City Problems: A Fairly True Barcelona Story

Photograph Source: Katherine Price – CC BY 2.0

We won the elections. We won by an absolute minority and there’s some merit in that. When you win you have to do a lot of incomprehensible things and no one explains them to you, among them negotiating who’ll end up being mayor at the investiture. Since you’re the winning force (sic) you’ve got to take the lead in the negotiations. They don’t tell you how, it’s not in the “Handbook for Commons Citizens Who Win the Elections”, but there’s a certain logic to it. Then you learn that there’s no such manual and, anyway, if it did exist and tried to reproduce the logic operating in The Castle, it would profane Frege’s grave. I even wondered if the logic of the negotiations is based on quantum physics. Some famous physicist with a few notions of sociology should study the phenomenon.

Just before the negotiations got underway a friendly veteran told us about some of the issues at stake. It wasn’t only, it wasn’t remotely about programmatic matters regarding what had to be done in the city but mainly about things like the number of “eventuals” each party would have (an “eventual” is what a normal person calls a position of trust), where everyone sits in the plenary chamber, what office will be occupied by each municipal group, how many square metres it measures, what equipment it will have, and what floor it’s on. Second floor’s more coveted than third because it’s not so hot in summer, they say (in this building where the air-conditioning’s so cold you can make lemon popsicles in the passageways). Obviously, there are more matters, some of them programmatic, but I never got to find out what they are. But let’s take office equipment. I couldn’t say when this story started, but our friendly veteran told us that in some mandates there’d been heated discussion about whether municipal group X could or could not have a colour printer in its office.

Now, here I’m opening a parenthesis. Let me tell you about my own experience with offices. When we arrived, I had three offices in different buildings related with my areas of government, one in passeig de Sant Joan, another in Plaça del Bonsuccés, and one pending allocation in The Castle (Plaça de Sant Jaume). Taken together, they quadrupled the number of square metres of my home. I renounced one of them, which became a kitchen area. I quit the one in Plaça de Sant Jaume (das Schloss) because I could share an office with one of the deputy mayors, which we did until someone came to simultaneously warn us and tick us off because a deputy mayor MUST have his or her own office, so no sharing. This is part of the ontological order of the world of The Castle. Nobody knows what fateful consequences any alteration of this order might have. Now I have an office for two in Plaça de Sant Jaume. Three of us share it but we haven’t told anybody. Some of my secretaries have complained that we don’t have a colour printer, but it turns out that the next-door office does have one and we can use it whenever we want, so we don’t need one of our own. What we do have is a cupboard full of pencils of different thicknesses, Bic pens, Pilot pens, coloured stickers of assorted sizes, different kinds of sticky tape, all sorts of coloured marker pens, sheets of cardboard, folders of various types and hues, paper in various sizes and degrees of recycling, Post-Its in different colours and sizes, toners for the printer in white and black (yes, that we do have), more folders and other kinds of stationery items though I still haven’t found out what they’re for. End of parenthesis.

As I was saying, we don’t have a colour printer and it seems that, this mandate, colour printers aren’t going to be fought over, and who knows if the arrival of iPads in our lives has come to modify even these overwrought institutional affairs. But the matter of square metres in offices was a big deal and it got to the point (and I regret not having seen this with my own eyes) that two municipal groups with only one councillor of difference between them turned up at the City Hall, armed with tape measures, to find out whose whatever was bigger. It seems it didn’t come to bloodshed. But what did come were workers (paid for by all of us) to adapt the offices to make sure that nobody’s was bigger than anyone else’s.

But this story got lost in all the rush and turmoil around us when we got in. And, in fact, we got something like a second chapter that could be titled “Colour Printer: The Return”, though this time it was about bums in seats. I hope I can talk about it without getting bogged down in the internal logic of the Versaillesesque language, the lingo cultivated by civil servants of different ranks, and politicians of ancestral casts, conveyed by both renowned journalists and by truly outsider journalists. It started just after the announcement of the agreement that brought a new municipal group into government. This meant that the composition of the plenary chamber had, perforce, to be altered. Our group’s worried negotiators told us about the problem, saying they hoped to find in collective intelligence a solution to this terrible dilemma or, at least, understanding from us if they failed in their task.

In order to understand the problem, you need to know that the plenary chamber is arranged according to the classical division we inherited from the French Revolution with clearly differentiated benches where the right-wing parties are placed to the right of the president of the session and the left-wing parties to the left. The distribution of the chamber gives not the slightest sign that the 15M revolt happened. And herein lay the problem, as might have been divined. The initial seating arrangement was made when there was only one party in government but now there are two. In one row of benches there’s an opposition party sandwiched between the two parties presently in government. As everyone knows, this is an intolerable situation, not only for this party but for all of them. Thank heavens there was no public alarm, but the possibility of mass demonstrations wasn’t ruled out. But, yes, it did give rise to irate discussions in the Board of Spokespersons, which is where they deal with important issues, though it’s designed in such a way that public opinion doesn’t get wind of what these spokespersons are talking about.

In addition to the question of having to cope with the matter of that party being the meat in the sandwich, the city had other big problems. One of the parties seated in the right-hand benches claimed to be a centre party and therefore demanded that half its councillors should sit in the right-hand benches and the other half in the left-hand benches. Then, to make matters worse, one of the people of the future administration who would be shifted to another place if the meat-in-the-sandwich problem was sorted out didn’t want to move from his present seat. I don’t know why, though I imagine that he thinks his image is picked up by the cameras in a certain necessary way in this exact place but I still can’t fathom what it might be, probably because of my inexperience and declared inability to grasp some of the algorithms of The Castle’s quantum physics. I don’t know, either, if he’s unaware of the technique of the close-up used in live streaming of the plenary sessions every time someone speaks. Anyway, it’s as if we’re talking about a first-degree question of order, which must be fixed as soon as possible. If not, the people who must, as always, be dragged into it (I mean those who haven’t yet been expelled from the city by rising rents), wouldn’t be walking around the streets so calmly if they knew about the drama.

Let me make a light-hearted suggestion based on a few things I learnt as a kid, the kind of things that always stay with you, although this is probably proof of my inability to deal with partisan negotiations governed by a logic I still find inscrutable. How about a game of musical chairs: we could play some music in the plenary chamber and see who loses a seat?

“This story’s probably more difficult to resolve than it was for Schrödinger to observe his cat. Yet I know there’s a bunch of veterans working on it. May the force be with them.”

That’s how I finished my tale when I first wrote it but now I’ll add that it didn’t end up in catastrophe. It was sorted out correctly, in an orderly fashion and, above all, with a lot of patience. The two groups in government ended up sitting—or I’d almost dare to say—scrambled together because the fellow who didn’t want to change his place wouldn’t budge. However, his achievement was so ill-judged that, whenever he spoke, the close-ups focused not only on him but on the person sitting behind who, despite making great efforts throughout the mandate, couldn’t mask the expression on her face every time he opened his mouth. Unlike scrapping about seating in the plenary chamber, these images stay with you and, for better or worse, are there for posterity.

Gala Pin was a Barcelona City councillor from 2015 to 2019.