Walking through the streets of Madrid this morning, there were two people proffering the same kind of transparent plastic cup to passers by. Both made them seemed unlikely beggars. The first, an elderly woman, was wearing unremarkable, but smart, clothes, her hair neat and tidy. She was leaning on the window sill as if she was waiting for a friend. The man, who was perhaps in his late forties, appeared more distressed. Before you saw the desperate, anguished look in his eyes, howevery, you might, from his clothes think he was someone you might see in a design studio or sipping an espresso in a cafe.
The fact that both had need to beg emphasises the precariousness of many people’s existence today and what a short, but nonetheless magnitudinous, journey it can be from getting by to being reliant on strangers on the street.
Sitting in cafes such as La Central de Callao bookshop drinking rich, thick hot chocolate, as we were the other day, it is easy to feel cocooned away from the unsightly realities that scratch at life’s cosy charm. The lively buzz in the cafe, the people in and out the shop browsing the books – it all calls out that ‘All is well’.
It’s this sense of business as usual that Paul Mason challenges in his book, and in a lecture he delivered in Newcastle last night. The two most important external threats we will face during the next fifty years are climate change and demographic ageing, argues Mason. While his objective is finding a path for emerging out of capitalism, he warns that over the next five years we will see the global elite will try and make the existing system work. It’s when you walk the streets of Madrid, talk to people and hear about the situations that they and their friends are facing, that you realise that the “business as usual” diagnosis is reliant on us being complacent and not scratching below the surface.
Watching the evening news in Ana’s flat, there is a parade of men in suits, as they reel off stories of corruption, scandals over Volkswagen, a case involving the King of Spain’s sister who has been charged with tax evasion and is to stand trial, along with her husband, next year. And amid it, a story of a woman murdered by her husband – the third murder of a woman by her partner in 72 hours. A fourth woman is in a serious condition after being stabbed several times, allegedly by her ex-husband.
I’ve heard it said that domestic violence has increased since the crisis, but as Ana pointed out, it’s not the crisis, which suggests an event that no one is responsible for, it’s poverty. She told me stories she heard from the exhausted woman who comes to her neighbour twice a month for two hours to help her around the home. A story of a woman who has cancer and in need of dialysis who is reliant on her husband for care – a husband who has been violent towards her for many years. She wants to go into residential care, but her husband, who is even angrier because he has to care for her, refuses because he will have to pay, even if she goes into government provided care.
Another story, she told me, was of a woman of 65 who had to care for her paralysed son and because she lived on the fifth floor had to carry him on her back. This went on for years, until it was reported by the media – and an accessible, ground floor flat was found.
“It’s as if we are living in medieval times,” Ana said. “But this is Spain, it’s hard to believe that we are in Europe.”
Such stories drive home the fact that so many people are being failed in countries where austerity is being imposed. But it also emphasises the need to put women at the centre of a project to rebuild as well as the need to understand more fully the impact of poverty on women.