American Podemos Part II: Factors & Forces in the USA

by Matt Hoke on January 14, 2015

3 way war

A continuation of the American Podemos series.

Let’s break down some comparisons between Spain and ourselves in the USA.


Background Events

Let’s not waste too much time comparing situations. Spain has more of a history with socialist and anarchist parties and forces, and their economic situation is worse. But let’s not forget that almost 50% of the total jobs destroyed in the global recession were destroyed in the United States, or that we have one of the highest levels of dissatisfaction with government in history. And of course, we obviously had a recession, a protest movement (Occupy Wall Street), and that movement subsided, leaving a yearning for a mass-political institutional form – all just like Spain.

It’s not like the masses have gone to sleep in the USA since Occupy; plenty of movements, rebellions and electoral efforts have occurred since. But while many of them have been inspiring, none of them (except possibly Ferguson) project a national, visible, clearly political front of resistance. The possibilities are ripe for a party in the USA.


Electoral Opportunity

What is the American equivalent of Spain’s May 2014 EU delegation elections? We don’t have one, but the most comparable thing would be the elections of 2016.

For one thing, they are a presidential election year. This ensures that, while we may not have the resources to run a presidential campaign with any seriousness, everyone will be thinking about elections because presidential elections are the ones Americans tend to focus on.

However, to say that the elections of 2016 are our equivalent does not mean that we should necessarily run a candidate for president. Some have tried to get Bernie Sanders to run for president; the Greens and SPUSA will surely continue their tradition of running presidential candidates with expectations in the single digits. But how this helps in terms of actually building an organized Left has never been clear. The important thing about the Podemos run (and the Sawant run) was that they actually had the possibility of winning positions, and pulled it off. Rather, the closest thing we could do is use the public buzz around the 2016 election to run a massive wave of winnable local campaigns.

Some context: Spain has national legislative & EU delegation elections with proportional representation, whereas we have winner-takes-all elections broken into geographic units. It is much easier for the Spanish to utilize national attention with a small force and actually win seats. Also Spain’s system was established after the dissolution of fascism in 1978. They are much more willing to experiment with new government structures than we are, since their system is much younger. Ours is over 200 years old and hasn’t changed much the entire time, and we kind of have a national cult religion around our Constitution.

We have to work with what we’ve got, which is 2016’s plethora of presidential, congressional, and local races.


Initial Declaration & Left Groups

Podemos was launched by a small multi-tendency anticapitalist group (Izquierda Anticapitalista, 500 people) circulating a proposal (the Mover Ficha Manifiesto) among a milieu of professors, plus some activist leaders and celebrities.

The closest equivalent in the USA would be the Independent Political Action Conference scheduled for Chicago in April of 2015. This has been more or less called by an electoral sub-committee of the group Solidarity, but they are trying to be collaborative about it rather than making it their own project. Like their Spanish counterpart, they are circulating this proposal amongst various figureheads, but in their case it is mainly among Socialists, Progressives, and Greens who have actually run for office recently, not professors.

Some differences: for one thing, Solidarity is smaller than IA. This is probably not the biggest deal, though, since in the big scheme of things IA was pretty tiny anyway. A much more important difference, however, is that Podemos’ Mover Ficha Manifiesto had a very clear purpose – to run candidates who conformed to the manifesto’s political principles in Spain’s 2014 EU elections.

The purpose of the Independent Political Action Conference, however, is really not so clear. Is it going to launch a party? A network? Or produce nothing and be a total waste of time? That happens too. Furthermore, the fact that it is an in-person conference, and not simply a circulated paper or an online party, makes it much harder to commit to. In-person conferences require travel money and time off. Many workers and Millennials can afford neither, though internet connections are much more common.

It might make more sense just to launch an electoral coalition, or agree to contend the elections of 2016, without even needing to meet in person. But anyway, if you’re a strategically-minded leftist in the USA, the Independent Political Action Conference of Spring 2015 in Chicago is something you should pay attention to.

As far as the Left in general, the USA has a group Socialist Alternative which has showed willingness to experiment – and most importantly, simply to dare – with running candidates for office. After their success, some other groups have stepped up. The various Left groups of the US may play a role in this process, but if they don’t, to put it bluntly, their members should revolt. Otherwise, if the IPA Conference proves somehow unsatisfactory, it is up to strategically-minded independent socialists like us to move forward however we have to.


Academics & Figureheads

One major problem we face in the USA is that our Left figureheads are complete crap in terms of practical politics, no matter how good their literary contributions might be. Many support voting Democrat, such as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Howard Zinn before he passed.

Others are aligned behind the Green Party, an entity which remains uninspiring for reasons explored elsewhere. Others still are closely tied to the various tiny fragmented Left groups of the US, most of whom have insisted on continuing to build themselves sectionally rather than bothering with something like this – though that may be changing.

We have no Pablo Iglesias, we have no Hugo Chavez; perhaps we pray that time and events create one.  Our closest thing to Iglesias would be Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert and those people are solid Democrats. Can we influence these celebrity-type people? Maybe, but I suspect they would join after-the-fact, not support the launch.

It is one thing to place mass pressure onto people to support a thing already begun, or get them to change something they’re already doing, or stop something bad they’re doing. But you can’t really persuade a figurehead to initiate something they did not think of – initiating something requires taking ownership of it at a deeply personal level which outside pressure typically cannot persuade someone to do. Besides, most of these people have impenetrable fanmail firewalls surrounding them which cannot be cracked.

The noted academics who would actually dare support a party launch are few and far between. Some names that come to mind are Jodi Dean, possibly Naomi Klein.  One of the biggest problems with even the non-Democrat intellectuals and celebrities is that they just do not have the organization-mindedness, or the grit, to launch or support a party – and again, that’s already among the few who are not Democrat supporters.


Internet Power

Perhaps we should imagine something more radical.

Podemos was begun with the cultural capital of people who already had faces, and by organizations which were far less democratic than Podemos itself ultimately became.

Should we instead choose another path? Should we instead be an organization of the faceless, started for and by the faceless? Should the emerging anonymous yet increasingly coordinated we of the Internet, its dissidents, and its independent marxists simply coalesce, without need of the fanfare of celebrities, academics, and established organizations?  Do we dare to hope for something that awesome?

I don’t think we really have a choice. The Independent Political Action Conference will take their crack at it, but the last thing they’re going to do is launch an organization governed by online direct democracy. The best outcome of that conference will most likely be a loose federation of already-existing groups. This is nothing to scoff at – actually it would be a great accomplishment, and there is no reason we cannot support all of the above. But it would not emulate the success of Podemos in unleashing the possibilities of today’s mass-participatory technologies. But that is only the best-case scenario. The worst- case is that the conference and whatever comes out of it will disintegrate in a slump of noncommittal and pointlessness.

We already pour our lives out to each other over Facebook. We already build entire alliances and simulated realities in online games. Add a little structure, a little formality, a bit of orderly procedure – can’t this be the way we govern ourselves? More immediately, can’t it be the way we govern a party?

We have no Caesarian professors, we have no famous talking heads, and whether the efforts of the established groups bear any fruit remains to be seen. We just might have to do this ourselves – and risk being wildly successful.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David Walters January 19, 2015 at 8:26 pm

Amazing…not a word about the class struggle in Spain vs that in the U.S. As if it’s a question of size of left groups or small movements. The fact that Spain for almost 10 years has had a 25% unemployment rate mean anything? That they have had general strikes and movements to break up the Spanish State? I think ignoring this is a very dangerous way to go that will only demoralize activists. Podemos rode a wave of *organized* and unorganized mass discontent. A radicalized workers movement and important national left parties. NONE of that exists here.


Dave Jones January 24, 2015 at 9:09 pm

Agree that the comparison is far from comprehensive. And I haven’t seen any evidence that social media or clicktivism lives up to the hype of its promoters. At best it is another tool for on the ground organizing, necessary but not sufficient.


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