unpacking the crisis: un(der)employment, entrepreneurship, participation and resistance

Voices from the South of Spain

Voices from the South of Spain
Lucia Sell-Trujillo. September 2014.

The social construction of the Spanish grasshopper can only be understood as opposed to the northern European ant – the one whose door the grasshopper calls to ask for a bailout when the winter comes.

Traditionally, researchers have been blamed for living in their ivory tower while policy makers dealt with real life issues. However, contemporary demands are changing this situation. Social scientists still have to struggle to bring existing concerns from the streets to the academic journals, a difficult task due to the pressures on the academic career. However, in public policy the challenge is even bigger. Policy makers and institutions are in a desperate need to design mechanisms that are dynamic enough to deal with very acute scenarios that are common place in our societies. It might be due to the slowness of the policy cycle which fails to adapt to a very volatile social reality. But that slowness has been created step by step by the definition of rigid principles that were thought to be valid but have been distorted. The management of what belongs to the public is enacted through parsimonious endeavors, shielded behind official documents and stamps that cannot be justified as guarantors of legitimacy. The allocation of public resources is actually failing to adapt to the real needs of its users: the citizens.

In Spain in general, and in the South in particular, there is a clear perception that the system in place is generating policies or laws that are not effective in dealing with the basic needs of its people and, as a consequence, people are not been treated fairly. This situation also runs in parallel with citizens’ general disenchantment with the makings of a bipartisan democracy and its politicians, who lately tend to be involved in corruption scandals. In this context, institutions are perceived as alienating, obsolete and aligned against the citizen.

This situation is particularly salient in Andalusia, a region at the south of the south of Europe historically deprived and currently experiencing the highest unemployment rates in the zone. Recent figures indicate that 36.3% of Andalusians are unemployed, with 48.1% of those defined as long-term unemployed, and a youth unemployment rate of 66.1%.

A common question from abroad is how the average Spaniard is able to derive some sort of stability in a country with such high rates of unemployment. Some quick answers come, as always, from contempt-filled national stereotypes expressed and half-truths regarding their inclination to live day-by-day instead of worrying about the future, their tendency to work in the black economy and their love of fiestas. So in short: they’ve got what they deserved. The social construction of the Spanish grasshopper can only be understood as opposed to the northern European ant – the one whose door the grasshopper calls to ask for a bailout when the winter comes.

Nothing is further from the truth.
The reality is that the average unemployed Spaniard from the South has been forced to undertake a fundamental transformation in their ways of thinking. Some did not make it, as the increase in suicide rates show. They were not able to face the sudden changes, moving from having an average salary/life to having to face the social stigma or the terror caused by the prospect of an eviction. Others are dealing with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. The stronger ones are just too busy finding alternative ways of surviving - either by literally filling the time doing sport and regular physical activity to overcome the emptiness of a day without structure; or by finding ways to engage in their immediate community (neighborhood, village) while making a bit of cash doing odd jobs to see them through the end of the month.

We can imagine different profiles when thinking about the average person from the South being on the dole, but none of them fits easily with the image of a free-riding opportunistic individual sucking the state dry. It could be Raul, who works in a garage with a contract of 6 hours per week (in fact he is putting far more hours but his employer will not declare it); or Julian, a young architect that has moved to the countryside to be able to afford a house. He lives in a remote village and makes ends meet by replacing windows or doing room extensions in the area, nothing related to his full-fletched architecture degree which he worked so hard to get for five years. Or it could be Pili, who has tried a thousand different initiatives to earn some money: a vintage shop, renting outfits for special occasions from the attic of her house or a cooking space as a community center. All of them have in common an extraordinary drive to survive that requires living day by day as an essential requirement not to fall into despair and madness. They do not think about the future, for sure, but not because they are careless or reluctant to prevent, it is a matter of mental health. Terror paralyzes, and it hurts to think about not being able to ensure your kids’ future.

Spain does not allow us to project ourselves in stable situations, does not let us think about anything related to personal progress or career path. It does not even let us imagine what would happen to us when we are actually older, after many years living in the margins, in the spaces that the system has left for those who do not fit anywhere else. And there are many of us in Andalusia, almost half. Too many.