Podemos, Catalonia and the workers’ movement in the Spanish state

Issue: 155

Héctor Sierra

Three years ago, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy looked like the captain of a sinking ship.1 Following the outbreak of the 2007-8 economic crisis and as an austerity package, imposed by the Spanish state with the support of European Union institutions, tightened its grip on workers and students, the largest mobilisations in decades took place. The occupation of public squares, known as the 15-M or indignados movement, four general strikes and the emergence of rank and file movements opposing evictions and cuts gave rise to a vibrant political atmosphere. In the space of a few years, the king appointed by former dictator Francisco Franco was forced to abdicate in favour of his son. The combined vote share of the two parties that had dominated Spanish politics for three decades—the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the social democrat Socialist Party (PSOE)—plummeted from an average 80 percent to below 50 percent. Meanwhile, Podemos, a new political force on the left, was leading the polls. The pillars of post-dictatorship Spain seemed to be crumbling.

Podemos was hailed by many activists as the electoral embodiment of the resistance to austerity; expectations were high. In its leaders’ words, Podemos had been born to win.2 But, when a general election was held in December 2015, the party came only third.3 The resulting uncertainty and disappointment had a further electoral impact on Podemos. Following the failure of any of the parties to form a government, elections were repeated in June 2016. This time Podemos stood in a coalition with the Communist Party-led United Left (IU), but jointly these parties achieved only as many votes as Podemos had six months earlier—and overall the radical left lost one million votes compared to the previous election.4

The results of the June election could not unlock the situation, and, with the prospect of another election looming, the established powers showed their determination to take back control. PSOE’s candidate Pedro Sánchez, who supported a pact with Podemos but dithered over its content, was forced to resign by the party apparatus in October in order to facilitate an agreement with the PP instead.5 This finally cleared the ground for the conservative Rajoy to be sworn back into power with the support of another new party, the neoliberal Ciudadanos, and the PSOE’s shameful abstention in the vote on his investiture.

Here it will be argued that the two key areas where the Spanish ruling class could have been confronted and undermined—through the self-activity of workers and the pro-independence movement in Catalonia—were not successfully addressed by the Podemos campaign. If the anti-austerity, anti-establishment mood is to continue to move leftwards, these limitations must be dealt with. All the more so because Podemos remains the leading force of the radical left across most of the Spanish state, and the need to engage with it is inescapable.

The end of a long period of electoral upheaval does not have to mean the end of the cycle of struggle. Rajoy’s new government is weaker than his previous one and a powerful movement could bring it down, but if it is not challenged a further worsening of ordinary people’s lives is certain.

The conservative threat

The Rajoy administration took office in 2011, unchallenged by an outgoing PSOE government wrecked by the early years of the crisis. Under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the PSOE had adopted the first austerity measures, which included an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 and a law to facilitate evictions. The PP showed from the outset that they were determined to go further. In 2012 they introduced labour reforms that would serve as an inspiration for those brought in by François Hollande in France in 2016.6

The reforms undermined collective bargaining by giving priority to agreements reached in each company over those affecting whole sectors and allowing companies unilaterally to modify working conditions, including wages. The law also sharply reduced severance pay for those dismissed and simultaneously removed the need for companies to apply for administrative authorisation before carrying out collective redundancies. Between 2011 and 2016, nearly 300,000 workers were fired as part of a wave of layoffs.7 When the law was passed the rate of unemployment was 24.8 percent; by 2013 it had risen to 27 percent with over six million out of work. The resulting decline in unit labour costs had its desired result: from 2014 a slow recovery was underway. Employment has since grown, but the impact of the crisis is far from reversed. By the end of 2016, 3.7 million were still unemployed (18.6 percent).8 Out of those, 1.8 million had remained jobless for longer than two years.9 These figures don’t take into account the estimated one million who have emigrated in search of work since 2009, alleviating the growth of the unemployment rate.10

The labour market is emerging from the crisis substantially restructured in the interests of business. The unemployment rate may have declined, but at the expense of job quality: 26.5 percent of workers do not have a permanent contract and the average gross annual wage has fallen by nearly €1,000. Although there are more people working than in 2011, the total hours worked has fallen.11

The reorganisation of the Spanish economy has been matched by a growth in the repressive force of the state. This is embodied in the 2015 Law for the Protection of Public Security, which has come to be known as the Gag Law. Despite claims to protect citizens from terrorism, the law leaves little room for doubt as to who it really targets: demonstrations without prior notification of the authorities, marches altering their itinerary, solidarity protests standing in the way of the police when carrying out an eviction, or protests outside Parliament and other official buildings—all can be punished with incarceration.12 Fines range from €100 to €600,000, with the potential to ruin the most combative trade unions or dissident media organisations. Significantly, the number of people being prosecuted for “glorification of terrorism” has soared from two cases in 2011, the final year the Basque pro-independence guerrilla movement ETA was active, to 30 in 2016.13

Finally, when a conservative government is in office, there is always a risk that the most reactionary section of society will gain confidence in its attempts to revoke abortion rights or gay marriage, though there is also strong resistance to this from women and the LGBT+ community. It is worth recalling that the PP directly emerged from the dictatorship, having been founded by Franco’s minister for the interior, Manuel Fraga, in order to rebuild the right. Today it offers a home to both full-blown neoliberals and the traditional right.

The rise of Podemos

Podemos has been discussed at length in the pages of this journal.14 The party, headed by political scientists Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, was launched at the beginning of 2014 and had a meteoric ascent during its early years.

Some on the left have blamed Podemos for a sharp decrease in mobilisation. In reality, mobilisation had already begun to be more scattered and sporadic prior to Podemos’s breakthrough. In fact, the ease with which Podemos grew and hegemonised popular resistance speaks volumes about the movement’s lack of cohesion and the sense of drift many within it felt. Neither the long-established forces of IU nor the extra-parliamentary groups were able to fill the political vacuum created by the failure of the centre left.

However, the sudden emergence of the party certainly did have a counteractive effect on the extra-parliamentary movement. “They don’t represent us!” and “PP and PSOE are the same crap” were two slogans recurrently chanted by the indignados during the street movements that accompanied the crisis. Now, in most cases for the first time in their lifetime, many felt there was a real chance to fight for democracy and against austerity through parliamentary politics—by electing a Podemos government. Prominent activists were drawn into the party’s ranks, helping to dry up the campaigns that had sprung up in previous years. A well known example is Ada Colau, who went from being a leading figure of the anti-evictions platform to become the mayor of Barcelona in May 2015.

The decline of the movements in turn paved the way for the party’s growing moderation once it became embedded in the dynamics of mainstream politics. At its launch Podemos had championed radical proposals that were popular in the mood of the moment: opening a constitutional process, refusal to pay the national debt, nationalisation of key sectors and the establishment of a universal basic income. As activists left the streets, these radical positions were abandoned or distorted as the party’s discourse adapted to a shifting political atmosphere.

By the time some on the left of Podemos realised where this path was leading, it was too late to change course. From being a network of activist circles, at its first national congress in 2014 Podemos became a highly hierarchical organisation, dubbed an “election-winning machine”, that centralised power in the hands of Iglesias and Errejón. Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anti-Capitalist Left), a far-left group rooted in the Trotskyist Fourth International, whose militants played a key role in the early days of the party and whose strength laid in extra-parliamentary activity, was marginalised after the congress.15

The rapid, and at times traumatic, transformation of the party shocked many activists, who no longer recognised the project they had helped to build. But in reality the ideology underpinning these developments had been present from the beginning.

The populist road to power

Podemos’s leaders often cite Marxists such as Perry Anderson and Antonio Gramsci as reference points.16 But it is the theorists of left populism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who occupy a privileged position in the thinking of party ideologues. This is most notable in Errejón’s case. His doctorate, an analysis of Evo Morales’s Movement for Socialism government in Bolivia between 2006 and 2009, focuses on the struggle for political hegemony, drawing heavily on Laclau’s works.17 He has also collaborated with Mouffe in a book and conferences to discuss how the populist theory fits with Podemos’s trajectory.

As with other currents of post-Marxist thought, the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe were prompted by two parallel developments. First, there was the context of a rightwards shift as the radical and workers’ movements of the 1960s and 1970s were contained. The era of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain laid the foundations for the neoliberal capitalist order in the decades to come. The dismantling of workers’ gains achieved during the post-war decades and attacks on the trade union movement inflicted bitter defeats and had a lasting demoralising effect, not least in Britain where Laclau and Mouffe were living at the time. Disorganisation of workers, rather than being viewed as an effect of the neoliberal offensive that could be reversed, came to be seen as a permanent fixture of contemporary capitalism.

Second, because of its focus on workers’ self-organisation, Marxism was sometimes regarded as an unfit ideology to relate to the new social movements fighting for civil rights in the US and in Europe after May 1968.18 In fact, the rejection of Marxism was generally founded on a critique of a caricature of the real ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that made concessions to the revisionist accounts popularised by Stalinism.19 These accounts tended to see the economy as the absolute determinant of all other spheres of society: shifts in ideology, language or law merely reflected changes to the relations of production. It followed from this view that the scope for struggle and change was extremely limited, even non-existent, as long as the economic structure remained untouched. Laclau rebelled against this mechanical approach but despaired of finding a Marxist alternative.

Laclau’s analysis of Peronism in Argentina in his early work and his own lived experiences of the unfolding neoliberal order seemed to show that the margin for change within existing society was tremendous for those who could unravel the workings of hegemony. That is the task in 1985 Laclau and Mouffe set about accomplishing in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Within the Marxist tradition, they argued, Gramsci had come closest to understanding the importance of the battle for ideas in the conquest of power. But his account was still, for them, flawed as he saw classes as objective categories, pre-determined by the material conditions in which people live and bringing with them common interests and a consciousness that binds together their members.20 Laclau and Mouffe, by contrast, would advocate the complete independence of the ideological sphere. Yet by cutting its links to economics, the boundaries of ideology would extend until it devoured reality itself. Discourse, for Laclau and Mouffe, creates political subjects. Different groups—LGBT+ people, those subjected to racism, women, workers—each belong to atomised spheres of society that are not necessarily related to one other.21 The task facing those on the left who want to achieve power is to elaborate an attractive and ambiguous narrative capable of appealing to as many of these heterogeneous sectors as possible, creating the “agent for change”. In addition to a strong leadership and a set of symbolic demands open to interpretation, antagonism is essential to the building of this agent.22

As many commentators have noted, this approach can fit right-wing parties as well as those of the left.23 UKIP or Donald Trump also articulate ideas that challenge the neoliberal consensus and have both clearly targeted “others”—occasionally the economic “elite” or the “establishment parties” or “Wall Street”, but especially migrants, Muslims and refugees—against whom the rebelling British or American people can reassert their identity.

When it comes to Podemos and its attempts to build a left-wing populism, it has not always been clear to whom or what their agent for change is opposed. In recent months the party’s ideologues have popularised the term la trama (“the plot”), to describe a network of power binding together corrupt politicians, media tycoons and the financial sector.24 They accuse them of selling the country’s goods piecemeal to international funds and stealing sovereignty from citizens. But this narrative is aimed at the political system, not the economic, and it never sets clear boundaries as to who makes up these categories. Thus, against la trama, Podemos sets the figure of the “patriotic entrepreneur”. In the words of leading party members, these are the owners of small and medium businesses, who “create 80 percent of the jobs, pay taxes here and have a project for this country”. These patriots “struggle to stay afloat while the biggest capitalists, whose greediness triggered the financial crisis, are the ones being assisted and praised by the government”.25

However, capitalists, regardless of their size, are subject to the dynamics of the system; it is competition over their share of the value squeezed out of workers’ labour that compels them to act as capitalists. Failure to behave accordingly leads to them being overtaken by competitors, especially at times of crisis. They all exploit and all have participated in recent attacks on workers.

Underneath labels such as “new politics” and “left populism”, Podemos essentially functions in a similar manner to other left-reformist parties. Its appeal to ethical capitalism indicates an attempt to relate to class forces with fundamentally contradictory interests, as well as its need for allies among the ruling class if it is one day to govern.

In the struggle for hegemony, Gramsci distinguishes two types of struggle: the war of position, in which oppressed classes accumulate strength, and the war of manoeuvre, where classes fight for state power. In abstract theory, Laclau or Errejón can choose to focus on the former and ditch the latter; they can indeed choose to ignore the economic arrangement of society. But in practice the limits this imposes on those threatening the existing order will make themselves felt sooner or later.26

Where is Podemos heading?

The populist strategy assigns a crucial role to the intellectuals leading the political project. They are charged with the decisive task of devising the discourse and ideology that will create the social agent for change.27 This requires the intellectuals to have a firm grip on the party’s structure and resources to discourage and hinder any deviation. Those at the bottom are expected to reproduce uncritically the catchy messages coming from the top. As a result, the sense of an open project collectively built has vanished, and the gap between the grassroots and the leadership has increasingly widened.

As this has happened, fractures have become visible among the upper echelons as well. Faced with the second general election in 2016, Iglesias, who could be described as more ideologically eclectic, supported an electoral alliance with IU, an option that he had strongly ruled out before; Errejón, committed to Laclau’s thought, unsuccessfully opposed it.

Once Rajoy took office, differences between the two leaders over the course Podemos should take grew. Errejón blamed Podemos’s failure to take office on concessions to elements of the traditional left that had isolated the party from the middle classes. He argued it was time for Podemos to focus on its parliamentary activity and become a normal party, which gained him unequivocal media backing in the months leading to Podemos’s second national congress in February 2017. Iglesias, on the other hand, was more aware of the limitations of the populist thesis. Unlike Errejón, he regards working class people as their main source of voters, and doesn’t shy away from radical rhetoric. Podemos has not been able to overcome the traditional left-right division in politics and is largely identified with the left. Likewise, attempts to appeal across the board to voters have been futile. Polls show that there are more people indicating that they would never vote for Podemos than for any other party.28 Ciudadanos, a clearly pro-capitalist party, grew in parallel to Podemos, copying its style and posing as an anti-establishment force. Unlike Podemos, it enjoys enthusiastic support in the mainstream media.

The central role that the figure of the charismatic leader (Iglesias) plays in the populist project is such that Errejón could not oppose Iglesias without praising his leadership at the same time.29 Errejón’s proposal was defeated at the February congress, and, since then, he and his team have been pushed into the background.30

While the theories of Laclau and Mouffe remain a core component of Podemos, Iglesias and his team have cut down on ambiguity and they now advocate unashamed neo-Keynesian policies: higher investment; better benefits; progressive taxation; a clampdown on tax evaders. Iglesias claims that they just want to do what was common sense in the post-war decades, adopting measures that can improve ordinary people’s living standards while boosting the economy.31 But his disagreements with Errejón have also translated into a positive development. Crucial for revolutionaries is the turn to activism Iglesias’s victory has triggered after two years of electoral politics. Podemos has launched Vamos!, an initiative aimed at bringing together and invigorating several campaigns. Most successfully, Podemos led the protests against electricity cutoffs affecting impoverished families and a 30 percent rise in electricity bills in January this year.

This presents some difficulties. Setting up a campaign is not just a matter of will. Podemos once had an immense potential for mobilising people. Back in 2014, before the leadership asserted its full authority, the party claimed more than a thousand active circles (branches) in the Spanish state and abroad, meeting regularly, in some cases with over a thousand attendees. Now the leadership is having to exert itself into pulling together the remnants of the circles,32 dismantled after two years of irrelevance and an organisational culture that encouraged passivity and turned militants into voters.33

Iglesias’s approach to social mobilisation is ultimately opportunistic. Last July, when there was still a chance of Podemos entering a government with PSOE, Iglesias said at a conference: “Things are changed through the institutions. That nonsense we used to claim when we were in the far-left that you change things in the streets is a lie”.34 If there was the slightest prospect of Rajoy calling a snap election, there is no doubt that Podemos’s tactics would immediately change once more. Nonetheless, Iglesias’s victory over Errejón and the turn to activism offers more scope for Anticapitalistas to put forward their politics and for those outside Podemos to relate to the party’s rank and file. It also makes Podemos’s leaders more susceptible to pressure from below.

Stigmatised by the leadership at the 2014 congress, Anticapitalistas have become an appealing option to many of those disenchanted with the party’s current course. In the run-up to the 2017 congress, while Iglesias’s and Errejón’s teams publicly exchanged attacks that were cheerfully reported by the media, Anticapitalistas looked like the only ones concerned about unity and the party’s future. They were rewarded with a 10 percent vote among Podemos members for their proposal.35

While this is an indicator of how the anti-capitalist left within Podemos could grow, believing that at some point they will become the leading force in the party is wishful thinking. Revolutionaries both inside and outside Podemos can play a useful role by engaging with the grassroots and pulling the most active sections of Podemos leftwards, working alongside them while exposing the limits of the leadership’s political project. However, the problem remains that minorities within Podemos will always face marginalisation and difficulty in getting their ideas through to the membership, and will constantly have to reconcile their strategies with the official party positions. The need for a revolutionary party in the Spanish state that can act independently is unavoidable.

Workers’ resistance

From 2008, the working class in the Spanish state faced an all-out offensive against rights gained throughout decades of struggle. Faced with this situation, the two main Spanish unions, the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Workers (UGT), have not significantly altered the politics of peaceful negotiation that have characterised them since the end of the dictatorship. They reluctantly backed three general strikes against the labour reforms and austerity introduced by PSOE and PP, but refused to support the fourth one, over pension reforms.

Back then many pointed out that scattered one-day general strikes were insufficient to defeat a government determined to impose austerity. It would have required a much more disruptive and sustained operation, but a sense that the unions were simply going through the motions pervaded the strikes.36

There have been more serious attempts to challenge austerity. In 2012, when the government announced cuts in subsidies to the mining industry, miners in Asturias, León and other areas took strike action. State funds for the sector had been increasingly scarce since Spain joined the European Economic Community.37 Now Rajoy’s plan meant extinction of entire communities reliant on the coal industry. The PP government was aware that the miners were the first sector mounting a real fight against austerity. The outcome of the strike might determine whether other sectors would take similar steps. In a meeting with the miners’ unions, the minister of industry expressed their intention to wear down the miners and their organisations following the Thatcherite model.38 The miners fiercely resisted and stayed out for weeks, but eventually the unions surrendered, agreeing to shut down the pits with large job losses.

Some of the features of the miners’ dispute were present in strikes staged in the years after: a highly unionised sector, with a long fighting experience, where workers acted on their own initiative and dragged the union leaderships to the battlefield. What ultimately prevented the miners from winning this crucial battle was their isolation. There were many displays of solidarity, but strikes did not spread to other sectors opening new fronts. This, along with industry’s lack of reliance on Spanish coal, made it easier for the state to choke the strike to death.

Five years after the miners’ defeat, the PP, emboldened by its unexpected return to power, has launched a new attack. In February this year, the government announced its intention to liberalise the stowage sector in accordance with a sentence of the European Court of Justice in 2014. The main dockers’ union, CETM, has warned that the reform would turn permanent positions into precarious jobs. It would reduce wages and pave the way for mass layoffs, making up to three quarters of the current workforce subject to replacement. The unions called three days of strikes.

Unlike mining, stowage plays an important role in the Spanish economy. A strike in the sector responsible for the loading and unloading of goods in the harbours has the potential to halt maritime trade which, in Spain, is responsible for 86 percent of imports and 60 percent of exports. Goods with a value equivalent to €200 billion, 20 percent of the country’s GDP, travel through Spanish harbours every year.

In response, the government and its collaborators in the media have tried to demonise the dockers. They have accused them of behaving irresponsibly and enjoying too many privileges, while workers in other sectors struggle to survive, a tactic already used against miners and public sector workers. Thus, the bosses’ Platform of Investors in Spanish Ports (PIPE) complained on a radio programme that:

It’s one of the few sectors that maintains intolerable privileges…this is the only sector that I know where companies don’t have a say over who is hired, how many workers are needed, their working hours, their salaries… They [the dockers] are in a position of strength and are not willing to give up to the benefit of companies… The solution lies in making them understand that they can’t have these privileges in the 21st century… They are aware of the value of goods in the harbours and that has led us to an unsustainable situation.39

Attempts to sow division among workers have largely failed. The idea that the dockers are striking against attempts to snatch their gains away from them has predominated and support for them has been considerable. As a result, when in March the vote on the sector’s liberalisation was held in parliament, the PP found itself virtually alone: not only Podemos voted against the bill, but also PSOE. Even Ciudadanos had to abstain, albeit once it became clear that the bill was doomed. The dockers delivered the first severe blow to Rajoy’s new government. Not only that, but they forced the majority in parliament to disobey a norm imposed from Brussels for the first time.

The dockers’ unions had announced nine further strike days but they were called off following the defeat of the PP. They can claim victory for now, but negotiations with the government and the bosses continue, and they will be looking for opportunities to renew their attacks. However, their victory sets an inspiring precedent for others.

The union bureaucracy

There are several factors underpinning the lack of a strong, coherent working class movement. Although manufacturing industry continues to play a greater role in the Spanish economy than in other European countries, services have grown significantly, from making up 39.6 percent of all jobs in 1975 to 64.8 percent by 2005. Work characterised by insecurity and precarious conditions in this sector mushroomed, largely being undertaken by new generations of workers developing in a period of low levels of struggle.40

High unemployment has also had a negative impact on union membership. Thousands have been removed from their workplaces, and therefore from the opportunity to address their problems collectively through unions.41 Between 2009 and 2015 the main unions jointly lost over half a million members.42 Data from 2016 shows that only 16.8 percent of wage-earners are in a union.43

But low membership also has much to do with the actual record of the two main unions. In opinion polls, unions are the organisations held in the second lowest esteem, outrun only by political parties.44 CCOO and UGT are part and parcel of the institutional entanglement that emerged in the late 1970s and have been involved in some of the corruption scandals coming to light in the last years. Militants in both unions played a vital role in bringing down the dictatorship, but their links to the PSOE and the Communist Party (PCE) meant that, when the leaderships of these parties struck a deal with those sectors of the fascist regime who recognised the need for reform, the unions acted as a brake on the aspirations of the majority.

Ever since, CCOO and UGT have based their activity on a “socially responsible negotiation model”. In other words, they seek to influence the government and employers’ associations through dialogue and agreements.45 While the economy was in a good shape, it was possible for them to discuss how the crumbs of economic growth were to be distributed among workers and to present these gains as victories. But that is no longer the case. At the current juncture, the PP is not willing to negotiate; its main concern is to appease the markets and achieve the deficit objectives stipulated by the EU. Loyal as the unions might have been in the past, in the recent period the government has largely bypassed them and unilaterally imposed reforms. Yet CCOO and UGT continue to cling to the old model.

The tendency towards peaceful negotiation that characterises trade union bureaucracies generally is reinforced in the Spanish state by another factor. After the transition to democracy, a state programme was established for the financing of unions. These official subsidies, rather than members’ dues, are the unions’ most important source of funds. As long as these exist, the union bureaucracies will always prioritise appeals to the government’s goodwill over open confrontation; to do otherwise would endanger their very existence.46 This financing model is also related to the slow growth of unionisation in new areas of the economy. Because unions are not directly dependent on members’ dues to sustain their organisational structures, the bureaucracy do not see the need to develop a stronger presence in these sectors.

No wonder that, when the indignados movement erupted in 2011, the unions were seen as another part of the rotten system, making it harder for the protests and occupations to evolve into a strike movement. There were calls for general strikes but the unions were thought of as part of the problem rather than the solution.

This attitude towards workplace organisation has remained in recent years. In 2014, activists launched Somos, a union close to Podemos, intending to bring to the labour movement the same shake-up Iglesias’s party had caused in the political arena. The initiative has been much less relevant than expected, and its growth has been quite modest.47 Unsurprisingly, fostering Somos and rebuilding the labour movement have not been among the priorities of Podemos, and divergences between the party’s leadership and the union have grown. Neither has there been a sustained effort to direct Podemos’s criticisms of the system at the large unions’ leaderships.

Dislike for the large unions does not necessarily translate into passivity or unwillingness to fight back. On average, the participation rate in elections of workers’ commitees is 80 percent, regardless of whether or not the workers are unionised, and participation in strikes is usually high.48 The growth of alternative or local unions increasingly erodes the legitimacy of CCOO and UGT and their grip on struggle. The Basque ELA and LAB, close to the left pro-independence movement, are the dominant unions in the Basque Autonomous Community and are rapidly gaining ground to CCOO and UGT in Navarre. The Galician CIG has more delegates locally than the two main unions and it has been less affected by loss of membership. Also, the anarchist unions, CNT and CGT, have been an appealing choice for workers in other places, claiming at present 50,000 and 80,000 members respectively.

Where alternatives to the hegemony of UGT and CCOO are not available, there is no magic formula. The two unions represent a vast majority of unionised workers, so a sharper approach to their membership than the contempt shown by the indignados and Podemos is going to be needed. Changes in the leadership will not significantly shift the unions’ course either. What is missing is a strong rank and file movement that is aware of the deficiencies of the bureaucracy and takes the lead as the miners and the dockers have done.

This is a task that only the revolutionary left can take upon itself. The creation of that confidence and unity among workers from below should be a priority for anti-capitalists both inside and outside Podemos. The dockers’ strike has shown how Rajoy’s government can be confronted, and also how Podemos can benefit politically from it. Rebuilding the workers’ movement will not be achieved overnight. But the conditions for it to flourish—decreasing unemployment, a generalised mood against the government and austerity, successful strikes—are present.

Catalonia towards independence

There exists, however, another issue that can throw the whole establishment into chaos in the short term. That is Catalonia. The formation in 2015 of a ­pro-independence majority in the Catalan government, committed to breaking away from Spain, is at the moment the major matter of concern to the Spanish ruling class.

The reasons why the national question has such importance in Spanish politics go back a long way. The expansion of Spanish-speaking Castile, propelled from the end of the 15th century by the plundering of the Americas, led it to gradually overtake the other kingdoms in the peninsula. But the late-emerging bourgeoisie never succeeded in exerting full control over the country and achieving early centralisation or cultural homogenisation, as had been achieved following the French Revolution. As a result, some of the cultural and linguistic communities brought under Castilian power survived.

Catalonia and the Basque Country were two focuses of early, rapid industrial growth; this in turn resulted in an accumulation of masses of workers and some of the first manifestations of class struggle. Sections of the local bourgeoisies resented the fact that political power lay far away in Madrid, seeing the wider Spanish economy, still largely dominated by landowners, as a burden on their development, and so embraced a nationalist ideology from the late 19th century. But as the nationalist movements grew they ceased to be confined to bourgeois circles. Workers, whose lives were rapidly changing, felt the demands of these movements had practical implications for them too.

The fascist military coup in 1936 was merciless towards both national minorities and the left. The dictatorship (1939-77) sought to impose a uniformity that had not been achieved at any previous moment in the country’s history. The use of Catalan, Basque and Galician languages was prohibited and the slightest expression of identification with these cultures, rather than with the official national culture, was harshly punished. As a consequence, nationalist sentiments did not vanish but acquired for younger generations a meaning of standing in direct opposition to the values of the Francoist regime.49

The PCE and PSOE, who had supported the right to self-determination as part of the anti-Franco resistance, turned their backs on it as one of their concessions to the outgoing dictatorship. As for the right-wing sections of the Catalan and Basque movements, they returned from exile and helped sell the deal with the fascists to a society whose aspirations were much higher. While giving non-Spanish cultures more scope to express themselves, the new constitution was carefully designed to prevent any threat to national integrity, entrusting the army with the defence of national unity.

Over the decades not belonging to the Spanish state has continued to be associated with left positions: it ran through objection to military service in the 1980s, opposition to Nato (a 1986 referendum on Nato membership suffered a resounding defeat in the Basque Country and Catalonia, but won across the state as a whole) and resistance to Spanish involvement in the Iraq war.

Yet full support for independence remained a minority position, although to what extent is uncertain since Spain has never allowed a referendum on the question. In the case of Catalonia, there were two factors leading to the upsurge in support in recent years.50 The PSOE agreed in 2006 to a reform that would have recognised Catalonia’s nationhood and granted it home rule within Spain. The deal was immediately opposed by the PP and sections of PSOE itself and was blocked, and was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court. This convinced large numbers of workers and members of the middle classes that sovereignty for Catalonia would never be an option within Spain.51 The second factor was the economic crisis itself, dramatically worsening the living standards of these classes.

Opposition to cuts has pervaded the different independence campaigns and the annual demonstrations on the Catalan national day on 11 September, which have sometimes had more than a million people. By the same token, independence flags are a common feature on protests like the 300,000-strong demonstration in February 2017 demanding that more refugees be taken in.52 The rising pro-independence mood is clearly intrinsically bound up with opposition to austerity. This has been reflected in the composition of the Catalan parliament: the republican social democratic ERC has overtaken the neoliberal CiU as the leading force within mainstream nationalism, and the anti-capitalist, anti-EU CUP has won ten seats.

The left and self-determination

Podemos and IU have refused to lend their support to the pro-independence majority. They have argued that CiU waves the flag of independence to divert attention from its own role in implementing cuts and have accused CUP and ERC of helping whitewash its neoliberal record. But CiU never really supported independence, embracing the cause only when it saw it was unstoppable. And no one has done as much to unmask their responsibility for austerity in Catalonia as the CUP’s militants.

The current attitude towards self-determination by parties such as Podemos and IU has been typical of the Spanish left at crucial points in the country’s history. Both the Communist Party (closely tied to the Soviet Union) during the Civil War (1936-9), and the Eurocommunist current during the transition to democracy, were dismissive of the nationalist movements, when not openly conceding to Spanish chauvinism.

IU claims to be interested not in any national struggle, but in the social struggle, missing the point that Catalan independence is interlinked with the most radical demands of society. They pose as internationalists, but Catalan and Spanish nationalism cannot be equated. Spanish chauvinism is an ideology pumped out from the top of society, whose core components were devised by the Catholic Church and the fascist regime over 40 years and which today remains in the hands of the state. What is commonly branded as Catalan (or Basque) nationalism is a much more complex affair, and does not lie firmly in the grip of the Catalan bourgeoisie. Independence means different things for the different classes supporting it. For instance, former Catalan president Artur Mas said in a visit to the US that an independent Catalonia would remain loyal to Nato—but among working class people there is a broad consensus that the country would not have an army.53

Refusal to back independence has also been justified on the grounds that it weakens the unity of the Spanish working class. But, while there have been repeated attempts to divide Spanish and Catalan workers, they have come from politicians and the media, not from below. In fact, the national minorities are a ruling class’s recurrent scapegoat when it comes to diverting attention from issues such as austerity or corruption. The way to achieve unity among workers is precisely through supporting the rights of Catalans and Basques, continuously under attack, and challenging scapegoating, something the Spanish left has largely failed to do.

Podemos’s talk of a multinational state, inspired by Errejón’s study of Bolivian politics, was refreshing at first. Iglesias and Errejón tried to appeal to left voters in Catalonia and the Basque Country by arguing that Podemos would bring about the democratisation of the Spanish state that would make possible a recognition of their national rights.54 But while paying lip service to self-determination, in practice they have proved unable even to lend support to non-binding municipal initiatives for the democratic right to a referendum.55 More recently, Iglesias has proposed a status of shared sovereignty as an alternative to independence.56 This, of course, presupposes and is reliant on an eventual Podemos-led government. Unlike these abstract prospect, the possibility of independence exists now and is within reach.

There is nothing inherent in the Catalan working class that makes it more left-wing than that of the rest of the state, and arguments of that kind should be challenged as they foster illusions about the viability of socialism developing within the limits of a single country. An independent Catalonia could well end up being another capitalist state, controlled by its national bourgeoisie that goes on exploiting workers. But there was nothing inevitable about Catalan society shifting to the left because of plummeting living standards. It has been the leading role of the Catalan left, along with the systematic work of the anti-fascist platform Unitat Contra el Feixisme (UCFR) in preventing fascist groups from tapping into the mood, that has ensured this was the case. The same remains true when it comes to fighting for independence and defining its content.

The unmissable fact is that right now the left in Catalonia has a much more advantageous balance of forces than in the rest of the state, and levels of class confidence and consciousness are higher there—which is not to say that they cannot develop to the same extent everywhere else. Indeed, ensuring a victory for the Catalan left could be the way to achieve this goal.

The damage to the Spanish ruling class that the loss of Catalonia would cause is unimaginable; Catalonia makes a large contribution to the state’s revenues, with 18.8 percent of national GDP. The centrality of national unity to the dominant ideology of the ruling class would also turn the event into a political earthquake. A victory for independence would thus precipitate a crisis of unforeseeable consequences, throwing into chaos not only the PP but Spanish capitalism as a whole.

Socialism can only be achieved internationally, but by opening new prospects for the left in Catalonia and by breaking the consensus imposed by fascism in the transition to democracy, Catalan independence would advance the cause of the entire working class. And, if a triumph of the Catalan left would be a positive development for workers in the rest of the state, what would the consequences of its defeat be?

Due to the need to look strong and stable, and the pressure exerted by the Spanish nationalist lobby, the PP has refused to negotiate with the Catalan parliament. The pro-independence majority has pledged to organise a referendum on 1 October but all the calls on the central government to cooperate have fallen on deaf ears.57 Likewise CiU and ERC have fruitlessly sought the intervention of the EU and third countries to lift the bar on a referendum. The EU will not accept the unilateral separation of part of a member state, and the idea of being out of the EU sends shivers down the spine of CiU politicians. As it becomes clearer that to go ahead with the referendum will involve an open confrontation with the Spanish state, and that they no longer control the process in motion, the risk exists that the Catalan bourgeoisie will instead try to strike a deal from above. However, awareness that supporters of independence are running out of patience and will not accept more excuses complicates this.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks by the Spanish state have mounted. Individuals and associations have been brought to court for organising a non-binding referendum in 2014 that was ruled illegal. Activists of the CUP have also faced trial for burning pictures of the Spanish king at a public event. The main newspapers in Madrid and senior army officers have repeatedly asked the government to send the army in and suspend Catalan autonomy, as the constitution allows.

Only the CUP discounted from the beginning the possibility of an agreed referendum and has demanded the Catalan Parliament stop obeying laws coming from Madrid. The work of activists in the CUP’s ranks and other left groups in the next months will be crucial to bring pressure from below to bear on the Catalan government. A half-heartedly called referendum will give Rajoy the excuse he is awaiting to act. An actual military intervention cannot be ruled out in the end. If this happened, nobody can seriously think that it would not be followed by an immediate clampdown on opposition everywhere else in the state and by new steps towards authoritarianism. What the left does inside and outside Catalonia can prevent this scenario. The leadership of Podemos and IU will act according to an electoral logic, but every activist, in these or other groups, who wants to challenge the system must actively support independence. Solidarity with Catalonia can make a fundamental difference.

Conclusion: further destabilisation

It must not be forgotten that the PP is in office only because of the failure of all the other parties to form a government. In the long run stability remains impossible and Rajoy does not rule out calling a new general election if the opposition PSOE, whose goodwill his government depends on, obstructs his work.

The PSOE say that they are the real opposition, not Podemos, while siding with the conservatives whenever stability is at stake. But they are deeply divided. A managing board controlled the party for half a year after Sánchez’s removal, until in May a new leadership election took place. Sánchez, although marginalised by the bureaucracy, stood again on an anti-Rajoy platform and beat Susana Díaz, the candidate of the establishment. While this revived the talks of a hypothetical left coalition headed by PSOE and Podemos, the PSOE has since abstained in a motion of no confidence against Rajoy put forward by Podemos in June. It is uncertain to what extent the PSOE, still a pillar of the system, can be moved leftwards. Nevertheless, the rebellion that has brought Sánchez back to power has exposed the noncomformity of a majority of the membership.

More importantly, the PP might have been able to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis temporarily, but the structural problems that brought the Spanish economy to its knees when the financial bubble burst remain untouched.58 Investing in property and other forms of fictitious capital are still an important part of the economy, while productive investment and profitability remain low. This makes the Spanish economy extremely vulnerable to any upheaval in international markets in coming years.

Corruption remains rampant. Hardly a week goes by without new scandals involving PP members coming to light. While Rajoy has so far dodged any investigations, he is due to testify in court as a witness in relation to inquiries into senior party members close to him. The Prosecutor’s Office for corruption is tightly controlled by the conservatives, so many cases do not lead to prison sentences, but corruption is an issue with the potential to unite people from all walks of life against the government.

As the dockers have shown, austerity can be fought. The labour reforms can be repealed. The Gag Law can be resisted. Rajoy’s government is weak and it can be brought down before 2020.

On the way to this goal, Podemos, IU and the unions are travelling companions, but the initiative must not be abandoned to their leaders. If the left stands another chance to form a government, this should be welcomed and supported, without abandoning the critique of reformism or the building of a revolutionary party and without allowing mobilisation to decline again.

In making all this possible, the key issue that can alter the balance of power, throwing the Spanish state’s rulers on the defensive, is Catalonia.

Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in London and a member of the SWP.


1 Thanks to Andy Brown, Joseph Choonara and David Karvala for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

2 Giménez San Miguel, 2014.

3 For a thorough scrutiny of the results of the December election, see Brown, 2016.

4 June 2016 general election results: PP: 7,906,185 votes; PSOE: 5,424,709; Unidos Podemos: 5,049,734; Ciudadanos: 3,123,769. In 2015, Podemos had obtained 5,189,333, while IU (under the name of Unidad Popular) won 923,105.

5 Sierra, 2016.

6 Aguilar and Gerehou, 2016.

7 Gómez, 2017.

8 Gómez, 2017.

9 Eleconomista, 2016.

10 Austerity has meant dispensing with those seen by the state as a burden and there have been specific politics aimed at fostering an exodus of workers. Cuts in unemployment benefits targeted young people at a moment when half of those aged 15-24 were jobless, denying any help to those who had not worked in the past. Migrants have also been particularly affected: 66 percent of those leaving had already moved to Spain from another country.

11 Gómez, 2017.

12 The right to strike is severely undermined, as the law penalises actions such as gatherings that might obstruct the entrance of a public or private building (a picket line) or the slightest material damage to these (which may include putting up stickers).

13 Guardian, 2017.

14 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015; Brown, 2016.

15 The party’s new constitution ruled that people belonging to other parties could not hold a position within Podemos’s structures. Thus, in order to stand candidates for Podemos, Anticapitalistas had to cease to be an independent party.

16 Iglesias, 2015.

17 Errejón, 2012.

18 Laclau and Mouffe, 1987a.

19 Sanz Alcántara, 2015.

20 Anderson, 2016.

21 Laclau and Mouffe, 1987b, p282.

22 Callinicos, 2017.

23 See D’Eramo, 2013.

24 Iglesias, 2017a.

25 Gil, 2017.

26 For an analysis of left reformism, see Molyneux, 2013. For an account of the appropriation of Gramscian theory, see Harman, 1977.

27 Wood, 1998, p6.

28 Público, 2017.

29 Errejón’s team campaigned for Iglesias to continue as party leader while opposing his programme.

30 For a close examination on the congress and its background, see Antentas, 2017.

31 For a critique of neo-Keynesian politics, and the factors making them unfeasible today, see Thomas, 2016.

32 Echenique, 2016.

33 Antentas, 2017.

35 Antentas, 2017.

36 Bayón, 2016.

37 Zhu, 2012.

38 De Miguel, 2012.

39 Almazán, 2017.

40 Gago, 2012.

41 Gago, 2012.

42 CCOO went down from 1,203,307 to 909,052 and UGT from 1,205,463 to 928,846.

43 Muñoz, 2016.

44 Muñoz, 2016.

45 Gago, 2013.

46 Funnily enough, this moderation has not prevented the Ministry of Employment from reducing the funds for unions from €15.8 million in 2011 to €9 million in 2016—Muñoz, 2016.

47 It had 86 delegates out of 254,732 in the whole state in 2016—Muñoz, 2016.

48 In fact, the amount of annual strike hours is regularly larger than in other countries with higher levels of unionisation such as Germany—Gago, 2012.

49 Durgan, 2013.

50 Although there hasn’t yet been a similar upsurge in the Basque Country, for reasons I discuss elsewhere—Sierra, 2017.

51 Kerevan, 2017.

52 Karvala, 2017a.

53 Karvala, 2017b.

54 Catalonia and the Basque Country are actually the only two places where Podemos came out first in the 2016 general election.

55 Naiz, 2017.

56 Iglesias, 2017b.

57 Jones, 2017.

58 Roberts, 2015.


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