A Dangerous Party

Podemos's mainstream opponents have tried to discredit the party by casting it as outside the bounds of acceptable politics.

A Podemos rally in Madrid on January 31, 2015. Paco Rubio Ordás / Flickr

The Spanish right is a strange beast. Today it is largely unified politically under the banner of the Popular Party (PP), though it is increasingly losing votes to Ciutadans (Cs), a center-right, anti-nationalist Catalan party. Yet its ideological and political unification hinges on a balancing act that combines National Catholicism and economic liberalism.

The first of these was the official state ideology under fascist dictator Francisco Franco and still persists (although often in muted form) in the thought of PP ideologues. The second became increasingly common on the Spanish right after the government took the first steps to liberalize Spain’s economy in 1959.

Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Franco’s outspoken minister of tourism and information, was at the forefront of the regime’s gradual embrace of free-market ideology. A great admirer of Carl Schmitt, Fraga, the eventual founder of the PP, at first despised right-wing economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Wilhelm Röpke for their anti-statism; after the transition to democracy, however, his desire to make a mainstream right-wing party compelled him to adopt economic liberalism, leading to the creation of the PP, which is today the ruling party in Spain. Fraga embodied this Francoist tension between newfangled economic liberalism and National Catholicism that still honeycombs the Spanish right.

“If conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific movement of emancipation,” Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind, “it stands to reason that each reaction will bear the traces of the movement it opposes.” Such is the case with the rise of Podemos and its detractors on the Right. In Spain, a country whose media is largely dominated by right-wing voices, this criticism often reveals as much about the shape and stability of the conservative movement as it does about its object of scorn.

The Spanish right’s reaction to the emergence of Podemos as a political force has been twofold. On the one hand, many immediately tried (and, two elections later, still try) to discredit the party by association. They’ll note, for instance, that many of its leaders spent time studying Latin America’s “pink tide” governments, apparently proof of Podemos’s dictatorial predilections.

On the other hand, however, many on the Right seem to have welcomed the irruption of Podemos, seeing it as a wake-up call for their fellow conservatives. As Asís Timermans writes in his book Podemos?, “The most important thing about Spanish politics in 2014 was neither the emergence of a leader like Pablo Iglesias — intelligent, a good strategist and, above all, an excellent communicator — nor an organization like Podemos, but rather that they were able to take advantage of an unprecedented accumulation of negative elements in the public space.”

By “negative elements,” Timermans means:

institutionalized corruption, the complicit silence of politicians before the excesses of their own party, the lack of preparation in managing public matters, the disdain for and inability to communicate with normal people and regularly show their bank statements, the despotic exercise of political power without attending to the interests of citizens, the shameless connivance with the powerful in ways that are above the law, the complete lack of respect for public opinion, and the control of the exercise of power.

This laundry list of grievances, and its indictment of the current government, might lead one to believe that Timermans was a member of a left-wing party not unlike Podemos. But Timermans could not be more averse to left-wing politics: a professor of the history of financial institutions at the King Juan Carlos University, he is an opinion columnist for the conservative online daily Libertad Digital. In diagnosing the Right’s failures — and decrying its decadent habits — Timermans’ aim is to rejuvenate the conservative movement.

Here again Robin is perceptive. As he argues, “the greatest enemy of the old regime is neither the revolutionary nor the reformer; it is the old regime itself or, to be more precise, the defenders of the old regime.” Why? Because “they simply lack the ideological wherewithal to press the cause of the old regime with the requisite vigor, clarity, and purpose.”

Other Spanish right-wing commentators also habitually take aim at their ostensible allies. Lorenzo Bernaldo de Quirós — president of Freemarket International Consulting, friend of the Cato Institute, and author of the recent book For a Liberal Right-Wing — spends much of his time chastising those on the Spanish right who still bask in the glory of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s 2011 ascension to power.

Unlike the hardline culturalists in the vein of Juan Donoso Cortés, the nineteenth-century Spanish ultramontane and political theorist whose thought inspired Schmitt’s book Political Theology, Quirós subscribes to the free-market deism of Hayek. He wants Spain to more fully embrace neoliberal economic policies, discarding any traditionalism that might impede full-scale privatization.

For him, the struggle over the reins of capitalism will be the defining issue for Spain’s future, and the world’s. “Without a doubt millions of people still live in tragic circumstances,” he is quoted as once saying, “but that lamentable situation is not a responsibility of the developed world, nor of capitalism, and [is instead] an endless list of fables fenced by the ecologists and global-eating vulgate.”

In Podemos, Quirós of course sniffs redistribution and anticapitalism. Yet his most penetrating criticism is that Podemos is using politics for other means. Podemos’s ideology, he writes, “has to do with an exercise of voluntarism built on fiery speeches, slogans and pseudo-moral arguments that do not appeal to reason, but rather to the political instrumentalization of a feeling of uneasiness and frustration.” For Quirós, Podemos represents a threat to the very functioning of liberal democracy because it is constructed from the outside — it does not emerge organically from within.

“Construction” is a key term in the Spanish right’s linguistic universe: here, it gives Quirós the license to adjudicate fidelity to the Spanish nation-state. It also makes economic liberalism synonymous with Spain itself; any political position at odds with laissez faire is an unpatriotic, artificial introduction.

As soon as something is deemed constructed — as opposed to organic — its motivations are seen as unnatural and anti-national. The metaphor of “organic” politics, of course, harkens back to the days of Franco’s fascism, when the Spanish state was conceived as emerging organically from the desire of the Spanish people. For Quirós, support for Podemos is ultimately a “modernized expression of nihilism.”

The idea that Podemos is a “construction,” built from outside Spanish politics, is not unique to conservatives. It bears a strikingly resemblance, in fact, to one of the center-left’s most common criticisms of the party. If Quirós understands Podemos to be instrumentalizing politics for other means, many liberals in the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) decry Podemos for its populism, which they see as an appropriation of democracy for anti-democratic ends.

Santos Juliá, the historian of reference for El País, Spain’s newspaper of record, often closely politically aligned with the PSOE, compared a speech by Pablo Iglesias to the rise of Nazism during the Weimar period, by way of Cabaret. Here is Juliá: “‘Tomorrow is ours,’ Iglesias concluded in his first fiery speech at the European Parliament. And it is impossible, upon listening to him, not to remember that handsome young German man, with his foot on a table, overcome with emotion, singing ‘Tomorrow belongs to me.’”

Podemos, according to Juliá’s metaphor, will turn Spain toward authoritarianism as soon as it has the ability to do so — just as the Nazi Party illegitimately upended the Weimar Constitution upon reaching power. For PSOE sympathizers such as Juliá, the lesson Spaniards must learn is to be wary of any internal threat that might use politics to steer the country away from liberal democracy.

In a similar move, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez warned on national radio that Podemos is a populist party that seeks to deliver Spain down the path of Chávez’s Venezuela, which, for him, meant “rationing lists, a lack of democracy, and greater inequality and poverty.” For Sánchez as well, populism is something external to liberal democracy. Once it takes hold, the argument suggests, it steers politics away from prudence and toward authoritarianism.

Esteban Hernández, a conservative critic, explains: “the role Podemos plays in Spain is that it exists as an outsider who is entering the political field not with the intent of occupying a space, but of transforming the rules of the game.” The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, writing about Podemos and Syriza, reaches a similar conclusion: “In short, populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” In addition to taking issue with its illiberalism, readers are supposed to grasp populism’s outsider character.

For the center-right and center-left, the problem with populism isn’t its eschewal of class politics, as Marxists would have it. The problem is that populism is an illegitimate response to any shortcomings in the political system. It’s a threat to the heavenly marriage of liberalism and democracy. This discursive move solidifies the place of liberalism in political discourse, making any criticism outside the bounds of good and decent politics.

PSOE figures such as Sánchez and Juliá would reject any description of their narrow definition of democracy — synonymous with liberalism — as a construction. Yet their understanding of Podemos looks indistinguishable from the conservative one: they share the same concerns about the party’s threat to liberalism, especially when it comes to defending free markets as the quintessential expression of liberty.

When the center-left and center-right lambast Podemos, they do so in virtual unison, with a liberal, anti-populist voice.

Adapted from Radical Philosophy.