Hegemony or power: should Podemos be a model for the left?
In the aftermath of Labour’s defeat, speakers from the Brick Lane Debates group at the 14 May Radical Left Assembly referred to the Spanish Indignados and Podemos as models to imitate. There was even an attempt to brand the 1,000 people in the hall as the “14M Movement”.
Similarly, in Left Unity, we find a “Podemos Tendency” claiming that: “…the methods used by Podemos can be effective in this country … a shift of focus is needed … We need to redefine politics from Left vs Right to Us vs Them, creating a new discourse that exposes the privilege of those who hold power in society… we must be more populist and use the tactics and strategies of mass (and new) media in communicating a simpler message.”
Over the past year, Workers Power has analysed Podemos’ populist politics and why they would have to be radically transcended to make the party a force for radical systemic change. Without that, it would tie the working class into reliance on capitalist state institutions to deliver reforms, just a pale repetition of social democracy, and a highly unstable one at that.
On 5 May, Pablo Iglesias presented Podemos’ manifesto for the local elections on May 24. It promises a “citizens’ bailout”, meaning increased social welfare for the poorest, but excludes any more radical proposals such as suspending home evictions, lowering the retirement age or imposing a moratorium on debt.
These omissions are all casualties of Podemos’ attempt to dominate the political centre. Iglesias believes this is the way Podemos can sweep past the parties of la casta, the political establishment that has dominated Spain since the dismantling of the dictatorship in 1978.
This rightward turn has provoked an open clash within the group of academics at the heart of Podemos. Professor Juan Carlos Monedero, often referred to as the “brains” of the project, has resigned, revealing that there are “tensions at the heart of Podemos” between “people who are more moderate, and people who want to stick to our origins”.
Monedero claims that that the party is beginning to resemble the political forces of the very caste it is seeking to replace. Last year, Podemos proclaimed its fundamental difference lay in its grass roots meetings (circulos) which would develop policy. Now, according to Monedero, “Podemos is falling into these kinds of problems because it no longer has the time to meet with the small circles, because it is more important to get one minute of TV airtime or to do something that adds to the collective strategy.”
Even more ironic , given his role, was his observation that when a party’s sole aim becomes “reaching power” it “joins the electoral game and starts becoming hostage to the worst aspects of the state.”
The Podemos project was entirely about appropriating the language of a mass movement, and funnelling support into a disciplined electoral machine that would install Iglesias, Monedero, Errejón and co. in Spain’s parliament, within 18 months. Although it based itself on the circulos of activists, it was never a party whose strategy saw them as the embryos of fighting organisations that would, themselves, seize power from the casta and thereby create the direct democracy talked about by the Indignados.
Whether or not Monedero’s new-found criticisms have more to do with his ejection from the inner clique than with political principles, the important point is that these differences over direction were not taken to the membership. The outcome was decided by the resignation of the loser in what amounts to a clique fight.
The dispute itself followed Podemos’ collapse in the polls ahead of the regional elections. From first place earlier in the year, an April 27 poll by Cadena Ser radio showed it fourth, on 17.9 per cent. That put it behind Ciudadanos, a new neoliberal populist party that has stolen its clothes by also attacking the corruption and lack of democracy of the establishment parties.
Moreover, Luke Stobart, both a member and a writer on Podemos, says: “… it’s quite clear that Podemos is losing more support among people who self-identify as being the most left and is losing very little support in people who describe themselves as more centrist.”
Hegemony or power
These reverses are not just a result of an opportunist move to the centre and competition from the a new right-populist party Ciudadanos (Citizens). They flow from fundamental flaws in Podemos’ political method.
The project consciously rejected any class characterisation, any identification with the labour movement or anticapitalist measures, let alone a socialist goal. It even rejected placing itself on the left of the political spectrum.
Instead, it used the terminology of “the people” versus “the caste”. It emphasised corruption rather than exploitation and posed ‘democracy’ and social-democratic reforms as the solutions to the economic and social problems of neoliberalism. This is because, for Podemos, the strategic goal is to win the general election at all costs.
To do that, it thinks it is essential to avoid any policy, even any terminology, that is unacceptable to the whole of the “99 per cent”. This, it believes, will allow it to establish ideological hegemony over the masses, displacing the neoliberal ‘narrative’ or ‘discourse’ of the caste with its own populist one.
The great flaw in this strategy is not just that it can as easily be adopted by the right wing, as Ciudadanos has already shown, but that, even if it is successful in its own terms, and leads to an electoral victory, it does not challenge the real roots of capitalist power. They lie in the ownership and control of the economy itself, not in the chambers of parliament.
Nor would electoral victory mean a fundamental change in popular consciousness, that will only occur through the self-transforming activity of the working class in struggle. As Rosa Luxemburg liked to quote from Goethe’s Faust, “in the beginning was the deed.” It is of course natural for the academic intelligentsia, the ideas people, the wordsmiths, to believe, with the Bible, that “in the beginning is the Word”.
For professors and lecturers who have not broken from their own caste, the working class cannot be either the agency of its own emancipation or the social force that can achieve the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited in society. Rather, when it comes to governing, they assume that it will be academic experts drawn from the qualified intelligentsia who will be the agency for ill-defined change. They are the “we” of Podemos (we can). As events in Greece, especially the brief career of Professor Varoufakis as an international negotiator, are showing, however, actually they cannot.
The dilemma that is facing Syriza today, and would face a Podemos government in future, shows what Marxists and, in particular, Leninists, have always claimed. It is the enormous economic power of the ruling class, backed up by the repressive forces of the state, that proves decisive.
If a government limits itself to reforms it believes are actually in the interests of the ruling class then, clearly, the power of that class is not touched. On the other hand, if it tries to implement measures that really threaten the key interests of that class, it will provoke a counter-attack via, for example, capital flight, judicial interference or military intervention.
This is the central dilemma of reformism and it applies whether the party involved is socialist, Labour, social democratic or left populist. The difference between these is whether or not the party in question has organic roots in the working class, for example, via the trade unions.
If it has, and is therefore what Lenin called a bourgeois workers’ party, then given leadership, its working class support could defend such a government and even force it to go further than it wants in attacking ruling class power. However, Podemos is not such a party. Although, like all mass parties, it has working class members, it is a party of the petty bourgeoisie.
For those who believe in the ability of the working class to carry out a revolutionary transformation of society, it is an elementary duty to point out which class currently rules society and how it rules. It is equally fundamental to explain that to break the dictatorship of the capitalist class requires a social force greater than that of the existing state. Ministers with a popular mandate but no strategy for mobilising millions of workers and the oppressed to act for themselves and deprive the capitalists of their power, will never be sufficient.
We are resolutely in favour of a struggle for political hegemony, but what Lenin meant by that was the struggle for the working class to become the leadership of all the oppressed and exploited by taking up their struggles alongside its own. It did not mean dissolving the specific interests, and identity, of the working class into the amorphous mass of “the people”.
In the process of mass struggle, the working class will win all the most militant and dedicated from all struggles to its goal of organising society in the interests of the millions, not the millionaires. A society in which mass organisations will ensure that no one will be able to exploit the work of others. Only in this process will we overthrow the hegemony of ruling class ideas by replacing them with a socialist class-consciousness, first among the vanguard and then among the masses.
In Britain, the adoption of Podemos-style populism would be no answer to our problems. It would mean abandoning any clear view of the nature of the different classes in society. The capitalist class cannot be reduced to a political Establishment of Bullingdon Boys or corrupt City fat cats. Their “privileges” are only a symptom, not a cause, of what is wrong with society.
It is not enough to plan merely to tax the wealth they expropriate from workers all over the world. That leaves their system of ownership and control intact and allows them to mobilise all their resources for a counter-attack. The only way to remove their power is to expropriate their property, to take all the essential economic factors into social ownership without compensation. Only the working class can do this because it is the only class that does not itself rely on private ownership of productive property.
While it is certainly true that contrasting the “99 per cent” to the “1 percent” highlights the grotesque inequality of capitalist society, it nonetheless disguises the fact that a significant proportion of the “99 percent”, particularly in an imperialist country like Britain, are engaged in maintaining the system of wage exploitation and materially benefit from it.
Populism, represented in Britain by the SNP, the Greens and UKIP, collapses all classes into an undifferentiated “people” and in so doing obscures class consciousness and obstructs the class struggle necessary to fundamentally change society. When admirers of Podemos propose junking the concepts of class politics, they are actually disarming the working class and preparing the way for its defeat.
Such chasing after populist solutions by members of the left intelligentsia is a sign of their own disillusion and demoralisation. Typically, they blame all our ills on the working class’s supposed lack of militancy or socialist consciousness, or claim it has disappeared altogether. While they may believe they have found a new strategy, they have, in fact, rediscovered something very old, and long discredited.