What does it mean when a Western country suffers from a nerve-wrecking 26% unemployment rate? Is the Spanish society about to implode? What is the truth (or the many truths) behind a figure that should put every Spanish politician of the last quarter century to shame?
Spain, a country of extremes, a land mired with either gorgeous or painful stereotypes, a crossroad of Mediterranean merchant routes, Andalusian latifundios and Northern bastions of industrial elites… is still trying to recover from, probably, the worst crisis since its 1939 Civil War. Undoubtedly, the post-war decades were second to none in terms of scarcity, soaring inflation, Basque terrorism and political turmoil.
The 2007-201(?) financial crush, however, has dealt a mortal blow to many institutions which both insiders and the public opinion believed untouchable: the monarchy, the political parties, the election system, the press, the “cajas de ahorros” (saving banks), the welfare state, lifelong home ownership… as battered dykes, they all have failed to contain the inconvenient tsunami of truth.
The fragile coastal developments of sunnier times, dangerously raised with a mix of debt, a massive influx of foreign workforce and the shameful collusion of politicians and moneymen alike has collapsed, tragically, upon the shocked faces of a middle-class society, blind to what they wrongly believed were minor cracks on a euro-charged economy. We weren’t the only ones dancing drunk to the trashy disco beat: the 700,000-plus Brit diaspora had to suffer a similar hangover when they saw their property investments plummet. The Fiesta is Over, proclaimed the FT, unapologetically.
At the shout of MAYDAY, foreign labor was the first to jump off the sinking boat, followed by the irredeemable bankers (saved with public money), the mighty multinationals (moved somewhere else to ever increase their earnings and minimize their tax load) and, not surprisingly, the public scoundrels aka politicians (shuffling seats but mostly remaining in their comfy places). In the meanwhile, families and SMEs struggle to remain afloat without the lavish credit and consumption of better times.
From an already high “natural” rate, unemployment spiked up to a scary 26% in just 3 years, the equivalent of a massive earthquake hitting the foundations of the Spanish society from top to bottom. More than 400,000 Spaniards have left for good (to Northern Europe and Latin America) in the search of a future by their own means. Top-school kids rot at clone-like internships while others despair sending resumes all across the country, ineffectively. Those remaining have seldom enjoyed a glimpse of a timid greenshot after 5 years of what feels like a never-ending nightmare.
Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that 1 in 4 Spaniards are jobless. On the one hand, there is a well-known multibillion-euro submerged economy that is helping to sustain thousands of families who struggle with the little money they get from their elderly and unemployed pensions. Politicians are well aware of this, hence their reluctance to tackle those who benefit from it. On the other hand, there is the middle class (doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, lawyers, sportsmen), loathing to pay more taxes for what they believe is a rotten system. Hence the brain drain, the gloom, the widening gap of faith in between taxpayers and pensioners, hustlers and grafters, poor and rich, the civil servants and the scoundrels.
After relishing the dazed bliss of a long-lasting midnight summer dream for way too long, Spaniards have woken up to the cold, confusing shock of today’s dreadful multilayered-nightmare: the fierce competition from emerging economies not willing to recede anytime soon; a workforce undertrained and overstretched; the realization that home prices do fall whenever they don’t go up; acknowledging that thousands of menial, repetitive jobs will disappear for good as a result of the latest improvements in computer power; the fact that long-term money allocation isn’t just a rich kid’s game, but the crucial catalyst to sustainable survival; that peasants migrate to cities for obvious reasons; and that while the Orwellian dictum “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” remains in place, the political caste will linger as a parasitic elite per secula seculorum.
In the meanwhile, those brave enough to accept that there is no free lunch for all, did try to reclaim the streets, unsuccessfully (the 15M movement became an ephemeral ray of light upon a sky of grey), the pulpits (new political parties are splitting from the two main parties, mired by unending corruption scandals) and the counters (thousands of entrepreneur-wannabes are trying it on their own). Yet, in a country were construction, consumption and tourism have been the backbone of the economy, only the latter has remained as buoyant as ever. We are still looking for a way out of the brick-and-mortar labyrinth.
Alas, do we want Spain to become Europe’s Florida? Will the rising North-South gap push Spain to the brink of regional fragmentation? Are Brussels and Berlin wary enough of what worrisome a plague like this means for their own raison d´être? Will our politicians live up to the already low expectations in order to lead us out of the crisis or, on the contrary, more extremist parties will end up grabbing power? Who wants the sun and the beaches and paellas when your kids cannot find a decent job? How do we imagine the 21st-century Spain to be?
Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’... Ray Charles sang beautifully. Now that we’ve painfully realized how little skin our politicians are willing to risk in the game, is time to design a new set of rules. A bottom-up approach to politics and money allocation will surely mean the end of politics and banking as we know it: enough of Madrid -and Brussels- cheerfully playing lender-of-last-resort to systemically risky banks; we must put a cap -and an empty prison cell- for regional caciques throwing good tax money after bad; it is time to open up the energy market and free ourselves from the energy oligarchy setting arbitrary moats to refrain us from creating (and selling) our own electricity; it is time for a serious debate on behemoth public universities, those anachronistic institutions that keep on socializing losses stubbornly (50% youth unemployment) and instead, prepare our kids for a brand new world.
Tyrant: your fame is well deserved, slave. You will remove your helmet and tell me your name.
Spaniard: my name is Maximus Anonymous Meridius, commander of the Armies of the Truth, General of the Freedom Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Myself. Father to an unemployed son, husband to a forlorn wife. And I will have my taxes back, in this life or the next. (TO BE CONTINUED…)