American Podemos Part I: the Factors & Forces Behind Podemos

by Matt Hoke on January 7, 2015

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How it happened for Podemos: Background events

First there was a recession, then there was a movement – as was going on around the world in 2011.

Some places it was called the Arab Spring, other places Occupy, in Spain it was called 15M (for the 15th of May, the day the protests started). They were aimed at protesting Spain’s tremendous unemployment, and reams of evictions. Then the movement subsided (as they always seem to do), leaving the vacuum for a mass-political institutional form. (Some organizations continued the work of the mass protests, like eviction protesters, but not at the same scale or political sweep.)

Then several years after the mass protests subsided, in 2014, there was an electoral opportunity. Not only were several public officials in Spain busy embarrassing themselves with corruption scandals, but the European Union elections of May 2014 (roughly the third anniversary of 15M) offered some possibilities.

Firstly, the May 2014 EU elections were national – they were for electing Spain’s delegation to the EU.  This meant that the entire dissident population of Spain could be called upon to make a mark, instead of just (1) the people who could make time to show up at demonstrations, or (2) the people in one specific locality.

Secondly, elections in Spain work more according to proportional representation, and less according to first-past-the-post geographic representation as in the USA.  In other words, the entirety of Spain voted, and delegates were selected according to the percentage each party received in the national count. This is different from having to fight for each local seat, and each election contest resulting in only one winner. This meant that there was a much greater likeliness that a small force could win seats.


How it happened for Podemos: Initial forces

In this case, the electoral opportunity was seized by a four-way convergence of forces. First, a small multi-tendency anti-capitalist group began discussions with a milieu of academics, namely the Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left) with academics and figureheads mainly at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM) but also others. Note that Izquierda Anticapitalista is only about 500 people large.

The declaration they circulated was the Mover Ficha Manifiesto, roughly translating to “Next Move.” It explicitly called for the need to continue the 15M & indignados movements in a new electoral stage, running candidates who protect jobs, social wellbeing, the public sector (anti-austerity), and who speak and fight to re-establish popular sovereignty over the political system. (This founding document is what would define the politics of Podemos, even while the party’s later founding congress was radically open to the public.) This was signed by about thirty professors, leaders of activist organizations, and celebrities.

The manifesto was announced at a press conference in January 2014, and during that time a well-known public figure named Pablo Iglesias became involved and either was chosen – or volunteered himself, it’s not clear – to be the top Podemos candidate for Spain’s EU election of May 2014.  Iglesias has been an important part of the process not simply because he came to the head of the party later, but because he already carried substantial name-recognition nationally as someone who frequently went on talk shows to represent left-wing perspectives. This name recognition lent further momentum to the process of Podemos’ rise.

So far we have had seven contributing factors:

  1. A bankrupt economic and political situation
  2. A movement against that situation
  3. The movement subsiding, and the passage of time
  4. An electoral opportunity
  5. A small anti-capitalist group with a preference for inter-tendency efforts
  6. A milieu of academics and others who were ready to support such an effort
  7. A public figure who already possessed considerable name-recognition

Now we add an eighth factor – the power of the mature, social-media stage of the Internet. (There’s Internet, then there’s Internet – this ain’t the 90s.)

The EU candidates said they wouldn’t bother running unless they could get 50,000 people to sign up as supporters. They set up a website where people could sign up to be part of this fifty thousand – and met their quota so quickly that it crashed their site.

However, simply having an online sign-up form doesn’t mean much. Everyone has that. The way Podemos really utilized the power of the Internet was after they won five seats in Spain’s EU delegation.

In October 2014, Podemos had a People’s Assembly to determine how exactly their decision-making processes and internal structures would work. They allowed anyone to vote at this Assembly over the Internet, and allowed virtually anyone to join the party (and thus gain voting rights) with only some basic documentation. Furthermore, the process leading up to the congress was truly a hurricane of democracy – according to an article in Links it involved 300 documents, 100 resolutions, culminating in 2500 pages after drafts/mergers/negotiations, and 100 teams presenting these documents and resolutions at Assembly.

Much of this happened in person at the Assembly, but a lot of the writing happened collaboratively over the Internet, the voting was online, and the entire Assembly was livestreamed for Internet participants to watch – apparently 45,000 people voted during the Assembly.

If Lenin was always obsessing with utilizing the modern communications technologies of his time (newspapers) for building a party, then maybe we have to do the same thing, using the technologies and possibilities of our time – the use of mass-participatory media for creating a party of truly mass-participatory democracy.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

mtomas3 January 7, 2015 at 8:52 am

What this synposis lacks in foundation is more than made up by its quick focus on an important lesson–we start because it is truly the “next move”. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, but I believe that to make our “American Podemos”(the counterpoint of “podemos” to the usurped “si se puede/yes we can” is not lost on me), we will truly need to avoid side discussions from detractors and focus on seeking discussion with activists intent on our “American” issues of #BlackLivesMatter, #Immigrantrights, Democracy as a counterpoint to the #surveillancestate–being sure to remain UNAFRAID that others are listening in–and refusing to allow ourselves to engage in “machista” confrontation for the sake of organization and solidarity. This last point is most important to me; women, youth, and the elderly from across the diversity of race and ethnicity must be directly involved–Now–if we are to make a real difference from every other “project” out there. I would rather engage in a “side discussion” with people like Black Lives Matter or Black Agenda Report, red feminists, and teacher/students involved in United Opt Out from standardized testing and education privatization.
I really believe there are significant numbers of us for even a small beginning. I really like the idea of face-to-face alongside internet livestreaming People’s Assembly.

I’ll contribute writings for something like this on a range of issues, but especially related to ending police occupation/community control, solidarity with peoples’ struggles internationally, and the need to demand legalization for immigrants as well as democracy in the movement.


Saturn Concentric January 8, 2015 at 9:40 pm

Author speaking — I totally agree that there are major traps and pitfalls to both discuss, and to avoid repeating in our own context. Thank you for your engagement.


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