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Lessons from Spain: grassroots democracy and the movements against capitalism

"Podemos, whose decision-making process is based on online voting by a passive mass membership of 300,000, is a highly centralised operation that is in many ways the polar opposite of the grassroots democracy of 15M."

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

May 11, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- If some people I know from the more cynical or disillusioned end of the Spanish left spectrum were to reflect on the topic of our discussion tonight---“Grassroots democracy and the movements against capitalism: lessons from Spain”—they might be tempted to make a rather acid commentary, maybe something like this:

“Grassroots Democracy? However much of that was expressed in the indignado movement of the squares—that began four years ago now (on May 15, 2011), when millions came out in over 80 cities and towns—it’s more or less evaporated by now.

“Movements against capitalism? Where are they? If we’re not talking about marginal revolutionary groups, there are no movements against capitalism worth talking about. What we’ve got is an uneven pile of movements of resistance, usually unsuccessful, against different aspects of capitalist austerity.

“Lessons from Spain? Only one—don’t get yourself into the awful mess we’re in now. Here, despite the fact that support for the two major parties that arose from the post-Franco dictatorship transition, the ruling conservative People’s Party (PP) and the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), has collapsed from over 80% to around 40-50%, no clear alternative for a progressive government that fights capitalist austerity instead of implementing it is yet on the horizon.

“That’s means—horrible thought—that the two-party system could even recover, or that the establishment will have time to organise its “spare wheel”, the Spanish-centralist and anti-Catalanist Citizens party. This is the supposedly civilised alternative to the corrupt, socially reactionary and semi-clerical PP. A recent poll shows 46% of ‘big investors’ support Citizens,.”

This hypothetical observer might be tempted to add that Spain isn’t Greece, neither objectively nor subjectively, and justify that judgement like this:

“First, the economic crisis, although deep, is nowhere near as catastrophic as in Greece. Indeed, Spain is now getting brownie points from the European Commission for its economic recovery.

“Second, there is no SYRIZA in Spain. There are forces on the left who thought they were already SYRIZA, like the United Left (the traditional left alliance to the left of the PSOE, centred on the Communist Party of Spain but with other forces, and having been around since the mid-1980s).

“And there’s Podemos, which aspires to be the Spanish SYRIZA, but as yet has nothing like SYRIZA’s presence at all levels of society nor its levels of organisation.

“If what’s happening in Podemos is anything to go by, its most recent attempts to win the so-called ‘middle ground’ as shown by its framework platform for the May 24 regional elections (in 13 of Spain’s regional governments), shows that it is becoming like the parties of the ‘political’ caste that it has been denouncing.

“That’s what Juan Carlos Monedero, co-founder of Podemos with Pablo Iglesias, said when he left the party on April 30, saying he felt ‘deceived and betrayed’.”

Well, how accurate would such an assessment be? My reaction from living here in the Spanish State for over four years would be a series of “Yes, buts”.

First, it’s true that the economic crisis has not been as deep as in Greece, but that’s actually not saying much—the criminal shrinking of the Greek economy by the bailout conditions imposed by the Troika (the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) has set a world record in policy-induced downturn that will last for decades--greater than anything since the Great Depression.

However, Spain shares with Greece a youth unemployment rate of more than 50%—not surprisingly one of the organising groups within the indignado movement was called “Youth Without a Future”—and is being subject to the same Eurogroup austerity recipes as Greece.

What’s more, the demolition of workers’ and trade union rights that the SYRIZA government is refusing to accept in its present negotiations with its Troika creditors, is already under way in Spain, with results like €2-an-hour wages and “your rights at work” that have simply vanished.

The Spanish economic crisis didn’t generate the 30-plus general strikes we saw in Greece from 2010-early 2013, but it generated the vast outpouring of popular outrage that was the indignado movement. And that was also driven by specifically Spanish horrors—like taxpayers’ €61.2 billion bailout of the collapsed banking system (done in this form to prevent a repetition memorandum in Europe’s fifth-largest economy of a Greek, Portuguese or Irish-style Troika).

These policies, expressed in the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity”, introduced from 2010 by the Troika powers, produced in Spain a notorious 2011 constitutional amendment that put repayment of interest on government borrowings above all other budget priorities—around €35 billion annually—helping devastate economy and society.

This resultant social crisis has given rise to the famous Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) and the white and green “tides”, the movements of public health and education workers and users against privatisation of services and against the truly brutal cuts to funding (such as the 20% cut we’ve had over five years here in Catalonia).

Differently from Greece, these “tides”, in which mass assemblies of the workers involved replaced, or worked in parallel with, existing trade union structures, have had two major victories. The white tide of health workers in Madrid stopped practically all PP privatisation of the regional health system, and the green tide on the Balearic Islands put an end to the crude attempts of the local PP government to replace the Balearic variant of Catalan with Castilian (Spanish) as the language of school instruction.

The Mortgage Victims Platform is Spain’s most implanted and respected social movement, self-organising the resistance of families marked for eviction by the banks and putting the whole question of the real-estate finance-sector nexus in the forefront of political consciousness.

Indeed, we could say that its slogan, “Rescue People, Not Banks”, has become the motto of the present phase of social resistance and breakdown of the old two-party system.

(For a good idea of the work check their website for a very vivid, just-released documentary, subtitled in English, on a week of its work in Barcelona in March 2014).

Impact and lessons

It is these “new movements”---that sprung into being outside the traditional organisations of the working class—especially the rather bureaucratised main Spanish trade union confederations that just gave up on organising resistance after a couple of national days of action in 2010 and 2011—that have given Spain its most recent experience of mass grassroots democracy.

They schooled a whole new generation in political action, revived older generations of activists and created a political culture that drew on and updated very Spanish left traditions (like “assemblyism”, decision making by open mass meetings).

I don’t have time to convey the extraordinary richness, complexity and contradictory dynamics of these movements, but here is a summary of the main impacts.

  • They created a huge, often exhausting, debate about what a democratic decision actually is, and the pros and cons of 100% consensus, partial consensus, simple majorities etc. At bottom this has not been a theoretical or technical debate, but one about how to create a new legitimacy as against “the institutions” and “the political caste” that arose out of the 1978 compromise settlement between the dying Francoist dictatorship and the anti-dictatorship forces. That consensus is increasingly seen as bereft of democratic legitimacy;
  • They inspired the growth of new forms of struggle to fill the vacuum left by the default of the traditional trade union confederations. In particular, they helped inspire the emergence of the Marches for Dignity (for Bread, Work and a Home) which led to a 1 to 2 million strong convergence on Madrid in March 2014.

  • They forced everyone on the left who is looking for solutions to the great unresolved questions of democracy in the Spanish state to rethink them in relation to this new upturn in social resistance.

  • The most important is the right of the nations of the Spanish state to self-determination, most immediately in the case of Catalonia, which will have an election-as-referendum on September 27 (because the PP national government has refused a Scottish-style referendum). These questions also include the issue of a new constituent process that would allow people to decide whether people want to retain the buffoonishly corrupt Borbon monarchy, whether they want to retain a voting system that aims to entrench two-partyism, and a host of other issue left over from that compromised and half-completed “transition to democracy”.

  • These movements also posed an exacting test for the practice of the already existing left—the “institutional” left opposition, if you like—about what in their methods and culture of decision making and candidate pre-selection had to be changed.

The left that was most affected by this challenge was the all-Spanish left (United Left, based around the PCE and Equo, the Green party), but the challenge also percolated through to those left-nationalist and left-regionalist organisations that may have thought themselves immune from any all-of-Spain trends.

A critical moment in this clash of new and old occurred in the negotiations between the newly formed Podemos and the United Left over the conditions under which they could go to the May 2014 European election on a single ticket. Their programs were very close—totally reconcilable, I would say—but the United Left refused to accede to the key Podemos demand of open primaries to preselect candidates because they had already worked out whom they wanted their candidates to be.

That refusal led to Podemos standing in its own name, with the spectacular results we all know, and was the beginning of the surge that took it to the leading position in some Spanish polls (and sent the United Left into a decline from which it is being challenged to recover).

  • And, they legitimised the political practice of new left, explicitly anti-capitalist parties—specifically the Galician left-nationalist party ANOVA and the Catalan Popular Unity Candidacies (the CUP)—that were closest to the mass-assembly based indignados culture, being also born of local and social movement activism and struggle. This was in contrast with the older left that had its roots in the anti-Franco struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, and which had been in parliament—and regionally even in government with the social democracy—in the following years.

Political representation of resistance to austerity

Finally, they demonstrated again that “the people united will never be defeated”, a lesson that has had positive spill-over effects in the left party political sphere. For example, in the May 24 municipal elections here we are seeing a swag of united left tickets, most importantly the “Barcelona Together” campaign for the Barcelona city council.

However, the successes and failures of these multi-faceted movements of mass resistance—absolutely necessary if austerity policy was to be confronted—increasingly highlighted the vital challenge that they, of themselves, could not meet.

This was the issue of giving political voice to an anti-austerity social majority and of creating a political power pledged to create a socially just, democratic and ecologically sustainable alternative and powerful enough to win government.

That challenge is posed in all the European “peripheral” countries. However, the specific national trajectory that will need to be followed to reach that goal is very specific. For instance, from the viewpoint of the Spanish state, SYRIZA’s trajectory in Greece, which saw that coalition formed in 2004, then take a lead in anti-austerity struggles from 2010 onwards, then take a majority of PASOK votes in the May 2012 election, then take Greek Communist Party (KKE) and PASOK votes in June 2012, and then emerge victorious in January this year, frankly looks a bit like a “stroll in the park”.

It was anything but that, of course, but there can be no repetition in any of the other European states most affected by austerity of that SYRIZA pathway, not the least because the European capitalist establishment is hell-bent on preventing that repetition and on taming or destroying the SYRIZA government itself.

For, just as in the January Greek elections, the Spanish political battleground is just as much about Europe as it is about Spain. It’s about stopping the spread of anti-austerity sentiment, about proving that it’s really true that “There Is No Alternative” to austerity driven in the name of the competitiveness of big European capital.

That said, it’s vital to note that the emergence of Podemos is a big step down the road: it has given a political voice to millions who did not feel represented by the “old parties” of the “caste”, even if that description was often unfair to the United Left, which over the years has many honourable struggles to its credit.

Second, however, the construction of Podemos has been along lines quite different from the grassroots democracy of organisations like ANOVA and the CUP—and, increasingly, those parts of the United Left that have been learning from their difficult experiences of recent years.

Podemos, whose decision-making process is based on online voting by a passive mass membership of 300,000, is a highly centralised operation that is in many ways the polar opposite of the grassroots democracy of 15M.

How much it has to be that, and how much this structure is leaching life from its “circles” (branches) is the subject of debate and struggle within Podemos itself, an issue I don’t have time to cover here.

However, such debate and conflict is inevitable in a formation that has to meet four daunting challenges:

  1. To be an adequate and convincing electoral alternative, and engage in a winning battle on three fronts—against the PP (not too difficult), Citizens (tricky, because they’ve borrowed 40% of the Podemos rhetoric in order to betray what’s radical in the Podemos program) and (most difficult of all) the PSOE, whose essential line is that they alone remain the practical alternative government to the PP—especially after their win in the snap Andalusian elections in March.

  2. To overcome the Spanish-centralism still prevalent in much of the Spanish left, a relic of the hegemony of Stalinism during the Spanish Civil War, especially on the most fraught question of all—the right to self-determination of the nations that make up the Spanish state.

  3. To link and balance this struggle for party-political predominance with the ongoing, but now more muted, social struggle.

  4. To counter—in real practice, not rhetorical declamation—the old political culture of clientalism and job-for-the-boys. This is much easier said than done, as the establishment of a new party with up to 30% in the polls has attracted lots of politically undesirable elements to it.

The battlefield situation

In the overheated and volatile political atmosphere that we are living through in Spain support for all parties can shift with unprecedented speed.

The latest polls give the PP, PSOE, Podemos and Citizens between 14% and 27%—effectively a quadripartite system, with the rest of the vote divided among the “old alternative left”, the United Left, the “old alternative right”, the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD), and the various nationalist parties—right (like the Basque Nationalist Party, ruling in the Basque Country and Convergence and Union, ruling in Catalonia) and centre-left and left.

The latest polls also show, both regionally and nationally, that the percentage of undecided voters has halved to 9%, with a large proportion of them going to Citizens, already widely known as “the Ibex 35 party” (name of the Madrid stock exchange index).

It is as if the fence sitters, fed up with the PP and PSOE, and finding Podemos too radical for their tastes, have just been supplied with the right product in time—an apparently powerful detergent to clean away the remaining Francoist filth while leaving underlying Spanish economy and social relations untouched.

Citizens thus fills a gap of representation that was not being met by any other party. Its message is targeted at the illusion, understandably widespread in middle-class and professional circles, that “Spain could be a ‘normal’ European power” if only it was rid of corruption, feudal remnants like church privileges and ancient national conflicts.

With just over three weeks to go to the May 24 municipal elections , to be accompanied by regional polls in 13 of Spain’s 17 regions, the main polling trends show that Citizens will be tested in quite a few regions and cities after results come in.

These polls confirm the trends already visible after the March 22 poll in Andalusia. One or other of the old parties will retain a relative majority (like the PSOE in Andalusia) while the new parties will have insufficient support to form government.

At the same time, however, none of them will want to be responsible for installing either of the old parties in government. In Andalusia, for example, the negotiations involving the PP, Podemos, Citizens and the United Left that would allow the formation of a minority PSOE government have been dragging on for weeks.

If the polls are accurate, the likely scenario after May 24 is, first, that the PP will lose nearly all its absolute majorities, even in heartlands like Castilla-Leon and Murcia. Some of these will be more than halved, especially in the centres of greatest PP corruption (like Valencia). However, in many regions and cities, the right as a whole (PP plus Citizens plus others) may well hold onto the majority.

In a number of regions the Citizens vote will therefore be decisive in determining government (such as the Madrid region, Castilla-Leon, Extremadura and Murcia).

The problem for Citizens is that it could vote to maintain the PP in government, but will it want to be exposed as simply a prop for Spain’s ruling party of austerity and corruption in the run-up to the most important election of all, the November national poll?

In other places (like the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Cantabria,) the ruling PP looks like losing to quite politically variegated combinations of the PSOE, United Left, Podemos and regionalist forces. Will these be able to construct an alternative government? Will they at least be able to reach an agreement that allows part of them to govern in minority?

In regions and cities presently run by the centre-left coalitions (like Asturias) those majorities will become bigger, on the reasonable assumption that Podemos, which will now hold the balance of power in many, will support a left government against the right.

These likely results, influenced by the rise of Citizens, confirm that over the years of the Great Recession there has been a broad left shift in Spanish society and politics, but not yet one big enough to put a left government—one covering Podemos, the United Left, with left- and centre-left nationalist support in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia—into power.

One possible exception is Barcelona. There the coalition Barcelona Together, involving Podemos and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens-United and Alternative Left and other left forces could emerge as the most supported ticket. This would be in large part due to the popularity of its mayoral candidate, Ada Colau, the former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform.

If Barcelona Together, the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies and the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia manage to win a majority of council seats, Barcelona city council could emerge from May 24 with the most left-wing administration in the Spanish state. That would have repercussions well beyond Barcelona, and well beyond Catalonia.

However, given the general social and political balance, what is needed most for progressive political advance is one or both of two events: a new wave of social struggle, especially one involving organised labour, effectively silent for three years now, and/or a majority vote for Catalan independence in the September 27 Catalan election-as-referendum.

That would shake up politics in the Spanish state like nothing else.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewals European correspondent, based in Barcelona. This is an edited and slightly expanded version of a talk presented to the May 7, 2015, Sydney Politics in the Pub. The other speaker was Professor Simon Tormey, of the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences.]

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