Understanding Podemos: Radical populism

In the second of three articles about Podemos, Luke Stobart makes a critical examination of the political ideas behind the group who are now Podemos’ formal leadership.


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, 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.

Read the rest of the article at Left Flank, where you can also read the first article in this series.


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