less great than you imply. This makes keeping a social-movement orientation harder and requires those with a consistently “anti-political” approach to be tactically clever about how to achieve it. How you relate to municipal campaigns with lots of social movement activists in it (such as Guanyem in Barcelona) is actually quite important.

  2. athini says:

    i feel that the most interesting part of Podemos is that it is of empirical nature, it is not trying to brain wash with any promise of perfect solution. its almost like the shape of the river bed is not important…what is important to all who drink from the river is its purity.

    if u want to gain control of a train (or a comet 😉 in motion, u have to get on it and understand the mechanisms to be able to slow it down to a stop.

    Some aspects of the premise of podemos is not a fear ridden defense mechanism of selfishness and seperation…it is about unity in diversity, coming from a healing, compassionate vision of loving kindness…. a system which while is basically and inherently poisonous is what is currently regulating infrastrucures of lives and livelihoods so there needs to be very careful detonation methods used to ensure least peripheral damage. but what feels clear and refreshing is that iglesias doesnt claim to know it all, he shows humility and the sincerity that the best teacher always remains a student.

    who was it that said that we work with the true purpose of our light being the universe conspires to help us. Iglesias gives confidence that he is supporting root growth instead of being next in the top down ruling of same old…he is like the breeze that makes people wake up to themselves, their power, helping us to remember that through the experiences we have had we have developed an ideology of how we want
    to live and even though with the old school politics we felt it had no chance, no power, now we feel that we have lungs to breathe it. we are breathing the quantum consciousness that we are heard, we matter, we may be honoured, we have a gift to give and to receive and we can feel safe being responsible for it. of course we can,claro que podemos. we are being re-present-ed as dignified human beings with integrity, not as a worker ants of the PP who wish they were queen bees. the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. inside each one of us there are systems of true intelligence because we are nature when we understand ourselves as organisms….the old school politica is just a dis-ease of humanity. real humanity has immense power with all its permutaions and combinations of the myriad diversity of its capabilities in incredible dimensions to, just like other species, have a safe and capable culture rooting from wellness in community, ecology and economy wher there is flowing in harmony and consequently prosperity. With thanks!

  3. […] in left flank by luke stobart · November 14, 2014. Other articles by same author) (go to: fist […]

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  5. I agree with Tad that — right across the world — we need local/global movements connected by similar principles that are independently autonomous of the state and politics. That how I read you too, Luke, when you: say ‘the Left … needs to become the people’; refer to the diverse and broad spread horizontalism of 15M; and frame Podemos in terms of a ‘new elitism’.

    But I’m not so clear how you (Luke) distinguish Marinaleda from Podemos because, at least superficially, it does have strong leadership (Sánchez Gordillo). Also it would be great if you, Tad, could unpack the grounds of your conclusion that there can’t be lots of Marinaledas.

    Sorry to sound so fundamentalist but I think that we need to bring in here the real politics of ownership of private property and the means of production. We need to foreground that, to be successful, social self-organisation from below must incorporate a material autonomy of everyday being. Otherwise we’re like teenagers railing against parents who control our income and environment even if not our minds and expression.

    This, indeed, is what Marinaleda has ahead of Podemos; it owns space and productive apparatus that is democratically controlled as far as is possible given the level of technologies used. Is that what you think Luke? Still, I see Marinaleda failing and its replication being irrelevant in that what we need is a radically different form of production and exchange than it (or, say, Cuba) has had. And this is what I think the ‘rabble’ of M15 — squatters, those supporting non-monetary exchange networks, more environmental and local food supplies, people who more or less totally ignore the parliamentary side of things etc — can, or could, provide.

    We as the Left have to face that we cannot get around taking back what is ours, the Earth (land, air and seas) that sustains our existence. This is where Sánchez Gordillo’s sense of a moral economy makes sense. Many activities on the Left are wonderfully diverse extensions of trying to create the new world we desperately need to enable the human species to continue despite the damage capitalist technology and relations have wrought.

    These activities are not political or organised in a parliamentary party sense. The principles and organisational processes we require need to dovetail with replacing capitalist states with commons run really democratically so we fully control our means of existence. I think the criteria for success of Podemos or any other such movements must be set within this frame of reference.

    In solidarity,

    • Luke Stobart says:

      Hi Anitra, just to clarify- I’m saying that Podemos is in danger of becoming a new elitist project, not that it is already is one. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be a member probably!) The 15-M culture is still important in the circles. However this “soul” of Podemos needs to express itself organisationally to have a substantial impact -through the creation of more and stronger social-activist circles and commissions. This would not be enough to change the direction Podemos is taking (largely due to its increased electoral possibilities), but it could represent an important step in terms of creating the capacity to follow through social demands under a Podemos government (and in the face of a predictable anti-government backlash by the elites), or if the populist project stumbles.

      “we need is a radically different form of production and exchange than it (or, say, Cuba) has had. And this is what I think the ‘rabble’ of M15 — squatters, those supporting non-monetary exchange networks, more environmental and local food supplies, people who more or less totally ignore the parliamentary side of things etc — can, or could, provide”. One of the reasons why electoralism is growing as a project at the moment is that the 15-M and related movements arguably hit an impasse. Part of this was underestimating the hold of the state over politics (and politics over the movement) and also (with the exception of education and health workers -in the Mareas and workers’ assemblies) not knowing how to get round the problem of the conservative influence of the union bureaucracies. I agree with your emphasis on changing people’s material realities and I think local self management is part of the solution but I don’t think it is the key to breaking beyond the current limitations.

      Lastly, you clearly know more about Marinaleda and Sánchez Gordillo than me, but I don’t see having Sánchez Gordillo as a “strong leader” as a problem per se. It depends on what his strategy is and whether his leadership is empowering and ‘organic’ or hierarchical and usurping. (I honestly don’t know enough about the case to comment.) So-called horizontal projects always have some kind of unelected leaderships (in the form of ‘spokespersons’ or those that for different reasons have access to the media). Because in such organisations leadership is not acknowledged it can be more opaque than on the traditional left. In the first few months of Podemos a de facto leadership dominated.

      FYI despite SG and his colleagues in the CUT leading supermarket occupations, some people in Podemos have dismissed Sánchez Gordillo for being “old left” (as one member of my circle disapprovingly claimed when SG said he wished his own CUT join a local coalition with Podemos!)

      • Thanks for your engagement, Luke, and for the clarifications over the tensions you analyse. I agree with the ‘old left’ association with SG and look forward to reading more posts by you.

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  8. […] the rest of the article at Left Flank, where you can also read the first article in this […]

  9. Luke Stobart says:

    Thanks Anitra. I’ll try and get part 3 finished this week.