Most of us have an idea of what vice is from watching TV cop shows, where smartly-dressed detectives hang around neon-lit alleyways, trying to put an end to it.  Vice squads have the dubious task of wiping out certain types of visceral, impulsive behaviour that lawmakers decide are harmful to us. If these programs have become less popular, it is likely because a lot of what were once called vices are now habits (as a famously titled Doobie Bros album from the 70s proclaimed).

Now, in contrast, we can exchange bodily fluids with whomever we want; we can stimulate our minds and bodies with an increasingly longer list of pharmacological substances; gambling has become a friendly form of speculative leisure. Since so many things once persecuted as vice are now accepted, it follows that in the future some things still penalized will eventually be left alone.  But does that mean vice is in decline?

Identifying contemporary Barcelona vice is tough, because we are stuck in old-fashioned paradigms where it looks grungy, sounds raunchy and smells like dry piss. The old city has a rich culture in classic vice, in literature, film and photography: Vázquez Montalbán’s fictional detective Carvalho virtually bathed in it. Barcelona old-timers tell stories of the grubby Raval in the Franco years, when a repressive dictatorship ran up hard against human nature. Joan Manel Serrat, the renowned singer born in Poble Sec, recounts the childhood thrill of crossing Paral·lel to romp amidst hookers and low-lifers lining Carrer de les Tàpies (now totally tame).

The best photos of squalor, beggars and sex-for-cash Barcelona were made around 1960 by Joan Colom (born in 1921 and still alive), the camera held waist-high as he shot surreptitiously. A reputable family man, he was sued by one of his subjects after appearing in a book illustrated for future Nobel-winner Camilo José Cela (Izas, rabizas y colipoterras, 1964). By homogenizing the street into a single human tapestry, Colom accented the Barrio Chino legend, while negating the idea that a thing called vice should be treated any differently from the rest of life.

If old-style Barcelona vice is a dirty picture, its contemporary face is couched in respectability. This principle was discovered so long ago it is now a cliché, which doesn’t make it any less true. Contemporary vice is a festival of decorum, led by corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen and cultural elites like Fèlix Millet, who stole millions from the Palau de la Música. It is easier to be a scumbag if you whiten your teeth, dress sharply and are trained at our finest business schools (like that embezzling hustler Iñaki Urdangarín, the condemned brother-in-law of King Felipe, who partnered with his professor at ESADE). The most perverse conduct, like conning the elderly out of their homes, imprisoning migrants or paying slave wages, is politely justified as responding to tourist demand, making the city safe or helping the humble stay employed. Robbing from the public coffers to adorn a private lifestyle is celebrated as smart. Isn’t this vice at its worst?

We can call it the new vice, but there’s a hitch. Traditionally, indulging in vice had consequences for the perpetrator, and not just legal ones. It was supposed to alter the very physiognomy of the unvirtuous: the lustful got weird infections; the envious saw their facial features contort; the gluttonous, well, became fat slobs. What happened to the picture of Dorian Gray was supposed to happen to you. These caricatures helped preachers and moralists convince the vice-ridden to repent, while making everyone else feel better that the bad guys would somehow pay.

Thing is, it is simply not true; the purveyors of Barcelona’s new vice get off easy. Rather than paying a price for laughing in the face of honesty, these folks not only look great but get to run things too. If you are talented and creative in culture, one of these guys will be deciding you are not good enough. And if you happen to be dedicated to doing good, with all your heart, even that won’t be good enough to get Barcelonan virtue to outmatch the city’s masters in vice.