Friday, August 14, 2009

Shuffle sideways

I have decided to draw the curtain (irresistible!) on this blog. Various reasons. None of them very dramatic.

I have started another blog. It is on Tumblr, which I think is a better platform for hosting photos and short pieces of text. Tumblr favours brevity, whereas my usual mode of writing does not. I hope it will discipline my writing, bringing it into tighter lines. This is also keeping with an idea Mark and I have discussed many times: a journal dedicated to the 'fragment' - short, distilled, potent bursts of text. Tumblr is also more aesthetically interesting and customisable.

It will be less Ostalgie focussed, but that interest/preoccupation/burden will be part of the various transmissions/emissions to be found there. Keeping this blog with such a narrow focus made it ultimately unappealing.

The new blog is here.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Stay on the internet

Despite what your superego tells you, it's never the right thing to stay off the internet.

For example, you could be writing an essay about histories of GDR design and 'everyday life' and miss something like this: a Der Spiegel-related special on GDR design. Then, hypothetically, you could submit your article without realising that there was fresh new meat online to churn through your analytic sausage machine. Then, speculatively, you could finally get around to reading all those saved 'tabs' you accumulated in Firefox during the essay writing - when the battle between id and superego was at its most frenzied - and find the meat, just laying there, a little grey now around the edges, a few flies (other hackademics?) buzzing around the slab of historic carcass.

Fleisch-laden bitterness aside, this A-Z of GDR design is pretty interesting. There's an English translation and summary of the text here.

Interesting, of course, but problematic. As my essay argues. I have intentions of posting bits from it here one day, so I won't preempt too much now. It is worth pointing out though that all this harking about the consumables of the GDR is a peculiarly capitalist way of telling the history of that state. So we continue the usual oscillation between a history of the Stasi state and a history of the consumer shortage state. Invasion. Privation.

Also, once you're done ogling, a new survey:
Glorification of the German Democratic Republic is on the rise two decades after the Berlin Wall fell. Young people and the better off are among those rebuffing criticism of East Germany as an "illegitimate state." In a new poll, more than half of former eastern Germans defend the GDR.
Academic narcissism makes me happy about this. "My topic remains relevant. The media says so!" One day they'll be asking me for rubbish quotes. Specialisation has its rewards.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I know you are, you said you are, but what am I?

Mr. Lafontaine, is Germany embroiled in a class struggle?
With a first question like that, an interview is going to be either combative ('you silly old leftist with your outdated class ideas') or flattering (a doozy Green Left Weekly question, setting the tone for mutual reinforcement of mutually-held opinions).

As it happens, this Der Spiegel interview with Oskar Lafontaine (chairman of Die Linke), is more combative than deferential. There's a strong note of disbelief from the interviewers -- a sense that Die Linke is wasting its time, that they have little support, that their slogans are too strong, their election platform "sounding like Marx and Engels." Still, it makes for entertaining reading.

I was, of course, interested in the following volley of Q&A:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to continue to measure the Left Party by its attitude toward East Germany's past.

Lafontaine: An interesting psychological case. People tend to accuse other people of their own mistakes. Ms. Merkel needs to deal with her own past in East Germany and that of her own party. She was an FDJ functionary for agitation and propaganda (ed's note: The FDJ was an official youth movement in communist East Germany). As such she belonged to the fighting reserve of the party (ed's note: the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED)).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's at issue here is how one sees East Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Wall. One has the impression that this issue has not been definitively resolved within your party.

Lafontaine: The PDS has, as one of the Left Party's predecessor parties, dealt with the question of its relationship to East Germany at many party conferences and in the papers (ed's note: For an explanation of the PDS and the parties that united to form the Left Party, please click here ). Only the CDU has not done so. It swallowed the assets of two of the SED's satellite parties, and otherwise covers up its past with a cloak of silence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was East Germany a dictatorship in which the rule of law did not apply?

Lafontaine: The GDR was not a state based on the rule of law -- that is a much more precise answer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mayday! Left lost!

This was published in Crikey today.


And so it comes around again, the ritual of rocks and bottles, batons and boots. May Day. Berlin. Kreuzberg. You know this one.

The trend of declining violence during Berlin's May Day celebration/streetparty/protest/happening/boozebath was successfully reversed this year. Congratulations to all involved: the Polizei -- green, riot-helmeted lemmings, bobbling off to their job as representatives of Order, State and Democracy, 200 of them injured; the protestors -- black-hooded hurlers, tabloid media favourites, ready for their frontpage close-up.

Before all the evening clashes, early in the day, the first flashpoint was out in Köpnick, a town in the former East. It's 800 years old, I learned a week previously as I inadvertently walked into birthday celebrations for its Old Town, one of the few unmarked by WWII. Visiting on a warm spring day, the usual bunch of beige-chinoed local history buffs and old folks were celebrating. Grey people were parked in rows by the front of a traditionally-dressed oom-pah band.

Beyond such pleasantness, Köpnick is also the home of nationalist NPD party leader, Udo Voigt. On May Day the ailing party -- bankrupt, discredited, despised, a sad joke -- was to host a picnic there. A "family day". Much like the one I’d seen the week before, along the banks of the Spree, only this time with generous servings of Turk-bashing and anti-Semitism between burgers.

Various anti-fascist groupings decided to blockade the town, laying down on the train tracks in both directions, shutting the station for at least an hour. Police did their usual heavy-handed thing, a warm-up for the later street battles. The situation briefly erupted after a local funny-guy made the Hitler salute from his balcony. Rocks. Abuse. Etc. No blut(wurst) was spilled, but the Left's point, I suppose, was made. Whether their point could be made more effectively by, erm, organising and speaking with the NPD-sympathetic East Germans left behind by re-unification -- well, that's a debate for another meeting.

After the NPD had been dispatched, around lunchtime, there was the union and 'legit' show of labour and left politics along Unter den Linden. Speeches. Applause.

For the assembled masses, it was onto the U8 train and out to Kreuzberg, a place retaining some of its infamous radical politics. There have been recent signs of increasing militancy: some 90+ upmarket cars have been torched and upturned this year in a campaign against gentrification along the Eastern axis of the city (Friedrichshian, Kreuzberg, Treptow, Neukölln). With the winds of capital blowing through its streets, this corner of Berlin is still a site of foment.

It’s a pertinent place for discontent, for grievances to be aired. People living here, for example, have a life expectancy some four years lower than those living in Wilmersdorf, a few stops west along the U1. Around a third of Kreuzberg is living below the poverty line. Something like a third of the population is of Turkish origin, managing to not-quite-exist in a Germany that neither loves nor entirely loathes their presence. As elsewhere, for many Germans it's a matter of ethnic calculus -- one Turk (with a Döner shop), good; 2.8 million (with children), bad.

This year's violence took place at the bottom of Berlin’s signature post-war apartment towers – where many semi-integrated Turks live with their satellite dishes. Kottbusser Tor was once going to be the site of freeway, but with the Berlin Wall zagging around this corner of West Berlin and enclosing it on three sides, it was a road to and from nowhere, leaving Kreuzberg a place for squats and Nick Cave. The towers encircle a roundabout, with twelve lanes of traffic and two trainlines flowing through it. The perfect gathering spot for protests, an urban space that is at once dense and open.

May Day night, everything was in its place. Things flared, positions were staked. Fires, uplifted cobblestones, covered faces.

The police were prepared for their part in all this. 5,800 of them were deployed. Their vans lined up along surrounding streets and held some 300 arrested people by the night’s end. The vans stretched for hundreds of metres, two vehicles deep. Helicopters buzzed overhead all day. Sirens pierced the double glazing. Friends of mine, driving over from Prenzlauer Berg, could not reach us, the city streets locked down.

Police exploited access to the newest surveillance technologies. They openly sat in their vans, hunched over laptops in full combat wear, surveying real time maps and information on the flow and movement of people. They closed off streets at the first sight of trouble. The thin skein of democratic capitalism rests on Google Maps. Plus water cannons. And thermal imaging.

By 11pm, many of the scuffles around Kottbusser Tor had dissipated, the police segregating protestors into small groups. A carpet of broken glass and lumps of rock were reminders of earlier actions. The lumpy riot police stood around, shuttered in behind helmets and armour. Drunken blow-ins were shouting, raising false alarms and giggling. The macho nonsense of so much street protesting glides easily into the macho nonsense of drunk idiots out with mates.

Earlier, before the protest and dancing etc.

Around the corner from the Tor, Myfest -- the marketed, publicised and endorsed face of Kreuzberg's May Day celebrations -- was in full force. Or rather, at full blast. An ear-drum warping seven stages are arranged around Oranienstrasse and its sidestreets. (The revolution will not be ... without infrastructure?) Add to this some ad-hoc DJ sets outside cafes, bars and taxi schools. The street was thick with people, dancing, drinking, eating, contending with streams of other people navigating their way around the dancing people and the eating people and the drinking people and the people looking for other people they'd come with who were here a minute ago but now lost somewhere in this sea of people dancing, drinking, eating...

There was none of the Tor's tense quiet here. The music bounced off the tall apartment facades. The street party's energy -- bodies pressed in close, moving -- was different from that of the protest. Better. It felt spontaneous, joyful, open, creative, one vision of people creating something together. Families with food stands, musicians, DJs. It was telling that the protest, by contrast, felt only staged, repetitive and "blocked". Twenty-two years in a row of pitched battle on the same day, at the same time, on the same streets -- sometime soon, the value of this protest form must surely be questioned in whispers around the various circles of Berlin's Left.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The following "protest report" - wot I wrote - was published in Crikey. It appears here with the addition of my stunning photojournalism. The original was published in the same edition as Guy Rundle's commentary on the London protests. I would venture that the difference between London and Berlin protests is: in London, the dogs are on strings; in Berlin, the dogs roam and shit freely.


On a typically sodden Berlin afternoon in late March, the visages of the city’s Marx and Engels statues glower across Spandauer-Strasse. This particular Saturday, they stare deep into the assembled groupings of the left. The city’s squats and former squats are upturned, their residents gathered to protest against the financial crisis.

On one side of Spandauer-Strasse, anarchists sit around a van, refusing the dominant anti-capitalist drift -- instead they provocatively proffer anti-communist flyers, badges and badgering. Next to them, the first drum circle. Next to them, the anti-fascist campaigners and their van. Then the Trotskyists have a table of his finer works. Sales seem slow. The rain cover remains in place. Accepting every circulating flyer and pamphlet would weigh down any normal human wandering along thestrasse -- every man and his faction has something to say on the crisis. A lone man, dressed entirely in green but for the red star on his cap, carries a GDR flag.

Elsewhere in the square, just beyond Marx’s vision, the main platform is hosting the big groupings -- most notably, parliamentary party Die Linke (The Left) and the Ver.di union. A nice touch comes in the form of the second drum circle. All the way from Cameroon to play as house-band. Here for variety-show punctuation and interludes between speakers.

Given the nebulous reason for this Saturday protest -- a response to the response to the financial/neo-liberal crisis, plus unconfirmed intimations of being a satellite of the bigger London protests -- it was unsurprising that proceedings sprayed in any number of directions and programmes. Where some might see a carnival, a gathering, a happening -- others wouldn’t. A cynic would find something telling in the clashing soundsystems, pamphlets, stages, speakers -- even on a day apparently given to articulating a unitary response to the crisis. Nevertheless, the groups came to important consensus around the continuing relevance of the brezel stand. Trotskyist booksellers take note.

Although this protest was smaller than the slicker London affair, the greater militancy of the fifteen thousand (police figures) or thirty thousand (organiser figures) in attendance was marked. There were no NGOs. No video hook-ups. But also no cries of "more regulation". This was an anti-capitalist protest -- with some remnant traces of pre-9/11 street-theatre protest carnivals, but also with a newfound vigour and emphasis on neoliberalism’s evident pathologies. A hard left politics would seem easy to activate and invoke in Berlin. It is inscribed into the city map. Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse. Marx-Engels-Forum. These places mark the outline of Saturday’s protest.

In Germany -- and particularly in Berlin and the former East -- the Die Linke parliamentary party opens up on the left a channel for an "official" critique of capitalism. Certainly nowhere else in Europe does there seem to be a left-wing party so visibly and somewhat successfully running on an explicit anti-capitalist platform. Prominent Linke politican Gregor Gysi stood on a street corner as the march did one last lap through the streets around Hackescher Markt. People approached him. Shook hands. Discussed. His body guards failed to remain inconspicuous.

Die Linke was launched on an anti-neoliberal platform, although its experience governing Berlin in a power-sharing arrangement has suggested compromise is an ugly matter for members and constituents. This is perhaps the key question for the party now -- how it acts in coalition. Germans go to the polls in September. But Die Linke’s recent showing in the Hesse state election was lower than expected. Given that it’s practically impossible for one party alone to form government here, the compromise question is an imminent one within Die Linke.

From outside, the question of the left’s position on the state still remains an open one (see the anarchist van above) -- the presence of Die Linke at the protest was matched by those calling for a revolutionary overthrow, not a process from within state institutions. Such faultlines may explain why Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine was pelted with eggs during his speech.

Despite Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s central role within European negotiations, some recent analysis suggests Berlin has been less affected by the crisis than other spots around the world. The city has long been bankrupt. The financial and business centres are elsewhere. The Berlin economy ticks over on the basis of government business (public service, embassies, business visitors after a ministerial ear), tourism (figures rose again last year) and creative labour. All of this makes it a service economy. The diplomats need tastefully appointed restaurants. The tourists want currywurst and schnitzel. The creative labourers head to one cafe to do their work; then head to their subsidiary cafe job over the road. Hipsters and diplomats have insulated Berlin’s economy.

Nevertheless, as brunch was served along Oranienburger-Strasse, the assembled masses marched along a negotiated, circular path through Mitte. The slow, somewhat enervated shuffle seemed more like window-shopping with chanted slogans. A brief scuffle near Alexanderplatz suggested the Polizei’s amp’d-up, muzzled German Shepherds were their answer to earlier protest experiences. But the antics were shortlived and the rest of the march itself was free of violence -- although, as always, there was the ambient threat of buff young cops out for some smash-n-bash and marchers looking for an immediate discharge of rage and resentment. This later snapped. Things turned heated later in the day, as bottles and rocks were launched at police and their vehicles. Twenty-five people were arrested. Twelve police were injured. A quiet day by Berlin standards. Still, May Day’s just around the corner.

This may merely have been the calm before that day’s ritual Kreuzberg sh-tstorm.