An essay on disillusionment, the euro, and the reality of capitalism
Protest in Barcelona against U.S. invasion of Iraq - 2003
From as early as I can remember, Europe’s influence has marked my life. I went from reading about Russian spies to watching footage of the Berlin Wall coming down in elementary school. The map was redrawn and right next to Italy, a new country called Slovenia was formed. Overnight my last name’s origin got a flag and a government too.
I first traveled to Europe at the age of 16 to visit my brother who was studying abroad in Turin, Italy. Everything was ridiculously cheap and the Euro was still just a twinkle in Europe’s eye. It was a phantom currency posted next to the local currencies on McDonald’s menus to familiarize the locals with its value before its official introduction.
Enamored with the food, people, passion, and language, my crush on Europe began. By my freshman year of college, I had returned to the continent twice more – to Italy again, France and Germany and in my junior year, I studied abroad in Barcelona, traveling whenever I was able.
To say that my year abroad in Barcelona was formative is an understatement. In 2002, the euro was still in its infancy after its inception in 1999. Spaniards were still adjusting, and admittedly still converted large prices to pesetas to make sense of them. It was the year the Euro inverted with the dollar in strength. My 300 euro a month room started off costing me $270, but by the end of the year was as much $330.
It was also the year that the United States invaded Iraq. I’ve never had to answer so much to the behavior of someone I’d never vote for as I did that year for Bush. Polls showed that about 90% of the Spanish populace opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Spain’s universities closed in protest of the war. Every night for a week after the invasion, the citizens of Barcelona stood on their tiny balcones, banging pots and pans in protest. Huge demonstrations were staged all throughout the country.
I was inspired and saddened by the comparatively passive acceptance of the atrocities of war by my American counterparts. Why weren’t Americans outraged? Why weren’t our universities closed? Why didn’t the citizens in overwhelming solidarity, bang pots and pans on their front porches, to audibly protest such injustice?
My observations of Spain’s passionate commitment to justice and equality contributed to a total romanticism of Europe and its heartfelt ideals. The university I attended in Spain was 600 euros a year, compared to my “public” university in California that cost thousands of dollars a quarter. The concept of student loans or a college savings fund were equally lost on Spaniards. I experienced firsthand the quality of the universal healthcare system and skeptically scanned the mail, expecting to find a bill eventually.
The national holidays were flowing, and if a holiday fell on a Wednesday, guess what? That created a “bridge” and businesses took off Sunday through Wednesday, because what’s the point in having a day off in the middle of the week? My then boyfriend had to patiently explain to me how all workers received double their pay in August and December for vacation.
I was enamored with Spain, its people, the language, but more than anything, with its progressive social policy. The pension system, the unemployment benefits (2 years!), the list went on. I decided that year to move back to Spain by the time I was ready to start a family. Everything seemed so easy and practical – like they had it all figured out. It all seemed too good to be true.
Fast forward to 2008. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who wanted to live in Spain. Likeminded Spaniards and foreigners alike participated in a huge real estate bubble. Sound familiar?
Spaniards of my generation watched their parents’ property values skyrocket from the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the 70’s through the dawning of a free market. The logical conclusion was that property values only go in one direction – up.
And like a lot of homeowners in this world now, homeowners in Spain are completely fucked. People are unhappy with our puny, single-digit unemployment? Try Spain’s 24%. That’s right, a quarter of Spain is unemployed. And according to many economists, that’s a conservative estimate. Now Spain is faced with tough choices. Those “bridge” holidays? Gone. Pensions? Cut.
But what about the social safety net? What about all those ideals? My admiration for Europe’s social programs has gone the way of Spain’s real estate bubble… POP! Much to my and surely their dismay, they’re no better than us. Their leaders were greedy, their banks irresponsible, and their politicians corrupt. And what’s happening in Spain is playing out across Europe as socially friendly countries are cutting near and dear social programs right out of their chests just to stay afloat.
Now you can argue, as many economists will, about the euro and the danger inherent in binding and gagging such disparate national economies to a common currency. You can blame unions, politicians or a bunch of asshole bankers – hey they’re easy enough targets. But I would argue that the problem is actually a lot simpler than all that.
In the modern world, countries are faced with a choice in how to manage their economies – they can do their best to maximize the benefits provided to their residents, or they can try their best to create a climate that allows for the maximization of profit. And those two objectives are inherently opposed. You can see this debate playing out (kind of) between Republicans and democrats, in Occupy Wall Street, and across the world in global protests. But it all boils down to this question: What is a government’s role - to provide for people or for profit?
Last month I met a doctor visiting from Spain, weeks before her motherland agreed to a 100 billion euro bailout package. I asked her about new legislation barring undocumented immigrants from using Spain’s free universal health care system, exactly as I had during my health emergency there. She said the medical community was up in arms at the immorality of such a proposition. And while I admire the lofty ideals of the medical community, and Europe in general, I commented sadly that Spain simply doesn’t have the money to support all of its ideals.
And in retrospect, I think the reason the American community wasn’t as distraught over the invasion in Iraq is because we are desensitized. We are so used to the undemocratic bullshit, that we can’t even bother to be upset. It’s just how capitalism goes, and if anyone understands it, we do. Elections are rigged, the wrong people go to jail, just political regimes can be wiped out for looking at us wrong – profound injustice and powerlessness are all part of the psyche of the educated liberal American. Cynical? Maybe. But any good cynic will tell you they’re just being realistic. Spain’s disdain for the social fallout from capitalist policies strikes me as prepubescent. Awww, how cute, they don’t get it yet.
I wish I could say it’s not too late for Spain, Portugal or Greece. That there was an election that could reverse this course or an austerity measure that could bring everything back in balance. But the choice was already made and it wasn’t in a national election, a UN or EU vote. The Euro Zone is fucked. The social programs must go. And it will probably look a lot like the United States when all is said and done – 401(k)s instead of government pensions, astronomical costs for higher education, higher retirement ages, less paid vacation, private health care, forget about “bridges.”
Europe’s age of social ideals may very well be good and over. Profit has triumphed over people, although it’s hard to look at Europe right now and call it a triumph. But just like the United States, the architects of the mess will escape unscathed at the expense of regular citizens trying to get an education, raise a family and retire comfortably.
And now, 9 years later and thousands of miles away, it seems more likely than ever that that medical bill for the healthcare bestowed on me courtesy of Spain’s former self will show up in the mail, because as it turns out, Spain wrote a check it couldn’t cash. Now the euro is in jeopardy and the idea of disbanding it is even being floated by some economists. The euro, after enjoying unprecedented strength and success, is now coming back to earth, because as any good capitalist will tell you, after every boom comes a bust. Europe, españa: Bienvenidos al capitalismo.