What does 1000000000000 mean?

Let’s change the perspective within the euro crisis. There is more to politics than macro-economics and incomprehensible numbers. A visit to a support meeting in Murcia, Spain, can give us an idea how it feels to lose a home after 30 years of working.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

“Hola. Soy…” says the man at the other end of the circle. Then he starts crying, sobbing without control. The atmosphere is already depressing. Too many sad stories. And now this 50 year old Spanish father can’t hold his tears. There are 38 people with me in this small room. Everyone is quiet. What do you do when a grown man cries like a little child? Even the political activists from the “Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca” (PAH) who have organized this eviction support meeting don’t know what to say or do. My translator has tears in her eyes. And I myself can barely hold them back. Suddenly the man gasps for air, tries to breathe but can’t. This produces even more panic to his body. It looks like something is stabbing him in his chest. With his right hand he immediately reaches for the center of this pain. His muscles convulse, forcing him to hyperventilate. Is he getting a heart attack? Finally someone breaks the silence, takes his arm, tells him to breathe slowly and gently. Another lady gets up to help. Together they take the poor man outside to get him some water and fresh air.

The scene I have just described, and into which I stumbled during my anthropological research in Murcia last March, is usually not what we have in mind when we, as Northern Europeans, talk about the euro crisis. Our daily news channel tends to deliver a different type of information, feeding us with the macro perspective on this crisis, with absurdly high numbers, big bailout politics and seemingly hard economical facts. We have all heard “news” like the following: By the end of 2014 the public debt of Spain might increase up to 1 trillion euros. 40 billion euros of European taxpayers’ money has been transferred into the Spanish banking sector. Or to frame it within the national German euro crisis discourse, the absolute limit of liability of the German taxpayers will be more than 400 billion euros. But what sense are we supposed to make out of figures like 40000000000, 400000000000 or 1000000000000? All we know is that it’s a lot of freaking money. Then politicians offer their interpretations of these seemingly hard numerical facts, framing them for us in order to justify political action. How their euro crisis story usually goes? The taxpayers’ money is holy. Debt is evil. Stop burning hard earned money. Start saving. Economize!

The crying Spanish father and all the other Murcian people who came to this eviction self-help meeting, they had been economizing up to the point where they couldn’t take it anymore, until their normal life ceased to exist. More than 30 families that have either lost their homes or are about to lose them, because they just can’t afford to pay the interest rates to their banks anymore. Now, for the first time, the political activists from the PAH give these mothers and fathers the chance to tell their worries, fears and feelings to each other. And here I am, a German Social Anthropologist, also listening to their sad stories. There is this middle-aged man threatening to shoot himself if he loses his house. There is this British elderly couple that wanted to spend their retirement in Spain. They have worked for it their entire life – all gone. There is this mother who has been living with her two little kids in her house without water and electricity for more than a year. So much despair in one single room.

At the same time another eurosceptic party, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), almost entered the German “Bundestag” following the last national elections, and it will most likely enter the European parliament in May, 2014. The euro crisis for them? Highly “dangerous”. Our banking system? Will “explode”. The consequences? “Inflation”, “bank-run”, and inevitably “bankruptcy”. Plain cold fact economics. And they precisely use the same incomprehensible numbers I have discussed earlier, offering to their fellow German countrymen a simple solution for a crises they had helped to define in a strictly economical way in the first place: “Enough of the transferring, get out of the EURO.” German how they are, they have already developed a full executable master plan with an answer to any possible question. To sum it up: The “southern countries (Südländer)” should pull out of the common currency. Then Germany, Netherlands, Austria, France and Belgium could form a stronger, healthier and better monetary union. And the “Südländer”? Well, it’s gonna get hard for them – but it’s not our business anymore…

The fact is that hardly any money has really been transferred to the “southern” countries so far. Most of the above mentioned sums are merely guarantees, not actual payments. But there is an even more important point to state in this context, and it revolves around the basic question: What is the narrative we tell when we talk about the euro crisis? From the AfD’s strictly economical framing, which really lies beyond any reasonable political thinking and seems to lack any sense of solidary and humanity, it seems only a small step to nasty prejudices, like claiming that it was the lazy-southern-siesta-loving Spanish people’s own fault, so they might damn well take care of their own mess. Fortunately, this sort of plain racist crisis framing is barely happening in Germany. But by promising an impartially scientific solution to this crisis – numbers = truth – macro economist thinking certainly does not help us to actively prevent such prejudice. To the contrary, it seems to supply those racists with seemingly liable arguments by neglecting the fact that such decisions are never plain economical, but first and foremost political. Of course, anthropological research can’t by itself change these political decisions, and frankly it shouldn’t. But it could offer a different story to the public discourse by showing how people in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus or Spain actually struggle through the crisis in their everyday lives. Anthropologists could show what it really means when 26 percent of the population are unemployed (for youths under 25, this rate is even 56 percent) and thousands of families lose their homes.

Why did that 50-year old Spanish father cry like a little child, physically breaking down in front of 38 strangers? First he lost his job. Since he couldn’t service the interest rates of his house anymore, his parents agreed to use their own mortgage to cover their son’s debt. Yet he still couldn’t afford to pay the exploding rates. Sadly enough, after having worked for more than 30 years, he ultimately did not only lose his own home to the bank, the house of his parents was also evicted. It was during this self-help meeting, where he could tell his story for the first time to people that actually cared and listened, that he seemed to realize what had happened to him. He then just couldn’t take the pain, blaming himself for having destroyed not one but two existences. Those real life stories ought to be told when credit rating agencies like Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s or Fitch downgrade a country from AA+ to BBB due to figures like 40000000000, 400000000000 or 1000000000000. If politicians don’t fall for the cold fact economic narrative – and Anthropologists are capable of offering them a different narrative to work with, adding a little humanity to this discourse – maybe they will come up with a different political reaction to all these incomprehensible numbers: The euro crisis is not about wasting billions, it is about helping families.


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