Photo used with permission of author.In the context of the on-going political-economic crisis particularly affecting southern Europe, as European citizens we have a duty to share experiences of socio-political transformation and to try and bring about a positive social transformation.
It is therefore important to understand the phenomenon that is Podemos, which has already been depicted as ‘the greatest political innovation in Europe since the end of the Cold War’ (de Sousa Santos 2014). While traditional linear historical meta-narratives of progress tend to essentialise ideas as immutable, a more genealogical conception allows us to reassess the historical transformation of ideas in the way they are (re)appropriated by different political actors, with different intentions and ends.
I offer here a brief genealogical analysis of Podemos’ ‘new politics’, from its origins to its consolidation phase, focusing on a process of vertical integration that it is undergoing, which has resulted in a highly hierarchical and centralized political formation.
The ‘origins’ of Podemos can be traced back to the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) where the ‘hard core’ (Iglesias/Errejon/Monedero/Bescansa/Alegre) had for years been promoting currents of critical thought to try and foster counter-hegemonic social dynamics through associations like ‘Contrapoder’ (2006), ‘La Promotora’ (2008), ‘Juventud sin Futuro’ (driving 15-M) or ‘CEPS’. These deployed the political capital it had accumulated in providing a political consultancy for progressive forces in Latin America, in empowering the Left to achieve social transformations in Europe.
Accordingly, CEPS promoted throughout Spain counter-hegemonic cultural activities, seeking to foster the articulation of subaltern groups into a new collective subject, one able to transform social conditions in favour of the social majority.
In 2010, a television event organized by ‘La Promotora’ would provide Iglesias with the opportunity to present and direct ‘La Tuerka’, a TV program whose success was made possible by the increasing demand for alternative ideas generated by a deepening crisis. Through his re-interpretation of Gramsci, Iglesias regarded television as the main tool for political communication, operating through the ideological production of discourses that construct ‘normalcy’.
‘La Tuerka’ operated as a ‘collective organic intellectual’, first accepting the rules of hegemonic mainstream media, in order, secondly, to build counter-hegemonic cultural devices. Their instrumental use of military metaphors (‘wars/battles/enemies/weapons’) in their ideological confrontation over the interpretation of social reality was aimed at democratizing a television space dominated by conservative political forces and rendering leftist ideas that highlighted the conflicts obscured by hegemonic discourses socially normal, in order to generate an alternative common sense which could pave the way to social transformation.
With a similar format, in another program, ‘Fort Apache’ (2012), and then as guest on two TV debating programmes, ‘El Gato al agua’ y ‘Las mañanas de Cuatro’ in 2013, Iglesias ended up becoming the media personality whose convergence with ‘Izquierda Anticapitalista’ (IA) would serve as a catalyst for the emergence of ‘Podemos’ itself.
The origins of IA (a socialist Trotskyist party) date back to the founding of ‘Espacio Alternativo’ (EA) in 1995 as one internal tributary of ‘Izquierda Unida’ (IU), a coalition of left parties. Due to disagreements with the predominance of reformism within IU, EA began a process of separation in December 2007, and was refounded as ‘Izquierda Anticapitalista’ in November 2008. After failing to achieve any representation in the 2009 European elections and the 2011 general elections, IA decided not to stand for the European elections in 2015, instead producing an internal bulletin in November 2013, whose discussion and approval (11.11.2013) led to the launch of the ‘Moviendo Ficha’ Manifesto (January 2014) and the emergence of Podemos. After some initial negotiations between CEPS, ‘Contrapoder’ and IA, Podemos ended up being headed by Iglesias.
Initially formed by activists primarily positioned around IA and the ‘hard core’ (Iglesias/Errejon/Wallet/Bescansa/Alegre), Podemos emerges as a ‘movement-party’ with a structure of ‘reversed pyramid’, whereby the mechanism of primary elections with open lists allowed the party’s rank and file to exert indirect control over their representatives, who became subject to the collective decisions of the assembly.
Podemos’ new politics was based on ‘self-financing’ (through grants and citizens’ loans), ‘cross-ideological organisation’ (welcoming citizens of any ideological persuasion, who were willing to struggle for real democracy; with the exception of discriminatory ideas) and ‘horizontality’ (through autonomous assemblies, primaries with open lists and mechanisms of democratic collective decision-making, through the use of technology).
Achieving the record of 50,000 members registered on the first day, over the following months, many ‘círculos’ (local assemblies) emerged throughout Spain as spaces of active participation, in a revival of the experience of 15-M. There were two main types of ‘círculos’: sectorial (groupings for people of a certain profession or activity) and territorial ‘círculos’ (local assemblies). The initial relationship between ‘círculos’ was entirely horizontal and decentralized, with each one enjoying full autonomy in decision-making.
This horizontality was reflected in the primaries, with open lists for the European elections in May 2014, in which candidates ran on an individual basis and were voted for by the citizenship, over the Internet. The candidates’ list final order would be determined by the votes obtained by each candidate. Promoting Iglesias’ image on the ballot, Podemos obtained five seats and 1.253.837 votes (8%), generating a political tsunami that would confirm the crisis of bipartisanship in Spanish politics. Over the following months, hundreds of ‘círculos’ and hundreds of thousands of new members continued to join.
The process of centralization and hierarchical structuring developed in three phases. In the ‘pre-constituent’ phase (between 24.05.2014- 27.10.2014), Iglesias took over the pre-organizational process by launching a ‘group of twenty five’ in June 2014 to help prepare the constituent assembly ‘Si, Se Puede’.
An internal power struggle between IA (supporting open lists and a more representative power for the territorial ‘círculos’) and Iglesias’ ‘hard core’ (supporting closed lists and more power in decision-making for registered members via the internet) ensued. This concluded with a result of primary elections with closed lists that Iglesias won by a large majority (86%) against the ‘nurses’ círculos’ (14%). This enabled Iglesias’ ‘group of twenty five’ to strategically control the planning of the constituent assembly, aimed at building Podemos from top to bottom and from Spain’s centre to its periphery.
During the second phase (15.09.2014-27.10.2014), Podemos’ ‘hard core’ ended up hegemonizing the constituent process, decisively conditioning the decision of the party’s bases by announcing that the continuity of their collective leadership was subject to the approval of their model.
Errejon's thesis of ‘the electoral machinery of war’ (prioritizing efficiency and vertical organization) displaced Monedero’s ‘movement-party’ thesis (the prioritizing of internal democracy and horizontality) and Iglesias’ hierarchical and centralized organisation model won by a majority (80.7%), against the more horizontal and decentralized proposal of Echenique (12.36%) supported by IA.
The prohibition of dual membership led to the dissolution of IA, opening a process of the internal consolidation of power over Podemos by the ‘hard core’. Podemos thus acquired a vertical structure at three levels (state/regional/local) with similar bodies: General Secretary and the Citizens’ Council (presidency/executive), Citizens’ Assembly (deliberative body) and Committee of Democratic Guarantees (organism for resolving internal conflicts).
During the phase of the internal primaries (10-28-14/03-31-15) Podemos’ ‘hard core’ hegemonized the different bodies at three different levels by supporting their candidates as the ‘official current’ (‘Claro que Podemos’) via closed lists.
Iglesias was ratified as secretary general (88.6%), and his closed lists for the structure at state level won (with most candidates coming from Iglesias’ immediate environment (15.11.2014). In the following weeks, Podemos came to lead in the polls. Subsequently, the ‘hard core’ began hegemonising the local (16.11-2014- 2.01.2015)and regional structures (1-31 March 2015), publicly supporting and sponsoring closed lists, promoting the success of an official current within local and regional ‘círculos’.
The establishment of a hierarchical and centralized structure and the normalization of closed lists succeeded in reversing the inverted pyramid. The price to pay for the creating of an ‘electoral war machine’ was a reduced attendance within ‘círculos’, diminished media participation and a decline in the polls - moving to fourth position and leading to Monedero’s exodus in April 2015.
Game of thrones
The instrumentalization of the symbolic-media capital accumulated by Iglesias in order to centralize Podemos through the systematic use of closed lists has generated new forms of vertical extraction of ‘political-cultural’ surplus value – from the bottom to the top and from the periphery to the centre –of a party built collectively, but later appropriated by its top rank. This conception of the so-called ‘new politics’ as a ‘game of thrones’ is as old as the ethics of Machiavelli’s' Prince.
To justify means that move us away from the defence of the common here and now, on the basis of the goal of defending the common in a future that never comes is a dangerous illusion. Without new ethics there can be no new politics. Ethics, being rooted in the sense of justice of the people, is a key cultural element. Culture, as a fundamental part of the popular consciousness, conditions popular responses to crises (Abrahamian 1989). Accordingly, creating a new political ethic, one that defends the common as a method and not as an end, is a precondition for change in the correlation of forces, leading to the emergence of a new politics, one able to subvert the current neoliberal order. The duty of a revolutionary is thus not simply to win but to forge the transformation of society, beginning from an ethical transformation of oneself.
Abrahamian, E. (1989), The Iranian Mojahedin. London: I.B. Tauris
de Sousa Santos, B. (2014), ‘La Ola Podemos’, Publico, 12. 08.2014