The political enthusiasm of Spain’s Podemos

28 September 2017

The political enthusiasm of Spain’s Podemos

Foto: Nynke Vissia

Issuing from the Spanish protest movement 15M, the newly-founded left party Podemos, won – “to their own amazement” – five seats in the European Parliament and 20% of the votes in the Spanish general election. Researcher and writer Frans Bieckmann, founder of the progressive thinktank The Broker, says that “Podemos breaks with neoliberalism’s groupthink. They want to determine the rules of the game themselves.” Below Bieckmann answers question from SP monthly Tribune.

Free trade has been seen by many as Valhalla. You have been more critical.

Globalisation in itself is neither good nor bad. It’s a neutral term that simply means that everything is gradually becoming more international: economic processes and financial flows, but also work, migration, communication and of course climate phenomena. In a student essay (in the 1980s – translator’s note) I argued that free trade would become dominant: neoliberal globalisation. In the 1990s optimism reigned – the economy was flourishing, the Wall had come down and the end of history had broken out. Neoliberal thought nested in social democracy and, above all, deep inside people’s heads. Only the consequences of this had not been thought through.

And now criticism of the present style of globalisation is growing, as we could see in the broad protest against the TTIP. How hopeful does that seem to you?

It’s good that so many people protested against a treaty like the TTIP. But we’re also seeing an uncomfortable mixing with right-wing agendas, such as Trump’s and those of right-wing characters like Thierry Baudet (1). If you’re not careful these agendas can get the upper hand.

The aim of the alternative globalisation movement is above all to combat neoliberalism’s consequences for people in developing countries. Meanwhile we are seeing that neoliberalism, of which the European Union in its present form is the clearest expression, is finding itself repeatedly touched by crisis: economic, democratic and don’t forget climate change. There is still no mass movement of resistance based on a critique of the system. There is, it’s true, resistance to a number of symptoms, but what’s missing is a clear and optimistic account, a different, more sustainable and more just society, a story that goes beyond simply saying that it’s not fair that some groups are victims of neoliberal globalisation. In Spain they’ve managed to do this. And what’s important is that they are doing this from an international perspective, because they realise that only with international solidarity and cooperation can an alternative be built.

You’ve written a book about Podemos. What do you think makes the Spanish party unique?

The circumstances from which Podemos emerged and the fresh way in which they operate, with a great deal of attention to the media, culture and the language they use. In Spain the crisis hit much harder than it did here. On 15th May, 2011, often also written as M15, the Indignados, the ‘exasperated’, started occupying squares. It began spontaneously when a group of activists occupied a square in Madrid. This grew rapidly until 10,000 people were in the occupation, which lasted for two months. At the same time, squares in other cities were occupied. Above all, this was an action by young people who had not previously been politically active. They were often well-educated, yet unemployed or with precarious jobs. Eventually the occupiers of the squares decided to get into neighbourhoods and organise assemblies with the people themselves. There was already a strong movement active against evictions, but after three years there was a feeling that a political expression was needed, because the same parties were still in power. A diverse group of intellectuals around Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón and Miguel Urban had first of all tried in vain to work via Izquierda Unida (United Left)(2), then decided to found a new party. They stood in the European elections, and to their own amazement this went very well. People saw that at last there was a group which took the ideals of M15 seriously, but above all one with a broad, positive and optimistic line that could connect all groups in the society.

At the Spanish parliamentary elections Podemos won 20% of the votes. Why is the party sometimes labelled ‘left-populist’?

Podemos is rebelling against the elite, whom they call “the Kaste”. Podemos is critical of those who defend the neoliberal model, whether social democrats or conservatives. Podemos stands for an alternative, which they see as a struggle against a small group of people who gain power and profit from it. You can call that left-populist, but that’s only one of the intellectual sources of Podemos.

I find it more interesting that they say that they are taking politics back: against a neoliberal ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality within which there are marginal differences, they are positing an optimistic tale that they promote with self-confidence. The word “Podemos” says it all: it means ‘we can do it’. Another strength is that the party is open and pragmatic. This openness is in part forced on them by the social movements with which they connect.

In the Netherlands left parties in particular see a ‘movement’ as an extension of their party, whose main function is to ensure sufficient votes to give them political power. That’s certainly needed. But things are different in Spain: there are strong autonomous movements, and Podemos have set out their stall as the link to them. They interpret the wishes of the people from these movements.

What can we learn from this in the Netherlands?

It’s up to party’s supporters to strengthen these movements, but not only in the direct interests of the party in question. A consequence of neoliberalism has been that everyone in the Netherlands is busy being individualist and apolitical. But there are tens of thousands of people involved in small-scale, idealistic initiatives, whether they’re focused on the neighbourhood, the environment, social enterprises or refugees. There’s a lot of potential from idealists who don’t even see themselves as political, because politics is dirty, it’s all that posturing in The Hague. Individualism has penetrated deep into people’s heads. In that sense neoliberalism has the upper hand culturally. I’ve always been amazed that the crisis hasn’t brought about a more critical way of thinking. The idea that we must organise collectively to take power has totally disappeared. But in the end that’s the only way really to change things. Podemos is an amalgam of left political currents and priorities, and various groups in society whom they are addressing. These are divided between left parties and thematic organisations. The extraordinary thing is that leaders such as Iglesias and Errejón have managed to gather many of these currents into a broad party, which for example also attracts cultural progressives who in the Netherlands would go to the Green Left or D66. In the Podemos coalition you have Izquierda Unida, but also the environmentalist party Equo, with whom they have formulated a plan for energy transition. In the Netherlands each left party has its own culture and hierarchy, and the active core don’t want to lose that control. Podemos works from the bottom up, because of which many people who aren’t in any party, as well as people from other left parties, are coming to them. They give people a great deal of space and aren’t only active on socio-economic matters but also around the emancipation of women and minorities, the environment, integration. The 500,000 members vote on almost everything. Podemos knows very well how to deal with differences; almost all discussions are public.

Does Podemos also enjoy the support of the media?

Not in the least. The mainstream media in Spain tries continually to set Podemos’ leaders against each other. The media are often linked to a party or to big capital, and campaign openly against Podemos. Research groups, including those with no links to Podemos, monitor closely how the media are deployed politically or commercially, so scandals regularly surface. Podemos reacts to the way in which quotes are taken out of context by countering this systematically, using videos and facts.

How does Podemos see the position of autonomous regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country within Spain?

Podemos strives for “plurinationalism”. That means that separate “nations” may exist within a single country, with a large measure of autonomy and the right to take decisions about how their own society and economy should be organised. This is then, however, always on a basis of solidarity with other regions in Spain.

Would this also provide a feasible model for the EU?

The EU limits the political room for manoeuvre. The nature of the national economies in Europe is, however, so varied, that there must also be space for nation states or large regions to arrange their economies in their own way. The current model forces countries into specialisation and export, because according to market-think that will produce the most revenue. But it doesn’t work like that. There are economies which rely increasingly on their own internal market, or for example on the cooperative economy, as in Catalonia. So there has to be space in Europe, for instance, for a country to boost its own purchasing power or encourage a sustainable transition. This needn’t lead to more protectionism or nationalism, if it happens in dialogue with each other. Everyone for himself – such as a Left Exit from the euro – doesn’t work, because it undermines solidarity still further and encourages nationalism. We need to move towards new, solidarity-based forms of European cooperation, with more space for the autonomy of national economies, societies and cultures, and less focus on consumerism, exports and the flexibilisation of work.

How do you see the future of political parties?

For twenty years what has been said, implicitly, is that this is the end of politics; there are no more contradictions; it’s a question of good regulation by technocrats. But in the end it turns on political choices. People have to get once again an idea of politics, instead of focusing on politicians or the petty things that go on in The Hague. Power and collectivity determine how you give shape to a society, not only via political parties and games in The Hague. Power is still perhaps formed more by cultural and ideological mechanisms. What Podemos is doing is breaking with the neoliberal consensus. They want to determine their own playing field, with their own stories and terms through which they interpret things. If people see that there is a broad political movement striving for an alternative society, enthusiasm for politics can be created anew. Look at the massive support for Jeremy Corbyn, or Bernie Sanders. The SP can learn from these too. Don’t simply resist neoliberalism, but sketch out as well the positive alternative. And by doing this you’ll bring in the middle class and the well-educated.

Frans Bieckmann was talking to Sara Murawski. This interview first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the SP monthly Tribune of September, 2017.



(1) Leader of the newly-founded right wing party Forum for Democracy, which won two seats in March’s general election.
(2) The Communist-led formation.


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