Smile at the Indignados: Podemos struggle for a new politics

Simona Rentea and Joan Pedro-Carañana Dec 17, 2015

With the December 20 general elections approaching in Spain, many eyes are on Podemos. The fate of the ‘purple party’ has fascinated analysts and publics in Europe and beyond since its inception in 2014, because Podemos’ future might easily be the future of the European anti-austerity left. This week's guest theme looks at the party, its origins, roller-coaster short history, and meaning for the future, through the eyes of some of those involved.

In the last televised leaders’ debate on December 7 in preparation for the general elections on December 20 in Spain, Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias concluded his campaign with a call to the electorate. First, he urged voters to remember a catalogue of abuses and violations committed against their social, economic and political rights by PP and PSOE – famous cases of corruption, the reform of the labour law and cuts in public services. Second, he invited voters – to smile:

‘smile at the 15-M, smile at the squares, smile at the neighbours that stop house evictions, smile at Ada Colau, at the self-employed and small business owners, at those who wake up at six in the morning to go to work, and at those who wake up at six in the morning but have no place to go to…’

This, we believe is what is at stake in these elections, and Podemos’ chances of electoral success. These elections could be historic, confirming a rupture in the post-1978 transition regime (from Franco’s authoritarian rule to one sort of democracy limited by the undue influence of political and economic elites), if the electorate hears his call. The Indignados, or 15-M movements (as referred to in Spain after May 15, 2011 when the Occupation of Sol Square began), and their progeny, the neighbourhood assemblies (‘Tides’ or Mareas) in defense of public services, and myriad organisations fighting to recuperate key social and political rights, had already ruptured the social-political landscape of Spain. They thought it through (as there is always thought in anger, indignation, hope, and joy), shared knowledge and skills, ‘made squares’ in the squares and created future visions of what our political life could be.

The 15-M, as free culture activist and 15-M participant, Marga Padilla, said, produced ‘an actualisation of the political dimension of life’. The mobilisation was unique in that it brought to the squares in spontaneous fashion, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and different political persuasions – the previously disengaged, the activists, the citizens and guests, the old and the young – to share what they had in common: a strong feeling of unease that needed to be brought out into the open and pondered about in the streets and squares.

These transversal, non-indentitarian features of the movement earned it the scornful rejection of its political effectivity by both the mainstream media and the political class as nothing but an emotive crowd. The facile dismissal of the affective dimension of our political lives, part of a more general liberal reduction of affective states to individual, irrational emotions, remains a powerful tool for presenting popular mobilisations as either politically irrelevant or dangerous.

Yet, these activists refused to individualise risk, accept fear, and experience insecurity alone – the effects of the moralising discourse of austerity, with its abject subjects – and embraced instead their precarious experience of a common life. They thought it through (as there is always thought in anger, indignation, hope, and joy), shared knowledge and skills, ‘made squares’ in the squares and created future visions of what our political life could be, and what it would mean to enact a genuine self-management of our life in common.

A new sense of politics was thus born, one based on an ethics of care for each life, for the environment and for what we hold together, for common thinking and collective decision-making. This new horizon of imagination that sprung out of utter exhaustion and insecurity (and which could have easily courted defeatism, isolation and disengagement), ushered in a new relationship between political life and the power of collective thought. The realisation that there is no road, no map, and no direction created an immediate and intense need to begin the search for it together. And so they did go searching; the creative innovation of 15-M is without precedence in the history of Spanish movements.

The struggle for this new politics and imagination continued and rose up again in February and March 2014, when hundreds of thousands walked together in large columnas from all corners of Spain culminating in a 2 million-strong march in Madrid held on 22 March. These Marches of Dignity were the revival of the transformative, experimental spirit of 15-M. People walked, ate, slept and talked, met in town and village squares to share their misery, exhaustion and general sense of exclusion and to seek out new ideas for how to live the crisis with a little more hope: ‘we are indignant and angry, but full of dignity’, as one of their slogans went. These activists refused to individualise risk, accept fear, and experience insecurity alone. 

We remember the people in the Marches already speaking with hope of a new party (formed only a little earlier, in January 2014) and the role that it might play in bringing about a much-needed change in the institutions. The realisation that after years of social struggle and mobilisation, things were even harder than before – with unemployment rates soaring in 2013-4 and the effects of the cuts in public services peaking – brought home the realisation that a broader strategy was needed: the struggle for social change required now an agent for institutional change, one capable of embarking on the electoral route.

This was how Podemos was born, with this hope of acting as the electoral arm of these broad movements for a new politics. It is their constituent spirit that gave it the legitimacy to claim itself as a new kind of political force, an innovative party. This too is why Podemos set itself the task on the state level of capturing this transformative spirit and harnessing the popular unity of these constituent movements  for the upcoming elections, convinced that it alone was capable of this.

Early hopes in Podemos were of a movement-party that could herald a new age in institutional practice in Spain. Its transparent measures of party financing, transversal appeal, open procedures for the formulation of programs and candidates’ lists, as well as its defence of social and economic rights in its programs were all strides in this direction.

However, as the process of construction unfolded rapidly and Podemos had to plunge into the electoral game (in a series of no fewer than five electoral contests in only one year), pragmatism and compromise soon took over and the ‘emotions of 15-M’ had to be put to one side. In order to build a successful electoral machine, it thought it necessary to centralise, concentrate power and ideas, limit participation and the influence of its wide social base.

Will it be asked to pay the price for this now? In the lead up to the Sunday general elections, this week’s guest feature on openDemocracy takes these concerns as its main theme and looks into Podemos’ capacity to act as an agent for socio-political transformation in Spain today.

We ask a series of related questions: What are the main features and innovations of the ‘Podemos project’; what are its limitations? Is Podemos the articulation of the spirit of 15-M within institutional, electoral politics? Can a genuine movement-party be built within the confines of our current political frames of the nation-state and the European Union? How can we successfully address the relationships between the party, social movements, and a citizens’ majority? What can we learn from this experience; what strategies and tactics for socio-political change can we garner?

Introducing our contributors…

We hope you will agree that the plurality of views and responses to these questions that we have gathered together here, indicates the depth and nuance of the debate taking place in Spain today, introducing new voices to our international audiences.

With the general elections in Spain approaching in under a week’s time, many eyes are on Podemos. The fate of the ‘purple party’ has fascinated analysts and publics, in Europe and beyond, since its inception in 2014. That is because Podemos’ future might easily be the future of the European anti-austerity left; its trials and tribulations are lessons to be learnt, its successes sparks of inspiration.

The theme is also timely in the context of the rising success of extreme right-wing European parties in mobilising the spirit of discontent that plagues European politics and institutions today. Spain could prove yet again to be a creative laboratory in which to test measures harnessing the unease and indignation of Europe’s peoples in the direction of a progressive politics of collective social transformation, firmly rejecting ethnic and national divisions, xenophobia and hatred. The question remains: can Podemos do it, can it get us to smile at 15-M? And, once the moment of pragmatism is past, can it return to the squares and say with an easy heart: ‘We did everything we could’?

This week from Spain: 

‘Who are we?’ On Monday, our week begins with an analysis of Podemos’ origins in the fracture of the post-1978 regime and the emancipatory spirit of 15-M. In the opening article, Madrid-based philosopher and member of Podemos’ State Citizens’ Council, German Cano emphasises the party’s quest to expand the space of ‘what is possible’. Drawing on her experience as both 15-M activist and Podemos member and representative, Zaragoza-based labour lawyer Violeta Barba highlights the centrality of the new form of politics for Podemos, both in terms of its method – the assembly, consensus-based politics model of the square – and content – given by the socially progressive provisions already introduced by local and regional governments, with Podemos’ support.

Podemos as something very new: On Tuesday, we expand on Podemos’ capacity to stage a genuine social and political transformation. In the first article, Cecilia Salazar, Podemos’ spokesperson for education for the Madrid Assembly, relates how opening up new spaces for political participation within the institutions led to an education programme based on the proposals of the Marea Verde, promoting free, public and secular education as a means of fighting social inequality. Accompanying this, philosopher and Podemos member, Carlos Fernández-Liria explains how its centrist program is at once transformational and anti-systemic: based as it is on the Republican principles of freedom, equality, fraternity and rule of law.

Zoom in on the relationship with the social movements: On Wednesday, we look in more depth at Podemos’ vexed relationship with the social movements with which it is nonetheless closely related. Curro Machuca-Prieto and Javier Fernández-Cruztwo academics, 15-M participants and members of Málaga Ahora, claim that municipalism came about in Spain as a corrective to Podemos’ attempt to make itself the exclusive heir to 15-M. They warn against the neglect of decentralised movements, local power and a role for citizen participation. Daniel Cao, himself an activist for the MareaAtlántica currently governing the city of A Coruña, takes up their theme in a closer look at what he sees as Podemos’ disastrous turn towards the ‘TickTock’ politics of quasi-military confrontation with the PP Government, at the expense of the ‘RunRun spirit’ of 15-M and the municipalist current. Finally, Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, scholar, education activist and 15-M participant, argues that regardless of whether it wins or loses, Podemos as an instrument of social transformation and institutional assault will have reached its limit.

Also, Carlos Delclós interviews Jorge Moruno, coordinator of communications and messaging for Podemos, who argues that citizen movements should have their own autonomy, so that  they can provide support for Podemos but also act as a counter-power to the party, and engage in conflict. For Jorge, there is an herculean task before us: to seduce and convince, expand narratives and practices to include the part of the population that is still missing. And, thanks to EUAlternatives, we include a video-debate,(TalkReal from Madrid) with Juan Luis Sánchez (, Carlos Delclos (ROAR), Ana Méndez and Mario Munero (City of Madrid) on the capacity of Spain’s grassroots politics to influence parliament and on the importance of Podemos’ performance in the elections to the future of progressive politics.

The project’s critics: On Thursday, scholars and social activists critique the ‘Podemos project’. Our opening piece, by Arianne Sved, 15-M activist and member of Barcelona en Comú (the citizens’ platform currently governing Barcelona) looks into the causes behind its electoral decline since January 2015. Are they due to their rejection of the previously successful local ‘confluence’ model in the general elections, and adoption of a centralised party formation? Communications professor Francisco Sierra Caballero, deploying Ibero-American conceptualisations of mediation, finds Podemos’ communication strategy wanting from the standpoint of a political economy of communication. In the concluding piece of the day, political scientist and co-founder of the circulo Podemos Marbella-San Pedro, Marco Arafat Garrido, offers a critical genealogy of the construction of Podemos, showing the steps through which a party that was built collectively could later be appropriated by an elite.


Simona is a political scientist and IR scholar trained in Romania and the UK. Having grown up through the early days of the Romanian post-totalitarian transition, she became interested in processes of radical social transformation and began asking questions about the role and limits of imagination in shaping up transformative politics, first in her Manchester PhD and then her postdoctoral years at Aberystwyth, in Wales. While in the UK, she was involved with struggles in defence of public education and the campaigns against the rise in university fees and cuts in higher education. Since arriving in Spain, Simona has started a new project on anti-austerity movements in southern Europe looking in particular at the role of affective states in the transversal practices of large-scale social mobilisations, such as 15-M and 22-M. She took part in 22-M Marchas de la Dignidad in 2014 and has been following the development of Podemos since its inception, participating in circulo meetings and municipal platforms’ assemblies, particularly in Andalusia.

Joan is a media and communications scholar who studies the socio-historical transformations of communication, education and culture. Joan participated in a variety of social movements since the demonstrations in Madrid against the PP-driven marketisation of education in 2001 and the historical protests against the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003. He studied Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alicante, where he co-founded AlterZoom, a magazine dedicated to critical media analysis. Joan wrote his doctoral thesis on the ongoing transformation of the university system (in the context of the application of the Bologna process in Spain) and developed a socio-historical analysis of the university’s missions since the Middle Ages at Complutense University in Madrid. With the emergence of Podemos, Joan joined the Education Circle in Madrid, got involved in the Community Management of the social networks and helped compile the proposal put forward by educational organizations for the program for the regional and municipal elections in 2015.

This article originally appeared at OpenDemocracy.


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