A New Circle Politics
Ahead of a meeting of Podemos’ MEPs, at IIRE in Amsterdam Jack Ferguson looks at the Podemos phenomenon.
In the European elections earlier this year, the main story that you heard in a lot of Europe was the rise of the racist right. But we’ve heard less about some of the more interesting left wing success stories coming out of Southern Europe.
In Greece, the radical left party Syriza triumphed, clearly taking first place. They immediately declared that the conservative Greek government had no mandate to continue the austerity programme that is tearing Greek society apart.
In the Spanish state, the left also was the main important new factor. Spain has, since the end of the dictatorship of Franco in the 70s, been a two party system, dominated by the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and the PSOE – Spain’s equivalent of Labour. They came first and second in the elections, but together they received less than 50% of the vote, which is unprecedented. Spain’s working class have grown tired of their version of the Labour party as well, after in power it abandoned its principles to implement EU mandated austerity. This left room for a wide assortment of smaller parties to gain seats, and the third and fourth places were taken by parties with radical left wing agendas for transforming society.
Third place went to the Plural Left, a diverse coalition of socialists, Greens, and parties of the regions and nations within the Spanish state, like Galicia. The major partner of the coalition was Spain’s traditional party that is to the left of the PSOE, the United Left (IU). But perhaps even more interesting was the dramatic success of a brand new party which was created this year: Podemos (‘We Can’ in Spanish), which won 1.25 million vote, and 5 seats.
The new party emerged out of the 15M/indignados movement, which saw city squares all over Spain occupied and turned into mass democratic assemblies by citizens outraged at the extreme austerity punishment. Over half the country’s young people put are out of work, and evictions are at an all time high. Protests have been met with a brutal legal crackdown by a state that just spent €1 billion on riot gear. There’s much of the Spanish deep state, in the police and the military, that has changed little since the end of the fascist dictatorship.
One group within this movement felt that its next stage needed to be standing in elections, and that citizens must attempt to take political power. Issuing the manifesto ‘Making a Move‘, they called for:
“a candidacy that offers itself to the wave of popular indignation that astounded the world. We are glad to see the advance of the forces of the left, but we are conscious of the need to do something more in order to set in gear the changes we need. It is a time for courage and for not allowing the closure of the window of opportunity that the commitment of so many good people has opened. We need a candidacy of unity and of rupture, led by people who express new ways of relating to politics.”
Over the intervening months, Podemos have attempted to find these new ways by holding open primaries to select their candidates list, in which they invited anyone, party member or not, to vote. Over 33, 000 people took part in the selection, leading to a wide range being chosen, including many unemployed people.
They have opened up all their internal processes to the public, publishing their accounts, and making it possible to vote on candidates and the party’s programme online, for those that can’t get to meetings for whatever reason. They took laptops into the streets to allow people to contribute, and their 35 page election manifesto was a collectively drafted document.
It included demands for an independent citizen’s audit of Spain’s debts, so that the people could decide whether and which parts to keep paying; both a higher minimum wage and a universal basic income; taking key industries into public ownership; implementing participatory democracy; and ending the brutal border regime that has seen so many migrants killed on Spain’s southern coasts.
They also insist that the nations within the Spanish state (most notably the Basque country and Catalonia) are guaranteed the right to self determination and a free vote on their future. This stands in stark contrast to the government in Madrid, which has branded Catalonia’s desire for an independence referendum illegal.
Last weekend I attended an important discussion here in Amsterdam with one of the Podemos candidates who was elected to Brussels, chemist Pablo Echenique. I was eager to learn more of the unique process and methods used by the Podemos organisers, to see what lessons we can apply in other countries, not least Scotland.
Pablo’s story is one that illustrates the rapid rise of Podemos, and how it has managed to involve so many people in politics for the first time:
“My political trajectory is very short. Last December I was a full time scientist, and when I say full time I mean full time; when you are a scientist you not only work Saturdays and Sundays, but also some times in your sleep. Then in January, I heard about Podemos, and I thought ‘That’s a Good Idea,’ so I became involved. Now I am a Member of the European Parliament.
It’s shameful that here, in rich Europe, there are people who need to look for food in the garbage. People evicted from their homes. This is shameful and unnecessary. We can and must do better.”
He spoke of how Podemos began “basically with a YouTube video”. A small founding group of left wing academics hired a theatre, announced their proposal for a new party, and asked for 50,000 signatures over two weeks, to see if people supported the idea. They hit this target the same day.
The initial supporters were asked to form local groups, which are called ‘Circles’. Over 1000 of these exist now in communities all over the Spanish state, and beyond – the Circle based in the Netherlands had organised the event we were attending. There has also been a first meeting for Podemos in London.
One of the first acts of the local circles was to reach out to their own communities. Podemos members across the country hand delivered letters to neighbour’s doors, which Pablo quoted from:
“This letter has not come to you by mail, because to mail every person in Spain costs €2 million. Ask the parties who did mail you where they get their money from. Our accounts are all published online and are open to anyone. If you’re reading this it’s because someone who lives near you wants to change things for real.”
In the days running up to the vote they were inundated with new members and circles forming, as the news of the new party spread. The activists suspect that if the election had been held one week later, they would have had an even more impressive result. Certainly since the elections they have rocketed up the opinion polls, and are currently hovering around the 20% mark, which makes it either the number 2 or number 3 party in the polls, depending on where you place the PSOE. If they can find a way to combine forces with the United Left, then there is a serious possibility of a radical Spanish government in power at the end of next year.
New MEP Pablo exuded confidence about the sudden rise of his new party:
“What will our problems be when we win the election? I think we will win. What can we do about that? We won’t be able to do anything but win. We will have to be responsible and put in place a programme that will improve people’s lives. We have strong restrictions now, our political class are cowards. When they are told what to do, they capitulate. We will not, we will be brave.”
I was particularly interested in how Podemos integrates the use of the internet with its local Circles, and how decisions are taken. I asked Pablo if the party is using existing platforms or developing their own tools. For now, they are small and underfunded, and so use websites like Reddit to post policy and organisational proposals, which users at reddit.com/r/podemos/ can then vote to the top. Online voting is the primary means of decision making, but the full mechanics of how the party should work internally are being worked out right now, with proposals circulating and being amended for the founding congress.
Pablo described a tool that they were working on implementing, that would allow his constituents to reach him quickly via a phone app. He could also use it to consult thousands of people instantly. As he put it, “I can ask, ‘What do you want me to ask Juncker [the President of the European Commission] right now?’ and within two minutes I will have thousands of answers. The app can work out quickly which are the most supported.”
Things, of course, are not perfect with these methods which they are experimenting with. Although there are dozens of proposals on how to organise the party internally, the prominent spokespeople such as Iglesias’ proposals are the ones that receive the most coverage in the mainstream media, and so can reach out beyond the activists engaged online. Pablo acknowledged the need to create new software and technical tools, adding “I’m confident we will, we just don’t have the resources yet.” He acknowledged that drafting documents collectively was “a tough technical problem, and I don’t think we’ve got it right yet. How do you ensure everyone is able to participate, but not in a destructive way?”
Podemos has been accused of “populism”, both by the parties it is swiftly replacing, but also by some sections of the left that see its language of “the people” vs. “the elite” as a retreat from class. They carefully avoid the use of traditional Marxist phraseology and socialist buzzwords. Marketing and carefully using the right language, tweaking the message, has been a hallmark of the party’s success. It’s what many activists have been arguing for a long time: that an understanding of how conventional political parties work, and the psychological insights of marketing, could be put to much better use in movement building.
Pablo says he doesn’t see the party as comparable with many other parties of the left, simply because of its radically new methods of openness. He argues:
“I don’t see parties in Europe that are methodologically the same. In the case of the problem, there are many that see it. These parties are our natural allies. We discuss with them, but maybe by looking at Podemos, they will change their ways. If they won’t maybe people should start a Podemos like initiative in their countries.”
There is of course a risk with having such a popular and charismatic figurehead, of centralising far too much power and influence in that individual. However, Podemos imposes term limits on all its representatives, and makes them sign a strict ethical pledge. Pablo argued that
“Apart from being bottom up, we have powerful faces in the media. We don’t see them as concentrations of power, we see them as a tool. Pablo [Iglesias] says he is a tool, and that it is a sign of our weakness that we have to rely on such people in the media. We hope to grow stronger as a movement so don’t need as much figureheads.”
This ability to reach out and speak to people via the mainstream media however has been vital to the party’s electoral rise. Iglesias himself certainly has a rather different style from the bombastic cult leaders like Tommy Sheridan or George Galloway we’re used to in the UK. As Pablo describes it:
“We don’t treat people as under-aged. We appeal to their intelligence. The success of Pablo [Iglesias] is amazing, and what is most amazing is that he speaks quietly, with arguments, and the truth. Not simple sentences and easy phrases. He speaks to the complexity of people’s minds. People were waiting for that. They are not stupid. Politicians treated them as stupid. They have great intelligence, especially as part of their daily lives, their jobs, families neighbourhoods. How do we gather this intelligence? We combine face to face meetings with new technological tools that were not available before.”
Another problem Pablo freely acknowledged was that the class base of the party itself was stronger among the middle class than workers, and that this must change “otherwise we will not do things right.” Although, as noted, there were unemployed people, librarians and firefighters among Podemos’ candidates, there were also a lot of academics.
It’s obvious that Podemos hasn’t magically solved all the difficult problems of how to organise, and break the neoliberal hegemony, overnight. But there are surely key lessons that perhaps should have been integrated now, about using clear language that people understand, and about using online participation to ensure that people who work, have families or many other reasons why they can’t attend a meeting twice a month. The radical openness of the party, and its limitations its places on its representatives, may well help prevent the pitfalls of power. We’ll have to wait and see.
For a party that has yet to celebrate its first birthday though, it’s fair to say they’re doing not bad. Crucial decisions will have to be made in coming weeks on formalising the structure of the party, as well as if and how it can unite with the Plural Left coalition. But the prize, a radical anti-austerity left wing government at the heart of the EU, is well worth fighting for. Podemos intend to “to take every piece of power we can at every level we can, in politics, in media, in all the insitutions. If we leave ground our enemies will grab it – that’s how they work.”
“Now we are discussing franticly. We are running very fast. We plan to keep running fast. Because we have punched these guys in the stomach, and they are out of breath. We will not let them recover their breath. We will keep punching.”