Can Europe Make It?

Podemos: the challenge in Spain

We need to expand the emancipatory space for what is possible from within a contaminated and contaminant discourse, far removed from pure rationality and a theoretical superiority over ‘the masses’. Español.

Germán Cano
14 December 2015

Demotix/Marcos del Mazo. All rights reserved.To grasp how stunningly Podemos burst onto the political scene in recent Spanish history, one must understand and reflect upon an idea that has already been explored in politics: namely that the hitherto leading role of the working class, as well as its historical role in social struggles, should be taken into consideration alongside other emerging social forces of similar ‘critical’ relevance.

Outside of the factory, other potential alliances can be discerned with transformative forces, unconventional from the point of view of the traditional and orthodox Left. Hence our interest in revisiting, in this new historical context--the crisis of a neoliberal hegemony--Gramsci’s reading of the European situation and its diagnosis after the defeat of the left by the reactionary, fascist forces that had erupted at that moment in European history.

In a moment of systemic crisis, in which, to once again quote Gramsci, ‘the old is dying and the new is not yet ready to be born', it is politically ineffective to search for clear and distinct sectors and forces in the social topology. We must rather, if tentatively, as Gramsci put it, in these ‘morbid’ situations, work with complex, ambiguous compositions.

If, in this time of crisis, we accept the logic of hybridization over that of purification--which requires the authentication of behaviors and the segregation or demarcation of impure identities--the need for a more experimental communication strategy becomes clear. Our strategy must have a greater sensitivity to the phenomena of mass psychology and the importance of social networks. Our strategy must have a greater sensitivity to the phenomena of mass psychology and the importance of social networks.These new tools have already been tested in university and cooperative spaces in recent years, and are the result of a learning process different to anything that went on before.


Podemos assumes affirmatively and experimentally its role in this ‘morbid’ situation in a moment of transition when so-called anomalies, dysfunctions and setbacks emerge in a wholly new light.

This is not just because failing to contest the battle within this uneven and ambivalent political field would simply concede the ground to the forces of reaction and the inertia of decomposition. But it is also due to the need to expand the emancipatory space for what is possible from within a contaminated and contaminant discourse, that is, from a different place to that of classical left discourse, much too enamored with its own pure rationality and theoretical superiority over ‘the masses’.

It would be a political error to simply discard and abandon impurity, or to seek withdrawal in any stance closer to the orthodox Left. It has become necessary to step back and abandon the discourse of ‘explosive’ myths, hysteric illusions about the withdrawal of the social, typical of their activist, movements-style.

It is this raw political insolence of Podemos that has given it its status as ‘illegitimate child’, so to speak, in relation to other political formations. This does not come into play from the ‘necessity’ of a fait accompli, or from the set point of the ‘concentration’ of any given and potential social forces, but rather firstly from the contingency of a very specific emergency situation and, secondly, from the desire for an extensive new articulation of social demands and frustrations. This is what gave rise to Podemos’ strategy of inserting itself into the cracks of existing normalized spaces.

Another question that Podemos puts on the table is whether the limits of militancy and political activism, important as these are, should also be the limits of political action. Today, the factories, community centres and squares are no longer the only political spaces, even if they are and remain of distinct relevance. Neither is the democratizing technological device of social media, despite its broad reach, capable of generating by itself a new political common sense, as has already been illustrated by the mixed results of Party X in the last European elections in Spain.

The excitement of ‘we can’ from Podemos cannot be understood as a form of voluntarism suspended over or removed from given social and economic realities. There would be no appeal to such a flexible and fluid subject without the existence of a serious situation of emergency today. This is rooted in a neoliberal ideology for so long successful in hegemonizing illusion and individualizing any sense of discomfort, either by reducing it to private complaint or using it as an incentive for better self-entrepreneurship (‘there are no bad crises that cannot be successfully ridden by good self-entrepreneurs!’).

At a certain point, however, this euphemistic ‘I can’, capable of leading one to euphoria or plunging one into depression, was fractured and 15-M was able to emerge. The 15-M movement was instead characterized by a ‘Yes, we can’ slogan, which quickly began to reveal the cracks in this inexorable mirror held up by the bipartisan horizon, thus ushering in a radically different political force to any previous neoliberal formations. And so was born the ‘we can’ of Podemos, the culmination of a collective concatenation of pain and sufferings, that had until that point been unable to find political articulation. And so was born the ‘we can’ of Podemos, the culmination of a collective concatenation of pain and sufferings, that had until that point been unable to find political articulation.

In a social body fragmented and wounded by crisis, this concatenation of discomforts should be best understood both as a ‘suture’ of an incumbent sense of powerlessness and passivity and as an aggregation of powerful demands. It should also be understood as a tentative process of political learning where, in a performative sense, discourses give meaning to interests and interests open the path for new discourses, creating new opportunities for intervention within the existing social reality and its groups.

‘Is it possible (asked Gramsci) that a “formally” new conception can present itself in a guise other than the crude, unsophisticated version of the populace? And yet the historian, with the benefit of all kinds of perpsective, managed to establish and to understand the fact that the beginnings of a new world, rough and jagged though they always are, are better than the passing away of the world in its death-throes and the swan-song that it produces.’ It is tempting to see this time in Spanish history, in the light of what Gramsci said, as the hour of the battle between a new (more social) politics, one yet not fully sketched out but steadily emerging, and the swan songs of the ’78 Regime, whose downfall today is illustrated not only by the proliferation of defensive attitudes, but also the symptomatic sophistication and theoretical proliferations of a politically sterile end.

The fact that the space between these two paradigms is reducing is probably a sign of our times, but so are the dynamics of this new zone of uncertainty where proposals for regeneration from within the old paradigm can also flourish--as illustrated by Ciudadanos, a party aimed at absorbing the current discomfort, but ultimately working to reinforce the status quo.


Just as deep as the yawning chasm opened up in recent Spanish history between the language of the political elites of the Transition and the people they are supposed to represent, is the divide between the people and a traditional Left retreated into its own programmatic bubble - a position it has reached again in the twenty-first century just as it did in the Weimar of the thirties.

The existence of these deep cleavages comes to show us that all transformative political initiatives today that aspire to base themselves in reality, a reality that is neither naïve nor opportunistic, are required to lower themselves to and make themselves understood in a more basic, yet experimental, emancipatory language that places little emphasis on identitarian aspects.

This a basic requirement if we want to avoid repeating the error of giving the social monopoly of communication to the new ‘barbarians’ of the Right, particularly in a socially fragmented world where there is a high chance that anger and discontent could take the form of neo-fascist and anti-political resentments.

To avoid and neutralize this latter possibility requires both tentative scouting trips into ‘the enemy camp’ with a less apocalyptic sensitivity that takes on the discourse of mass society, and embraces a new analysis of the dynamics of ‘populism’--this phantasmatic appearance-form of our times--which would require a reassessment of the lessons to be drawn from Latin American politics. It is at this fascinating crossroads that the Podemos project emerged in Spain as a means of social-cultural transformation and as a political instrument for the people.

Only time will tell if its proposals contain the necessary elements to fundamentally reshape the political physiognomy of Spain, or if it is just yet another surface expression and manifestation of the crisis of the ’78 Regime. So far, its popular-hegemonic position has clearly allowed it to develop a refined cartographic instrument, equipped to better account for the complex processes of sedimentation in today’s map of social transformation, to grasp its inertias and subjective formations without any illusions about the complex challenges of building a new popular power, this power that is subject to a radical process of construction rather than simple recuperation.

This is a Podemos (and ‘yes, we can’) that, while not removing itself from the historical failures arising from defeat in the confrontation with the neoliberal offensive in operation since the 1970s, does attempt to articulate and to be faithful to an emerging emancipatory desire.

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