Of all the left groupings that sprang up in the 2010s—Syriza in Greece, Five Stars in Italy, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns—Spain’s Podemos was perhaps the most original, the most experimental and the most extensively theorized by its founders. By some measures, it has been among the more successful. Coming out of nowhere in 2014, Podemos’s coalition won a fifth of the national vote a year later and increased its share of seats in the 2016 election, even if it didn’t accomplish the sorpasso—‘overtaking’—of psoe, the centre-left Socialist Party that had dominated the political landscape of post-dictatorship Spain, as Podemos’s founders had dreamed. Still, when psoe plunged into an internal crisis in 2016–17, its right and left wings battling over whether to form a bloc with the conservative People’s Party or the new upstart left, Pablo Iglesias, the latter’s parliamentary leader, could calmly declare that Podemos now led the national opposition. Three years and two elections later, Podemos and its allies entered a coalition government with psoe, taking nearly a quarter of the ministries, and could claim a measurable impact on state policy.
But the Podemos experiment has run its course. Splits between the founders were apparent early on; one of them, Íñigo Errejón, quit in early 2019 to launch a new party. Iglesias himself abruptly resigned as Deputy Prime Minister in 2021, fought and lost a regional election in Madrid, then began a post-parliamentary career as a broadcaster. His designated successor, Yolanda Díaz, is also attempting to found a new political project, Sumar—‘to add up’ or ‘add together’—under her own leadership that may replace Podemos in Spain’s 2023 elections. A decade ago, the anger of the indignados, the precarious state of the economy and the brazen corruption of the political elites appeared to offer Podemos a chance to overthrow the pp–psoe’s bipartisan rule. But despite Podemos’s rhetoric, the governing duopoly has managed to preserve its central role, while the most dynamic outsider in the 2019 elections was the hard-right Vox. At a theoretical level, the ‘populist hypothesis’ which informed Podemos’s strategy has not been questioned, and casts a long shadow over its practice. With an unprecedented social crisis looming, and the prospect of right-wing victories in next year’s elections if the left does not march together, it is worth re-examining the experience of the last decade. We do so as independent-minded supporters of the Unidas Podemos project, in a spirit of comradeship, acknowledging that any new left to come will depend upon the lessons learned from it.
While Gramsci never specified how long the interregnum might last, his self-proclaimed Spanish heirs seem to have miscalculated it. Spain was hard hit by the Eurozone crisis. The country’s growth model was premised on a debt-fuelled construction boom, with rising house prices buoying up private consumption in classic ‘asset-price Keynesianism’ fashion. With the 2008 financial crisis, these dynamics went into reverse. Spanish gdp contracted by 7.7 per cent, construction and consumption cratered, unemployment soared to over 20 per cent—over 40 per cent among under-25s. The recession was all the deeper thanks to Eurozone austerity policies. In 2010, under pressure from Brussels, Zapatero’s psoe government slashed public spending, cutting public-sector wages by 5 per cent. Indebted households that had fallen behind with their mortgage payments faced eviction. By the spring of 2011, with regional and municipal elections approaching, psoe was trailing the pp by 16 points.footnote1
On 15 May 2011, reports of a police attack on a small anti-austerity protest in Madrid triggered a wave of social revolt across the country, with angry demonstrators occupying city plazas—joining a global ‘occupy’ movement that had started in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January, and which swept on round the world to reach the us in October 2011. The demands of the 15-M protesters—against corruption, for better public services and ‘real democracy now’—were novel in singling out the complicities between economic and political elites revealed by the financial crash and the austerity imposed in its aftermath. ‘We are not the commodities of the politicians and bankers’, shouted the squares, in answer to the evictions and public-service cuts. ‘They call it democracy, but it is not’, they chanted, in response to an electoral process that offered a choice only between ‘ppsoe’ or ‘ppsoe’, the two political faces of the same ruling ‘caste’.
If the immediate political effect of 15-M was minimal—the conservatives under Mariano Rajoy won the 2011 election by a landslide and pursued the same Euro-austerity agenda as psoe, with vindictive zeal—its symbolic impact was disproportionate to its minimal political effect, shattering the still-dominant narrative of Spain’s capitalist modernization. The 2010s cannot be understood without taking into account the lasting reverberations of the indignados. After the squares were emptied, the mass mobilizations were kept alive through direct-action campaigns against evictions coordinated by the local Plataformas de Afectados por la Hipoteca (pah) and the successive mareas, or ‘tides’, of public-sector workers mobilizing against the cuts: the white tide of health workers, the green tide of education, and so on. These struggles popularized the idea of local assemblies, built neighbourhood hubs of resistance and promoted novel forms of struggle, such as occupying the banks that were behind the evictions of indebted households, throwing up road-blocks or organizing local healthcare provision. Yet the movement recognized its own limitations: despite the indignados’ denunciations, the Rajoy Administration was facing few impediments in rolling out its eu-designed austerity programme. The politicization of housing, healthcare, education—domains directly implicated in social reproduction—was not paralleled by a similar dynamic in the realm of production, and the mostly university-educated activists were not yet reaching the (largely Latin American) migrant population or working-class youth. How Podemos’s theorists approached this problem would prove critical to its fate.
‘One cannot explain Podemos as an electoral translation of 15-M’, Errejón would say. ‘However, without the 15-M, there would have been no Podemos.’footnote2 The group of young radical thinkers at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid who conceived the blueprint for Podemos, most of them from left-wing family backgrounds, had been radicalized in the context of the alter-globalization protests of the early 2000s and by their participation in the heady early days of the Chávez, Morales and Correa governments in Latin America. While political experience rarely conforms to a predesigned blueprint, Podemos’s initial constitution, organizational model and programmatic strategy firmly followed the prescriptions of the ‘populist hypothesis’ laid down by Errejón, its first political secretary and foremost theorist.footnote3
Errejón’s early analyses provided an innovative reading of the post-2008 conjuncture in Spain, seen through the theoretical lens of his ‘post-Marxist’ intellectual mentor, Ernesto Laclau. Drawing on Laclau’s late work, On Populist Reason (2005), Errejón conceptualized the turmoil of the squares as a ‘populist situation’: the eruption into the public sphere of manifold heterogeneous and isolated demands, without any pre-constituted relations among them, yet opening up the possibility of articulating a new counter-hegemonic discourse by virtue of their shared rejection of Spain’s economic and political elites.footnote4 In contrast to the spontaneous emergence of a non-mediated subject envisaged by Hardt and Negri’s Multitude (2004), Errejón saw a dislocated terrain, waiting for a political intervention to cement the tenuous labour of disidentification undertaken in the squares. The unsatisfied demands of 15-M were inadvertently advancing a larger-scale hegemonic operation: dividing the terrain of struggle between two contending blocs, they set the scene for a new actor, capable of capitalizing on such social discontent, to hegemonize the dichotomizing logic springing from the squares and pit la gente, the people, against la casta, the discredited ruling bloc.