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The Uncivil Servant: Spain’s Podemos, Next Up in the Democratic Struggle

Mitchell Abidor
February 22, 2015
by Mitchell Abidor 1399569896_077942_1399581512_noticia_normalAS SYRIZA in Greece confronts the harsh realities of implementing the promises it made to the Greek people to halt the austerity measures that have destroyed Greek life and society, another leftwing party in Europe continues to mount in the polls: Spain’s Podemos ("We Can"), which 28 percent of Spanish voters say they would vote for in national elections. Barely more than a year old, the party, an outgrowth of the Indignados, Spain’s Occupy movement, has six deputies in the European parliament who are all dedicated to expanding democracy and fighting the draconian austerity measures that have beaten down the Spanish people. Pablo Iglesias, a 35-year old former political science professor (shown at right) who is now general secretary of Podemos, recently gave a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center, and his explanation of his own and Podemos’ positions revealed a freshness of vision and a willingness to face reality that few leftwing parties have shown in decades. Iglesias himself comes from a family with a long leftist background, his grandfathers having fought for the Spanish Republic, his parents having been underground organizers in the Franco years. Yet he is clear that however progressive he and most members of Podemos are, they’re not interested in preaching to the choir. "Left and right are not always useful labels," he said. His call is simple: “If you believe the economy needs to be democratized, you should join us.” Podemos wants to extend democracy, wrest it from the hands of la casta politica that has dominated Spanish politics, and make democracy into a popular weapon. Iglesias summed the entire matter up succinctly: “The important thing in politics is to create a majority.” This recognition of the obligation to use the political system to effect change in modern democracies is a sign of a maturity of a party whose Europarliamentarians have an average age of 41 (an average skewed by one deputy who is 78, the rest being between 31 and 36). In order to achieve a majority you must “use a language understood by the majority of the people,” said Iglesias, recounting meetings where Marxists-Leninists would show up and “talk about the proletariat, and no one understood their language.” This is worthless, he said, and although he considers himself a Marxist, he sees the repetition of worn-out phrases as no longer the way to attract the people. Guarding one’s ideological purity is one thing; helping people in the here and now quite another. podemos2This was made clearest when a questioner, a Marxist professor of economics, described Podemos’ plans as neo-Keynesian and said that Keynesianism has historically saved capitalism. Iglesias responded that “it’s easy to teach students about how Keynes saved capitalism, but that in my country there are people who are suffering, people who don’t have a home or food to eat, and this is what we have to address.” Ideological disputes about the nature of the measures (perhaps) have their place, but for Podemos, the crisis is real and must be dealt with, however that might stain their purity. IT'S THIS CONCERN for the immediate, what we might call radical meliorism, rather than with flights of utopian fantasy that makes Podemos so interesting. Without ignoring the overarching issues — those of the misdeeds and crimes of capital — Podemos insists that it is there to fix immediate problems. Iglesias is even willing to admit that capitalism won’t be overthrown, certainly not by elections, a radical thing for a radical to say, but one that at least has the merit of squarely looking reality in the face. Once that’s accepted, an effective tactic to address those issues can be devised, one that will change people’s lives today and so make them more open to more radical ones tomorrow. Even if they don’t take that additional step, the mere fact that their lives have been improved is a major accomplishment to which none of the existing parties in Spain, or Europe, or almost anywhere else, can make a claim. This is why Iglesias said several times that the first measure a Podemos-led government would take would be to end evictions, which have occurred at a far more horrific pace and have continued far longer than they have in the U.S. Second, he said, Spain’s debt must be restructured (which Syriza is finding the Germans less than willing to do). Third, the party wants to redirect investment to health care and small businesses. None of this is Paris Commune-talk, but in the sad world we live in today, such commonsensical ideas are dangerously radical. One has come to expect that when the question of nationalist demands of a province within a country arises, a leftwing party will reflexively support independence, be it in Quebec or Scotland or wherever. Iglesias and Podemos have taken the most honest and forthright of positions on Catalan independence, indeed, of independence for any of Spain’s provinces. Iglesias has called for a constituent assembly across Spain to confront the issue, and though he accepts that Catalans should have the right to go their own way, he personally opposes it, feeling it is in the best interests of Spain and Catalonia that they remain together. An audience member accused Iglesias and his fellow Podemos Eurodeputies of living well on their salaries in Strasbourg while the people they claim to support are scraping by. In fact, Iglesias pointed out, he and his colleagues receive a monthly salary of 6,000 euros. However, they keep less than 2,000 of that, turning the rest over to the party. One of the questioners, in inimitable leftwing audience fashion, nattered on for over five minutes about how we are living through a revolutionary moment, that capitalism has been shaken, and that.... Well, in all honesty, seeing she was going to be going on for a while, I took the opportunity to leave the auditorium and go to the bathroom and call my wife. She was just winding up when I returned five minutes later. Iglesias, in no way nonplussed (tedious bores are certainly a universal part of leftwing life), simply said that we are not in a revolutionary moment: “This is a moment of global change,” but revolutionary change, the overthrow of capitalism, is simply not in the cards right now. But Podemos’ enemies are strong, he continued, and they’ll do everything to stop us. I can think of no higher praise for Iglesias and Podemos than this: as I left the hall I ran into Jim, a Trotskyist acquaintance. He objected to almost everything Iglesias said. Jim, who is waiting for the call to storm the Winter Palace, is everything that Podemos warns against on the left. That Iglesias’ criticisms and program irked a man living in a political 1917 shows he going down the right road. He and Podemos are making leftwing thought and action a real thing in a real present. To see Iglesias talking to the European Union (with subtitles), look below. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. His latest books are The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and an anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.