“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.” Pablo Inglesias, General Secretary of Podemos
Last month broad grassroots political platforms supported by Spain’s left anti-austerity party, Podemos, won municipal elections in Barcelona (Guanyem Barcelona) and came close to winning in Madrid (Ahora Madrid). The right-wing governing Peoples' Party shrank to 27% of the vote. The possibility of Podemos and PSOE being in coalition at a local or national level in the future is the prediction by many in the media. They've come a long way in just over a year.
Podemos was founded in January 2014 by a group of left-wing academics in the University of Madrid, including TV pundit Pablo Inglesias, and the Spanish section of the Fourth International, Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA). The 30 or so people at the founding conference committed to finding 50,000 supporters as a precondition to standing a slate in the May 2014 European elections. Their website collapsed under the weight of people attempting to sign up and they achieved their target within 24 hours.
Podemos won five seats in the European parliament, taking 8% of the votes (1.25 million). By November 2014 they boasted over 200,000 members and had topped an El Pais opinion poll, beating both the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and old social democratic Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Podemos now has 350,000 members.
Podemos found its base in among people involved in the 15-M Indignadoes movement, the protest movement that occupied squares in towns across Spain in 2011, part of the global anti-austerity “squares movement” that spread from New York to Cairo. In Spain it fed into a diverse array of social struggles including the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, which organises civil disobedience against evictions and for housing rights, has stopped over 1000 evictions; the White Tide of healthworkers has occupied hospitals stopped health privatisations and demonstrations of over a million against unemployment.
Unlike Syriza in Greece which grew from a left unity project, Podemos rejects much of the traditional left and their approaches. They refer to both the traditional parties of the left and the unions with the derogatory label “las siglas” (literally “the abbreviations”). In fact, Podemos do not accept the traditional distinction between the left and right of politics. Instead they argue (along with Italian right wing populist Beppe Grillo) the world is split “La Casta vs Pueblo”.
For Podemos, la Casta is not just the political elites and their hangers-on but also the economic elites that stand behind capitalist class rule. They argue that democracy has been gutted of all content and is a means for the 1% to rule over the 99%. Podemos offers a way out of this dilemna by being a “tool for citizen's empowerment”, a conduit by which the mass movements on the street can compete for hegemony.
To this end, Podemos emphasises participatory democracy. On paper, its formal democracy is very impressive. Members are organised into over 1000 circles which have the power to submit policy to the national bodies, elect delegates, elect candidates to stand in elections etc. There are term limits and earnings caps on elected officials.
Over 7,000 people attended the inaugural National Assembly in October 2014 and 112,000 people voted online for various “ethical”, “political” and “organisational” policy documents. However, already there are two competing visions of Podemos — one view expounded by the leadership faction around Pablo Inglesias and the other by Marxists and other radicals around the now dissolved IA.
At the October conference the organisational proposals of Trotskyist Teresa Rodriguez and her fellow MEP Pablo Echenique which sought to extend democratic accountability within Podemos were voted down by a large majority and Inglesias' document won the day. This has allowed Inglesias to consolidate his power as national secretary. Rival tendencies have been excluded from the leadership and there has been some back-peddling on the more radical policies passed at the conference. Inglesias justifies this by saying that the party needs to “grow up” and show itself capable of “governmental responsibility”.
The leadership faction around Pablo Inglesias concentrate their efforts on winning elections and perfecting their media message. They argue that the post-Franco regime left much of the old fascist state intact. They campaign for a Constituent Assembly that will fully democratise society and set in train a new anti-neo-liberal social order. They see mobilisation and agitation as secondary to furthering their electoral success.
The more radical wing sees the process of winning elections and opposition positions within the state as a complimentary part of building struggles in the workplaces and streets. It is more explicitly anti-capitalist.
The economic position of the party has been moderated but they still argue for a massive expansion of state funded investment and redistribution of wealth. Other policies include 35 hour working week with no loss of pay, increase numbers of public sector employees from one in ten to one in four of the workforce, free nurseries, creation of publicly owned and controlled banks, tax on financial speculation, a constitutional right to housing. However, more radical policies have been dropped, specifically a proposal for a citizen's audit into Spain's debt with a view to refusing to repay “illegitimate debt”.
Yet, as the Greek situation reveals, the leaders of capitalist Europe cannot tolerate any dissent from neoliberal norms. The space for social reform has almost dissappeared and the leadership of Syriza can only delay the moment where they have to choose between ultimate betrayal or a bold application of their policy.
But the fact that this problem is posed, and there is a real struggle over the future of Syriza, Greece and ultimately all of our futures is to be welcomed. The emergence of Podemos should be similarly welcomed.