From Olive Trees to Overcapacity


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.

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Adam K. Webb grew up in England, Spain, and the United States. He is now Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, an overseas campus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has authored three books, including Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015). His interests range broadly across political thought, and efforts to recreate room for traditions and liberty on the emerging global landscape. He divides his time among urban China, rural England, and other corners of the world.


  1. I must congratulate you because this is one of the best essays I’ve read about Spain’s present, past, and bleak future, in many time. The only objection would be that it’s probably too optimist, I guess you must love Spain very much to write like this. As a Spanish (and Valencian also, I’m from a town near the city of Valencia) I think the history of Spain is basically going from defeat to defeat since the lost of the Habsburg Empire (I think this was the real Spanish Empire at one time, and not the South American one). And Habsburg Empire, and also South American one, were more due to luck than to prowess. Another thing is that, meanwhile they were great empires, Spain was yet poor inside. I know you’re not going so past, but what I pretend to say is that I don’t see any historical moment when Spain had exist as a normal, in European terms, country. I love Spain, and I can’t be another thing but spanish, but I’m arriving to the conclusion that Spain has never existed. Nationalisms, probably, are just only a sad conclusion of these state of things.

  2. I’, not sure it is entirely accurate to say

    “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.”

    If you can find a well-worn copy of Dolores Ibarurri’s autobiography, at the same time the fascists were putting out propaganda about nuns being raped and priests tortured, a member of the communist party central committee was running around finding a crucifix for a refugee mother superior. It was mostly the anarchists who were opposed to all tradition, at least in the first year or so.

    On the other hand, your speculation on the Carlists is interesting. I read that Franco adopted the fascist blue shirt and the Carlist red beret as the uniform of his movement, after winning the war. When fascist asked a Carlist, where is your blue shirt, he answered, I can’t take it off and hide it in my pocket like you do with your red beret.

    A libertarian distributist socialist government linked to a strong labor movement with a healthy dose of traditional regional cultures would suit me well — but then, I don’t live in Spain, so its not my country to choose a future for.

  3. This is a fine essay, and of course the questions it raises and those of FPR in general require a historical return to the events of the early twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War, if we are even to imagine what real intellectual, ideological, and political differences live and in debate might look like.

    This key phrase seems worth an adendum:

    “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.”

    Surely the “dogma” of comparative advantage needs a thorough criticism, beginning with your first sentence: a monoculture or monoindustry in a country can only be advantageous so long as one may presume a total stability of the international economic system into which that country is integrated. Even then, it would be unfortunate, as the experience of the American Midwest testifies, but the moment any upheaval occurs, we encounter a ruin: industries sawn off and useless like the large limbs of a tree: too big to function save when the rest of the world’s economy is flourishing, and too simple to provide the resources for a varied, self-sustaining and self-serving local economy.

    The example you provide is vivid: a solid furniture industry, manufacturing enough for export, would be a great resource within a community; one that leads to the paving over of farm land indicates a lack of foresight and an improvident assumption that a system so massive and sensitive as the “global” economy can be trusted like a good shepherd.

  4. Gracias, Mr. Webb. A sweet pen and many useful observations. The EU does have this quasi-encouragement of regional authority, which is comparatively admirable given the bad centralizing patterns of most Euro nation states when not bound by the EU rules. Many American conservative critics of the EU, the sort that would rather quote the great Pierre Manent than read him, miss that fact. The overall pattern of Brussels-run centralization and democracy-deficit, in economics and culture, is of course still at work. Thinkers like Manent worry that as regional authority and Brussels authority grows, that of the nation shrivels, and neither the region nor Brussels is “real” enough an authority to keep real democratic rule and community alive. Things like comparative advantage dogmas, and rights/judges-obsessed “democratic governance,” rule instead. So, Catalonian signs and some Catalonian decisions on things that matter, but more obviously, Euro-slick internationalist style of life everywhere.

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