Archive | October, 2013

Power to the People!

30 Oct


When I was a child, it was lots of fun: with a pop, all the lights in the house would go out and my parents would search for flashlights and candles. During the blackout, which would last half an hour or more, there was no TV, but we could play a board game or learn how the house worked (who would have guessed the water would still flow without electricity?).

But those blackouts, which came at least once a year, were long ago and back in the United States. In my countless years in Germany I have never experienced a power outage. According to the official statistics, an average Berliner will be without electricity for just 10.7 minutes a year – and maybe I was asleep for those minutes because I haven’t noticed a thing.

Berlin’s electricity grid, in contrast to the long-suffering S-Bahn or the thoroughly ridiculed airport, actually works pretty well. But on November 3 (this Sunday), all Berlin residents with a German passport* can vote on what will happen with the grid. Is it a good idea to tinker with a working system?

The Berliner Energietisch (Berlin Energy Table), which collected 200,000 signatures in favour of the referendum, wants the grid to be re-communalized. This isn’t about the power plants but rather about the cables and substations that bring electricity to your house. The grid is sold off every 20 years and is currently run by a subsidiary of Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant which also sells electricity in Berlin. (Technically, it’s illegal for the same company to run the grid and feed electricity into it, but Vattenfall skirts that rule by claiming its wholly-owned subsidiary is a different company.)

The next concession is beginning in 2014 and the referendum is trying to force the Berlin Senat to buy back the grid and establish a communal electricity supplier. The grid alone might cost anywhere from €1 billion to over €3 billion, depending on who you ask. The governing parties have been terribly upset: they are spending several million euros to not hold the referendum on the day of the federal elections on September 22, as originally planned, when more voters would have turned out.

Just last week, the CDU and the SPD threw parliamentary norms out the window in order to rush a bill through the Abgeordnetenhaus to create a municipal utility company right before the polls open. This Babystadtwerk (mini-utility) would have a budget of just €1.5 million – enough to run about five wind turbines and provide power for 200 households! The only discernible purpose of this new power company is to confuse people about the referendum and keep them from voting.

Now, you might ask, do we really want the same government that has thrown away billions for the never-ending airport adventure to take over our electricity distribution? The Energietisch argues that citizens’ representatives would sit on the board of the new public electricity provider, not just the usual Berlin mafiosi and their political cronies. Plus, it will allow Berlin to transition to renewable energies: currently, the capital gets just 1.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, since Vattenfall uses coal for more than 90 percent of its energy.

The most important thing about a municipally-owned grid is that the profits would stay in the city. Last weekend, Vattenfall paid for four-page supplements in the big Berlin newspapers. These gigantic advertisements had a layout that looked just like Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost etc. so readers wouldn’t notice the articles praising Vattenfall weren’t normal editorial content. (Technically, it’s illegal for a grid to advertise, since they already have a monopoly, but Vattenfall again skirts this rule by saying that their subsidiary runs the grid.)

How much do you think this kind of advertising blitz costs? And where do you think the money comes from? That’s right – from you, me and everyone else who uses electricity in this city. Wouldn’t you rather see that money invested in renewable energy rather than marketing campaigns and dividends for stockholders? The entire logic of privatization has never worked out for consumers.

The referendum campaign has advertised that “Berlin without Vattenfall is like a Bundestag without the FDP.” I’m certainly not the only one who has felt more relaxed since Germany’s hyper-liberals got booted out of parliament. It wouldn’t bother me either if the giant Vattenfall sign disappeared from over Tresor. Come to think of it, maybe they could take Tresor along with them.

* If, like me, you aren’t allowed to vote, you can still go to the demonstration for the re-communalization of housing and energy. People will be banging pots on November 2 (this Saturday) at 14:30 at Kottbusser Tor, right in front of the “Kotti und Co” protest camp. And demonstrations are a fun activity for kids – almost as fun as a power outage!


Picture: John Riceburg


Does this loft seem familiar to you?

16 Oct


Every once in a while, you look at the ads for expensive new condominiums in Berlin, right? Well, for some reason, I do. I feel rage when I picture the Bonzen* who live there: rage at their ridiculously privileged lifestyle, but also rage at myself for feeling a bit curious. Wouldn’t it be nice to have heated floors instead of cold feet? Would I be happier with panorama windows instead of a shadowy Hinterhof?

This one put on the market just this year, however, is in a case by itself. On the West side of Kreuzberg, this amazing loft could be yours. Imagine what you could do with six rooms that are each four meters high – impromptu indoor basketball game, anyone? Imagine all the fun you could have with 252sqm, including designer furniture (such as this tasteful Zebra-skin rug – the ad doesn’t say if it’s real or not). All that’s missing is a Mona Lisa in the bathroom, like Daddy Warbucks had.

That could be an amazing WG – and all you need is €4,000 per month. That’s just €700 for each Mitbewohner – of course, if you can afford that, you might not want to live in shared housing.

This loft is in the Yorckstraße 59a – the former address of the left-wing house project Yorck59. Until eight years ago, this was home to 60 people and also included rooms for political meetings. The house had been leased in 1988, but by 2005, the owner wanted to double the rent and had the tenants evicted. In the early morning of June 6, more than 500 police violently dispersed a sit-down blockade in front of the Yorck. One woman was beaten so badly that she lost consciousness and had to be taken away in an ambulance. The same evening, several thousand people demonstrated against the eviction. I remember that at one point everyone started running and I was toppled over by a bicycle right in front of me, almost breaking my wrist. (“No babies, no dogs, no bicycles!” at demonstrations, people!)

Luckily, the residents of the Yorck were able to find a new home: a few days later, they occupied the south wing of the Bethanien on Mariannenplatz and remain there to this day (hence the clever name “New Yorck”). There you still have space for a political film showing, a solidarity party for a lesbian-queer-trans initiative or a home for illegal immigrants. But the new lofts in the Old Yorck shows what is happening to the living space in this city: where 60 people used to live, now you will have underused party flats for billionaires from Moscow, Doha or even the rare one from Berlin.

That’s why I feel more rage about this condominium than any of the others. When two thousand people demonstrated in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain against rising rents on September 29, a number of yuppies must have wondered why police trucks were parked in front of their houses to protect them from the angry mob. A lot of them are probably Ökos – maybe they were demonstrating themselves a few years ago. It must be strange to see people demonstrating against your house. Well, if you’re reading this and you were wondering, this is what everyone is so upset about. And you’re part of the problem, whether you think you are or not.

Now isn’t it weird that Neuberliner get more excited about this than the natives? I’ve only been here for a decade, but I wear my “Die Yuppie Scum” shirt and protest against gentrification all the time. It was Kurt Tucholsky who wrote in 1921: “The real Berliner comes from Breslau or Posen.” The two cities are now in Poland (Wroclaw and Poznan), but real Berliners still come from far away to defend the city the way it was long before they arrived. Now the “real Berliner” might hail from Madrid, Haifa or Houston – but still defends the city’s great traditions of protest against the real gentrifiers.

* Bonzen is a disparaging word for anyone in power that doesn’t have a precise equivalent in English. The rich are of course Bonzen, but the well-paid leaders of the trade unions are Gewerkschaftsbonzen while the higher-ups in East Germany’s regime were Parteibonzen. Germans’ deference to authority is somewhat compensated by this wonderful word full of hate of anyone in power, far more spiteful than “fat cats” or any English translation.


Foto: URBAN ARTefakte

Is THE PARTY always right?

2 Oct

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A week and a half ago, more than four in 10 German voters decided to stick with “Mutti”, i.e. Merkel from the CDU, and a further quarter picked her former finance minister, i.e. Steinbrück from the SPD. This squeezed the small parties such as the Greens and the Left, who lost a million voters each compared to the last elections, and the FDP, who dropped a full 10 points and got kicked out of parliament. One small party, however, was able to multiply its result by a factor of eight: Germany’s satirical Die PARTEI.

Riding through Berlin on my bike, the election posters with empty smiles and emptier slogans tend to blend together. “Courage”, “stronger”, “together” – it’s like the Olympic Games of Vacuousness and I just tune out. So I have to ride past a few times before I notice the big one on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz: Four attractive young women and what’s their slogan? “Bla bla, blablabla blabla blablabla.” Finally! A party that says things the way I’m reading anyways! And while the SPD and the Greens make vague promises about raising taxes for the extremely wealthy (these are the parties who lowered taxes for the rich the last time they were in government), Die PARTEI has a more immediate solution: “If you vote for us, we will have the 100 richest Germans whacked.”

Die PARTEI was founded by editors of the satirical magazine Titanic in 2004 with the promise to re-divide Germany and re-build the Wall. Other countries have had their share of satirical candidacies before (remember Roseanne Barr?) but it speaks to Germans’ propensity to take everything too seriously – even their satire – that Die PARTEI is still going more than eight years later. And it’s still a legitimate political party, complete with 10,000 members and a dozen provincial branches. They rely on an old-school Stalinist aesthetic including grey suits, tautological speeches (“We are a party, because we are a party!”) and a genuine hymn from East Germany in the 1950s: “The party, the party is always right!”

During the elections in 2005, they tried to sell their state-allotted TV advertising on eBay – eventually they produced three commercials filled with the logo of the discount airline HLX (HLX denies having paid anything for it). However, for the next round in 2009, the federal election commission decided that Die PARTEI was not, in fact, a “Partei”. The justification was dubious and party leader Martin Sonneborn made his disapproval clear to the commission: “The last election official in this country who treated small parties so undemocratically was executed in 1946 by an Allied military court!” This case eventually led to a OSCE complaint about Germany’s election system and a change in the law, but Die PARTEI still wasn’t allowed to participate. They were, however, in the Berlin elections in 2011, where they presented candidates from the hip hop band KIZ and amassed almost one percent – and in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, received double the percentage results of the FDP. PARTEI activists celebrated by sneaking in to the FDP’s election night party and, when their disastrous results came up on the screen, popping champagne bottles and throwing confetti.

In my home of northern Neukölln, Christina Schwarzer and Fritz Felgentreu have been smiling down from posters and trying to win the district for the CDU and the SPD respectively. Their smug grins can just barely hide their thoughts about how they can kick us and our neighbors out of our apartments to convert them into lofts for their rich friends. But Die PARTEI has a different look: Stand-up comic Georg Kammerer is photographed from below with a champagne glass and the ominous slogan: “Power comes from above”. It’s as if he’s running for mayor of Mordor – but at least his pose with a handgun and a pit bull makes him look like a local boy.

In this last election Die PARTEI garnered just short of 80,000 votes – eight times their result from 2005 – and they’ve got their first elected representative in the city council of Lübeck. It was less than their stated goal of “100 percent plus X”, but they’re looking towards the European elections in March 2014 with full confidence. Their humor is occasionally tasteless – like Sonneborn putting on blackface to mock Obama hype – but their lack of any kind of programme means they can promise absolutely anything the citizenry desires. This includes not only unicorns but even an interactive iDemo in front of the Brandenburger Gate with Die PARTEI members holding up iPads as placards that would display whatever message citizens submitted on the web (“Eat more fruit!” for example). In regards to Berlin, Sonneborn also has a clear programme: “We are planning on blowing up the new Berlin Palace directly after reconstruction has finished.” For that promise, they’ve got my vote. If I had a vote.