In late November in the cathedral of Seville, the funeral was held for the 88-year-old, obscenely wealthy, feudally-titled and – it must be said – somewhat grotesque Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, Duchess of Alba. She had lived a life of unfettered privilege.
On the same day, 85-year old widow Carmen Martínez was evicted from her plain two-bedroom apartment in the working class suburb of Vallecas on the outskirts of Madrid, the eviction overseen by heavily-armed police. Her son had forfeited on a €70,000 ($110,000) loan, to which his mother had offered her home as surety.
As the Duchess of Alba was surrounded by family, hereditary nobles, political elites and assorted sycophants, and as her children contemplated the $5 billion, the 50,000 artworks, multiple palaces, 34,000 hectares of agricultural land and 18,000 rare books they stood to inherit, Martínez was shunted out onto the street from what had been her home for five decades. Gathered protestors were unable to halt the eviction.
Rolling news cameras switched back and forth between the two events, a perfect snapshot of the unequal distribution of rights and privileges in contemporary Spain. To some extent it was always thus, but modern democratic sensibilities are offended by such feudal inequalities, especially in a country ravaged by seven years of economic recession and its consequent widespread suffering.
Europe is everywhere in trouble but Spain in particular is a country in distress, facing an institutional crisis unlike any since the 1930s. In the street or the workplace, in cafés and bars, there is an increasing sense of alarm over the rolling waves of political and corporate corruption scandals uncovered almost daily. At the same time as an entire generation – the most well-educated in Spanish history – faces a life of precarious employment or the prospect of emigration in search of better opportunities, and the middle-aged unemployed face the very real prospect of never working again, it is revealed just how unashamedly federal and regional politicians have enriched themselves at the public expense, while their partners in the corporate sphere – and particularly in banking – have exploited their proximity to power to abuse the country’s democratic system. As theorist Michael Hardt has pointed out in relation to the broader issue of the Spanish ‘Indignados’ and the worldwide Occupy movement that followed, the problem is not merely the corruption and injustice at multiple levels, but the structural inability of the present political system to do anything, beyond rhetoric, about it.
The already obvious north/south division is opening up further: in this year’s elections to the European Parliament the countries that ‘turned Left’ were all southern and/or Latin: Spain, Portugal, Romania, Greece, Italy and Slovenia are all strongly pushing to reject the Anglo-German austerity model. If the pieties and conventions of European Central Bank-led solutions to the social and financial crisis had been having some discernible positive effect on people’s lives, the voting might have been different. But they have failed, austerity again and again aggravating already ravaged economies. In Spain alone, some 200,000 families have been put onto the street since the crisis began. To most people, that does not seem any kind of solution.
It is in this context that Spain’s Podemos (‘We Can’) is, for the moment, possibly the most significant new political movement in Europe in a generation. In a year, the group has come from nowhere to become Spain’s leading political party. Latest polling puts Podemos at up to 28 percent of voting intention. Podemos have split the traditional bipartisan model – so antiquated and increasingly irrelevant in Australia too – wide apart. Significantly, Podemos do not classify themselves as being of the ‘Left’. The divisions that are causing so much social damage, they argue, are not between Right and Left, but between the powerful and the powerless, between what they term a privileged ‘caste’ and the disenfranchised, anonymous millions cut off from any ability to influence decision-making that affects their lives.
Claiming to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised is motivating all kinds of resistance against the mainstream in Europe’s frazzled political landscape: in the UK, France and Hungary, the battle is taken up from the Right, largely against the immigrant poor, while in Spain and Greece – with Podemos and Syriza, respectively, most prominent – the battle is more clearly against entrenched political and systemic elites.
Like most things in Spain, explanations run deep into the fissures of history. Despite the best efforts of a few eighteenth-century eccentric liberals who could see beyond the suffocating (and unsustainable) world of royalty, court and idle nobility, Spain was slow to welcome the Enlightenment; with the exception of the Basques and Catalans (the two most independent-minded regions) Spain was also late to industrialisation. It seemed to stay in amber – the amber of feudalism, South American gold and Catholic counter-reformation preaching – until it was too late, and the twentieth century burst upon it, all its global empire lost. Cuba, in 1898, was the last colony to go.
In 1936 the Spanish Civil War erupted, coming after a swings-and-roundabouts decade of dictatorship, monarchy-in-exile, multiple political assassinations and a Republic all blended into one heady mix. Right-wing nationalists and assorted conservatives, under General Franco, staged a military coup, ousted the democratically elected government and the rest, as they say, is history. Much of Spain’s rich tradition of anarchism and political activism – born from opposition to the privileged role of the Catholic church and centuries of feudal injustice in the distribution and ownership of land – went underground, or abroad to France and South America.
In 1975 after a forty-year dictatorship, Franco died; a new constitution was drafted in 1978. Hope sprang eternal: would Spain finally have the democracy it had been struggling to build in the 1930s before the fascist coup?
But rather than the deep wounds after forty years of dictatorship being healed, the past was swept under the carpet in a rush to embrace democracy by any means. No Reconciliation, no Truth Commission. Behind the forms and the rhetoric, inaccessible structures of power and flows of influence remained unchanged. The refusal to engage the past is bearing fruit as the financial and institutional crises, along with the recent abdication of King Juan Carlos, brings the past back to the surface.
To the increasing dismay of young Spaniards, the passing away of this first generation of post-transition leaders has revealed the unedifying truth that it is precisely this generation, untutored in democracy, that has driven Spain to unimaginable levels of political corruption. When the music of property speculation, environmental damage, banking malfeasance, opportunism, self-aggrandisement and regional gangsterism stopped in 2008, Spain was a country with 25 percent general and 55 percent youth unemployment; a country demoralised, its banks worthless, its wealth ransacked by a tin-eared and greedy elite.
In Spain however, unlike in the UK, France or Hungary, no-one is blaming immigrants for the crisis. A younger generation is fighting back in an attempt to realign the country’s political and moral focus, to rid the national burden of corruption, mediocrity, mendacity and nepotism. The rot runs very deep; the institutions of the democratic era are widely discredited. A long list – growing by the day – of financial and governance scandals has gone to the core of the parliament, the judiciary, the royal family, to regional and local governments, and to models of party political funding. The average citizen sees a country and its social services, starved of funds, collapsing around them. It is a country in which a minority of highly privileged actors lives in a separate world, with separate laws applying to them, where shameless corruption and exploitation have gone largely unpunished.
In response, an entire new class of political leaders has emerged over the last twelve months: 42-year-old economics professor Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Party; 29 year-old economist Alberto Garzón, a popular Marxist author, blogger and intellectual, is the new face of the United Left; 36 year-old political scientist and university professor Pablo Iglesias is the charismatic leader of Podemos. Together they represent the most highly educated and politicallyliterate generation to aspire to power in Spain.
Against this, the ruling conservative People’s Party is led by 59 year-old Mariano Rajoy whose cabinet has something of the ‘old gents club’ about it that reminds one of Tony Abbott’s coalition team (albeit with many more women).
After Podemos won five seats in the European parliament in May 2014 through adrenalin and novelty as much as any actual policy platform, many expected it to vanish like a summer flower. But the crisis was so deep and the institutional rot in Spain so profound that support for mainstream political formations kept withering. On the other side of the ledger, playing their cards cleverly, Podemos could not but rise.
Podemos conceive of themselves as much a social movement as a political party. True to their break from traditional Left strategies, they do not affiliate or support the trade unions who are sometimes – in Spain as in Australia – beneficiaries of dubious funding sources and seen as being integral to the wheels of corruption that have driven the state. Unlike the traditional Left, they made it clear from the outset: we are not here to be an effective opposition, we are here to take power. There is nothing ambiguous about their objective.
Powered by a form of direct democracy that sees members of local ‘circles’ (branches, effectively) voting on all policy decisions, Podemos’ economic program has been drafted with the assistance of two eminent professors of economics who operate outside neoliberal conventions. Aimed principally at promoting employment growth for the youth of southern Europe, and recently fine-tuned to give it a more social-democratic hue, the program centres on a public audit of the national debt, followed by a considered restructuring; greater democratisation of the European Central Bank; re-orientation of the banking sector to service the public good as a priority; public control of key strategic national industries; closing of tax loopholes for corporates and multinationals, and an end to property speculation. Social programs, beyond the obvious broad-ranging goals of greater workforce, religious and gender equity, include measures such as discretional early retirement to free up employment possibilities for youth; controls to prevent media industry monopolies; guaranteed public health, education and research systems; and the fundamental human right to a home and living wage.
Inevitably the conservative and much of the financial press is crying foul. Warnings of an impending apocalypse are sounded. The ghost of Hugo Chávez – a figure admired (selectively) within the context of Latin American political struggle – is chased up from his grave. It remains to be seen whether Podemos has a hide thick enough to weather the scorn that will be thrown at them. There is a difference between legitimate criticism – of the sort any public leader of a political party can expect – and outright personal attack; already attempts to link leader Pablo Iglesias to Basque terrorism – ETA is the classic Spanish all-purpose bogeyman – have failed. Other fears are being stoked: relationships with radical leftist formations in Bolivia and Venezuela are coming under close scrutiny. The right-wing media – of which there is plenty in Spain, even though it is a country blessedly free of Murdoch – is in for the kill.
Podemos’ leaders are mocked by mainstream commentators for their lack of experience. But that is precisely the point: much of their charm lies in not being members of a tedious and largely mendacious professional political cadre. Responses have, according to Podemos’ second-in-command, the political scientist Íñigo Errejón, been in four phases: ‘First, they ignored us. Then they laughed at us. Then they began to take us seriously. Now, they are terrified.’
He argues – going against the grain of conventional post-Enlightenment thinking – that passion and reason can exist together perfectly well. This is the basis of Podemos: a rage now taking rational form; a shout of desperate defiance to which carefully constructed policies are being added.
Although they have already won the social media battle hands down – they are by a factor of five or six the most engaged online political formation in Spain – Podemos faces a range of critical challenges in the months ahead. Firstly: the so-called ‘long march through the institutions’, from idealism of the campus and the street to the practical realities of policy and implementation, to the bear pit of the national parliament. Formally constituted now as a party through its Citizens’ Assembly, it has begun to assume, as it inevitably must, more of the conventional structures for internal distribution of power and authority. Secondly: how will Podemos co-exist with more traditional parties of the Left, such as the United Left or the various regional groups that marry left-wing social platforms with localised nationalism, such as in Catalonia and the Basque Country? Or indeed, how will they co-exist with Podemos, brash new kid on the block? And if the polls continue as they are now, what kinds of compromise will they accept in order to form a potential coalition government?
Spain is now a species of Petri dish for a new politics for the twenty-first century, with the fight against both centuries of entrenched privilege, and prevailing Anglo-American neoliberal economics, taken up by a literate, connected, engaged, socially aware and highly educated youth. They are media-smart, intellectually sharp, and ready for battle. The future is very much at stake.