Around eight o’clock in the evening, and always on time, every Friday for the last twelve years, I personally took part in the greatest gathering of professional talent, entrepreneurial ability and practical intelligence per square metre that has ever existed in Spain: the AVE (High-Speed Train) terminal at Madrid Atocha Station. A mass of talent and a no less disorderly intelligence that always leave the city around that time to spend the weekend not in empty or empty-able parts of Spain, as you might expect, but the very haughty and crowded Barcelona, my own particular destination. «Madrid is leaving.» This is what Pasqual Maragall said, while still the mayor of the most admired and renowned city on the Iberian península, as well as the city that piqued itself on being modern and cosmopolitan, and he may have been the first to see it.
Since then, Madrid has not stopped leaving. Because not even Barcelona can compete any more with the Federal District. Not even Barcelona. Madrid is a skyrocket right now. At the turn of the century, Catalonia, which was once Spain’s motor, generated 18.9% of the GNP, Twenty years on, it hasn´t moved one millimeter from that spot: it keeps bringing in a similar percentage. It is still where it was. On the other hand, Madrid’s relative contibution, for some time now the first in Spain, with 19.3%, hasn´t stopped growing year after year.
This is not by any means a question of national authenticity (the castizo), of something that can be explained in terms of domestic or national character. Becasue the same thing is happening in all of Europe, with the possible exception of Germany. State capitals, which were until not too long ago masses of public cement that stood out for their preponderant bureaucratic civil service, so typical of great centralized administrative apparatus, have all been transformed, and almost suddenly, into great vacuum cleaners of human capital, financial resources and entrepreneurial decision-making; like the canonical eucaliptus woods, they also end up turning all territories around them into huge inert expanses of untillable land. In Madrid, just as in London or Paris, Prague or Vienna, and also in Lisbon, there is beginning to occur something that cannot be recalled in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire, to wit: the most humble strata of the population are leaving the city again. They can no longer afford to pay for housing in these cities. While the prices of real estate in the peripheral parts of the country do not stop going down, prices in that other country within a country, Madrid, do not stop rising and they have reached unattainable levels for the former middle classes in decline, those that have not been able to integrate into the new networks of the global economy, which, far from taking hold in any uniform way throughout the territory, are almost exclusively clustering there.
Gentrification, so called, the radical and accelerated mutation of the sociological fabric that characterizes the historic centres of the continent’s great capitals, is nothing more than the reflection in real estate of that sudden monopolization of high value-added economic activities now distinguishing the old-time centres of state power. Far from constituting any exception at all, Madrid is simply one more piece in that brand-new general norm. It is a mutation—that of the capital and its metropolitan area— in which it is not accidental that the left, except for heaving one small sigh in City Hall, has been nowhere near power in the country’s nerve centre for some twenty-five years now. Because it is no coincidence. The growing economic divorce from the rest of the country of Madrid, which is hyperconnected with the most dynamic sectors of the world economy, is what underlies the chronic failure of the left in the public arena. It so happens that Madrid looks less and less like Spain. And that is why that peculiar national variety we have of a certain libertarian populism, as reticent to taxes as it is hard-nosed toward the public over the private, the same one that for years now honours its right-wing by placing it in control, is now growing farther and farther away from the identifying features of the Partido Popular in the rest of the territory, Madrid may be the capital of Spain all right, but with every day that passes it is less Spain. And it is leaving.