Although it makes for a great dramatic effect, the theories of the sudden death of democracy disregard the gradual erosion and capture of institutions, and the role of the populace – argues political scientist John Keane.
The people versus the elite
The case of Spain
There are many words that neoliberalism has emptied of content – democracy, social justice, citizenship, sovereignty – that can be reclaimed, filled with progressive ideas and used to drive change. So says Sirio Canos Donnay, an archaeologist and member of Podemos.
We are living in absolutely extraordinary times in Spain. Podemos was only created at the beginning of 2014, but within five months, on a tiny and crowdfunded budget, it had won five MEPs in the May European elections. Soon after this, Podemos was already topping the national polls in direct voting intention. Furthermore, it is no overstatement to say that Podemos has radically changed the political arena in Spain. It has put topics on the table that were not there before. And it has also changed the nature of the political discourse – because when you suddenly have a party that doesn’t talk to people as if they are stupid, everybody else has to step up their game too. For the first time in years we are having conversations and discussions about politics with actual content. But by far the most important thing is how excited people are about politics. People on the streets, and in bars and cafes, are talking about politics in a way that would have been unthinkable before; there is a feeling that politics matter and that what we think matters to politics.
In order to understand how we got there, it’s necessary to have some background, as Podemos is the product of a very specific social and cultural environment, and Spain’s recent economic and political history is very different from that of the UK. While in the UK Thatcher was introducing the first privatisation programme, in Spain we were still waking up from forty years of fascist dictatorship, based on autarchic principles. We did catch up pretty quickly though. In the late 1990s and early 2000s we were already living the neoliberal dream, full on. Speculation on land and property had become the new national sport. Salaries didn’t need to go up because credit was so freely available. Everybody felt like they had tons of money to spend. You went to a bank and said “hey, I live in a skip and my guarantor is a hamster” and you came back with a mortgage for several million – absolutely no problem. Everybody was feeling wonderfully European, modern, and middle-class.
Probably because of that, we didn’t notice what was going on in the background, i.e. the gradual dismantling of the welfare state and democracy. In addition to a large-scale privatisation of public assets, all major parties across the political spectrum gradually converted to the new neoliberal faith, accepting the free market and the free individual as facts of nature. The economy was redefined as a mixture of science and religion best left out of political discussions, and democracy came to be presented as the technical management of the country, as something based on consensus, in which two parties alternated in power but agreed on the basics, thus guaranteeing stability. Which is obviously nonsense – if politics is anything, it’s having different alternatives, discussions, and debates.
And then – boom – the crisis hit us. The banks were bailed out, and we were left to pay the price: rising poverty, soaring inequality, and atrocious levels of unemployment. This reality check, however, only applied to common people. The elites were still living the dream. In fact, in a textbook example of the application of the shock doctrine, they decided to launch an attack on what remained of the welfare state, and tried to privatise healthcare and education. But they overdid it. And instead of sheepish acceptance, they got an explosion of social movements.
It started in 2011 with the occupation of the squares by the Indignados movement. Here it’s important to remember that although the people occupying the squares were a minority, the polls showed that over 70 per cent of the population backed them and identified with their message. A message which was very clear: these politicians don’t represent us; and the problems we’re facing are not individual, but social ones: they have political causes and political answers. That over 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes by the very same banks that our taxes helped to bail out is political. That one in four Spaniards are currently living at risk of poverty is political. That one per cent of the Spanish population owns more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent is political. These are not the inevitable consequences of some mysterious force of nature; they are the direct result of years of policies directed at favouring the needs of the elites over everybody else. This message resonated strongly across society, and led to the flourishing of all kinds of amazing and empowering social movements, from anti-eviction platforms and neighbourhood assemblies, to movements against austerity and privatisations, as well as constant demonstrations, marches and actions.
In the midst of all of this, in November 2011, we had general elections. And the Conservatives, who had been not just the greatest defenders of the cuts, but also by far the most corrupt of all parties, won by an overwhelming absolute majority. You can imagine how disheartening this was, and how it seriously made many of us question what we were doing. What was the point of it all? We could maybe stop the privatisation of one hospital, or a few evictions, but what did it matter, if at the end of the day, the same corrupt politicians get elected over and over again?
But then, when you thought about it, there really weren’t any alternatives. The two main parties – the Conservatives and the Socialists – were virtually indistinguishable in their economic and labour policies. The Socialist Party had, in fact, been the party that had decided overnight to amend the Constitution (till then perceived as totally untouchable), in order to make debt repayment an absolute priority, above anything else, including people’s wellbeing. As for the small left-wing parties – some of them did have really good policies, but they were mostly too busy fighting each other, and too anchored to their old language and mechanisms, to reach anybody who wasn’t already on their side.
It was in this context that Podemos appeared, and started doing things differently. First of all, it connected with social movements in a way no other party has done. Many of the people at the core of Podemos in fact come from social movements, and the demands and lessons from the squares have been incorporated into Podemos’s ideas, structures, and mechanisms. For instance, in Podemos, democracy is not just something we talk about, it is something we do, at every level of the structure. Podemos doesn’t have any membership, or fees. Anybody, even if they belong to another party, can join one of its locally-held, horizontally organized meetings, and vote in its internal processes. The structure of the party itself was decided over a four-month-long process last autumn, open to everybody. Anybody could submit documents of political, organisational and ethical principles, discuss them online, and vote for the ones they preferred. Once the documents had been selected, anybody could present themselves as candidates to fill the positions described in the winning documents. Manifestos are also voted on, as are possible coalitions.
The second thing we’ve done differently is realising that it’s not enough to connect with social movements, because a movement by activists for activists is doomed to marginality. It is necessary to go beyond, to reach that social majority who doesn’t get involved in politics or activism but who is still outraged and looking for alternatives. And that means, among other things, using a language that resonates with them.
In this sense, I think we might have a lesson to learn from neoliberalism. Whenever I’m in a train station and I hear a customer – instead of a passenger – announcement, a bit of me dies on the inside. Because it shows to what extent neoliberalism has embedded its own vocabulary and logics into our common sense – something Doreen Massey has written a lot about.1 This represents a substantial challenge, because, on the one hand, if you use only the existing common sense it is very difficult to challenge the status quo, but, on the other, if you draw on a vocabulary and logics which are completely alien to most people – as many small left-wing parties do – you stay marginal and nobody listens to you. So the way we’ve been trying to square that circle is to combine a bit of both, and to use terms from the existing common sense but in a transformative direction. There are many words which neoliberalism has emptied of content – democracy, social justice, citizenship, sovereignty – which can be reclaimed, filled with progressive ideas and used to drive change.
Sometimes, however, new expressions can be useful. One example of this is la casta, which literally translates as “the caste”, and it is the term we’ve been using to refer to the highly corrupt political and economic revolving-door elite. This is a concept which already existed in Spanish society but didn’t have a name, and the proof of that is how quickly it has spread. It’s been like gunpowder. Since we started using it, even the conservative corrupt politicians it describes are using it to insult each other. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s a tiny, but important, victory – because it means we’re starting to define the terms of the discussion.
This focus on terminology and narrative has also involved ditching the metaphors of right and left. This might surprise some of you, but Podemos doesn’t define itself as a left-wing party. And the reason we don’t is because right and left, while useful labels in certain analytical contexts, no longer help to understand the political articulation of Spanish society. They’ve become a bit like football teams: colours which you support by family tradition or inertia, but which do not mean much in terms of content. Not only that, but they actually reinforce the status quo, as they split people along predictable lines, and prevent the formation of a social majority strong enough to actually challenge things.
The real division now is not between right and left, but between top and bottom. As the social movements have demonstrated, there is an overwhelming majority in Spanish society, coming from across the political spectrum, who agree on certain key points: that institutions should work for the people they supposedly represent, rather than for a tiny privileged elite; that decisions about our communal lives should be taken by democratically elected institutions, not unaccountable powers; and that the economy should always be at the service of democracy, not the other way round. It is this majority we need to represent and articulate. Because the real battle here is not one between right and left, but between decent people and privileged elites, between democracy and oligarchy. Instead of focusing on old divisions that split us, we’ve decided to focus on contents, policies and principles that unite us.
As I said at the beginning, we’re living in extraordinary times in Spain. The financial crisis exposed the existence of a chasm between the tiny ruling elite – both political and economic – and the majority of the population. Then the social movements, beginning with the Indignados, turned what had been seen as individual problems into political ones: they articulated that chasm as a crisis of representation and legitimacy of institutions. But that wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter how much we shouted from below, if there was nobody at the top willing to listen. So we needed a political tool capable of taking those demands to institutions. A political tool that could do more than simply connect with social movements – one that could reach beyond them, to that majority that does not normally get involved in politics. That is what Podemos is.
See Doreen Massey, "Vocabularies of the economy", in Hall, Massey and Rustin, After Neoliberalism, Lawrence & Wishart, 2015. Also at: www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/pdfs/Vocabularies%20of%20the%20economy.pdf
Published 12 August 2015
Original in English
First published by Soundings
Contributed by Soundings © Sirio Canos Donnay / Soundings / EurozinePDF/PRINT
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