Where left populism leads
Those who have had such high hopes in Podemos will surely see them dashed, says Daniel Harvey
It is difficult to overstate the artificiality of Podemos as a populist project. That applies to its deliberately vague name (meaning literally ‘We can’, which is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s original election campaign). Leaks also reveal the shallow process to find a suitable front man. In the end Pablo Iglesias was chosen - besides his signature ponytail, he had the advantage of having a history in politics: his father was a leading member of the social democratic PSOE and he himself had been an ‘official communist’ in his youth. He is an academic in political science and built himself a TV career as a commentator. According to polls, Pablo Iglesias is still more recognisable in Spain than Podemos itself.
The group that originally instigated Podemos, Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anti-capitalist Left), is the Spanish section of the Fourth International - the organisation that Socialist Resistance belongs to. But the party has had a meteoric rise over the last year. It won 8% and five MEPs in the 2014 European elections, but it has since shot up still further in terms of popularity - in one recent poll it was running first, just ahead of the centre-right Popular Party. It can at the very least expect to pick up at least a quarter of the seats in the Spanish parliament if it maintains its current support.
Policy decision-making in Podemos is almost entirely arrived at by online voting. It is incredibly easy to join and there are no membership requirements to speak of. Originally, because of its beginnings in the ‘indignados’ movement, which captured the imagination of thousands of young people in 2011, it had a very horizontalist orientation in terms of organisation - branches, known as ‘circles’, were given a lot of clout. About 400 of these have been set up around the country, with a concentration in the more working class areas in the belt around Madrid, as well as in universities.
Originally Iglesias tried to form a coalition with the ‘official communist’-dominated United Left, but in the end negotiations broke down. But now clearly he wants to get rid of any association with the old left. Iglesias summed up what he thought was its failed political method in a recent article:
The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: ‘He was always right - but no-one ever knew’.1
So as much as possible Podemos avoids being seen as too leftwing, even though the vast majority of its support comes from people who would consider themselves to be on the left. However, it has also managed to pull in a significant amount of support from people who previously voted for the Popular Party. Iglesias claims this reflects an agenda that is beyond “left and right”, which he says, ludicrously, mirrors the approach of Lenin - who won in 1917 on the basis of promising only “bread and peace”.
In similar vein Podemos’s manifesto has gone through a number of revisions over the last year. In January 2014 it called for a default on all Spanish debt, the nationalisation of all utilities and a reduction in the retirement age by five years, among other things.
By May, this had changed to an audit of all Spanish debt with the possibility of a default, and the nationalisation of some utilities. Then earlier this month the agenda changed again to a default only on “bad debt”, which it later estimated would probably only amount to about five percent of the overall total. Nationalisation of utilities was dumped in favour of increased regulation and supervision to include price controls. The proposal to reduce the retirement age was also abandoned.
In the two earlier versions banks were to be taken into public ownership, but this too has been drastically moderated in favour of a commitment to the ethos that banking should constitute a public service. In practice this means ensuring more lending to medium-sized enterprises - not essentially any different from Labour or even Conservative policy in this country. Podemos has so far maintained its commitment to a financial transactions tax, but there is no indication of the rate to be levied. It could well be pretty much in line with the actual practice in a number of European Union countries. Interestingly, since these changes were announced the popularity of Podemos has slipped back a little.
All this has been justified by the need to present a programme which can be put into action immediately, but Iglesias frankly admits it is an agenda that any social democrat could sign up to. It seems reasonable to think he is eyeing up the possibility of a coalition with the PSOE after the next election. An alliance of this nature would almost certainly mean implementing further deep cuts in spending and a continuation of austerity. However, at this stage there is no indication that the PSOE would want to go into alliance with such an unreliable ally.
To try and persuade the centre-left that Podemos can be trusted, Iglesias and his followers have instituted measures to rein in the elements of direct democracy in its internal regime. The party elects its leadership through a system in which members can put forward lists of candidates. But the current leadership determines who can be included in these lists and, in any case, the Iglesias faction, Claro que Podemos, has been winning about 90% support from an essentially atomised membership. At the most recent conference, there was vocal opposition. And those organised in the ‘circles’ have been generally hostile to measures designed to marginalise them.
At the same time, the ‘ethical document’ put forward by Claro que Podemos, which has now been adopted, abolished the right of members who belong to left groups to run for the leadership. Ostensibly this was implemented in order to keep out “careerists” from other parties. It has meant, however, that the original founding group, Izquierda Anticapitalista, has been excluded from running for office. Ironically, for those who understand the watered down politics of the Fourth International affiliated groupings, they have been accused of being hard-left infiltrators, a bit like the Communist Platform in Left Unity perhaps.
Possibly because IA effectively made this bed for itself by promoting both the current leadership and ‘plebiscitary democracy’ in the first place, the statement complaining about this on the Fourth International website is fairly mild. The comrades state that the call to implement these changes was “demagogic” and “contrary to the spirit of 15-M” (the indignados movement). They add:
With the adoption of this ethical document, the activists of this formation, who were committed from the beginning to building Podemos, would be excluded automatically from posts of responsibility in the new party. The Claro que Podemos team accepts only one organised tendency: its own.2
At the same time, they agree to maintain amicable relations:
However, in spite of maintaining our opposition to the measure, we accept the decision taken by a large majority and, in accordance with it, no activist in Izquierda Anticapitalista will contest the elections of the State Citizen’s Council of Podemos.3
In as far as Podemos has a left spine, this is about as good as it gets. It has been pushed aside in practice, so there is now effectively nothing that will prevent the leadership getting its way.
Ironically, there have been a lot of articles published telling us how much we can learn from Podemos. This is particularly true in Scotland, where those around the Radical Independence Campaign have been calling for a similar leftwing populist formation to be set up alongside the Scottish National Party (Podemos is committed to Catalan separatism unsurprisingly). Cat Boyd provides us with an example:
And if we want to keep the debate about democracy flourishing in Scotland, as we have seen over the past two years, then we must create a more diverse polity in Scotland with the views of those who want radical redistribution of wealth and power properly represented, not just in Holyrood, but rooted in communities.
To do this we will look for inspiration from home and abroad. We need to learn from the likes of Podemos in Spain, who emerged out of the indignados movement and is currently unseating the Spanish Labour Party all over the country.4
Some cheerleaders for Podemos have even emphasised the ‘progressive character’ of leftwing populism in combating the rightwing variety across Europe. Post-Marxist theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau have been cited along these lines. Mouffe sees populism in general as a way not of undermining democratic politics, but of reviving it; and, in any case, there is little alternative in a post-political age:
We have to talk about what kind of populism is desirable. In general there is a tendency to see populism as something profoundly negative and essentially demagogic. But in fact there is a certain necessity for populism in democratic politics.
For me democratic politics has to do with the creation of a people, of a collective will. This is what populism is trying to do and it’s why I don’t think populism is necessarily undemocratic. However, we need to ask how this ‘people’ needs to be created in order to foster democratic politics.5
In the case of Podemos there has been a curtailment of inner-party democracy - a curtailment that has taken place in parallel with its adoption of right-moving left populism. Now we have a group of leaders hoping for ministerial posts in a government which they know will implement policies Podemos was set up to oppose. That is why they have pre-emptively watered down what were said to be founding principles. The result has been a party that has already turned out to be not fundamentally different from the mainstream.