- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
After fighting four general elections in under four years, this January, the radical anti-austerity alliance Unidas Podemos finally entered government. Joining with Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists (PSOE), it became junior partner in Spain’s first left-wing coalition since the 1930s.
Yet within two months of taking office, the PSOE–Unidas Podemos administration was plunged into an unprecedented national crisis, as Spain became one of the epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, as the second wave rears its head — and Spain posts among the highest rates of infection across the European Union — the coalition has come under sustained pressure from multiple sides.
The Right is pursuing a strategy of polarisation against the government, as it seeks to stoke tensions around new Covid-19 restrictions in the hard-hit Madrid region. On Wednesday, the far-right Vox brought a motion of no confidence in Sánchez’s administration. At the same time, the country’s establishment has also launched a “lawfare” campaign against the coalition, as elements within the judiciary and security forces push for the indictment of various government officials on politically motivated charges.
The highest profile target of this campaign has been Podemos leader and deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias. Absurdly, a conservative judge is seeking to indict Iglesias in relation to a case of illegal police spying against Podemos’s own leadership. Although the country’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, reaffirmed Iglesias’s status as an injured party in this so-called Dina case, the case’s presiding judge has now requested that the Supreme Court charge him with revealing secrets, sabotaging information, and filing a false complaint.
Iglesias remains defiant — arguing that such weaponisation of the judiciary is proof that Podemos’s presence in government inspires fear among the country’s elites. In this interview, he tells Eoghan Gilmartin that, despite his party’s electoral losses last year, it now finds itself in a position to meaningfully shape Spain’s post-Covid-19 landscape — not just breaking with economic orthodoxy, but also setting forth a new republican horizon beyond the country’s post-Franco monarchy.
The Perfect Storm
You have said that the recovery plan is a chance to set a new course for the Spanish state — noting that “in the next ten months we will take decisions that could change the country for the next ten years.” But if this presents a historic opportunity, the pandemic has also intersected with many other crises, creating a kind of perfect storm. We see a social crisis, the radicalised right hardening the political conflict, tensions around Catalonia, and the crisis in the monarchy. How do you see this combination of challenges?
A good question. I think it’s important to take a bird’s-eye view and try — difficult as it is — to look at what’s happening like a historian would. For we are currently in a defining historical moment.
Many economists recognise that, to find a moment comparable to this, you’d have to think back to the 1929 crisis or to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II — each opened up unprecedented political possibilities pointing in very different directions. The New Deal had what we might call a “social” version, in FDR’s United States, but there was also a Mussolinian New Deal, and another one that led to the Third Reich, driving toward the great geopolitical confrontation of the twentieth century — World War II, the continuation of World War I.
Seeing things as a historian like Immanuel Wallerstein would have, we might say that the Great War in Europe had two chapters, which both expressed the same type of correlation of geopolitical forces. And if we look at what is happening today, we see the present crisis is taking place against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. In the United States, Donald Trump is probably the latest expression of the US political system’s deterioration.
Let’s bring this context back to one “province” — the Spanish state, the Eurozone’s fourth-biggest economy, a Southern European country whose development pattern over the last two or three decades has been heavily marked by international tourism, property development, and the implications this has in terms of corruption. And let’s understand what it means in terms of the economic challenge we face and the European Council decision this summer. This latter saw the EU, we might say, self-rectifying, saying it had broken with the austerity paradigm and doing something like eurobonds with 70 billion euros in transfers and another 70 billion in credit.
Certainly, anyone who knows what the EU is — this club, its governance institutions — would not have imagined such a turn.
If we look at Spain, we have to add that, for the first time since the Civil War, there is a government with the political DNA that this coalition has, plus the traditional conflicts of the last two centuries regarding plurinationalism and the territorial question. And, to that picture, we have to add in the crisis of the monarchy and the unprecedented ultraright presence in Congress. Among the bloc of the three right-wing forces [alongside the Popular Party and Ciudadanos], the ultraright Vox is leading the cultural offensive — Vox is not only its votes and its MPs, but it is fundamental for understanding the right-wing bloc in Spain, which many would call the monarchical governmental bloc.
This means that this is a moment when anything is possible — whether for better or worse. Probably, the deafening noise that makes us feel so besieged means that it is harder to look at things with a historian’s eyes and understand the great opportunities in front of us. Our obligation, in government, is to make use of these opportunities, with the modest influence that we have. If we didn’t have such influence, one could not explain the aggression against us by the entrenched powers and their media outriders. I think we have to exploit the opportunity and embark upon a series of historic tasks. In economic terms, that means overcoming Spain’s subaltern position in the European division of labor. With regard to politics, that means advancing on the basis of republican principles toward a new social and political pact in Spain that better resembles the reality in our country.
You’ve said one of the main goals of the recovery plan is to strengthen the public sector. What would this involve, right now? I’m particularly thinking of Rubén Juste’s book on the IBEX 35 stock exchange, where he explains how state sovereignty has been hollowed out these last three decades.
What we have inherited are the results of a failed battle to defend the public sector. Rubén Juste’s book has a lot of insight in explaining the development of a neoliberal paradigm; this didn’t begin with Rodrigo Rato, architect of the Partido Popular’s economic thinking, but already with the likes of Carlos Solchaga, Pedro Solbes, and Miguel Sebastián [PSOE economy ministers when Felipe González was prime minister in the 1980s–90s]. For many years, there has been a consensus regarding what should be done for the state, though it has different variants — it would be absurd to say that the Áznar government’s style was the same as that of [PSOE premiers] González or José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But we might say that the good things the Left remembers from Zapatero generally aren’t to do with the economy.
Our government is different, because we [Podemos] are here. Over the last four years in Spain, the battle was fundamentally about whether we would be in government or not. After the 2015 elections, there was an enormous fight to stop us, which prompted a second general election [a few months later]. After that, the result was that the Partido Popular governed; and if [in 2018], the PSOE decided to present a motion of no confidence [against the PP], such as we had already been pushing, it was because they were not obliged to have us in government with them.
The 2019 elections were repeated, again to stop us being in government. After, we might say, climbing a very steep hill and shedding a lot of feathers along the way — losing support and losing fighters — we finally made it. We are in the government and achieved the existence, in Spain, of the very government which the economic elite and their media power have spent the last four or five years trying to avoid.
Added to that, we ran into an unprecedented social and economic crisis, as a consequence of the pandemic. This obliged the PSOE part of the government to rectify some elements of its economic thinking — you need only think of what the government’s economic ministers thought about debt and public spending before the pandemic hit. A joke told a lot in Spain says that great disasters turn atheists into believers, and as economists would say, they turn neoliberals into neo-Keynesians. Of course, what has happened in Spain is that a coalition government that was the entrenched powers’ worst nightmare not only exists today, but now has to manage 140 billion euros arriving from the European funds and a recovery plan.
While today we weren’t strong enough to be able to run one of the big economic ministries, we are part of the coalition, have a vice presidency and four ministries, and the budget is negotiated with us. And something in the spirit of the European accords is that you need an entrepreneurial state that implements a series of reforms so that the purchasing power of wide layers of society is not undermined by the crisis.
This is the underlying approach. Hence raising the minimum wage; maintaining the social protection of companies and workers through ERTE [furlough plan]; and the minimal living income program [the coalition introduced], a social shield full of defects yet without precedent in our country’s history. And this also means accepting that the public sector must return to play a strategic role.
Will the government do all I would like, in this sense? No, because the negotiation results from a correlation of forces in parliament. Will it do more than any other government in forty years? I think we’ve already demonstrated as much, and that’s what worries the government’s adversaries. People they constantly call dangerous Bolsheviks are in government as a Keynesian moment arrives — so I can understand why they’re pulling out their hair and gnashing their teeth.
And could this also mean measures like the need for public companies? Isn’t that also decisive for the green transition?
You can imagine what I think, having just driven a lot of discussion in the government over the privatisation of Bankia. For us, Bankia should be a public bank, but with our thirty-five MPs, it was very difficult to convince the party with whom we are in government of that — a party with which we have very cordial relations, but which is the child of Felipe González, of Solchaga, of Pedro Solbes, of Miguel Sebastián. I believe that we are going to take steps in an interesting direction. I agree with you. Can you carry through a serious green transition without the active presence of the public sector? I think that’s difficult to believe.
Podemos is a victim of what some call cloacas — the operations of the dark underbelly of the Spanish state. In Latin America in recent years, we have seen lawfare being deployed as a political tactic — Lula in Brazil is the paradigmatic case, but we could also look at the ban on Rafael Correa and the persecution of Cristina Kirchner. What do you think about lawfare, as a tool that reactionary forces use against progressive movements?
The Spanish right unambiguously wants to Latinamericanise the Spanish state — they’d like one more like certain Latin American countries where elites totally own the state. The Spanish right considers the state and the institutions as its own; to a certain degree, it’s true that it has a powerful ideological penetration in the deep state, but not as much as they’d like.
Have there been cloacas against Podemos and against the enemies of the Right? Yes, this has been attested in a parliamentary commission and at the judicial level, and perhaps some of those responsible will do jail time. What does this mean? That although they try this, it may not turn out well for them, precisely on account of the historical configuration of the Spanish state.
Are the judicial authorities in Spain conservative? Some say yes. But conservative, to the extreme that all judicial bodies accept being the mere transmission belt for the interests of the economic and political right? I don’t believe so. There may be some activists in these authorities, but I think it will be difficult for those who want to take absolute ownership of the state to find success. And we can reflect on why that is. Spain is in the EU — and though one should not have illusions in the EU, it’s hard to imagine that the interests of those who want to make the state their own property will coincide with the interests of the capitalist class with interests in Europe.
Indeed, thinking historically, one of the great virtues of the Spanish right in the past was its ability to negotiate. [Former king] Juan Carlos [who came to the throne after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975] devised a historic gambit for conservative interests in Spain, precisely because he was able to promote a virtuous line of communication with progressive elements. I would have preferred the recovery of democracy in Spain to have been deeper; that there had been a cleanup in the security forces, in the army, that did not take place; that there had been some different results; and that incorporation into the EU had been on different terms.
But Juan Carlos represented the guarantee that certain democratic advances — or so they were sold to us, and there may have been some truth to them — could take place. It is telling that some say that this head of state — who always tried to distance himself from the symbolic embrace of the Right — served as a guarantee for these advances at the same time as preserving the monarchy. What was his interest? That the monarchy should continue to exist. So, what did he have to do, to that end?
One solution — not a bad one [from Juan Carlos’s point of view] — was to be the condition of possibility for democratic advances, at the same time as ensuring that there should be no economic transition, that the same families who got rich because of their closeness to the Francoite state could reconvert themselves into democratic entrepreneurs. At this present moment, is there an economic and political right able to sign up to agreements with the other side of the political spectrum, including us? I think not, among other things because the ultraright has marginalised them politically and because there is a bunkerisation process that puts them, for the first time in over eighty years, in a very weak position with regard to state structures. Their hyperventilation in recent times is more an expression of weakness than of strength.
Is it game over for them? No, and perhaps this Right will win and turn Spain into Brazil — and do here what they did with Lula there. I think here they’ll have a bit of a harder time of things, precisely because of the history of the configuration of the state. That’s not because I think that things will be easy for us or there will not be difficult spells. No human being is free of the risk of being hit by a stray bullet. But I get the feeling that, given the current historic process, we have possibilities ahead of us — modest but interesting ones.
Absurdly, the judge in the so-called Dina case has turned you — one of the victims of a campaign of police espionage — into a suspect in this same case. It’s clearly difficult to explain this to an international audience. Could you try?
Yes, and it’s not so hard. In late 2015, soon before the general election, they stole the mobile phone of an important member of my team. This isn’t opinion, but what appears in the police files. Proof appeared that police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo — now in prison for very serious crimes, and who had basically dedicated his whole life to police espionage — had handed the contents of this mobile phone to journalists, and some of them were published in right-wing media to damage us.
They looked for proof, in this phone, of illegal financing. They found nothing. They perhaps intended to create a sex scandal, but again they found nothing that would have allowed that. And what they ultimately found was [prominent Podemos MP] Pablo Echenique singing a rude song and a few messages I’d sent to a private chat, let’s say which also had a rather rude content, referring to a journalist, to whom I had to apologise. They found very little, but they published it anyway to try and damage us as much as possible.
Now, the story they’re trying to peddle is that we invented this espionage so we could denounce the fact we were being spied on — and so make out we were victims during the election campaign. Even for a noir fiction writer, this is too rickety a story, faced with the proven facts of the case, and what was proven in Congress with regard to the cloaca body [attacking us].
They wanted to destroy us, like in Latin America, knowing there is no legal recourse but that if they own papers, radio stations, and TV channels, they can say for hours on end that you have a bank account in some tax haven, that North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela financed you, that your funding is illegal — all manner of things.
How do I think all this will turn out? Ultimately, I think the supreme court will throw it out and it will come to nothing, because anything else would be an international scandal. But I think that that’s fine for them, because it has allowed them, for many months already, to make sure that this is basically what gets spoken about. And afterward, they’ll invent some new scandal and there will be powerful media ready to say all manner of barbarities about us.
Ever since its foundation, there has been a strategic debate in Podemos about its relationship with the PSOE. At the Vistalegre II congress — not to go any further back — this was a central consideration. And in a 2015 article for the New Left Review (“Understanding Podemos”) you said, “Our vital goal this year is to overtake the PSOE — an essential precondition for political change in Spain.” But you didn’t overtake it — and instead, there was a government coalition headed by that same party. What’s your expectation of political change now, given the PSOE’s predominant place in the coalition? And, more generally, what balance sheet would you draw from these debates and the present experience of government together?
The crucial moment in any debate is when it has to translate into a political decision. And there was a moment when we had to take a political decision on this issue.
That moment came with the 2018 no-confidence motion [against right-wing premier Mariano Rajoy]. This came after we had already presented a symbolic no-confidence motion in 2017, when we were level with the PSOE in the polls or even ahead of it.
I had a debate with a small group of comrades, in which we reached this conclusion: we would support a no-confidence motion that handed governmental office to the PSOE alone [so as to halt the Right’s advance at the height of the standoff around Catalan independence]. There was the possibility that we would be the biggest progressive force at the next election, as we were doing better in opposition [but the polls suggested the Right would win an outright majority].
But if we allowed the PSOE to govern alone, or a PSOE government with us in a much-reduced position — as ultimately happened — it would be difficult for us to reach a hegemonic position in the short term. We were conscious that we’d be handing Pedro Sánchez enormous electoral weight, for a long time, if we did that.
The key to the discussion was that, in a moment in which we were the main political force in the left-wing camp, we would have to assume that we would not govern for decades, even if we won the elections, because it was impossible that, given the present correlation of forces, they would allow us to govern. The only possibility of us being a governmental force would be to go in with the PSOE — with it having the biggest weight. This is full of risks, because they can try and do you damage anyway — as they are in fact doing — and because it’s much more difficult to obtain any electoral payoff when you are the minority partner. But at least it presents new possibilities.
This allows us to make up part of the leadership of the state, it allows us to form government cadres which we did not have, it allows us an understanding and a praxis in the state that you don’t get from local or regional governments. It allows us to take part — even if from a modest position — in crucial decisions on what direction the country should go in. We will always have to fight with one hand tied behind our backs while all our adversaries have a free hand — we will always have to face a media ecosystem weighed against us. We will have very powerful enemies. But again, we have to take a historian’s view and understand how political conditions have been in the past. Folks who think like us have always had to work hard.
We took the more difficult decision — it’s much more comfortable, even electorally, to be a permanent left opposition. What, historically, has been the main channel by which forces to the left of social democracy have built up electoral weight? Basically, criticising it from the left.
But I believe that we have done something immensely important. We are the only force from — I’ll dare to say — our political tradition that is in the government of an EU country, indeed in the fourth biggest eurozone economy. In these nine months of government, we have already achieved things that would be enough for a whole parliamentary term. We would always like to have gone further, we always have criticisms from the left, as is normal.
But above all, we are forming state cadres. When I look at my team and how they got here, I see that even after only nine months, we have ever more people ever better prepared to govern this country. And we are young — a political force that reached government after existing for only six years. When you compare the average age of the Unidas Podemos ministers, secretaries of state, directors-general, and chiefs of staff, compared to the PSOE ones, there is a fifteen or twenty year difference. I think, in historical terms, we’ve done the right thing. It’s full of risks, of dangers; there’s no guarantee that it will turn out well. But even if the other option had turned out well, even if this had allowed us to overtake the PSOE, I think we would have found ourselves in a situation where they would never have allowed us to govern.
Podemos’s image, as seen internationally, at least initially resembled Ernesto Laclau’s proposal for an anti-establishment force that polarised the political field between caste and people. This was also a moment for electoral machines with very vertical structures. How do you see Podemos’s trajectory as a political force, over these last six years — and what’s left of the original idea?
I think the mistake lies in confusing a conjunctural discursive strategy with a sort of closed theoretical paradigm. Was Podemos ever a transversal political force? No, that is a lie. Podemos was a political force that — as time has shown — fundamentally drew on the traditional voters of forces operating within the left-wing political space. Essentially, from the PSOE, from independentist or left-nationalist forces in the historic nations without a state, and then some more exhausted sectors of other political projects. Similarly, it makes no sense to say 15-M [anti-austerity movement] did not belong to a progressive ideological-cultural space.
The best proof of this is that when the economic powers that be pushed forward Ciudadanos as an antidote to Podemos, that party laid claim to a progressive discourse. Later, it became patently clear what they really are. But initially, they had to resemble us but in a different style, selling themselves as “Podemos without Venezuela.”
Certain theoretical daydreams from a while ago persisted, even after praxis had demonstrated the reality. I think that we were able to construct another possible left, which spoke a more effective language and spoke to many more people without in any way giving up its program. I think we showed ourselves non-sectarian in terms of understanding what theoretical tools were useful for understanding the present moment. What we had learned from Latin America was that the national-popular was a way of making headway in a left-wing, progressive direction much more effective than old identities linked to the aesthetic of the labor movement and the traditional left in Europe. But in reality, a post-neoliberal praxis implied as much.
And politics is about occupying the available terrain. It’s not like writing a PhD, when you choose what you’ll investigate and then set hypotheses in which you are already defining your conclusions. Politics is much harder — the work of a political leader is infinitely more difficult theoretically than the work of a political scientist.
I have had much less time to study than before. But today I confront much more real problems. And politics is always somehow about occupying the available spaces which other actors leave open. This also produces paradoxical situations where some of those who defended “transversalism” as a principle have ended up having to take refuge in green identity — something much narrower.
In this sense, we have a very wide array of challenges ahead. The next question will be, “So, what space is there for Unidas Podemos to grow in?” The answer is, the republic. The republic can become the horizon, the empty signifier, that serves the defence of public services, economic modernisation, women’s rights, the rights of subaltern groups, the right to work in the post-Fordist economy, and national, plurinational, secular, open, civic identities. That means binding together the democratic tradition of a Spain conceived in different terms. This republican force that will allow us to take root in the state with greater electoral power, with the already robust discourse that I believe is Podemos’s own.