Podemos: the Return of the 2011 Spring
Gianluca Solera - 31/05/2015
Llegò la Primavera. Spring has finally arrived! This is what Pablo Iglesias wrote on his party’s website a few hours after the announcement of the results of last Sunday’s local and regional elections in Spain. Is this the beginning of a new regional Spring wave, after Greece massively turned to anti-austerity Syriza?
When the Indignados occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in May 2011, there were many Arab flags in the square. That wave of civil uprisings against corruption, de-democratisation and hyper-liberalism was nourished by the energy of the Arab Spring, the South was enlightening the aspirations for freedom, social justice and opportunities of the all youth in the region. The question we have to ask ourselves now is if the «baton» of mobilisation for progressive social change has been passed to the youth of the Northern Mediterranean shore.
Podemos has learnt a lot from the protagonism of 2011 civil protest. First of all, in terms of occupation of public squares, such as Puerta del Sol, with its sophisticated internal organization of functions and services which reminded the so-called Gumhūriya at-Tahrēr, the self-proclaimed «Republic of Tahrēr Square». The occupation of public spaces embodied the mission of regaining the State from undemocratic and privileged groups, and their power articulations. The occupation of public spaces spread to the discouraged and de-politicised Spanish street the fascination of civil commitment and political activism. Iglesias says: «The defence of popular classes and the denunciation of corruption as inseparable elements of our action is what has allowed us the become the only political force challenging Spanish bipartidism [the alternance between the conservative party and the socialist party, which has so far preserved the status quo]». Secondly, because Podemos has magnified the political use of new communication and information technologies, which had been an irreplaceable tool for Tunisian, Egyptian or Syrian youth. If the Arab movements had made the most from tools such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter or Skype, the Spanish youth built a real grassroots media system. The Indignados, who were pictured as a dangerous phenomenon by the mainstream media, decided in fact to fight back, and adopted a magazine for their district- or theme-based assemblies (madrid15m), an online television channel (Toma la tele), and an Internet radio channel (ÁgoraSol). Later on, the founders of Podemos made since the first steps an extensive use of online spaces, such as the magazine Público, and then TV spaces, with the programme «Fort Apache» on HispanTV.
Many are asking around in Europe whether the model of Podemos can be exported, and the biased relation between institutions and economic-political oligarchies can be challenged. The very same question is raised in Italy these days. There are basic factors that seem to me indispensable to achieve the favourable conditions for the emergence of a Podemos-like movement, factors which have materialized also in Greece, before Syriza took the power. The first one is a contextual one: the gradual decomposition of the middle class, and therefore its impoverishment and the simultaneous crumbling of social rights and public services. The second one is instead a strategic one: the connection of different movements and social struggles under a common roof, being able to overcome ideological differences and thematic divisions in the name of a new citizens’ based republicanism, and to create a critical mass outside classical partidism. One year after the eruption of the Indignados, I joined the first anniversary of the movement, at Puerta del Sol and the surrounding districts. I felt like in a national grassroots political convention, with a continuous succession of meetings and committees addressing different policies. You had sessions located in different squares of Madrid, animated by the convincement that public space should reclaim its vocation of hosting the debate and policy assessments. From gender to water, from housing to migration, all the topics of common concern were on the table; almost one hundred and fifty neighbourhood committees were established, and a colour was denoting any specific campaign, named Marea, «Tide». There was a green tide for higher education and schools, a white tide for health, an orange tide for youth, a blue tide for water, or a black one against cuts in public services. Miguel Urbán Crespo guided me then in this energetic labyrinth. Miguel will be among the founders of Podemos, two years later; it will be in his bookshop-café La Marabunta that the idea of such a political party would be shaped. Today, he is leading Podemos at the European Parliament.
After the evacuation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in the Summer 2011, media were declaring the end of the movement, its vain protesting nature, its ephemerality. «What has the 15-M really obtained?» I asked in 2012 to Tomás Muñoz, one of the authors of the 15-M’s communication policy. «We have to understand what we mean by “movement”, because the 15-M differs from classical social movements or traditional political practices» he replied «It is difficult to pretend from such a movement to modify the reality on a short term. 15-M could not prevent banks from robbing money or governments from making laws in their favour, but it has definitely conveyed a new message to society. 15-M was not born to overthrow the regime through classical modalities. The movement helps to develop other processes, offer periodical exchange and visibility opportunities, facilitating social and political work in our districts and towns, and then gathering people together on a periodical basis, and therefore maintain alive a strong centripetal force». Podemos gained momentum from this force, which was nurtured and practiced in the very last few years. It was no surprise then, when the first online petition in support of the presentation of candidates at last year’s European elections, under the brand of Podemos, was circulated through the local or thematic committees established by the 15-M movement, and it collected more than 50,000 signatures in 24 hours!
Direct democracy has applied in the party since the beginning; how far it will ensure internal democracy and political coherence and consistency in the time, with the possible growth of political consensus, is difficult to be foretold. On the other hand, the charisma of its leader will have to match with the participatory narrative of the party, not to end up in internal disruptive confrontation as it has recently happened within the Italian 5 Stars Movement.
The results of last Sunday’s local and regional elections, however, represent already the tangible proof that it is possible to reshuffle the political discourse through enthusiasm, values, civic commitment and the will to test new ideas in the real world even in old Europe, even in the Mediterranean region. It represents somehow the second generation of the «2011 civic revolution», even more than the success of Syriza, which had brought together around ten previously existing leftist parties. Will Podemos enhance the evolution of last years’ social protest in the region towards the creation of political lists or parties running for power? Will it galvanise and encourage youth to challenge politics? Will it revert the pessimism, which has kidnapped the collective imaginary, after the rapid deterioration of the first achievements of the Arab Spring, on the one hand, and the persistence of austerity dogma oriented policies and the verticalization of politics even among socialist parties in Europe, on the other hand? That is what I am asking and care the most about, right now.
It is certainly happily surprising to hear about the measures planned by the in pectore mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, respectively Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau: stopping eviction orders for those not being able any more to pay back their mortgage; stopping privatization of public services, externalization of municipal functions, or sale of public assets; providing access to water, energy power and health to families who cannot pay for it; enhancing urgent labour schemes for young and long-term unemployed (in Madrid); or creating jobs in sectors such as housing renovation, waste reduction and neighbourhood shops; fining banks keeping their housing assets empty; taxing electric companies for the occupation of the public space; cutting down excessive salaries of public officials and councillors (in Barcelona).
Let us be frank, you do not hear about such «revolutionary» measures anywhere else. They would be simply considered out of reality, or a non-sense, or dangerously threatening the well established System. Only the fact that these measures have been announced has broken into pieces the economic and political doctrine that has been designed, pursued and then transformed in dogma by national and international establishments in the last thirty years. It has simply liberated social and political creativity, and put the political again above the economical. And the citizen before the bureaucrat.
May 30, 2015.
- Pablo Iglesias, «Llegò la primavera», in publico.es, 25 May 2015.
- This was the name of the Spanish Indignants’ movement, carrying the date of its eruption, May 15, 2011.
- Bruno García Gallo, «Las cinco medidas de Manuela Carmena para sus primeros 100 días», in elpais.com, 29 maggio 2015; Clara Blanchar, «La Barcelona de Colau: tasa a las eléctricas y fin a los coches oficiales», in elpais.com, 25 maggio 2015.