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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.

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