In December 2015, the left-wing upstart party Podemos dramatically changed Spain’s political composition by coming in a close third in the country’s general elections.
Though they were behind the incumbent, right-wing Popular Party by seven percentage points, they fell just over one point short of overtaking the Socialist party, who achieved their poorest results since Spain’s transition from General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Meanwhile another new party, the right-wing Ciudadanos, obtained roughly 14 percent of the vote, further fragmenting the distribution of seats in the Spanish Parliament and making the establishment of a governing coalition all the more difficult.
Now, after six months of fruitless political posturing, Spain finds itself once again headed to the polls on Sunday. This time around, the big story is that Podemos has formed an alliance with the United Left, a left-wing coalition that includes the Spanish Communist Party. Under the name Unidos Podemos, they hope to finally obtain more seats than PSOE and confront the wavering social democrats with having to choose between forming a progressive government with the new coalition or supporting another four years of PP’s conservative policies.
This strategy seems to be working, at least according to the polls. After running 15,000 simulations using a statistical model that combines dozens of polls with historical data, Kiko Llaneras, one of Spain’s most prominent data scientists and political analysts, recently predicted that Unidos Podemos will overtake PSOE by over 4 percentage points. This would make a coalition between Unidos Podemos and PSOE the most likely possible government to come out of the June 26 general elections—if we assume that the Socialists will not support a PP government.
The situation has many asking if Unidos Podemos will finally achieve that most cherished of left-wing aspirations: the unity of the Left. It is an enticing proposition for many, especially after four years of brutal austerity and socially regressive legislation, which included a draconian Gag Law and a decree excluding undocumented people from Spain’s once universal public healthcare system.
But the unity of the Left is like a mirage. It beckons from the horizon and dissolves as one approaches it.
The fact of the matter is that the very idea of the Left crams reality into a narrow set of parameters that are quickly overwhelmed by the full range of apparently contradictory terms and competing priorities through which people interpret the world and their place in it. Simply put, people identify themselves in terms that often include social class, but are not limited to the concept. From the Indignados and Occupy to Podemos, all of the emergent political initiatives in recent years have fled from the terms “left” and “social class”, despite the fact that their values, practices and discourses were clearly rooted in that history of struggle.
Spain’s current political situation is a prime example of this fragmentation. Powered by the changes in the media landscape brought on by the rise of social networks, the country’s public debate has become saturated with a barrage of polarizing conflicts in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. These social cleavages span a broad range of wedge issues that include austerity, housing rights, corruption, labour rights, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, police brutality, the electoral system, historical memory and the right to self-determination of regions like Catalonia or the Basque Country.
As a result, even when the Left is capable of embracing a common position on social rights, it is split by questions of sovereignty and identity. For instance, while Unidos Podemos presumably hopes to confront Europe regarding the imposition of austerity, PSOE was the first to impose it in Spain. Similarly, while Unidos Podemos ostensibly supports a referendum on Catalan independence, PSOE rejects the idea quite firmly.
Further adding to the complexity, the pluralistic social bases and movements responsible for putting these issues on the agenda can always vote for a more euroskeptical option or a nationalist party like the Catalan Republic Left, abstain or resort to other forms of doing politics.
Does this imply that truly emancipatory change is impossible? Has the struggle for social, economic and climate justice passed its expiration date? Will the future be, as Orwell envisioned, a boot stamping on humanity’s face forever? Well, not so fast.
Perhaps what we are witnessing in Spain is not the impossibility of the Left. In fact, the emergence of Ciudadanos confirms that the Right is also in a state of decay. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the end of large majorities and the emergence of a fractal set of freely associating intersectional minorities. And it is curious that this would emerge precisely as political disputes are increasingly centered on what is often referred to as the commons—that is, the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, which are not privately owned but held in common.
It's a situation that parliamentary democracies, with their dependence on governing majorities, may not be particularly well-suited to handle. It could very well play out that, as party systems adapt to increasing variation in the political composition of populations by becoming more diverse, it will become increasingly difficult to build stable coalitions. As a result, systems of governance will look to bypass parliamentary stalemates either through authoritarian imposition or by relying on direct votes.
Judging from its last four years in office, during which it displayed a total unwillingness to compromise with opponents on any issue, the PP has chosen the former route. Ciudadanos, too, has demonstrated a certain penchant for it. Following the December elections, it sought to form a coalition government with PP and PSOE, hoping it would isolate Podemos and the nationalist parties.
In all likelihood, after Sunday the ball will be in PSOE’s court. Ultimately, if PSOE and Podemos are to have any hopes of forming a durable coalition, it will have to be open to direct democratic decision-making, if only as a way of bypassing the parties’ deadlocks. But if we are to take Socialist candidate Pedro Sanchez’s response to Brexit as an indication, this is not in the cards. “Referendums,” he lamented Friday on Spain’s Cadena SER, “put the problems politicians ought to be handling in the hands of citizens.”
An electoral victory wouldn’t necessarily be a victory for the Left. Political parties are powerful instruments, but they are hardly the only ones people have forged to free themselves from domination.
For the Left to truly win anything, it must use its diversity as its strength. Unions, NGOs, neighborhood associations and other platforms of mutual aid would have to play a major role in setting the social agenda, countering the State’s institutional inertia and asserting human dignity wherever it is violated. Moreover, self-proclaimed Leftists must take to heart what Gilles Deleuze meant when he suggested they should be less concerned with “being Left” and more concerned with “becoming Left”, that is, embracing emancipatory politics as “a constant evolutionary process” wherein one “never ceases being the minority.”
Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.