Reinvigorating Europe's left (Asa Cusack/Alborada Magazine)

[The astonishing rise of radical left parties Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain was driven by Latin American ideas. But how far can they go? Asa Cusack writes]

Reinvigorating Europe's left

Asa Cusack Alborada Magazine (Issue 1 - Spring/Summer 2015)

Radical left politics has returned to the continent of Europe. The Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) has become Greece’s largest political force, making the country the first EU member-state to seriously question the logic and morality of austerity. In Spain, meanwhile, Podemos (We Can) took five seats and 8 per cent of the vote in the May 2014 European elections despite having been formed just two months earlier. With the general election in Spain set for December 2015, the polls have Podemos neck-and-neck with the ruling Popular Party. So how did the two parties manage it?

Looking to Latin America

The answer is by emulating the Latin American left. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has undertaken numerous fact-finding missions to Venezuela over the past decade and has called Hugo Chávez a ‘personal hero’. Podemos, meanwhile, was established by a group of longstanding advisors to the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, all based at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense. Carlos Monedero, one of Podemos’ two chief architects, apart from its leader Pablo Iglesias, was a fixture of Venezuelan politics throughout the noughties, both frontstage and back; the other, Iñigo Errejón, wrote his PhD on Bolivia under Evo Morales and worked for a pro-government thinktank in Venezuela. Iglesias himself was also a frequent visitor and vocal commentator. So central have these experiences been that Podemos cites ‘thorough analysis and learning of recent Latin American processes’ as one cornerstone of their approach.

The parallels are indeed striking. Both Syriza and Podemos favour an eye-catching audit of public debt and renegotiation of any portion deemed illegitimate, the same means by which Rafael Correa achieved a 65 per cent haircut on $3 billion of Ecuadorian bonds. Both would renationalise public services and ‘strategic’ industries, moves central to the reinvigoration of the state in Ecuador, Bolivia and especially Venezuela. Both advocate public investment and subsidies for co-ops, mutuals and small and medium enterprises, perceived creators of more and better jobs. The same sectors were the focus of efforts to diversify away from primary exports in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Syriza and Podemos also recognise that the deregulation favoured by big business has been detrimental to normal workers and wider society; they instead reassert the state’s responsibility to provide opportunity and well-being. This means reversing labour-market flexibilisation, a higher minimum wage, and shorter working hours to improve quality of life and create jobs for Europe’s masses of young unemployed. The same focus on the social effects of economic policy has seen the Latin American left extend labour rights, fight to keep minimum-wage levels in step with living costs, and multiply transfer benefits.

Syriza and Podemos even stray beyond Latin America’s example, advocating a universal minimum income rather than targeted benefits. By introducing VAT bands for basic and luxury products, they mitigate fiscal regressiveness and insulate the poorest. Proposed reintegration of private healthcare and education into public systems would reverse trends that most threaten the poorest sectors of society. Admittedly, the means differ in Latin America – vast social programmes in Venezuela, conditional cash transfers in Ecuador and Bolivia – but the idea of the state as guarantor of a ‘dignified life’ is the same.

Bottom-up politics

The similarities extend even into the process of formulating new policies, with ideas percolating upwards from the grassroots. Syriza emerged as a ‘space’ for articulating single-issue movements and smaller parties, its assemblies doubling as forums debating future direction. Podemos relies on a network of location- or issue-based ‘circles’ that allow everyday citizens to craft solutions to Spain’s post-crisis ‘state of emergency’. From zero in March 2014, today there are hundreds. Similar bottom-up initiatives were crucial to mobilising and engaging popular support in Latin America, with Venezuela’s own ‘circles’ eventually acquiring local-level competences from the traditional state.

Finally, Syriza and Podemos reject the slick marketing of the third-way era. Like Chávez, Morales and Correa, their leaders argue aggressively even where it puts noses out of joint. Podemos strategist Iñigo Errejón considers this a ‘challenge to the leadership taboo [that] a charismatic leader is incompatible with real democracy’. Just as Morales sports his Cosby sweaters, Chávez his fatigues, and Correa his indigenous Otavalo shirt, Podemos’s Iglesias maintains the look of a laid-back programmer. Syriza’s Tsipras goes tieless smart-casual, and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis rocks an electric-blue shirt and leather jacket combo. The message is authenticity, confidence, and closeness to the everyday citizen. Podemos in particular has propagated this message through community broadcasting, circumventing mediation by mainstream channels and making a national celebrity of Iglesias; watch Chávez on his weekly Hello Presidente! show or Correa’s Citizen’s Link and you’ll see how it goes.

The common ground is rejection of neoliberal solutions to what are seen as neoliberal crises. Latin American cases involving ‘out with the lot of ‘em!’ protests, lethal repression and the fall of various ‘partidocracies’ are only more extreme versions of the indignado movements in Greece and Spain. And, like their Latin American counterparts, Syriza and Podemos have won support from vast sectors of the population by yoking distaste for a self-serving political ‘caste’ to a concern for those worst affected by its failings.

Yet, as Latin America has also shown, there is no guarantee that these strategies will succeed. Classic splits within the government and its supporters have emerged, with insatiable demands for radicalisation in Venezuela provoking internecine conflict between state and private sector, while a centrist drift in Ecuador has blunted the radical edge of Correa’s ‘Citizen’s Revolution’. Podemos may be too young for all that, but Syriza has already risked internal uproar by entering into coalition with a minority right-wing party.

Fertile ground

But what of the UK left?  Is Chávez really the answer to UKIP? It’s perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds. Although the financial crisis has not wrought the devastation seen in Greece and Spain, a significant wellspring of discontent exists. Bankers’ bonuses, executive pay, tax dodging, mis-selling, and rate fixing have fuelled public fury towards big business and the ‘one per cent’. Corruption scandals and relentless media reports of state incompetence have made anti-politics the prevalent political tendency in the country. The indistinguishable insincerity of Britain’s political class only frustrates those with genuine grievances. And let’s not forget – though everyone else has – that just four years ago Britain was aflame with the nebulous rage of the 2011 riots.

While the UK may not seem at first to offer fertile ground for Latin America-style leftism, the rise of Syriza and Podemos was unforeseen in their own countries. Just as Podemos credits its rapid rise to an ‘articulation of “floating” discontent’, when Labour has managed to pluck discontent from the air – through policies like capping energy prices and (almost) renationalising rail franchises – its leaders have seemed shocked by the outpouring of public support. So far it appears that only the Green Party and the SNP in Scotland have capitalised on this popular discontent. At the time of writing, it may be too late for a Chávez-style figure to swing the May 2015 general election, but the longevity of the Latin American left and the rapid rise of Syriza and Podemos mean at the very least that the ‘Third Way’ is no longer the only way.

Asa Cusack is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Latin American Studies, University of London

Listen to a podcast of a recent public talk held at Middlesex university titled ‘The intellectual impact of Latin America’s Pink Tide on Europe: Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain’ www.

Support independent journalism and buy a copy of issue 1 of Alborada magazine here: