Podemos: Politics by the people

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Andrew Dolan interviews Eduardo Maura of Podemos

February 2015 -- Red Pepper, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Less than a year after its formation, a populist left-wing party is claiming more than 200,000 members and topping the opinion polls in Spain. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, has the highest approval rating of any Spanish politician and opinion polls show Podemos, which was only launched in January 2014, surpassing one or both of the major two parties and even entering government at the next election.

Podemos (We can) first put its popular support to the test in May’s European elections. It secured nearly 1.25 million votes (8 per cent) and five MEPs, a remarkable achievement for a newly-formed party with no established infrastructure, little money and limited mainstream media coverage.

Six months on, its momentum shows no sign of slowing. Indeed, the party topped an El Pais opinion poll at the beginning of November with 27.7 per cent. Although other polls have not shown it doing so spectacularly, it has still been attracting the support of more than a fifth of voters. Many of its members are convinced that at next year’s general election Podemos will overtake the misleadingly named Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), who together with the incumbent conservative People’s Party (PP) have dominated the post-Franco Spanish political system and, since 2008, implemented severe public spending cuts.

Should it happen, the displacement of the PSOE or PP by Podemos would not only represent a rupture of Spain’s democracy-­suffocating duopoly but would signal a shift in the wider political scene in Europe. Podemos is at the forefront of the fight against austerity and, with the similarly inclined Syriza hoping to win the next general election in Greece, the political balance in southern Europe, the region that has borne the brunt of the neoliberal response to the Eurozone crisis, may be shifting in favour of a future beyond debt, unemployment and rampant inequality.

Although Podemos has much in common with SYRIZA, most notably a commitment to a participatory popular politics, their differences go beyond the geographical. In an interview with Red Pepper, the international representative of Podemos, Eduardo Maura, spoke at length about what it is that makes the party unique and why they think they have been so successful.

The Podemos hypothesis

Podemos is above all an experiment, or as some in the party – Maura included –- have described it, a "hypothesis". It can be summarised as follows: the Spanish regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy and there exists an opportunity for the emergence of a party with progressive politics and popular appeal that can challenge the political establishment and reassert the collective power of the people against corporate capital. So far, the evidence suggests the Podemos hypothesis to be valid.

Of course, many in the European left have long been convinced that such an opportunity exists in their own countries, yet with the exception of Greece this has not been realised. There is no single reason why Podemos has bucked the trend, although it is widely recognised that Spanish social movements such as 15M (the indignados) created the conditions that made the party’s emergence possible. As Maura explains, "The social movements changed perceptions, they enabled people to reconceptualise supposedly individual problems as common ones that demand collective, political responses. Podemos’s ability to stand in the European elections was very much dependent on the social power accumulated by the social movements."

Many of Podemos’s policies are articulations of demands that first emerged within the social movements. Indeed, its close and symbiotic relationship with those movements is reflected in the title of its founding manifesto, "Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio político" ("Making a move: turning indignation into political change"). Published in a blaze of publicity over the weekend of 12-13 January 2014, it was signed by 30 intellectuals and well‑known personalities.

Although without the social movements there would be no Podemos, and many in Spain participate in both, Maura is convinced of the need for separation: "No party should be the party of social movements because institutional politics have a different pace. The pace is so different that you oblige movements to adapt to it. If you do this you are going to kill them. Movements need to be autonomous and self-regulating. Parties should appeal to other people."

The "other people" that Maura and Podemos frequently talk of are not activists but rather those who do not have the time, energy –- or even inclination -– to participate in politics or do not necessarily consider themselves to be on the left. Of course, as the occupation of the Corrala Utopía apartment block in Seville and others like it have vividly illustrated, in times of material necessity and when faced with unresponsive political institutions, ‘the people’ often engage in a politics of activism rooted in collective empowerment. Nonetheless, from its inception Podemos has focused on appealing to those who are relatively unengaged politically.

Central to this appeal is the use of a specific language and framing of ideas. Podemos has jettisoned the traditional metaphors of left and right in favour of a populist discourse of democracy, the citizen and "the people versus the establishment". This is not to say that it has anything in common with "third way" political movements that have proclaimed a desire to move beyond left and right. Podemos is unquestionably a party of the left: many of its members and senior figures come from established organisations of the Spanish left and the party’s policies, ranging from a basic income to equal and free access to public services, are drawn from a clear socialist tradition.

Still, in common with many parties active since 1989, there is a post‑ideological quality to Podemos, albeit one rooted in strategic framing rather than support of free-market liberalism. As Maura puts it, "We cannot convince everyone that the left is the solution, but if you have a common framing, changes that you want to make are going to be understood as necessary and as something that might actually work. That’s something that requires much more framing and much less ideology."

In Maura’s view, the traditional ideology and language of the left is unfit for purpose in that it does not adequately correspond to people’s everyday experiences. "For the majority of people the language of the left does not signify what it does for those within the movement", he says. "People’s traditions and experiences are so different."

Maura attributes this divergence to a failure of the left to sufficiently adapt to the neoliberal fragmentation of work and the resulting shift in class composition and identities, which "are much more pluralistic, complex and diffused than they were 30 or 40 years ago". In the context of globalised supply chains, precarity and high unemployment, appeals made to people on the basis of their relation to the production process no longer have the purchase they once did. On the other hand, a sense of disenfranchisement, resentment of the political establishment and a lack of material necessities are widely shared and experienced throughout Spain and Podemos’s message directly reflects this.

Put simply, Podemos speaks a language that corresponds to many people’s everyday reality and in this lies a key reason for their popular appeal. Remarkably, around a sixth of Podemos’s current support is estimated to come from traditional PP voters –- a statistic that Podemos’s European election campaign manager, Íñigo Errejón, says turns the idea of Podemos taking power into a serious possibility.

The logic of proliferation

For all that Podemos’s message is simple, in listening to Maura it is clear that there was an academic, quasi-scientific character (observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation) to the process through which the party was conceived and constructed – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that many of the party’s founders are academics. But to classify Podemos as the product of an experiment formulated by a band of political scientists would be to obscure how the party has evolved and what makes it so impressive. After all, politics is not a science and Podemos has long since outgrown the laboratory.

With somewhere around 200,000 members and almost 1000 branches or "circles" –- "horizontally organised, locally held meetings" –- Podemos has succeeded in attracting not only votes but active participants. Even allowing for the fact that Spain is one of the few European countries where party membership as a percentage of the electorate has increased in recent decades, at just over 4 per cent it’s still below the European average and the rapid expansion of Podemos’s membership and branches is undoubtedly exceptional.

In describing this phenomenon Maura speaks of the "hacker logic" that from the outset structured Podemos’s approach to politics: "We operated from the very beginning in what we call the logic of proliferation, the hacker logic. When you are doing politics as a hacker you proliferate, you have to be everywhere, you want to be everywhere."

To do this, Maura elaborates, you need a low cost of entry in relation to both tools and knowledge. This is precisely what Podemos ensured, with remarkable results: "To create a branch you only need a Facebook account, an email and a meeting. No membership, no fees. So, in the first two months we got more than 300 branches, not only in different places but also branches that had to do with specific fields, like education, culture, the environment." The number of branches has since more than tripled and includes ones focused on feminism, psychology, a basic income and even music -– in other words, whatever the participants want them to be.

According to Maura, the logic of proliferation enabled Podemos to not only expand but also to develop the participatory practices necessary for a truly democratic party: "Although it was a relatively small amount of people who thought about it and launched it, we knew we weren’t making Podemos; it was other people that were making it happen and this is something we had very clearly in mind from the beginning. There is always this problem of who starts something and how it develops, but this logic of proliferation made us very accountable."

To continue the tech-speak, Podemos in effect operates an open-source development model in which access to and redistribution of the Podemos "blueprint" are universal, but the "licence agreement" also includes the right of redesign and improvement. Consequently, since its inception, Podemos’s internal development and political trajectory have been shaped by the input of its members – and, indeed, non-members.

Processes of participation

Although Podemos is still very much a work in progress, its inaugural "Citizens’ Assembly" provides a useful overview of the democratic culture and processes that have already taken root within the party.

A multi-stage process comprised primarily but not exclusively of online activity, the two-month-long assembly began on September 15 and in effect functioned as a forum for deciding how Podemos is to be structured, how it will function and who will represent it in future elections. It is, in the somewhat generous words of Podemos London, "a fairly complex process", comprised of multiple stages.

The first stage was a two-week period for the submission of drafts (organisational, ethical, political) accompanied by a partially overlapping month-long process devoted to their reduction in number through discussion, debate and convergence. Once the window for draft submissions closed, another one opened for the submission of resolutions – "short texts summarising a consensus regarding a particular topic" that have no relation to "strategic or manifesto points, or any other aspect covered by the drafts". These were voted on mid-October.

Drafts were further debated at a face-to-face meeting in Madrid on October 18-19 attended by 7000 people; voting on them began the following week. The final stages of the Citizens’ Assembly, which commenced following the approval of an organisational principles document, involved the presentation of candidates, live‑streamed debates and, finally, elections to decide which of them will represent Podemos.

The initial planning of this detailed process began immediately after Podemos’s European election triumph and the central concern of those involved was how to make it different and, more importantly, democratic. As Maura emphasises, the organisation process was from the outset an open one, with two lists of 25 people competing in an election – in which anyone, non-members included, could stand or vote – to determine who would organise the technical side of the conference.

When it came to the election, the major disagreement was between those who wanted to implement a system of branch delegates and those who instead argued for one person, one vote. The latter, which Maura himself advocated, won out and the result was that all one needed to participate in the Citizens’ Assembly was a voting code and an email account, irrespective of whether one was a member of Podemos or not.

Maura’s explanation for the decision to adopt this system goes to the heart of Podemos’s approach to politics: "Most people who participate in the branches have more time to engage in politics, but we don’t think a process like this should be just for people already engaged in politics. We think that this kind of process is a good way of drawing people in and of making them feel that politics is not what they think it is. We think that we should give people the opportunity of not only having their say but also of having the same decision-making power as people who engage in politics at grassroots level.

‘People don’t necessarily want to spend a weekend in a conference hall discussing, but people were interested and a lot of people registered online, where they can also participate. Some of them became members, others didn’t, but they are willing to participate and we are happy they want to."

Online democracy

Aside from the well-attended face-to-face meeting in Madrid, the Citizens’ Assembly was conducted almost entirely online. Much of this was done via the social networking site Reddit, which provided the main platform for the submission, debate and voting on drafts and resolutions. Such has been the flow of information on Podemos’s Reddit site, Plaza Podemos, which also hosts regular open question-and-answer sessions with party leaders, that it caught the eye of Reddit’s general manager, forcing him to enquire what exactly Podemos was and why exactly it was generating so much traffic.

Reddit is by no means the only digital platform used by Podemos. It has also developed and utilised apps for multiple aspects of the democratic process, from determining agendas to voting. Yet despite the centrality of digital technology to the Podemos project, which has garnered as much attention from the technological community as it has from the political, it should not be mistaken for techno-fetishism, nor for a belief that online participation is necessarily better than physical.

Rather, Podemos’s decision to embrace technology is rooted in its analysis of contemporary work and society. "Work, and with it people’s lives, have become fragmented and we thought we needed a participation process that recognised this", says Maura. "The problem that most people have is that working and having a family and doing politics is not compatible, the one often excludes the other. There is no perfect solution but online participation is a very good thing. Most people use mobile phones all the time, so why shouldn’t you be able to do politics from the tube or from the bus?"

The use of technology for political purposes inevitably presents its own set of problems, especially as regards the tendency of hierarchies, both formal and informal, to develop on the basis of expertise. This power dynamic also manifests itself in relation to non-technological expertise, and has an increased resonance in the context of the technocratic dimension to austerity politics and contemporary global governance. Podemos is of course a very far cry from the International Monetary Fund or any other such technocratic behemoth, but there are a notable number of economists and political scientists in senior positions in the party, raising difficult issues for participation and democracy.

"You can’t avoid people having different levels of expertise or of interest", says Maura. "Those who pass motions, pose questions and participate more sometimes have the expertise, but what we have discovered is that normally these people are not used to debating and discussing things in an open space; they are more used to discussing in very small groups in the academy. When a person with a certain level of expertise has to engage in a very open space things get very even very quickly –- because you can’t use the same old words anymore, because no one will understand you. These people are facing a new audience and this audience is determining a lot."

Democratising expertise, then, doesn’t necessarily mean everyone becoming an expert, but rather ensuring that expertise operates within the boundaries of democracy and accountability. Maura says this is precisely what happened with the election to determine who would organise the Citizens’ Assembly, a process he describes as an attempt to politicise the technical and democratise what one might term the tyranny of expertise.

Beyond Spain, there are already those asking what the left can learn from Podemos and its achievements to date. In the UK, Friends of Podemos was set up to to further discussion. It argues that "the methods used by Podemos can be effective in this country and a shift of focus is needed".

Eduardo Maura is more circumspect. "Sometimes internationalism is mistakenly understood in terms of trying to replicate and we shouldn’t replicate, we face different problems", he says. "Let’s not replicate, let’s just learn."

[Thanks to Adrià Porta Caballé, Hilary Wainwright and Podemos London.]