José Luis Sampedro: Economist who became an inspiration for Spain's anti-austerity movement


There was a lot about this world that did not appeal to José Luis Sampedro, one of Spain's leading economists and writers. But as a convinced humanist – and atheist – he was never willing to sit back and accept it, to the point where he became a central intellectual inspiration for Spain's indignado movement, the new wave of grassroots anti-austerity protestors that has sprung up in the past three years as the country's worst recession in half a century continues to deepen.

"Only the naive and one or two winners of the Nobel prize for economics can come to the conclusion that free-market forces embody the freedom of choice," Sampedro once wrote, "forgetting something as obvious as the fact that without money it's impossible to choose anything."

Among the students who heard Sampedro expound this and other arguments while he worked as professor of economics at Madrid's Complutense University in the 1960s were several of the country's future finance ministers, including Miguel Boyer and Carlos Solchaga. But the audience with whom he was most in tune were the indignados. They appreciated that – as one told El País – "he understood [our movement] as an anti-capitalist struggle, but he did that without any kind of dogma or Marxism... he talked about it from a human point of view." Or as Sampedro once put it, "some economists exist to make the rich richer, while the rest of us work to make the poor less poor."

Born in Barcelona in 1917, Sampedro's family soon moved to Tangiers, where he lived until the age of 13, and where the city's intense mix of cultures and languages – and legendary tolerance for them – provided him with a model for a cosmopolitan society that, as he said, "should extend through the entire world. We spoke different languages at school, we bought sweets in different currencies and our weekly days of rest were split between the holy days of three different religions."

He became a voracious reader following a later childhood move to Soria, a small provincial town in north-east Spain, and in his late teens in the elegant city of Aranjuez, just outside Madrid, he discovered a vocation for writing.

After fighting in the Civil War, first for the Republic, then following the surrender of Santander in 1937, for the Nationalists – he reached the same rank of lance corporal in both armies – he self-published his first novel, La estatua de Adolfo Espejo ("The statue of Adolfo Espejo") in 1939.

By 1955, Sampedro had studied his way up to the post of professor of economics at Madrid's Complutense University. Fourteen years later, however, after visiting professorships in Salford and Liverpool, he quit, saying that his ideas differed too radically from conventional theories.

Briefly a member of the Senate – Spain's parliamentary upper house – in the late 1970s, and presiding over its commission for the environment, his breakthrough as a writer came when he was nearly 60, with the publication of Octubre, octubre ("October, october") in 1981. The novel took 20 years for him to plan and write, but it was a sign of Sampedro's huge talent that its complexity never weighs too heavily on the reader. His next novel, La Sonrisa Etrusca ("The Etruscan Smile", 1983), received even better reviews – and gained him an even wider audience.

His radical economic views then became far more widely known and popular. Denouncing "The Gospel according to Saint Lucre", as he called modern consumerism, and expressing a mistrust of over-technologisation of society, Sampedro became what El Mundo newspaper called "an ethical reference point for our whole society."

Books like his Las fuerzas económicas de nuestro tiempo ("The economic forces of our time", 1967) – "a humble contribution to the reconquest of life for everybody," he called it in the preface – were translated into six languages. In another, Las Mongoles en Bagdad ("The Mongols in Baghdad", 2003) he launched an all-out condemnation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, harking back to the invasion by Genghis Khan's grandson and describing it as "an assault on all our ideas of justice."

And when the indignado movement began, the meeting of minds was such that he became what El País called "their intellectual megaphone".

Discreet and modest, the arrangements after Sampedro's death were in keeping with his character, with the family respecting his wishes and only making his death public after he had been cremated in private, with his ashes cast into the River Tagus.

"He told us he wanted a Campari... he drank it, looked at me and said 'now I feel better, thank you everyone'," his partner Olga Lucas said, "after that he went to sleep and died quite peacefully." One of the last phrases he said before doing so, "don't cry for me and keep fighting", will continue to resonate.

Alasdair Fotheringham

José Luis Sampedro, economist and writer: born Barcelona 1 February 1917; married 1944 Isabel Pellicer (died 1986), 2003 Olga Lucas; died Madrid 7 April 2013.

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