Shibboleths | Working Class Culture

It is hard to find anything positive about a city with shrinking salaries and thinning opportunities, where the most commonly shared ideal involves a massive downsizing of the terms of hope. I have never seen Barcelona reduced to such bare bones, where you work to live, watch TV series on free Netflix and plan weekends around a vermut, all the while staying stubbornly loyal to family and friends. That is why it occurred to me that the city’s expanding working class (which I don’t romanticize) might actually give rise to something of value: an authentic working-class culture.

Being middle class used to mean pulling your cart while having a carrot dangled in front of you that you could regularly get a bite of –or maybe it was a mixed salad, with beet greens, cherry tomatoes and choice of dressing. In any case, such pleasures were meant to keep you satiated, deactivating any temptation to wonder about how things could be different. Nothing even remotely approached the edge; for the middle class the world was round, you could never fall off. No one ever expected these folks to make a valid contribution to the cultural life of a city, since the deal did not require it. The culture clause was optional, and most people signing it were dull as hell anyways.

A new working-class culture would be too much to ask, if it weren’t for the fact that Barcelona has been alive with it before.

The class of diligent labourers toiling hard to keep it all together is another question altogether. You would have thought the swelling ranks of the new Barcelona working class would give rise to a boom in working class culture, whatever that is supposed to mean. Culture as the expression of the lived experiences and urbanscapes of those creating it, not worn like a borrowed cloak or spoken with an alien accent. It would not be elitist, or depend on a private education, or imitate what others find uplifting. It wouldn’t sell out for a handful of bitcoins. We are talking about the kind of culture that TV3 fucking hates.

There are so many edgy stories coming alive out there, you would imagine a few would find their way into poem, song or stage. A movie would be made; there’d be a novel. Media artists would be documenting them, projecting fragments of oral testimony on a gallery wall, and looped. Street performers would be laying it down, straight out of Canyelles (in the upper reaches of Nou Barris), instead of that lame break dance they do weekend eves in front of MACBA, hack and fake and forty years late.

A new working-class culture would be too much to ask, if it weren’t for the fact that Barcelona has been alive with it before. Mass passion for comics, with scores of illustrators in dozens of publishing houses. Music hall along Paral·lel, with ageing vedettes still roaming Poble Sec. The Catalan rumba, a unique musical style attributed to the 200-year-old gypsy community on Carrer de la Cera. Even punk, which historians tell us was what inspired early Barcelona okupa culture, before squatters became so adroitly politicized. Just last October they did an homage to the rumba at the Liceu opera house (forty years late), while a few weeks later, at the Aliança de Poblenou, they commemorated the first punk concert ever held in the city (forty years ago last November). Bourgeois culture is celebrated at the moment and cashes in without delay; everything else is made to wait.

Maybe it is still too early. After all, part of our crop of subsistence earners has only been at it a little while, and may still be shell-shocked. Others who have seen it all their lives may find it too close to turn into a tale for others. Since the phenomenon of hard knocks is global, maybe the voice to speak to this generation will come from somewhere else and ring equally true.

A young Korean woman will write a graphic novel about a group of chambermaids working in a five-star hotel in Seoul, cleverly aligning to undo its hypocrisy beneath a cover of tightly tucked bed linens. Then they’ll make a movie about it. The main character, a determined 18-year-old called Soo Min, will become a household name; teens everywhere, including Barcelona, will aspire to be like her. Soo Min will become the symbol of a struggling yet expectant generation, and working-class Barcelona will not have even opened its mouth.

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