Religion by other means

Writer John Carlin concludes his two-part analysis of the Podemos phenomenon

Pablo Iglesias at the Podemos assembly last October.
Pablo Iglesias at the Podemos assembly last October.LUIS SEVILLANO

Whether or not it’s true that the revolution will have to wait, or that there’s still the possibility that Podemos will go down in history as little more than a footnote about social unrest in early 21st-century Spain, the activists at a party meeting in Vallecas, a traditionally working-class neighborhood in the southeast of Madrid, seem largely unconcerned. “We’re about to bring down the walls of the castle,” cries one speaker. Neither is there much ideological diversity: the event begins with a rousing “Here’s to the Cuban revolution!” All are united by a belief that victory is just around the corner.

Among them is Maribel Cabrera, who earns €850 a month working as a salesperson in a branch of the El Corte Inglés department store chain. The 36-year-old has been involved in trade unions and local activism from an early age and, through her involvement in the 2011 15-M protest movement, is now active in Podemos, making up part of a team of 25 that represents the party in Madrid.

“I’ve been left-wing all my life, because I wanted social equality, but I can see the left-wing parties have achieved nothing and that utopian left-wing ideas can do no more. That was two centuries ago. Podemos is an attempt to adapt society to what can be done today, with a lot of hard work and little by little, neither left wing nor right wing.”

I liked Pablo Iglesias straight away because he didn’t treat me like an idiot” Manu Báez, Podemos member

Unlike Cabrera, 32-year-old music teacher Manu Báez has no experience of activism, and has never even voted. His involvement in Podemos came about after watching party leader Pablo Iglesias’s La Tuerka television debate program. “I liked him straight away,” he says, “because he didn’t treat me like an idiot.”

Paradoxically for a party founded by university lecturers, Podemos’s appeal to the electorate is based not so much on the strength of its ideas, but on its moral vision. The party leadership knows this, and everything suggests that its strategy between now and the elections in November will be to avoid discussing specifics – a charge that could be leveled at the same parties criticizing it. It will instead try to keep the focus on its mission of political and social change.

For example, Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the party’s founders, seems much more comfortable talking about change than specific projects, even though he has been tasked with outlining Podemos’s policies, chief among which is a crusade against corruption, against the elite caste that has run the country into the ground.

But what about that third of Spaniards who work off the books while claiming unemployment benefit, or those prepared to break the law when it suits them? Aren’t they also part of the problem, complicit with the caste that Podemos wants to rid the country of?

“Of course,” answers Monedero. “But with a difference. If politicians are corrupt, it’s because people tolerate them, but people no longer identify with politicians and there now exists a Spain that doesn’t see itself reflected in that way of being.

“We understand that if we don’t change the political culture of this country, we won’t change anything.”

There is no such thing as capitalism with a human face. Anybody offering you that is lying” Podemos co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero

How is that achieved? “By making sure nobody can have impunity, by changing laws, by not allowing the political parties to appoint key judicial positions, by creating an independent judiciary.” So are we talking here about a decent version of capitalism? Monedero pauses for a few seconds before answering. “It doesn’t exist,” he says. “There is no such thing as capitalism with a human face. Anybody offering you that is lying. Basic income, for example: the market cannot offer you that.” Doesn’t that sound rather like the traditional left? “No. At this moment in time ideologies are a self indulgence.”

For Podemos, there are no ideologies, no programs, there aren’t even, as Pablo Iglesias said at the meeting in Vall d’Hebron, promises. So what is there? There is a narrative. A story people can understand, something tweetable, and above all, an appeal to the emotions. What does Podemos want? Pablo Iglesias has said it more than once: “The idea is to win.” Or as he said in a recent interview: “The obligation of a revolutionary is always, always, always, to win … and to win you have to work with the ingredients you have.” Or to put it another way, with the ingredients that have worked so far: an appeal to a moral crusade, a calculated ideological confusion, and a deliberate ambiguity about its economic program.

Podemos is also the expression of a wider European phenomenon. It has filled the vacuum created by a discredited political system, accelerated by an economic crisis that has brought down the traditional political parties. In the older democracies of France and Great Britain, in Sweden, in Finland, even in Germany, that vacuum is being filled by the far right, by anti-immigration parties, by barely disguised racists. Spain is different. Neither Podemos nor any other political party in Spain is looking for scapegoats among Muslims, Africans, South Americans, Poles, or Romanians. The party’s impact on the Spanish political scene has not been petty-minded.

The party has also been lucky to have as its rival a man of the caliber of Mariano Rajoy, the grayest prime minister in Spain’s recent democratic history. Which isn’t to say that charisma is Pablo Iglesias’s strong point. He’s an able debater, but he’s not a great orator.

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It was clear during his speech at Vall d’Hebron that Iglesias is no Martin Luther King or Felipe González. His body language gave him away. For most of the 20 minutes of his speech he stood with both hands on his hips, like a defiant but insecure cowboy. The unfortunate tale of the mice also suggests he lacks the ear or sense of humor needed to connect with the masses. That said, Iglesias is a quick thinker, he handles figures and statistics well, and is willing to take the stage. His shortcomings are nothing compared to those of the evasive Rajoy and the rest of Spain’s bovine political class in general.

But many Spaniards who might want to punish a discredited establishment will still find it hard to overcome their fears of the possible consequences. Iglesias will provoke doubts when the time comes to put that vote in the ballot box. And his questionable decision to so effusively identify with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will pursue him between now and November. There will also be people who will ask how he would react to a jihadist attack on the streets of Madrid, or how he would perform at the NATO table with Obama, Merkel, and Cameron, analyzing possible measures against the Vladimir Putin regime. Would he make the grade? Perhaps not, but then, would Rajoy?

And if anybody thinks that getting rid of Pablo Iglesias will spell the end of Podemos, they’re mistaken. The party’s power lies not in him, but in voters’ rejection of the status quo and their desire for change. Iglesias is right when he says that Podemos is not him. Podemos is, as he pointed out at Vall d’Hebron, “thousands of people, tens of thousands, who want change.” Opinions may differ on how to change the economy, but there is consensus on the desire for a change in the way politics is carried out in Spain, and that is on what Podemos is focusing its message.

The party stands accused of trying to deceive the people, of having a hidden agenda. There is no denying that Podemos’s energy comes from the left, but if it seems aware of one thing, it’s the limits of what is possible. When its leaders say they represent a new, cross-party approach to politics, perhaps what they are doing, rather than trying to deceive anybody, is recognizing the reality that the world is like it is, that there are no simple recipes for growth and lower unemployment, and that trying to impose the old Marxist-Leninist utopia from a modern government quite simply isn’t going to work. Its driving force may be young, but they have learned José Mújica’s lesson about just how reduced their room for maneuver will be in a globalized world. They are sufficiently honest and mature to understand just how applicable the old joke is to the Spanish economy: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

How would Iglesias perform at the NATO table with Obama and Merkel. Would he make the grade?

And speaking of God, Podemos’s message is filled with allusions to Christianity. What it’s selling here, at bottom, is the message of Christ, that indignant Christ who drove out the merchants from the temple, and in the words of the Gospel, “cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers […] And said unto them, ‘It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

Even Podemos’s approach is inspired by Christianity. The box-office concept of “neither right nor left” is simply a modern version of the winning formula “I am made all things to all men,” patented 2,000 years ago by the first great Christian propagandist, Saint Paul, in one of his letters to the Corinthians.

In the post-ideological and post-religious age we live in, the echoes of those texts still resonate in the minds of many of the inhabitants of a country with a long tradition of Catholicism like Spain. In the gospels, evil-doers are called Pharisees, and in Podemos’s narrative, they’re called the caste. It’s a message that appeals much more to the emotions than rationality, much more to atavistic notions of the struggle of good against evil.

There is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical about whether Podemos will really be able to improve the living conditions of Spaniards. There will be fear about the possible chaos that it is capable of creating. But the party’s leaders know this, and will continue to invest their rhetorical energy in the moral cleanliness project that so many people want. They will continue searching for idealists and dreamers, men and women of the faith prepared to take the risk of joining their popular crusade against the evil caste: they will appeal less to minds than to hearts, where political messages touch deepest, and if these teachers are able to take the fight from the realm of the intellect to that of the emotions, their adversaries will have a hard time defeating them.

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