The logic of the 15-M movement led to its exhaustion; it didn’t achieve the effects desired by its committed activists, who hoped that the social could substitute for the institutional. Aiming to reduce politics to the mere expression of countervailing social powers, built through mobilization and patient activism, was one of the major blunders of the movementist intelligentsia in Spain, which failed to realize that the ‘in the meantime’ was precisely that: a way of working up until the arrival of the moment for audacity, which would require quite different political techniques.
If we add to these trends the irruption of Podemos, its results in the May 2014 European elections and subsequent trajectory in the polls, the Spanish two-party model would seem to be in trouble. The unceasing offensive against Podemos, conducted with a virulence unprecedented for Spain, reveals the extent to which we are seen as a real threat to the dynastic parties’ system. It’s obvious that the game has only just begun. In the months ahead we’ll face tough challenges, starting with the 24 May regional elections. But it also seems clear that, beyond the immediate outcomes at the ballot box, there are signs of irreversibility in this regime crisis. Spanish politics will not return to how things were before Podemos.
The Podemos hypothesis
From May 2013, however, I was constantly in the mass media. That summer, we started thinking about the possibility of using my media presence for a national political intervention. At that stage, my view was that such a project could only be carried out in collaboration with the existing left. The proposal we made to the left parties for joint open primaries signalled this orientation. We thought that opening the choice of candidates to the citizens would help to tilt the balance of forces on the political board in our favour: the left would look more like the people.
Social imaginaries are clearly shaped by apparently non-ideological and apolitical formats, presented as ‘merely’ entertainment—the most important ideological operations are those that give the appearance of being non-ideological to notions that are perceived as common sense. In the context of the crisis, however, as far as specifically political debates are concerned, TV studios have become the real parliaments. Indeed one of the most important manifestations of the crisis was the opening of a new space within television debates, which we could occupy; someone had to represent the ‘victims’ of the crisis. What we said allowed these victims—subaltern layers, above all the impoverished middle classes—to identify themselves as such and to visualize, through the form of a new ‘us’, the ‘them’ of their adversaries: the old elites.
The main goal of the campaign was to explain that ‘the guy with the pony-tail’ on TV was taking part in the elections. That’s why we opted for something that had never been done before in Spain: using the candidate’s face on the ballot. The ‘People of the Television’—el pueblo de la televisión, or the TV nation, so to speak—didn’t know about a new political party called Podemos, but they knew about the guy with the pony-tail.
This new media space, susceptible to politicization, had been in the making for some time, as programme analysis has revealed. The overwhelming popularity of the weekly current-affairs show Salvados and its presenter Jordi Évole can’t be explained solely by the social sensitivity of its topics or by Évole’s progressive stance. The key to its success was its ability to focus on the central issues of social dissatisfaction, creating—whether consciously or not—a new discourse that crossed political boundaries; in Laclau’s terms, it was transversal.
Towards a party
The March for Change was a specifically political event, linked to the public representation of a social will that takes Podemos as a fundamental instrument for change. Its importance lay not just in the fact that no other political force in Spain had the capacity for a mobilization on this scale. Much more importantly, the March for Change signalled a determination to end the disassociation between mass mobilizations and electoral politics. The old political parties in Spain appear to the citizens as little more than machines for getting access to the state administration by electoral means.
In fact the elections that followed the 15-M movement had the feeling of an optical illusion: politicians and parties that were utterly discredited, perceived as the main problem by the citizens, were apparently inescapable, still dominating the realm of formal democracy. The March for Change brought politics back to the streets.
If it was not as vast as the March for Dignity of March 2014, which brought together the trade unions and social movements under the slogan ‘Bread, Work, Housing’, it nevertheless demonstrated both the strength of our organizational abilities and the massive support of Spain’s citizens. The sneering response of the old elites to the 15-M movement—telling the demonstrators in the squares that they should run for election—is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. The January 2015 mobilization signalled the start of a new cycle, opening a decisive year for Spain.