The Problem With Podemos

Alberto Garzón

Podemos has risen rapidly. But is its populism enough to transform Spanish politics?

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. Jairo Vargas Martín / Flickr

Interview by

In Spain, the decline of the green-communist United Left (IU) alliance has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of Podemos. In this interview, first published by the French site Mediapart, Alberto Garzón, a candidate for the IU leadership, argues that Podemos’s “caesarism” provides no solutions. He calls for the various left forces to converge in the run-up to the country’s November elections.

This piece, from the viewpoint of Podemos’s political rivals in the established Spanish left, provides a critique of Podemos and its brand of populism that has been inspired by Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau.

Garzón is one of those people, together with Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias and Guanyem’s Ada Colau, who embodies the renovation of Spanish political life. A twenty-nine-year-old economist, he is a candidate running in the United Left’s primary this year. He’ll face the challenge of rejuvenating an organization that has not only having been left behind by the rise of Podemos but also has been struck by corruption allegations against some of its local officeholders.

In the following discussion, Garzón — elected a member of parliament for Malaga in 2011 — explains how he hopes to renew the party’s political culture from top to bottom. He also attacks the “ambiguities” that have emerged during the rise of Podemos, from its economic program to the institutional reforms that it proposes.

Izquierda Unida has not proven able to seize hold of the political space now occupied by Podemos. Why is that?

Alberto Garzón

IU diagnosed very well what was happening in Spain, but we were not politically ambitious enough to take the decisions that ought to have gone along with this diagnosis. We could say that society changed faster than our own organization did internally. Romantics took the leadership of the assemblies [formed during the 2011 indignados movement] but then they gave way to the bureaucrats who are running them now.

Before we get to the Podemos “bureaucrats,” tell us what you mean by “politically ambitious.”

Alberto Garzón

Providing political support for the PSOE [Socialist Party] should not be IU’s only ambition. Rather, its goal ought to be to lead the transformation of society. Within the organization, some people never believed that we could get above the 10 percent mark and that eventually we would have no choice but to work with the PSOE. To be politically ambitious is to do away with this kind of calculation, and that implies a change of method, a change of generation.

You call for a process of left convergence. What would that consist of?

Alberto Garzón

It’s a simple idea. Unity is strength, and the fragmentation of the Left helps the Right. And the more of us that are committed to a project of social transformation, the better.

There is some reticence on this point within IU. Indeed, in Madrid the party seems very divided.

Alberto Garzón

Some people fear that the party will be dissolved. But they are not in the majority. And as always in the Spanish political context, Madrid is a very particular case.

Would this “convergence” be for all of next year’s elections?

Alberto Garzón

Yes, but Podemos has already said that it is not going to stand in the municipal vote [except in a few towns] and that they will stand by themselves in the regional and parliamentary elections. They have already said that they do not want popular unity.

Above all because Podemos regards IU as part of the “caste” of politicians responsible for the crisis.

Alberto Garzón

Yes, they say it in hushed tones but they say it nonetheless.

IU is identified with an old political culture, which the indignados movement left behind.

Alberto Garzón

Within IU there are some who see the organization as a prop for the PSOE but also as an electoral machine. It has become a very institutionalized party, whose existence is overly dependent on electioneering and which has very little implantation in social movements. That’s what we have to change.

The party has also seen instances of corruption. The “free credit cards” affair that came out in autumn showed that some of the people that IU appointed to the Caja Madrid bank’s board had for years been using these funds for their own personal expenses.

Alberto Garzón

We must wipe out all traces of corruption in the party. All those who stole or allowed others to do so must leave the party. We have political responsibilities. An IU internal commission in which I myself participate is working on this [it published its findings on December 14, demanding that certain party officials resign].

Some people say that Podemos has already become the same as the other parties, cut off from the social movements. What do you think of this?

Alberto Garzón

Podemos uses the terminology of the indignados’s 15-M movement, but in practice it is a very typical party with a general secretary and a team who operate as his praetorian guard. All of the general secretary’s wishes are granted. This is caesarism. They put on a show of constant internal consultations, but everything has been decided already. Its economic program was drawn up by two people, not by an assembly.

If we look at your economic programs, IU and Podemos look very much alike: you want an audit of Spain’s debt and denounce austerity. What differences are there?

Alberto Garzón

At the outset there weren’t many differences. They literally copied us. But now there are some differences. They are changing their program in order to reposition themselves closer to the centre, and avoid upsetting the markets.

So the guaranteed basic income is not, now, entirely guaranteed. They have also blunted their plans for auditing the debt. We can see a series of retreats. Podemos is a lot more ambiguous today than it was during the European election campaign.

You’d struggle to justify the claim that they “copied” you. The first elements of their economic program did result from debates and votes in their circles and assemblies . . .

Alberto Garzón

Well yes, that is true. But in the assemblies when Podemos was just getting started, Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA) activists had a major presence. And IA was part of IU up until 2008 [at that time being called Espacio Alternativo].

Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’s leader, showered Pope Francis’s recent intervention at the European Parliament with praise (¡Bien Bergoglio!). What are your thoughts on this?

Alberto Garzón

They are trying to shift to the center, to strengthen their electoral support. They are making more and more nods to the army, the Church, but also traditional left circles, in order to seduce supporters left, right, and center.

Your most recent book calls for a “Third Republic” in Spain. That’s a priority for IU as well as for Podemos . . .

Alberto Garzón

For IU the republic does not just mean the absence of the king. For us, more than anything, it means increased democratic participation, referendums, and initiatives for popular participation. The 1978 constitution does not provide for any of these mechanisms. On this subject, too, Podemos is sowing ambiguity. The other day in a debate in Madrid one of them explained that there were “some good royals.”

When we listen to Pablo Iglesias, he admits to this ambiguity, saying that it’s justified by the need to win.

Alberto Garzón

For Pablo, the essential thing is to win the [November] elections. But electoral victories alone cannot bring social transformations. Podemos’s problem is that they are giving a signal that consists of telling people: stop taking to the streets, vote for us, and we’ll look after everything.

For the Left, that’s an enormous problem: if you exclusively base yourself on elections, then you demobilize citizens. So the mareas [anti-austerity movements in Spain] disappear, and there’s no more trade unions or social activism. And that’s very dangerous.

All that is going to complicate the “convergence process” that you are advocating . . .

Alberto Garzón

Yes. Podemos’s strategy applies the theory of left populism as defined by Ernesto Laclau. Of course, Podemos’s leaders are of the Left. But their strategy is not. And their base — that is, the people who are currently rallying to them — clearly aren’t either.

The convergence that I’m talking about is a way of taking advantage of the historic opportunity that’s now taking shape in Spain, for something different from the PSOE and PP [People’s Party] duopoly. We have the possibility of breaking with this system and building a new one. So let’s get around the table and talk about a series of specific policy proposals.

Could you imagine an alliance with the PSOE if its new leader, Pedro Sanchez, changed his discourse? Your party is in power together with the Socialists in Andalusia.

Alberto Garzón

Agreements are always made on the basis of a program. For the moment the scenario that I see as most likely [on the national level] is the Socialists being ready to make a pact with the PP and reproduce the “grand coalition” that now exists in the European Parliament.

Spain has been hit hard by crisis. Both socially and politically, the country is at boiling point. Conversely, in France the institutional scene seems to be hibernating. What are your thoughts on this?

Alberto Garzón

The François Hollande government has shown the real nature of the European Union. The EU has been built in such a way that there can be no alternative to neoliberalism. So even governments who call themselves social democrats and try to implement an alternative policy do not succeed in so doing. The French example proves that social democracy is impossible in the European context.

Do you think Jean-Luc Mélenchon is making a false turn when he takes Podemos as a model for the launch of his own Movement for a Sixth Republic (M6R) in France?

Alberto Garzón

The presidentialization of the French system poses real difficulties. But in my view there’s a wider problem.

Ultimately, Beppe Grillo in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, and Podemos in Spain are very similar phenomena. They occupy a political space that allows them to channel frustration and anger. They have set themselves up in reaction to something negative, and that will make a difference at the elections or the day after.

And that’s the case even though Podemos is, of course, on the Left, or rather, somewhat on the Left, unlike Grillo or Le Pen.

But that changes everything.

Alberto Garzón

True. But we don’t have Podemos to thank for that. Rather, it’s thanks to the indignados movement. In Spring 2011 Spanish citizens occupied the country’s city squares and said: we are all angry, and it’s not migrants and foreigners who are to blame, but the bankers and the politicians.

The problem in France is that Marine Le Pen has taken hold of that space, and I don’t believe that simple speechifying will be enough to take it back. We need to get back to practical activity, in local areas: only that can lead to new political identities and counter the Front National.

In Spain, it’s Ada Colau and her Guanyem movement that’s closest to this discourse inherited from the indignados, and that’s taken to action at neighborhood level.

Alberto Garzón

Perhaps. Above all it’s a very Gramscian approach.

Perhaps we could say that Podemos, too, is “doing Gramsci,” imposing its own concepts on public debate — for example, when it speaks of the caste, a term that all the media have now taken on board.

Alberto Garzón

I don’t agree. Gramsci thought in terms of social classes. For Podemos’s point of reference, Ernesto Laclau, they don’t exist any more. That’s no mere detail. Podemos is trying to build a movement solely by means of a very effective discourse, directed against an adversary comprising the whole political world, the famous “caste.” But they forget that there’s something more important in Gramsci: that social classes still exist, and ultimately the main thing is to improve people’s material conditions.

Podemos wants to seduce doctors, civil servants, the unemployed, and people dying of hunger, with a discourse that’s vague enough to suit everyone. From an electoral point of view that’s very effective. But when it comes to making decisions, I don’t see how you can reach an agreement between the doctor, the civil servant, and the guy starving in the street.