Can Europe Make It?

Podemos: radical blueprint for democratic reform

Iglesias' party proposes a radical opening up of the state through citizen participation in decision-making, and administration as a weapon against oligarchic power. 

Paolo Gerbaudo
18 December 2015
Carolina Bescansa, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau at Caja Magica

Carolina Bescansa, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau at Caja Magica, Madrid. December 13, 2015. Demotix/Jorge Gonzalez. All rigths reserved.Arguably the flagship policy of Podemos in this election campaign is not the proposal for a guaranteed basic income of 600 euros, nor is it the progressive raising of the minimum wage to 800 euros, but the introduction of a recall referendum, in the case of a breaching of the electoral contract.

Initially proposed by an anonymous user on the Podemos Reddit forum (Plaza Podemos), during the open consultation on the party’s programme, this policy attracted enormous support and as often been referred to by Pablo Iglesias during TV debates, as evidence of the party’s commitment to voters. The text of the proposal states that, “electoral programmes have to be understood as contracts with citizens. Therefore Podemos will set minimum contractual commitments, which, if breached, will raise a call for new elections.”

The recall (revocatorios) – which would require the support of 158 MPs and 15% of the electorate – is just the most visible of wide-ranging proposals for political reform that constitute a central plank of Podemos’ programme in these general elections. They revolve around a project of radical overhaul of State institutions and their “opening up” in the service of the citizenry, to reverse the current skepticism of the electorate towards politicians.

Such proposals for political reform have much to say about the new political vision put forward by Podemos and the centrality of the issue of democracy and state reform in the fight against oligarchic power, and a society of extreme economic inequality.

Citizenism and the ‘opening up’ of the State

The emphasis on political reforms and the creation of mechanisms of grassroots control stems from a diagnosis of the present conflict as one opposing not so much social classes, in a simplified sense, (such as the working class vs. the capitalist class), but ordinary citizens vs. political and economic oligarchies.

This is the vision that has sometimes been caricatured by anarchists and Marxists in Spain as “citizenism”, as a neo-populist ideology of the citizen, which forsakes the aim of doing away with capitalism, contenting itself with some limited reforms. Citizenism puts forward the idea that the root cause of the present state of economic inequality, is not just to be found in the natural imbalances of the capitalist system, but in what Colin Crouch has described as a “post-democratic” condition - one in which citizens continue voting, but it does not really matter any more, due to the internal solidarity of the political class, regardless of its nominal political colours, and its alliance with big business.

It prescribes a strategy of radical reclaiming of state democracy and the restoration of its founding principles, as a tool to confront the power of economic and political oligarchies. 

This narrative of an oligarchic society that Podemos has painted, by referring to political elites as a self-serving “caste”, detached from its erstwhile organic social bases, is one that has powerfully stuck with the Spanish electorate. As opinion polls stand to demonstrate, Spaniards have never been so cynical about their government and political parties, since the return of democracy in 1978. If in this election two new parties – Podemos and Ciudadanos – stand to challenge the continued existence of the two-party system of the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) - this is a signal of the depth of discontent of the electorate towards mainstream politics.

The reasons for this disaffection are well known. They were listed by Pablo Iglesias in his final address to the nation in the last TV debate, when he invited his fellow citizens not to forget about the many corruption scandals (Gürtel, Bárcenas, Tarjetas Black) and the many political decisions taken against the will of the majority of the population (labour reform).

The antidote to this situation of disaffection with the state and party politics - Podemos activists believed from the party’s inception in early 2014 - is not in a moving away from the state, an “exodus” strategy of the type advised by their Marxist Autonomist teachers, starting with Antonio Negri, but in a strategy of radical intervention in the State, and its reclaim for good purposes. If Negri once famously described the State as “the object of hate”, Podemos activists are taking a view closer to the one of Nicos Poulantzas: the State as a condensation of political struggles, a battlefield between popular classes and the ruling classes, and in given historical conditions, also a weapon in the hands of the People.

It is significant that 5 of Podemos’ key proposals, including anti-corruption measures and social rights, have been framed as "constitutional guarantees", modifications of the fundamental law of the country, in order to make sure that the political changes introduced by the "purple wave" are established deep in the architecture of the State, making them more difficult to modify by adversaries, as Podemos leaders have often explained.

What we see emerging in this context is a new vision of the role of the State and of its relationship with citizens. While the socialist movement aimed at conquering the State, and the extra-parliamentary left and anarchists wanted to construct a space outside the State, the attitude of Podemos is different from both traditions.

It aims at an “assault on the institutions” (asalto a las instituciones) which is obviously not meant to be an armed assault, a storming of the Winter Palace, but an intense and sustained intervention against and within the State, an “opening up” of its institutional architecture, so that it can serve the interests of the many ordinary and anonymous citizens whose interests and views have for so long been overlooked, and the more so since the inception of the crisis.

This is ultimately the very political logic that we have already seen at play in the Cities of Change (Ciudades del Cambio), in Barcelona and Madrid, since the rise to power of Ada Colau and Manuel Carmena, and the way they have started working in favour of ordinary citizens, through concrete measures such as putting a stop to evictions and by opening processes of citizen participation in local decision-making.

Constructing a popular democracy

The emerging vision of the State and the role of the citizenry can be understood not just by listening to the speeches of Podemos leaders that often make reference to the need to “take back our institutions”, but also by looking at the specific policy proposals of political reform.

Besides the already mentioned right of recall, the party’s platform proposes a number of measures to initiate direct democracy, popular participation and transparency. All these proposed mechanisms ultimately have the same aim: to address the present democratic deficit, and make citizens feel again that they are citizens rather than just the subjects of the State apparatus. 

Podemos proposes a number of instruments of state-based direct democracy, which include popular initiatives (allowing citizens to draft new laws), popular deliberations (participatory budgeting and use of public spaces), popular veto (a referendum to repeal laws). Some of these direct democracy institutions are already well established elsewhere in the world, most famously in some Swiss cantons, and some states in the US, such as California. However, none of them is present in Spain at the moment, where also referenda are strictly consultative and can only be called by the government.

On top of these direct democracy institutions, the platforms propose a number of measures to ensure greater popular participation in decision-making and transparency. Proposals include the participation of the citizenry in the legislative process with the streaming of all debates; seats assigned to ordinary citizens during debate; and open information about budgeting, public works and services published online; the creation of a citizen observatory responsible for assessing public policies; besides the elimination of privileges for politicians; and a tightening of measures against corruption. Rather than a complete doing away with the representative system, the gist of this vision is a hybrid system of participatory representation, in which elections of representatives, go hand in hand with forms of direct participation of the citizenry, ready to remove politicians if they betray their mandate.

This project of a popular democracy – which is not Podemos’ own invention but the manifestation of a broader movement for democracy in Spanish society spanning from the 15-M to the municipal initiatives - seems to respond to the new fears and preoccupations of the electorate, which ravaged by economic distress and insecurity about the future, is yearning to regain some form of control about its collective destiny, similar to the sense of accountability available before the neoliberal onslaught in the 1980s. It is a yearning for a recuperation of popular sovereignty, amidst a world dominated by oligarchic power.

This desire has however to confront some formidable obstacles. The problem is not just the political viability of these measures in the short to mid term, or the degree to which they can be a channel of actual democratization rather than a vehicle of plebiscitarianism, reinforcing the power of the charismatic leader.

Any project that aims to reconstruct popular sovereignty at the national level, will also need to confront a globally interconnected world, and in the case of Spain, the membership of the European Union - as factors that seriously restrain any possibility of controlling one’s own economy and society, due to the inability to decide on monetary policies and restrain capital flows.

What Podemos' strategy argues is that it is unrealistic to think that we can change Europe by creating a “People of Europe” (as discussed by Etienne Balibar, and recently debated in openDemocracy) almost out of thin air, through an act of political voluntarism.

The only realistic way forward is to start from reclaiming the institutions that we already have right now, the cities, the municipalities, the regions, and the national parliament and government, going from the local up to the nation-state, and from there move up to the supra-national level. First we take Barcelona, then we take Spain, and in the meantime the eurocrats in Brussels can start to tremble.

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