The Swap Fair

Por la noche en la ciudad

Es la puta realidad

Solo existe policía, desgraciada policía

¡Oh no!

Documentación, me han pillado de marrón

Me habeis cortado el vacilón, a comisaría

Oh no! - Eskorbuto - ‘Oh No! No! No!'

At night in the city

It’s the fucking reality

There’s only police, the goddamn police

Oh no!

Documentation, I’m busted

You’ve spoiled my fun, now off to the police station

Oh no!

“Under the table, under the table!” he hissed. Javi’s demeanour had snapped from relaxed into vigilant. “It’s ok, no-one’s watching”, I replied, quickly scanning around to make sure this was actually true. I passed the contraband under the table to Javi’s expectant hand. He pocketed it and passed me a piece of paper in return. No-one had witnessed this so I decided we were good and Javi and I smiled at each other, naughty schoolboys passing around sweets in class.

The result of this subterfuge was a raffle ticket to win a guitar, hand-made by Javi, who is a luthier, and he had received that most dirty of substances, at least in the context of being here at this event: money, in particular, a five Euro note. It was strange that an interaction which, generally speaking, is almost the definition of normality is here considered something beyond the pale. But wasn’t it Freud who likened money to excrement? This all took place yesterday at the Fira d’Intercanvi de Mieres which I was attending for the fourth time. The name translates as The Mieres Swap Fair, Mieres being a small village about an hour’s drive from where I live in the mountainous and volcanic region of La Garrotxa in northern Spain, just below the Pyrenees. I hadn’t attended this event for about seven years but when I arrived with my partner Nines and her sister Estrella, it was as if I had never been away.

As we entered the village and saw the first stalls, I said to Estrella, for whom it was the first visit to this event, ‘Welcome to the post-apocalyptic world of the Mieres Swap Fair!’

The Mieres Swap Fair

The rules of the Swap Fair are simple: you can’t accept money for anything, you can’t pay for anything with money (other than at the official food and drink stalls which are run by the fair’s organisers), and you can’t leave anything behind.

Once a year, and for the past twenty-five years, (apart from last year due to Covid), a tribe of neo-rural punks and hippies descends on the village, mostly from the surrounding area, but also from Barcelona and further afield. The older locals look on, mostly with curiosity, although probably in some cases with resentment, as their quiet little village is overrun with people who are maybe less familiar with personal hygiene than they are, prefer much louder and angrier music, and may well have a caravan of dogs and small children trailing behind them in an untidy fashion. It can all appear a bit ‘Mad Max’ at times.

“I like to sleep in the street”, says the girl with the vertical pigtail, presumably supported by wire in its interior, to produce a gravity-defying effect, to her heavily made-up friend, “but it can be hard on the body”. They are both in their thirties and wearing black t-shirts and black fake-leather trousers. I am searching among the general rubbish and tat that people have on display for a manual coffee grinder for my friend who has had no luck in finding one so far, and I can’t help overhearing this comment.

I had brought a couple of old laptops I had reconditioned to swap, but moving through the fair there was absolutely nothing I considered worth exchanging them for. The problem with the swap fair can be that often you want what the other party has but they don’t want what you have (the sob story of unrequited lovers everywhere).

What I was really secretly desiring was an old synthesizer. At a car boot fair some years back, I had discovered a Morrocan guy selling a 1980s synth - he had no idea it was worth anything and sold it to me for €20, a ridiculous bargain. Since then I always keep an eye out at this sort of event for vintage synths, but I have yet to get lucky again.

Most of the items on display were vintage kitchen implements, gardening tools, cat boxes, rugs, old 4:3 aspect ratio PC monitors, clothes that were past their best, things received for Christmas but used only a couple of times (I saw several foot baths), books about reiki and acupuncture, and so on. The general impression was of dust, plastic, early 2000’s new age culture, decay and sadness.

When I first discovered the Swap Fair, which in fact was by accident when I was visiting the area to look for wild edible mushrooms about ten years ago, I have to say I was enchanted by it. Surely the love of money was indeed the root of all evil and we’d be better off without it? Barter was more pure and maintained more of a personal relationship between people. I had no way of testing the theory as I hadn’t brought anything to swap. Had I been successful in my quest for mushrooms they probably would have been readily accepted, because any good Catalan loves wild mushrooms. But we had not found any.

The second time I took some things and managed to swap some of them, but it was a slog. You have to get up really early to get a good spot in the central square, and if you don’t, you’ll end up in a side street in the village with fewer passers-by. As I live fairly far away and didn’t want to get up at 6am on a Saturday this had been my fate. The third time I took two desktop computers but no one was interested as they were too old. I ended up lugging them back home again. I was starting to feel that it would just be easier to use money.

By now, and especially after Covid, I have grown more cynical about what passes for ‘new age’, alternative, or hippy culture. Or maybe it would be true to say that my eyes are open wider about some of the core assumptions at the heart of it.

The ‘conspirituality’ aspect to alternative culture has also really shocked me. The instant negation of anything issuing from officialdom, while understandable, given that the government is evidently very often lying about important matters, is no more thoughtful or in any real sense ‘alternative’ than just slavishly following mainstream culture like a full-on normie. Choosing to believe the opposite of whatever the government or mainstream media says is not the same as thinking for oneself.

I admit it is difficult these days to work out what the hell is going on in many cases, but the way so many new-agers went straight down the QAnon rabbit hole was particularly disheartening.

Hence my newly-sceptical attitude towards this (my) culture. My main beef with the Swap Fair is that it’s easy to be generous and share freely when the stakes are so low. One piece of crap with essentially no monetary value tends to equal another, and the spot in the garage of the former will likely eventually be filled by the latter.

I was surprised by just how similar the things to be swapped were to the last time I attended around seven years ago, and in some cases imagined I might even have seen the same exact item the previous time, maybe a set of egg cups, now owned by someone else and even more weather-beaten, sitting there sadly waiting for someone to offer something in return. Probably an old encyclopedia or Playstation 2.

In this way the pride those attending appear to feel at being able to exchange with each other without resorting to using that ‘dirty’ money substance is possibly rather misplaced. If they were swapping cars, large animals (as in fact used to be the case in earlier years here; goats, pigs or calves) or relatively new gadgets then it would be more justified. The stakes would be higher and it would be less of a weekend hippy thing to be doing.

My friend Diana commented that if this was really a rehearsal for what happens after the apocalypse (she is convinced a coronal mass event is going to wipe out all our technology, other than that specifically shielded by Faraday cages) then we would be doing all right. I pointed out that in the event of something of that magnitude, we would probably be cowering in basements rationing water and waiting for the inevitable arrival of the men with guns. This was probably not what she was wanting to hear at that moment and I immediately regretted saying something so bleak. And in fact there is quite a lot of research to suggest that people will pull together in a crisis, something we did see in the early stages of Covid.

Then the music started, at first not too badly; a couple of women who could more or less sing and play in a punky style, then the dreaded Manu took to the stage. He had been preparing himself by drinking heavily and I could see he was struggling to get onto the stage. Aged around fifty but looking much older with a large mane of curly grey hair and sunken features, he launched into some ’80s punk classics. All these songs seem to mention the police (see the lyrics at the start of this article by the classic Basque 80s punk act Eskorbuto (Scurvy) for a typical example): what bastards they all are, what they did to me, why I hate them, what I will do in return, and so on.

To be fair, the Spanish police in the 1980s were almost certainly a bunch of bastards. They had likely joined the force during, or just after, the Franco dictatorship and had been encouraged to mete out justice themselves, without the encumbrance of having to go through much due process. They had signed up for some thuggery, it was a ‘might makes right’ situation, and they made the most of it.

So these songs were a product of that frustration, from those in the streets who lived through that era and were on the end of that violence. Now however they are a nostalgia item, often sung by people who are drunkenly trying to relive their youth. If you know the songs well, it is probably a much more pleasant experience than it was for me. To my ears it was just a fucking loud noise, generated by some pissheads who had not made much of a success of things in general.

Suddenly Manu left the stage. It was not in disgrace, as the bass player noted: ‘Eh, Manu, where are you going?! We’ve got a success here!’. He was not wrong; a small crowd had formed and had been singing along. Manu is a bit of a cult hero around these parts. He’s bad, sure, but he knows it and doesn’t care. So the more drunk and out of tune he is, the better. That is indeed the true punk spirit and it was recognised by the onlookers, some of them at least. Can the reader guess where he had gone? That is correct: to the bar, where he was cajoling a girl to hurry up and pour him another beer so he could get back to the stage.

But too late: a couple of younger guys got up and started singing, one with an acoustic guitar and the other with just a microphone. Being younger they looked a bit more modern, with some influence of rap on their gestures and clothing, however they were singing more 80s punk tunes about the evils of the police. “Too many police, not enough fun” was one (Demasiada policia, poca diversión). It probably lasted only three minutes but it seemed like an eternity. They went on and on. And on. They must have sung thirty songs, all in the same vein.

Riding the wave of Manu’s success, they had kept the crowd interested for about the first ten songs, and there was a definite singalong feel to the event. But they massively outstayed their welcome, to the point where shouts of ¡Basta! (Enough!) were beginning to be heard. On they went though, enjoying themselves enormously until they were the only ones doing so.

My guitar-making friend Javi was sitting beside me, waiting patiently for his turn to get up and play. Javi is a proper musician who can play flamenco guitar to a high standard, and also knows a great many Spanish folk songs which he sings, either alone or with others. He was due to play with a couple of friends, one on cajón (that kind of box which the player sits on and uses as a drum), another on violin. Had they gone on first they would have gone down a storm, but now after a couple of hours of angry, drunken punk it would probably seem as if they were barely audible and would likely be ignored. Above the fair, dark clouds were gathering and a deluge looked imminent; Javi’s turn might not come today.

This situation seemed to me symptomatic of the freewheeling nature of events like these, and reminded me of a similar thing happening during the 15M protests in Barcelona in 2011 (the Spanish version of Occupy Wall Street). If there is no-one with sufficient authority (because authority and leadership are themselves mistrusted) to set a running order, ask musicians to play (and to stop playing when appropriate), the loudest, drunkest and most out of control participants tend to hog the limelight.

During the 15M in the Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona, I was sitting in the square watching a lecture by a university professor about the financial crisis. Everyone was listening attentively. Before he finished a man who was probably homeless and was either drunk, out of it on drugs, or had serious mental issues, or most likely all three, got up and started shouting incoherently into the only microphone available. After a few minutes of this some people asked him to stop. Then some others started shouting at them, saying that he had as much right to speak as anyone else. So he was allowed to continue, and although he left the stage after a few minutes he kept getting up and grabbing the mic during other presentations. No-one felt they had the authority to tell him to shut up and so he ruined various other worthy contributions.

The point is, if all value judgements are bad, and everyone has an equal right to speak or express themselves at all times, you don’t end up with a paradise where everyone feels equally valued. You end up with a situation where the loudest and least considerate end up drowning everyone else out. I said to Javi ‘Why not get up there and ask them to stop? It’s your turn now’. But understandably, being a gentle soul, he was not keen on the idea of publicly remonstrating with some pissed-up punks, and nor was I.

The episode is making me reflect on the lack of respect for competence in these ‘alternative’ cultures. The mainstream culture likes to spotlight people based on distinct characteristics, one of which is competence, and this inevitably creates a hierarchy, which undoubtedly can have negative effects. The main downside is that a very small percentage of people end up with most of the attention and rewards, while a mass of very competent people are ignored because they are not considered to be the very best at what they do.

Egalitarianism is a core element of new-age or alternative cultures: everyone is equally included, everyone is equally valid, regardless of competence, wealth, beauty, skin colour, intelligence, and so on. This is a laudable and understandable ethical value of course. However it has the result that if we are all equal then anyone trying to fulfil their potential, become proficient at something, or show leadership qualities becomes suspect in some way: “What, do they think they are better than me?! We are all equal, right?”

This also plays into the lack of critical thinking in these cultures. In reality it should be possible to tease out the nuances in this ethical framework: to accept that we are all equal in regards to immutable characteristics such as skin colour or level of disability but not all equally competent in all fields, for example. Then we get to be valued both for who we are and what we do. But the rejection of rationalism and the embrace of memes like ‘follow your intuition/heart/gut’ means that actions are justified with phrases like “It just felt right, ok? Don’t judge me, man”.

All this leads to a situation where people are often not using the rational mind for its proper function of discernment, because ranking and discernment are themselves discouraged. Of course this opens the door to all kinds of fuzzy thinking: as I noted above, the new-age and wellness community’s reaction to Covid was particularly shocking to me, even to a person like me with a pretty high ‘woo’ tolerance. The number of times I was recommended MMS (a diluted bleach solution with the word ‘Miracle’ in its name, infamously popularised by Donald Trump) during the first wave of the virus made this abundantly clear. So a man who has spent many thousands of hours learning how to make and play guitars to a very high standard is sitting on the sidelines, patiently waiting for some drunken incompetents to run out of material and get off the stage, if they even manage to before the rain comes.

As we had a longish drive back home we decided we couldn’t wait any longer and said our goodbyes. There is a lot to love about the swap fair: people trying to live without money is itself an admirable thing to try as it weakens the attachment to the god of mainstream culture: the dollar, euro, pound, etc. There is a great deal of friendship and generosity on show and a respect and attentiveness to the rules of the game which would make Elinor Ostrom proud. It is taking one step towards the sort of culture of resilience and solidarity we are surely going to need in what promises to be, at the very least, a difficult future. However if this sort of alternative culture is going to really have cohesion as the stakes get higher, we are going to have to up our game and look at the things which are not working within it. The pandemic has shown very clearly where it is and is not working, I think.

We walked out of the village with loud disco music playing: the punks had finally run out of songs to sing and people were filling the space in front of the stage and dancing like there was no tomorrow.