If you happen to have read my introductory piece, you will know that I have a habit of quoting Bill Bryson. I would be lying if I said his writing had much influenced my modest entry into the travel writing world – I actually first knew him as the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, an accessible guide to all those physics things that only smart people understand – but you have to admit, the man can turn a phrase. So, without further ado, here we go again:
This was 1990 the year that communism died in Europe and it seemed strange to me that in all the words that were written about the fall of the iron curtain, nobody anywhere lamented that it was the end of a noble experiment. I know that communism never worked and I would have disliked living under it myself but none the less it seems that there was a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appeared to work was one based on self-interest and greed.
The years following the end of the Cold War, sometimes referred to as the “end of history” (ironically a favourite phrase of Karl Marx), were a glorious period for the world’s capitalists. They had won. The United States had effectively out-moneyed the fragile Soviet economy into submission (I think it was Reagan’s astrologer who devised the strategy) and with the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world had been reopened for business.
It would be difficult to make an argument for communism on an economic basis (any takers?) but as Bryson points out, there is something disheartening about our apparent inability to refrain from acting like greedy only children (I am one and it’s awesome, but I’m pretty sure only for me). However, even if few official writings lamented the fall of communist economies, many people certainly mourned in private. Nostalgia for an equality-based past is palpable in many parts of Europe – most evidently, I would say, in the former Yugoslavia – and similar to other areas of the world, the desire for a more socialized form of European economics (and politics) came barrelling out with the crisis of 2008 and the fear and frustration that followed.
Until we began our trip in Portugal, I was somewhat ignorant to the massive upheaval the recession has caused in Mediterranean Europe. Spain’s unemployment rate is through the roof, prices for basic commodities are rising rapidly, and in the minds of those taking to the streets, it continues to be The People cleaning up the mess and making the sacrifices for their government and big banks.
Madrid was the first place where we secured a CouchSurfing host on this trip. I have said before that due to time constraints we usually fail to read other peoples’ profiles very thoroughly, but because this was the first, I took the time to learn a little bit about our future host. What struck me most was her response to a standard CouchSurfing profile question about “One amazing thing [she'd] seen or done.” Usually the answer has to do with a mountain climbed, a crazy food ingested, or some sort of danger averted. Mine, for instance, states that, “At the age of 15 I flew a plane (alone) through a massive thunderstorm and made it through to the other side without soiling my pants (barely).” Our host, on the other hand, listed her participation in the protests of the 15th of May.
One of the most dramatic examples of popular outrage over the ills (real and perceived) of global capitalism came from the so-called Indignato Movement in Spain. On May 15th, 2011 upwards of 50,000 people filled the square of Peurta del Sol in Madrid. The protesters comprised a diverse group of Spanish citizens but espoused a unified rejection of vulture capitalism, two party “democracy”, political indifference and corruption, and austerity measures. In the years following the 2008 crisis, Spain has been pushed to accept a bailout package from the European Union, tied to extreme (though perhaps necessary) spending cuts designed to reign in public debt.
Part of the reason for the passionate reaction in 2011 was that, for many people, the events of 2008 were not a mistake to be corrected, but instead powerful evidence of a fundamentally flawed system. Socialized economies (at least in the Communist sense) may be all but obsolete, but the mercilessness of the free market clearly has its own drawbacks. The question is, what system could replace it? In places like Madrid, you get the sense that people are truly looking for an answer and, in some cases, defining their lives by the search.
In addition to the collective passion roused by the protests, which are now ongoing (the latest big one on September 15th, 2012 at the Anglo-hilarious, Plaza de Colon), there has been a growth, or rather a resurgence, of collectivism itself. A great example comes from Madrid’s Tabacalera, located in a formerly abandoned tobacco factory close to Embajadores station. The space has been effectively “given back” to the people and now houses a large cooperative workspace. Its labyrinthian basement is filled with artisanal workshops and studios, all free of charge to the artist. Upstairs is a stage for live performances, a “free shop”, a bar-caffé (not free but seriously cheap) and every night in the garden local musicians bellow raw sounds to whomever decides to show up. It isn’t paradise, but the energy is unmistakable.
Similar setups exist in different parts of the city and others are being formed as I write. Some operate like the Tabacalera, which provides space for artists but no housing. Locations like the nascent Templo del Sol also provide space for squatters, a term spoken with pride by its practitioners. Exposure to a small slice of this world reveals a deep sense of purpose among those engaged in such “alternative” lifestyles, as well as a sense that this is only the beginning.
It may not come as a shock to learn that all this togetherness is frequently unwelcome. It appears that some of this has to do with bureaucracy – the Tabacalera has city-paid security guards patrolling its halls, ostensibly for liability purposes. The tenants of Templo del Sol, however, have been physically removed by police on more than one occasion. Its residents have managed to remain defiant, often putting order-following police officers in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why they want to remove peaceful citizens from an unused city space.
As a North American unaccustomed to even the subtlest revolutionary behaviour, it is difficult to know where I stand. When Michael Moore idealizes cooperative businesses in the United States, for instance, this greatest of windbags neglects to mention the inconvenient fact that an organizational structure based on cooperative ownership and “one person, one vote” decision-making can be just as inefficient and ultimately stifling, both of business and of the people it employs, as capitalist hierarchies.
On our last day in Madrid, Kat and I visited the Museo Reina Sofia, one of the city’s best-known museums and the home of Picasso’s Geurnica painting. On the second floor there is an exhibit comprised of pieces created during the tumultuous years between 1900 and 1945. The exhibit is simply titled, Utopias and Conflicts. Spain, to be sure, has had its share of each and not just in that time period. What I took away was the notion (something of a truism) that the line between utopias and conflicts is frequently a blurry one, and that very often what appears utopian turns out to be a conflict in sheep’s clothing (Ironically, given its position at the helm of modern capitalism, the United States may be a rare exception to this trend).
So where does this leave us? Oscar Wilde once wrote that, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” But if we only have the past to draw upon, how do we avoid repeating history? I don’t have a good answer to this question, but a crucial factor may be whether we view the concept of utopia nostalgically (thus assuming that it is something to be revived) or rather as something to be approached (like the American Revolution) with skepticism and as a work in progress. The world could certainly use a little more sharing and caring. The enduring question is how we will react when our greedy rubber meets the road.