Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of Democracy in Europe
US: Nov 2015
For the past two months, Spain’s political establishment has been embroiled in an electoral stalemate. Neither of the two leading parties won enough votes in the 20 December poll to form a government. The centre-right People’s Party won the most votes, but it’s the centre-left Socialist Party that seems to have the best shot at putting together a coalition. The Socialists are currently in talks with smaller parties from the centre and left of the political spectrum in hopes of forming a government by the 5 March deadline. (See “Spanish political parties step up talks in race to form government”, by Sarah White, Reuters, 22 February 16)
Key to doing so is winning the support of the newest, non-traditional parties that surged into prominence on a wave of popular protest preceding the most recent ballot. One of those parties, the anti-austerity Podemos (Spanish for ‘We Can’), has built its new strength on the promise of revitalizing progressive politics and perhaps replacing the Socialists as the party for progressive voters on the left. Key to their strategy has been an effort to transcend the traditional left-right political spectrum, and to build an anti-austerity movement that they hope will draw support from all sides of Spanish politics by establishing a new social and political consensus that centres principles of social democracy, anti-corruption, and anti-austerity.
The philosophy underlying Podemos has been eloquently articulated in recent years by Pablo Iglesias Turrion. An academic by nature, he became a familiar face to Spaniards as a commentator and host on left-wing television talk shows like La Tuerka and Fort Apache. It was there that he and others most publicly articulated the anti-austerity principles and challenge to status quo politics that would later come to define the party. He became Secretary General of Podemos when the party was established in late 2014, and was elected that same year to the European Parliament. Iglesias resigned his seat last year in order to return to Spain and organize the party for the national elections in December.
While Podemos organized, Verso Books translated and published in November 2015 an English-language version of Iglesias’ manifesto Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of a Democratic Europe. The book, originally published in Spanish in 2014, lays out Iglesias’ interpretation of modern Spanish history and politics. It offers insights not only into the Podemos vision, but into the possibilities of 21st century anti-austerity politics for Spain and for the world. Packed with additional supplementary material, including an interview with Iglesias and the article “Explaining Podemos” which he wrote for the New Left Review, it offers a valuable vantage into the movement that’s sweeping Spain, and beyond.
We Must Fight for Democracy
In the opening chapters, Iglesias emphasizes two points. First, political power matters. He draws on a range of historical examples to underscore the argument that all the best ideologies, manifestos, platforms, and intentions in the world do not matter if you do not hold political power. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, this often involved extra-parliamentary methods of obtaining or holding power: military or revolutionary violence (Spain was victim to the brutal Franco dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, which has left an indelible mark on the country’s psyche). In today’s world, thankfully, the de rigueur method of obtaining political power is parliamentary democracy. This is, of course, Iglesias’ way of building the justification for his own party, Podemos, and making the case for a parliamentary strategy.
Protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and even some elements of Spain’s M15 anti-austerity movement (from which Podemos was born) have argued against this, holding instead that engaging in parliamentary politics is a sell-out. Nonsense, argues Iglesias: the point of engaging politically is to obtain political power in order to implement a political program. Whether it is achieved at the end of a gun, via ballot box, or through the power of the street and the square: history shows that political power matters.
His second argument is that anti-establishment politics also matters. It’s easy to see why the leader of Podemos—an anti-establishment, anti-austerity party—would argue this. But he makes a powerful case—again backed up with copious historical examples—that anti-establishment politics are not only legitimate, but they’ve produced the only movements that have ever benefited the lives of the average person in today’s world.
“If we inventory everything these movements achieved over the last 200 years, the only conclusion a democrat can draw is that civil and political rights, freedom of association, universal suffrage, the right of assembly, the eight-hour day, the right to public health and education services, the existence of trade unions and collective bargaining—all these are the outcome of the actions of anti-systemic [anti-establishment] movements throughout history. The benefits everybody takes for granted as inherent to democracy are precisely the fruit of these anti-systemic uprisings.”
Indeed, he warns, it is those who defend ‘the system’, not those who challenge it, who invariably wind up on the wrong side of history.
“[M]ost of the political breakthroughs that have improved the human condition are owed to the efforts of movements that rose up against the system. Paradoxically, the villain of history by any democratic standards has been the pro-system camp: the champions of slavery, restricted suffrage, racism and child labour, the enemies of social rights, the wealthy collaborators with fascism—the list is long. The pro-system forces of the present day are the advocates of an international order outside of democratic oversight—in which institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the Troika make governments do their bidding—and the supporters of the privatization of public assets and the socialization of the costs of private debacles. Such are the cheerleaders of a system still rooted in the protection of the privileges of the few, while trampling on the rights of the many.”
Having established these two points—that obtaining political power matters, and that anti-establishment politics have historically offered the most tangible benefits to the public—Iglesias then walks the reader through a political history of modern Spain, which encompasses almost half the book. While Spain’s history is fascinating on many levels, Iglesias’ account was written for a Spanish audience and presumes a great deal of familiarity on the part of the reader with the people and events of modern Spanish history; it doesn’t provide a lot of explanatory material for the reader who might not be familiar with it. This section will be confusing to the reader who doesn’t already possess some knowledge of Spanish history: he proceeds at breakneck speed, dropping names and acronyms and organizations with little context or explanation.
The most interesting part of the book is the final third, where Iglesias uses recent Spanish history as a sort of test case to demonstrate the impact of neoliberal economics and politics. Here again the analysis draws on minutiae of Spanish history and regional politics which will be unfamiliar and confusing to many readers, but the analysis itself is clear and powerful in its treatment of universal themes: corruption, the erosion of democratic governance, the imbalance of a small caste of power elites on whose primacy neoliberalism is premised; the ravages of austerity politics.
Countries from Greece and Spain to Iceland and the United States all talk about the economic crisis, but the true crisis is a political one, argues Iglesias, and the anti-austerity movement needs to make this clear and obvious to the public. This “crisis of the regime” is grounded in the fact that democracy in these countries “is really a form of government in which the orders are given, in the last instance, by people who don’t stand for election”: bankers and corporate CEOs and credit rating agencies.
“Let’s not mince our words,” he writes, “Spain has been ruled to enable the wealthy to rob the citizens blind.”
He analyzes the nature of this robbery at some length. It manifests in multiple ways, he notes, from corporate tax evasion to the nationalization of private debt, to the dismantling of public services and the erosion of the welfare state. It’s led to a state of affairs where equality under the law no longer exists and the wealthy are effectively able to get away with all sorts of crimes that the average person cannot; a state of affairs, too, where the media has come under ownership of the same elite class and therefore fails to adequately investigate the nature of this broken system or facilitate the sort of substantive public dialogue which might help to fix it.
At the European level, he notes, a similar process has occurred, with the curious path of European integration resulting in a wealthy caste of countries—Germany and the Nordic states—dominating Europe’s economy at the expense of a swath of southern European states—Greece, Spain, Portugal, and others—that are expected to eviscerate their public services and offer cheap labour under conditions dictated by Germany and the north. “The crisis completed the articulation of a Europe along a north/south, creditor/debtor axis to cement the division of labour orchestrated by the rich countries. The south is to specialize in low-paid, labour-intensive products and services, while the north continues along the high road to quality and innovation, with higher salaries (for some). Our province of Spain has been selected, along with Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, to act as the slum of the Europe invented by the Party of Wall Street.”
Nevertheless the goals of Podemos, he writes, are unapologetically modest. In many ways they are simply demanding a return to the sort of moderate social democratic society that existed before neoliberal capitalism began destroying it in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Yet in today’s world, he notes, such simple demands are perceived as a radical threat to those in power.
What’s clear from Iglesias’ passionate arguments is that there is another, deeper agenda afoot. Podemos is trying to restore public faith in democracy: in the notion that a party can win power and administer the state without falling under the lure of greed and corruption, and without violating their promises to the electorate or selling out quality public services. Podemos is also trying to transcend the tendency for parties to be branded along the left-right axis, which is why they are trying specifically not to develop the sort of agenda that would pigeonhole them along this axis.
To win an election is not the same as winning power, he warns, demonstrating the surprisingly pragmatic edge of Podemos’ idealism. Power, in today’s world, is held in the hands of a heavily armed, deeply entrenched elite class. Any movement that desires true change must carefully, persistently, doggedly coax power out from the hands of these elites and back into the hands of those who have become so disempowered under neoliberalism. To bring back hope and faith in democracy is to win back power for the people, Podemos’ message seems to say. Winning elections offers the opportunity to win trust, and winning trust offers the opportunity to win power.
“We are not asking, unfortunately, for the elimination of the state, the abolition of prisons or the installation of heaven on earth, but we do demand the best possible public schools, attended by clean, well-fed children; a decent pension paid to the elderly, and care for them in excellent hospitals, without this being a privilege of the rich. Everyone, no matter who their parents are, should be able to go to university; nobody should have their electricity cut off if they can’t pay their heating bill in winter; banks can’t be allowed to evict a family with nowhere else to go; everybody deserves the right to decent work, with no obligation to accept rock-bottom wages and humiliating conditions; nobody should be persecuted for their opinions; the production of information should not be the preserve of billionaires; and no country should have to abase itself before foreign speculators. In short, we want a society that is equal to providing the material bases for dignity and happiness. These modest objectives, that seem so radical today, are what democracy is all about.”
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