Illustration by @Marina_Oliva20
This piece was originaly published in anti-fragilista.com
It is human to stumble twice against the same stone, but it is stupid not to do it against the same solution – Size does matter, but small is beautiful – French absolutism and German romanticism do not sit well in Spain
“Empty Spain” is the name given to the phenomenon of people, mostly from inland and northwestern Spain, leaving their home regions for bigger cities and coastal areas. This is a global phenomenon. In rural North America where migration from rural to urban areas is accelerated, there is a vicious cycle between population loss and economic decline: less population involves fewer workers, which leads employers to leave and, in turn, pushes other workers to leave the region. There is also a loss of young people  fascinated by the way of life and the opportunities found in large cities, which causes an aging of the inhabitants as well as a lack of diversity that contrasts with that of the urban areas.
We have left cities and territories behind for different reasons throughout the history of humankind, so maybe this is not a big deal after all. But there are some of us who would rather stick around were we live, and we´d like to take our chances. It does not look like this trend will change in the near future and it seems that no one knows how to avoid this decline, although there is no shortage of proposals that seek to solve or mitigate these problems that are being successfully tested on different places. Let´s list a few of them.
Financing. The emptied territories incur in a loss of tax revenue as their population, businesses and economic activity are reduced. This reduction in regional tax collection capacity damages the quality of infrastructure, social services such as education and health, which further pushes people away toward the big cities. To break this vicious cycle, there is no choice but to deepen the imbalance of fiscal balances between “rich” and “poor” territories.
Public investment is a typical proposed solution but prone to be a waste of public resources, although a smart growth strategy through an independent agency may provide better outcomes.
Investment in infrastructure does not appear to hurt anyone, but Spain (including its emptied regions) already enjoys world-class infrastructure (e.g. transport infrastructure). It is amusing to find that in the US or the UK, with more advanced and greater economies, their infrastructures are aged and overused. This observation should call us into question whether we might be confusing correlation and causation and it is economic growth that stimulates investment in infrastructure rather than the other way around.
A similar reflection should be made on investments in education. People who are educated at the local universities frequently leave the region in search for brighter opportunities. It is therefore not a good investment to increase university training in Empty Spain. Training, if anything, should be geared towards vocational training and high-tech jobs that can be provided remotely.
On the other hand, it does make perfect sense to invest in cutting-edge research. Locating research teams and technology centers in the region attracts talented and educated people from elsewhere. Their new ideas and advanced technologies ultimately leak to local businesses and seed technology-based companies.
Stimulus and incentives. Empty Spain needs a special jurisdiction and new governance systems that enable the adoption of practices that stimulate economic activity, simplifying and deregulating commercial, real estate, financial, energy, environmental and labor legislation. This special jurisdiction should include aggressive tax incentives, not only for businesses, also for workers and consumers in the region.
Exceptional measures should also be envisaged to facilitate the attraction and location of global talent: people with high qualifications, entrepreneurs or investors and especially from non-EU territories.
This should be done for a long enough period of at least 30 years to provide the conditions for a real change in the emptying of inland Spain.
Empty Spain is at a historical juncture that is not exactly the same, but rhymes with its own history of depopulation during the Middle Ages. In those days the Christian kingdoms used the Pilgrim´s way and the construction of cathedrals to attract talent from abroad and, as they expanded south, provided privileges, fueros and charters to attract settlers to new territories. Let’s apply now solutions that already worked in similar situations in the past.
I have argued that in order level up the playing field and giving the “Empty Spain” region a chance we need a political division that enables aggressive decentralization into the local scale. It is the territory that can and must find the best way to save himself through the evaluation of small prototyping and experimentation projects devised and developed at the smallest territorial possible unit, and limited to the geographical areas hit by depopulation.
In his draft “Principia Politica” Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines the concept of fractal localism, as opposed to both nationalism and globalism, as an attempt to “look at politics with the same eyes as when we examine highly dimensional interactive elements such as nature, biological systems, internet networks, and medical issues”.
Indeed, for the nationalists, society is divided in two groups: the whole (the State, the nation) and the individual (the citizen or the patriot). For the globalist there is “planet earth” and the “world citizens”. But, in reality, society dynamically self-organizes into infinite interrelated groups of intermediate scales, for example: I, my family, my neighbors, my school peers, my university friends, my co-workers, my football club, my clients, my city, my country, my state, …
That continuum of groups of different sizes is what is called the “fractal structure” of society. “Fractal” refers to certain properties like self-similarity: large groups are composed of smaller groups which in turn contain other smaller groups and all of them are similar in that they are “groups”. These fractals occur frequently in nature and in many complex systems and share properties common to all of them regardless of their nature, that is, it does not matter what the groups are made of. Whether it’s turbulent fluids, natural images, stock prices or social dynamics, all fractals share common patterns for the shake of being fractals.
Among these common patterns is the fact that the elements of such systems, when spontaneously and freely related to each other, give rise in a natural or organic way to a hierarchy of scales. Our interrelationships have been dominated by proximity and hence the local term. Thus, to wrap up, fractal localism refers to a type of social structure that emerges naturally through the free and organic interrelationship of the individuals and groups that make up society and distrusts command and control mechanisms because it suppresses local interactions.
Nationalists, for instance, try to impose on their citizens an idealized conception of society, that of the “good patriot”. This nationalist pressure usually leads to generating collectives that are more radical than the individuals who are part of it. This is a mechanism called “renormalization”. Where the nationalist thesis is imposed with enough force a “majority law” is established that crushes all dissident individual or collective minorities with different political ideas or national feelings who do not embody the ideal of the good patriot.
On the other hand, denying the fractal structure of society risks falling into “the law of the minority”, where a small group of people can take over the majority of the people. To produce this effect, it is only necessary that most of the population is tolerant or indifferent to the claims of the minority and the government is only pressured by a small group of people who, through the renormalization mechanism introduced above, become a “stubborn minority”: militant and highly organized.
To avoid all these distortions, fractal localism proposes to prioritize the local, the small, and to build up from the bottom, in the freest possible way both for individuals and groups. Meanwhile the State limits its action to those matters that are properly its own because of its position in the hierarchy: those of greater (national) scale and systemic problems that cannot be solved through the interactions between the agents themselves. A system that accommodates different political systems at different levels: “libertarian at the federal level, Republican at the state level, Democrat at the county level, socialist within the commune, and communist at the family and tribe level”.
The reader will recognize the presence of some of the above-mentioned evils in the society in which he lives and, if he lives in Spain, he will recognize them all. The Spanish Constitution establishes a highly decentralized political division, but its architecture has been poorly designed and has given wings to minority rules via the creation of small “ministates”. Spain is governed looking at the Basque, Catalan (separatists) and Madrid (centralist) minorities.
More than 100 years ago José Ortega y Gasset revealed that those he called “patriots with a cardboard head” and the “separatists” are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. The coin of “particularism” whose essence is that each group “ceases to feel itself as part of the whole, and consequently stops sharing the feelings of others”. Each of them is “stubbornly trying to make everyone adopt their own destinies as truly national”, while what they are really doing is to exclusively pursue their particular interests. As the cardboard-head-patriots and the separatists fight each other in public with a lot of fanfare, half of Spain is emptied and the State resigns from his duty to defend individual rights both in Catalonia and in the Basque Country.
The problem with particularists is that some (the centralists) appear to be dazzled by French absolutism and others (the separatists) fell in love to German romanticism. But what they’re really in is for their own thing. The essence of Spain as that of any nation is, following Ortega again “ … it’s a vast onboarding system.”. Spain is not an expansion of Castile, there is a previous history of incorporated parts that “are not diluted in a new homogeneous mass, their character and cohesion is maintained while they are articulated as part of a whole”. The clock of history, on the other hand, cannot be reversed and the separatists can´t pretend that history has not happened.
How can we manage these tensions between decentralization and centralization, between autonomy and subjugation, between flexibility and articulation, between centrifugal and centripetal forces?. As long as the central and peripheral section of the State compete for the very same powers, the problem has no solution. Sometimes you must raise above the problem to solve it. The political architecture design should embrace both a bottom-up and a top-down process.
Building institutions should follow a “bottom up” process by default. It is the smaller local organizational units who should delegate organically their powers to larger organizational units when they find good ground to do so, and thus larger structures are created on top of them. The commonwealth model of Spanish municipalities where certain services are managed together to improve their effectiveness and efficiency or the foral (provincial) territories of northern Spain, including their model of financing the Autonomous Community and the State itself (quota) are illustrative examples of this approach.
On the other hand, the proper role of the State, which is the protection of fundamental rights: police, army and judiciary, foreign policy, … must follow a “top to bottom” approach. It is the central state who should design, plan, monitor closely and define which organization and structure is necessary to enforce them.
These vertebration issues are also applicable to the European construction process. There are those who want to dilute nations in a “Europe of peoples” without intermediate scales (nation-states) and, therefore, without processes (neither “bottom up” nor “top to bottom”) that articulate the parts within the whole and, on the other hand, you find those who want to build a top-down bureaucratic Europe where all citizens are subject to a central power (Brussels). This approach has already delivered us Brexit.
Notes, links and references.
Obvious parallelism can be established between Ortega’s lack of vertebration and the breaking of the emerging fractal hierarchy in fractal localism. Ortega criticizes “the idea that the family is the social cell and the state something like a family that has fattened”, which turns out to be an analogous reasoning to Taleb pointing out to the impossibility of comparing two elements if different sizes without making a scale transformation: “a giant human would end up looking like an elephant and a small one to an ant”. The main differences between political attitudes that Taleb frames “Greeks versus Romans” (for him Greeks put the theory above practice while the Romans did it the other way around) is also found when Ortega sentenced with “Athens, in his infinite acumen failed to nationalize the Mediterranean East; while Rome and Castile, intellectually endowed, forged the two broadest national structures“.
Ortega lays an important insight which either I have failed to notice, or Taleb has not expressly stated in his essays. For Ortega, the conversation is the germ or protophenomene that determines how society is vertebrated. It is the “elementary rule” of the cascading multiplicative process that, in the absence of external constraints, gives rise to the fractal structure of society.
 Sam Jones, “’Empty Spain’: country grapples with towns fading from the map” in The Guardian.
 David Swenson,, “Most of America’s rural areas are doomed to decline” in The Conversation..
 Rob Mentzer, “Population Decline in Wisconsin’s rural Counties is Getting Worse” in Wisconsin Public Radio.
 Dipal Kumar, “Rural America islosing young people-consequences and solutions” in Wharton.. https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/2393-rural-america-is-losing-young-people-
 EPA, “Smart growth in Small Towns and Rural Communities”
 Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) web page.
 Cadie Thompson and Mark Matousek, “America’s infrastructure is decaying – here’s a look a how terrible things have gotten” in Business Insider..
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation
 Jean Hardy, “How rural America is saving itself” in Citylab.
NoathSmith, “How Universities Make Cities Great” in Bloomberg..
Charter Cities Institute, website.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Principia Politica” 4th draft, November 2019
José Ortega y Gasset, “The Invertebrate Spain”, Espasa – Austral, p.63 (Spanish edition).
BBC news “Catalonia Independence: Huge Barcelona pro-Spain rally”
 Pedro Gorospe, “Basque university student beaten for meing ‘a Spanish sithead’”
Antonio Turiel, “Light sources in natural scenes” in IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON IMAGE PROCESSING
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