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Podemos, Can We? An appeal to all women and men who hope and strive for a true transformation in Spain, in Europe and beyond

This is an appeal to all women and men who have had enough and are seeking to bring about a true social and political transformation in Spain, in Europe and beyond. It is an urgent appeal because the danger that triggers it is imminent, clear and distinct, but avoidable.

Pablo Iglesias. Demotix/Hugo Ortuno. All rights reserved.

This is an appeal to all women and men who have had enough and are seeking to bring about a true social and political transformation in Spain, in Europe and beyond. It is an urgent appeal because the danger that triggers it is imminent, is clear and distinct, but avoidable. Before proceeding may I implore you please to not misinterpret this appeal and mistake me for somebody else. This is not Cassandra who, yet again, warns off our enthusiasm and our projects. I am a worker, an academic, a citizen, a militant … and a participant in Podemos (Manchester Circle). So the appeal comes from somebody involved, not from somebody pretending to know and talking from afar or from the position of superiority who can afford (so they believe) those whose actual stance is one of seating comfortably or cynically in the world as it is.  

As is well-known, something has happened in Spain, where, as elsewhere, nothing was happening, only the worsening repetition of the same. A rift, a gap has been effected; there is no question about this, everybody can see it. It even has a name: 15-M (15 May, the ‘indignados’ outburst).  What remains to be seen is whether or not such rift will become a genuine political split, a gesture of separation dividing the political field into two. For the moment some lines are visibly drawn, with the oligarchic regime and its rotten institutions and parties on one side of the divide, and a multiplicity of energies, protests, processes and movements, on the other. To name a few: the Marches for Dignity (demonstrating all over Spain as I write this), the several Mareas (tides), the PAH (Platform of people Affected by the mortgage, ‘Hipoteca’ in Spanish) – perhaps the social movement which is carrying out the  deepest and most enduring political labour in Spain in the last years, including in terms of political education, with its former spokesperson, Ada Colau, as, in my view, the most credible political figure in Spain today – and of course Podemos (we can).

The significance of Podemos can hardly be overemphasised. It is the new movement-party whose felicitous birth has granted it the momentum and the responsibility – none is higher – to draw together that political energy and to give it form, consistency and duration. Indeed Podemos’ remarkable showing in the European elections, where it emerged out of the blue with more than 1.2 million votes and 5 MEPs, has strongly contributed to further reconfigure the situation in Spain, making thinkable what seemed unthinkable, channelling anger into a force for change and transforming resignation into hope and defiance. But the process has evolved fast, so fast that, at this moment in time, it has become necessary to declare that the only thing that matters now is to try and ensure that a possible electoral victory of Podemos does not bring about a certain political defeat of all the people who hope and strive for a genuine transformation – for that would be a devastating political defeat which would not only kill the occasion for change but extinguish hope for years to come.

How have we reached this point? It is the direct consequence of the strategy put in place by the Podemos leading team soon after the European elections, a strategy that, as we can see now, is simply the intrinsic unfolding of what was already there from the beginning, namely, of Podemos as a communication apparatus for electoral politics. If initially popular politics (‘popular’ excludes ‘populism’, the oligarchy’s business) was essential for Podemos to grow as a movement and gain a popular base, this component was soon displaced by what proved to be the strongest element and then consistently and unceremoniously put aside by the Podemos leading team. Before proceeding further let me make clear that I am not defending any maximalist position. Nor do I claim that the problem is electoral politics per se, but the fact that it has become an end in itself, instead of being conceived of and used as a strategic instrument subordinated to popular politics.

Any doubts that there might be about this move seemingly inscribed into Podemos’ birth were dispelled during the Podemos constituent assembly, where the leading team headed by Pablo Iglesias obtained a totally overwhelming victory in all voting fronts – indeed a victory as comprehensive as difficult to reconcile with the very nature of the process, a lengthy and lively assembly in which thousands participated and dozens of proposals were enthusiastically developed and discussed, which leaves one, and left many, wondering about the point and the significance of so much energy. Nobody expected Pablo Iglesias to win by less than a resounding victory the direction of the new party; after all Iglesias is a very able political figure, a feature he shares with quite a number of young people in Spain today, who has in addition an undeniable media appeal, perhaps not exempt from certain charisma. An entirely different matter was the discussion of the three founding drafts, particularly that concerning the organizational form and principles to be given to Podemos. In effect, the organizational proposal which came to gather the widest sympathies and support among the people involved in the Podemos circles was not that of Iglesias’ team. The central difference between both proposals was that while the latter was designed around a very strong principle of direction or leadership, the former (associated to the Podemos MEP Pablo Echenique, but the result of the confluence and integration of many proposals) was based on very broad democratic principles and participation at all levels. However, the results of the vote were very different: 80% support for the Iglesias’ proposal and 12% for that associated to Echenique. Thus while Echenique and others may be still recovering from their astonishment at these results, Iglesias and his team could observe with satisfaction the fruits of their electoral strategy.

So, what had happened? Unsurprisingly – so it seems now – the Iglesias’ team targeted the people registered to vote (about 150,000), of which only a minority (about 8 percent, being very generous) were to different degrees involved in the Podemos circles. Pablo Iglesias was very keen to argue that decisions in Podemos ‘should fall on the individual persons, independently of their level of involvement’ and should be made by ‘respecting and making place for the different levels of involvement’. Nobody can argue with this. There should certainly be no decision-making privileges for those who are more active. But the truly interesting, and telling, thing is that the Iglesias’ team didn’t trust that Iglesias’ name and appeal among the electorate (the 150,000) will by itself deliver the sought for victory – at least as much has to be deduced from the fact that the assembly’s organizing committee (whose membership shared quite a few people with Iglesias’ team) resorted to so deeply flawed voting procedures that, in conjunction with Iglesias’ team strategy, they gave no chance at all either to other teams or to individual persons, whether active or not, outside the lists presented by the Iglesias’ team. The latter’s reply to the many heartfelt concerns and thoughtful critiques of such voting procedures and strategy (since in reality the former was part of the latter), is a paradigmatic example of inversion: ‘one has to trust people’, they claimed, thus accusing the critics of the very sin that was only theirs.

To make sense of this claim, since it is plain as day that it doesn’t fit the facts, one has to look above all at the requirements of the communication apparatus put in place by the Podemos’ leadership, and at the declarations of its leaders only in connection with such requirements. For what Íñigo Errejón has bluntly called ‘an electoral war machinery’ needs two things: voters (they constitute its address) and labour (what in Spanish is referred to as ‘curritos’); nothing irritates it more than active members, that is, not just agitated members, but people who try to think by themselves both individually and collectively. It is here that we have to situate Iglesias’ insistence on ‘reducing to a minimum the old distinction militant-citizen, which is rather characteristic of the old politics’. Iglesias is right that there are still traces of the old leftist figure of the militant, although we should not exaggerate; in reality, since such traces are few and constitute innocuous relics, we wonder whether they are not Iglesias’ real. But let’s ask him: are you suggesting, compañero Pablo, that all the people involved in the Podemos circles are such ‘old’, tired and tiring, militants? It is certainly true that such leftist militant is part of the old politics; but precisely, talking about ‘old politics’, it is much truer of the leadership embodied by you, compañero Pablo, that is, the plebiscitary leadership required by an ‘electoral war machinery’: after all the leftist militant is about 200 years old, while the plebiscitary leader is more than 2,000! To clarify further: plebiscitary leadership is a leadership with a following who obey blindly, for only thus, i.e. by divesting themselves of their capacity as thinking beings, can the following become an effective electoral machinery. Indeed the complete characterization of Podemos today would be this: ‘plebiscitary electoral machinery’; it is, as can be seen, a very old form and a trodden technique.

The key of such electoral technique lies in its address: voters. For it is only as voters that people are addressed. What that electoral technique essentially targets today is a very specific subjectivity: the voter’s feeling of despair combined with a strong desire to harbour hope, a desire that tends to be passive and amply exposed, so prone to magic spells, e.g. in the form of the enchanting messages continuously issued and endlessly circulated by an ‘electoral  war machinery’. Such messages bring some comfort and seem to carry the longed for hope: all one has to do is ‘to vote’, which is very easy, and find some rest while waiting. What is crucial about the electoral technique is thus not only that it exploits what is already there, the voter’s desperate subjectivity; much more decisive is the fact that it kindles and engineers it, reinforcing the passive hope that is at its core. But there is more, a third decisive component of that voter’s subjectivity: for such a voter is easily given to falling prey to simple, but totally false, diagnoses and solutions. In an attitude that is profusely fed by the electoral technique, there is a refusal to confront the situation in its complexity; instead, everything is ultimately transformed into a question of individual persons, of corrupt and greedy people, and any suggestion about the structural or systemic nature of the problem tends to be hastily rejected with a plain, ‘just get rid of them’ – which is what the electoral technique promises.

There where an electoral politics subordinated to popular or emancipatory politics will push people, as one’s equals, to take charge of the situation, to consequently abandon passive hope and instead breed an active, indeed a militant hope that recognises the necessity of one’s own and everyone’s contribution, Podemos’ electoral politics does just the opposite: contrary to what its leaders proclaim as a mantra, it disempowers the people. In conjunction with the immense hope Podemos represents (in case we forget), such electoral politics becomes a massive depoliticisation machinery which entrenches the resigned idea people tend to have of themselves as unfit for politics and government, thus further disarming the whole country. We ought to tell them: ‘compañeros, you have not right to do that’, but we know that Iglesias and his team have become hard of hearing. Lacking the orientation a firm ground on popular politics provides, their electoral politics is so much part of the situation that it is moved about by the latter’s incoherent demands, so nobody should be surprised to hear the plentiful messages being issued, now to please that group, then to appease the other. Indeed there is no longer action in what they do, only management of, and reaction to, the electoral carnival. Their claim to ‘occupy the centrality of the [political] scene’ (I spare you the notorious recent past of such claim) has a very precise meaning: it means closing the gap opened by what goes under the name of 15-M by placing Podemos, the offspring of such gap, on the other side, at the centre of actually existing politics, of the decrepit ‘transition regime’ – instead of, as the trusted guardian of that gap, acting like an electorally armed detachment which makes strategic incursions into enemy’s territory. That would be a truly new, a very smart move.

How is Podemos going to confront the oligarchy, since any real change, including very small changes that may however be vital for hundreds of thousands of people, implies such confrontation?  Does Pablo Iglesias truly believe that ‘they are going to understand’ the reasonableness of Podemos’ policies and ‘to reconsider’ their own ‘excessive abuse’? I am aware that this is just another electoral message, so that it means nothing real. However, just in case the electoral technique is affecting judgement, let’s remind ourselves (‘remind’ because what I am going to say has been historically experienced many times, and can be seen by everyone today) that an oligarchy is a mad ruler who, firstly, has total contempt for and absolute impunity before the law, and, secondly, is deaf to words and reasons. The conclusion to be drawn is that such a mad ruler is not going to change its ways by words backed by laws (votes and MPs), for such backing, coming as it does from the very institutions the oligarchy has appropriated as its own, is so feeble that it counts for practically nothing in terms of bringing about real changes. Only a popular power, external to parliament and all the oligarchic institutions, can make words, votes and MPs truly count. For only such power will provide the political existence needed to confront the oligarchy and start to define our own destiny.

Let me conclude by re-stating that the claim that the duet ‘plebiscitary leader with an electoral machinery’ empowers the people is just a message from the electoral machinery, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury’. That is not what we need in order to bring about a true social and political transformation. We need, in my view, both a truly new kind of leadership and a new kind of movement-party. In this respect the two organizational proposals in dispute during the Podemos’ assembly were equally, but in an antithetical sense, mistaken: the official one for totally disregarding the necessity of an actual movement whose defiant vibrancy already involves a transformation, however partial, of the current state of things. The proposal associated to Echenique for indulging in a certain horizontalism and ignoring the necessity of clear and strong heads and spokespersons. Let’s call those two requirements the direction principle and the popular principle. Crucial here is their relation, since such relation is not merely a linkage between two external elements, but constitutive of both principles. It is a relation of opposition and interdependence, that is, an antagonistic dialectics (nothing to do with liberal ‘checks and balances’) that ensures the play of the tensions.

So, what can we expect here and now? There seems to be some disorientation among the Podemos’ circles and their denizens; I do not see Echnique and other young leaders acting politically, only ‘retiring’ to their regional or local circles to prepare the next regional and local elections. In what concerns Izquierda Unida (United Left), well, everyone knows that IU is, as an organization, fully within the system and finished from an emancipatory standpoint. Its young and capable leaders (Alberto Garzón and several others) and its militants are an entirely different matter, but they are trapped by the organization, to the point that they feel they have to present their aspirations as a ‘generational change’, which is a guarantee that no renewal will take place, let alone the radical renewal that would be necessary. And yet, there are the local Ganemos (Let’s win) which have recently emerged in many cities following the inspiration of Ganemos Barcelona (headed by Ada Colau). This is in my view the most promising development right now. So I wonder whether all those women and men who hope and are striving for a true transformation, including all the young leaders whose first and unshakable allegiance is to what the name 15-M means, will have the courage to, showing the greatness of heart of which they know they are capable, try and give the majority of the people the political existence we need in order to govern ourselves. How? Why not making a general Ganemos? Let’s try and do it: Genemos el presente, juntos Podemos (Let’s win the present, together We Can).

About the author

Carlos Frade is senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Salford (Manchester, UK), where he teaches Machiavellian, Marxian and Weberian social and political thought. His research focuses on political subjectivation and rationalities. He is currently preparing a book on social theory for students and militants.


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