Radical Left

Barcelona's New Mayor Promises a People's Revolution, Says Government Privileges Are 'Symbolic'

Leftists need to understand most people don't agree with them no matter how loudly they declare to be speaking for "us"


Ricardo Patino/flickr

Last month, Ada Colau, an anti-eviction activist, won the mayoral election in Barcelona, Spain. Colau spent the last six years in various grassroots groups in Spain set up in response to the property market collapse in that country. Colau won on a populist anti-bank message, promising less evictions, more public housing, a higher minimum wage, lower utility prices, and fines for banks who hold empty homes. She is a committed leftist, who in an interview with Amy Goodman explained her specific brand of economic illiteracy. Via Democracy Now:

I think, in the financial world there has been a problem of absolute misrule. You cannot leave something as important as economic policy and money which has a social function, in the hands of speculation and private interests. Here there has been a democratic deficit and a lack of global, collective and democratic control over money and the economic system in general. So, we have to take back that democratic control, and that doesn't meant that all the banks have to be public, it can be implemented in different ways.

Colau claims the banks in Spain systematically break the laws, citing European consumer regulations as the only example. The European Central Bank, which controls the euro, is controlled by the central banks of the European Union's member states. Colau's statement about the importance of "controlling" money, however, doesn't read like a position against central banks. Taken at face value, it's a statement that all money belongs to the people. That idea, explicitly articulated or not, underpins a lot of the ideologies that demand government deal with wealth distribution. It's based on another mistaken idea, that were it not for "capitalism" the Earth would be a planet of plenty for all people. Yet it's the freeing of markets that's lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history. Leftists hate this idea, and point out capitalism's (real) flaws as if those made a difference. Markets, of course, aren't as free as they could be. But they're freer than they were and that's made "the people" richer than they were.

Leftists' problem is that even when they do realize, on some level, that the government is a ruling class that actually oppresses people, they tend to believe it's a matter of getting the "right" people in power. Here's Colau flirting with the libertarian message that government shouldn't treat people like revenue streams, which came amid the bank talk quoted above:

For us, the citizens, they don't forgive anything, they make us pay all our debts, they make us pay all our taxes, they make us pay each small traffic ticket, they don't forgive anything. But the big banks on the other hand, which have lied, defrauded and destroyed thousands of families are forgiven for, for example, breaking the European consumer protection regulations. So, this is unacceptable.

One of these things is not like the others: private debts are incurred voluntarily. Taxes, despite the claims of idiots, are not voluntary. No one volunteered to abide by government rules and pay the steep fines often associated with breaking them. But virtually every private debt out there was taken on voluntarily. And if the private debt were forced onto someone, the government is the most likely culprit there too, as it's the only institution that can compel an individual to enter a financial transaction against their will. We all as individuals can make bad decisions that feel like we "forced" the debt on ourselves, but blaming the creditor for your own lack of will power is disingenuous at best. No, when the local government extracts hundreds and thousands of dollars out of its residents for petty law enforcement, that is fundamentally different than someone seeking to get money back from someone they agreed to lend money to on the terms both parties agreed to.

It gets worse with Colau. In the Democracy Now interview, she zeroes in later specifically on the idea of government as a class of elite, in the second part of her three part "emergency action plan." The third part of the plan is:

to fight against corruption, make a city council more transparent and end with the privileges, for example: low the salaries of the public officers, of the elected officers, eliminate the expenses and the official cars, things that can seem simples, but are very symbolic because they send a message of an end of impunity, of an end of a political class distant to the reality of the citizens. So, end with this privileges is something that we can do immediately, is only a matter of political will.

This is better than what's all too common even among self-described leftish politicians in the U.S., who claim the political class created by government is a class of public servants and that the privileges that place them above us are necessary and proper because they are "servants," but it's still disturbingly off the mark. There is nothing "symbolic" about the specific privileges government officials and employees are granted by their governments. More than a million and a half private cars in California are essentially ticket-proof because they belong to government workers who have been exempt from having their car information included in the government database. There is nothing "symbolic" about these privileges, nor the other trappings of government "service." In the United States, six of the top ten richest counties are in the Washington area—government work is lucrative. Yet demagogues like Colau prefer to demonize what she calls "private interests" (translation: free individuals and groups of individuals).

Leftists attack companies and "corporate profits," even though those profits are accumulated through countless voluntary exchanges of goods and services. The Fortune 500 list has a high turnover of companies appearing on it. "The people," which politicians like Colau claim to speak for, actually have more control over the fate of the companies that serve them than they do of the governments that "serve" them. Companies that can't meet consumer demand fail—unless they can secure special privileges from government. So even the problems with companies leftists righteously complain about are problems with the governments that have created those privileges for those companies. If capitalism is flawed because of government manipulation, interference, and distortion (it is), then the solution is not to replace free markets with more government but government with more free markets.

Colau is confident in speaking for the people. But "the people" are not a monolith—they have more desires and preferences than they have numbers. Colau, like most leftists in power, won a simple majority and would like to use it to describe her future actions as "collectivist" and on behalf of the people. So even though her party won just 2.5 percent more of the vote than the center-right party in Barcelona, she is comfortable attributing her ideas to the whole population of Barcelona, as well as Spain and even the world ("we are very aware that the real change must be global," she says at one point). Were "capitalism" to work that way, what gnashing of teeth there would be. We don't vote on Pepsi vs. Coke every four years and then demand everyone drink the soda that won. But it's how leftists think. Afer all, if you say you don't need 23 types of deodorants, you're saying someone (the people in power—the political class) should make the choice for everybody. Unlike the leftists I won't claim to speak for the world, the people, libertarians, or even Reason readers when I say to Colau and every politicians who speaks in the first person plural and demands "collectivist" action on behalf of "all of us" because a few of "us" somewhere voted for them, to fuck off with their dreams of world domination. You don't speak for me or "us" any more than any other nut who thinks the whole world agrees with them.

Listen to the whole Colau interview here.