Understanding transversality

Puerta del Sol plaza in central Madrid, Sunday May 15, 2016. Marking the 5th anniversary of the movement that led to the creation of Podemos. Paul White /Press Association . All rights reserved.When
the 15-M movement broke out onto the streets across Spain in 2011, it didn’t
coalesce into a series of political parties on either end of the political
spectrum. In fact, there was a common declaration that stood out among all of
the indignados: “They don’t represent
us”. This referred to the ‘Regime of ‘78”,  the dominant political actors who
have been ruling Spain since the death of Franco, and have made the rupturing
of the social contract possible over the last 30 years.

The 15-M movement saw people come together from diverse places,
not just ideologically, but in terms of their perspectives and their
understanding of reality. Yet if there was something that truly united them it
was their common diagnosis of the current situation, namely an unsustainable
disequilibrium between the establishment (an elite armed with political and
economic power, ready to do anything to keep their position), and the outsiders
(ordinary people who don’t participate in the decision making process), the
widening gap between these two groups, and the forcing of the latter into an
increasingly precarious position.

The establishment makes use of its power and its vast resources. They
have ossified the institutions that were supposed to protect the rights of the
outsiders. They have become increasingly out of touch with reality, and over
time have completely broken the fragile balance created by the Constitution of
‘78, which brought democracy and social rights to the Spanish people after 40
years of dictatorship. The 1978 Constitution guaranteed – among other things –
the right to decent housing, the right to healthcare, and the right to work.
These promises have been greatly compromised by austerity, with major cuts to
education and healthcare, labour reforms that increase the precariousness of
the workers, and foreclosures that have left families homeless across the

Pushed to the limit, and having discovered the establishment’s
deception, popular movements took to the streets to get rid of those who put
their own interests above the social majority.

They did this in an organized manner, without partisan support,
going beyond the outdated left-right axis. The indignados, as opposed to those unaffected elites who refused to
resign, stood for social justice, freedom, democracy and the common good, and
demanded greater democracy in the economy. They demanded that the political
class be empathetic to this view and to stop being the institutional
continuation of IBEX35 (the 35 most powerful businesses in Spain).

Time passed, general elections were held, the Troika and austerity
continued, misery grew and spread, but the 15-M movement never disappeared. It
matured, incubating within it a solution which it wasn’t going to find outside.

“Start a party and run
in the elections”, someone said to those people in the streets with their
assemblies and proposals, shared by an immense majority of society. Soon he
would wish he had bitten his tongue.

This is how Podemos began, as heir to the 15-M movement, though it
would be unjust not to mention the many years of struggle for common welfare
and for more just social models, in the form of organizations or activists from
parties that share our goals. In the first stage, many people came together in
the same space – both veteran activists as well as those who hadn’t engaged in
politics until then – some already organized and some yet to organize.

The double challenge then began: that of channeling popular power
into a shared line of action and that of organizing a party as a sum of parts,
but harmonized by diverse collectives. Podemos has transitioned from movement
to party, with the objective of entering institutions, to transform them, to put
them on the side of the people.

After the success in the 2014 EU Parliamentary elections, where
Podemos won five seats, the party-movement attracted more people, who began to
identify for the first time with a project that aimed at bringing down the barriers
of outmoded politics, and recovering the hope of achieving its desired aims.
Many people who abstained from voting in past elections became activists in the
15-M movement. The moment arrived when political organization opened the door
to a series of electoral opportunities, which will prove to be crucial for the
future of Spain.

Through assembly debates in local ‘circles’ they discussed the
political and organizational models with which they would face these different
elections. In October 2014 the proposals with the most votes were discussed in
the founding congress of Podemos in Vistalegre. Podemos was founded upon a
transversal political model – meaning that it is committed to building a broad
consensus among diverse groups of people for things like the defense of free,
public and universal healthcare, the social right to housing, and regaining
lost labour rights.

But what exactly do we mean by “a transversal political model”?
Transversality can be understood as the act of building majorities. Not electoral
majorities per se, but social majorities made up of identities based on common
goals; building inclusive identities adapted to today's society. An example is
that of the identity of “working class”, which was a necessary identity when
they were organizing to overcome their class conditions 50 years ago, but which
is not appropriate to the modern world.

It is in this transversality that there is a clear reflection of
citizens that came together in the streets in 15-M. It is this important
subject which I would like to focus upon in this article. Because it is thanks
to this transversality – this broad appeal – that we have been successful. It
has resulted in governments having changed in cities such as Cadiz, Madrid,
Barcelona and Valencia. Transversality has made it possible to take projects
anchored in minority objectives and integrate them into major projects with
real possibilities of reaching government, and transforming institutions from
within, the essential element to successfully carrying out these projects.

Of course commonly identified goals and lines of action by a
social majority are not sufficient. They must be ready to take institutions
back from the privileged elite. It is their duty to join forces and provide
tools of participation and action so that the social majority feel not only
represented but have real resources to make themselves heard. This is reflected
in Podemos’ current organizational model which provides various channels for

We must not forget that within the organization there may be many
different levels of participation. On the one hand there is the core or
“nucleus”, the people who are the most heavily involved, and on the other there
are supporters who participate to varying degrees. The lines of action must be
oriented towards the social majority to which it aspires, not the nucleus.
Towards supporting communities in their struggles – whether or not they support
Podemos – in an effort to construct a major identity that is conscious of the
importance of change and that (contrary to what boredom and the media blitz has
produced in them) it is in their hands to carry out. And so groups like public
servants, healthcare professionals, teachers, the unemployed, regardless of
ideology based on outdated left-right divides, are gradually adding to the
construction of large consensuses such as the defence of free, universal public
health, the social right to housing, the recovery of lost labour rights, the
fight against corruption, etc.

It is true that many of us come from very progressive
environments. Some of us will cringe to recall the legend of the POUM. Others
are avowed Republicans, or feel a sense of pride when the Internationale is
sung. There are those who consider themselves anarchists, eco-socialists or
feminists, while others come from being active in big parties. Some are
newcomers to politics, but are as committed as those who have been in activism
since they were born.

Therefore with this in mind it is essential that we always
remember that activist spaces are a means and not an end in themselves, to
reach the broad social majority that needs us. We must be prudent not to
assimilate activist spaces one hundred per cent with the hegemonic project that
is being constructed around us everywhere, and we must escape the perverse
dynamics of the old politics that lead nowhere. Our goal is not to proselytize for
the extreme left, but we need to look beyond our activist navel to regain the
hope of people who feel identified with, and involved in, the project, and to
recover the momentum that occurred early on in the movement.

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