The night of May 25, 2014, after obtaining 1.2 million votes and five seats at the European Parliamentary elections, to a crowd gathered to celebrate these results Pablo Iglesias said: “What we have done here will be studied in the Departments of Political Studies all over the world”. Iglesias was right, as a new book by Spanish political analyst Ignacio Torreblanca demonstrates. In his volume, Torreblanca aims to answer two main questions: Where does Podemos come from? Where is it headed?

The author addresses these questions by deconstructing this political phenomenon into a number of distinct aspects which, when reassembled by the reader, provide a clearer understanding of the Podemos puzzle. Torreblanca’s volume is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary (Southern) European politics. Although written for the general public, the book is never superficial or simplistic. It offers, on the contrary, a lucid and accessible analysis of the causes, characteristics and (possible) consequences of the rise of Podemos, which has deeply changed Spanish politics. To a great extent, the strength of Torreblanca’s study is his ability to move across different levels of analysis, linking together the peculiarities of Spanish politics with those of the origins and organization of Podemos—deeply influenced by philosophical thought of Gramsci, Negri and Laclau—with, finally, a broader look at the effects of the economic crisis in Southern Europe.

The origins of Podemos

Asaltar los cielos is broadly divided into two parts. In the first (chapters one to three), Torreblanca reconstructs the origins of Podemos starting, in the first chapter, from the socio-political context in which Podemos emerged. In 2012, Torreblanca explains, Spain was deeply affected by a triple crisis—economic, social and institutional—which, combined, formed a perfect setting for a political earthquake. “What better ground for Podemos” – writes Torreblanca – “than a country in which the economic crisis is dramatic and citizens do not trust the capacity of traditional parties to solve it, whether because corrupted, unqualified, or indifferent?”. In Chapter two the author focuses on the presentation of Podemos’s leaders and their background, which is an essential aspect for the comprehension of this political movement.

What better ground for Podemos than a country in which the economic crisis is dramatic and citizens do not trust the capacity of traditional parties to solve it?

Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón, Juan Carlos Monedero, Carolina Bescansa and Luis Alegre (Podemos’s “big five”) are all political scientists, which explains the prominent role attributed by Podemos to political ideas. Podemos’s leaders also share a common past in different areas of political activism: e.g. the Italian anti-globalization movements for Iglesias, and the South American socialist movements led by Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales for Monedero and Errejón. It was precisely from the South American movements that Podemos’s leaders borrowed what became some of the cornerstone of their political project, such as the need to turn the frame of reference from “we, the left” to “we, the people,” and the adoption of a strong and charismatic leadership (hiperliderazgo).

Finally, in chapter three Torreblanca guides the readers through the three places in which Podemos’s ideas were first formulated and spread out: first, the “Fakul” – the Faculty of Political and Social Science of the Complutense University of Madrid, where the Podemos leadership studied and founded the networks Asociación Contrapoder and Promotora de pensamiento critic. Second, South America – as mentioned, a constant reference point for Podemos. Finally, television: the crucial role played by the latter in Podemos’s strategy is in fact a key distinction between this movement and Spain’s traditional radical left. In the words of Iglesias, “people only remember the names of those politicians they have seen in the TV and only recall what they have said in a TV show, not what they wrote”. The media, Iglesias continues, “are the arena in which the left has to fight”.

A matter of ideas

The second part of the book (chapters four to six) is devoted mostly to the analysis of Podemos’s roots and core ideological references, and a reflection on its possible future. In chapter four, Torreblanca retraces some key steps in Podemos’s political rise. The experiences of social movements such as Plataforma Juventud sin Futuro and Plataforma de los Afectados por la Hipoteca, he argues, showed the existence of a new divide in Spanish society whose magnitude became evident with the Movement 15M and the occupation of Puerta de Sol in 2011. From these experiences Podemos’s founders learned a crucial lesson: citizens gathering in Puerta de Sol did no longer identify as part of the left, nor could their actions be reduced, more generally, to the traditional left-right cleavage. Rather, a new citizens-elite divide had emerged, characterized by the citizens’ frustration with the traditional political parties’ disconnection from the broader society. Moreover, the experience of the 2011 general elections and the municipal elections in Andalusia and Galicia in 2012 revealed that, despite ideological proximity, an alliance with Izquierda Unida was not a feasible option for Podemos. “All they want”, said Iglesias referring to Izquierda Unida, “is being leftist and authentic, but they don’t care about winning”. It was after the failure of a tentative alliance for the 2014 European Parliamentary elections that the decision was finally made, in January 2014, to launch Podemos autonomously in the political arena. After just four months the party managed to get about eight per cent of votes.

By carefully tracing the social and political context in which Podemos has risen, the author provides useful analytical instruments to understand, more generally, the dynamics that have led to the rise of anti-establishment in much of southern Europe.

In the remainder of the second part, Torreblanca presents an in-depth analysis od Podemos’s strategy to “storm the heavens,” based its three fundamental and distinctive elements: first, the reference to a new form of populism – “populism 3.0” – inspired by the likes of Chavez and Morales and grounded in Ernesto Laclau’s famous On Populist Reason; second, the tentative redefinition of the concept of nation, founded on the values of democracy, sovereignty and social rights; third, its organizational model, based on thematic and territorial decentralization, combined with extreme centralization of its strategy – and decision – making (hiperliderazgo, or “Leninism 3.0”).

Explaining the anti-establishment wave

Asaltar los cielos is an interesting reading for two main reasons. For one thing, Torreblanca is able to lead readers unfamiliar with Spanish politics to a comprehensive understanding of Podemos, its origins, ideas, and role in the Spanish political landscape. For another, by carefully tracing the social and political context in which Podemos has risen, the author provides useful analytical instruments to understand, more generally, the dynamics that have led to the rise of anti-establishment in much of southern Europe. Although parties such as Greece’s Syriza and Italy’s Five Star Movement present many differences, their origins, Torreblanca argues, can all be traced back to the “meta-crisis” in which the continent has found itself in recent years.
With unemployment around 20 per cent, youth unemployment over 50 per cent, dramatic increases in outmigration and poverty and, most importantly, an unprecedented increase in the levels of economic and social inequality, Torreblanca contends, the social contract between Spanish classes and generation has been virtually broken.

On top of this, rising corruption activated an institutional crisis which was crucial for the rise of Podemos. Similar dynamics, the author continues, could be detected also in other cases, most notably Greece and Italy. Torreblanca adds that the shared Euroscepticism of southern populism is not surprising: for one thing, the economic crisis has weakened citizens’ identification of Europe with the idea of prosperity, and strengthened the association of the EU with a decrease in social rights. For another, the redefinition of the concept of nation, carried out populists in these three countries, is based on an unprecedented sort of left-wing nationalism, which sees Germany as a colonial subjugator of “the people of Europe”—with the collaboration of “coward governments” in the periphery (Rajoy, Samaras, Monti).

The author’s final remarks regard four possible scenarios for Podemos in relation to the next Spanish general election, which will be held in December 2015: first, PP and PSOE lose and Podemos wins; second, PP and PSOE win and Podemos loses; third, PP, PSOE and Podemos all lose; fourth, PP and PSOE manage to renovate while Podemos loses but remains strong. While Torreblanca himself is cautious in making predictions, the appearance of some signs of economic recovery, combined with the emergence of the new party Ciudadanos and the objective difficulties lately faced by Podemos in turning its ideas into concrete policy goals, make the third option the most likely to occur. This, however, would by no means imply a return to “normality” in the Spanish political landscape. As Torreblanca noted some months ago in a Financial Times article “the heavens remain unstormed but Podemos has changed the political weather”.

Photo Credits CC: Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot

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José Ignacio Torreblanca, Asaltar los cielos. Podemos o la política después de la crisis, Barcelona: Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, 2015.




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