Podemos and its critics

RP 193 () / Article

Although the movement that gave rise to it began years, if not decades, ago, Podemos, the political party, was born on 17 January 2014. For some, it was the result of years of organizing following the indignados protests, which occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other plazas across Spain during the summer of 2011. Others stretch its origins back to 2008, the date often used as shorthand for the global financial crisis; it was also the year that marked the formal transformation of Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left; IA) into a political party, undertaken in order to compete in the elections for the European Parliament on 7 June 2009. (On 19 January 2015, IA decided to fully integrate itself into Podemos. [1]) Still others, especially on the Right, find its origins halfway between the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) – integrated into the United Left (IU) coalition – and Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ governments, which include those of the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Regardless of which narrative one chooses, it seems clear that Podemos is the most successful left-wing response in Spain to the ‘Latin Americanization of Southern Europe’ following 2008, and the broader historical epoch of globalization that date signifies. [2]

Much of the focus on Podemos so far has been on its remarkable electoral outcomes and promising ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, whether online or in the street. Online, the party has attracted over 370,000 members, who debate and vote on programme, policy and strategy via open-source platforms such as Loomio and mainstream social media such as Reddit. [3] In the streets, Podemos called for a marcha del cambio (‘march for change’) on 31 January 2015, which conservative estimates claim attracted over 100,000 supporters to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. [4] The year that spanned from the European elections on 25 May 2014 to Spain’s municipal and regional elections on 24 May 2015 have witnessed the party become the third strongest across much of the country. Its five representatives to the European Parliament, which a year ago seemed unprecedented, today appear underwhelming by comparison. At a municipal level, Podemos led joint candidacies – with parties such as Equo, Spain’s major Green party, and citizen platforms such as Ganemos and Guanyem Barcelona – that won mayoral elections in the country’s biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. These joint candidacies propelled Manuela Carmena to overcome a quarter-century of conservative rule in Madrid and Ada Colau to reveal further conservative privatization under the guise of nationalist solidarity in Barcelona, turning the city’s attention instead to questions of evictions and cancelling corporate tax breaks.

But electoral outcomes and mass mobilization alone cannot explain the rise of Podemos. These also cannot explain, as Pablo Iglesias points out in a recent article for New Left Review, ‘the unceasing offensive against Podemos, conducted with a virulence unprecedented for Spain, [which] reveals the extent to which we are seen as a real threat to the dynastic parties’ system’. [5] Though a significant part of this article will embark on the challenge of explaining the nature of this offensive against Podemos, I first want to explore some of the ideas its leaders harbour that the establishment parties find so threatening to their grip on power.

Unlike mainstream political parties in Spain, where the party machinery usually dictates that its higher-ups hold some kind of perfunctory graduate degree, many of the most high-profile members of Podemos are working academics – political scientists, physicists, economists, historians and philosophers. Some of them, including Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, have been confined – like so many of their professional counterparts all over the world – to underpaid, precarious adjunct positions. Iglesias, Errejón, the recently departed Juan Carlos Monedero, and other visible leaders specifically practised their trade as political theorists in the Department of Political Science at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain’s largest and most prestigious public university.

Together with other important figures in the party such as Luis Alegre and Germán Cano, these prominent figures, to a greater or lesser degree, …