Podemos has just been through its first crisis, or what we might call a crisis within a crisis.
In broader society, there is little doubt that we are in the midst of a transition — a regime change emerging from inside the establishment itself. The outcome already seems clear: its aim is to consolidate a restricted and non-sovereign democracy, in which a dominant finance-business-media oligarchy builds a new model of society through attacks on social rights, greater inequality, precarity for most of the population and the disintegration of the labor movement as a subject. These political forces steam on, working in and with the state to alter the political regime and social model.
The other dimension of the current moment is what we might call the autonomy of the political. We are seeing, in the recomposition of the European Union’s southern countries, a fulfillment of Wolfgang Streeck’s prophesy: when a crisis hits, economic powers become active subjects, subordinating politics and institutions to their interests. Crises always reveal the true face of the dominant powers, and their brutality becomes apparent to the majority of the population. At times this provokes a legitimacy crisis, which is what happened in Spain. The strategy of these forces, who we call la trama (i.e. the dominant network of influence and power), has been to seize the reins of political parties, something they have also tried to do with Podemos.
Behind the regime crisis lies a project to transform and co-opt the main political parties. The last elections shed light on this endeavor. The Popular Party (PP) — specifically its general secretary, Mariano Rajoy — set about reconfiguring the regime through a process of “restoration.” This has never been easy, and the current head of government has had to fight hard to establish himself as the driver of a political project at the service of dominant economic powers.
The role of Ciudadanos in all this has also come to light. Created as a right-wing bulwark against Podemos, Ciudadanos has become a hinge party, defending neoliberal positions through a discourse attacking Catalan sovereignty and defending “national constitutionalism.” Its position has been complicated by the fact that it is forced to support the PP, meaning that it ends up indirectly legitimizing a party heavily tainted by corruption.
But the main element of the current conjuncture is the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) crisis. At crucial moments, the PP always stands in line with PSOE. Mariano Rajoy is forced into the role of state representative, that is to say, he must simultaneously confront PSOE and prevent it from eventually disintegrating or losing electoral relevance, which would open a space for Unidos Podemos to become the only oppositional force.
It is no secret that under Felipe González’s (1982–1996) leadership, PSOE became the party of the establishment, and the bipartisan system was embedded in its DNA. For a long time, PSOE followed a successful strategy of serving the interests of the dominant economic powers while bringing improvements in living standards and working conditions for the popular sectors.
All that ended with the 2008 crisis. Zapatero’s Socialist government accepted the harsh austerity policies imposed by the troika, which the population perceived as a betrayal of the social pact guaranteed by the constitution, and indeed as a coup orchestrated by the main economic power blocs, who successfully co-opted the political elites and put the state at their service.
The emergence and development of the 15M indignados movement was crucial here. Its campaign for true democracy, its defense of social and trade union rights, and its promotion of alternative ways of doing politics eventually led to the formation of Podemos.
Adjusting to the new terrain, Pedro Sánchez’s (2014–16) leadership tried to maneuver through the social upheaval based on three objectives: 1) to win the support of the economic powers and media; 2) to fiercely oppose the right of the PP, in order to 3) weaken Podemos and, if possible, divide it and capture its electoral support. Sánchez’s adoption of this strategy meant that PSOE never met the demands of the political right to enter a coalition government.
The reasons for this were obvious: if PSOE disappeared as an oppositional force it would be a gift to Podemos, and the crisis of the regime would be aggravated. From the beginning, Sánchez’s strategy was premised on convincing the dominant powers that the regime’s future depended on Podemos’s defeat, and that this could only be achieved with the Socialist Party standing in opposition to the Right.
What happened next is well known. The alliance between the PSOE and Ciudadanos collapsed, new elections were called, and the PP advanced. The June 2016 elections placed Mariano Rajoy in the driving seat for the regime’s recomposition but Pedro Sánchez did not understand this, and continued with the old script without realizing that nobody inside or outside the party was willing to risk another general election.
The dominant powers intervened in the PSOE, forcing Pedro Sánchez to resign and initiating a congressional process of uncertain outcome. The latest, most surprising twist in this story is the return of Sánchez, adopting a left-wing discourse and inviting cooperation with Podemos.
This was the backdrop for Vistalegre II, Podemos’s second congress, which took place this February.
What Is Podemos?
What is Podemos? This is a difficult question to answer. It a heterogeneous movement that arose through the convergence of three elements: a major social crisis, the widespread rejection of politics and the exercise of power, and a deep generational crisis.
Podemos is a project under construction. The starting point was a challenge to the previous order from a plebeian-democratic perspective, provocatively called “left populism.” Podemos built itself around recurring electoral processes in which its candidates, programs, and organizational structures have all been improvised. All of this took place in a context characterized by a permanent attack from the forces of the regime, who have mercilessly criticized its leaders, systematically delegitimized the project, and used and abused the state apparatus.
The Podemos congress was its first general crisis. At issue in the debate were differing political analyses, strategies for dealing with the dominant forces in politics and media, and the nature of training for activists. Just as they had already done with the PSOE, the dominant powers intervened actively in the debate with the explicit aim of defeating Pablo Iglesias’s political line. Despite this, about 150,000 people voted in the congress, providing a solid endorsement to the political theses and leadership team.
What kind of Podemos emerged from the congress? One that is a plebeian-democratic political force, committed to the demands of the majority; a staunch defender of social and labor rights from an ecological and gender perspective, committed to a program of economic, social and cultural democracy that guarantees and strengthens popular sovereignty.
At the heart of the project is what we have called a “constituent impulse,” capable of opening a process of constitutional change towards a federalized Spain that truly recognizes the rights of nationalities existing within the Spanish state, that is committed to changing the functioning of institutions and developing people’s basic freedoms. Its core aim is to reconnect democracy with popular sovereignty and the “social question,” as part of a project for workers’ liberation within the framework of an alternative form of nation-state.
The “Populist Situation” and the “Polanyian Moment”
Carlo Formenti describes populism as a form of class struggle in the neoliberal era. My own focus is the other way around — paraphrasing Nancy Fraser, a form of class struggle in the post-socialist era. Both things are related. The most important and lasting victory of the neoliberal counterrevolution has been the disappearance of the idea of socialism from the political culture and common sense of workers. The old phantom that once haunted Europe is absent 150 years on, taking with it its two main presuppositions: that capitalism was historically determined, temporary; and that it had an alternative, socialism. “Left populism” occupies a vacuum: to construct alternatives in an age when systemic alternatives do not even seem possible.
These debates can only be explained if we start from a fundamental point: the crisis of the second capitalist globalization. Historians agree that between 1871 and 1900 there was a first capitalist globalization, which, it is worth emphasizing, ended in what has been called the “thirty-year war.” Today we are at the end of a similar cycle. Like then, old debates are being repeated.
The phase that is unfolding will not be characterized by peace, stability, and free-market cosmopolitanism, but a struggle between world powers vying to carve out of zones of influence and divide up natural resources. And, regrettably, by war. It is composed of four basic elements: 1) recurrent economic-financial crises; 2) seismic geopolitical shifts, with a massive redistribution of world power; 3) aggravation of the planet’s socio-ecological crisis; and 4) a crisis of “occidentalism,” calling into question the entire project of Western modernity.
In many ways, the victory of Donald Trump is a sign, a reaction from the very bowels of American capitalism against a globalization that they imposed on the world, but may now be trying to bring to an end. The United States’s ruling plutocracy has adopted a preventative strategy, seeking to prepare for what is coming by strengthening the role of the American imperial nation in the face of a rapidly changing world where the correlation of forces is being redefined.
What Sergio Cesaratto calls the “Polanyi moment,” the beginning of the second phase of what he called the double movement, is being ignited everywhere. Societies, states, and nations have begun to react against the capitalist self-regulated market, its claim to control human lives and determine their future. Phase B is emerging throughout the world, characterized by the demand for protection, security, and social control to shelter us from fear and death.
The nation-state has returned as the privileged site for social conflict, as the basis for projects of democratization and national-popular construction. What Nancy Fraser calls “neoliberal progressivism” has erupted in crisis throughout the world. For the European Union this means a crisis of social democracy in its various forms.
It is no surprise that the final outcome of the process that is unfolding rapidly before our eyes is the rebirth of the extreme right, its populisms, and a “rightward turn of the right.” This is the organic consequence of a social and cultural left without an alternative. An elitist project that despises its own people, this Left has ended up as the cosmopolitan wing of neoliberal globalization.
Left Strategy and National-Popular Construction
From the very beginning, Podemos’s challenge was to be a political force with both the will and the capacity to govern. But the real battle of the current moment is the dispute for hegemony on the Left. The problem that remains unresolved is that there is still little clarity regarding what it means to govern a peripheral country within a European Union dominated by Germany. Nor have we dealt with the question of how much real power Spanish democracy actually has to implement an alternative to the neoliberal model.
These questions are not easy and have many dimensions. We should first bear in mind that the European Union has been the vehicle for establishing globalization in some parts of the continent. Without embarking on an in-depth debate about the nature of the European Union, the eurozone, and the role of Germany, it is enough to point out that the European Union acts as a form of political domination that manages in the general interests of capital, organizes and directs the ruling classes of various countries, and guarantees a specific form of capitalism that we call neoliberalism. The key has always been to expropriate the monetary and economic sovereignty of states in a double process of both “depoliticizing” economic policy and “naturalizing” the economy, as Jacques Sapir pointed out many years ago. The core of the project advocated by Hayek was a federalized Europe prioritizing economic control over popular sovereignty, imposing a minimal state and — this tends to be forgotten — preventing the construction of a United States of Europe, that is, a European state in the strict sense.
Syriza’s experience provides many lessons. There are at least two alternatives: to implement a set of policies that can somehow function within the parameters laid out by the European Union, or to leave it and the euro in a somewhat unique process. But a third, more complex position would be to carry out policies that question the neoliberal model and that, in one way or another, manage to confront the dominant powers in the European Union, setting in motion a social and political dynamic whereby the popular sectors organize to defend a legitimate government in implementing a democratic program in favor of the working classes.
All of the southern countries face the same dilemma: the European Union is configured as a major obstacle to any political, social, or economic change that challenges the neoliberal model.
The true colors of the integration proposed by the European Union are revealed when any government tries to defend social rights, economic democratization, and popular sovereignty. Then it is exposed as the “Europeanness” of the ruling classes.
No government is permitted to challenge neoliberal capitalism with the German state as custodian. To put it more precisely, whereas previously the fear was a military clash organized under the supervision of a US-led NATO, today the coup d’etat comes from the European Central Bank, organized by the troika and reinforced by the German state, always taking the ruling classes of the states themselves as strategic allies. Germany does the dirty work that no bourgeoisie in the southern part of the eurozone could do alone, and in return is guaranteed economic dominance and political supremacy.
The goals of the popular and democratic forces in the southern European Union countries are closely related to those of the national liberation committees of antifascist resistance movements. The state must be rebuilt on new foundations, empowered to regulate the economy, reign in parasitic corporate financial powers, and secure policies that guarantee full employment, redistribution of income, and social rights. Democracy must be recreated by giving new impetus to the people’s constituent power, with constitutional reforms that reinforce social constitutionalism and guarantee the effectiveness of fundamental rights, blocking the imposition of any powers on democratically organized popular sovereignty. In short, a democracy of free and equal women and men committed to justice and a harmonious relationship with nature.
The time saved, as emphasized by Wolfgang Streeck, is that which serves to avoid the clash between democracy as we knew it and really existing capitalism. The problems of capitalism appear where they are least expected: through the weight of its own contradictions and the enormity of its success. Capitalism has exhausted the social bases that made it possible and that, without enemies, it has no mirror to see its reflection and no self-correcting mechanisms to guide it. This paradox has important strategic consequences. The key issue of our time cannot be ignored: the growing contradiction between democracy and capitalism. This has not been the first time we’ve seen this contradiction, but it may well be the last.
Now we return to the radical question: what does it mean to govern here and now? In our tradition we always distinguished between accessing government and conquering power. Today’s problem is both more serious and more difficult: governments have less power because they no longer lead sovereign states; real power essentially resides in the European Union and it has coercive mechanisms to impose neoliberal economic policies on any state. The European Union’s only option is to choose the most appropriate way to apply its neoliberal recipe, which is always supervised by the commission under threat of sanctions.
Many years ago, during the debate on the French Programme commun, the economist Serge-Christophe Kolm said that when the Left came to government it would always face a choice: perish or betray. Perish, because of its inability to conduct a sound economic policy. Betray, in renouncing a substantial part of its program, either because of its inability to adapt to its context or through force. But Syriza seems to have followed a different path: betray and perish. In the European Union there is only one policy, all else is pure fancy and deception.
The issue is power. A democratic government must accumulate, create, and organize power against the troika. It must take smart and bold measures to achieve macroeconomic autonomy, define a set of plausible social proposals aimed at increasing the power of workers and unions, constructing a progressive taxation system, combating fraud, intervening in poverty with effective and rapid instruments such as guaranteed basic income or jobs, and creating the conditions for a new development model that is both socially and ecologically sustainable.
The key is to build an alternative program hand in hand with the constitution of socio-political subjects. This subject-program dialectic is fundamental. Social conflict provides the vehicle capable of both organizing social powers around a program, and generating the conditions of hegemony. It is at the intersection of program, subjects, and social power that we can define a national-popular project. One capable of disputing the power of the self-serving, parasitic, and anti-popular project of the finance-business oligarchy.
Alliances, Program, and Party
The only way forward now is to work on a tripartite strategy of alliances, program, and party. But there is one added difficulty: the acceleration of political and electoral time. Today, Unidos Podemos represents the broadest electoral alliance achieved since the Second Republic, uniting Podemos, Izquierda Unida, las Mareas gallegas (the Galician Tide) and En Común–Podem, with seventy-one deputies and twenty-one senators — a very significant parliamentary force given our unequal and unfair electoral system. It emerged against the background of the two main political dilemmas of our time: the “class question” and the “national question”— that is to say, demands for a new country, a new type of state, and a new social model. All this in the midst of a major crisis of the EU project.
Alliances are always complex, much more so in our case when these express national fractures seeking to construct a new state. The federal alternative is a long-held aspiration that is forever being delayed. If implemented, it would impose extremely deep constitutional reforms. The definition of the demos, that of the constituent subject, is problematic in itself and would force complicated political interventions. What is decisive is the need for a common program that links the “social” and the “national” questions into a project for a new country, recovering state sovereignty to carry out policies that ensure decent employment, fundamental social rights for all, and the development of our weak state. When we speak of a program, we refer to a set of core ideas that can be coherently articulated and easily comprehended, which can transform our common-sense ideas about the world, eventually becoming beliefs that inspire people’s commitment and energy.
There is an an old Castilian saying: “querer es poder” — that is to say, when people are committed to ideas or projects, they can change reality. The essential elements of this are collective action and organization around a new project: building community, identity, and a sense of belonging. Our societies always seem to lack a sense of subjectivity. Resignation and passivity are destructive forces.
Even the anticorruption discourse is ambivalent. On the one hand, it ignites indignation against the dominant powers’ stranglehold on politics. On the other, it invites passivity, the notion that we are all equal actors, that there is no salvation in politics and that each individual must deal with their own problems and try to liberate themselves in isolation. It can allow the dominant powers to continue to pursue their old strategies of restricted democracy and the exclusion of the people from politics.
The tripartite strategy uniting party, program, and alliances must be rescued as an original plebeian-democratic proposal. Its aim is to unite and organize a new historical-cultural bloc, giving it a sense of meaning and belonging around a common project for socio-political liberation. Now more than ever what is needed is a clear project, a public model we can defend collectively.
Republicanism relies on a public ethic that doesn’t see us as saints in an imperfect world, but free men and women who believe that politics has a moral foundation which is incompatible with corruption, the private use of public goods, and the sorts of economic and social privileges that violate our sense of community. At issue is the recuperation of our strongest democratic-socialist traditions working to incorporate masses of exploited and humiliated people into public life, giving them rights and a voice, politicizing public life. The key is to maintain a strong commitment to class politics: organizing and acting collectively, posing ambitious political challenges to change the world from the bottom up, and building a fair, egalitarian society free from exploitation and domination.
This is Podemos’s challenge and it is daunting. It has to be built through an alliance that coordinates and organizes, defines its structure between elections and is able to renew its cadre and leadership in hard and sometimes dramatic political battles. We must be a party without falling into narrow and empty parliamentarianism, be built from below without distancing ourselves from voters and allies, maneuver through social conflict without falling into sectarianism. We must be open to new, more difficult and complex spaces.
There are three problems that require immediate attention: a) the circles (the grassroots organizations), how they will work and the interventions they will make into their environment, with a view to municipal elections that will be decisive; b) the rapid and systematic training of hundreds of political cadres and public managers; and c) the consolidation of a capable, pluralistic, and united leadership team.
There is nothing arbitrary about hope. It is built through concrete experience, generated from struggles and failures, small victories, and everyday life. It gives life meaning and we fight to keep hold of it. We are the only animal that strives for meaning in life and that fights for it. The crisis we face is a civilizational one, and dangers are grave. The Gordian knot binding socio-ecological crisis, economic decline, and war must be cut.
We cannot rely on Hölderlin’s belief that “in the midst of danger lie the seeds of our salvation.” No— redemption only comes from conscious, hopeful action that combines material truths that return dignity to people’s lives with spiritual truths that give meaning to what we do. Community and belonging are behind the everyday collective actions needed for a sustainable and just world. As Pietro Barcellona warned us: the intellectuals’ greatest defect is their elitism and contempt for ordinary people.
Translated by Kyla Sankey.
In memory of Pietro Barcellona.