Photo: My Buffo at www.flickr.com
Here’s the news from Spain last week, in case anybody missed it: huge cuts in government spending; higher taxes; biting austerity; unemployment higher than in Greece; big and growing demonstrations in Madrid; violent clashes with police; and in Catalonia, a rising clamour for secession. The only hope on the horizon takes the ambiguous form of an expected financial rescue package, with still more austerity strings attached, from the richer countries of the north.Such help, however, will offer no more than temporary relief unless Spain addresses a deeper problem that it can only sort out on its own. It’s a problem that has a decisive impact on the country’s capacity to remain a competitive global player and that will be terribly difficult to solve because it is embedded in the national DNA.
During the 14 years I’ve lived in the country, I’ve talked with many Spaniards about this. But the most forthright and revealing group has been those who work abroad – in London, Holland, Germany, the US. They all miss the sunshine, the food, the strong family bonds, the warm, easy Spanish way of living. They also share – and here is the thing – an exasperation with the Spanish way of work.
I’m thinking, say, of two young men, in their early 30s, who moved to London six years ago, before the economic crash. They’ve done well. One, who started out as a waiter, is now the operations manager of a successful restaurant chain. “To have got ahead the way I have in London I’d need an uncle with good connections. I didn’t, so I left.”
The other works in the digital video industry. He had entered some work for a prize, but a number of prestigious British companies were running against him so he had no expectation of winning. Yet win he did. On pure merit. The notion of an unconnected unknown like him winning an equivalent prize in Spain was, he said, unthinkable.
The lessons from these two stories, entirely typical of Spaniards abroad, are clear: the Spanish are not inherently idle; the labour market in Spain does not sufficiently reward talent and hard work. The Spanish disease that both these young men said they had fled was “amiguismo” –”friendism” – a system where one gets ahead by who one knows.
Reams of opinion columns in the Spanish press in recent months have pointed to amiguismo in the political classes. Which is no doubt largely true but fails to acknowledge that corrupt or lazy or incompetent politicians do not inhabit a closed ecosystem but behave in a manner in keeping with the way society operates at large.
It is true that Spain had enjoyed a sustained economic boom for the best part of two decades. The usual explanation is that the country benefited from fluid access to cheap northern European credit. But there is a little more to it than that. There are also some mightily well-run and successful Spanish companies, such as the multinational retail clothing colossus Inditex, which owns Zara, or, like it or hate it, the Banco Santander. Yet I am afraid that these are the exceptions and not the rule.
I recently asked a boss at a well-known Spanish company what percentage of the 300 or so middle-class staff under him did their jobs to the best of their abilities. Despondent, he replied: “The number is low.” The deeper sin lies in an institutionalised Spanish system where both the financial and moral incentives to work well are undercut by the perception that if you do not know the right people there is little point in giving the best of yourself at work.
Where does all this come from? It might be tempting to dwell on the peculiarly closed-minded, our-fate-is-in-God’s-hands brand of Catholicism that reigned in Spain for half a millennium but I think I’ll stick for now to the prevailing educational system. Going to school in Spain is a pretty deadly business. The emphasis is all on learning by rote. Creativity and curiosity are not part of the package. School is not, remotely, fun. Work, the idea is instilled ominously early on, cannot be much fun either.
I have a large Spanish family, with 25 first cousins on my Madrileña mother’s side alone. About 15 years ago, when the Spanish economy was buzzing, a male cousin came to visit me in Washington, where I then worked. I told him one night at a bar that I enjoyed my job. He said nothing in reply but, as I discovered two days later, he’d been mulling over what I said, deeply troubled. “What you told me the other night,” he said, “about enjoying your job… you weren’t serious, were you?”
Here was an employed, friendly, middle-class 36-year-old Spaniard and he had never, ever had wind of the notion that someone might feel enthusiasm for what he did for a living. For my cousin, as for so many Spaniards, work is a necessary evil, a nuisance to be dispensed with as briskly as possible before turning to the serious business of life – drinking, nibbling tapas, hanging out with friends until the small hours.
This is all very well, even admirable from a certain philosophical point of view. Nor did it seem to matter very much while the Spanish bubble grew. But it is dangerously infantile in the present circumstances. Now that the bubble has burst, people’s approach to work matters a great deal. The brightest, the boldest or the most restless young people go abroad for money and fulfilment; the rest, half of whom are unemployed, stay at home – baffled, desperate, increasingly angry, kicking out at government and being kicked back.
The government does carry its share of the blame. But it is a symptom – a big, glaring symptom, for sure – and not the root cause. What’s needed if Spain is not to sink gradually back into a sort of bucolic, early 20th-century Mediterranean poverty is a revolution across the board in attitudes to work. Like it or not, the system has to be overhauled and replaced by one where the rules are fair and merit is rewarded. Everywhere.
Catalonia is a much more productive region than Andalucía, as the independentists will never cease to remind you, but the difference as far as amiguismo goes is only one of degree. There is much talk now of a huge financial rescue plan from the north. Good. It will bring much-needed relief. But it will be no more than a passing cure so long as the corruption of amiguismo continues to stain Spain’s otherwise warm and delightful soul, hampering the country’s capacity to compete in the grown-up world.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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