Spain in transition. Interview with Joan Subirats

Four parties, no absolute majority and no likely post-electoral pact. In addition, the alliance of Podemos with the United Left could overtake the Socialist Party (PSOE) with dynamics that one could call populist, but are different from other European countries. Help us understand how all of this came about. Firstly, the sorpasso of the PSOE by Unidos Podemos is a historic shift, and implies, of course, the end of a bi-party system. In the past the two traditional parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the PSOE, swept 85% of the seats. Now they do not exceed 50%.

A supporter of Podemos (We Can), now running under the coalition Unidos Podemos (Together We Can), attends a campaign event ahead of Spain's general election in Vitoria, Spain, June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent West

Podemos came about with the 2014 European elections to get hold of the institutions that had been "hijacked by the two traditional parties and financial capital". It emerged from the Indignados movement, in turn the peak of a never-seen-before citizen and younger people mobilization in 2007-2013, brought about by movements such as the Free Culture Forum for an open culture and against royalties on knowledge and the V as in Vivienda (Housing) against evictions.

Another factor was the new forms of digital interaction and communication. Nowadays, you cannot imagine politics in Spain without social media and citizens' networks that generate content on all alternative means. I summarize the ever larger role of "techno-politics", as you could call this, by saying that the PP and the PSOE had to hire community managers, whereas in the new parties everyone is a community manager.

This speaks of a generation gap, but also of a gap between workers with permanent jobs and those with just temporary ones…

The age gap is related with a disruption in the labor cycle: in other words, with hopes for the future and for becoming independent, with a home and a job.

I like to define this "crisis" an epochal shift bearing a duality between those who have a job, a safety net and will be able to retire and those without all of that. In fact, the only sector to have retained its purchasing power in Spain is retirees, those over 65, and public officials. Younger people, children and families are faring very badly after experiencing wage reductions of 20-25%. This generates much tension and growing conflict.

It is not a specific problem to Spain, although that movement found here a channel in a party in the left. In Italy that void was been filled in part by the Movimento 5 Stelle.

That's it? The end of ideologies and of the faithful voter?

Young people have a tendency to support campaigns rather than unique ideologies, or blue or red identities. Political identities are today much more modular. In Catalonia, for example, many vote for the one or the other party, tying their vote to territorial issues, without this making them feel in contradiction.

A faithful vote was a feature of the political system of the 20th twentieth century, while the current one is yet to emerge: it will be that of the digital world and the Internet, post-Fordist and uncertain and discontinuous as far as jobs are concerned, with much greater diversity and social heterogeneity. This is another factor that explains the volatility, which I believe is a common trait with various other parts of Europe. Look at Austria.

There is a further new phenomenon, also seen in the UK with the support to Corbin or in the US to Sanders: to a certain degree, this is new politics because old ideas, now revisited, are offered and resonate with young people.

Asking around about the causes of problems in Spain, the answer is unequivocally corruption...

That is another important factor. Many Spaniards paid for the crisis a very painful toll, while others benefited enormously with billion dollar contracts, real estate speculation, etc.

Globalization and the austerity imposed with other states dictates by Europe, such as changing the Constitution in two days with a PP-PSOE agreement to ban constitutionally public deficits, also played a role.

All of this led to the feeling that in spite of democracy, in the end people do what others require, whether that is the Troika or Merkel... The costly bank bailout was perceived as a fraud rather than a crisis, in so far as "money is always available when it comes to say when it comes to saving banking institutions".

Hence the concept of "Ppsoe", i.e. that the two traditional parties are two sides of the same coin, and those who have it harder are not represented politically.

So polarization between those who fear change and those who want radical change is likely to increase.

Yes, but polarization is not a phenomenon peculiar to Spain. It is happening elsewhere in Europe and in the world. It is caused by technological and economic change. Economist Dani Rodrik's trilemma sums it up cleverly arguing that you cannot have at the same time trice globalization, national sovereignty and democracy, but just two of them. If you choose globalization and national sovereignty, as partly happens in Europe, you sacrifice democracy. This is the case of Greece. If you choose democracy and national sovereignty you relinquish globalization and go back towards autarky. Ideally you would choose globalization and democracy, but this requires a complex process of democratization of the institutions.

Another lame duck government?

I believe that the PP will be successful in gathering the votes of scared voters. The PSOE has it harder after the worst results in its history. If Unidos Podemos beats the Socialists, a PP-Ciudadanos government could be given a chance but it would need outside support. The PSOE and Ciudadanos could in exchange ask for Rajoy to step aside and for a short two-year term for voters to buy it as an inescapable transitional legislature for constitutional change.

Economic forces would oppose any attempt to form a government led by Iglesias. You can see this already on the news heavyweight's campaigns, all of which have close ties to the financial system. Even El País, which has an anti-PP stance, feels it needs to save the system, and openly supports the Socialists and Ciudadanos continuously attacking Podemos.

From the point of view of the scholar, what is the most interesting aspect of this transition?

They are two. The first is the impact of technological shift on our ways of living, because knowledge, which is one of its core elements, is not a rivalling good. An individual owning it does not exclude another from owning it too. This doesn't happen with tangible assets, and could change substantially the structures of ownership. Capitalism is poorly designed to deal with knowledge sharing, with forms of appropriation of collaborative efforts (see Uber and BnB) or perhaps new collaborative but non-extractive economic relations. Karl Polyani, the Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom, Yochai Benkler with his wealth of networks, Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Mason on post-capitalism all contributed to drawing a line towards forms of social collaboration. This could in turn trigger change dynamics that will not involve the market as we know it nor the state. I don't know to what extent this will develop but the topic of commons is interesting and ever more present in the European and international debate.

The other is the future of the state, municipalism and networks of cities. From the point of view of where people root and in an increasingly globalized scenario the state appears of little use and somehow more artificial framework than cities. It seems it better suited past times. We certainly need it but I don't know whether with its current structure and features.


Joan Subirats is Professor of Governance and Public Policies at the Autonoma University in Barcelona

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