Europe needs to change – and using grassroots democracy is how we do it

Indignados protesting against grim economic prospects and unemployment in Madrid in 2012. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

For citizens across Europe, poverty and inequality have become as commonplace as they are unbearable. Poor quality jobs and massive austerity-led budget cuts are part of everyday life. In Spain, more than 50% of people under 30 are unemployed. In many European countries even those with jobs struggle to pay the rent, and the UK is no exception.

These facts have given rise to the conversations we have all had, at home, over coffee or in the pub, about how bad politicians are and how bad politics has got. The establishment has less ability to generate consensus than ever. There is an increasing social majority that feels disaffected with democracy, and a widespread feeling that the old-fashioned politicians have become an elite who just care about keeping their privileged jobs. Whether it’s in Brussels, Strasbourg or London, they serve themselves and the financial world, not the people. How can we challenge them?

After four years of grassroots resistance in Spain, through the 15m (indignados) and anti-eviction movements, new ways of doing politics are emerging. Podemos was born this January with the goal not of being just another political party, but of engaging in politics with its aim “to contest the mandates of the financial and political elites through new, radically democratic means”. It got 8% of the vote at the European elections in May 2014, and the last four national polls now put it on course to overtake the Spanish equivalent of the Labour party (PSOE), which polls at just over 20%.

This has happened because the economic crisis is so strongly connected to a no-less-deep crisis of democracy. Having occupied public squares, Podemos aims to “occupy” politics with a new democratic common sense. Podemos calls for “a fair distribution of wealth and labour among all, the radical democratisation of all instances of public life, the defence of public services and social rights, and the end of the impunity and corruption that have turned the European dream of liberty, equality and fraternity into the nightmare of an unjust, cynical and oligarchic society”.

Political parties and movements are tools, not ends in themselves. In this sense the internet has provided us with an unprecedented wealth of democratic resources. More than 130,000 people will take part in the Podemos general assembly in Madrid this month – 20,000 of them in person and the others online. Its force relies on those who might not be able to or want to attend, but are willing to keep the process going with their suggestions, their practical knowledge and their vote.

The old politics was about secret compromises between politicians and key people from the financial world. Podemos refuses to ask for or receive any funding from financial institutions and all Podemos representatives are subject to strict limitations on their privileges and salaries. New politics means not only building a different political narrative, but also changing the way we do politics – what we might call the “ethics of politics”. It means reinventing representation and building the possibility of real citizen participation in common decisions about common issues.

This is the message I will be bringing when I come to speak in cities across England alongside Greece’s Syriza and Britain’s Left Unity this week. Defending past victories is vital, but all three of our parties also see the need to do politics differently. We need to realise that the only true shadow cabinet nowadays is the people reclaiming the future.

Eduardo Maura is a professor of philosophy at Complutense University of Madrid and international representative of Podemos.

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