?From the great beyond into the present? ? an interview with Jo Lendle

Hanser publisher Jo Lendle talks about gentle adjustments of languages and marketing strategies.... more more

GoetheInstitute

02/11/2006

Berlin: capital of the underclass

Jens Jessen on Berlin, the urban insult to Germany's faith in hard work

In a recent judgement, the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe decided that deeply indebted Berlin can make no claims to financial help at the federal level. The court deemed that the capital city could save lots of money by cutting its budget for culture. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit was mocked by the judges and some politicians for his claim that Berlin is "poor but sexy." The judgement comes at a time that Germany is trying to decide whether it is home to a new underclass and if so, if it can be called by this name.

It will be tough to forget that spiteful grin with which the rest of West Germany reacted to Berlin's defeat in the Constitutional Court. No money for the parasitic capital! That was good news. No money for the con-artist who took the government away from Bonn. No money for the happy-go-lucky that bask in the brilliance of operas, museums, theatres and public debate, none of which he can afford. No money for the matchmaker who unites east and west, although they don't belong together. No money for the dazzling seducer of youth, who lures daughters into the Bohemia of happy unemployment. The guy called himself poor but sexy. That was a mistake. And it's always the biggest mistakes that come closest to the truth. Poor but sexy is exactly how one should describe the son-in-law who haunts the nightmares of respectable citizens.

Berlin is the welfare-abusing Florida Rolf (more) of the German states. Remember the image with which the Bild Zeitung then promoted the Hartz reforms? Cheeky and lazy and tanned: that was Florida-Rolf, who built himself a beautiful life under the palms on German welfare. The story of the actual person no longer matters. The image of the unemployed claiming entitlements has become established. It's precisely how West Germans
saw Berlin presenting itself to the Constitutional Court. The city that lives off our tax money, redistributed perfidiously by redistribution schemes between the federal and state levels. The city that does not work but complains and splurges on the sly. The city that wants the affluence of others, but harbours no ambitions of its own. As lazy and ineducable as the underclass whose shocking existence we are just beginning to discover.

One doesn't have to listen too closely to hear the same slogans in the hate-filled drivel against Berlin as in the debate about the new underclass. The city is still doing much too well! In the cultural realm alone, Berlin spends more than Hamburg. How can it go on this way, with the poor enjoying themselves more than the rich? Even flourishing Baden-Württemberg has to sell precious manuscripts in order to balance its budget. (more) And Berlin wants to hold on to three opera companies? Who do they think they are?

This suspicion is most repellent to the envy-filled egalitarianism that was the raison d'être of the old Federal Republic. The very notion of a capital was
displeasing and was only made acceptable by the shabbiness of Bonn as the seat of government. Anyone leaving their villas in Munich or Stuttgart for Bonn those days could only laugh, and this laugh helped a lot. Berlin, on the other hand, with its sheer size and association with Prussia, evoked a sense of humiliation – that did not help at all. And now Berlin, rather than satisfying itself with capital status, is asking for compensation? On top of the impudence, a little premium for laziness? From the southwest German perspective, there's something infuriatingly uninhibited about Berlin; not unlike the lifestyle of the long-term unemployed, who settle down in front of the television with a bottle
of beer.

Berlin's tragic mistake is that it thinks the other German states actually want a capital city they can be proud of. That's exactly what the German states do not want. They want a Berlin they can
enjoy being ashamed of. They want anything but a shiny Berlin that suggests the paradox that there can be gain wihout pain. Nothing characterizes the rise of post-war West Germany better than the restless industriousness that yielded no glossy and glamorous return. What has the saying, "Schaffe, schaffe, Häusel baue" (Work, work, build your house) done for the Swabians? Is Stuttgart the city to which the world's eyes turn? What does Düsseldorf have aside from boutiques and miserable
1960s apartments that cost half the monthly income of a high-income earner?

That's the big dark secret at the root of West Germany: that these massive efforts, coloured by privation, never found expression in the real quality of life, in dignity, elegance, levity and pride. That is meant literally. There is no abundance in the centres of wealth. In the rich cities of Hamburg, Düsseldorf or Munich, it's the lack that reigns: the lack of residential space, but also the lack of affordable pleasures. A teacher in Berlin lives better and has a better chance at opera tickets than a financial consultant in Frankfurt.

Not that this would be clear to the average West German. But he senses vaguely that Berlin could offer shocking evidence that in the end, achievement doesn't really pay off. That abundance is more likely to be found in Berlin's relative poverty than in the centres of wealth. With this thought, the West German tends to feel a stabbing pain in his chest. The pain comes from the briefcase from which he feels Euros of tax monies for redistribution fluttering towards Berlin. His tax money!

Long will we remember how, in year 16 after reunification, the old West German envy of Berlin exploded again, as though nothing had happened, as though nothing had been learned, as though the disillusionment with globalisation couldn't even light a single spark of social solidarity. Berlin is, in this sense, just a metaphor. It's not about Berlin, it's about society's losers. It's about the hand of the better-off, which is clutching at the briefcase. Germany has, this is true, learned to share in prosperous times. Now in the tighter times upon us, it's starting to forget how to share.

Of course this doesn't happen all at once. So far, nobody is denying the right of the poor to social assistance (they just want to reduce it). The rich states still want to support the poorer ones (within limits). Feeling no solidarity is something that has to be learned, just as feeling solidarity does. The first step is to re-adopt the idea that need is the fault of the needy. That's why it's important to repeat that the unemployed don't want to work. That's why the measures to cut spending in Berlin are considered no more than a reduction in profligacy. First and foremost, poverty and need have to be seen as a form of failure, as the natural product of lacking ambition and diligence.

The individualisation of success and defeat is the most important building block in the new mercilessness. To think of injustices that fall outside the realm of personal responsibility, and have nothing to do with the capitalist system, is considered antiquated at best. It's better to talk about deficiencies in the motivation to achieve. And global competition should only be used to justify massive lay-offs to the outside world. The laid-off has to learn to find the responsibility for his redundancy in himself.

It is very illuminating to consider the discussion of the underclass with the talk of the new bourgeoisie. On closer inspection, one finds that the leading spokepeople tend to be those on the way up, anxious to shut the door behind them. Nothing is more false than the assertion that the underclass lacks ambition. It's more the case that this ambition could heat the fight for a piece of the pie among the threatened middle class and must therefore be dismissed or at least sworn off.

It's in the nature of climbers to want to be the last to make it; for that reason, the ladder has to be cut off before anyone follows. Which is why it's so annoying for the latecomers of Frankfurt, Cologne, and Hanover that Berlin came wheezing up behind them. Now the city rests on the wobbly second last rung, holding those above it so firmly in its claws, that it's going to be hard to bring it down again. The most annoying is that the city has understood its position, it's unshakable now, it's pulled a harmonica out of its pocket and is buzzing away. Those defending their own status hear ringing in their ears while those who have nothing to lose are happy to listen.

The situation is all the more awkward because Berlin in all its assiduous and spirited jostling exposes the nonsense of the notion that the current system of distribution is fair and good as it is. That the diligent are at the top, the incapable at the bottom and the lazy joker is only tolerated for a brief while. That's the basic principle of the new market radicalism – nothing more than Darwinism in economic terms. The strong are granted success, the weak are exposed by failure. All else would be unnatural.

The question is, of course, whether we really want to live in a society which turns this nature into law and wants to kick two thousand years of the Christian ethic of sympathy into the trash. This is the question, we must admit, that Berlin quacks in its childish and cheeky way into the round of adults. The uncles and aunts don't like to hear it, but they can't deny it either because they too are secretly exhausted and unhappy and dimly aware that man lives not from bread alone.

*

This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on October 26, 2006.

Jens Jessen, born in 1955 in Berlin, heads the Feuilleton section of Die Zeit.

Translation: Toby Axelrod, nb.

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

This kiss for the whole world

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who actually owns "intellectual property"?  The German media that defend the concept of intellectual property as "real" property are the first to appropriate such rights, and they are using this idea as a defensive weapon. With lawmakers extending copyright laws and new structures emerging on the internet, intellectual property poses a serious challenge to the public domain. A survey of the German media landscape by Thierry Chervel
read more

Suddenly we know we are many

Wednesday 4th January, 2012

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant. The poet Natalia Klyuchareva explains the background to the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10th. Image: Leonid Faerberg
read more

The Republic of Europe

Tuesday 20 December, 2011

Thanks to Radoslaw Sikorski's speech in Berlin, Poland has at last joined the big European debate about restructuring the EU in connection with the euro crisis. The "European Reformation" advocated by Germany does not mean that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation will be established in Europe, but instead – let us hope – the Republic of Europe. By Adam Krzeminski
read more

Brown is not red

Tuesday 13 December, 2011

TeaserPicFilmmaker and theatre director Andres Veiel disagrees with the parallels currently being drawn between left-wing and right-wing violence in Germany. The RAF is the wrong model for the Zwickau neo-Nazi group, the so-called "Brown Army Faction" responsible for a series of murders of Turkish small business owners. Unlike the RAF, this group never publicly claimed responsibility for their crimes. Veiel is emphatic - you have to look at the biographies of the perpetrators. An interview with Heike Karen Runge.
read more

Legacy of denial

Tuesday 29 November, 2011

TeaserPicGermany has been rocked by the disclosures surrounding the series of neo-Nazi murders of Turkish citizens. In the wake of these events, Former GDR dissident Freya Klier calls for an honest look at the xenophobia cultivated by the policies of the former East Germany, where the core of the so-called "Brown Army Faction" was based. And demands that East Germans finally confront a long-denied past. (Photo: © Nadja Klier)
read more

Nausea in Paris

Monday 14 November, 2011

TeaserPicIn response to the arson attack on the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on November 2, Danish critic and semiotician Frederik Stjernfelt is nauseated by the opinions voiced against the publication, especially in the British and American media. Why don't they see that Islamism is right-wing extremism?
read more

Just one pyramid

Monday 10 October, 2011

Activist and author, Andri Snaer Magnason is among the Icelandic guests of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. His book and film "Dreamland" is both an ecological call to action and a polemic. "The politicians took one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland and offered it to unscrupulous companies," says the author in a critique of his native country. By Daniela Zinser
read more

Dark side of the light

Monday 3 October 2011

In their book "Lügendes Licht" (lying light) Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt explore the darker side of the EU ban on incandescent bulbs. From disposal issues to energy efficiency, the low-energy bulb is not necessarily a beacon of a greener future. By Brigitte Werneburg
read more

Lubricious puritanism

Tuesday 30 August, 2011

The malice of the American media in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a symptom of sexual uptightness that borders on the sinister, and the feminists have joined forces with the religious Right to see it through. We can learn much from America, but not when it comes to the art of love. By Pascal Bruckner
read more

Much ado about Sarrazin

Monday 22 August 2011

Published a year ago, the controversial book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany is doing away with itself) by former banker and Berlin Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin sparked intense discussion. Hamed Abdel-Samad asks: what has the Sarrazin debate achieved beyond polarisation and insult? And how can Germany avoid cultivating its own classes of "future foreigners"?
read more

Economic giant, political dwarf

Wednesday 3 August, 2011

Germany's growing imbalance between economic and political competence is worsening the European crisis and indeed the crisis of Nato. The country has ceased to make any political signals at all and demonstrates a conspicuous lack of responsibility for what takes place beyond its own borders. This smug isolationism is linked to strains of old anti-Western and anti-political, anti-parliamentarian sentiment that is pure provincialism. By Karl Heinz Bohrer
read more

Sound and fury

Monday 11 April 2011

Budapest is shimmering with culture but Hungary's nationalist government is throwing its weight about in cultural life, effecting censorship through budget cuts and putting its own people in the top-level cultural positions. Government tolerance of hate campaigns against Jews and gays has provoked the likes of Andras Schiff, Agnes Heller, Bela Tarr and Andre Fischer to raise their voices in defence of basic human rights. But a lot of people are simply scared. By Volker Hagedorn
read more

The self-determination delusion

Monday 28 March, 2011

TeaserPicA Dutch action group for free will wants to give all people the right to assisted suicide. But can this be achieved without us ending up somewhere we never wanted to go? Gerbert van Loenen has grave doubts.
read more

Revolution without guarantee

Monday 21 February, 2011

Saying revolution and freedom is not the same as saying democracy, respect for minorities, equal rights and good relations with neighbouring nations. All this has yet to be achieved. We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. By Andre Glucksmann
read more

Pascal Bruckner and the reality disconnect

Friday 14 January, 2011

The French writer Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid a word. Which sounds more like a typically German obsession. But for Bruckner, "Islamophobia" is one of "those expressions which we dearly need to banish from our vocabulary". One asks oneself with some trepidation which other words we "dearly need" to get rid of: Right-wing populism? Racism? Relativism? By Alan Posener
read more