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Transversal Democracy in Spain

An interview with Clara Ramas San Miguel 

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the emergence of the Spanish progressive political party Podemoswhich was successful in translating the social demands of the 15-M movement against austerity into a coherent progressive political platform. Since then, Podemos has gained seats in the European Parliament and has erected alliances with progressive mayors in major Spanish cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia) — alliances that have transformed the political landscape on both regional and national levels. As of today, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos leads a national alliance with the current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). While this national alliance arose out of a strategy to oust former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy last June, over the last year this government has introduced a progressive agenda (albeit one that has yet to be approved under the current budget cycle). Parallel to this development, the second in command and founder of Podemos, Íñigo Errejón, who is now a candidate to lead the progressive ticket of Madrid’s state government, left the party just last week due to friction with top level party leaders. Errejón’s new platform “Más Madrid (More Madrid) aims at diversifying the electorate and recharging the spirit of social mobilization after the pushback in the election in Andalucía this past December, in which the far-right party Vox gained twelve parliamentary seats. It is a tense political moment in Spanish politics that defies complete predictions.

In the following exchange, I speak with Clara Ramas San Miguel. Ramas is one of Spain’s foremost political philosophers, and among the best analysts of the Spanish political landscape. She is also the author of Fetichismo y mistificación capitalistas: la critica de la economía política de Marx (Siglo XXI, 2018) [Fetishism and Capitalist Mystification: On Marx’s Critique of Political Economy], which has been received as a defining contribution to contemporary Marxian thought. She is currently a researcher at the Complutense University in Madrid. Parallel to her academic research, Ramas is a public intellectual who, in recent years, has authored important essays on democratic populism, the new wave of Spanish feminism, and the horizon of progressive patriotism. In a country where the “patriotic idea” has been historically intertwined with the imaginary of right-wing nationalism and the specter of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Ramas’ recasting of patriotism as a fundamental democratic ideal is an ambitious intellectual project whose aspiration aims to transform at the very conditions of Spanish progressivism. Ramas is also one of the most important organic intellectuals of the Errejón political wing of the Spanish New Left. In light of the recent mutations in Podemos, I talked to Ramas about the possibilities of progressive patriotism in the wake of Madrid progressive candidate Íñigo Errejón’s new “Más Madrid” platform, and how it is being joined with that of current Mayor Manuela Carmena.

Munoz: Clara, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the new progressive platform “Más Madrid” led by the alliance between Manuela Carmena and Íñigo Errejón. However, before getting to this, I want to ask you about your work on the idea of patriotism. In several recent essays you insist that, today, Spanish progressive forces need to build a patriotic horizon. This progressive patriotism is also the central strategy in Errejón’s political hypothesis as he told us a few years back in an exchange for Public Seminar. However, thinking about the long reactionary history that the ideal of “patriotism” has had in Spain, why is the dispute over national symbols so central for a profound democratic reform?

Ramas: It is true that the idea of patriotism in Spain has deep historical tensions, which cannot be neatly defined. Just think about the legacy of the Francoist dictatorship, on the one hand, and the plurinational nature of our country’s territoriality on the other. However, I think that the debate must transcend this dichotomy. First, because the ideal of a “collective identity” is simply a sociological and anthropological reality. We all are political animals. Some observers are always alarmed and perplexed at the way in which migrants express a sense of pride in the Spanish national symbols. But, in my opinion, this actually uncovers a logic that is part of our common sense; which is a collective common sense. On the other hand, patriotism as a form of love for our community is a republican value that is at the center of the democratic ideals that we have inherited. I will go further: in times of political strife, the nexus between the popular and the patriotic becomes intimately intertwined. In his chronicle of the revolutionary Spain of 1808, Marx was very clear about this: “The uprising began at the heart of the people, since the elite had become subordinate to the foreign enemy.” Marx also adds that the Spanish uprising tried to unify the goal of social emancipation with the project of a common nation. In other words, without social transformation there is no common homeland: the coming together of the nation and its people is the horizon of every transformative political project.

This is the subterranean political tradition that goes back to the courts of Cadiz, which gathered Spain’s most progressive figures of its time. The Spanish polygraph Antonio de Capmany, a Catalan deputy to the courts, once remarked: “What are Spaniards, if not Araganese, Valencians, Murcians, Catalans, and Castilians? Our nation is made up of all of these little nations; a fact that even emperor Napoleon ignored when conquering our land.” Let us not forget that Marx too had seen that Spain would never be a modern nation without first articulating a long history of plurinationalism, as recorded in different regional juridical traditions, institutions, languages, and cultures. Our country today still lacks a coherent federal political project.

The reactionary political project, on the other hand, has been a systematic attempt to build the nation against the people. This is the goal at the heart of the Franco dictatorship, and what we need to dispute today. But it is also incorrect to reduce our contemporary political history to the forty years of the dictatorship. Today, more than ever, we should contest the Francoist conception of the nation, which excluded half of its constituency. As historian Jose Luis Martin Ramos has argued, to abandon the idea of patriotism will in fact be a way of continuing the cultural scheme imposed by Francoism. Thus, the idea of a sovereign Spanish nation, as conceived during the Napoleonic invasion, is one that vindicates the radical republican and federal essence of the country. This existential heterogeneity coexists in the ideals of federal republicanism conceived during the Second Republic, and continues into the national-popular struggle against fascism during the civil war of 1936-1939. To sum up, there are multiple histories in our political tradition that allow us to build a nation of patriotism attuned to a democratic dimension.

Munoz: Those of us who follow the unfolding of Spanish politics closely were not surprised by Errejón’s exit from Podemos. At least since the second party congress in 2017 there were well defined divergent political and intellectual ideas within the party. While Errejón argued for political transversality to build a large progressive majority, Iglesias’ platform was centered on the idea of “unity” that revolved around the militant base. In your opinion, do you think that the second party congress at Vistalegre could have taken a different direction?

Ramas: A transversal political project has always been the only successful route for a democratic breakthrough. In fact, this is the original spirit of Podemos, which carried the first five million votes back in 2015 – a truly unique moment in history of Spanish democracy. Every political leader in Podemos subscribed to this rhetoric, even Pablo Iglesias, who knew that convincing a large majority was more important than speaking to those already convinced on the left. Unless we speak in the name of the “People” we know that the electoral ceiling will oscillate between 15-20%, as Iglesias himself said back in 2014. According to Iglesias, effective and radical change happens when people that had previously voted for the PP (Popular Party) could say “now I have voted for Podemos.” It is immensely painful to see someone who has spoken with such eloquence slowly abandon this direction for Podemos. The second party congress, also known as Vistalegre II, took place in a critical moment, between December of 2015 and June of 2016. In 2016, the party line took a different turn in their understanding of the political. What happened in this party congress was that the political program that was defeated (Errejón’s), was the political line that was favorite by a large majority outside of the party, as the polls have shown. This is a logic common to the nature of political parties, as they tend to become foreclosed and self-referential. Back in 2014, Podemos took a critical stance of Izquierda Unida (United Left), an insular political party. Now we find ourselves in the same position with Podemos.

Munoz: “Más Madrid” is an alliance with the popular mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena. Do you think that Errejón will be capable of redirecting the official line of Podemos, or is his long term strategy to build another political party?

Ramas:As Errejón himself has stated, his political renovation is nothing but putting into practice what he learned from his Podemos experience. In other words, when things are not going well and political weakness is evident, one has to look elsewhere. This is the DNA of Podemos. I think that the current leadership of Podemos should reflect on the matter if it wants to remain faithful to its original intention, which today entails supporting the initiative of the Carmena-Errejón platform.

Munoz:In one of your recent essays, you characterized Errejón’s “Más Madrid” platform as an opportunity to mobilize progressive forces after the right-wing backlash that took place in the Andalucía elections this past December. For the first time since the transition to democracy, an extreme-right party like Vox has gained parliamentary representation in Spain’s largest region. To what extent do you think that Errejón’s alliance with Carmena in Madrid is a way to once again put a new energy on the agenda, energy that Podemos was no longer capable of transmitting to the electorate?

Ramas: Here I think it is necessary to develop a correct political interpretation about the rise of the reactionary bloc in the aftermath of the elections in Andalucía. There are some analysts that have subscribed to Vox’s narrative of exceptionality. But I think that is an incorrect diagnosis that ends up paralyzing progressive forces. I do not think that the left-right opposition has been replaced by the status quo, far-right opposition, as some have recently proposed. We should never assume that Vox is an anti-establishment political party. This is incorrect. Vox is a radicalized force coming from the PP (Popular Party) with a very clear program: a neoliberal economic plan that privileges elites, an effort to foment polarization within Catalonia, and a political rhetoric that hinges on resentment and fear (specifically against immigration and feminism). But it is impossible to create a sense of national belonging from these principles. In other words, Vox does not have an agenda for a national project capable of amending Spain’s current social, territorial, and economic tensions. I do not see Vox having much chance in the long term, which will be consistent with the long history of the lack of Spanish reactionary political initiatives. This explains why the reactionary bloc was never an option in the wake of the economic crisis a decade ago. They were incapable of giving a democratic response to the social discontent. Hence, the question is: why is the right growing at this specific conjuncture? For one thing, people have lost their trust in politics. The new social moment is different from that of 2011, which was characterized by indignation and revolt. The reactionary forces, therefore, come to occupy those progressive zones that are now becoming politically impotent. I want to make this emphasis clear: the far-right does not convince anyone, rather they are voted in as the lesser evil.

This means that if the progressive forces do politics on the ground, we should be able to confront them. Immediately after the results of the election in Andalucía, Errejón argued that it is not true that there are 400,000 fascists in that region. Rather, these 400,000 voted for this party against neoliberal discontent. In other words: Vox is only a symptom. This is why our task should be one of deactivating the causes that contributed to its rise in a social climate dominated by fear, uncertainty, and inequality. As I have argued recently, it is time that the left takes up this project seriously. In this sense, the Errejón-Carmena alliance is a political project that goes deep into the causes of the current progressive impasse. We must look outside our militants in order to restore strong progressive bonds for a successful national democratic project.

Munoz:Some analysts have compared Errejón’s tension with Podemos to Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont who, from his Waterloo exile, has created a new movement called “La Crida Nacional.” However, it seems that the two political projects are quite different. Whereas Puigdemont seeks to maintain the tensions within his own party in order to survive the “post-referendum” scenario in Catalonia, Errejón seems to want to expand the center-left electorate. What is your take regarding this comparison with Puigdemont? Do you know if Errejón and “errejonismo” have a different approach to the Catalan crisis than the official line of Podemos?

Ramas: I agree that this comparison is insufficient. As the trial against the Catalan independence leaders begins, I am sure that we will hear a lot about Catalonia during the Madrid campaign. Although Errejón is focused on the campaign, his position regarding the Catalan crisis has remained unchanged. His is a position that argues that we must affirm an idea of patriotism that would be capable of renovating the Spanish nation for all the different nationalities – including the Catalans. This is the only way forward to avoid unilateral declarations. It is impossible to understand the political history of Spain without first taking into account the contribution of each of its nations (pueblos). When the far-right, like Vox, says that the two million Catalans can leave Spain, they show their weak cultural hegemony, which is compensated for by a full-fledged discourse of force. It is unfortunate to see some political leaders in our country think that they can dispose of half of our civil society. But I am hopeful that the progressive forces in our country can multiply their voices in order to build a plurinational sense of Spain. For me this is another definition of patriotism.

Munoz:This is the last question. It is interesting to note that Errejón always appeals to the “original” spirit of Podemos. In other words, he does not seek to abandon the party but rather to renew its initial radical momentum. I know that it is difficult to make predictions about the general horizon of the progressive forces in Spain, but how do you envision its path? Are we going to see a social democratic transformation in alliance with the PSOE? Or are we going to see a regionalization of Podemos, one taking very specific forms depending on the needs and political conjuncture in each of the territorial autonomies?

Ramas: As I said before, I think that Errejón’s political move has been an extraordinary effort to prolong the original momentum of Podemos. On the other hand, his theory of a “virtuous competition” has become the way of doing politics in the Spanish context. Any prediction is difficult in a scenario that is always evolving, but I do hope that the progressive forces can keep the pressure that began with the no-confidence motion, in which Podemos finally understood that it could advance further in alliance with the PSOE rather than against it. This alliance explains material achievements such as the increase of the minimum wage. The most immediate political goal is to lead a progressive front capable of winning the national elections. This requires at least three different elements: first, the capacity to go beyond the acronyms of a political parties; second, an engagement with other political forces to be able to govern; and third, the ambition to craft a political agenda to lead progressive forces forward. At the moment we are in the phase of reconstructing these strategies from below, at both the municipal and local levels.

Gerardo Muñoz teaches at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania. His most recent publication is Alberto Lamar Schweyer: ensayos sobre poetica y politica (Bokeh 2018). You can follow him on Twitter.

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