How Spain has shown unexpected resilience to the crisis

The country has been hit hard by austerity, but adversity has also brought out the best in Spaniards

A September 2011 march on Madrid’s Gran Vía.
A September 2011 march on Madrid’s Gran Vía.Claudio Alvarez (EL PAÍS)

The news from Spain since the crash of 2008 has largely been gloomy: a succession of corruption scandals, political parties more interested in protecting their own interests than in addressing the problems of the people who elect them, stubbornly high levels of unemployment, low wages, and an exodus of young people in search of work.

Meanwhile, half the populations of the Basque Country and Catalonia seem to want their regions out of Spain.

Entire families have been living off grandpa’s pension and the subsidy that the state pays to dad

Economist Juan José Dolado

The other side of the coin is that Spaniards have responded well to the crisis, often through family networks, but also by joining local and national associations in search of solutions to their country’s problems.

In short, Spain’s civil society is more powerful and articulate than is often imagined, argue economists Rafael Myro, José Luis García Delgado and Juan José Dolado, a view shared by political analysts Fernando Vallespín and Carol Galais, as well as anthropologist Carles Feixa, sociologist Pau Mari Klose, and social psychologist Enric Pol.

Their basic premise is that Spanish society has risen above the defects of its politicians and shown itself more capable, dynamic and creative than them, and better able to deal with change than anybody expected.

And what about the view expressed by Luis de Guindos, Spain’s economy minister, that the efforts made by Spain to recover its economy will be studied in history books in the future? Maybe, but this assertion omits the fact that there has been a sharp rise in inequality and poverty, and that new contracts do not give people enough money to live on

Even senior citizens began their own protest movement known as “Yayoflautas.”
Even senior citizens began their own protest movement known as “Yayoflautas.”Carles Ribas

In short, many lives have been ruined, and huge numbers of people condemned to years of grinding poverty.

“Entire families have been living off grandpa’s pension and the subsidy that the state pays to dad. The so-called adjustment has been achieved through job cuts, lower wages, an increase in part-time work, and no job training. There is no trickle-down effect from capital gains to the working class, and the best-qualified generations have gone abroad in search of the opportunities that they can’t find here,” says Juan José Dolado.

“In relative terms to GDP, Spain is the third-largest economy in Europe when it comes to overseas investment, and the second-largest recipient of foreign investment. Our productive capacity is more solid and competitive than is usually believed. Thanks to this, between 2006 and 2013, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Spain drove employment up by 5.25%, and real wages by 1.89%, besides facilitating 30% of exports. There are now 600 companies exporting goods worth more than €50 million a year,” notes Rafael Myro, author of Claves del éxito de las exportaciones españolas (Keys to the success of Spanish exports).

“But guaranteed growth can only come from a model based on increased productivity, improved living standards, competitive prices, and the continued internationalization of our companies,” he adds.

These analysts agree that there is a direct relationship between the social changes that have taken place in recent years and the political change underway in the country.

The huge growth in volunteer work in recent years has helped enormously, and has proven the old adage that adversity brings out the best in people

María Navas, journalist

“The economic and institutional crisis has not been met by a society that is passive or unable to react; instead it has responded sharply, stimulating readaptation and changes in behavior,” says José Luis García Delgado.

Fernando Vallespín says activism has helped Spaniards become more aware of the weaknesses in their system, prompting them to demand stricter morals on the part of their representatives: in short, they are no longer prepared to be so forgiving or apathetic about corruption.

“There is a change in the way people look at public life. People get together; they share problems, and find solutions collectively. We see this in the world of theater, in digital communication, in many areas of society. This is a society that is on the move,” he says.

Spain today may be a less trusting society, a less happy place than it was before the crisis, but it now seems ready to overhaul its systems and to become involved in politics, to keep an eye on how its institutions work.

A group of Spanish doctors working in Portugal.
A group of Spanish doctors working in Portugal.Miguel Ribeiro Fernandes

This is a process that began in 2011 with the 15-M protest movement, and which has since channeled anger into positive action to effect change. From left to right, Spanish society has organized itself from the grassroots level in search of ways to restore honesty and dignity to public life.

Thanks to this process, the system is beginning to renew itself, and bucking the trend in so many other European countries, it is doing so without resorting to xenophobia.

“Importantly, politicians have not been tempted to blame immigrants for the country’s problems, and there has been no increase in negative attitudes to immigration,” says Pau Mari Klose.

Neither has there been any increase in violence and criminality during these years of crisis, and even the prison population has dropped. How come a society hit hard by unemployment hasn't erupted into violence, especially when state financial aid to struggling families has been cut? It isn’t just the famous family safety net, nor the country’s notorious underground economy that has held society together.

“The huge growth in volunteer work in recent years has helped enormously, and has proven the old adage that adversity brings out the best in people. A lot of organizations set up to help those most in need have stood firm despite cuts in financial support: their members stepped in and paid phone bills, for example. In Vallecas [a working-class district in the south of Madrid] we have seen prisoners on furlough manning food kitchens for the homeless foreigners living among us,” says María Navas, a journalist who works with Spain’s volunteer movement.

“Precarious” is the key word often used in Spain to describe the labor market

Aside from going abroad to look for work – there are no reliable statistics, but at least 10,000 medics are now working abroad – growing numbers of young Spaniards are finding ways to convert their personal interests into self-employment, usually under extremely precarious conditions.

“Precarious” is the key word often used in Spain to describe the labor market. Enric Pol talks about the “capacity for recovery and reinvention, the resilience of humans and society itself to keep on trying to find new organizational and living models.”

Crisis or no crisis, and whichever direction this country takes in adapting to the current process of change, it seems clear that Spanish society has shown itself to be resilient and flexible, and more able and honorable than the pessimists would admit.

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