The longevity of a social movement is not so much a result of its operational, organizational, or self-reproductive capacity as its ability to mutate and keep up with the times. In this sense, the 15-M movement, captured by the ideas reflected in the manifesto Democracia Real Ya (‘Real Democracy Now’), is a paradigmatic case, one that has brought about a cycle of mobilization with few precedents in Spain.
15-M arose as the fruit of popular weariness and disillusionment with a political system that turned its back on the socioeconomic problems and demands of the social majority. Taking over the squares of all the big cities in Spain were the constitutive acts of this social movement, which subsequently underwent various mutations. These changes are considered mutations not because they were planned at those encounters in the streets and squares, but because they fit in precisely with the repertoire of demands emanating from the assemblies in the square.
The proliferation of so-called social centres, critical publishing houses, and the opening of centres for alternative culture constituted the first phase of what later on crystallized into movements of disobedience against the thousands of evictions occurring almost daily across the country. Even as the separation of the social from the political remains a wholly liberal concept, the truth is that this entire movement, with its new political culture, had not yet been translated into an option that sought to influence the institutional and/or party system.
15-M did not ask for a political party within a political system which could only accommodate a set of predetermined options. Instead, it was Podemos’ chosen task to insert itself into the contours of the existing political system from its very early days. The reasons for this are simple: while it is true that 15-M demanded new institutions and a new way of occupying them, it was only Podemos that was capable of accommodating its organizational architecture to fulfil the demands that arose in the squares.
Podemos, in the Gramscian terms on which it builds, has carried out genuine cultural warfare: it picked up the paradigm generated in the squares, took its key concepts, gave them new meaning, and made them relevant across the class divides. Podemos’ victory in this particular war is absolutely incontestable. In only one year and a few months of existence, it has successfully obliged all the pre-existing parties to incorporate its repertoire of ideas, methods and metaphors. With greater or lesser credibility, most Spanish political parties have planned or applied some system of internal election of candidates based on a primaries model; adopted transparency mechanisms to submit finances to the scrutiny of the base or the electorate; and looked for new means of developing electoral programs in more participatory ways, as well as a long list of inclusive measures to give greater sway to activists and citizens in the taking of important decisions, at least on a superficial level.
Assembly meeting of the Marea Atlántica, A Coruña. Photo used with permission of author.
A change of strategy
This victory in the wide adoption of the ‘podemite’ repertoire coincided with the months leading up to the municipal and autonomic elections in May 2015. At that exact moment, Podemos decided on a change of strategy. The tick-tock that the title of this text makes reference to is only one of the slogans used by Pablo Iglesias to announce that Rajoy’s presidency of the government was closer to its end than ever before. The slogan set out to signal the direction of a new strategy: a head on confrontation with the Partido Popular, setting aside all previous political discourse.
The abandoning of the older rhetoric to create a new institution coincided with the appearance of citizen platforms, a new phase of the movement, described as municipalist currents and organisations. It was in these platforms that hundreds of previously non-organized, non-militant people, and leftist parties, among them Podemos, managed to converge with the intention of fighting together in the local elections of 24 May 2015.
The discursive centre of these initiatives was precisely a decentralised and democratic repertoire of procedural radicalism, whose activists presented themselves as operating outside of the established frameworks of competition between existing political parties, hence the slogan ‘run run’. ‘Run run’ was a slogan chosen by new Barcelona mayor Ada Colau for one of her campaign videos that spread like wildfire on the Internet and announced the arrival of something new to the city hall of Barcelona. It was something different, unclassifiable within established political categories.
During those same months of consolidation of the municipalist lists for Madrid and Barcelona during March and April 2015, Podemos developed a divergent path and discourse. It began to intensify its contentious language, seeking continuous confrontation and began to differentiate itself unintentionally from the citizen platforms of which it forms a part. This is to say, it began at that point to leave the framework built during its cultural war phase.
The consequence of this was a dip in popularity for its leaders and a sharpening decline in terms of voting intentions for the party.
The widely contrasting results between Podemos, on the one hand, and the citizen candidates’ lists, on the other, clearly demonstrate the growing divergence between them. A case in point are the results for the Comunidad de Madrid: the municipalist list for the government of the city of Madrid obtained a wonderful result that led to its governing alone, while in the Assembly for the Comunidad de Madrid Podemos’ list came third, at quite a distance from the political force in the lead. Obviously, this is not the determining factor or, rather, the only one that explains Podemos’ election results or its stand in the polls. It is certain, however, that both Podemos’ and the municipal lists’ performance are suggestive indicators regarding the state of public opinion in Spain.
First we can deduce that the political space for ‘democratism’ and ‘neo-institutionalism’ is much wider than that available for socialism, and not much smaller than the space for conservatism. Thus we might conclude that beyond the increase in recent mobilizations in Spain, the 15-M movement and its demands live on in the collective imagination of Spaniards.
Secondly, we note that the ‘democratist’ or ‘neo-institutionalist’ political space never operates within a framework of direct confrontation; in effect, confrontation is not consistent with its political or discursive repertoire.
Thirdly and lastly, in the coming months, Podemos could find itself facing strong criticism regarding the already-mentioned traps it has fallen into, just as it sets out to decide whether it is a political force looking for real change or simply a new, but not radically different one.
If it makes the wrong choice, considering the multiplicity of options that exist in the field of political confrontation, Podemos will find itself excluded, forced to accept the role of ‘yet another party’, with all the risks that this entails in a system of parties which in Spain has worked as a powerful preserve for vested interests.