Podemos’ shift of the political landscape in Spain: the emancipation of the ‘demos’

Pod1 In a previous article, we analyzed the discursive creativity of the Spanish ‘Occupy’ movement that spontaneously came into existence in the squares of many Spanish cities (see Montesano-Montessori & Morales-López, 2015). The movement manifested itself in the main squares of Madrid and Barcelona on 15 May 2011 and then spread to other Spanish cities. The movement then created its own website, Democracia real ya. They were also known as the ‘Indignados’, the ‘indignified’ or as 15M, referring to the initial date of their struggle.

This popular movement was a spontaneous revolt against, and response to anti-social measures taken by the Socialist Government in power at that time (Montesano-Montessori and Morales-López 2015; see also Pujante and Morales-López 2013). Their most widespread and creative instruments of protest were multimodal slogans, which they placed on the squares and also massively disseminated through social networks on the internet. These mini-discourses, either expressed an open criticism of the political two-party system that is in place in Spain since the end of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) or suggested solutions to the acute social and political problems caused by the international financial crisis of 2008 in Spain. Specifically, they spoke of problems related to income reduction, job losses and subsequent problems in paying mortgages, which caused many families to lose their homes. Then and now, youth unemployment is extremely high and increasing in Spain (46.1% in 2011, the year in which the struggle broke out; 53% in March 2016 at the moment of writing).

Pod2Despite its discursive success in terms of receiving national and world-wide attention, 15M failed to modify the electoral course in Spain, as it had hoped to do. The general election of November in that same year saw an overwhelming victory of the right-wing party, the Partido Popular (The People’s Party). This party then imposed a severe austerity regime, cutting down on the public sector in agreement with EU policy, formulated by the EU Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF – the so-called Troika. In the midst of this deep political and economic crisis, and when it seemed that 15M had lost its strength, new political parties emerged        that were inspired by the movement of the Indignados, such as Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, and the Partido X. The party that achieved most media success in the beginning was Podemos – ‘We can’, a left-wing party founded by Pablo Iglesias, a political scientist – ‘the ponytailed professor’. The nucleus of the party consists of intellectuals, like Iglesias, who held a position at the Complutense University in Madrid. Iglesias and others in the party are known to be inspired by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and can be considered “organic intellectuals” in Gramsci’s terminology, responsible for creating or supporting a new collective will – in the particular case of Spain, the will for an opening up of the democratic system.

Our article focuses on Podemos, due to its direct connections with the Latin American struggles that we are familiar with, their orientation which is inspired by Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) work on hegemony, and due to their electoral success, despite the hostility in the media in Spain (right and left).

The party then started a campaign for the European elections of 2014, and achieved five seats in the European Parliament that same year. Currently, it is the third largest party in the Spanish parliament, holding 69 out of 350 seats.

What was the discursive novelty of this new party which managed to insert itself in national and political institutions in such a short time? First, as stated, its core was formed by a group of well-trained academics in political theory. Secondly, they were highly familiar with the media, because they had been responsible for an alternative television channel on the Internet, the Tuerka. However, the most significant factor that contributed to their success, in our view, was presenting their discourse as the continuity of 15M and alignment with groups in Spanish society that supported the causes of 15M.

The purpose of this article is to highlight one salient example of these creative discursive features and then indicate how Podemos made a Gramscian interpretation of the crisis and translated its transformative power into a new party that advocates and contributes to establishing a deliberative democracy in Spain, for the participation and the emancipation of the demos. We finish the article with a call on Podemos to revitalize the European Left in an era of rightwing (neoliberal) dominance and authority.

The party of the working classes

The subtitle of this paragraph is taken from an article published by Pablo Iglesias (Iglesias, 2015a) under the same title, in which he provided a narrative on Podemos from its birth until the time of his publication (May 19, 2015) at the beginning of a new municipal and regional campaign.

In this article, Podemos presents itself as the party of the popular classes, placing itself in opposition to the two-party system of the PP (Popular Party) and the PSOE (Socialist Party), to which they refer to metaphorically as the ‘casta’ (see also Molpeceres Arnaiz 2016). In his article of May 19, 2015, Iglesias refers to this metaphor, as well as the metaphor of the ‘plebeian leadership’ which refers to the popular movement of 15M. It is evident in the following fragment of the article in ‘el periόdico’ quoted above:

“The historic success of Podemos is well known: we learned to interpret 15M as the social expression of a crisis of the regime, and we understood that it could be translated into politics. The translation was based on two elements: a plebeian leadership formed in the media and a discourse that appealed to some outraged popular classes (people) that marked the political and economic elite as corrupt and responsible for the situation. Without renouncing any significant elements of the program, we went beyond the opposition left-right, redefining the Spanish political scene with new coordinates. The word “caste” is normalized in political language and all the actors were adapting to a new scenario in which we appeared as the protagonists.”

Both metaphors, “caste” and “plebeian-leadership” displace the political space from the traditional image-schema of right-wing and left-wing parties, turning the image-schema to a vertical axis, indicating a top-down relation. With this spatial displacement, Podemos rearticulates the image of the political landscape.

 This new construction underlined how the major political parties of the right and left presume that there is a democratic difference in their positions. In contrast, the Podemos’ innovative scheme suggests that Spain, since 1975 has maintained a political caste consisting of both populists and socialists that collude with the global neo-liberal financial oligarchy at the expense of the Spanish people or the lower classes but increasingly, also at the expense of the middle classes.

“Si es bueno para ti, no es bueno para nosotros” (If it is good for you, it is not good for us) (Montesano-Montessori & Morales-López, 2015, p. 209).

This image can also be found in the party’s placards, of which this illustration is an example. The placard shows the collusion between the two parties by composing one face out of the faces of Zapatero, the leader of the Socialist Part and that of Rajoy, then leader of the Populist party and Prime Minister of the country since 2011 until present. The same collusion is shown in the composition of their names: Luisiano Zapajoy is, indeed, a mix of their real names: Luis Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy. Finally the invented logo of this colluding party, is also a combination of the Partido Popular (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) logos and presented as PPSOE. The red rose in the logo of the PSOE has been replaced by an uplifted middle finger, and implies the universal meaning of that image.

Apart from claiming that Podemos serves the middle and lower classes that the traditional parties have abandoned, it depicts the traditional parties as a caste above the population it is supposed to represent. It also provides a Gramscian analysis of the crisis in terms of a regime crisis and then introduces an innovative and deliberative democracy in Spain. As we stated in our previous article, part of the demands of 15M were, indeed, a call for an improved democracy: better access to the political system for new parties, and participation of citizens for the proposals of new legisilation, Democracia 4.0. We also pointed out that the concern for an improved democracy may be felt more acutely in Spain than in other European countries, due to the relatively recent collective memory of the hardships under Franco. The civil struggle for a democracy in the late 1970s and 1980s is relatively recent. 15M wished to make the point that a democracy in Spain cannot be taken for granted and needs a profound revision in a more participatory direction (Montesano-Montessori & Morales-Lopez, 2015, p. 202).

Podemos and its Gramscian analysis of the political crisis in Spain

Pod4It is well known that Iglesias and other core members were trained in political science and political theory and influenced by Gramsci’s work on hegemony (Gramsci, 1971) and the subsequent development of his theory by Laclau and Mouffe (1985). In a recent article (Iglesias, 2015), analyses the crisis in Spain as a regime crisis. While hegemony in a Gramscian sense means that there exists consensus about shared interests between the leading and the subaltern classes, an organic crisis breaks out when ruling institutions, including leading political parties, lose the capacity to renew their legitimation. Such a point was reached in Spain after the international crisis and the subsequent economic and social hardships for the middle and working classes. A regime crisis suddenly emerged, when the post-Franco, two-party system lost its legitimacy. This crisis could no longer be resolved within the political framework, as the eruption of the 15M movement demonstrated (Iglesias, 2015b). The regime crisis offered the political opportunity for Podemos to articulate the dichotomy between the people or the popular subject, in opposition to the ruling elite. Despite much resistance from the media, the party transformed itself from a force for renewal to the now third biggest political party in Spain.

Podemos and the deliberative democracy

The transition from 15M to a deliberative democracy as put in practice by Podemos was gradual, since many practices within 15M as a movement were already deliberative. The assemblies and commissions were horizontal rather than hierarchical, they emphasised equality, transparency, decision making by consensus, (Castells, 2012; Iglesias, 2015b) and the participation of all citizens, who in turn created their own placards, to offer their own opinion of the crisis in their own voices (Montesano-Montessori & Morales-López, 2015). Furthermore, 15M literally opened up the public space for a deliberative democracy by using the public squares of cities around the country, by using social media and the internet, and by public demonstrations. There was no formal leadership: decisions were based on consensus, using mobile telephones and other devices to plan meetings, and so on (Romanos 2011, Borge & Santamarina, 2015). In the process, a counter hegemonic bloc emerged, a united front in Gramscian terminology, one that unites itself beyond ideological differences, in order to form a common front (Briziarelly & Martínez Guillem, 2016). We described this process through the analysis of the placards, and our description of the meeting as being highly heterogeneous, uniting young and old, Spanish and Catalan speaking people in Barcelona. We observed a solidarity between classes and generations (Montesano Montessori & Morales-López, 2015). Podemos in its analysis understood that the hope of 15M to make a social rather than a political change, was impossible. It subsequently organized itself from a transformative force into a political party (Iglesias, 2015b) in the light of the participatory principles of a deliberative democracy. This was defined as a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which, they give each other reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding on all citizens for the present, but open to challenge in the future (Gutman & Thompson, 2004, p. 7).

Podemos organized its party in specific ways to accomplish this. Its central body is the ‘citizens assembly’, which is composed of all the people registered in Podemos. All of them are entitled to participate and vote in this assembly and must use all available online and offline tools to guarantee the free expression of all other members. Furthermore, there are ‘circles’, which are open spaces for deliberation and argumentation. The purpose is to achieve a broad participation and to provide collective answers to people’s problems. The idea is that participants bring in their knowledge, skills and networks to address presented problems. There are currently 900 Podemos Circles in Spain and in other countries in Europe and in America, as well (Borge & Santamarina, 2015).

The party has many other organizational entities and mechanisms that procure an open, deliberative democracy (see here for a complete overview). Podemos makes ample use of digital platforms, such as Loomio and Appgree. The former allows any member to start a discussion and it facilitates identifying the points that reach the largest consensus, while the latter allows simultaneous discussions with thousands of people (Borge & Santamarina, 2015). These authors analysed one of the main podia, Plaza Podemos, based on the Reddit platform, initiated in 2014 on deliberative criteria in three distinct dimensions: institutional, communicative and outcome. Their analysis showed that the digital podium of Podemos scores relatively high in the institutional and communicative dimension but not in the outcome dimension. The party absorbed in their statues and manifestos the central values of 15M – inclusion, openness, and ample participation of the citizenry- but there are too many filters and thresholds that prevent the most voted online proposals to be accepted by the party (Borge & Santamarina, 2015).

Reactivating the Left in Europe

Now that we have sketched some of the main features of the deliberative democratic character of the movement, we will address some of the urgent questions that the left should be addressing these days. We do so under the assumption that social democrats are too silent in times in which we need them more than ever to rescue our democracy, to give a counter-weight to right wing populism, and to use all civil means possible to bring the current inequality and injustices to a halt. We select some of the questions raised by Santos in his excellent analysis entitled ‘to reinvent the left’ (2014). Santos observes that ‘since the right is only interested in a democracy as long as it suits its interests, we will need the left to recover a healthy democracy’. In order to do so, the left should address at least the following questions:

Why does the crisis strengthen the position of those who have caused it? Why is it so easy for the state to favor the wellbeing of the banks rather than the wellbeing of the citizens? Why does the stability of the financial sector require the instability of the majority of the population? Why does the large majority of the people accept their own increasing poverty and the shameless enrichment of a small minority as if this were necessary and inevitable so as to avoid things getting worse? Why is economic growth the eternal mantra to resolve any social and economic problems without questioning whether the social and environmental costs are sustainable or not? Why are there no formulated alternatives in times that we urgently need them? (Santos, 2014, p. 147)

It is urgent that we reinvent our democracy and make it democratic again, since the current democracy has fallen prey to anti-democratic powers (Ibid, but see also Blommaert, 2011).

Neoliberals present one inevitable and only possible version of the free market economy. Since the world is what we make of it, there should be a contestation of alternatives and a collective striving for better and a more sustainable and socially just choice. In this sense, we invite the left to address one more burning issue: the many tax havens, recently uncovered by critical journalists in the  ‘Panama Papers’,  and the political collusion around them (Sayer, 2015; Giddens, 2014).

It is our conviction that Podemos, having emerged as the result of an organic crisis, operating in a country that has recent memories about the hardships of a dictatorship, should optimize its role to strengthen the left and to help reinvent itself not only in Spain, but in the EU. Neoliberal rule and its subsequent erosion of the environment and of social justice is not inevitable. It is a power that can be broken by democratic means.

This article was written by Esperanza Morales-López (Universidad A Coruña, Spain) and Nicolina Montesano-Montessori (Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands).


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