Armando Fernández Steinko
Born in Madrid in 1960, he is a researcher, essayist and professor at the Complutense University. Apart from organic farming, he professionally cultivates the fields of history, sociology and political economy. He is a regular contributor to Sozialismus (Hamburg) and El Viejo Topo (Barcelona) magazines
From Podemos’ mistakes to the federal proposal
The general and regional elections of 2019 have put an end to the cycle of political regeneration initiated by the Convergence Boards (2010) and the 15-M Movement (2011), and which Podemos capitalized electorally one year later. As it happened in the period of decline of Izquierda Unida, the organization is not being able to address an in-depth discussion about the causes of its rapid decline. But the capacity it deployed in its best years to add more than 20% of the electorate throughout Spain, and to become the first force in Catalonia and the Basque Country, two plural territories that contain the key to the solution of the identity problem in the whole country has been too important to trivialize this political experiment or settle for personal and anecdotal explanations. What has happened to Podemos?
Communication and reality
Podemos has been a successful experiment in political communication based on the use of a new language and a new symbology. Both things are decisive in politics, but they do not replace the need to recognize or identify social reality, whatever it may be, as the primary material of any transformation project. As much as the communicative arguments are fundamental to transform it, they are a means and never an objective in themselves. Confusing means and objectives generates contradictions between what is proposed and what really happens in society, contradictions that end up eroding social support, ending the effectiveness of communication strategies with the result of a return to the starting point. This exchange between message and reality is positively valued by postmodern thinking and has been exacerbated by the emergence of fake news and new forms of digital communication, although it was already very present in the interwar period. The term “populism” used by the leaders of Podemos reflects the attempt to play with the split between reality and communication. The price to pay has been a deep distrust of the true political objectives of this organization. The term “populism” only admits a progressive reading in the context of Latin American reality and when used in Europe, as Podemos has done, it becomes an easy prey for the enemies of change due precisely to its main communicative advantage, an advantage that becomes a defect when addressing the transformation of reality.
But not only must we identify or recognize the social and institutional reality, whatever it may be, as the basis of any political project, but also, we must aspire to know that reality as best as possible to be able to change it with guarantees of success. Knowing it means having a minimally realistic idea of the groups and social classes that make up a society such as the Spanish one, of its dynamics of change, of the administrative and budgetary procedures that are necessary to manage a (large) town hall, of the dimensions and the limitations of the economic structure of the country in the real international environment – not in the desired one – of social extraction and the normative evolution of the electorate, at least of their own electorate itself in order not to lose contact with it. Those who make the decisions in Podemos were right in political communication, but they have not cared enough to recognize, nor to know the Spanish reality that they aspired to transform.
Extrapolation of different realities
The second of Podemos’ mistakes has to do with the first. It was to think that Spanish society and its political system, which were in a situation of serious crisis of legitimacy towards the year 2010, as well as the contemporary Spanish State itself, are comparable to those of Latin America. Spain is a country on the southern periphery of Europe, it is not part of the founding core of the European Union and its room for maneuver to respond to the financial crisis of 2008 was rather small, as it was and continues to be for Portugal or for Greece The 2008 crisis produced a collapse of part of its middle class, and the proliferation of corruption and political exchange of power between the main parties placed its political and institutional system in an unprecedented crisis. However, to think that the latter, that its middle class, that its party system and that its own state reality are comparable in its precariousness to those of Latin American countries, is completely out of place. The replacement of the left-right with the idea of “up-down”, “people”, “99%” or “left-wing populism” may be a good communicative strategy, but it does not allow describing sufficiently the real society needs to be able to capture its nuances, its changes and the contradictions that must be identified to consolidate the electoral positions conquered and expand them. To think that the change in a modern society like the Spanish one will come through a sort of overflow of the political system by the citizens or the “people” in a rather spontaneous and “unstoppable” movement led by overqualified children of a declassed urban middle class connected to the popular sectors, as in some Latin American countries, does not correspond to reality, even if there were common aspects between both societies. If we take into account that these experiments have not even been able to consolidate in those countries once the international economic dynamics has changed, the realism of this kind of strategies imported from countries as different as Latin American countries is even more doubtful. For a complex and relatively structured society like ours, Gramsci’s war of positions is a much more realistic roadmap, even though, perhaps, also more boring: the accumulation of hegemonies in a rather long and complex process based on the particularized knowledge of the changing social, economic and institutional fabric to be eventually transformed. To illustrate this, I can think of no better example than the project deployed by Jordi Pujol to build, in view of all, a modern nation in Catalonia with the ultimate goal of creating an independent state piloted by the Catalan conservative forces. The arithmetic-electoral content of the idea of the “sorpasso”, a communicative technique that has so far not reported advantages to anyone who has used it, does not fit in the type of strategy that requires the transformation of a society like the Spanish one.
Failed criticism of the Constitution of 78
The third error, if we want strategic, of Podemos, is derived from its positioning in relation to the 1978 Constitution. This Constitution is the result of a situation of correlation of forces, both inside and outside Spain, much more favorable for the Left than the present one. This means that a new constitutional process today would generate a Carta Magna considerably more regressive than the current one which, of course, is infinitely more advanced than the rubbish elaborated to found the so-called “Catalan Republic”. The list of the progressive articles is much longer than what Podemos has been suggesting in recent years, an error that they only realized when it was too late. The Constitution of 78 establishes, for example, the right to education for the development of the human personality in respect for the democratic principles of coexistence (§27); the right to work (§35); the obligation to sustain public expenditures through a fair tax system (§31); that the rights to private property and inheritance are limited by their social function (§33); that public authorities promote policies aimed at full employment (§40); that governments maintain a public Social Security regime for all citizens (§41); establishes the right to enjoy an adequate environment and the rational use of natural resources (§38); the protection of the heritage, historical, cultural and artistic of the peoples of Spain (§46); the right of all Spaniards to enjoy decent and adequate housing (§47) or the enjoyment of an economically sufficient retirement pension (§50). In addition, it stipulates that all the wealth of the country is subordinated to the general interest and allows companies to be intervened when the latter demands it (§128) and forces the public authorities to effectively promote the various forms of participation in the company (§ 129). It also confers on the State the possibility of planning general economic activity to meet collective needs (§131), obliges to regulate the legal regime of public domain assets and communal assets that include coasts and natural resources (§ 132) and also requires the effective realization of the principle of solidarity between the different parts of the territory, prohibiting the creation of social and economic privileges in the Autonomous Communities (§138). Finally, it decrees that local haciendas have to have sufficient means to perform their functions (§142), and that the financial autonomy of the Autonomous Communities must be in accordance with the principle of solidarity among all Spaniards (§156). The criticism that can and should be made to the constitutional order of 78 is similar to that made by the French, Germans or Italians to their respective constitutions, that is, the breach of many of their postulates due to economic policies already applied and the interpretation that has been made of the dialectics between general interest, right to private initiative and the great priorities of the country: the express reform of §135 points in that direction. To this is added the justified criticism of the development of Title VIII, which must undoubtedly be reformed because it has created an institutional order that makes it difficult to comply with some articles such as 138 or 156. Apart from the latter, which has facilitated the creation of particular demos facing each other, the real problem of the 1978 Constitution lies in the tension, typical of all the constitutions of the developed capitalist countries and not only the Spanish one, between the civil code, which regulates private property, and constitutional rights enjoyed by all citizens regardless of the property they have.
When Podemos and its related groups began to talk about the “crisis of the regime of 78” thinking that they opened a line of political rupture favorable to the left, they developed an ambiguous critique of the Constitution by treating it, without always saying it openly, as the product of a political involution and turning it into a sort of initiative of the government of Arias Navarro to avoid breaking with the Franco Regime. It is true: the Transition was a commitment to the Francoist past, but this does not alter the strongly progressive content of the central part of its articulation, especially for the present times. The ambiguity in addressing the criticism of the Constitution is not accidental: it results from a not very clear vision of what the modern state represents and its almost identification with that of the 19th century and that of the first half of the 20th century. This ahistorical reading of capitalism and modernity in general, pushed Podemos to ultra-left positions, to a junior anti-capitalism of high school kids that led to the loss of an additional loss of confidence of many of those who had given their vote in 2016. But things came even worse, because this confusing and ultimately mistaken way of responding to the express reform of 135, reinforced the arguments of the pro-independence parties who, for different reasons, also went on the offensive in their criticism of the Constitution. With this we go to the fourth and definitive error that could bring Podemos to political insignificance by following the steps of Izquierda Unida, if it shows itself incapable of taking a 180 degree turn: the national problem.
The national problem and Stockholm syndrome
All the errors listed culminate in the particular territorial and identity commitment of Podemos, which, as expected, leads the way of becoming its Waterloo. Oriol Junqueras has reached his goal formulated after the emergence of 15-M: preventing the formation of a simultaneous and synchronized movement throughout Spain in favor of the regeneration of the country and against austerity policies through the acceleration of the independence agenda. We can have made it easy for Oriol because the Spanish left has been suffering from a Stockholm syndrome for decades: it has been kidnapped by nationalist discourse while praising its kidnappers and even thinking it can be used for its own purposes. In order to play this clever game, you need to ingratiate yourself with the latter by admitting the existence of essential similarities between the processes of decolonization of poor territories and subordinates to the Western powers after the Second World War, and the situation experienced by the prosperous regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country today. The a-historic reading of the world is very much embedded in the culture of the Spanish left, as we have already seen, so that it is not so difficult to support this nonsense. In addition, the trivialization of the historical-objective reality in the face of communicative discourse also allows to substract transcendence of this kind of confusion on a double basis, since it can always be argued that such trivialization is a communicative technique more destined to win votes both among nationalists / pro-independence / confederalists as among convinced federalists.
But this ideological concession includes the payment of a high political tribute because it leads to the argument that the national problem in Spain is, in fact, a “political problem of lack of democracy”. Accepting the latter seems to link with the ambiguous criticism of the “78 regime” but what it really does is to inject a definitive dose of legitimacy to the pro-independence movement, which is what they need to internationalize the conflict by covering the Constitution of 78 with rubbish, and although it has been the one allowing them to reach the doors of such independence following the script of Jordi Pujol. The most complete expression of this kidnapping is the support of the lefts to the “right of the peoples to self-determination” without going into details about the nature of these “peoples”, without thinking about the possibility of such a right being obtained at the expense of the “Right” of other “peoples” and thousands and thousands of citizens previously expelled from the main “people”, without taking into account that it is the rich territories which claim the right not to be solidary, in a similar way to how tax evaders claim their “right” not to pay so many taxes. Nobody in Podemos seems to have stopped a second to think about the consequences the self-determination dynamics can bring for any progressive-solidarity discourse, for the Catalan and Basque subaltern classes, for the poorest territories of Spain, for the European integration project and for the political environment to be inevitably created for two or three generations; that is, that Spain becomes another failed state. No one seems to want to face the incalculable consequences of the destruction of a state unit in the neoliberal era despite the precedents of the Balkans, Iraq, Syria or Libya. The ostrich that sticks its head in the sand?
If these kidnappers’ arguments are admitted, we must also admit that the social struggle and the national struggle go hand in hand in Spain in the same way as they were in Cuba and other similar territories. Consequence: we must support the pro-independence move in its noble struggle for national emancipation, but not for reasons of territorial selfishness, but because it would also be a struggle for social emancipation. The reason is in the allegedly cunning trick of the kidnapped in love with their kidnappers: this fight will hypothetically improve the strategic positions of the left in the whole of Spain as it will weaken the “Madrid oligarchy” that would represent the main pillar of “oligarchic Spanish capitalism”. Even in June 2019, some leaders of United-Podemos declared that “we must incorporate Republican Esquerra into a progressive state policy” without seeing (yet?) the most obvious: that Esquerra’s goal is to break that State by all means at their fingertips, and using the kidnapped left for it, although giving it cheap candies of senseless republicanism and anti-fascism so it stays still. Unidos Podemos have seen in these candies the confirmation of their astute strategy based on the attempt to use their kidnappers, although without realizing that it is the latter who have control of the situation, who accumulate more resources and political experience, in short, those who are using them.
The ambiguity of the concept “people”, which serves to found both a democratic demo – “we are all equal” – and an exclusive ethnos – “the people are us in front of them” -, facilitates the reversal of the roles preventing, since this is the remit of the kidnappers, that the kidnapped do notice the move for as long as possible, that is, until it is late and independence is declared. A friend of Izquierda Unida was trying to convince me even a few months ago that the former leader of Esquerra Unida i Alternativa, Joan Josep Nuet, really had nothing pro-independence about him, that he was actually using the pro-independence sectors for his unquestionable progressive goals. But for hundreds of thousands of Catalans who gave their vote to En Comú Podem and who do not count in the project of demos-ethnos from the pro-independence, things are much clearer from the beginning because, unlike my Madrid friend from Izquierda Unida, for them there is no room for ambiguity. They are very aware of the move to the point that many preferred to give their support to Ciudadanos in exchange for a pinch of clarity at this point, a clarity that even the Iceta PSC did not give them but which, for them, is existential.
Let’s be fair: the sentimental alliance with the nationalists that oil the kidnapping of the left comes from afar and even affects not a few socialist voters who try to demonstrate their progressivism by supporting it with more or less enthusiasm. The problem is that errors and mistakes like this do not have serious political consequences when their protagonists gather less than 10% of the votes, but they become systemic when the supports exceed 20%, or when a dynamics as serious as the one of the procés starts, a dynamics that forced many thousands of naive people like my good friend to wake up from his dream, from his naivety. With 20% of votes, such an error ceases to be a discursive slip to become an elephant stuck in a pot shop, an elephant with the capacity to contaminate other analyzes such as that of the organized appearance of the extreme right in Spain. Some leaders of UN-Podemos still said recently that “the problem of the extreme right in Europe is much more serious than that of independence in Spain” or that “thanks to Podemos we have no extreme right in Spain” without realizing that the rise of Vox is, in large part, the logical and predictable result of the exacerbation of the national problem that Podemos has not known or wanted to curb but, on the contrary, has been feeding from its status as a happy kidnapped. The emergence of Vox is further proof that the national dynamics does not lead in a society like Spain to the advancement in social justice issues, but to a bipolar dynamics pushing in just the opposite direction. While the leaders of Podemos deployed this kind of unreal speeches, their former voters abandoned it en masse in 2019 as they had done some years before in the popular bastions of the Basque Country and Catalonia.
Towards the construction of a new demos
What to do? The nationalist agenda, when imposed in the rich territories, will never drag an agenda of solidarity and social emancipation behind it, let alone in a hypercompetitive and neoliberal moment like the current one. The problem of the state is presented today in a completely different context than before the Second World War, because today it is the only institutional space with the capacity to face the great social, environmental and political challenges to be faced by its citizens, including the generations to come. European integration now allows us to address – at least potentially – the solution of joint problems such as financial market pressure or environmental policies, but there are many others in which it will only be able to complement the states rather than replace them: the boom of nationalism also turns into a symptom, paradoxically, this reality. The fact that the nationalist agenda has been imposed on the progressive forces does not justify that they can hide their heads under the surface by refusing to face the challenge imposed by the circumstances. In the world of politics, the actors do not choose the problems and situations they have to face, and if the nationalists have managed to impose their agenda after four decades of democratic journey, it is of no use saying that “identities don’t matter anymore” or that “the nations no longer count”, but you have to confront the challenge, take note of the factual scenario and try to respond with a counter-agenda capable of becoming hegemonic. Although the process has also had positive effects. In the first place it has forced to de-trivialize, finally, the national problem and the so-called “right to self-determination” because the facts have revealed a precipice to which many attributed an innocent, distant and metaphysical nature. Secondly, it has placed on the political agenda the need to address the task, postponed in 1978 for reasons that are now irrelevant, to create and refine the common identity pillars of the constitutional demos. Thirdly, it has forced everyone to position themselves in front of the question of whether it is worthwhile or not to keep a united and supportive country, and to explain the reasons for their decision.
The task that now has to be addressed creates a problem for the left that, in part, explains its attempt to avoid it for so many decades: in developed capitalist societies, the construction of a demos demands a broad political consensus that goes from the left to relevant sectors of the liberal and conservative spaces, a consensus that could erode, apparently, the progressive agenda. It is true that it could be so, because the nationalist agenda tends to hijack the social agenda as we have seen. With one exception: when the construction of a new demos from existing ones includes the creation of a space of solidarity instead of another one of competitiveness, as is the case at hand. The contemporary territorial problem does not arise in Spain in the poor territories that are evicted in their resources and their language by the rich territories, but just the opposite: they are territories, and more specifically the middle classes of those territories, which suffer a sense of insecurity and recovery after the 2008 crisis, and which seek to address the situation by reducing fraternity / solidarity to their people following a pattern very similar to that of the European extreme right parties that defend the welfare state, but only for those who consider “ours” based on ethnic-linguistic criteria. The reason, for which the Popular Party has practically disappeared electorally from Catalonia and the Basque Country, has above all an identity explanation because the objective of the demos built in these territories under the umbrella of the State of autonomy was precisely to replace one identity with another and not create a mixed identity that reflects the cultural reality of their territories.
But it also has a lot to do with the economic ultra-liberalism of the PP – further exacerbated in the Vox party -; an ultra-liberalism that is de facto incompatible with the construction of any political community that aspires to be more than a lot of metaphysical ideas such as those that proliferated in the last third of the nineteenth century throughout Spain, Catalonia and the Basque Country included. This ultra-liberalism conforms to the exclusive identity schemes that today extend both to the north and south of the Ebro, and that feed a competitive order such as that which a part of the Western elites want to impose on the rest of the world, a purpose that, in their more radical version, Trump represents, but which, in more educated versions, has colonized the heads of many Western leaders. If the foralist sectors of the Popular Party intend to recover electoral ground to cope with its downfall, it is because the foralism works with a certain notion of solidarity, even when it has strong connections with the ethnos and resembles that of the nationalists. The problem of the liberals is that, while they seamlessly support the “freedom” and “equality” legs of the Republican demos, they refrain from including the third of them consistently – that of the “fraternity” – thereby incurring an archaic republicanism more typical of the liberal pseudo-democracies of the nineteenth century, than of the social democracies created after the Second World War, in Spain in 1978. If the liberal parties want to influence the territorial debate – and in Spain both they and the conservatives turn out essential to generate the broad consensus that the construction of a new demo requires, they have to socialize, embrace the cause of those sectors within the former UPyD and the first years of Citizens, who were displaced by radically liberal sectors. It seems difficult for them to do so if they do not substitute the radicals Hayek and Friedman for the tradition of humanist liberalism with a vocation of demos represented by authors such as John Rawls or Keynes
Today, the drift of Ciudadanos in their approach to Vox and the PP of Casado, does not allow us to be optimistic in this regard, although the electoral results have suggested that such an approach can be for them much more expensive than expected, and that there could be a tectonic division in the liberal world between radicals and humanists throughout Europe, as happened in the interwar period. Obviously, the vindication of fraternity / solidarity, which is the missing link in the Spanish demos built in the 19th century, puts the progressive political forces in the lead. But it is not about partisanship: the political space – or the sum of political spaces – that manages to place on the table a proposal of demos in which freedom, equality and fraternity are secured in a kind of indivisible unity, will be able to become hegemonic in practically all the territories since it will have found the formula to give an exit to the national problem in the long term. The spectacular electoral results of Podemos in Catalonia and the Basque Country, then dilapidated with their approach to independence, have much to do with the hope that aroused among broad sectors of the population with a mixed identity, which they do not want to do without in any case. It was the voters of the popular classes who catapulted Podemos to the first place in Catalonia because they were and are the main potential beneficiaries of a demos in which the fraternity – ultimately the redistribution of wealth – does not have a testimonial role only.
Creating a shared demos does not imply a frontal attack against the particular regional demos created under Title VIII, and that have fed a “quasi-federal” way of thinking and acting (Nicolás Sartorius), a system in which all territories, and not only those governed by nationalist parties aspire to establish a bilateral relationship with the State following the principle of “what about my interests?”. What is rather more about replacing this fragmented and individualizing way of conceiving the state demos, and which is closely related to the neoliberal way of conceiving the economy, society and politics, by a vision conceived as a “project of the whole house” paraphrasing the liberal Keynes, as the articulation of a new solidarity whole based on the diversity of the identity fragments that have been configured over the last century and a half. In a highly developed and interdependent society, these fragments can find a non-competitive and non-exclusive accommodation when the vision is that we are commenting about and not, for example, the confederal, which to the leadership of Podemos still seems the only possible. In the times of Pi and Margall, federal abstraction failed because it had to be imposed against a real society characterized by an overwhelmingly dominant peculiar traditionalism in a Spanish society, with hardly any communications, without an integrated market and with a presence of ethnos in almost all its pores and estates.
But traditional society and isolation have already been definitively liquidated by modernity, the country has become a unified social and cultural reality, despite the fact that the state of autonomies has created a political superstructure that contradicts such unification, a space unique in which sexes, ethnicities, religions and languages could live together without problems. The Catalan bourgeoisie no longer represents the civilizing values of capitalism against the immobility of the Castilian oligarchic landowners described by both brilliant Catalan historians, and many Spanish cities have become poles of cultural irradiation and modernity more communicative than the Barcelona of the times of Pablo Picasso and Antoni Tapies. There is nothing that legitimizes the perpetuation of the identity situation that we have inherited from the 19th century, nothing real that prevents us from taking a great cultural and political step that we must all take towards building a new demos at the height of the real society that we have before us, because identities, like states and nations, are not natural but are constructed. Not only are they built blindly and spontaneously with daily practice, but they are politically constructed with the help of the media and the public school. The idea of ”the common national house”, which links with the idea of the “common planet” and of the “common aspirations and ideals of liberation, equality of fraternity”, would generate a dynamics leading to the suppression of redundant and competitive territorial spaces feeding the current mentality of personal business, of the mine as opposed to that of all, in short, the ways of thinking that today block the global and solidary approach to the great problems of humanity.
Because, in the same way that universal suffrage neither deletes nor needs to erase gender, linguistic, racial, religious, ethnic or cultural particularities, it simply rises above all of them to define a new abstract space that we call “citizenship” in which they all fit by making them “equal”, it is not necessary that the linguistic, cultural, legal or idiosyncratic diversity that occurs in Spain for historical reasons, has to disappear with the construction of a demo based, yes, in the indivisibility of the three republican values. Apart from a basic consensus, which must be constructed politically and culturally in deliberative processes within public opinion and in institutions and parties, it is essential that the state government becomes the active representative of a whole with ability to preserve this plurality, and whatever position the autonomous governments themselves adopt. The step that no central government has taken yet is the construction of capacities destined to blend that unique demos from the particularities, and not only without destroying them but rather the opposite: becoming involved in their active preservation. To create a new demos is, for example, to write together a new historical, cultural, normative and also linguistic account that is what all the children of Spain would have to learn, no matter where they grow and live. It means creating a multilingual culture throughout the territory.
It means building a discourse shared by the nation as a whole – or of the different “nations or nationalities within the nation” – in which no one denies the undemocratic nature of the coup d’etat of 1936, although neither the supremacism and the racism that nests in certain central and peripheral identities that are still valid. A demos in which no one feels intimidated by the fact that Luis Vives, Santa Teresa, Cervantes or Francisco de Rojas were of converse origin, that the 12th century Muslim Al Andalus was the moment of maximum philosophical, scientific and cultural splendor from Hispania. A demos in which we all agree to affirm that it is ridiculous to say that Spain was already Catholic before the birth of Christ, that Fray Hernando de Talavera and Bartolomé de las Casas may be normative references more adjusted to the type of country we want than Cardinal Cisneros, that the cosmopolitan tradition of the Free Institution of Education enriches the entire ideological spectrum of the country and not only the progressives, or that the modernization of the 19th century, and its ideological-identity consequences, are in no case the end point of the story. It will not be possible to do any of this without re-knowing and without knowing the Spanish reality or confusing it with other historical experiences, a sine qua non condition to launch any social transformation project, now and forever.
The utopia is a reference that serves to define the route in a certain direction, but it can never be an analytical instrument to effectively organize the steps to be taken to approach it. To conceive the contemporary Spanish state as something similar to the tsarist state of 1917 or the state born of a coup d’etat of 1936, or to confuse the prosperous Catalonia of the 21st century with a colonized and occupied country, is to feed the frustration, move away from the reality that citizens experience every day, and anticipate unnecessary political failures. To build a federal demos means, therefore, today also an act of realism, to get rid of the ontology and the national metaphysics that feed the ethnos at the expense of the demos. If progressive forces take the lead, they will be able to connect with very large areas of the real country by moving their center of political gravitation further to the left. The Spanish solution could also become an innovative contribution to the creation of a democratic demo in a Europe with the capacity to manage and defend its diversity. In the competitive world now dominated by particularized and unilateral visions, perhaps all this reminds a little of Spain’s war against fascism, which managed to bring together the hopes of humanization for millions of democrats around the world.[Source: author’s blog]