“There’s No Populist Instruction Manual for How You Nationalize Amazon”

Jorge Tamames

From Podemos in Spain to Bernie Sanders’s bid for the nomination, recent left-populist campaigns inspired widespread hopes only to fall short. But overwhelming the fortresses of neoliberalism demands a long-term strategy — and mass mobilizations that last beyond the excitement of an election campaign.

Leader of the Socialist Party Pedro Sanchez watches as Leader of Unidas Podemos Party Pablo Iglesias speaks during a press conference in Madrid, 2019. (Xaume Olleros / Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain’s Unidas Podemos has played a key role in shaping the government response, even pushing through a minimum household income to help out the hardest-hit families. Yet, despite such successes, Podemos’s role as a junior partner to the center-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) little resembles the anti-systemic insurgency of which leader Pablo Iglesias spoke following the indignados protests of 2011.

Able to win real gains for working people, Podemos is more than just a lesson in the dangers of entering institutional politics. But its trajectory also raises question marks over its original strategy, and the bid to form an electoral insurgency that could smash through the traditional politics of center-left and center-right. Such a question seems particularly important given the setbacks for other promising left-populist forces, from France to the United States.

Jorge Tamames’s new book For the People directly compares these campaigns — exploring how both Podemos and Bernie Sanders made exhilarating breakthroughs but ultimately failed to overcome the political establishment. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to him about the reasons for the left-populist upsurge, the difficulties of creating mass parties, and the organizational legacies of the Spanish and US experiences.


DB

In your work you seek to integrate arguments by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe into a vision of “countermovement” proposed by Karl Polanyi, looking at past periods of pushback against marketization and its effects. Could you explain why you think Polanyi is insightful for our present?

JT

Since the emergence of the 2011 protest movements, there has been a revival of interest in Karl Polanyi’s work. Within the Left it has almost become a platitude to talk about his countermovement — simply stated, the notion that societies mobilize spontaneously to reverse the advance of marketization. I try to parse out these general insights from his specific contribution to the study of populism today.

The Great Transformation — Polanyi’s leading work, first published in 1944 — is very useful for two reasons. The first is that the Laclau/Mouffe theorization of populism is sometimes dismissed because it lacks an explicit grounding in political economy. Polanyi provides it in a way that is compatible with their work. He points out, for example, that a societal reaction to the advance of market forces does not always produce desirable results. In the 1930s, it led to fascism as well as the New Deal; today it fuels populist movements on the Left and the radical right.

Just as importantly, Polanyi suggests that the configuration of a double movement, much like the establishment of “a people” for Laclau and Mouffe, is not simply a reflection of class politics. This is not to say that his work is incompatible with Marxist analyses. As Michael Burawoy points out, the best way to understand Polanyi is — together with Antonio Gramsci — as a pioneer of a “sociological Marxism” that rejects economic determinism and views society, culture, and ideas as objects of inquiry in their own right.

DB

Both Bernie Sanders and Podemos seemed well-able in their first campaigns to attract support from outside the established Democratic or PSOE electorates. But more recently, each took more conciliatory stances toward, respectively, Joe Biden and PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez. It seems that the need to block the far-right threat was a major consideration in each case. But was there perhaps a deeper failure to actually reframe the political contest around class and economic issues as intended, which ultimately left them vulnerable to the pressures of lesser-evilism?

JT

I’m not sure taking a more or less conciliatory stance toward the center-left is the main reason for their electoral setbacks, although in my view Bernie was surprisingly gentle with Biden in his 2020 run. And yes, the radical right undoubtedly places liberals in a comfortable position: they can resort to moral excoriation, or nostalgia toward a not-too-distant past, instead of proposing alternatives.

Is there a class-based explanation for this juncture? Yes, just not in the way it is sometimes framed. An irony of some workerist critiques of left populism is that they operate on the same level of analysis that they criticize. In their view it is a mistake to address “the people” instead of “the working class.” Ultimately, then, the problem is discursive.

There are good reasons to speak in a different language than the Left has traditionally used, if only because the channels that it once relied on to socialize voters — think of unions, but also neighborhood associations, even churches in the United States — have been eroded by decades of neoliberal governance. Active demobilization of lower-income voters is a feature of our democracies. This is what Peter Mair had in mind when he warned about the “hollowing” of Western democracy.

What this means is that there is no clear path to socialize citizens into left politics in their jobs or even everyday life. So, coming up with good frames and a compelling discourse that can politicize and re-engage them is important.

But the question of mobilizing voters is also organizational. Developing good campaign rhetoric cannot substitute for this, in the long term. Here, Podemos provides a cautionary example. Its organizational structure largely dismissed bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. The party did extraordinarily well for two years — largely thanks to a carefully-designed communication strategy — but this was not enough to defeat Spain’s traditional parties. From then onwards, it stagnated.

DB

Thinking again about your Polanyian theme and the notion of cycles of history, we often hear talk of a postwar social-democratic consensus, lasting up until the early 1970s. You yourself refer to an “embedded liberalism,” bolstered by the institutions and circumstances resulting from World War II. But in many key European countries, the dominant governing force in this supposed Golden Age was in fact the center-right, under pressure from a strong labor movement and the Communist “threat.” Today, is there any prospect of left-populist movements shaping the political agenda despite their electoral setbacks — and using what forms of pressure?

JT

As you point out, center-right governments carried out many of the socio-economic reforms associated with the postwar period. Conversely, under neoliberalism, the center-left that has often taken the lead in speaking for the market, to use Stephanie Mudge’s words. France is a case in point. Charles De Gaulle is still associated with dirigisme and les trente glorieuses, while François Mitterrand — the Fifth Republic’s first left-wing president — oversaw the country’s turn toward neoliberalism in the 1980s.

The point is that macroeconomic regimes — which operate on an international level, and lock in place a series of opportunities and constraints — are as important, if not more so, than the ideological orientation of any given government. The postwar regime relied on Keynesian demand management to stabilize (mostly national) markets.

Monetary policy was targeted to ensure full employment, finance was tightly bound, welfare states acted as automatic stabilizers during economic downturns, and so on. Of course, highly unionized and mobilized workforces were essential for the system to deliver. However, it’s not just a story of working-class pressure: Sweden retains a highly unionized workforce, but it also assimilated neoliberalism throughout the 1980s.

Changing this state of affairs is challenging. You need to place pressure at several levels — the workforce, on the national level, within the transnational structures that enforce these macroeconomic regimes, etc. As junior partner to the center-left, Unidas Podemos (the Podemos-United Left alliance) has secured a significant raise in the minimum wage and an active response to the COVID-19 crisis, which included the approval of a minimum income scheme for distressed households.

But Unidas Podemos lacks a strong foothold at the European level, where some of the more important macroeconomic decisions take place. And organizational strength remains a considerable shortcoming for Podemos. Paradoxically, it is the radical right party Vox which is making headlines by saying it wants to create its own labor union — an ironic decision, given it is second to none in its pro-market agenda.

DB

A common criticism of Laclau and Mouffe is that their vision of “articulating a people” and its demands is fine for building coalitions of voters before elections, but has less insight about what to do after reaching power. Podemos has secured some fine policy announcements but no longer seems to base its politics on conflict and mobilization — even in the manner of some right-populist parties in government. Why do you think this is?

JT

It’s worth remembering that “populism” is a political logic, not an ideology with specific policy content. Briefly stated, it is about constructing an us and a them between “the people,” and political and economic elites, as well as creating and sustaining the bonds between different groups that face a common adversary. Laclau and Mouffe provide a strategy for political mediation, not a five-year plan to democratic socialism. There are no populist instruction sheets to nationalize Amazon.

As I pointed out before, international macroeconomic regimes weigh more than national governments, however leftist their orientation. Admittedly, this presents a problem not just to left populism, but for any strategy geared to acquire power at the national level and exercise it in a meaningful, progressive way. And this is especially true within the Eurozone. It’s reasonable to question the point of governing a southern European country if its economic future depends on Brussels or Berlin.

I think there are two partial answers to this objection. First, while they may not be able to reverse neoliberalism singlehandedly, states do retain the tools by which they can blunt its sharpest edges. The Left should not look down on these tools, even if their reach is limited and institutional politics need to be balanced with grassroots organizing and mobilization.

Next, the way that many of these macroeconomic regimes operate — and the EU is a perfect example — is primarily intergovernmental. So, holding power at the national level matters when you are able to collaborate with like-minded governments.

As for basing your politics upon active mobilization, the issue is that social unrest cannot simply be invoked into being. Usually it takes place spontaneously. Consider the widespread, often very radical protests during Donald Trump’s initial months in office, or the recent response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

You need both the discursive capacity to integrate such episodes to your political project and the organizational strength to actually support them. But as a political party, you cannot simply rely on junctures of active mobilization, however meaningful, or expect people will come out to protest because you ask them to. The radical right relies on cultural wars to keep its base mobilized — but I don’t view this as a substitute for actual organization.

DB

In a recent Jacobin roundtable, you made a comparison with the post-2008 situation. Then, we had grand-coalition governments imposing austerity in several eurozone member states, but this time around both Spain and Italy have anti-systemic parties as part of coalitions.

In Italy, Five Star has drawn toward centrist positions, but is unwilling to swallow the European Stability Mechanism and fears being used as a democratic façade for attacks on Italy’s fiscal sovereignty and, eventually, austerity. Admitting all the differences between Five Star and Unidas Podemos, does Pablo Iglesias’s party not risk ending up in a similar situation — and on what grounds do you think it would ever break with PSOE?

JT

It is no coincidence that the latest European response to the COVID-19 pandemic — which remains insufficient given the scope of the crisis, but so far better than the reaction to the 2008 financial meltdown — saw Italy, Spain, and also Portugal join forces in an anti-austerity front. While there are other reasons why the hardliners did not win the day, the result also speaks to the effect that these parties have had at the EU level. The governments of Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon all depend, to a varying degree, on the support of political forces that developed as a reaction to the 2008 crisis and the 2010 turn to austerity.

Five Star and Podemos are very different parties and the second has done a better job of grounding its appeal upon a progressive agenda, not just on the fact that people are angry with politics-as-usual. In theory, there are many issues that can test the partnership between Podemos and PSOE — economic priorities, the Catalan government’s bid for independence, even the future of the monarchy following its latest round of corruption scandals. My impression, however, is that Podemos will not break the coalition.

The main reason for this is internal. Pablo Iglesias and his inner circle run the party tightly, and they have come to view their presence within the government as the main argument to cling onto the leadership after the electoral setbacks of 2019 and 2020. We have to wait until the next national election to fully assess their strategy, but the results from recent elections in Galicia and the Basque Country are not encouraging.

DB

Even despite Sanders’s defeat, his campaigns have clearly energized a new layer of activists, now doing things like building DSA, electing local officials and even feeding unionization drives — progress, if from a low base. In Spain the Left’s parliamentary strength is far greater, but it doesn’t seem that activist mobilization is still on the rise. What, practically, can Podemos do now to lay stronger bases of organization, allowing it to survive past eventual electoral defeats and past Iglesias’s personal leadership?

JT

“Progress, if from a low base” seems an accurate summary of the past six years of electoral politics for the Left in Europe and North America. It is important to keep in mind how low that initial base was, and the fact that the pace of progress was at times so dramatic that it generated unmet expectations. The fact that Podemos and Bernie came close to fulfilling their objectives should not be a reason for fatalism once they fell short.

The main risk for Podemos — and also for the groups that splintered away from it, such as Íñigo Errejón’s Más País — is becoming a cloistered and hollow organization. This drift is often presented as a moral parable that places the blame on specific leaders. But it is, first and foremost, a result of its top-down institutional design.

This should have been overhauled after the December 2015 elections, when the party won an impressive 20 percent of the national vote, but did not overtake either the conservative PP or the center-left PSOE. Ironically, Podemos could become an iteration of the traditional left it used to criticize: and thus too self-referential to be of any use next time there is an eruption of social unrest.

My impression is that the space that Podemos sought to occupy needs to be rebuilt from the ground-up. The party will have to take a leading role in this endeavor, but the process should be broad enough to go beyond Podemos and its current leadership. Doing that, while part of the government, in the midst of an unprecedented economic and sanitary crisis, is a tough balancing act.