Besieging the Heavens: Podemos and the Politics of the Impossible

Pablo Iglesias podemon spain

* Please note: This post was written prior to the elections in Spain. Results are now available. FTB apologizes for the publication delay.

Today the Spanish people head to the polls in what might be the tolling of the bell for the bipartisan system that has characterized Spanish politics and European politics in the post-WWII period. A sort of peaceful coexistent between the traditional socialist and conservative forces, a neoliberal modus operandi that has dominated Spanish society since the downfall of the Francoist regime in 1974.

With the economic downturn of 2008, felt in many countries across Europe, came to shake-up the ailing Madrid consensus. From the rubble of the economic devastation that forced many working  Spanish families and precarious youth out of their houses and jobs, was born the tremendous social upheval of M-15, the indignados movement.

In the summer of 2011, this movement would occupy squares in every corner of the country, not abiding by the defined boundaries and cultural differences that run through Spain like arteries or veins. The scope of the protest, the potency of its message of economic equality and redistribution and its historical grounding in the Spanish Republican tradition, calling for a complete overhaul of the current constitutional framework in favor of participatory democracy and decentralization, turned the indignados movements into a force to be reckoned with on the Spanish political scene.

For the past four years, since the culmination of the indignation movement at Peurta Del Sol, the symbolic heart of the Spanish capital, the ideas that were hatched during the summer of 2011 have continued to inundate and influence the Spanish political discourse and made significant practical gains. Podemos, a political party that germinated in the squares of 2011, is a case study for left-wing and anti-capitalist political movements throughout the world, because of its success, because of its failures, but most importantly because of its potential that may or may not be reached within the near future.

Puerta del Sol in Madrid during the 2011 Spanish protests (image by fotograccion via WikiMedia Commons)
Puerta del Sol in Madrid during the 2011 Spanish protests (image by fotograccion via WikiMedia Commons)

Podemos is an island of hope within a sea of fear. Throughout Europe, right-wing populist movements and their rhetoric is taking centre stage, filling a void that left-wing movements have conceded. Traditional left-wing movements have become managers of capitalism and of the neoliberal consensus leaving the vast terrain of populist anti-system rhetoric to fascist right-wing movements and their affiliates.

The comparison between France and Spain is staggering. Whereas in Spain, Podemos has come to push the debate and embody a true alternative to the establishment politics, the void left in France by the incapacity of left-wing forces to create some semblance of a political alternative has allowed the rise of the fascist Front National.

The economic conditions and societal problems both countries are facing are similar. Affected communities, working-class communities, traditional bastions of the left, have shifted away from their traditional zones of gravitation. In Spain towards Podemos and in France, unfortunately, towards the FN.

Beyond the obvious political differences between a right-wing xenophobic party and an anti-austerity umbrella party, there are profound organizational differences as well. The FN has been incapable of moving beyond the volatile anti-system protest vote, shortcomings evident in their inability to break the bipartisan system in France during last Sunday’s regional vote.

Why would Podemos succeed where the FN has failed? Unlike the FN, Podemos, in the municipalities they hold, has created grassroots level spaces of dialogue and shared power, alliances of mutual reinforcement with societal actors, NGOs and social movements. One of the best examples of this is how Podemos-held municipalities have created strong ties with the anti-gentrification movements in the popular neighborhoods of  many the major Spanish urban centres. The Podemos-affiliated mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, was one of the heads of the anti-expulsions movement that was formed in the wake of the current Conservative government’s decision to deregulated rents, condemning tens of thousands of Spaniards to homelessness.

The conditions of the ascension of the FN and of Podemos are similar and both have taken every opportunity to gain political traction in municipal, regional and European elections. But while the FN was invisible and did not connect within the communities they were supposed to represent, instead parachuting in candidates from the Politburo, Podemos did by creating movements that mirrored local diversity.

Pablo Iglesias, the leader and sort of eccentric intellectual spokesperson of Podemos, identified the primordial question that his political formation faces. Podemos must continue to speak a language that resonates with disenfranchised and precarious Spaniards. At the expense, sometimes, of ideological purity, Podemos must translate their ideas into the diverse dialects that make up this movement.

The future of Podemos and the future of any left-wing anti-austerity party resides on walking this tightrope successfully and, for the time being, Podemos has been successful in doing so. They have been able to completely seize the moment and through their brilliant analysis of the current Spanish political quagmire, they have been able to translate the frustration that many Spaniards have into a political platform for change. The frustration that was translated into hate and xenophobia in France was translated into hope in Spain.

But will the success of Podemos also lay the seeds of its downfall? Podemos has become some sort of meteorite sensation in Spain and in the Western world, but their stardom is mixed with this discourses of not accepting the paradigm of left vs right and instead putting forward the Gramscian notion of common sense.

This has rendered Podemos vulnerable in two ways. First, their success is tightly strapped to the unpredictable roller-coaster ride of a decadent political system. Second, their formula for success could gain tractoion with right-wing, neoliberal propositions as well. Ciudadanos, the libertarian political equivalent of Podemos, for example, is giving Podemos a taste of their own medicine.

Do the ends justify the means or do the means justify the ends? Rather, do the means taint and change the ends? This is the unsolvable debate of anarchist, socialist, communist movements since time immemorial.

I believe that we can create a truly democratic movement, a space able to synthesize ideology and practice, capable of theorizing and mobilizing and maintaining the vital link between the two. Skip the Hollywood version.

There’s a lot to learn on this subject from the Podemos experience. Decentralizing decision making and mobilizing different perspectives in a asymmetric framework is essential, but all of this can only exist within the lineal objective of confronting and dismantling the unequal power relationships that breed oppression that exist within a capitalist framework.

In short, for Podemos to be successful, it must be transformative force and break with all of it and not fall into the trap of SYRIZA.

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