Gentrification and Class Struggles in Barcelona, Spain: Interview with Etcétera Collective

The urban city has become an important site of capital accumulation and class struggle. In this interview with the Barcelona-based collective Etcétera, we examine the processes of urban development in Barcelona, one of the fastest gentrifying cities in Spain and their implications for potential movements and struggles.

It’s summer 2017. The tree-lined promenade of Las Ramblas is crowded with kiosks selling newspapers, Gaudí paraphernalia, souvenirs and flowers. Street performers, pavement cafés and restaurants entice the tourist crowds. In Roman times, Las Ramblas was a channel for the rainwater flowing from Collserola and marked the medieval walls of the city. Centuries later, Las Ramblas became the center of city life in Barcelona. During the Spanish Civil War, its boulevards saw street fighting between Republican government forces and the POUM. It’s hard to imagine that it was here in the heat of July 1936 that the first shots in what would become the Spanish Civil War were fired. The street of Las Ramblas has changed since George Orwell first wrote about it in Homage to Catalonia. When Orwell arrived in the city in December 1936, he found red and black Anarchist flags hanging from buildings and loudspeakers in Las Ramblas “bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.” By the spring, when he returned, the old class divisions reappeared. He wrote, “Fat prosperous men, elegant women and sleek cars were everywhere…. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals.”

By the 1930s, the Barcelonian proletariat had grown in size. They were separated geographically from the well-to-do. The poor gathered around Las Ramblas, particularly packed in the neighborhood of El Raval and the wealthy up in the hills in Tibidabo. It was in El Raval where Salvador Seguí, an anarcho-syndicalist with the CNT, was shot and killed. Next door to the poum executive headquarters, now Hotel Rivoli, stands Café Moka. There, the Republican’s government Guardia Civil had barricaded themselves in, poised to attack. Today, tourists sit on its terraces, sipping overpriced Vermouth and watching passersby.

The remnants of the Spanish Civil War are hidden in the bullet-scarred walls of the Saint Felip Neri church. The social centers around Barcelona keep part of this history alive, and new generations learn about anti-fascist resistance and autogestion, or self-management, a crucial framework of political organizing and decision-making that underpinned the long history of squatters’ movements and struggles in the city. Yet, today besides the Catalan referendum, which will be taken up in another piece shortly appearing on Insurgent Notes, another slow and protracted war is taking place. Life in the city is expensive—rising rents have pushed many people out of their neighborhoods. Barcelona today has been converted into a tourist theme park.

The heat and humidity combined with the throngs of tourists walking around with their selfie sticks makes the city insufferable in the summertime. Seeking refuge in narrow streets of El Raval, one immediately encounters young men, mostly African and South Asian, peddling cerveza for a euro, young Muslim women carrying groceries, and teenagers milling around. Tourists walk around el Raval, clasping their purses, looking left and right, meeting the smiling faces of Dominican drug dealers, poised to help them find the best heroin Barcelona has to offer. When the sun falls, policemen walk around the streets, armed. Outside the buildings, older men stand, smoking cigarettes, others crossing their arms, looking at the life around them.

El Raval is one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods; foreign investors are attempting to purchase entire blocks of buildings and convert them into Airbnb’s. In the middle, not too far from the CNT bookstore and El Lokal, a small leftist info-shop, stands an open-air squat. The space was occupied in 2013 by area residents in response to the police murder of Juan Andrés Benítez. In the summer months, neighborhoods around Barcelona prepare to host block parties, bringing area residents together. The Àgora Juan Andrés Benítez is hosting its own alternative block party, and people come in and out of the space, to help set up for the various events that will take place. It is here that we meet members of Etcétera, a collective started between the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, which periodically publishes a magazine, Correspondencia de la Guerra Social (“Correspondences from the Social War”). Some of its members help run and maintain the space. We ask them to help us understand how Barcelona has become a global city catering to the tourist industry, the price that working-class folks have paid, and what sort of struggles we can imagine unfolding in the near future.

In your most recent piece (see Etcétera 57) you tackle what you term the commodified city, referring to the gentrification in Barcelona. Yet, gentrification could easily apply to just about every major city in the world today from Brazil to New York. Can you tell us a little bit about what you see as specific to the Barcelona model of urban development?

Capital, in its tendency to turn everything into a commodity, reaches even space itself. Also the space of the city, the urban land, has acquired an increasing level of importance for capitalist businesses. The flows of surplus capital are invested speculatively in the real estate and urban development sector. Investments in land and buildings, as well as their successive rezonings, the urbanization of large areas of cities, with their cycle of destruction and reconstruction, and the speculation that all this generates, gives enormous benefits to the flow of speculative capital that circulates throughout the world—an important part of which stops in the global city, which is of interest to capitalists in this particular moment. The process of urban speculation is a global phenomenon that has been developing and affecting most cities for decades. It does not occur at the same time in all parts of the world but it does have the same characteristic: the dispossession and expulsion of people from the places they inhabit and their condition as residents of the neighborhoods in which they live. Precisely what makes any city livable is the fact of the daily life of its residents. This is what urban speculation prevents through the process of “accumulation by dispossession.” Opaque economic organizations appropriate large urban areas and expel the inhabitants who live there—a process known as “gentrification” and that is repeated and spread throughout the planet.

The commodified city produces space as an exchange value, preventing its realization as use value, that is, making it impossible to satisfy the needs of its inhabitants. This process has accelerated more in recent decades with the latest capitalist mutation of so-called neoliberalism, mainly as a result of technical determinism and the application of new technology that also allows moving large monetary masses at high speed—a vision and treatment of space on a large scale.

This global speculative process also affects the city of Barcelona to a large extent and, fundamentally, it differs little from the others; the differences arise from the same development of the process in each place. Beginning with the 1992 Maastricht treaties, the Spanish financial sector, which dominates the economic development of Spain, attracted a large amount of the global speculative capital flow to the real estate and construction sectors. This influx of capital, the majority coming from the drug business and the sale of weapons, generated in order to be laundered, and led to a real estate bubble that erupted in 2008 causing an unprecedented crisis. The Spanish state rescued the financial system and the working class was negatively affected, with very high rates of unemployment which even now are among the largest in the world (17 percent in general; in some communities 25 percent, youth unemployment which affected more than 50 percent of the population and is currently at 40 percent), a high cost of living that is speeding up, a reduction of wages and increased job insecurity, etc.—a crisis that continues and whose effects we will feel for a long time.

As Barcelona was integrated into the eu, it was affected by a very important process of deindustrialization. The medium and small companies that make up the productive fabric of Catalonia and that occupied an important part of the urban fabric of the city, either disappeared, closed or were forced to leave the city and settle in the periphery. In these circumstances the announcement of the arrival of the spectacle of the Olympic Games meant, for the bourgeoisie, the perfect alibi to start a great speculative business cycle that promised immense benefits.

What role did the events of 1992 summer Olympics play in transforming the city?

Before beginning to analyze the impact on urban speculation of the 1992 Olympic Games in the city of Barcelona, we have to contemplate a factor that we believe has also greatly altered the social composition of the city. During the twentieth century, Barcelona had essentially been a proletarian city, where the number of officials was comparatively scarce, for example when compared to other cities, such as Madrid. This changed with the adoption of the model of the autonomous governments and later with the entry into the eu and its “economic aid for development and modernization” which increased the numbers of officials in Catalonia and, above all, in Barcelona significantly. For example, in addition to the state officials that already existed, more were added to fill the posts of the autonomous government of Catalonia (called Generalitat),1 but also those of the municipality of the City Council and the Diputación2 that acquire very considerable proportions of the overall officials’ count. To this must be added the closure or transfer of factories and urban workshops to outlying areas outside the city limits. Thus, broadly speaking, in the post-Franco period, Barcelona went from being a proletarian city with a productive industry to being postindustrial, a city of civil servants and dominated by the tertiary services and leisure industry.

In 1992, the Olympic Games were the justification and the alibi for the capitalist modernization of the city: the dismantling of the industrial city and the reconstruction of the city of services, leisure and tourism. The industrial society that shaped the Barcelona of the early and mid-twentieth century, gives way at the end of the century to a city of administrative, cultural and media services, a city of financial transactions that seeks, in real estate speculation and construction, the greater profitability of capital. This speculative capital has to overcome the people’s resistance against the aggression. The lure to achieve the necessary consensus, apart from more repressive legislation (quick trials, greater penalties…) and a more effective police (which suppress any response), were the Olympic Games. Under the pretext of sport, the Administration manages to silence the protest of the people, and to have the necessary capital for the great infrastructure works that will be carried out: the belts, with the knot of the Trinity; the city of journalists in the Hebron Valley; the transformation of the maritime façade with the Olympic Village.

But this process has been seriously hindered by the impact of the economic crisis of 2008, the bursting of the housing bubble, and bankruptcy and major problems in the financial system, a fundamental sector for the functioning of the Spanish economy. To this, we must also add the great corruption that affects, endemically, all the estates of the state and the Spanish administration. In Barcelona, a large part of the great works started were paralyzed, leaving huge areas with a sinister aspect of devastation. For example, take the works of the railway station in the Sagrera neighborhood that occupy some 200 hectares and resulted in an immense trench that took almost ten years to make the separate districts of Sant Martí and Sant Andreu; or the large extension of the works of the Plaça de las Glorias, affected by corruption; or the large number of blocks whose buildings, many industrial, were destroyed and today are fenced off lands full of weeds and garbage… This gives Barcelona the appearance of an unfinished city, in permanent works, always under construction not to finish anything and leaving everything half-done, so that the large construction companies always have work to perform and maximum benefits to win. This is the true added value of the Olympic spirit of ’92.

What can you tell us about how Barcelona is branded to tourists? What is the relationship you see between the tourist industry, urban speculation and the role of the Spanish state? And the Catalonian government? And the mayor of Barcelona?

All commodities have to be endowed with a glorious story to increase their fetish and thus be able to sell them in the best conditions. Each commodified city creates its own story through advertisement and branding, which aid its depiction of itself as simulacrum: where the represented appearance intends to hide the reality. The “Barcelona brand” is just an advertising slogan, similar to the one used by many other commodified cities, designed by the publicists of the municipality to attract tourism and sell abroad an image of the city, a fleeting flash that dazzles and hides the true urban realities.

The Spanish productive industry has always been weak, compared to the most industrialized countries in Europe. During the “developmentalist” stage of the military dictatorship (1960–1973), the state decided to promote the tourist industry, which has expanded exponentially to become, in many places, almost a monoculture. The tourism industry is closely linked to the construction and urbanization of huge tracts of land. You just have to travel the long kilometers of coastline and see the destruction and aberration that has been done in it to realize that tourism is the first industry. The coasts are urbanized down to the seafront.

Starting in 1982, when the Socialists (psoe) were in power, Spanish politicians laid the legislative foundations to enable the great speculative real estate wave that would skyrocket after Maastricht, with the governments of Aznar and the Popular Party (pp) and the entry of the euro as the single currency for the eu. The municipal politicians unfortunately quickly joined the rezoning invitation and until 2008 there was a speculative madness in which the financial oligopoly of the Spanish banks played a decisive role.

The long period when the Barcelona City Council was governed by the Socialists (psc) represented a management model for the interests of capital. With them began this process of real estate speculation and gentrification, the commitment to mass tourism that has resulted in a great increase in the high cost of living, the expulsion of thousands of neighbors, job insecurity…which has imposed on the majority of inhabitants of Barcelona a true state of discomfort. Also, the governments of the Generalitat, during decades dominated by the autonomist right, have safeguarded only the interests of the Catalan elites, while applying the harshest neoliberal policy to the majority of the population. Despite the intense institutional propaganda about both the “Barcelona brand” and the “Catalunya brand,” the precariousness that greatly hinders the survival of large sectors of the population, mainly after the crisis of 2008, is an irrefutable fact.

Has tourism and how Catalan elites approach tourism changed in the past decade? Are there new people which tourism is now catering to?

We assume that the tourism industry, like any other, seeks the greatest profitability, obtaining the maximum benefits. To do so, it seeks so-called mass tourism, as well as that of economically powerful elites or classes, and also that of fairs and congresses or other kinds of events, such as sports, musical, cultural, etc. It only needs the production of certain specialized spaces, the zoning of places or environments, some very exclusive, for each class, public or occasion.

What have been the effects of tourism on the everyday lives of people in Barcelona? How do working class people Barcelona relate to the tourist industry? How have their lives been changed by it? What are some key neighborhoods that have been remade by tourism and gentrification?

Currently the tourism industry is the primary gentrifying agent of Barcelona. In a good number of neighborhoods: Ciutat Vella, Raval, Ribera, Barceloneta and large areas of the Eixample neighborhood life is almost impossible. An example to illustrate the problem, according to data from the Fem Plaça collective3: in the Plaça Reial of the Ciutat Vella in Barcelona there are eight chairs placed by the municipality for people to sit and rest, they are scattered to favor isolation and there is no possibility of just being sociable. In contrast there are 1,669 chairs from the 490 tables belonging to the bars and restaurants that fill the place.

The increase in the cost of living is incessant. The price of housing in Barcelona has increased 150 percent from 1997 to 2015, while the increase in wage income did not reach 35 percent; In this year, the price of apartments increased by 20.6 percent in Barcelona compared to the previous year, in Madrid the increase is 15.5 percent, while in Bilbao it is 2.1 percent and in San Sebastian it is 0.9 percent. The rents of apartments, in the districts crowded by the tourism are almost impossible to find, because of the problem that constitutes the apartments of rent for tourists; in other neighborhoods such as the Eixample the price ranges from €800 to €1,000. Nowadays Barcelona is one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

The tourism industry that is considered “fundamental for the development of Spain” and that so much government propaganda generates, accounts for 12 percent of gdp but only occupies 9 percent of the active population. Most jobs are very precarious, with short contracts of days and even hours, and many under the table, very low salaries and hard and stressful work. This extreme labor exploitation has already led to the hotel maids and cleaners being organized in the Las Kellys collective to face this precarious salary and work.

It is also a fact that the tourism industry generates great environmental destruction and has devastated the landscape of the coasts and parts of the mountains. The millions of tourists are in need of large amounts of infrastructure, energy and water. So the benefit that they say that tourism generates remains in the hands of a few and for the most part we have precariousness and dispossession. On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that tourism is not a productive industry but rather a service industry that is conditioned by its great volatility. For example, in recent decades tourism has increased in Spain in part due to various geopolitical factors that have affected the Mediterranean: first was the Balkan War and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and then the instability generated by the state of war induced by Western powers in North Africa and the Near East.

Walking around El Raval one can’t help but notice the signs of gentrification. Yet it seems the neighborhood is holding on and fighting back. Can you tell us a little bit about how gentrification is transforming this historic neighborhood?

When saying that “the neighborhood is resisting and counterattacking” we have to specify that it is some minorities of the same that do it. Most people see it as a fatality that must be resigned, or to which it is impossible to cope given that the prevailing legality prevents any other way out, so that impotence and resignation are the most widespread characteristics among the affected residents.

The gentrification that looms over the neighborhood does not differ much from that which has reached most other neighborhoods and cities. The Raval has been forgotten for many decades by administrations and only when it has been seen that due to its geographical centrality and its social history could it become a powerful axis of rapid, immediate, surplus value generation, has it been decided to operate in it. The beginning of this operation has to be located with the opening of La Rambla del Raval at the early 1990s. The operation was financed 95 percent with European funds. This meant the demolition of 790 homes and 140 commercial premises, many of them craftsmen.

The purchase price of second-hand housing in 1996 was €866/m2, becoming in the year 2000 of €1,585/m2; today it is around €5,000/m2. These prices are obviously unaffordable for people who have lived in these years. As for the rental apartments, it is difficult to find them below €1,000. It must be borne in mind that most of the Raval families are earning around €1,000 (term called mileurista), and not even mentioning the case that all of their members are not employed.

In Barcelona, there have been various protests against tourism and gentrification, ranging from marches to attacks on tourist cycles and buses.4 What struggles do you think are the most useful to fight against gentrification? How do you see them unfolding?

Beyond the spectacular, these two specific attacks that you mention in your question and whose importance lies in that they had their second glory on tv and in the media press that have not been repeated, is the continued struggle of some neighbors and groups in their respective neighborhoods or areas of influence. It should also be noted that lately the issue of the so-called nationalist Procés de Catalunya has covered and hidden other social problems, such as job insecurity, the constant rise in the cost of living index, the social cuts in health and education made by its own nationalist governments. However, the mobilizations of solidarity against the evictions continue, the Platform of Affected by the Mortgage (pah)5 continues its activity, although it is true that the entry of some of its members into the institutions seems to have diminished their strength in their struggle, but there they are facing a repressive reality such as the evictions of the neighbors of their apartments.

We should mention the Kellys, the association of hotel cleaners who, since they were organized in 2014, are fighting against job insecurity in their sector. It should also be noted, now that tourism promotes an escalation of prices that makes it impossible to access a home, the long struggle of the squatter or okupa 6 movement in Barcelona.

But neighbors against the tourism industry and the process of gentrification have manifested themselves in many neighborhoods. The mobilizations of the neighbors of Barceloneta began in the summer of 2014 and have continued until now, this working-class and working-class seamen district, where there are neither companies nor almost fishing fleet, has been invaded by real estate speculators and, due to its proximity to the beaches, also by tourists and bars. The Port Vell, which is the dock for luxury yachts, is a preserve for the neighbors, an example of zoning and classification of space, only rich owners can walk around it. The residents of the Sagrada Familia neighborhood have also protested against the tourist agglomeration. In May 2017, a series of different groups and also neighbors constituted the Sindicat de Llogaters (Union of Tenants), which held their first Assembly of affiliates on November 4…

  1. Spain is divided administratively into 17 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla). Every autonomous community has its government that, in the cases of Catalonia and Valencia, is called Generalitat. Each autonomous community is divided into provinces, similar to counties in the United States. Every province has a diputación which is responsible for the administration of municipal activities. The diputaciones promote the economic-administrative interests of the provinces. The Spanish territorial administration is a system very close to the United States federal system where in the Spanish version each state is an autonomous community.
  2. La Diputación provincial de Barcelona is the provincial/county government that lends direct services to cities and provides technical, economic and technological support to the City Council and to the 311 municipalities of Barcelona.
  3. Between 2014 and 2016, the Fem Plaça (“let’s make a square”) collective held monthly events in different squares of Ciutat Vella, one of the oldest neighborhoods, considered the center of the city, where Plaça Catalunya is located. The organizers promoted the strategy of neighbors going out in the street to have a good time—as a way to call attention to the privatization of public space.
  4. On August 1, 2017, a video was posted on Twitter showing an unidentified protestor slashing the tires of rental bicycles in Barcelona and slapping “Arran” stickers on them. The video was accompanied by the message: “We are fed up with the occupation by tourist companies of the public space of the neighborhood.” A week prior, the anti-capitalist group Arran claimed responsibility for holding up an open-top tourist bus. Masked men stormed the bus and wrote “tourism kills neighbourhoods” on the front of the bus.
  5. The Platform of Affected by the Mortgage (pah) started in 2009 in Barcelona to fight mortgage foreclosures and evictions. In Spain, the current law states that once homeowners purchase property, they are only freed once that debt has been repaid. The homeowner is liable even after the bank has repossessed the property. After three months of mortgage arrears, the bank can initiate proceedings to evict the borrower and take over the property. The bank can also ask for full repayment of the loan even after taking over possession of the property. This affects many people across Spain for instance—which tends to be a buyer’s not a rental market. pah is an assembly-based grassroots movement which provides emotional support to people facing difficulties paying back their mortgages and or facing the threat of an eviction. One of its most interesting components is the direct action tactics it employs to stop evictions. Its founding member is Ada Colau, now the major of Barcelona.
  6. The okupa, or squatter’s movement, has a strong history in Barcelona, starting after Franco’s death and energized by anarchism as well as punk and other counterculture movements of the 1980s. It’s a form of squatting where participants take over a space or building and use it as housing, and often times open up a self-organizing social center. The okupa movement rose again in the 1990s due to the housing crisis spurred by the ’92 Olympics. Today, there are a few hundred remaining squats in Barcelona, some of which are used as social and cultural centers. The most famous of these is the Can Vies social center in the Sants neighborhood. It was occupied in 1997 by a group of youth that turned it into a social center. In 2014 riots erupted to stop the eviction of the squatters.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. James MacBryde,

    Puts me in mind of “Barcelona”, by Freddy Mercury. Capital infects poor Freddie with a terrible virus, medicates him to death, then has the audacity to appropriate his song as a theme for their gladiatorial spectacle the year after his passing. What a sick world it is.

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