It is a weekend calculated to spook the markets, and certainly the first round – the UK Brexit vote – has surpassed expectations. We now await the second round – tomorrow’s Spanish general election – to witness a spooking of a very different kind if Podemos Unidos becomes the leading party on the Spanish left and if they and the PSOE together win a majority to govern. It is a very likely outcome.
This is the weekend of populisms, but populisms of very different kinds. Superficially the rhetoric seems similar and many commentators lump both brands together. This is a fundamental misreading of the lessons of this decisive weekend’s votes – for what we are witnessing are two opposed directions out of the acute crisis of European politics and political economy, each with the potential to shape the future of Europe for decades to come.
Those advocating a Brexit in the UK and those supporting Podemos Unidos in Spain both speak of mobilising the people against the elites who run society in their own interests. Both urge voters to take back power into their own hands and to cut the elites down to size. It was a discourse that spoke to swathes of UK voters on Thursday (and, of course, interestingly it didn’t have anything like the same impact in Scotland and the north of Ireland). And it is a discourse that looks likely to have a major impact on Spanish voters’ intentions tomorrow.
But, what each group means by the seemingly similar terms they use is not only very different, but in fact defines opposing political projects. For Podemos Unidos are accurately identifying the interests of capital that hold such enormous sway over our societies and our political classes in all European societies today, to the detriment of citizens’ wellbeing. In its election campaign Podemos Unidos identifies by name the large companies (including banks) that constitute the elite, thereby informing voters of who the powerful elites really are and how they use their power.
In the UK debate, on the other hand, the elites are identified as bureaucrats in Brussels and in Whitehall who scheme to impose rules which are the real reasons why many find it more difficult to access employment or which erode welfare benefits. Behind this stand the masses of immigrants taking jobs and benefits that otherwise would go to UK citizens. It is a discourse that sets up worker against worker, the marginalised against the marginalised.
The lessons of the Brexit vote therefore is that large numbers of English and Welsh workers are concerned enough about their prospects and their children’s prospects to be willing to listen to demagogic leaders and dismiss the dire warnings of expert opinion. Instead of decrying their shallow and ill-informed populism, political and bureaucratic elites at national and EU levels need to realise that this is a cry of pain that has to be listened and responded to effectively if we are not to face the prospect of ‘new right’ governments coming to power in many European countries with devastating consequences.
Spanish voters tomorrow have the potential to offer a new way forward at this moment of severe crisis. For a ‘new left’ government in Spain led by Podemos Unidos opens the prospect of correctly identifying the power of capital over our political leaders and social systems and putting in place the sorts of measures that seek to strengthen the power of political authority over private market actors.
A Podemos Unidos government would at long last challenge the profound inroads made by neoliberal ideology and instincts into the social democratic movement. It would be a moment of opening a new discourse of hope and empowerment, to counter the beguiling but ultimately vacuous discourse of the Boris Johnsons and Nigel Farages of today’s political elites.
At the level of the European project, a Podemos Unidos-led government would have the potential and the will to offer a new way forward to the terrified leaders of the EU. For Thursday’s UK vote shows up that, without a radical new direction, the European project is dead in the water. Paradoxically, this would suit the elites that the UK voters wanted to get at, but it would weaken any prospect of finding ways of curbing the power of capital in today’s hyper-globalised world. That is the challenge to be faced and Spain’s voters hold that prospect in their hands as they go to vote.