Lessons from Spain: The Future of the Left

If you want to know what the future of democracy looks like, look to Spain. If you want to know what the decline of the old left will look like, look also to Spain. There is so much in this country’s history – a history which can leap ahead decades in but a few years and which can violently be thrown back into the past, a history of both hope and tragedy – which the international and Australian left could learn from, if only it could open its eyes to the coming times, open its ears to outsiders, and open its heart to the oppressed.

But before we begin on the future, on the outsiders or on today’s oppressed, it’s worth taking a moment to consider Spain’s insiders of the past who let down the oppressed. This part of the story stars the boldly named Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the PSOE, an inheritor of a century-old tradition of working class politics shaped deeply by the euphoria of revolution, the trauma of war, and the isolation of exile. After having achieved stratospheric levels of support following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975, the PSOE took over the reins of state in 1982, and while it had already by then replaced its Marxist ideology of class struggle for class cooperation, the PSOE came to power promising at the very least a more just, modern Spain, and many of its millions of supporters had hoped that it would pursue if not economic democratisation at least full-employment, substantial wealth redistribution and a bold new role in Europe and the world as a neutral broker for peace. But within but a few years the PSOE – increasingly a shell party with too few members and too many power-brokers in the administration and cabinet who tolerated little dissent – had reneged on its promises, and within years it had lost the support of hundreds of thousands union members in the General Workers Union [UGT], which wisely cut its ties with the party as it became obvious that the leadership had little interest in offering returns for massive wage, jobs and condition sacrifices made by labour in the hope of a more productive and dynamic economy. By 1988 the PSOE was facing the largest ever general strike in Spanish history, a strike which paralysed the economy with nearly the entire working population marching against the government’s rapidly neo-liberalising economic policy.  By then it had also abandoned its previous stance on foreign policy sovereignty, managing to chart a ‘Copernican turn’ in direction and in discourse from anti-Atlantic activism to NATO participation. But the absence of any well-organised, reasonable opposition on either the left or right meant that the PSOE was able to continue holding onto power throughout the early 1990s until the emergence of a conservative party determined enough to hide its fascist origins came amidst a host of corruption scandals which began tugging down the government into the murky waters of nepotism and clientelism.

Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and his PSOE had risen and fallen as all governments do, but what had they risen and fallen for? Democracy, yes, but one that worked best in the lounge rooms of the Presidential Moncloa Palace rather than in the conferences of the party or the streets of the people, and one which happily co-existed with a Bourbon monarch, Spain’s final gift from an ailing Franco on his deathbed. Did they rise for peace? Perhaps, but only in so far that Spain never again flirted the violence of military rule, an important achievement no doubt, but in its response to the Basque nationalist movement and its enthusiasm for NATO, the PSOE could hardly claim to be the doves they might have once thought themselves to be.  Did they fall for wealth? At times, but it was no common wealth, instead it was a wealth whose riches were rarely returned with much glee to those who had made so many sacrifices in the long years of crisis, and it was a wealth which could never reduce unemployment much below 15%. So yes, the years of PSOE rule were historic ones for Spain, but in its elitism, in its rejection of the socialist dream for capitalist reality, and in its enthusiastic disassociation from its very name and history the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party sowed the seeds of its own decline and disappearance, seeds that are now in full bloom.

The Left: From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Disillusion

Nearly ten years after its historic defeat, the PSOE was able to retake the reins of power on the back of anger against the conservative government’s crusade in Iraq and following its manipulation of domestic and international terrorism for its own electoral fortunes. A new-look PSOE, under the reins of a young Jose Zapatero, secured the support of the population by attending to the many areas of unfinished business in a Spanish society which had for so long hidden the wounds of war and Francoist violence under the mantilla of a polite and proper democracy. In Zapatero’s second term, however buoyed by the euphoria of gay marriage, however relieved by the withdrawal from Iraq, Spanish society was again hit by the storms crisis bellowing over Europe from the Atlantic, the same storms of crisis as the Rudd government confronted in 2008, and Spain would never be the same again. After having staggered through the remainder of his term, one which Spaniards will forever remember for its harsh budget cuts and pension freezes, Zapatero fell from grace and his party was replaced by the newly resurgent Popular Party [PP] of Mariano Rajoy, a party even more intent on the repayment of interest and debt than the PSOE. The PSOE was manifestly incapable of mounting an effective opposition to Rajoy’s program of deep austerity and neo-liberalisation; it lacked the ideological fortitude to fight against the wave of cuts, the flexibilisation of the labour market, the privatisations, the freezing of the minimum wage, the tax hikes on the poor and the cuts for the rich, and the countless attacks on public health and education which have so battered the Spanish people. To suggest that it even could organise real opposition, however, is missing the point: it was the PSOE who first went down the road of anti-growth, anti-social austerity, hence Spaniards refer to the two parties as the PPSOE. End result: the devastation of the electoral fortunes of the PSOE and its near consignment to oblivion in the European, regional and municipal elections which have been held since the election of the PP government. The party now retains few important cities and but a handful of regional governments, and not in its wildest dreams would it have dreamt of taking Madrid and Barcelona from the conservative parties that held so much sway there for so long, the same cities where the new-left has seized power after a few months of campaigning.

For months now the PSOE has been haemorrhaging votes, and at its lowest point the party was hoping to secure a mere twenty percent of the vote, while its rival Podemos (We Can) was looking at securing nearly thirty percent of the vote. Since those months of despair the PSOE’s electoral outlook has improved somewhat, but after the recent battering the party took in the municipal elections few believe it to be able to stem the flow in the upcoming Catalan regional parliamentary elections, and no one believes it will be able to secure power in the General Elections later this year without forming a coalition government of equals with the new left. Its rival, Podemos, is more democratic, more transparent, has more members, is ideologically stronger and far more able to inspire and to truly communicate to the millions of people who have been robbed of their wages, jobs, homes, healthcare and education. While the game is not over yet, and the tables are constantly turning, what is abundantly clear to all is that the PSOE can never again gain government through an absolute majority; the two-party system is dead, and a more diverse, critical, vibrant politics has emerged in its wake, far more representative of the needs and desires of Spain’s newly awakened electorate. Everywhere people are mobilising, building social movements, joining in alliances, fighting back against the corrupt system and the corrupt powers that be. Nowhere is the PSOE playing any significant role in this democratic spring; not that it could, for most people see the PSOE as the enemy, part of the grand coalition of the hated casta class of suited politicians, bankers and careerists.

It is this democratic spring which has changed Spain forever and which has placed it on the vanguard of twenty-first century democracy. Spend time in Spain and you will see the massive protests which can bring cities to a halt, you will hear the stories of people robbed of their livelihoods but gifted the self-respect that collective struggle gives, you might chant the calls for revolution amidst the throngs of a ska concert exploding with energy and with flares, you could spend time learning and listening in the thousands of occupied ‘casas populares’ (peoples’ houses) in the barrios of the cities, you can understand the collective instinct that is behind Spain’s famous fiestas and traditions, and you will witness a real politics which educates, inspires and involves millions of ordinary people – young and old – coming together to work for something better.

In this you will see is called the Indignados movement (In English: The Indignant), a movement which exploded in 2011 from the 15-M (15th May) demonstrations which spontaneously combusted in Spain’s millions of plazas and squares to protest against austerity. It is a movement which has in a matter of five years gone from the streets to the parliaments; it has taken Spain’s three largest cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia – and In countless smaller cities and towns across Spain the people have thrown out PSOE and PP leaders on mass, and where the new left hasn’t yet ‘stormed the heavens’ they are at the gate. So if in the pre-WWI era politics was defined by classical liberalism with but a thin veneer of democratic discourse, and if in the inter-war years it was threatened by Stalinism, fascism and capitalism, if in the post-WWII world social democracy emerged triumphant but was soon supplanted by neoliberalism, then in the twenty-first century people power will once again transform politics into a radically more democratic, participative, responsive and transparent field of battle waged by the people, of the people, for the people. This is the future of democracy, the future of the left, and it is a future which people like Pablo Iglesias in Spain, Ada Colau in Barcelona, Manuela Carmena in Madrid, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Alex Tsipras (and Australia’s own Yanis Varoufakis) in Greece (the first to fall, yes, but the first to try), can see on the horizon, and any political organisation which cannot see this future will become a relic of the past.

The ALP is, like the Spanish PSOE, like the Greek PASOK, like the British Labor Party, on the eve of destruction. If it cannot face up to this fact, if it cannot institute the appropriate, radical measures which might yet ensure that its long and proud march through history continues into the twenty-first century, then it will quickly and without much regret be abandoned by the people who once loved it. Once there is a crisis (as surely there must be should our governments continue to de-diversify, de-regulate and de-fund our economy), and once there is an alternative which can break the threshold of eccentricity (as we all know there already is), then the ALP, for better or for worse, will be a thing of the past. Even if Australia can manage to stumble through another decade of two of economic fortunes, the ALP cannot pretend that the electoralist ‘catch-all’ model of a party can satisfy the yearning for real politics that has swept the world –from London to Hong Kong, Tahrir Square to Plaza del Sol, Baltimore to Barcelona – in the past few years. It must re-engage with pedagogical, participative politics: it must be transparent and it must and do away with the old form and aesthetic of elite politics, a politics conducted by professionals in suit and tie, clinking glasses over dinner tables and discussing our future behind closed doors, a politics that insults ordinary people when it sells seats next to our representatives at functions for a few thousand dollars, when it gifts itself cars, dinners, wines, bookshelves, travel discounts to supplant the austere lifestyle of someone on a six-figure income, and when it uses a language devoid of intellectual content but full of aged adages of a ‘true-blue’, ‘fair-dinkum’ Australia which no longer is.

What then is to be done? The list is long, but I could suggest, for instance, the banning of any single donation to the party above, say, 500 dollars (what ordinary Australian can donate 500 dollars to a political party anyway?) and if to turn this into the law of the land the ALP must also reject union donations, then so be it (the unions would be happy enough to save millions of dollars to focus instead on mobilising their millions of workers against conservative governments, as was brilliantly done in Victoria and Queensland). Let’s begin by publishing online all candidates’ assets, incomes and interests down to the last cent. Let’s work toward fostering a critical and open culture which sees pluralism and diversity of opinion as a beautiful thing. Let’s cap our parliamentarians’ incomes at, say, twice the average Australian wage, and have them use their own wage to pay for their bus tickets to work. While we’re at it, let’s restrict ‘entitlements’ to, say, nothing outside of the bare essentials of parliamentary duty; something which the Bronwyn Bishop affair reveals to be long overdue. Most of these things can be done unilaterally by the party or individually by candidates and parliamentarians, and it may be a risky strategy, yes, but it is one which would earn ALP politicians the respect and legitimacy that is diminishing so rapidly across the democratic world, it is, in fact, the only strategy which can ensure its survival as a self-respecting movement of the people into the twenty-first century. Of course, the list offered above is short and full of issues to be ironed out, but what is the point here isn’t to present an itemised list of things which could be done to stem the flow of votes, but rather it is to present the argument that we need to return to the belief in the power of people to change the world rather than to manage it, we need to recognise the imperative to resurrect a socio-political movement rather than to reproduce an elitist organisation, and that we must dream for god’s sake, let’s dream of a world where human value is of more worth than dollar value, a world where the promise of equality, fraternity and liberty is secure, a cosmopolitan society of world peace and human solidarity where the only form of legitimate power – people power – defeats the power of money, force and fame to foster an age of hope, youth and imagination. Because any party that renounces this hope of a better world, that forgets how to dream, that rejects the hope and dream that is socialism, I do not want to be part of.

First Published in The Labor Herald, 15/09/15

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