Politics in a Time of Crisis

Issue section: 

The rise of Podemos as an electoral force in the Spanish state is tremendously important. It has existed for a mere 18 months and in that time has rocked the political system to its very core.

The duopoly of the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) at a national level has not only been challenged but effectively broken.

This is a carefully thought out project, laid out in the first chapter of the book. Podemos leader Iglesias admits that he “is writing without the constraints of political responsibility” and that the book “does not in any way respond to current political necessities”. It provides instead a general outline of the thinking behind Podemos.

Iglesias made his name (and forced Podemos onto the political scene) as a TV commentator. First on local internet channels and then as the token lefty invited onto mainstream programmes, he unleashed a searing critique of the corruption and cynicism of the regime in the Spanish state, whether the PP or PSOE happened to lead it.

He describes the objective as making radical ideas feature as common currency in political discussion, empowering an increasing number of ordinary people. Podemos offered “a new style of political communication”. His articulate denunciations of the ruling caste — “the thieves who elect political frameworks for stealing democracy from the people” — are a delight to read.

This hit a real chord in public opinion, which had already been stirred and mobilised in widespread social movements and opposition to austerity. Above all this was shown in the 15th May movement (the indignados), the anti-eviction PAH campaigns, the tides (mareas) of workers’ and users’ opposition to cuts and by some significant strikes, both general and sectional.

Podemos is not the party of the indignados, not least because many of the indignados were anti-party. What it is, however, is a clear and viable political expression of all those mobilisations. It is an overtly electoral project.

Iglesias insists that “radical parties, like everything else, are measured by results”. He says that “Podemos is not here to play a testimonial role: we were born to go for broke, and that’s what we are going to do.”

Podemos intends to win power by elections and use the existing apparatus to change society. Iglesias talks of the readjustment of power relations within the state apparatus. Its political roots are in the experiences of left governments in Latin America, in a reading of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci about how to gain hegemony for alternative ideas and in the experience of Syriza, all referenced in this book.

The Podemos leadership believe that the left has been defeated and that many of its core beliefs are no longer applicable.

Iglesias is scathing about the Spanish left, describing it as “weakened by both infantile and senile disorders” and suggesting that for an alternative political project, the general rule of thumb is, “If you want to get it right, don’t do what the left would do.”

The concept of left and right is jettisoned, as is the idea of revolution and of class as the key divide in society.

The largest section of the book is a summary of Spanish history in the modern age, which in itself is excellent. Its main point here is about the regime established after Franco’s death — what is known as the transition.

Iglesias contends that this regime has to go and that even in the late 1970s a real alternative was possible.

It is followed by as good an account of the current world crisis as you will read in a few short pages: clear, articulate, witty and utterly partisan. This is real ammunition for people involved in the fight for a different system.

There is also a clear denunciation of the elitism and corruption of the EU, despite the fact that Podemos is committed to remaining in both it and the euro.

The final chapter asserts the possibility of an alternative future. It demands the overthrow of a corrupt system which enables the rich and powerful to govern without standing for office and exposes rampant corruption.

It also admits that the powerful seldom accept the verdict of the ballot box when it doesn’t go their way, that powerful opposition will confront any left government and that “winning an election by no means equates to winning power”. Where to turn when this occurs — the Syriza question — is not answered.

This is a challenging book for those on the left. It is an extremely articulate exposition of a political project which not all will agree with.

It is persuasive and inspiring in many ways. Yet it leaves vital questions unanswered, especially in the light of the Greek experience.

Read it for the ammunition it provides in the fight against austerity and the search for an alternative.

If you don’t agree with parts of it, think about how to answer the points it makes. They will come up in every political argument in every country in Europe.