The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue
Field Notes

Fragments of Europe

Strolling down the promenade in central Madrid on a Thursday afternoon, I glance left and see a Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham), I look right and find a shop full of Catholic kitsch, left again and it’s a bar selling overpriced tapas, right again and there are two glass doors brimming with hundreds of shielded riot cops about to explode onto the Puerta del Sol. They are waiting for the 20,000 high school students marching against austerity and cuts to education. If anything goes wrong, they are ready. Too bad though. The first windows are broken elsewhere.

With around 25 percent unemployment, and 50 percent youth unemployment, the prospects for a good life in Spain are not high. The economic crisis has crushed many dreams and evicted many locals, but the royal palaces and grand museums are still polished clean and packed with tourists. The squares are no longer centers of political discussion; that was already exhausted in 2011. Discussing ¡Democracia real YA! in public is a fine step, but it’s no substitute for the overthrow of economic domination. A social strike on the scale of March 29th, 2012, which shut down the economy in Barcelona and most of Spain, has not occurred since. People protest, barricades are built, bank windows are broken, buildings are claimed, squats named, centers socialized, pamphlets spread, and the museums are still full.

Madrid. Photo by Brandon Jourdan.

If Lisbon is the most beautiful city in Europe, it is also the most abandoned—decrepit, for sale, slowly decaying like Detroit. But this is not due to deindustrialization, urban politics, or endemic poverty. It’s a story of debt and crisis, capital flight and real estate bubbles, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Every once in a while, a protest or a strike will pass by your street or through a gorgeous square demanding this or trying to stop that. But to whom are they speaking when they chant? Is it Merkel, “Brussels,” the Portuguese, the rest of Europe? Who hears their provincial wails?

It’s Saturday in Berlin, the sky is half blue and half black, and right as I’m about to begin working my shift at the bar, lines of riot cops march down the street, van after van after van full, followed closely by a small demo, 200 maybe, mostly autonomists, antifascists, communists, housing activists and some locals holding signs about rising rent, gentrification, capitalism. Behind them, another few thousand riot police. Nothing happens, as usual.

A few days earlier, a nearby square occupied by refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, was cleared. For almost two years, refugees lived in this Platz with makeshift tents, food donations, and some support from leftists. Politicians and policemen have been trying to evict them for a while, claiming health and safety reasons, but they were blocked thanks to the strong solidarity from anti-racist groups. But on

this one foggy morning, the strategy was found: choose some leaders from the camp, make a deal with them, and then let them dismantle the camp themselves. And so it was done. When the activists arrived, the chaos was too far-gone. The police intervened later, after the fights within the camp had already broken up any hope of unity. The square is now a permanent police-zone.

Berlin has become a mecca for crisis refugees from southern Europe, with Spaniards, Greeks, and Portuguese competing for jobs with Polish and Russian immigrants from the former Soviet states, as well as the long-term Turkish community and, of course, the decadent Germans themselves. Along with floods of British partygoers, American tourists, Israeli exiles, and French Erasmus students, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Iran, and Syria are making a presence in this formerly homogenous place. Vietnamese and Korean zones exist on the outskirts, with the center of the city still negatively shaped by the history of the wall. With its low unemployment, cheap cost of living, and reasonable welfare provisions, Berlin is an ideal city for global surplus populations evading the terrors of economic and political catastrophe in their own lands. Germany itself has a negative birthrate, and so immigration has been encouraged by the government to make up for the gap in job-seekers. This process has reshaped Berlin from an Eastern outpost of the Cold War into a cosmopolitan hipster millennial party-town. The new class composition that undergirds this development has yet to express itself in struggle. For now, everyone is a member of the partying proletariat, no one a member of the party.

In a former nuclear silo an hour north of Berlin, 60,000 people dance non-stop for four days every summer to electronic music of every sort on 20 stages with no cops in sight, all self-organized by a bunch of older and younger antifascists, punks, and technofreaks. It’s a self-proclaimed communist holiday in which music, theater, cabaret, film, art, sculpture, workshops, dance, food, drinks, and fire are produced by each according to their ability and distributed to each according to their need. This communism lasts four days long. Then it’s back to work.

Madrid. Photo by Brandon Jourdan.

Welcome to Europe, a continent incapable of deciding whether or not to let its people sink to death submerged in a sea of surplus capital, a mythical land hated for being centric to the rest of the world, a dead history to the young born here and a living future to those who come. Europe is to the world in the 21st century what the United States was in the 20th: a dreamland full of hope for upward mobility, full of quacks and schemers, full of new migrants from the south and east, a place to start over and try to make it through hard work, where everyone can fit in and belong to one giant union. At least, that is the new ideology of Europe. No more sealed-off nations with homogenous peoples tracing their roots to some mythical ancestors. No more wars with each other, no more Bolsheviks, no more separatism. Europe is now a giant toilet bowl of hope and comfort. Wages are low but rents are lower, streets are wide with public squares even wider, and beer is cheap and culture even cheaper.

Some cities are now just playgrounds for the rich, hells for the working class. In Paris, London, and Frankfurt, one can see on any given Sunday anti-police riots by those racialized as others, anti-European Bank summits by those politicized as radicals, anti-debt strikes by those born too late. A surplus of isolated events builds no continuity, no momentum, no force. Some youths throw rocks in Rome and Barcelona, Bologna, and Hamburg, and some cracks in the system’s walls reverberate on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook before disappearing into nothingness again. Athens, the exceptional city, has become a permanent war zone, but the war has long been lost by those who suffer it.    

Defeat after defeat after defeat is today’s mantra of European social struggle. Greece has had eight general strikes, two insurrections, and repeated occupations, but still, austerity continues unimpeded as a bullet. In France, pensioners blockade oil refineries, workers kidnap their bosses and threaten to blow up their factories, anarchists and peasants stop high-speed train developments by occupying land, and still the country goes more and more to the right. In Spain, a million assemblies bloomed but the people returned to their informal jobs, whatever they may be. How can a general assembly be more important than money for food?

Brazil seems to be the only place in the world in which massive social struggles are winning. When bus fares were raised 20 cents, massive riots were unleashed. The fares were stopped. When garbage workers were threated with layoffs, massive strikes occurred, supported by street actions. This forced the government not only to back down but to raise their wages too. Is this because of the coming World Cup, Brazil’s economic growth, or the power of the people who came out into the streets?

The uprising in Turkey last summer and its ongoing reverberations also took place amidst a time of economic growth, with infrastructural development and political changes praised by Western European powers. But the fight in Istanbul to save a park, depose a president, and/or change the society as a whole, failed. The society didn’t change but the people did. But the people are society, so why doesn’t it change? Unfortunately, people do not make up society, capital does. To change society, one needs to change the structure of capital.

How much anger can people bear before they crack? How many foreclosures, expulsions, rent increases, pension cuts, layoffs, and wage reductions can people take before they revolt? How many protests, demonstrations, rallies, strikes, riots, blockades, summits, and occupations can occur before there is some change? How much class struggle does it take to make a revolution?

In Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, the main character Reno, finds herself at one point caught up in a mass riot during Italy’s Hot Autumn of 1977. Alienated from the struggles which led to this riot, but interested in the chaos that unfolds, she tries to film what is happening before running with the crowd into a stream of violence that breaks her images. Sure she has some radical friends in New York and sure she is interested in the class divisions between those who work and those who inherit, those who struggle to survive and those who struggle to exploit. But like Teju Cole’s main character in Open City, there’s a certain passivity to this protagonist, an ability to watch things happen to her, not by her. Horrible events and beautiful moments alike are experienced like photographs to be picked up and discarded on the ceaseless journey forward of self-alienation.

Is this passivity not similar to the relation of individuals to the struggles around them today in Europe? This is not the same as doing nothing, for events are happening all the time. Rather, it’s a way of experiencing these events, these protests and marches, strikes and riots, demonstrations and rallies, which illustrates the specific passivity in question. All these waves of activity seem to wash over the people who experience them. The immediate self-certainty of victory for those in the street gives way to a reflective self-doubt about the purpose of what they are doing. Actions in the first-person plural become events in the third-person singular. This is understandable, for beyond the momentary affect of joy or disappointment, the material effects of such struggles are obscure or fleeting. The cycles of strikes in Athens, the ritual demos in Berlin, the calls for insurrection from France—nothing seems capable of breaking the inertia of daily life.

Faced with such overwhelming pressure of economic forces dominating their lives, some retreat into the ascetic acceptance of the decline of Western civilization. In this worldview, activism is a therapy of self-denial, struggle is a collective form of self-flagellation, and radical critique is nothing more than the final sigh of Enlightenment arrogance. In light of the seemingly impossible task of stopping capitalism, such metaphysical withdrawal appears comforting. The goal is to find a niche and wait it out, ride the wave of decline until the next phase of humanity is upon us. Unfortunately for them, we are the last phase of humanity.

In Hugh Howey’s bestselling self-published science-fiction novel Wool, the entire human race lives underground in massive silos to protect themselves from the poisonous air outside. This is a nice image of the political imagination of the present: since the apocalypse is certain in one form or another, let us plan the logistics of post-crash existence now. But this logistical politics replicates the worst social relations of pre-crash existence, a society based on permanent scarcity, austerity rations, enforced manual labor, insular localism, controlled families. There is no escape from one’s position in this silo of society.

But what about the progressive aspects of capitalist society: individualism, leisure, and technology? Must all this be abandoned in the face of impending doom, or can it be appropriated as elements of the future world to be? Are cities doomed to ruin or can they be spaces of liberation?

This political division can be nicely illustrated with reference to two Hollywood blockbusters of the season: Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier and Noah. Noah is the vegetarian patriarch, the rural ecologist who sees how urban man has destroyed god’s gift of nature to him. The city itself is a cancer on the earth, and there is no reform or revolution possible while cities exist. In this disgusting place, flesh, animal or female, is bought and sold, and no one who lives there is worthy of redemption. The strategy of one who knows this truth is to prepare for annihilation, to save only the mute animals, letting the speaking ones drown in their filth. There is nothing to preserve from this world, only things to forget before we start over. As in Wool, it’s best if humanity doesn’t remember its past for fear that it might repeat it.

Captain America, on the other hand, presents a vision of progress as the work of a bourgeois subject freed from roots, family, anything natural at all. Captain America escaped his predetermined life of misery as Steve Rogers through the development of science and the fight against fascism. Finding himself alienated from everything in the 21st century, his only friends are black men and Russian women, both (former) enemies of the United States government. Tied together by struggle, individual determination, and shared weaponry, they are able to overcome the conspiracy that seeks to destroy the multiracial population of the cities. Bourgeois subjectivity is saved in all its forms.

Noah presents a vision of ecological catastrophe as man’s retribution for destroying nature; Captain America presents a vision of political conspiracy as the result of failing truly to eradicate fascism. The first, along with its more reactionary political lessons, makes an ecological critique of capitalism as unsustainable. The latter, along with its more progressive political lessons, makes a political critique of capitalism as undemocratic. The ecological critique of Noah seems more adequate to grasping the totalizing power of capital and the revolutionary break needed to overcome it, while the political critique of Captain America seems tainted by those populist right-wing anti-capitalisms which trace the problem of the present to a conspiracy of greedy bankers, moneylenders, merchants, finance, Jews. 

To break with the present, a new perspective of the revolutionary break is needed. If capitalism is still understood as a political conspiracy of the rich, and if revolutions are still thought of as total ruptures from history, then we might as well wait for God and superheroes to save us now.

Revolutions are certain from now on. They don’t need to be organized, planned, discussed, praised, or condemned. They are facts of life in the era of crisis. It’s the counterrevolutions that are unpredictable. They need to be planned for, organized against, discussed and fought. How many revolutionaries does it take to start a revolution? None. How many revolutionaries does it take to stop a counterrevolution? Countless. In the era of riots, as the Greek group Blaumachen calls it, we should not be surprised anymore by periodic eruptions of anger and violence against governments, police, and economic forces. Rather, we should be surprised if any of those outbursts are able to overcome the limits of class identity which both separates them from each other and ties them to the world they seek to abolish.

A specter is haunting the world—the specter of hooliganism. From Egypt to Turkey, Bosnia to Brazil, Ukraine to the U.K., the soccer hooligan has been a pivotal figure in every major square uprising of the last five years. Without the hooligans in Istanbul, Gezi Park wouldn’t have lasted one day. Without the hooligans in Cairo, Tahrir would have been quickly crushed by riot police and secret agents. Without the hooligans in Bosnia, nothing would have burned or been blockaded. But the hooligan is not simple to categorize, lacking both political content and organizational form. The hooligan appears in struggle to fight cops, make barricades, terrorize others, sing loudly, wear jerseys, drink wildly and cause chaos. This can turn radically left, as in Turkey and Brazil, or radically right, as in Ukraine and Egypt. The future of class struggle in Europe might just hang on which way the hooligan turns.


Jacob Blumenfeld

JACOB BLUMENFELD lives in Berlin, at home in diaspora, serving proletarian beer and bourgeois philosophy for a living.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues