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Podemos and the limits of responsibility

By KD Tait

Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can) won 14.8 per cent and took 15 seats in elections to Andalusia’s regional parliament, doubling last year’s vote in the European elections. The meteoric rise of the fledgling party which is leading opinion polls ahead of general elections this Autumn has provoked intense debate across the European left.

With the victory of Syriza in Greece earlier this year, many people are taking inspiration from parties that appear to have overcome the inability of the old reformist left to present any coherent anti-austerity programme, and to win elections on that basis. Such a development is welcome, not only because this could alleviate the worst austerity measures, but because it poses the question of what kind of government is needed to put an end to austerity.

It poses the question but does not yet answer it, as Syriza, caught on the horns of a dilemma, is demonstrating. The dilemma: to defy the blackmail of the forces of international capital and break free from its controls, or to act as its agents in imposing austerity.

Moreover, Podemos has not won yet, and while its score is impressive for a new party, it is tempered by the fact that the ruling social-democratic PSOE’s vote largely held up, despite a damaging corruption scandal.

Meanwhile in Greece, Syriza remains hamstrung by its strategy of negotiation that rules out taking decisive measures against domestic capital that would allow it to press ahead with its programme, as well as rallying significant working class support both at home and across Europe.

And Podemos is repeating, in a compressed version, Syriza’s trajectory from the radical fringes towards government, in the process transforming its anti-systemic programme of opposition into a programme of “responsible” reforms.

The Spanish context

In May 2011 a mass movement erupted in Spain, which came to be known as the “indignados” or the “15-M” movement. Disillusioned by a PSOE government that had implemented austerity measures since 2008, millions occupied the central squares of towns and cities across the country.

The movement had a number of inherent weaknesses that prevented it from achieving its potential to bring down the government, but it did provoke a political crisis that was resolved when the conservative Partido Popular (PP) won snap elections in November that year.

Although 15-M was unable to sustain its momentum, it was a period of deep radicalisation, which bequeathed a legacy of widespread self-organisation and rejection of established political formations.

The years since 2011 have witnessed the development of significant social movements. The “mareas” (tides) organise campaigns to defend public services, or to address social questions, like the Marea Violeta an offshoot of the 15-M feminist group in Madrid. The “Marches for Dignity” in 2014 and 2015 saw columns of unemployed and social movement activists march from various regions to Madrid, demanding “bread, jobs, housing and dignity”.

An example of the extent to which anti-austerity campaigns have secured popular support is the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), an assembly-based direct action campaign established to defend people from evictions and other effects of the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. An El País poll in 2013 found 89 per cent support for the campaign, a level maintained even among PP voters.

Intensifying the process of political disillusion is the endemic corruption in the Spanish political system, a problem compounded by the interminable legal process which sees few convictions among thousands of cases before the courts.

The extent of corruption has left no major institution unscathed, with everyone embroiled from the social-democracy to the monarchy. The abdication of King Juan Carlos in June 2014 following a corruption scandal was for many symbolic of the collapse of legitimacy of the so-called “regime of 1978”.

The PSOE and PP governments have presided over an austerity programme that has plunged half a million children into poverty, while the wealth of Spain’s richest has increased by 67 per cent since 2011. Meanwhile 33 of the 35 biggest companies avoid tax by routing profits through subsidiaries in tax havens.

The deep roots of popular anger at the social catastrophe engineered by Spain’s ruling class have provided fuel for almost continuous waves of often violent demonstrations. Faced with this, the government passed the “citizens’ security law” in December 2014, imposing draconian punishments for exercising basic democratic rights to protest.

Into this febrile atmosphere stepped Podemos.

The political turn

As with Syriza in 2012, when the party was catapulted from obscurity to prominence following a wave of social struggles against austerity, Podemos represents an attempt to give the square occupations, strikes and mobilisations on the streets a political expression: a struggle for power.

The failure and the limited objectives of economic struggles pursued by the trade unions, particularly the UGT, linked to the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), discredited the economic and political institutions dominating the labour movement. This was a major factor in the Indignados’ understandable, but ultimately self-defeating, ban on party-political debate in the square occupations.

The Podemos project is an attempt to marry the political theory of “post-Marxist” Ernesto Laclau with the political practice of Latin American populism, the “socialism of the 21st Century” of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales etc.

The group of professors from the Complutense University of Madrid around Pablo Iglesias and Juan Carlos Monedero linked up with Izquierda Anticapitalista, the Spanish section of the Fourth International, in an effort to replicate in Spain the tactics that brought about governments with radical reform agendas in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

From Latin America, comes the idea of mass participation of “the People” in local structures (“circulos”, a concept lifted from Venezuela) that provide a base of support for a charismatic leader who can mobilise them as required against the common enemy.

From Spain, comes the co-option of the “15-M” movement’s rejection of a right-left paradigm and, as a chosen enemy, the “caste”, a concept whose strength as a mobilising tool is drawn from the corruption of the establishment parties but also targets the nexus of state-EU-IMF links that imposes austerity whatever government is elected.

In this way, Podemos aims to become a means of mobilising at the ballot box the potential power of a politically atomised movement that originally built itself under the slogan “united, the people do not need parties”.

Responsible radicals

The rise of Podemos in the polls to highs of 27 per cent has been enthusiastically documented. Less enthusiastically documented, but no less important, are the political concessions that Podemos has made to try to maintain its position against its new right-populist rival Ciudadanos (Citizens), and to position itself as a responsible party of government.

In its Economic programme drawn up in December by two professional economists – and not by the party’s structures – Podemos abandoned many of the pledges that won it support in the EU elections. Since December it has jettisoned even more.

The proposal to reduce the retirement age to 60 has been replaced with a commitment to maintain it at 65, down from 67. The 35-hour working week is now described in the language of “changes” in the labour market to allow Spain to “better compete”. The universal income policy has been replaced by state aid for “those in need”, and the demand to nationalise the banks and utilities softened to a proposal to establish “public control” through “a majority stake”. The abolition of private employment agencies has disappeared without a trace.

The flagship policy of a citizens’ audit of the debt with the renunciation of the “illegitimate state debt” has been ditched in favour of the Syriza model of negotiations. In the words of party economists Vicenç Navarro and Juan Torres López, the new objective is “negotiating with the markets flexible payments of debt”, “grace periods” and “partial ‘haircuts’”.

The leaders of Podemos think they will have more success than Syriza because, according to Iglesias, “Spain is not Greece. We are the fourth economic power of the EU, and our capacity for negotiation is greater.”

In an interview on the American CNBC channel, Iglesias explained that “We assume that the market economy is a reality”, but that “it has its limits”.

In his view, these “limits” could be overcome by “a patriotic government” that, for example, could say to the pharmaceutical companies that they cannot make profits “at the expense of people of my country dying”.

Fine sentiments, but profiting at the expense of people’s misery is the reality of a market economy, and implementing the tools of radical economic and social reform is a necessary precondition for putting the working class in control of making its own economic reality.

In an interview with The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett, Iglesias said that: “In the short term, we are limited to using the state to redistribute a little more, have fairer taxes, boost the economy and start building a model that recovers industry and brings back sovereignty. We accept that the euro is inescapable.”

Podemos is able to get away with this backsliding because of an undemocratic leadership structure that guarantees tight control of the organisation by the clique around Iglesias and Monedero. The centrality of a caudillo-style leader, resting on a plebiscitary leadership election and appearing to stand above factional squabbles, was emphasised in the European elections when Iglesias’ face was used to represent the party on the ballot paper.

When denouncing a rival proposal to institute a collective leadership against Iglesias’ proposal to concentrate power in the hands of the general secretary (himself), he said “Heaven is not taken by consensus, but by storm”.

Caste or class?

Podemos claim their success is attributable to their rejection of the “old” symbols and language of the left, as in the Indignados slogan “We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top”.

Confronted with criticism that Podemos does not propose an assault on the “heavens”, Iglesias insists “The answer to that is: ‘And where are your arms for getting rid of capitalism?’”

This rejection of the “language of the left” is a rejection of 150 years of experience and lessons learnt the hard way: that society is divided into antagonistic classes, and that the state does not sit above them as a neutral set of institutions to be purged and used for the benefit of one or the other, but is in fact the honed mechanism of capitalist class rule. That today there are supranational and international institutions only makes the prosecution of the class struggle on the international plane more vital.

By trimming its programme to present themselves as responsible candidates for government, Podemos’s leaders are cultivating irresponsible illusions.

Winning elections on the basis of a narrative that suits everyone ultimately suits the established “caste”. The idea that the interests of workers and bosses can be squared by cooperation between “patriotic” capitalists and a government that rests on the working class is a populist dogma.

By not exposing which class has state power, they disarm the only other class that can remove that class from power. By not challenging the sacred rights of property and private profit, they obscure the mechanism by which one class perpetuates its rule over the others. The workers of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela know that “people’s” or “popular” power is not the same as workers’ power – a fact that the lessons of 1931-37 express perfectly well in Spain.

In using imagery designed to attract people disenchanted by the left, this populism abandons the struggle to revitalise, renew and reclaim the historic legacy of the international working class struggle for the overthrow of capitalism.

The problem of a populist, rather than a class, approach to dealing with the crisis of capitalism is exposed by Podemos’s less than principled approach to the question of women’s liberation. The 2014 European election manifesto gave prominence to the issue of abortion, but this has been deleted from the new manifesto.

Why? Polls show that the majority of Podemos’s support comes from people disillusioned with the political system, meaning that its leadership must tailor its programme to a voting base that is disconnected from the working class struggle for social emancipation. Abandoning the open and uncompromising defence of women’s liberation for base political calculation is a damning indictment of populism as an obstacle to the struggle for social liberation.

Workers, women and youth of Spain, beware: if we abandon the historic “language” and “symbols” of the left, then we also abandon the analysis and the methods of struggle that these represent. And that means abandoning the most important struggle of all: the struggle for the working class to create for itself a political leadership that prosecutes the class struggle in the most uncompromising way.

To paraphrase Iglesias, the heavens are taken by storm, not by election. And the “arms” for this assault are embodied in the revolutionary party of the working class, armed with a programme for the abolition of the institutions of the capitalist state and the seizure and maintenance of workers’ power, through councils of workers’ representatives, defended by a democratic workers’ militia.

Conclusion

In Britain, the Scottish National Party’s populist adoption of “old Labour” policies and its presentation of the referendum on independence as a referendum on austerity, alongside the rise of the Greens in England and Plaid Cymru in Wales, show that an anti-austerity message can win support, even when presented by parties outside of the labour movement.

But, as the example of Syriza shows, although the rise of new anti-austerity parties creates opportunities for the class struggle, their desire to pursue a capitalist route out of the crisis necessarily assigns a secondary role to the working class people whose support they rest on.

A breach in the austerity consensus opened up by these parties opens a small window of opportunity. It is the duty of socialists to warn of the limits of this breach, and to organise the most militant workers to take advantage of it, explaining that these parties’ programmes will ultimately transform them into instruments for sealing off that same breach that their rise has opened.

The election of parties, however radical, that seek to “renegotiate” the terms on which capitalism’s crisis is to be resolved, carries great dangers. A party like Podemos, which draws its support from a cross-class alliance, might win elections, but it cannot maintain this alliance indefinitely.

When faced with intransigence from the capitalist class that exploits not only Greece and Spain but the whole world, Podemos will have to choose which class to obey. Iglesias and company’s post-modern sneering at the very idea of attacking capitalism, and at the “old” language of class struggle, indicate they have already made that choice. The new Podemos populism is but the old PSOE reformism writ large, but without even the link to the mass organisations of the working class movement.

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