I’ve been to Spain twice and absolutely loved it. I have found the crisis in Spain to be horrible, but absolutely fascinating. The political graffiti is amazing and the level of discontent and level of unemployment in Spain is something completely foreign to my generation. I wrote about it after travelling most of the country in 2011. But I have not had a place to publish it until now.
On the other side of the world, a unique situation is unfolding – being played out, unravelling – all behind the veil of another culture, another language. It is not apparent to our Australian eyes through the presentation of the media outlets of choice. The magnitude and the scale is not even entirely apparent to those most affected – the Spanish citizenry. One of Europe’s largest economies is in serious trouble, yet serious trouble in a different form to what we are presented with. Away from the glib, catch-all phrases we are occasionally given, more troubling issues are afoot that have semblance to underlying issues within the Australia economy, and society in general. It is almost a parallel universe that Australia has narrowly avoided, which Australia has the ability to avoid into the future. “La Crisis” (as it is known in Spain) is ongoing; whereas for Australia, it has passed. But it could have been so much different.
When you visit Spain, you encounter a country that is European, yet vastly different – proudly different. It is almost scornful of its position within European society, fighting to be a recluse from outsiders and perceived threats to the Spanish way of life. This has a long tradition in Spain, which it is fighting to overcome. Franco took Spain into a hermit’s lodging and it has been trying to come down the mountain ever since; except that outsiders love Spain: its culture, its food, its sights and its landscape give visitors a smorgasbord of options for reasons to go there and to come back. Spain has failed to make the most of these links beyond the superficial, thereby paying a horrible price that will certainly hinder any recovery.
The failings in regards to the lack of forged links are fundamentally responsible for the problems the Spanish economy and society now find themselves in. The reclusiveness and lack of inquisitiveness into other cultures strikes you as bizarre when you encounter it. Compared to other countries in Europe, their understanding of language (apart from Spanish and the regional language) is poor and there does not seem to be an emphasis on changing this. Other countries in the north of Europe have excellent multi-lingual capacity and, for the most part, their economies have rebounded since the first GFC. Their societies do not remain closed and the adaptability of their role in the context of the European situation is backed by their ability to generate business connections, which are largely due to their education, language skills and the type of global citizenry that creates.
Yet, Spain is a country that is in Europe. Like Australia, it has not recently been towed by tug boat into the region it now finds itself. But the behaviour of both countries, and both cultures, seems particularly alike in that both want to be a part of their region only to enjoy the successes, yet not be fundamentally involved in the drivers of the underlying culture that provide the benefits. How many Australians actively attempt to understand cultures in our greater region? How many Australians know any words of the languages that surround us in our region? What relevance over the long term do we provide to our region? What is the relevance of Australia in our region? Are we just the net cord in a game of tennis, or will we decide as a nation to pick up a racquet? What are we doing strategically to make sure we are relevant in our own region – aside from those strategies which are easiest and convenient?
One of the most striking examples of what can go wrong when you do not develop answers to these questions is in Andalucía. El Andalus, literally ‘The Paradise’ in Arabic, is one of Spain’s autonomous regions. It is in serious financial and social trouble. With an unemployment rate of 28 percent and a youth unemployment rate well above 50 percent, there is growing discontent and a huge build-up of anger. Protests in each of the large cities are a daily occurrence, and the dislocation of young people from their places of origin is a massive concern. The most educated and most talented young people are moving in large numbers to Madrid, or to Barcelona, or overseas from places such as Malaga that will, in the future, need these brains. As was seen in Perth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and has been seen in South Australia over a longer period of time, these future leaders of society return in often vastly reduced numbers.
What is left is the parados – quite literally, the do-nothing people – the unemployed without work and without the ability to work.
This failure also stinks. In Seville, a plenitude of horse-drawn carriages moves about the city taking tourists on scenic tours; except that the local authority does not have the money to adequately clean the resulting faecal material up. Nothing says the current crisis in Spain quite like Seville – if you look. Sure, there might be endless empty apartments and dilapidated construction sites on the Costa del Sol; although Seville does have that as well – on the river front, which you cannot access because of building sites which have long since been abandoned. But Seville faces a crisis, different to how we envisage it. It is a crisis of relevance. It is a crisis of xenophobia, of introverted regionalism and the paralysis that that causes. An annoyance to longer term visitors or migrants to the area is the lack of choices in the food. This city of one million people has only two Japanese restaurants. Sure, it sounds trivial, but it is emblematic of the problem that Andalucía has: A complete inability to explore outside their narrow culture, to embrace outside influences and to shun the rest of the world entirely. And now, because of ‘la crisis’, outsiders will wield influence and power over the region’s fate, and what was most at risk in the minds of Andalucians – the loss of identity and culture – may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The incredible despair being experienced has given rise to a political movement amongst students, the youth and generally anyone disaffected by the political structure of Spain – the ‘Indignados’ (literally the “unhappy people” or “people with indignation”). Holding local meetings to take to broader meetings, they hope to form a type of self-government which is a throwback to elements of anarchist Spain in the 1930s. We have come to know these types as the 99%. But the 99% lack the basis for a large groundswell, unlike the Indignados. Unfortunately for them, the same problems that inflicted anarchists in the 1930s are likely to come out in droves this time around as well. Petty squabbling amongst the regions, amongst small areas of the country, is the problem and not the solution. Consensus politics is not an easy task when the starting point is myopic, removing the larger context. This is a slightly different situation to the Catalan independence movement which has its origins in political, economic, social, cultural and linguistic repression from other parts of Spain.
So what can Australia learn from a country that has failed so comprehensively to make the connections with the culture that surrounds it? Put simply, a lot. Australia is already a multicultural country. Despite the framing of the recent white paper (the Asian Century), which puts Australia alongside Asia and not inherently within it, we are a part of Asia and not apart from it. Australia already has many successful business and cultural links with Asia, and so Australia has an advantageous starting point to build from.
So what are the risks to Australia if we turn away from the culture that we are a part of? The greatest risk is that Australia fails to make the cultural connections to establish long and lasting economic links. We should not think for a moment that a one-sector economy will see us on a never-ending path to prosperity. The Spanish property market is a prime example of what can happen when that happens. We must use our resources to leverage greater cultural and economic links with the region we are a part of – and language is the key to doing so. But I don’t see this happening and we are falling into the same trap that the Spanish have, in regards to property speculation and reliance on construction.
The learning of languages is where the problem lies. We have not yet found a way to successfully teach indigenous languages whilst engaging students to learn English. It is reported that when a bilingual Australia was proposed to Kevin Rudd at the 2020 summit in 2008, he said: ‘Cost too much money.’ The problems of learning languages and culture in Australia are a mirror of our internal policy and politics, which is then reflected into the region around us. We do not have a way of demonstrating cultural understanding internally to be used as a model to then learn cultures outside of our own.
The solution is in the hands of our leaders, both politically and institutionally. Educators have a role to play in the development of our kids to be citizens of the region, and of the world. Business must demand that politicians ensure that the teaching of culture and Asian languages is continuous in our school system. In the face of political change and policy upheaval with cultural connections, it is up to school leaders to fill the void. It is not simply an education, foreign affairs or economics policy issue, it is one and the same. Our failure to understand it is such, is a blight on our country.
After all, what relevance do we have in the region once the mining boom has finished? Are our next generation going to be parados? Or will they inherit their own paradise?
*Thanks to Ester from Villa Alicia Guest House in Malaga for use of this image. If you are in southern Spain, drop by. She was great to talk to about these things, and gave me some wonderful travelling tips. (I haven’t received any payment for this promotion, just want to reward a good experience.)