Podemos and Progressive Populism

There is no politics without the creation of political frontiers, but creating such frontiers becomes more difficult when one cannot rely on stable entities (such as the classes of Marxist discourse) but has to construct through political action the very social entities which have to be emancipated.[i]

 (Ernesto Laclau)

El Momento de Apertura

Podemos traces its origins back to the 15-M or indignados movement, which in 2011 brought millions of people onto to the streets of Spain in protest at the country’s dysfunctional and corrupt political system. Drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring and the successful Icelandic revolt against banking bailouts, activists using the online forum ‘Democracia Real Ya!’ initiated the movement with a call for national demonstrations on May 15th against the unjust manner with which the political and financial institutions had responded to the economic crisis. Though this call was not supported by any political party, labour union or NGO and was ignored by the mass media, tens of thousands people demonstrated on the day and subsequently were involved in setting up camps occupying the central squares of many Spanish cities. However like many other similar protest movements in recent years that have irrupted spontaneously, 15M found it difficult to keep momentum going and by 2013 had largely disappeared from public view at a national level, leaving many activists and former participants frustrated at the movements’ lack of measureable results.[ii]

            Yet while 15-M didn’t have an immediate or direct impact on Spain’s two-party political system, for Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón, Carolina Bescansa and Juan Carlos Monedero, the political scientists who were to form the core leadership of Podemos, what it did reveal was the sheer depth of the system’s legitimacy crisis, one which they believed provided a generational opportunity for fundamental political change analogous to that found in Latin America fifteen years earlier. In this respect what was key for them about 15-M, beyond questions of its novel use of social media and direct assembly democracy, was how it had managed to resonate and strike a chord in mainstream public opinion, with a poll conducted by El Pais at the time of the protests finding 68% support for the movement. Their most publicized slogan “no nos representan” seemed to capture the widespread feeling that people had across Spain of having been betrayed by their political representatives and being left to pay for the brunt of the financial crisis. Indeed with the Socialist governments’ U-turn on its electoral promises to protect levels of spending on public services and social welfare, its inability to deal with either the growing number of housing evictions or the unemployment crisis and a string of corruption scandals involving both major parties, people were easily able to identify with the Democracia Real Ya manifesto when it claimed: “Politicians should be bringing our voice to the institutions, facilitating the political participation of citizens… not getting rich and prospering at our expense, attending only to the dictatorship of major economic powers.”[iii]

            Hence though ultimately short lived, what Iglesias and the others saw in this wave of popular anger that 15-M gave expression to, was a fundamental shift in the ‘common sense’ ideas and beliefs within Spanish society, one which opened up the possibility of politicizing a new social majority and mobilizing them as part of a much more organized counter-hegemonic project against the current political and economic order. This project would push an agenda of social justice, greater equality and the renewal of the public sphere, classic left-wing issues, but would attempt to frame them in a new populist language that could connect with people’s disillusionment with current elites and try to direct it in a progressive direction. Of particular influence in coming to formulate their strategy was the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, whose 2005 work On Populist Reason conceived of populism as a particular way new political identities are formed when at moments of crisis “there is a widening chasm separating the institutional system from the people.”[iv] In this respect Laclau examines how various political leaders and organizations, ranging from De Gaulle, Juan Peron and Thatcher to the Italian Communist Party used a populist strategy at times of deep socio-political crisis to win people over to the need for a radical reorganization of existing institutions and power relations.

The first condition for such a populist strategy is the ability of a leader or party to draw together various sources of fragmented popular discontent which are generated across the social field during a crisis and to articulate and give voice to their concerns through a discourse which identifies the common source of their problems and suffered wrongs as the existing status quo. The aim here is to draw a new political frontier dividing “the social space into two antagonistic camps” so that the interests and demands of ordinary people are seen as conflicting with those of the current establishment.[v] If politics involves a confrontation between opposing collective values and interests, then populism entails an intensification of this, with the political field explicitly conceived as a polarized space which is divided by a fundamental difference of interest. Clearly during periods of political stability such a populist appeal cannot hope to gain much traction, with even some of the demands of subordinate and marginalized sectors of society coming to be addressed and integrated into the existing order.[vi] Yet as that order begins to falter and institutions lose their ability to more or less manage points of social conflict, the inherent tensions between the dominant interests in society and those of other sectors tend to become ever more apparent. As Pablo Iglesias himself recently claimed “a political crisis is a moment for daring, it is when a revolutionary is capable of looking people in the eye and telling them, ‘Look, those people are your enemies.’”[vii].

In setting up this dichotomy in which the political and economic establishment becomes an enemy which must be struggled against and (democratically) defeated, a populist leadership is asserting the impossibility of a taking a more moderate reformist position, arguing instead for the necessity of instituting a rupture with the current order if people’s interests are to be met. Yet this also requires, secondly, that if they are to have a lasting historical impact such forces cannot merely try to subvert the existing state of things but rather must also present themselves “as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new order.”[viii] Here populist movements have to operate as a rallying point that can put forward an alternative vision of society which can attract and speak to the concerns and aspirations of various disaffected groups, fusing them into a new more unified political force. To form such a counter-hegemonic bloc, populists must be able to provide forms of collective identification that can resonate and inspire across society so that people primarily come to conceive of the possibility of their particular grievances being met in terms of being part of a wider popular struggle. This is a key moment in the consolidation of any movement as rather than being held together solely in terms of their common opposition to an enemy, a positive collective identity begins to be articulated, a sense of being part of a shared common project greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect, representation must be understood as an active and formative relationship, in which rather than merely giving voice to already existing constituencies, the leadership of a populist movement comes to construct a new collective popular will that is committed to a struggle for social change.

La Casta

Laclau is frequently referenced by both Iglesias and Errejon in explaining their approach to politics and his influence can be clearly seen in what is probably the central claim of Podemos’ discourse – that the fundamental political division in contemporary Spain, and Europe more generally, is not that between left and right but rather between la casta y la gente (the caste and the people). The idea of la casta is employed by the Podemos leadership as a way of linking the more immediate sources of people’s anger at the political system, i.e. widespread corruption and the unfairness of austerity policies, to a more complex analysis of how political institutions have come to operate in a global political economy dominated by financial and corporate interests.[ix] In Disputar La Democracia Iglesias writes that the economic crisis “has made completely visible a political class project which originated in the seventies”, in which through their continual struggle for the internationalization and deregulation of markets and production systems, the corporate sector have over the last thirty years managed to escape the system of social regulation imposed throughout the Keynesian era.[x] As this neo-liberal global economy took shape, there has been a significant shift in the balance between economic and political power, with the greater mobility of productive and financial capital leaving governments in a position of being much more dependent on market confidence in order to secure investment and economic growth. The result has been the steady depoliticization of national democracies. Substantive partisan differences between mainstream parties have gradually been eroded as the leadership of European Social Democracy have come to believe that they must accept, and even embrace, the need to modify their parties’ social and economic policies so as to fit in with the demands of internationalized markets.

Within this context of neo-liberal hegemony, Iglesias’ idea of la casta is pointing to how this new dominance of capital must also been seen in terms of the increasing intertwining of economic and political elites. Having slowly shed and watered down their post-war commitment to social rights and a strong welfare state, the leaderships of Socialist and Christian Democratic parties across Europe now operate less as representatives of particular mass social constituencies and much more as another privileged layer of society whose own self-interests are tied up with those of other elite groups. As such, through a whole host of connections, ranging from electoral donations and their use of corporate funded policy research to their strong ties to media conglomerates (Prisa, News Corp, etc.), the whole existence of mainstream European parties has progressively come to be bound up with that of corporations. The result has been a drift towards a party system that has institutionalized the “the permanent promiscuity between politics and money”[xi], thus creating a new combined economic and political elite whose interests are ever more difficult to distinguish and separate. For Iglesias Spain offers an extreme example of this wider trend due in large part to the strength of its “revolving door” culture that tightly links the upper echelons of the Socialist and Popular parties to Spain’s top companies.[xii] From Miguel Boyer and Carlos Solchaga in Gonzalez’s Socialist (PSOE) led governments of the late 1980s and 1990s to Luis de Guindos in the current PP cabinet, key economic ministries have nearly without exception been run by individuals who come from Spain’s powerful financial sector.[xiii] At the same time it has become routine for ex-minsters to move straight into lucrative positions on the boards of major Spanish corporations when they leave office, most notably ex-prime ministers Gonzalez and Aznar who have sat on the boards of energy and media multinationals, as well as ex-finance minister and IMF chief Rodrigo Rato who has been recently arrested in connection with money-laundering and tax evasion at the troubled financial giant Bankia. Overall in 2014 there were 43 ex-high-level politicians sitting on the boards of Ibex 35 companies earning between them a staggering 21.45 million euro.[xiv]

For Iglesias what is key here about this intertwining of politics and the corporate sector is that by binding the interests of much of the political class to the current economic order, a real tension opens up between these interests and those of the broader public. Immersed within its own distinct elite political culture which is populated by corporate lobbyists, well-funded think tanks and powerful media owners, and underpinned by this confluence of interests, mainstream party politics on the centre-right and -left is united by an outlook that conceives of the prospect of national prosperity in terms of furthering pro-market reforms, such as privatization, deregulation and reducing the corporate tax burden. Yet the fundamental difficulty with this consensus is that one of the defining aspects of the spread of neo-liberal capitalism has been the trend of ever growing inequality of income and wealth, which are both increasingly concentrated at the very top of the economic system among both the super-rich 1% and the high earning professional classes. In his ground-breaking work Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, the economist Thomas Picketty has examined how since the 1980s capital’s portion of national income (i.e. returns on investments) has increased at the expense of that share distributed to wage-earners, reaching levels not seen since the gilded aged of laisse faire capitalism in 1913. While on the other hand there has been “an unprecedented explosion of very elevated incomes”[xv], with the disparity in remuneration between average workers and CEO’s going from thirty to one in 1970 to above three hundred to one today. Prior to 2008 the potential for wider prosperity under such conditions was perceived in terms of workers’ access to cheap credit and the growth in value of households’ financial and property assets as opposed to their wages. Hence in Spain, where labour market deregulation had led to a stagnation in the value of wages (with a 3% fall in real wages between 2000 and 2009), the belief that home-owning working- and middle-class families had achieved a new and permanent level of prosperity was perpetuated by a decade long property bubble. This ensured social peace and a sense of legitimacy for the PSOE government without having to either tackle inequality or substantially increase social expenditure.[xvi] Yet in bringing such illusions to an end, the collapse of the property market has revealed a highly polarized social order, where not only has unemployment remained above 20% (rising to 50% for those under 29) but just over one third of the Spanish workforce are also having to contend with living on or below the minimum yearly wage of just €9,034. Furthermore average real wages dropped 9% between 2009-13, while “nearly one hundred thousand evictions have taken place yearly, at some points over five hundred a day.”[xvii]

Hence what the sheer injustice of Spain’s austerity policies has revealed is the growing divide between the priorities and interests of economic and political elites and the prosperity and economic welfare of the rest of society. In his speeches and written texts Iglesias repeatedly claims that politicians have a choice – they can either govern for a privileged minority or for the people. In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, the symbiotic relationship between politics and capital has ensured that when forced to choose, the response of both the PP and PSOE has been to shield the corporate sector, and in particular finance, from the costs of the crisis, thus placing the burden on ordinary citizens. Governments tend to justify this in terms of how ‘there is no alternative’ or in terms of how they have to take tough decisions to secure government finances[xviii], and certainly in 2010 Zapatero came under huge pressure from European leaders and the Obama administration to agree to strict deficit reducing targets so as to pacify financial markets. Yet according to a UNHCR report, far from ensuring the burden fell on those groups who could most afford it, the policy decisions determining how this deficit reduction should be achieved “disproportionally affected marginal [social] groups, especially the poor, women and children, the unemployed, elderly, gypsies and asylum seekers”.[xix] Iglesias is adamant this outcome cannot be seen as an accident. Neither can the fact that the focus of structural reforms under both Zapatero and Rajoy has been on greater labour market flexibility, such as giving firms greater freedom in setting wages and reducing the costs of firing permanent staff[xx], rather than on tackling popular grievances such as the systemic corruption in regional government, corporate tax avoidance or rewriting the country’s draconian laws on mortgage default, which massively favour the banks. Instead such decisions must be seen to be the responsibility of a political class for whom, having surrendered their political independence from other elite interests, it has become second-nature to view deference to the power of finance and the corporate sector as in the wider ‘national interest’. As Iglesias put it forcefully in a recent speech in Malaga:

Los tres grandes problemas del país que en Andalucía se agraven son paro, la desigualdad y la deuda y los políticas de austeridad que aplicaban los partidos que han gobernado en las crisis no han servido para solucionar…Hay mas paro, hay mas desigualdad y mas deuda pero no es un problema solo de que sean ineficientes. No es un problema solo de que demostrado que son capaces de resolver los problemas. Es que han gobernado para los de arribas…Ese es el problema de la corrupción, gobernar para los privilegiados. Quierea decir que la problema de corrupción son solamente que haya mangantes y mira que hay magantes…pero eso no es el problema. El problema de la corrupción es que en España el 1% tiene igual que el 70%. El problema de la corrupción es que desde empezó la crisis hay un 27% mas de ricos, exacmente el mismo porcentaje de personas en riesgo de pobreza. El problema de la corrupción es que haya aumentado un 30% la compra de coches lujo exactamente el mismo porcentaje que han aumentado las ayudas de caritas tiene que emplear alimentar a gente que no puede por el comer.

[The three major problems in our country, which are more severe in Andalucía, are unemployment, inequality and debt and the austerity policies that the governing parties have applied during the crisis have failed to solve these … There is more unemployment, more inequality and more debt. But this is not only a problem of them being incompetent. It’s not only a problem which showed their inability to solve these problems. It is that they have governed for those at the top… That’s the problem of corruption, governing for the privileged. They want to say that the problem of corruption is only thieves and fraudsters and look there are thieves… but that’s not the problem. The problem of corruption is that in Spain the (wealth of the) 1% is equal to 70%. The problem of corruption is that since the crisis began there is 27% more rich people, exactly the same percentage of people at risk of poverty. The problem of corruption is that there has been a 30% increase in the purchase of luxury cars, exactly the same as the increase in the food aid given by Caritas to help people who cannot feed themselves.]

This idea of the wider systemic corruption of the political order has been a central feature of Podemos’ narrative, and has been used by the party leadership in their push to re-orientate the terms of debate of Spanish politics away from the logic of the two party system, where any progressive challenge tends to end up subsumed under the question of which of the major parties will lead the next government. For Errejón the possibility of such a shift away from bipartidismo was opened up by 15-M.[xxi] Its message of a broken, unrepresentative democracy, where the periodic rotation of the left and right in power seemed to only entrench corruption and political unresponsiveness, struck a chord in mainstream public opinion and gave voice to a new anti-establishment common sense within Spanish society. Building on this, what Podemos have argued is that with the political and economic elites coming to operate as a closed self-referential caste that is incapable of looking beyond its own narrow interests and priorities, the existing party system as whole must be conceived as a barrier to change which needs to be swept away if pressing social issues such as inequality are to be addressed. In this sense, Podemos’ narrative aims to redefine the lines of Spanish politics around this struggle against the old ruling elites who, having monopolised power in Spain for over thirty years, are together responsible for the hollowing out and corruption of Spanish democracy. This is the enemy which Pablo Iglesias believes he can convince the Spanish people to oppose and mobilize in support of its defeat. As he recently put it : “En España no hay una mayoría social moderada, hay un pueblo… que tiene muy claro quienes son sus enemigos; las élites políticas y económicas que les han robado y se han enriquecido a su costa.” [“In Spain there is no moderate social majority, rather there exists ‘a people’ which clearly knows who its enemies are; the political and economic elites that have robbed them and become rich at their expense”]

La Gente

While concentrating their attack against this elite caste, Podemos have also carefully cultivated an alternative political project which they believe a new social majority in Spain can come to identify with. For Iglesias the need for such a new project was evident in the real lack of connection between the majority of those who mobilized in the 15-M movement and the existing discourses and identities of the radical left. At the forefront of these mobilizations were “impoverished middle classes”, unemployed graduates and “young workers in sectors with no strong union presence”, many of whom had never been politically active before. Decades of neoliberalism had left these broad sectors of society atomised, without a clear political identity and completely unable to relate to the traditional symbols and culture of the Spanish left. This is where Laclau’s theory of populism becomes particularly important as for Iglesias and Errejón these heterogeneous social groups seemed a textbook case of an unorganized “subaltern” mass calling out for a new political identity to believe in. As such, with their pre-existing social identity, “based on high consumption levels” and individual prosperity, thrown into crisis by austerity and housing-market crash, these popular classes have been left disorientated.[xxii] While they had lost faith in the existing system, at the same time, they lacked a concrete political alternative that they could identify with. Seeing an opening here, the leadership of Podemos have set out to create a new populist discourse that can connect with this wider spectrum of society by giving voice to their sense of anger and engaging them in the need for a new politics of progressive social change.

Here populism is about bringing those who have been excluded from the process of representation into the political arena; however faced with social “sectors with a barely formed (political) will of their own”, a populist force has to take on an active role in this representative process by offering such constituencies a sense of who they are as a political subjects and what is in their collective interest. While the strong political and emotional charge of populism arises out of its call to re-assert the primacy of the people against an unrepresentative elite, a successful populist discourse also has to be able to build up a new consensus among the disaffected as to what constitutes their own common good as ordinary citizens.[xxiii] Hence through their frequent appearances in the media over the last year and half, the leadership of Podemos have honed a discourse which in eschewing the alienating rhetoric of anti-capitalism and republicanism for more accepted terms like citizenship, patriotism and social and human rights, aims to convince the masses of their shared interest in a politics whose priorities and principles fundamentally break with the current neoliberal consensus in Spanish politics. Constructed in opposition to the current orthodoxy, this vision of the common good is defined around the core themes of social justice, democratic renewal and the retrieval of sovereignty from the markets. Here the ability of Podemos to win over voters to such an agenda has involved a pragmatic strategy of trying to carefully channel public opinion in a progressive ‘post-neoliberal’ direction on these issues but without, at the same time, going too far and losing touch with existing common sense. In Errejón’s terms it has aimed to navigate the narrow path between conformism and marginality – trying to put forward policies that represent a significant alternative to the current order but which a majority of the population can also come to accept as both realistic and desirable rather than only appealing to those within existing leftist circles. [xxiv]

            For example in regard to social justice, Podemos presents itself as representing the desire of the immense majority for a shift away from an ever more marketised society and towards one which guarantees the dignity and welfare of all its citizens by prioritizing the strengthening of social rights and protections. Confronted with the casta’s abandonment of the public sphere as a space of collective provision and equal rights, the party’s platform goes well beyond merely calling for a reverse in the cuts to public spending, insisting on the need to deepen investment in the welfare state so as to ensure free universal access to healthcare, schools and universities and to expand public housing. This is to be funded through higher and more effective forms of taxation on corporate profits and high earners, while it is justified in terms of the need for a new popular force to occupy and defend the mainstream political space vacated by Social Democracy in recent decades. Here the party emphasize how these measures wouldn’t have seemed in any way radical 30 years ago and point to existing levels of taxation and investment in the welfare state in countries such as Sweden and France as examples of its viability. At the same time the party stops short of calling for the (re)nationalization of energy, tele-communications or the financial sector, believing there is no chance of achieving widespread support for such measures within the current conjuncture and instead talk of the need to better regulate these core areas of the economy so that the rights of ordinary citizens take precedence over those of corporations on issues of vital public importance, such as rights to housing around evictions and the need for sustainable utility costs.[xxv] Similarly on the question of how to combat increased precariousness in the labour market, the leadership has promised to implement a series of measures, such as raising the statutory minimum wage, introducing an annual minimum income supplement and limiting the working week to 35-hours, yet while simultaneously seeming to distance themselves from one of their defining policies from last year’s European elections, that of a universal basic income. Though not fully abandoning this policy, support for a basic income for all citizens has become more aspirational rather than a concrete promise, with the minimum income payment (which is particularly aimed at assisting those who do not qualify for unemployment benefit) seen as a more achievable first step in tackling the injustices of Spain’s labour market.

Hence in tempering their demands on social justice and making it more difficult for a hostile media to credibly paint them as irresponsible radicals, party leaders have aimed to reach out to those beyond their core base of support who have been hit by the crisis and convince them of their strong common interest in a politics which prioritizes collective welfare over individualism, social rights over market competition and the renewed use of the state as a means for egalitarian wealth redistribution. Coupled with their vision for democratic renewal, which aims to purge Spanish politics of corporate influence and open it up to greater citizen participation, Podemos have come to construct a new form of progressive populism, the like of which does not exist in other major European states. Its discourse sharply differentiates between the identity, interests and values of the people and those of the old elites, portraying itself as defending the former against the latter. Yet whereas UKIP and the Front National have harnessed a similar strategy for the right in their respective countries, Podemos have championed an idea of the Spanish people as a progressive nation which believes in social solidarity, human rights and democratic accountability, in stark contrast to the corrupt closed-in caste which has dominated the country’s politics for over thirty years. In re-orientating the terms of Spanish politics around this dichotomy, the party’s discourse has aimed to offer the alienated popular classes a sense of who they are politically, based not on xenophobia or conservative reaction but instead around a shared interest in a project for substantive and egalitarian political change.

[i] Contingency, Hegemony, Universality p. 306

[ii] Castells Networks of Outrage and Hope pp. 110-140

r[iii] http://www.democraciarealya.es/manifiesto-comun/manifesto-english/

[iv] Laclau On Populist Reason p. 77

[v] ibid. p. 202

[vi] Hegemony in the Gramscian sense is this “power of the leading elites to convince subaltern groups that they share the same interests, including them within a general consensus, albeit in a subordinate role.”


[vii] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/31/podemos-revolution-radical-academics-changed-european-politics

[viii] Laclau p. 177

[ix] Conversacion con Pablo Iglesias p. 37

[x] Disputar La Democracia p.115

[xi] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/31/podemos-revolution-radical-academics-changed-european-politics

[xii] Iglesias Dis p. 72

See also chapter 2 of Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy

[xiii] The particularly close relationship between politics and finance in post-Franco Spain is exemplified by how it became common practice for banks to periodically wipe clean massive debts which major parties run up with them, leaving the finances of both the PP and the PSOE particularly dependent on this powerful sector. This practice was only banned in December 2014 after the rise of Podemos.

[xiv] ‘La puerta giratoria en sueldos: 21,4 millones para los 43 expolíticos del Ibex en 2014’


[xv] p.Piketty p. 24 and 42

[xvi] http://newleftreview.org/II/69/isidro-lopez-emmanuel-rodriguez-the-spanish-model

[xvii] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/podemos-spain-pablo-iglesias-european-left/

[xviii] Speaking of the necessity of austerity, Rajoy gave his own version of TINA as follows “Spaniards cannot choose; we do not enjoy that freedom.”

Joaquín Estefanía ‘A thousand days of austerity’


[xix] ‘Spain on a knife edge as austerity cuts hit poor’ The Independent

A prominent economics columnist for El Pais characterized these policies as “a series of unprecedented spending cuts: public sector workers’ salaries would be reduced and pensions frozen; the 2,500-euro payment to new parents aimed at increasing the birth rate would be stopped; state investment slashed, some of the payments to families caring for dependents ended”.

Joaquín Estefanía ‘A thousand days of austerity’



[xxi] Errejon ‘Que es Podemos?’ Le Monde Diplomatique

[xxii] http://newleftreview.org/II/93/pablo-iglesias-understanding-podemos

[xxiii] Errejon and Mouffe Construir Pueblo p.34

[xxiv]  Errejon ‘Que es Podemos?’ Le Monde Diplomatique

[xxv] See Monedero’s answer to the question ‘what is the party’s vision?’ in this news report:

[xxvii]“Don’t they represent us?”: A discussion between Jacques Rancière and Ernesto Laclau           http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2008-don-t-they-represent-us-a-discussion-between-jacques-ranciere-and-ernesto-laclau


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