Reading "Politics in a Time of Crisis" – A View from the Left

(GUE/NGL / Flickr)

 By Duane Campbell

As we know, the economic crisis of 2008-2012 disrupted the U.S. economy. The crisis was much worse in some of the peripheral countries of Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy among others), and even more destructive in under-developed regions of African and Asia.

Spanish political leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión has written Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of European Democracy, published in an English translation by Verso Books. Iglesias provides a critical summary of the crisis that began in the U.S. and spread to much of the world, causing political upheavals and leaving misery, starvation, and massive migration in its wake.  

We can learn much from reading Iglesias about this crisis in Spain and other countries and economies, including how the crisis led several social democratic political parties in Spain, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe to collaborate with right-wing movements to impose austerity on the people. This collaboration led to the collapse of many social democratic political parties, the rise of authoritarian right-wing parties, and now the rise of a new left. A similar process led to the collapse of social democratic parties in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Currently in Mexico, the formerly left-wing Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) is working with the right-wing National Action (PAN) party while a new left—the National Regeneration Movement (“MORENA”)—may well win this summer’s presidential elections.

Pablo Iglesias, a political science professor, is one of several leaders of Podemos (Spanish for “We Can”), a party of democratic socialism and populism that was born in 2014 and currently commands almost 21% of the vote in Spain. In just 4 short years, it became the second largest party in Spain while the traditionally left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) collaborated with a conservative government to impose austerity and lost much of its membership.

Iglesias’ and Podemos’ analysis of the economic crisis beginning in 2008 is that New York and London became the financial capitals of the world. In the U.S., the financial sector itself became the most powerful political force—a group he calls the Party of Wall Street:

The Party of Wall Street is a Leninist party in its way: it is a class party with an international vocation. This party represents those who inhabit the penthouses of the economic system. It is the party that encouraged the selling of subprime mortgages that left millions of Americans homeless. Under the Secretary of the Treasury and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson, it is the party that brought off a ‘soft’ coup d’etat in Washington and forced the American government to inject billions of dollars into the banking system. It is the party that Angela Merkel belongs to; the party that controls the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund; the party that imposes structural adjustment programs on developing countries and swingering cuts on the countries of southern Europe […] The party has been flourishing well before the 2008 crisis, always keeping to a very precise political line: to consolidate the power of finance” (Chapter 3)

According to Iglesias, the Party of Wall Street brought neoliberalism to the U.S. and Europe and used its power to promote an unstable expansion of credit, while combating wage increases, trade unions and the existing welfare programs. The Party of Wall Street used the rhetoric of promoting free trade and privatization, and its political program was above all else a class project designed to establish and extend the power of financial elites. The neoliberal projects are directly and closely connected to globalization of finance and the control of the economies of core nations.

I have personally been teaching a course here in California on our economic crisis since 2011, and Iglesias’ descriptions of the processes that the rich used to loot the U.S. and eventually world economy are well-developed and supported by substantial research in the U.S. His arguments about the Party of Wall Street moves those of us on the left beyond the endless debate about what stance left parties should take toward the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

This debate continues while we need to move on to organizing for power. Meanwhile, a proto-fascist Donald Trump and his retinue have been elected, and have unleashed a reign of terror on the undocumented. They have proposed austerity and budget cuts in child care and health care that will lead to the deaths of many. Their assault on organized labor is in the offing.

The issue is not good Democrats versus bad Democrats and fascist Republicans. As Iglesias writes, the problem is the Party of Wall Street and how it must be defeated. The party of Wall Street carried out a financial coup In the U.S. in 2008-2010. The financial disease then spread to Europe. U.S. and European banks and financial houses converted their financial losses to “citizen debt” to be paid by government austerity programs:

American taxpayers were forced to hand over their money to Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other fraudsters of the same ilk. … the disease spread, and outlying European countries soon found themselves in similar predicaments. Countries like Greece, Ireland and Spain, have de-industrialized their economies in favor of tourism, services and construction and allowed financial institutions to pump up property bubbles, now bailed out their own banks… Just as in the U.S., bank debt was converted to citizen debt, which ordinary people would have to pay off in the forms of cuts to public services and ferocious austerity measures. (Chapter 3)

The party of Wall Street convinced European banks that the existing welfare systems and union policies were too expensive, initially in Greece, Spain and Italy. The effects of government imposed austerity have been horrifying: pension cuts, high unemployment, cuts to health and education systems. “In Spain by the end of 2013, there were more than six million unemployed, a third of whom received no state assistance, and youth unemployment reached 60 per cent.” (Chapter 3) Austerity policies not only failed to produce growth, they have plundered the economies and created desperate situations for the young and the unemployed.

Perhaps more important than Iglesias’ view of the economic crisis from Spain is the way he and a new left responded—a left that became Podemos.

Spain is, of course, different than the U.S. It has a fascist past and it is an economically dominated member of the European Union. It is often called by the media a member of the European “periphery” or “south” as if it should not be considered a member of the Global North any longer. Spain historically had a socialist government of PSOE, which participated in the government responding to the crisis of imposed European austerity.

Podemos was formed in 2014 based in significant part on the prior protests of 15-M (the “May 15” movement based around protests in May of 2011) against inequality, corruption, and massive unemployment. In the elections on May 25, 2014, Podemos received some 7.9 % of the national vote and elected 5 members of the European Parliament. In elections in December of 2015, Podemos received 21 % of the vote and gained 69 out of 350 seats in the Spanish parliament. Since 2015 the formerly leftist PSOE party has been substantially repudiated for participating in the imposition of neoliberal capitalist policies of bailouts and tax cuts for the rich, and austerity for the great majority. Social-democratic parties across Europe are facing similar defeats, including most recently the Socialist Party of France.

Led by Iglesias and others, Podemos has created a new form of struggle based in large part on the ideas of people working in the tradition of Gramsci. In Politics in a Time of Crisis, Iglesias reviews the histories of Marxism, and of Leninist parties and social democratic parties in Europe—and where they failed. He asserts that a first problem was that the conservatives were winning elections in part because the majority did not participate.

Iglesias argued that since the broad mass of people were not engaging in politics through the existing parties, the left had to go where the people were. This was a war of ideology and of position. In addition to local movement organizing, Podemos established a nationwide, web-based television program, “Tuerka,” to advance a left analysis of the crisis.

With over 25% unemployment, and over 50% among the young, the people knew there was serious problem. The critical issue was to explain the crisis in common language so that potential voters could understand the role of the existing parties—the Party of Wall Street—in looting the economy, and the alternatives to this party.

Podemos created a new kind of open, participatory party not weighted down by the corruptions of the past, including corruptions of the established parties and labor union officialdom.

As in the U.S., the banks and the rich recovered, the poor and the working class did not. And in Spain, a de-industrialized country as a consequence of EU policy, the impacts on the lives of the working class were more severe, including a rise in hunger nationwide.

The banks were robbing the people. The debt in Spain was private bank debt that the government accepted to placate the Eurozone under threat similar to that of economic war imposed upon Greece. Conservative governments and social democratic parties collaborated to destroy the Spanish and European social welfare state—including its labor rights—as they did in Greece:

The central strategy of Podemos was to occupy the centrality of political discussion: “in Gramscian terms in this war of position was to create a new common sense that would allow us to occupy a transversal position at the heart of a newly reformulated political spectrum.” (Appendix II)

Podemos offered the population a left perspective in terms all could understand, and, they became the left. It was not that Podemos organized a new left. The conditions and events created space for a resistance, and Podemos created the formulation. They did not create a left—the left existed. It previously lacked some explanatory power because economists, news media, and politicians were funded by capitalists and locked in old categories, not addressing the clear and immediate dangers of the economic crisis. The old left lacked credibility, since it was often collaborating with conservatism to impose austerity.

Podemos recognized that the economic crisis was a political crisis. It was created by the Party of Wall Street, and it could best be resolved by gaining control of the government through the expansion of democracy, not by endless debates about Keynesian or post-Keynesian economics.

The economic crisis, of course, is not limited to Spain, nor is the engagement of formerly social-democratic parties into the Party of Wall Street. Iglesias offers many useful insights including comments of the problems of the “infantile” left, and problems of institutionalizing a movement. But, first, we have to recognize that the issue is about power and that the broad working class can seize power.

The chapter “History: the Future Has an Ancient Heart” provides a detailed recounting of recent Spanish political history and the struggle for democracy since the Monarchy of the 1900’s. The history is important since it was often determinant in shaping the PSOE and the competing labor union federations. I am confident Spanish readers found many insights there.

Political conditions differ in the U.S., in Mexico and other places. Bernie Sanders faced a dominant 2 party system and a presidential government. Spain faces a multiparty system and a parliamentary government. Mexico is currently in facing the collapse of the prior social democratic opposition—the PRD—and the rise of a citizen’s movement somewhat similar to Podemos in Morena. The critical election will be in July of 2017.

Despite the differences in how our political systems structurally operate, perhaps we can learn from Iglesias on how a broad-based popular movement was created by movement leaders and activists, rather than an electoral party centered around individual candidates.

I heartily recommend reading Politics in a Time of Crisis. There is much we can learn by reading Iglesias’ insights about Spain, Europe, and political organizing. The author offers valuable insights and examples for those of us seeking to create a left in the U.S. that can achieve power—as opposed to a left that talks primarily to itself.

And then, we will have to write our own story.

Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and past chair of Sacramento DSA. He serves on the Immigrant Rights Committee of DSA’s Anti Racism Working Group and as an editor of this Democratic Left blog.

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