For anyone interested in making money, here’s some advice. Take any useless object and get people to agree it has value. Then use it to acquire goods and services: you’re a money maker. If you can find a way to ensure others can’t copy you, you have cornered the market: you’re a national bank. The best way to weaken the power of a bank (apart from hacking it, like in the TV series Mr. Robot) is to create exchange systems that don’t use its official money: trading, volunteering, fixing, cooperating – and anything else that adds value without currency changing hands.
Is Barcelona a good city to make money? They say the first peseta coin (worth two and a half!) was minted here in 1808, its name a diminutive of peça; the new coins were “little pieces”. Spain adopted this namesake of the bitcoin in 1869, remaining as valid currency until the Euro replaced them in 2002. During the Civil War, when cash was scarce, towns all over Catalonia printed their own versions of peseta bills, like the way kids draw silly money with crayons to play with. If you go to the MNAC there’s a display of some of these bills, now imaginative relics to be appreciated as economic ingenuity in the graphic arts.
Keeping with tradition, Barcelona city hall is now working to create a neighbourhood currency, something the Bank of Spain, monopolistically-minded, has firmly stated is an unwelcome idea (though not technically illegal). The proposal is to invent some form of local money for social spending and is set to be implemented as a pilot project in communities near the Besòs, the poorest part of town. As they’ve budgeted over 20 million euros to do it, you have to wonder about the net benefit. Wouldn’t it be better to spend the funds directly to address the needs the new fake money is meant to solve?
Funny money aside, Barcelona is not a city where it’s easy to earn enough of the stuff to make ends meet. We used to have a middle-class reputation, where people made modest, liveable salaries, and could dream unpresuming dreams. Fourteen monthly payments a year, a holdover from a Franco-era policy conceived to address inflation, ensured families could spend on Christmas presents and summer holidays. Now few have any savings, more and more don’t take vacations, and most Barcelonans struggle to get to the end of the month. Stubbornly, the press continues to talk in terms of the old paradigms, pretending that Barcelona life is grounded in solvency when for many it’s not. This bipolar schism between fiction and reality is like what children experience when they watch Disney Channel.
With the middle-class slipping, the tourism-driven economy does not blink an eye when it comes to hiring people at below subsistence wages to wash dishes, mop floors or change beds. The face of this underclass can be seen around the back, at the delivery entrance to the kitchen or hotel laundry, where the working poor have a chat or grab a smoke or some rays of sunlight. It makes no sense to boast about how great the tourist industry is for the city when it’s grounded on such glaring abuse.
If a bad economy has people forced to do anything to pay the bills, it’s hard to complain about certain things like, for example, renting a room in your apartment, or the whole thing, legal or not. Or, ignoring little details like proper invoices for minor jobs. Occupying spaces left empty that belong to public institutions anyways. Or peddling in the street (a practice obsessively persecuted here). Even begging is criminalized under current civic regulations, though that could change. It makes no sense to regulate like crazy just to stop human beings from creatively finding ways to feed their families. What do our lawmakers want, for people to suffer instead of finding ways to cleverly get around the rules?
For all this, you must admit the moneyed classes are relatively low-key. This is not a city of hot cars and flashy dressing. Other cities flaunt money shamelessly (and tackily); not Barcelona. I wonder: maybe the austerity of the rich is a survival strategy, like flying under the radar, a way to not make existing incongruities seem any worse.