PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera and Vice President of the Spanish government and Partido Popular Soraya Saenz de Santamaria at a live television debate. Demotix/Oscar Fuentes. All rights reserved.Podemos is usually thought of as framed within ‘left-wing populism’. However, it is worth calling attention to an aspect of Podemos which has been commented on less frequently, and which, nonetheless, was written into its DNA from the beginning. Podemos came onto the Spanish and European political scene with the vocation of placing a bet for republican principles in the middle of the board, attempting to demonstrate to citizens on all sides that they are being betrayed and destroyed by a savage and nihilist neoliberal revolution.
It is a bet that attempts to conquer the political centre for the left, with the intention of bringing to light the fact that, now, it is not us but the rich and powerful who have moved towards anti-system positions, undermining the very foundations of common sense. It is not us but the rich and powerful who have moved towards anti-system positions, undermining the very foundations of common sense.
Since the Transition, Spain has been exposed —and this is not very different to the rest of Europe—to wave after wave of extreme right wing policies presented as being of the centre, and sometimes centre-right or centre-left. Have any of them ever advertised themselves as about to suffocate our public education or national health, or do away with our workers’ rights?
No, they have always maintained that they were going to do away with unemployment, improve the efficiency of our national health system and public education. They do one thing and say another. On the other hand, if we want to practise left politics (not even extreme left), they demand we tell the truth. We cannot smuggle in a left policy under the banner of the centre; this is not what people from the left are expected to do. We are asked to perform a veritable balancing act: win without money and, on top of that, by telling the truth.
This is an age-old dilemma for the left, and what we are asked to do is more difficult still. Given we are from the left, we need to be poor like church mice and win elections with no money, so it seems. By the same token, we have to be honest and sincere; we in no way can win elections by lying. And all the while, the right have the right to lie, steal, act corrupt and finance themselves illegally; all because they are from the right. The right have the right to lie, steal, act corrupt and finance themselves illegally; all because they are from the right. The right even has an exclusive right to populism. In this country, we have watched the leader of PSOE being interviewed while climbing a mountain wall on rubbish TV programs, the leader of PP Madrid walking through the city with an inflatable sofa, hugging children, inviting passers-by for a cup of tea. This makes us blush. We on the left, on the other hand, not having strayed anywhere near these extremes; we are reproached for our populism as our unforgiveable political vice.
There is, nevertheless, a way of appropriating the centre for the left, without lying and with no populism. This is the card that Podemos has played, an ace up its sleeve nobody foresaw, not even the ‘“we can” (podemos) from the right’ of Ciudadanos. This ace card can be summed up in three simple words: ‘make populism republican’.
Make populism republican
In Podemos, we have and will always have a very precise discourse, one that naturally occupies the ‘centre of the board’ and which, at the same time, is indigestible to parties like Ciudadanos and all other right populisms, a discourse for which the economic crisis has been its pedagogical laboratory. This is simply about recovering rights and classic republican institutions, while, at the same time, showing their undisputable incompatibility with a dictatorship of the financial markets, one in which we are currently submerged.
The left has always tried to invent a new formula for gunpowder; this has been its greatest error. It set its eyes on building a ‘new man’, at times Stahanovist, Maoist or Guevarist, at times Deleuzian, Foucaultian, or Negrian, denouncing the established republican institutions as ideological superstructures of capitalism. Law, citizenship, individual liberties, the separation of powers, parliamentarism, and representative democracy in general were seen as bourgeois concepts against which we needed to ‘invent something better’ (as Foucault once famously said: ‘first we must destroy what is there, then we will think of something’); a ruinous endeavour no doubt. This way, we gave Kant, Locke, Rousseau or Montesquieu to the enemy, while we were left holding up Stalin and Mao, and occasionally the heirs of 1968.
The road not taken
The opposite route will now need to be followed. We will need to claim our rights for the people and the institutions of the rule of law; against the dictatorship of the markets and the financial powers for whom there is no law, no country or republic.
This will no longer involve denouncing parliamentarism as bourgeois, but its opposite. There is no need for scissors: the majority of journalists one might want to censure are already unemployed and will never find work again.
It will require claiming back our right to parliamentary institutions that offer a true and genuine representation for the people; the truth about our parliamentary system is that it is far from being parliamentary and resembles rather an economic dictatorship with a parliamentary façade.
We need not invent a more participatory, creative or ingenious democracy. It is enough to create the political conditions under which economic powers have to submit themselves to the authority of legislative powers; it is sufficient for the legislative representative power to become just that, to be precisely what they claim to be but they are not.
Therefore, our programme can be in the same breath very precise, very centrist, and anti-systemic. It should, for example, be able to claim the right of the people to have a real separation of powers. It is a scam to smugly separate political powers, under conditions in which power is not political but rather economic. Under such an economic dictatorship of the market, to boast about the division of powers is mere sarcasm; this needs to be protested.
Along the same lines, we can ask for a true freedom of the press, denouncing the fact that a media dictatorship of three or four oligopolies cannot be conducive to freedom of the press. It is absurd to go around pretending that we have no censorship in Spain. There is no need for scissors: the majority of journalists one might want to censure are already unemployed and will never find work again. Under this media dictatorship, if a journalist ruffles the wrong feather, s/he is not censured but simply fired.
This way, we can finally go on the offence in defending our institutions, ones that belong to the people, as our own, denouncing the manner capitalism has turned them into frauds.
If we think about it, this is a discourse very naturally anchored in the ‘centrality of the (political) board’. Do you know what we in Podemos defend? We are not at all ambiguous about it: we defend your right for this to become exactly what you say that it is, we defend the chance for this to be a real constitutional order, we defend the sovereignty of our legislative power, we defend the constitutional nation, we defend parliamentarism, the power of public speech against the secret negotiations of private corporations, freedom of the press against the media dictatorship that we have succumbed to, and many other things.
It isn’t so difficult. We defend as our right the fact that this democracy, this parliament, this supposed rule of law must stop being merely a farce. Who could oppose such a programme? And who could say it is ambiguous?
On my part, I don’t see any ambiguity in committing to legislate in such a way as to make the economic powers have no other recourse but to comply with the law. These measures are very concrete and easy to grasp. To give one example: let us enable the creation of an army of financial inspectors, charged with establishing true courts of auditors in Spain (and then export this experiment to the European level) through competitive public examinations; this is not something unimaginable. Nor is commissioning a few thousand chartered accountants to be poised to carry out a judicial investigation of possible economic crimes, to audit the hospitals and public schools that have been privatized; these are all achievable goals.
Legislate, legislate, legislate
Furthermore, use the power of the legislative to turn around this state of affairs. Instead of facilitating rule by economic powers over parliaments, let the European Parliament stop the economic powers from bribing and blackmailing the national parliaments.
How far would you go, you may ask? That remains to be seen; at the very least, until the legal conditions are such that it makes a financial coup d’état, like the one that took place in Greece against the first Syriza government, entirely unfeasible.
It involves a clear choice between democracy and financial and economic interest. Anyone can understand that; it is not so hard to grasp. And, since we are here, it is possible to continue along the same path, and propose, above all, new electoral laws that stop the banks financing political parties in exchange for favours. The problem in Spain, as in the rest of the world, is not simply the existence of corruption. The problem is the amount of perfectly legal corruption there is. The problem is the amount of perfectly legal corruption there is.
The same goes for health and education. It is not a matter of drafting a new list now, our programme is available and clear: change the laws, legislate, legislate, and legislate, something very obvious and natural, as the only path for both the Spanish and the European left out of this general impasse.
It is a very understandable, not in the slightest ambiguous, a message able to confront and stand up to the savage revolution neoliberalism has inaugurated.
We intend to save everything that Europe stands for, including saving it from the economic model that it itself has supported. Good, exciting and cheap … concrete, solid and centrist, the most difficult part is yet to come.