Susana Narotzky: Hope for Change: The Problem with Podemos

Podemos is hailed by many as the only hope in a Spanish landscape devastated by austerity. In the elections to the European parliament (2014), Podemos received 7.97  percent of votes and 5 MPs. In the elections to the Autonomous Parliament of Andalucía, it gathered 14.84 percent of the vote and 15 regional MPs, becoming the third party after the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). The fragmentation of political parties in the regional parliament forewarns of what will be the possible result of the next Spanish general elections at the end of 2015. It underscores the end of bipartisan politics and the need for different alliances and hopefully new priorities. Does Podemos signal a radical political change? A new way of doing politics? Here come the thoughts of an anthropologist who is not yet convinced by their rhetoric or their practice.

Podemos has received a lot of coverage in the foreign media. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, has cunningly used TV shows to present himself as the single opportunity for a radical political turn that would signal renewed attention to ordinary people’s interests. Shunning talk of “class” (in Marxist terms) and of Left and Right, the leaders of Podemos, many of them political scientists from one department at the Complutense University of Madrid, propose another classical divide: that of the oligarchy against the people. In my view, this is an expression of the transformation of the actual structure of accumulation increasingly tied to forms of rent extraction rather than to the expansion of production, and therefore linked to the production of zones of privilege and exclusion rather than the labor–capital nexus of exploitation (Arrighi et al. 1989; Kalb 2015; Smith 2011; Stiglitz 2012). Class then is understood not as a relationship of exploitation but rather as the consolidation of privilege giving access to resources and wealth. This is an important shift that stresses the political aspect in the political economic process. It depicts antagonism and differentiation in terms of a failure of entitlements to the national “common good” and to a “just” redistribution. This addresses inequality in nationalistic and moralistic terms rather than in terms of positions in the relational structures of capital accumulation worldwide as they affect access to livelihood resources regionally and locally.

Although the leaders of Podemos try to distance themselves from being depicted as a Left party, they are defined as of the Left by most of their vocal supporters as well as by their opponents on the Right; most of their propositions are typically social democratic. Their public talk in popular street meetings tends to eschew concrete policy measures and remains in the realm of obvious generalities (loss of jobs, austerity suffering, lack of public investment, financial capitalism’s torts, etc.) with the focus on corruption and the evilness of elites. In their more expert persona, in their TV shows La Tuerka and Fort Apache, they talk with colleagues in a different genre: name-dropping the classical big names of the left (Gramsci, Marx, etc.) and stressing their allegiance toward the guru of “radical democracy,” Ernesto Laclau. Here they engage with other scholars and “experts” through analyses of the political economic situation (investment, restructuring of debt, ECB policy).1 This double-standard treatment of “expert” and “lay” citizens expressed in different genres of talk is justified in terms of the need to communicate with people who do not want to be addressed in complex jargon but rather in ordinary, understandable terms. While this is a commendable argument, simple talk does not necessarily mean the eviction of complex issues. The role of the organic intellectual is one that takes on the responsibility of explaining the connections between lived experienced and structural realities, not one that produces a “floating signifier” left to wander and be filled with whatever fixes the desire for any individual. Podemos fails to take up that role.

Podemos is often described as having risen from the Indignados-15M movement claiming for “democracia real ya” (real democracy now) and against the collusion of financial capitalism and the state in the structural adjustment process imposed by the EU. Many of the leaders of Podemos participated in that movement (as did many other citizens and leaders of other parties in the Left), and they are a relatively accurate sociological representation of the young, overqualified, precarious population of Spain. However, the fact that they are building their party structure by relying on a very narrow group of academic people is, to say the least, a problem for a party that pretends to represent a wide range of “people.” The creation of a party structure all over Spain mostly rests on a network of academic colleagues in which the representation of people from political science departments is overwhelming. Moreover, the national leadership in Madrid is trying to impose candidates in the primaries for autonomous regional elections, basically marginalizing members of the preexisting, explicitly radical Left Partido Anticapitalista, the party with which they allied in order to create the original structure of Podemos. In the regional elections in Andalucía (against the will of the ruling national leadership), the head of the list was a member of the Partido Anticapitalista group, and after the election she presented a more radical and less accommodating position than the national leadership as regards the support for the Socialist Party, which was still the biggest party in the region. Generally speaking, the construction of a party structure is following very classical models, with a strong and sometimes authoritarian centralized leadership based in Madrid and local offshoots forced to follow party discipline. Although Podemos has installed citizen “circles,” local platforms for engaging directly or virtually in a so-called direct democracy conversation, the power of these circles is delusory, and the grassroots aspect of the party is mostly an ideological façade.

A party such as Podemos, moreover, positions itself as devoid of ties with the past and therefore able to welcome those that history has put in opposing positions (e.g., winners and losers in the Civil War, traditional supporters of the Socialist Party and supporters of the Popular Party). It voices its compromise with an eye on the future and radical change although programmatic contents are vague and of a basic and classic social democratic character. Iglesias has claimed in a recent meeting, “I know that we need the rich for a market economy to work … but we need responsible rich and with a minimal sense of patriotism. … We know that we need the rich, but we will ask them responsibility [by proposing a progressive fiscal reform, closing taxing loopholes in the Spanish law and installing a tax on fortunes].”1 This seems like a naïve understanding of how European and international tax havens work and of the cosmopolitanism of big fortunes (Friedman and Friedman 2013).

The patriotic slogan is recurrent: “A true patriot defends national industry,” he said in the meeting organized in parallel to the State of the Nation session in the Parliament. “You [the government] have transformed this country into a dependent country that can become a colony of Germany. And we patriots do not want to become a colony.” The patriotic discourse and the colonial reminiscences seem to replicate a discourse that comes from Latin American populist experiences. In Spain, the patriotic discourse is associated with the Right through its recent discursive links with fascism and the dictatorship, it is not a “floating signifier,” and it is very difficult to give it a different turn. In Latin America, on the contrary, the patriotic discourse is tied to the nineteenth-century struggles for independence from imperial Spain, first, and later followed by struggles against US imperialism. Only a misunderstanding of history can produce such a blunder.

However, the colonial aspect of the discourse is interesting and relevant because it points to “colonial” rent-seeking processes that are increasingly taking place in mature capitalist regions. These processes are redesigning the EU project away from a “convergence” of nations to increasing “divergence” and the re-creation of internal peripheries or semi-peripheries. This is related to the making of differentiation through the reconfiguration of national hierarchies of privilege, a situation that characterizes financialized capitalism in the EU (Roniger 2004). For many, this is a fraud and a humiliation, and, as in Iglesias’s talk, it is voiced in nationalist terms instead of in class terms.

Moreover, the economic nationalism proposition, which we can also find in many other parties and trade unions around Europe, is a complex one that, in Spain, is reminiscent of Import Substitution policies implemented by the Autarky regime of Franco and strongly criticized (starting with the Francoist technocratic liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s and increasingly after the Transition) as being responsible for the “uncompetitive” industrial Spanish system that “needed” to be radically restructured (and dismantled) in the 1980s if Spain wanted to be part of Europe.

The ideas Podemos has in store in order to supersede the new colonialism, as well as to avoid the autarkic trap, seem to be based in facilitating “a high value added economy” instead of “an economy of crooks” (referring to the articulation of the housing bubble and corruption), and this would be supported by reindustrialization, research and technology development, and higher productivity. It is difficult to see how competitivity and higher productivity will be reached through reindustrialization while avoiding strong dependencies on foreign technology and without using the historical tariff protections that the EU and the WTO have declared illegitimate. The appeal to establish a demand economy stimulated through higher wages is also part of Podemos’s program, and it rests on the promotion of small and medium enterprises, which were hit by the credit crunch and consequent indebtedness and used to provide over 80 percent of jobs. The provision of credit to small entrepreneurs is wise but it is not a new project, and unless a public institution has the capability to offer such loans, the project will not materialize (in fact preceding governments have attempted a similar policy without success).

Podemos has presented an economic program with classic social democratic propositions, which after five years of austerity appear extremely radical. This program has been written by Vicenç Navarro and Juan Torres López 3 and is based on a previous document the two of them wrote jointly with Alberto Garzón 1 (the main candidate to the general elections of Izquierda Unida, a Left party coalition, also very present and vocal during the Indignados-15M movement). The discourse of change focuses on obtaining social rights and fighting privileges and corruption (i.e., political inclusion and embedded liberalism). It addresses wealth distribution and (mis)appropriation by political and economic power holders. It proposes support to cooperative forms of production but does not address radical changes regarding property or labor–capital relations, nor does it consider transformations to the political structure of the state internally and in relation to other European countries or the EU as a whole. It seems to hint at some protectionist measures but without clearly spelling them out (or exploring their possibility within the EU and the WTO). The main appeal of the program is proposing policies such as citizens’ income, protection against foreclosure, and better public health and education (a return to the European Social Market model). These are understood by many as the “conquests” that the working class obtained through a struggle mostly based on a kind of “class consciousness,” and they are also understood as expressing citizenship entitlements in a democratic regime (which was what allegedly the “Transition” achieved). Undoubtedly, these are important historical livelihood gains that should be supported. It is also true that the parties in power have eroded them as has happened elsewhere.

At present, Podemos’s main explicit aim is the conquest of power and the breakdown of the bipartisan game that instituted the alternation between the social democratic PSOE and the conservative PP since the Transition with the argument of preserving stability and consolidating democracy. That game has to be changed and a new constitutional process needs to break with the “Regime of the Transition,” what they refer to as a “change of regime.” To some in the “old” Left, as well as in the nationalist regions, some of the appeals to the “Motherland” (la Patria), a concept that had been monopolized by the Right, are upsetting. Likewise, the obsession with mobilizing majorities at any cost in order to win power seems strangely similar to the old game of traditional parties but with no reference to a past that can indicate a moral and political filiation. In fact, the blurring of history and the superseding of old symbolic paraphernalia are presented as forms of respect for the people:

… if we respect a bit more our people, that Spanish people that does not have a problem with the red and gold flag [a symbol attached to Francoism and the Right, as opposed to the Republican flag, a symbol of the Left], who like the [national] football team, who are not moved by the Republican flag and the Civil War, if we respect some more that our Spanish people are against corruption, against injustice, are in favor of social rights, then we can win. (Pablo Iglesias, interview 14 September 2014).

 We can understand that this appeal is perceived as a break with the “old system” that downwardly mobile people are describing as having failed them (in terms of entitlements and distribution). The discourse of rebalancing distribution, and of justice for the “social majority,” as well as better regulation of the gains and privileges of economic and political elites, is welcomed by many, however vague.

The new party Podemos claims for a remoralization of politics. The claim to justice is supposed to redress the inequality gap. The state will be made accountable for the well-being of citizens, and the promise is that, once in power, they will deliver. People who adhere to this basic project of moral redress and social justice are described as “gente decente” (decent people) by the leaders of Podemos, as opposed, implicitly, to “indecent people” (presumably those who, although not part of the elite, choose other projects for enhancing their well-being, namely, extreme Right projects that are emerging all over Europe and still remain incipient in Spain) (Kalb and Halmai 2011).5 Decent/indecent is also a moral divide, one that describes subjects in terms of values chosen instead of structural positioning in the exploitation/dispossession processes. The shift in the understanding of differentiation processes away from structures of exploitation and dispossession and toward an overmoralized description of wrongdoing of an elite status group is obviously opportunistic and potentially dangerous. While moral economy arguments have always been central to mobilizing strategies against the powerful, only political economy arguments debated and shared by the new precarious class will ultimately support and help to implement a project of radical change (Narotzky 2015). This is the work of organic intellectuals, and it is questionable to what extent Podemos’s leaders are ready to come out and weave that necessary social fabric.

Susana Narotzky is professor of anthropology at the University of Barcelona and the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded Grassroots Economics project.

1. This “serious” stately talk was also that of the “Otro Estado de la Nación,” (the Other State of the Nation) in the Círculo de Bellas Artes on 25 February 2015.

2. El otro debate de la nación, Círculo de Bellas Artes, 25 February 2015

3. Navarro, Vicenç , and Juan Torres López. 2014. Un proyecto económico para la gente.

4. Navarro,  Vicenç, Juan Torres López, and Alberto Garzón Espinosa. 2011.Hay alternativas. Propuestas para crear empleo y bienestar social en España. Madrid: Ediciones Sequitur-Attac España.

5. Monedero, Juan Carlos. 2013. Curso urgente de política para gente decente. Barcelona: Seix Barral.

Arrighi, Giovanni, Terence Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1989. Antisystemic movements. London: Verso.

Friedman, Jonathan, and Kajsa Ekholm Friedman. 2013. Globalization as a discourse of hegemonic crisis: A global systemic analysis. American Ethnologist 40(2): 244–257.

Kalb, Don, and Gábor Halmai, eds. 2011. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Kalb, Don. 2015. Introduction: Class and the new anthropological holism. In James Carrier and Don Kalb, eds., Anthropologies of class: Power practice and inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Narotzky, Susana. 2015. The organic intellectual and the production of class in Spain. In James Carrier and Don Kalb, eds., Anthropologies of class: Power practice and inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roniger, Luis. 2004. Political clientelism, democracy, and market economy. Comparative Politics 36(3): 353–375.

Smith, Gavin. 2011. Selective hegemony and beyond—Populations with “no productive function”: A framework for enquiry. Identities 18: 2–38.

Stiglitz, Joseph. 2012. The price of inequality: How today’s divided society endangers our future. New York: Norton and Company.

Cite as: Narotzky, Susana. 2015. “Hope for change: The problem with Podemos,” FocaalBlog, April 20,