Archive | March, 2014

Ken Loach: “We’re unstoppable”

26 Mar


At this year’s Berlinale, British director Ken Loach was honoured with a lifetime achievement award for 50 years of cinema. The filmmaker and veteran political activist hasn’t lost his faith in the power of workers to bring about change. While in Berlin he spoke about the party he co-founded in 2013, Left Unity.

“The working class still exists,” presses Ken Loach before a crowd of Berlin activists – and watching Loach’s films won’t convince you of the contrary. Famously, Ken Loach doesn’t make films about action heroes or financial wizards. He focuses on the people who have to do the clean-up after a thrilling chase scene, or who get duped by greedy bankers.

The everyday struggles of the working class have provided material for a half-century of films, from the 1966 BBC homelessness docudrama Cathy Come Home; to 1985’s Berlinale Forum selection Which Side Are You On?, about the UK miners’ strike; to 2001’s The Navigators, about railway workers oppressed by management.

It might no longer be in fashion to make explicitly political art in the style of leftist provocateurs like Bertolt Brecht or John Heartfield, but Loach is somehow keeping the tradition alive. Does he see his art as a form of agitation to bring people out onto the streets? “That might be a byproduct, but that’s certainly not the function,” he says. His engagement has never been confined to the screen as exemplified by a lifetime of political activism, from Trotskyism to Labour to a brand new party: Left Unity.

On the same day Loach received his Berlinale honours, he gave a talk titled “The Crisis in Europe and the New Formation of the Radical Left” at Berlin’s Haus der Demokratie. At 10am on a Friday, the organisers expected about 20 attendees; instead, Loach spoke to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd of 150.

With his small frame and thick glasses, Loach has the friendly, unassuming manner of a bookkeeper. The man might not speak like a firebrand, but after nearly five decades of battles he still believes in the possibility of a fairer, better system, and people believe in him.

“We have power. And, my God, we need to get organised.” That’s the leitmotif of his career-long struggle: faith in the working class, despite the disappointments and setbacks. Sometimes the worst enemy might not be conservative forces but the constant infighting.

His political engagement started in 1964. By that point a television director, Loach, who had studied law at Oxford but not forgotten his working-class upbringing, became upset by the lack of working people’s voices in the media.

He joined the Labour Party and, a few years later, came into the orbit of a Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Labour League (SLL). The SLL wanted to replace the police with a workers’ militia, among other radical policies, but nonetheless formed a current within Labour, attracting several famous faces: actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were in the Central Committee, and John Lennon is reported to have made donations. Loach was one of a number of TV directors who worked closely with the organisation. Now, he says he was “a member” before correcting himself. “I was close to the SLL.”

Looking back, Loach sees a project paralysed by sectarianism. “Each little group had their own newspaper, and your biggest competitor was the man selling the newspaper next to you.”

The fierce infighting even affected Loach’s personal life. “A good friend of mine named Paul Foot was in the International Socialists, another Trotskyist organisation. We lived quite near each other and we both had small children. We used to meet and the children would play football. I got a call one day and it was the General Secretary of the SLL. He said: ‘What’s this I hear? Your children are playing football with the enemy?’ I said I was sorry and we stopped playing football. It was nearly 30 years before I was on a platform with Paul Foot. And we agreed about everything.”

When the SLL ditched the Labour Party and gradually drifted towards supporting Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Loach stuck with Labour – for which he was branded a traitor by his former comrades. He remained a member for 30 years, but lived through two “critical moments” that showed this organisation didn’t have much to offer working people.

“First was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, when the post-war settlement of the welfare state came under attack,” he recalls. Mines and factories closed – three million people lost their jobs overnight. Loach witnessed how the trade union leaders held back every struggle in the name of negotiations that went nowhere. “The second was in 1985 with the huge strike of the miners.” Here too, the trade unions and the Labour Party boycotted the struggle. “And we lost,” Loach recalled. He resigned from the party in the mid-1990s.

As Labour governments got involved in privatising health and education and carrying out unpopular wars abroad, Loach lost faith in the existing parties and started looking for an alternative for the real left… only to find a panoply of smaller organisations, many working at cross purposes.

Loach is convinced that during the Iraq War, when up to two million people marched in London against the Blair government, they missed a historic opportunity to build up a mass party on the left: “If only we had had a table every hundred metres that said ‘sign here’…”. The Socialist Alliance and the RESPECT coalition had already given it a try. But, like the rest before them, they had fallen victim to bitter infighting. “So now we’re trying a third time.”

In March of last year, Loach launched a call to action. His documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the sweeping social changes in Britain after the Second World War, had just premiered at the 2013 Berlinale. Inspired by his protagonists, who “transformed the lives of ordinary people”, Loach appealed for a new, unified party of the left. Ten thousand people signed his online petition, and in November, the party Left Unity was formed at a meeting of 400 in London. Loach claims the party now has over 1400 members – and, already, plenty of disagreements.

“There is a large number of individual campaigns,” Loach explains, but his aim is to unite all these activists under the umbrella of one party. “If we’re all on the same team, we’re unstoppable.” The veteran of social cinema hasn’t lost his faith in the power of the people.

“My ambition is to be a rank-and-file member,” says Loach. “Also for reasons of age.” Though the 77-year-old works more as a grey eminence than a leader in the new party, by most accounts, he has a giant influence on the debates.

But how does it feel to be a socialist at the Berlinale being driven around in giant Audis and accompanied by three bodyguards? Loach briefly seems lost for words as he turns to the young man standing next to him with a suit and an earpiece. “We’re friends!” he says, and they both smile.

Originally published in Exberliner #125, March 2014.


Photo: Veronica Jonsson


#bombergate, the most boring scandal of the year

19 Mar


The scandals of German politics can be so boring. Coming from the country of CIA-on-government spying and White House blowjobs, it’s hard to get worked up about parliamentarians abusing their frequent flier miles. Every once in a while, though, a scandal comes along that is so extraordinarily boring, so yawn-inducing on so many different levels, that it becomes interesting again.

#bombergate broke a month ago. During an antifascist protest in Dresden on February 13, two masked women removed their shirts to display the message: “Thanks Bomber Harris”. A week later, the press broke the story that one of the women was Anne Helm, who sits on the Neukölln district assembly for the Pirates and has the fifth spot on their European election list.

Each new element of this scandal was less interesting than the one before it…

Yawn #1: Femen. It’s kind of getting old, ladies! I’m as giddy as the next guy when I see panicky Catholic men trying to cover up the bosom of a woman who jumped onto the altar during a Christmas mass. But when toplessness becomes the default option to protest for or against just about anything, it loses a lot of its punch. They’ve officially become a Portlandia sketch. Femen distanced itself from this action, which was carried out by a member of the…

Yawn #2: Pirates. After their spectacular victory in the 2011 Berlin elections, we’ve seen the Pirate Party recede back into irrelevance. Turns out “Internet something something” wasn’t a sufficient political program after all. Now they’ve just elected enfant terrible Christoph Lauer as their chief because, after two years without any accomplishments as an opposition party, they need give it a shot in government – even if they aren’t sure what they’ll do. The slogan in Dresden didn’t come from the Pirates, it came from the…

Yawn #3: Antideutsche. The so-called “Anti-Germans” were a section of the left who started to identify with the state of Israel and the Allies who defeated Nazi Germany. So while most of the global left opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Antideutsche were waving the Stars and Stripes to cheer on the armies of freedom and democracy. (How is that working out, by the way?) Eventually they realized that the Bundeswehr can also fight for liberty, so they largely dropped their moniker and integrated into mainstream German politics. What’s left is the slogans thanking “Bomber Harris”, an RAF officer who ordered the firebombing of Dresden shortly before the end of World War II. Now there is a debate to be had about the military reasoning behind the attack on the Saxon capital. But thanking a well-known racist and colonialist officer is just like the British punks of the 1970s wearing Swastikas: a childish provocation without much of a message. And this provocation was getting old 10 years ago. This did, however, still attract some…

Yawn #4: Nazis. I know, I know: Nazis are no joke. But it was a pretty cheap publicity stunt when they called for a demonstration against Helm in front of the Neukölln district assembly. Several hundred antifascists showed up to stop less than 10 Nazis who had to hide behind their banner due to flying eggs. Really nothing to write home about.

The response to the Nazis did provide the one slightly less boring element of this story: At the protest in Neukölln, Georg Kammerer, comedian and local strongman of Die PARTEI in Neukölln, exposed his much larger breasts with a slogan thanking Helm. That might be a step towards gender equality!

Helm, who does synchronization work for TV and movies – and provided the German voice of Babe the Pig – originally denied that she was the woman with the mask and no shirt. But the press pointed out a tattoo made her easy to identify. Paparazzi were following her around and she received death threats. At the same time, there were countless resignations from the Party. Now she’s apologized – the action was intended to provoke Nazis – and the scandal has petered out.

#Bombergate was wonderfully, uniquely boring. Nonetheless, this has been the most interesting news about…

Yawn #5: European Elections. The EU is going to the polls on May 22, but a recent survey showed just 22 percent of those eligible to vote in Germany are interested. In comparison to candidates one has never heard of for seats in an EU parliament without any real power, this story involving breasts, pirates and bombs was actually pretty exciting. And I can’t vote anyway.


“There are women like us who like their jobs.”

7 Mar


Is prostitution anti-feminist? The sex work debate in Germany shows no signs of abating and prominent feminists like Chantal Louis of Emma magazine have spearheaded a campaign against it. But that’s only one side of the argument. Some sex workers in Germany argue the merits of their profession.

Fabienne (aka Lady Velvet Steel) and Kristina Marlen, both in their mid-30s, have been working in the sex industry for more than five years, as a classical dominatrix and a tantric dominatrix respectively. Both are active in the German Trade Association for Erotic and Sexual Services.

How did you enter the profession?

Lady Velvet Steel: I was involved in BDSM for a long time previously. The bar where I was working shut down and I needed money to get through the winter. So I started working professionally. Before that I used to work in a workshop for plastic models – breathing toxic fumes for €5.50 an hour! I felt much more prostituted then than I do now.

Kristina Marlen: I trained as a physical therapist. But I didn’t want to exclude my sexuality from my work. It’s my passion, you could say. Plus, as a therapist I was only making €10.50 an hour, and that wasn’t working out for me.

The prostitution law passed in 2002 was supposed to empower prostitutes by making them eligible for social security and health insurance benefits – but according to Die Welt, there are only 44 Angestellte prostitutes in Germany. Why might that be?

KM: The law wanted to make prostitutes normal Angestellte (employees), wage earners. But the reality is that most sex workers are self-employed in one way or another and for them, it’s still hard to get social insurance. The biggest problem is the stigmatisation of sex work.

LVS: We understand we’re both in a privileged position. Not everyone can live in Kreuzberg. In a small town in Brandenburg you can’t register at the Finanzamt as a whore because everyone knows everyone. And both of us don’t have children – if you have a kid, sex work can be used against you in a custody case, or the child can get harassed in the school yard. So lots of people are officially registered with other, related trades: masseur, partner therapy, sexual counsellor, etc.

What’s your take on the scandal sparked by Alice Schwarzer’s 2013 book Prostitution: A German Scandal?

KM: Schwarzer is starting this debate just to sell her book. She doesn’t want to listen to the women she claims to speak for. Do-gooders and so-called feminists are working together with extremely reactionary forces against prostitution. Amazingly, despite all the discussion there are no good statistics about the sex industry, just imaginary numbers repeated over and over again.

LVS: Any big research institute could do a serious study – it’s just a question of the political will to pay for it. Journalists who write about the sex industry only confirm the drastic picture they already had.

So sex trafficking is just an invention from scandal-hungry journalists?

KM: Of course there are abuses in the sex industry. But you can also find immigrants from eastern Europe working in terrible jobs in meatpacking plants or in home care. No one talks about prohibiting these professions. What we want to do is strengthen the position of sex workers so they can have their rights.

According to Detlef Ubben, head of the Hamburg Commission for Human Trafficking, 95 percent of sex workers are in one way or another “forced prostitutes”. What do you answer to that?

LVS: If someone is unhappy with their job and does it anyway, does that person need to be rescued? What does ‘forced’ mean anyway? People who are forced with violence and treated like slaves? Or does this include people who are ‘forced’ because they have to pay rent and feed themselves or their children? Many foreign construction workers in Dubai work under conditions of modern slavery. Does this mean we should prohibit the construction industry? In many years in the industry, I’ve never met a sex worker who didn’t choose the profession herself. Every case of trafficking is one too many, but that can’t be used to criminalise the whole sector.

The police claim that the 2002 law prevents them from fighting against the criminal part of the industry.

KM: The police don’t need more power – they can already go into brothels at any time if they want to. But shouldn’t it be the Gewerbeamt, the business department, doing inspections, the same as at a café? Is it good for sex workers to be visited by police with guns and body armour? Any attempt at prohibition goes against the interests of the prostitutes. There are cases where johns report human trafficking. Will anyone be willing to report if that implies denouncing oneself for a crime? If the client can be punished, that only creates disadvantages for the sex workers themselves.

What about the long-term psychological effects of the profession? Especially in ‘flat-rate’ brothels, where women might see dozens of men per day…

LVS: In the current discussion flat-rate brothels are portrayed as horror stories. But colleagues from our association have worked in these places. There might be abuses at some, but women there generally get a fixed rate. Some people prefer that to a situation like mine with a studio, where I might not have any clients in a day and therefore no income. In reality, flat-rate is just a marketing trick. Be honest: how often can you go more than three times in a night?

From a feminist perspective, isn’t sex work ultimately an expression of inequality between men and women?

KM: Sex work mirrors power relations in a patriarchal society, but it also means playing with them. From Focault we learned that power relations are complex. I grew up with a subscription to Emma and wore a “Por-No” sticker on my backpack when I was 15. But that doesn’t fit with the experiences I’ve had in the industry. For example, there is sexual therapy for people with physical or mental disabilities. I just came from a session with a person who has a muscle condition and can’t masturbate. Many of the clients in this sector are women.

What does your trade association propose?

KM: We need to improve working conditions through comprehensive counselling, health care and education services. All these measures cost more money than prohibitive laws that make the problems less visible. This whole discussion ignores the fact that there are women like us who like our jobs. A ban won’t help the women involved – or did people stop drinking during Prohibition in the US?

Originally published in Exberliner #124, February 2014.


Photo: Astrid Warberg

The end of men?

5 Mar


She earns more. She has a better degree. She even puts up shelves. I like to think that my relationship with my partner is about deconstructing traditional gender roles. My contribution, besides the occasional coin earned from freelance journalism, consists of things like laundry and shopping.

But we’re no exception. Many straight couples we know are in the same situation: in their late 20s or early 30s, the women are earning money and advancing in their careers, while the men never finished their degrees and are bouncing between part-time work and the Jobcenter.

What the hell is going on? One writer has declared “The End of Men”: women are taking over the world because “postindustrial society is simply better suited to women”. In a country with a Kanzlerin who will likely stick around for at least another decade, that’s not too hard to believe.

Then again, while 49.5 percent of people starting university in 2012 were women, almost 80 percent of professors are men. My partner’s office is full of female worker bees, but upper management is invariably male. And this is hardly a unique situation: even in Berlin’s seemingly progressive start-up scene, women are subject to subtle sexual harassment and little chance to move up the ladder. Women in Germany earn 21 percent less than men – a gender pay gap well above the average of the EU and the OCDE. In fact, to earn as much as a male colleague gets by the end of the year, a woman has to work until March 21 – so “Equal Pay Day” is still two weeks off!

Let’s not forget housework. Women in Germany do twice as much unpaid washing, cleaning cooking and childcare as men. This often forces them into part-time, ‘flexible’ jobs that pay less. Eighty-three percent of part-time jobs are held by women.

It’s not that women are being told to stay in the kitchen. When the Barbie Dream House opened in Berlin, we were reminded that Barbie could be an astronaut or a Kanzlerin. But she has to model clothes and bake cupcakes at the same time.

There is sexual violence. According to official statistics, one in four women in Germany experience violence in a relationship sometime in their lifetime – more than half have suffered some form of sexual harassment. Protests like Slutwalk have drawn attention to how widespread violence is, but we’re still a long way from ending it.

So I think it’s great there is the International Day of Women’s Struggle on March 8. This Saturday, for the first time in many years, there will be a massive demonstration in Berlin, featuring the rapper Sookee.

Still, I have mixed feelings about hastening the downfall of my gender. Aren’t women going to take over the world anyway, with or without a demonstration? I asked Ines, one of the organisers, and she said: “As long as the Axe advertisements stay the way they are, I’m not worried about the end of men.”

I’d reached the end of the blog post without even attacking those insultingly sexist ads for deodorant! Just one more thing to protest against this Saturday…

Women’s Day Demonstration: Saturday, March 8, 13:00, Gesundbrunnen


Photo: Veronica Jonsson