Five centuries of misrule

A three-week vacation in southern Spain and Portugal is a bittersweet experience. Both countries are clean, picturesque, and full of nice people who were helpful, and patient with my Spanish and Portuguese.  The roads are good and public transit a rebuke to every American city.  Lots of old city centers have been preserved and remain lively and populated, and the architecture, monuments, and museums, are well-presented and worth a lot of attention. Hotels are cheap, food reasonable, service is excellent, and it’s easy to find live fado in dozens of Lisbon restaurants…wait a minute, why is that? It’s because unemployment is 26% in Spain and 15% in Portugal; much worse for people under 25.

These countries are really hurting. The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3. In Andalusia, hillsides almost too steep to stand on are being terraced for avocado trees and almonds. We drove through endless stretches of low-grade pasture dotted with cork oak trees.  This is not a high-grade, efficient agricultural sector (granted that a lot of both countries is sub-prime ag land, and dry).  I can’t think of anything I own other than a bottle of olive oil or wine that was made in either place.  Tourism is nice for the rest of us, but the jobs it generates are mostly making beds and serving food.

These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European power.  How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much better off now? The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it.  Spain, particularly, is only a few decades out of a half a millenium of unrelenting, insistent, across-the-board failed governance, not only incompetent but aggressively wrong-headed.

Iberia seems to have been overrun by everyone except the Sioux: north Africans, Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, you name it.  Sounds like a solid resource of diversity, and during a good part of Arab control of Al-Andalus the peninsula was a fairly easy-going and prosperous society (not always or everywhere) of Jews, Moslems, and Christians that brought forth artists, scientists, and philosophers of world importance. But the Arab empire was too big to endure with medieval technology and communications, Al-Andalus fragmented into feuding satrapies, and by 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had conquered the last one and started Spain on its relentless decline.

What they, and Spanish rulers after them (the countries were united from 1580 to 1640) got wrong was a perfect storm of deliberate ignorance.  Other nations have got one or another of these issues wrong at one time or another, but the Spanish are in a class by themselves in this area for consistence across policies and over time. The basso continuo foundation in my view was the idea that the most important thing in the world was to make everyone a Catholic of the most unquestioning, doctrinaire, mystical and obsessive type.  A good society was one where no-one disagreed with a single authoritative revealed truth, and this began with expelling Jews and Moslems who took with them a good part of Spain’s intellectual and commercial capacity, and diversity. It continued, of course, with an inquisition obsessed with constantly ‘purifying’ whoever was left in bonfires, especially converts who maybe hadn’t converted quite enough (especially if they had some property to appropriate). What was left among the élite was people who were good at navigation, fighting, and praying.  Henry Kamen’s The Disinherited   is a history of Spain focused on this unending compulsion to extrude exactly the people who could have done the country the most good and who therefore went off to do it for other places, and it is well worth a read.

Of course 1492 is also remembered as the beginning of the Spanish empire, which was managed on the principles of enslaving, looting, killing, and preaching to the survivors, plus the very wrong idea that wealth was gold and silver. (The Portuguese had got around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia by 1498, where they mostly did business as traders, though their behavior along the African coast, south India, and Brazil wasn’t much more civilized than the Spaniards’ colonial pious savagery.)

Another thing Spanish leadership got wronger than almost anyone was the idea that respect and status is for people who have riches without having to work, (whether from inheritance,an extractive mining industry, or a plantation economy),  the hidalgo mentality that seems to still afflict so much of Latin America.

Closer to home, Henry VIII, Calvin, and Martin Luther were catnip for one Spanish monarch after another who seem to have done nothing for the Spaniards except load up the Prado with a lot of top-class Dutch paintings, and give them churches and art in aesthetic styles that can only be described as manic excess.  (I love the south German and Italian churches of the Baroque period, and they are indeed very richly decorated and elaborated, as are the surfaces of the Moorish Iberian palaces,  but Spanish religious art and architecture of the golden age is on the whole simply indigestible, an obsessive combination of mawkish sentimentality and horror vacui.)

What they wasted their New World wealth on was doomed and pointless occupations and adventures like the Armada, aggravating the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War, and making the Low Countries and a lot of Italy miserable. After three hundred years of learning nothing from their colonies and occupied territories, when Napoleon finished making mischief, they had nothing.  Only Catalonia picked up on the possibilities brought by the 19th century.  The big colonies fought their way to independence, and when the US pushed at what remained in 1898, it was all over.  Portugal managed to ruin its own economy and politics clinging to colonies much later, in the 1960s and 70s.

It goes on and on, fratricidal uncompromising politics with ignorant ideological parties clashing by night, and then stupefying oppressive clergy-ridden dictatorships under Franco (who did everything he could to assure that the country got nothing from Catalonian modernity) and Salazar right up to 1975, another lost century in both countries. Today’s sermon preaches that it’s better for everyone for people to do their own thinking and make a virtue of dissent and diversity than to be forbidden to think, and better to cultivate your own garden than steal from someone else’s. Iberia is still paying dues from the 2000’s boom and bust, and from austerity policies that are crushing so much of Europe under ideology dressed up in an economic suit.  But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if only because both countries have at least slipped the leash of their theocracies.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Five centuries of misrule”

  1. >These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European
    >power. How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much
    >better off now?

    Can't wait for post #2: From Caesar to Berlusconi: How Far the Romans Have Fallen.

    Or maybe it will be: The Land of Plato, Socrates, and Unbalanced Budgets: The Greeks Are No More

    1. IANAH (I am not an historian), but I'm reasonably well-read in history.

      I expect that the indictment of Italy will be very similar to that of Iberia. But the Italians get the added bonus of fragmentation (after the fall of the Empire) and a very delayed reunification under Victor Emmanuel and Giuseppe Garibaldi (late 19th C — the Germans were about 50 years ahead and didn't have the issue of Papal States to deal with besides).

      Most of the other issues James cites obtain in the case of Italy, though. The glaring exception is the colonial aspect, although once unified Italy looked to Africa to try to play the 18th Century game of Let's Make a Colony.

      But the other stuff? Present in spades: Theocracy? Papal States in pre-unification Italy. The Church retained an undue influence on Italian government for a long time. Squandered wealth? Ditto. Suppression of thought? Bingo.

  2. Those would be interesting stories, but they would be different from Spain's ("every unhappy family is different"): Italy and Greece are less than two centuries from living with foreign boots on their necks and being exploited and mistreated by others. Luigi Barzini's The Italians is long in the tooth, but still enlightening about the relationship between Italian history and Italian contemporary culture.

  3. The trouble with grand-sweep historical explanations is that they explain too much. Centuries of fanatical misgovernment account quite well for Spain's condition in 1950, but do not explain how by 2010 it had overtaken Italy in GDP per head. At that point many, including me, were ready to credit better government in Spain.

    Of course crises do show up fault lines in institutions, and Spain was no exception. Suarez' federal compromise, which contained the forces of Basque and Catalan separatism and those of Castilian right-wing centralism, had left provincial and municipal bigwigs without enough financial or political accountability. With the decline of ideological competition this allowed corruption to flower on a remarkable scale (see Marbella and Valencia). The basic explanation for Spain's current misery was however a simple property bubble fuelled by reckless German money, followed by mistaken moralistic German austerity preventing recovery.

    Two niggles on a nice post. Your trip took you through the emptiest and least productive regions of Spain – La Mancha and Extremadura, nor La Rioja or Valencia. The wealth of Spanish agriculture is concentrated in the alluvial vegas, where water and sun combine to allow fantastically productive year-round conditions, as in the huerta of Valencia. Agricultural exports are holding up the economy.

    ".. the most important thing in the world was to make everyone a Catholic of the most unquestioning, doctrinaire, mystical and obsessive type…" SFIK the Inquisition was opposed to mysticism, which represented a dangerous independence of spirit. Private prayer was suspicious. Outward conformity was the thing. The mystical art of Spanish Baroque can be seen as mildly subversive. In the extreme (Italian not Spanish) case of Bernini's powerfully erotic Ecstasy of St Teresa, the subversion is not mild.

  4. "What they, and Spanish rulers after them (the countries were united from 1580 to 1640) got wrong was a perfect storm of deliberate ignorance."
    "The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3"

    How do you think that overpopulation in any country is going to (or should) resolve itself? José and Rosita having fewer kids is a whole lot better than any other alternative. To imagine that population can grow forever is "deliberate ignorance". To imagine that the current population is sustainable is "deliberate ignorance". But we see countries that are engaged in unwinding the folly of the past, the growth beyond numbers that make any sense for the nation (eg Japan, Spain, Italy) being told that their birthrate is a national tragedy, a symptom of deep social and political failure, blah blah.

    Deliberate ignorance indeed.
    "The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it. " — but church/palace (lack of) thinking isn't confined to the church or the palace, or to Spain…

  5. Did the urge to autocracy fuel the drive for obsessive monotheism, or the other way around? My untutored impression was that it was the aristo thing that did the spanish in, with the empire and resulting extractive culture making it plausible for the aristocracy to hang on to power much longer than it did in, say, france or england.

  6. IAMAH either and this comment is sort of off-topic (and perhaps brainless).

    The thing that amazes me about modern Spain is that they were apparently OK with the idea of waiting until Franco died.
    What other major country has chosen to just wait out the dictator and then set up a democracy.

    1. Well, Portugal waited till the dictator became incapacitated, and then waited two more years till he died, and then waited four more years after that before dispensing with the dictatorship. They win!

  7. Spain is doing a bit better than it looks on the surface because of its grey economy which is about 30% of GDP.

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