Spain. January finds me in Spain, overseeing the middle stages of building an extension on a longtime family home here. The Spanish member of the three-man team told me a few days ago that he gets up at 5am every day for the hundred kilometre drive down the coast, joining his Bulgarian co-workers at the halfway point. He used to be one of the supervisors for a building firm of two hundred, which went bust with the recession. The construction sector here is hurting badly. When the Bulgarian builder we contracted—who had worked under him a few years ago—called him in on this project, he jumped at the chance. It at least offered a few months of work, when nearly all the builders he knew were unemployed and looking for faint glimmers of a recovery. Nothing seems to be turning up here yet, despite signs of some other major economies coming out of recession. Some developers have a stock of a hundred or more unsold houses, apparently, and are hardly likely to start new projects until they clear.
Construction here is just the most obvious sector suffering from the global financial crisis. Statistics on the number of unemployed bricklayers and declining prices have been splashed over the papers for months now. Other businesses are hurting too, though you only see it visibly in some clusters. A couple of days ago, we drove inland to Yecla, which billed itself for years as a furniture capital of the region, with vast warehouses and showrooms dotted along the main road leading away from the old town. As we made our way along the road, stopping here and there in vain hope of finding what we were looking for, we noticed all the signs of what must be a local economic agony. Probably a quarter of the storefronts were boarded up or obviously abandoned and painted over with graffiti. Another quarter had notices proclaiming their availability for purchase or lease. And I could count on one hand the number of shops that even had any other potential customers walking around them at the same time. The staff at a few places tried to put a brave face on the situation, saying they were hoping to clear out the stock for “renovations,” but it hardly looked promising.
Alongside the main road cutting through this retail wasteland, there were a couple of billboards that had obviously gone up in more prosperous times. They shouted with confidence that Yecla was a centre of the furniture industry. So much here had obviously come to depend on this one line of business, with the factories, warehouses, and showrooms underwriting much of the town’s employment. Behind one of the billboards, in an image of how rapidly Spain has changed, stood an abandoned old stone house, windows shuttered and spray paint dotted on some of the walls, ringed round by a chain link fence. Three or four decades ago, that house must have stood by a lonely country road amidst rich farmland. And nearby, on a patch of land not appropriated by the warehouses, some remaining rows of forlorn olive trees stretched out.
Spain has been harder hit by this crisis than any other major economy, largely because so much here depended, directly or indirectly, on construction and tourism. Unemployment has reached some 20%. Many people have commented to me on the pervasive feeling of insecurity even among those who still have jobs. Recovery will come late here.
Perhaps this is just another of the global business cycles that have pummelled Spain several times in recent decades. But it also offers a lesson in, and a powerful motive to reflect on, the texture of modernity. Spain, much like Japan and a few other countries, had a meteoric rate of growth over two generations, moving from visible backwardness to the mainstream of the developed world. Growth and integration to Europe have been the twin imperatives. And they have changed the landscape of Spain, both physically and culturally, in profound ways.
A few minutes’ drive down the coast lies Benidorm, the kind of place that some of us nowadays avoid going into if it can be avoided. When my mother first visited this area in 1957, Benidorm was a charming fishing village with a couple of shack-like restaurants where the boats came in. In the 1960s and 1970s, the relentless promotion of high-volume tourism had turned Benidorm into a cluster of skyscrapers along the beach, largely filled with a transient population that divided its time between disgracing itself in the bars and lying passed out on the beach. The city has become something of a standing joke about the æsthetic horrors of Spain’s mass tourism trajectory.
If one can leave aside that image of drunken excess—most of which confines itself to seaside enclaves that aim to be little more than “Manchester+sunshine” or “Amsterdam+sunshine—then there are many things to respect in how Spain has joined Europe. Our Bulgarian contractor has lived in Spain for some eight years now. He came knowing not a word of Spanish, and now speaks it with precision and sends me grammatically flawless emails. His family has found a sense of home in Spain that would be harder in societies less open to outsiders. This village has had resident Norwegians on its municipal council, without batting an eyelid. Half our neighbours hail from other parts of Europe and get along smoothly with the Spaniards. The town hall flies three flags at equal heights: Spain, the European Union, and the Valencia region. Indeed, joining Europe has allowed Spain’s regional and local identities to flourish. When I lived here as a child, in the years after Franco’s death, I regularly saw road signs with Spanish versions of local place names sprayed over with Catalan graffiti. Now they have both names side by side, and our Bulgarian builder’s teenage son has half his classes taught in the local language. For anyone admiring of a decent localism and wary of national aggrandisement, there is much to celebrate here. Thankfully, Spain has never been big enough to see its own modernisation as a play for power, but rather as access to a quality of life that its northern neighbours attained earlier. And the cross-border flows of people harken back, in some superficial ways, to the more open terrain of premodern Europe.
But digging a bit deeper, one finds many of the usual vexing ills of modernity. One of the most profound contrasts with premodern Spain is that, while both then and now Spain saw itself as part of a larger universe, those two universes are radically opposed.
Today, the standard of the modern here has been to become “European.” But what is this word “europeo” that is thrown around in conversation so often? In recent years, I have heard it used as a term of praise to describe everything from the quality of the train service to Barcelona, to the proper civilised habits of where one should put air conditioners, to whether the law on driving with headlights on will change. Much seems to add up to a gravitation towards conformity for its own sake, and integration to the kind of soulless cross-border institutional machinery that the French philosopher Pierre Manent has roundly condemned. The texture of daily life has surely become blander here because of it. The younger generation, on average, lacks a certain depth of personality and spiritedness that people used to associate with a more traditional Spain. A homogeneous global consumer culture flattens its victims. And, perhaps in the same vein, our meanderings around the dying furniture capital of Yecla turned up nothing: virtually everything on display fitted what has become the decorative style of contemporary Spain: the sort of stuff one might find in a Copenhagen dentist’s office.
The older Spain did not aspire to wall itself off from the rest of Europe, despite the saying—usually by foreigners—that “Europe stops at the Pyrenees.” It considered itself part of a larger civilisation, with profoundly Catholic foundations. Even Franco, for all his authoritarian heavyhandedness and suppression of the regions, never doubted that the nation was anchored within and answerable to a higher ethical imperative. This older sense of universalism meant that the battle lines drawn in Spain, say in the 1930s, were seen as part of a larger human story beyond the narrow interests of the actors on both sides. Centuries earlier, during the Reconquest, the peninsula had a competing universalism oriented eastward to the Islamic world, with some intriguing enmeshing of the two. Whatever the form it took in different eras, such self-confidence was lost once Spain rushed to modernise on the terms of others.
The global recession has not opened any fundamental debate over those issues here, because it has hit everywhere at once. And, in an ever more starkly secular society, the spiritual resources for asking such questions have largely vanished. But the recession does have more prospect of bringing home all the underlying doubts about the economic model that this country adopted. Here, FPR readers will find much that they recognise. The heavy reliance on a few heavily cyclical economic sectors like construction and tourism—and the building of local employment around one-dimensional lines of business as in Yecla—has caused some monstrous distortions and vulnerabilities. For all its prosperity and openness, modern Spain has a surprisingly undynamic and undiversified economy. Much as with other rapid modernisers like Japan and, more recently, China, the focus has long been on sheer volume of investment and activity, rather than on sustainable quality and the effect of economic strategies on the texture of social life.
To be sure, Spain has been in some ways a fairly humane society. The distribution of wealth now is much more equal than in America, for example, and the safety net more generous. Gone are the days in which it was said that Spain was one of the worst countries in Europe to be poor, because of the hard-edged social hierarchies. But between dependence on salaried employment—often in businesses that go under in every recession—and dependence on the state, people are living hand to mouth in startling ways. One restaurateur told me four days ago that he has fifteen tables of customers a day on average. I remarked that for a Friday evening, it seemed rather odd with no one in there. “But it’s the 22nd,” he pointed out. I did not quite see why that would matter. He explained that the billing cycles on most Spanish credit cards have the 22nd as the cut-off date for what one will have to repay at the end of the month, so people would be putting off going out to dinner by a day.
Spain is hardly unique in needing a serious political debate about economic sustainability, and about the texture of daily life that policy choices will favour or undermine. But the pace of what has happened here, and the scale of the economic distortions and the cyclical hangovers, bring the issues into starker relief.
Sadly, that kind of national debate had a window of opportunity that ended badly. The civil war of the 1930s has been dubbed the last of the European social revolutions. For all the suffering that happened, the ideological diversity on both sides and the firm belief that ideas mattered were truly remarkable. A live religious tradition, strong regional identities, intense struggles for social justice, and a vibrant intelligentsia linked both to the national soil and to global conversations, all converged in that crisis. Europe, indeed the West in general, has never again seen such ideological range and seriousness, not even in the upheavals of 1968 and 1989, which were pale and one-dimensional by comparison.
Some observers have suggested in hindsight that the civil war would have been much better for the world if the left had won. A socialist experiment in Spain, autonomous because safely at the other end of Europe from the Soviet Union, might have changed the face of the global left. The problem with that narrative is that it takes for granted one way of drawing the basic fault lines. The left arrays itself against Spanish tradition, and the traditionalists array themselves against the struggle for social justice. Such is a sad and false choice. It is a choice that put the left in the civil war against all elements of Catholicism, including the most humane. And it meant that economic policy during Franco’s rule leaned heavily rightward, ending with the handing over of the economy to technocrats who prefigured the Washington Consensus.
From a different perspective, it might have been far better if the more justice-oriented blocs of the traditionalist coalition had won. The red-bereted Carlists, for example, gravitated to Franco’s side more by circumstance than conviction. They combined some eccentric legitimist ideas about the monarchy with a distributist economic vision. Their on-and-off struggles from the nineteenth century, with widespread popular support in the mountains of northern Spain, included a battle to defend local traditions, small scale property ownership, and the village commons. Their piety also made them the preferred branch of Franco’s coalition for the leftists to surrender to during the civil war; prisoners were treated quite chivalrously, while the fascist-inspired parts of the right were more likely to put them up against the wall in the village square.
I have no idea where I might look to find a living Carlist today. Moreover, the Carlists could probably not have redefined modern Spain on their own. But people like them were not few. A somewhat different lineup of forces a few decades ago, or the right kind of fracturing of the governing coalition after the war, and Spain might have been less hemmed in by false choices that have led it into its present dilemma. Whatever we might say in hindsight, though, reopening those kinds of debates will probably not happen within any one country today. It is, at the very least, a debate about the meaning of the “Europe” that we are supposed to be feverishly constructing.