Fragments of Europe

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by Jacob Blumenfeld,  May 6th, 2014, Brooklyn Rail

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.

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.

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