Tuesday, 31 May 2016

What happened to Barcelona?

I have never been a great fan of Barcelona. To me, the city seemed always a bit too much to stomach, too lively, too much 'in your face'. However, it clearly has its charms and during a recent conference I had the chance to re-visit my original judgement.

When I visited the first time in the 1990s, the city had just hosted the Olympics and was in full throttle tourist mode. The transport infrastructure had gotten a facelift and there was a vibrancy about the place that was hard to deny. Almost 25 years on, and the city has not weathered with time all too well. The Rambla has more or less deteriorated into a somewhat tacky and over-crowded tourist avenue and the metro is creaking at the seams. So what happened?

The centre piece of tourist attraction - the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Part of the story of Barcelona is its port. It remains one of the biggest ports in the country but the rejuvenation of the city in the 1990s deliberately tried to eradicate this important part of the city's existence. Banished to the outer fringes, it is only visible from Montjuic. As part of the Olympics, the city elders tried to frame it with an artificial beach, but that never felt quite like a real one, and whilst popular with tourists, you see precious few locals there.

The other dimension Barcelona's tourist and city planners were keen to stress is her architectural history, with the Sagrada Familia as the crown jewel. However, it always appeared to me that they emphasised Gaudi at the expense of the 'other' architectural history of Barcelona, which is more ordinary, yet just as fascinating, though chaotic and resisting simple narratives. The official story however, with Gaudi's cathedral appears hollow.

Gaudi's cathedral, as important as it may be, is not easily 'domesticated' within architectural history. It did not emerge organically from any homegrown style or architectural school. It stands alone and represents, to an extent, a dead end in architectural style. Little in or around Barcelona (or anywhere else in fact) carries echoes of Gaudi's work. True, that speaks of the uniqueness of his style. But it also makes it look quite alien in the city scape.

In fighting mode - Barcelona's mayor Ada Colau
It does not help that Barcelona appears now on the path of a slow but frightening path to political polarisation paralysing the normal functioning of the city. Where the infrastructure urgently needs investment and modernisation, the mayor appears to exhaust her administration in endless cultural confrontations, embarking on en masse renaming of 'francoist' streets with the names of her heroes of the communist revolution. As rubbish collections need to be improved and green spaces need to be created, the new mayor prefers to demonstrate her 'solidarity' with house occupants and their 'fight against the repressive classes', by castigating the police who tried to implement court orders. The ensuing street battles do not help the city's image.

However, who looks long and hard can find the charms of Barcelona, far away from the crowded Rambla and overpriced restaurants. But I could not help to notice that the old vibrancy has turned into a staleness, that the makeup has somehow smeared and lost its freshness. The next time Barcelona launches itself it should perhaps make less of the things that are temporarily borrowed, and make more of the things that have always been there, a city of dockworkers and labourers, artisans and fishermen. Pretence tends to backfire.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The 'heart' of Corbyn and Farage

Political strategists like using metaphors when discussing politics. The 'heart of Labour' is all the vogue at the moment. The purpose of metaphors is to signal apparently agreed and shared meaning. The trouble with metaphors is that most are probably nothing more than cognitive crutches, dissipating in thin air under close scrutiny. The 'heartlands' of a political party is another one much used these days, suggesting the ability of a party to draw on rock solid support, conjuring up voters who trot to the ballot boxes like sheep, eager to put their cross in the foreordained box.

If the recent elections have demonstrated anything it is that the time of 'heartlands' of political party support is well and truly over in Britain. Where once the mighty Labour Party dominated, the landscape of political allegiances appears fractured and uncertain. Behind this picture of fragmentation of political loyalty however lurk familiar patterns for those who care to look closely.

Take UKIP's rise in Wales and in the North of England, in Labour 'heartlands'. Previously inconceivable, UKIP, articulating a xenophobic and isolationist agenda, attracts significant number of Labour voters despite Labour's professed principles of solidarity, internationalism and economic equality. It seems that what binds Labour's working class support and UKIP's message together is not commitment to progressivism but notions of social order (or bemoaning the loss thereof) and socio-economic entitlements. The foe of Labour's and UKIP's voters is, so it seems, the assumed or imminent loss of control and of old certainties. In this respect, to be controversial, Jeremy Corbyn does not differ much from Nigel Farage. His windmill is societal change, brought about through socio-economic dislocation (capitalism) whilst Farage's windmill is immigration (European or otherwise). The irony is however that both party leaders battle this threat of impending change in their country with metaphors that belong to the past.

Back to the Future - Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn on 1 May 2016
(Foto: AFP/Justin Tallis)

For Farage it is the vision of a bucolic English countryside, cleansed of foreign influences (whatever that may mean in a country that embraced migration for centuries). For Corbyn it is a country that conforms to the description of Marxist class struggle, with a disenfranchised working class pitted against a greedy capitalist elite (naturally wearing a top hat and waistcoat).

The latest elections however have shown that both Farage and Corbyn's versions of what is going on in Britain are largely fantasies based on flawed interpretations of reality. That is why Corbyn's speeches sound so hollow: struggling to meaningfully connect with reality. To be clear, this does not bother Corbyn, as his worldview had not been formed by looking at the facts in the first place. His mind, just like Farage's, appears to move effortlessly solely within the certainties of theoretical constructs, such as  antagonism between workers and capitalists. His thought, untrammelled by reality checks, appears to be buttressed by the logics of socialist wordplays.

For Farage it is 'the other' that is at the centre of social and cultural transformations that is to be feared. Remove 'the other', Europe or immigrants, and things will fall into place again. What neither Corbyn nor Farage would like to do at any rate is to embrace change in order to shape the future. For both, politics is about a return to a past that offer certainties.

Yet, for politicians without any interest in shaping the future, policies are irrelevant. That's why neither Farage nor Corbyn ever formulate anything beyond slogans. To articulate policies requires them to think about how to actively shape the future. Corbyn's and Farage's basic attitudes remain defensive, with a strong retrograde impetus. This speaks of a de-spiriting lack of aspiration on their parts, something that defines their 'heart'.