In the eye of the storm: Urban Transformations in Berlin – Realities of Crisis and Perspectives for Social Struggles

“Creative Class” as an antagonistic actor?

While single local episodes of the international protest cycle of the past years may greatly differ from each other, they shared one aspect: seeing actors from the well-educated middle class fighting in the first rows, be it in the paradigmatic case of Gezi Park in Istanbul, in the Occupied squares of North America or in the Spanish Acampadas. This may point towards a transnationally shared condition amongst members of what has been called the “precarious cognitariat” (Newfield 2010), prefiguring an antagonistic Doppelgänger to Florida’s neoliberal “creative class” (see for instance McKenzie 2004).

To this regard, scholars standing in the tradition of italian post-workerism have justly suggested to shift the focus of critical studies on the role of the general intellect within the post-Fordist urban fabric, showing how under the neoliberal condition the very essence of embodied subjects and their mutual relations come to be exploited as sources of value (Lazzarato 1997), thus rendering urban spaces a productive infrastructure in themselves and turning them into widespread immaterial factories aimed at the exploitation of symbolic labour (Negri 2008). In order to make them function as such, capital needs to recognize individuals as autonomous subjects, reminding us that the individual’s entitlement of neoliberal agency, while coming with all the well known burdens of personal accountancy, consumeristic alienation and compulsory entrepreneurship, also inevitably entails a residual acknowledgement of individual autonomy that may contain a crucial hint at the immanent limits of capital, as Toni Negri recently pointed out (Negri 2013).

Berlin may be considered as a unique laboratory to this regard, as few other cities depend as much on the production of symbolic capital as the German capital. Researchers have shown how, out of this reason, it may serve as a crucial example falsifying Florida’s “creative city” theory, since, at least so far, economic growth has not been following talent and creativity in the expected measure (see for instance Krätke 2011).

Notwithstanding, the city’s strong tradition concerning “urbanism from below” goes to the account of members of Florida’s “creative class” (or, drawing upon Warck McKenzie’s A Hacker Manifesto, “hacker class” – McKenzie 2004): artists, students, academics, who through their agency have left a deep and lasting mark on the city’s urban fabric. And who, in the face of the institutional-corporate sell-out of their work, started to coalesce into pressure groups and lobbying initiatives, showing a strong self-confidence and discussing the role of culture and creativity for the city’s fortunes.

At least two initiatives should be shortly mentioned here. Stadt Neudenken[xx] (“Re-think the city”, SND), probably the most influential so far, was born in 2011 with the aim of archiving a general moratorium of sales of city-owned properties, joined with the demand that such sales should be recalibrated to take social, cultural and ecological aspects into account, rather then mere economical ones. Thus, not the highest bidder should get the lot being sold, but the project offering the best prospectives in terms of sustainability, liveability and long-term gain for the city and its inhabitants. After obtaining a certain mediatic attention and appreciation for its ideas, SND initiated a round table comprising politicians from all parties, artists, activists, representatives of tenants associations and more (Mietshäuser Syndikat was involved in the talks as well, amongst many others). Its outcome is still uncertain, as the now governing great coalition of social- and christian-democrats has tried to get ahead in the game by declaring its will to stop sales of public properties, while fighting over the criteria to be established in order to judge the worthiness of a project.

The second initiative worth mentioning here is the Koalition der Freien Szene[xxi] (“coalition of the free scene”, KFS), an unlikely alliance of a myriad of small venues and groups from Berlin’s magmatic “Off” scene. Showing a subtle understanding of the city’s marketing mechanisms, the KFS proposed the introduction of a city-tax on the 25 million overnight stays by tourists recorded in 2012 (a new record, and the sharp increase is set to continue over the next years), whose income should benefit the free scene. Arguing that Berlin’s touristic appeal is greatly owed to its renowned independent culture, the KFS aims to create a “virtuous circle” between a quickly growing tourism industry and a free scene struggling with the newly rising living costs. Over the past weeks, while it became clear that the governing coalition would introduce the city-tax, but would use its revenues for other purposes, a roar of outrage has come from the free scene: it seems like this will remain an open conflict in the foreseeable future.

While both initiatives try to present the recent developments of Berlin – gentrification, increasing living costs, growing social segregation – as interconnected with their own issues and aims, somehow always implying a general “right to the city” as opposed to neoliberal urban restructuring, it also seems that both initiatives are not really capable (or willing) of summoning a wide-reaching, socially diverse coalition. Instead, both seem to follow goals appealing mainly to well educated members of the middle classes, leaving out large sections of Berlin’s wast socially disadvantaged population.

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