What follows are some notes on Podemos. I will add some more when I get the time.
Podemos is a political initiative in the Spanish state that seeks to draw together the forces of social movements and parties of the left within a broader movement based on citizen participation and a break from the existing political regime). ‘Podemos’ translates literally as ‘we can‘, or ‘we can do it‘. However, as emphasised by the initiative’s logo, the word is also intended to suggest ‘demos‘.
Podemos is the first person plural of the verb ‘poder’. When this word takes the form of a noun it means the same as the word ‘power’ in English in many different senses, including those that concern the power to do something, or the power over something or someone (e.g. the ruling power, the powers that be).
As its initiators stress, Podemos isn’t a political party, nor is it out to become one. Rather, it is an attempt at bringing the necessary social and political instruments into existence to translate popular outrage into power over political institutions.
As regular readers here will know, there have been many resounding and vivid mobilisations in the squares and streets across the Spanish state, arising from the actions of successive governments that served the interests of big business and financial speculators, in willing obedience to the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.
But despite all this, not only has the ruling Partido Popular government continued to implement the austerity policies and dismantling of the welfare state initiated by the previous Socialist government; it has criminalised and conditioned the forms of protest that pose a challenge to it.
And it has done so through what El País cartoonist El Roto calls an ‘absolutist majority’: the use of an absolute majority of seats in the parliament -which doesn’t emanate from the votes of the majority of voters, or even the majority of those who voted in the elections- to drive through brutal cuts on behalf of the rich, and to demonise opponents: ordinary people who confront those responsible for evictions from family homes are classified as Nazis, campaigners for legislation on mortgages are painted as in league with ETA.
The clash between a sneering authoritarian government with a stratospheric sense of entitlement on the one hand, and the new horizontal networked forms of popular mobilisation on the other, has led to the crumbling of the compact between the rulers and the ruled, and the discredit of the public political culture that maintained this compact. Politicians and political parties are deeply despised by large sectors of the population.
The 15M, the Mareas, the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) and other mobilisations, most recently, the neighbourhood uprising in Gamonal in Burgos, have created a sense of antagonism between those on top and the rest of society. Many people have been politicised, but against this there is widespread despondency, a product of the grinding facts of being forced to live with less, and the apparent impossibility of dislodging the political caste spread across both the Partido Popular and the PSOE. What has taken hold, as with elsewhere in Europe, is what Peter Mair described as ‘a democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component—democracy without a demos’.
Quite a few people in left-wing circles are satisfied that Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left), as the third largest political party in Spain, is poised to take advantage of the discredit of the two ruling parties, and to take on the form of a Spanish Syriza. Not least among these are the leadership of Izquierda Unida. However, whilst there has been a collapse in support for both the PP and PSOE, this has not translated into a surge in electoral support for IU, which currently stands at 9-10% in the polls.
If we rewind to 2011, to the initial explosion of the 15M, the event that brought millions out onto the streets, the points of ‘Real Democracy Now’ manifesto seemed to fit in with the social and political outlook of IU rather well. The party been unable to capitalise on this fact; rather, on the surface, it seems concerned with cementing a place for itself within the existing political order so as to await the complete annihilation of the PSOE.
Enter Podemos. The manifesto (read my translation here) was launched Friday week ago. The initial figurehead for Podemos is Pablo Iglesias, a lecturer in political science at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. He is the regular presenter of an online TV show dedicated to political debate from a largely left wing perspective, and, in recent months, a frequent guest on political debate shows on mainstream TV. You can read an article of his from a while ago -on the ‘Syriza effect’- translated by me here.
He is a highly effective media performer, with an oratorial style is combative and uncompromising, leavened with sharp humour and astringent political analysis. The public effect of his interventions is, I think, quite similar to that of Owen Jones in the UK, albeit without Jones’s all-purpose amiability. He has put himself forward as the candidate for the European elections but repeatedly stresses that if he is defeated in the open primary process, he will get fully behind whoever is elected.
As an initial condition for presenting himself as a candidate, the organisers behind Podemos sought 50,000 signatures supporting the project. This was achieved in little more than a day.
It is early days, but it looks as though Podemos has set a cat among the pigeons on the left and the political scene more generally. Podemos ‘circles’ have been launched all over the place – in neighbourhoods, towns and places of learning. The project describes such circles as ‘a cornerstone of the project and a basic tool for empowering citizens and creating mechanisms for direct communication and decison making’. Packed meetings have been held in Asturias and Aragón.
Pablo Bustinduy writes that Podemos is ‘a call out to all those who want to practise politics and restore meaning to democracy, to those who are not prepared to wait and complain afterwards; it is an invitation to take words seriously, to think about what popular unity actually is, how it can be achieved, what are the tools needed to do so, what are the goals to be pursued, and in what language they should be expressed.’
He goes on to note that whilst criticisms regarding Podemos are well-founded (regarding leadership, its functioning, the programme and so on), “the very fact that these things are being spoken about – and with a view to the future, in the first person, speaking not about what has (not) been done, but what has to be done, what can be done- is enough to indicate how timely and necessary the act is, and to foretell the possibilities it contains”
Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop writes that ‘what is interesting about the experiment that the Podemos initiative has set in train is that the two souls of socialism – the anarchist one and the social democrat/communist one, show, by their reactions of incomprehension, their deep communion, their shared faith in the existence of the State as a substantial reality that has to be destroyed or occupied/taken, without thinking that this power we believe to have before us is a relation in which we take part and which passes through us, or, better still, constitutes us as subjects.’
Writing of the Podemos meetings in Asturias, Rosario Hernández Catalán writes: “Either we organise among ourselves or they eat us for an afternoon snack, and (Podemos) is a brave proposal, but it is merely the sounding of a starter pistol. It is we who are the athletes. Pablo Iglesias is not going to run the marathon for you. Among the public certain people said some awful things, understandable but very dangerous things, such as “I delegate it to you and a trust in you. Do not fail us”. And to this, very quickly and very trenchantly the promoters responded: “No, we are not a party with magic solutions, you can not delegate it, this is not a proposal for you to delegate to us, it is a proposal for self-organisation”. That is why they convinced me, because they were insistent upon this idea, that it is we who must organise ourselves. They do not have any superpowers.”
She continues: ‘They have made a call to us to raise the self-organisation that already exists (PAH, Mareas, autonomous occupied social centres, self-managed villages, etc.) To co-ordinate the cells that already self-govern and generate new ones. As they were talking I sensed a model of biomimesis, what was being said was something organic and not mechanical. If it fails it will be above all our fault, let’s imagine that Pablo turns into a cocky little tyrant, it will be because we let him and did not rein him in beforehand. Let’s imagine it winds up in a mere social-democratic mini-party in the style of IU, it will be because the people were incapable of organising themselves into the circles that we are being urgently encouraged to form.’