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Somewhere in La Mancha by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Somewhere in La Mancha

Isolation did not begin with the quarantine. We need not rehearse familiar lamentations over modern anomie and the quiet desperation of those forced to ‘bowl alone,’ or how social atomization is the necessary ground of tyranny, but the common refrain among people who feel unaligned with—not to say aggressed by—prevailing cultural shifts, to the effect of they ‘just want to be left alone,’ is not quite true. They are already plenty alone, and merely removing present ideological pressures will not, on its own, deliver us a new, cohesive, society. The ‘classical liberal’ moniker and an emphasis on negative freedoms tends to appeal to older conservatives, perhaps because they assume that what they grew up with was the spontaneous, neutral state of things, ever ready to mushroom forth again, just as soon as things return to normal. Yet sometimes, finding one’s home means building it, and that might take a village. 

But “the global village has ruined the actual village.”These words belong to Ana Iris Simón, a young woman who, in May of this year, was invited to speak at Spain’s presidential residence during an event concerning demographic challenges and the future of rural villages. Unlike other participants, however, her speech would be subject to instant acclaim, as well as immediate attacks. An excerpt should serve to illustrate why (my translation and paraphrasis throughout):

What I envy most about my parents is that, when they were my age, having children didn’t represent the leap into an abyss that it does for me … at 28, I’ve been compensated three times for having my contract altered on account of a business going bust, and my current temporary contract ends two days before I’m scheduled to give birth … if you really want to face up to our demographic problems, you need to help families … young rural people should not feel forced to move to big cities, until even provincial capitals have been emptied out.

And towards the end, “There won’t be an Agenda 2030 … if in 2021 we can’t put solar panels on our roof because we don’t own a house, and there won’t be children using Wi-Fi if we aren’t having any.”

In other words, go ahead and finance the green and digital transitions, build the infrastructure of the coming technopolis, but we would like for it to be populated by humans. A typical counter to this line of argument is that, however pressing issues around housing or employment might be, greening the economy safeguards against the more existential threat that we might end up under sea-level on account of melting ice caps. Such a retort holds no water, however. Ana Iris is, after all, discussing a return to villages, which remain less environmentally impactful than large cities, however energy efficient the latter’s buildings might become.

Feria by Ana Iris Simón, Madrid: Círculo de Tiza, 2020

The reason she had been invited to speak along with the country’s president is that she is the author of a bestselling book, Feria, whose popularity could be capitalized on. The intensely personal memoir recalls, among other things, her disenchantment with the politically correct, high rent-paying, overpriced cocktail-drinking scene she inhabited in Madrid while working for Vice, and her reappraisal of the childhood village in La Mancha she is from. Her home is a stand-in for those immense places, that—to paraphrase novelist Vicente Risco—may seem small, yet to think them so is to be small oneself.

In her book, she writes that the reason she wanted to have children was not, principally, to be a mother, but to make her father a grandfather and her grandfather a great-grandfather, “to perpetuate a lineage.” To have her children scrape their knees in the same places where she, and her parents and grandparents, had scraped theirs. To tell them stories, to populate those Castilian fields in their imaginations. To point to a tree and say, “your grandfather planted that, so its shade belongs to you.” To make them feel like part of a myth, a legacy, “This is why I brought you into this world. This is why. Not just to love you, although I do. I love you more than I love myself.” The book may touch on myriad subjects, but chief among them is a visceral sense of duty to family and place.

This has made it both popular and unpopular. Certain journalists began suspecting that their prodigal daughter’s testament (or the choice snippets photographed and shared around Twitter that had come to their attention) represented a rapprochement with the enemy, and this seemed to be confirmed when a copy was photographed among VOX leader Santiago Abascal’s notes in Congress. The label with which they continue to label her, rojiparda, has recently come into vogue, albeit it has a long history (the term alludes to Communism and Nazi brownshirts, if you can believe it). Leftist journalists in the United States like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are likewise labelled red-brown for failing to toe a certain line. In this vein, one of her most persistent critics, writing for La Sexta, points out that “there is no such thing as a right to have descendants,” before accusing her of racism. This is specifically a reaction to Ana Iris’ call for pro-natalist policies, and her suggestion that relying on economically deprived countries to bolster our birth-rates and pay our pensions is exploitative (as she put it during her speech, “by having them pay our pensions, we aren’t allowing them to pay those of their grandparents” and, “it feels like stealing the workforce from peoples from which we once stole resources.”)

The above critic argues that migrants are, in fact, paying their grandparents’ pensions as well as ours, the former by way of remittances, and as for stealing their labor, well, infrastructure in the third-world is so lacking that there is little productive labor to be done. Apart from leaving the unsustainability of such an arrangement unremarked on, this does nothing to resist the predatory dynamic of migration flows. It rather takes them for granted, providing no alternative to the polarization between an emigration-producing periphery and immigration-receiving core. One can imagine the same arguments being made by a caricature of capitalist apologetics, albeit dispensing with the progressive inflection.

Likewise, pointing out that one does not have a right to descent—and, by implication, that the state has no responsibility to facilitate family formation—functions to further a brutally economistic logic. Indeed, why internalize the cost of reproducing a work-force through its salaries when it can be reproduced more cheaply by importing workers from elsewhere (whose desperate circumstances may even render them more willing to work for less, we might add). 

Finally, while admitting that we are all fond of our families, Ana Iris’ detractor chides her for ignoring the abundance of theoretical work that has gone towards establishing how the family unit operates politically, serving to perpetuate various forms of exploitation, including gender oppression. This somewhat explains the willingness to divorce economic relations from family ones, and the callousness towards imminently human desires like having children and not having to migrate far away from one’s relatives. 

The point of Feria is that it is written not from the vantage of the core, but of the periphery. Its voice is that of a small-town girl deciding she wants to leave the big city, asking for something to be done (and making concrete proposals) to make life in her countryside viable again, the way it has been for innumerable generations. This is the perspective of an immigrant. The solutions she seeks would be a scaled-down version of the solutions that might occupy the mind of a fellow waiting tables or driving a cab when he wonders why he too can’t have the luxury of making a decent wage while not living half-way across the world from his loved ones. She isn’t writing from the perspective of the resident of a large city who wants to find a way to keep its conveniences while also somehow addressing the low salaries and precarious nature of its service sector jobs, or the impact of high energy consumption. If there are genuine contradictions here, they cannot be imputed to her. 

That Abascal would show interest in Feria is more than reasonable, but, for her part, the young author commented during an interview that she most recently voted for ‘Mas País,’ a schism of Podemos retaining much of that party’s early character, and which would seem to be antipodal to VOX. The question of what separates VOX from the girl from La Mancha is an important one, as both represent reactions against the present state of things, and Ana Iris’ critics would seem to want to straightforwardly identify her with everything they decry about VOX. The issue is related to the popularity of the newly minted ‘España Vaciada,’ a political platform expressly founded to appeal to the sense of disenfranchisement people from small-towns are feeling (their name, ‘Empty Spain,’ a term that has been floating around for some time, refers to the phenomenon of demographic depletion in rural areas). Although the appearance of this new player would not cost VOX as many seats in parliament as the two principal parties are predicted to lose on its account, what the polling suggests is that, were elections held tomorrow, any future government would need to include it in a coalition. Given its present configuration, it is likely that it would ultimately join the Socialists and Podemos and so allow the left to continue governing. The gambit would be similar to that of ‘Teruel Existe,’ a provincial party from southern Aragon highlighting the same grievances, which ended up playing the part of a cog in the machine, being instrumental in the investiture of the current president, causing something of an uproar among its own base. 

All the same, electoral engineering of this sort is made possible because, despite VOX appealing to tradition and rural life, there are voters out there who identify with the defense of these, but view this party as an overridingly liberal (in economic terms), and specifically anglo-liberal, party. To their ears, its rhetoric is American-inflected. Proposals like a single fixed rate on personal income tax, the expansion of land apt for urbanization, or the semi-privatization of pensions, are all cited as evidence of the fact. We may argue over the degree to which measures like this serve foreign capital or are a reasonable part of a sound national economic strategy, but there does seem to be a real vulnerability here, as highlighted by the creation of España Vaciada. I do not want to leave things here, but the anatomy of a more transversal politics and the long-neglected institutions that would serve as its pillars deserve their own, longer, treatment. Those institutions, in any case, cannot subsist without the love, the shared love, for what’s held in common, as Feria reiterates at every turn. 

Carlos Perona Calvete has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, and has worked mainly in the field of European project management and policy research.

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