2010-01:Lost in Translation

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Debating radical political culture in Germany, the UK and beyond

jhc Since its beginning, Shift Magazine has been in some kind of dialogue with the radical left in Germany, infusing the current theoretical discourses from over here, into UK activist theory. However little has been said about the activist practice in Germany, its political culture and how it may compare to that in the UK. While I am myself regularly shifting between projects and actions in the UK and Germany I felt quite happy seeing what could be loosely called “anti-national theory” entering the activist stage in the UK. Just as over here, in the UK I was frequently surprised by quite shallow and foreshortened political positions. However theory itself does not say anything about political practice. Yes, there is a “strong autonomous Antifa movement” in Germany but the question is whether it furthers an emancipating political culture and practice beyond or based on its interesting theoretical output. Looking at the political culture in Germany generally and its parallels with that of the German radical left more particularly (especially that of Climate Camp 2008 in Hamburg and the autonomous movement), this is highly questionable. Therefore, an inter-activist dialogue about this issue is absolutely vital.

There have been innumerable occasions when I spent time with friends in political projects over in the UK, where I thought: “These are so absolutely simple and obvious principles. Why don’t they get it done over here in Germany?”. Hence there are a couple of differences (somewhat intertwined) between the political cultures, which are by no means absolute, but need to be addressed:


1. Organising Ourselves

Movement leaders, closed conspiratorial groups and activist cliques institutionalise and appropriate the movement, leading to exclusion and alienation instead of open, empowering and transparent processes; monopolising power, resources, skills and knowledge instead of sharing them freely and actively. Both of these are obviously practices many of us would deem contradictory to our politics. However these are commonly seen in the (radical) left in Germany and beyond. Attac, 'solid (youth group of The Left party), autonomous groups and more unaligned elitist movement cliques appear wherever a hot topic emerges (G8 2007, Climate Camp 2008, COP15 2009) and seem to push these politics, while the process and media groups seem to be pre-determined for this. Another alternative is to create completely unaccountable parallel structures all together.


2. Making Decisions

If it comes to seemingly “accountable” decision making the “plenary” is the most widely used “method” in Germany. It’s not quite defined but ask a leftist here and he_she will tell you it sucks. As there are mostly no hand-signals, no impartial and well-trained facilitators and no proper decentralisation, it takes ages whilst the rhetorically most eloquent and loudest get their way on the agenda and hence the aforementioned informal hierarchies determine the outcome. It's a joy to see that in the UK, activists seem to get closer to the ideal: making decision on the lowest level, with those who feel affected with a clear and horizontal decision making process, like well-facilitated consensus.


3. Direct Action

Choice 1: Antifa-Demo in town. Frightening barking of some kind of incomprehensible slogan, firecrackers exploding in a crowd of potentially interested folks, the banners shielded by heavy police lines. No flyers at hand. Choice 2: “BlockX”. Like a herd of sheep you are steered towards the fence surrounding the summit, not really knowing what you are doing, while at the same time the press speaker of Attac or some movement “leader” explains why “the movement” is so great. And if the “leader” gets detained he_she will get an exclusive, personified solidarity campaign. No real choice, eh? How about thousands of people in small affinity groups, well-trained beforehand, swarming around stinging the system here and there, wherever they are, with their well-prepared blockades, lock-ons, occupations, sabotage or whatever? Sadly far from reality in Germany where empowerment all too often seems to be a foreign term. I am looking towards the UK climate action movement and gain a little hope...


4. Communication and Education

Sometimes it seems as if the (radical) left in Germany recruits itself mostly from white middle-class sociology students (like me, hehe). What this leads to is an acute academic intellectualism. When reading flyers, manifestos, books or simply talking to us, people simply do not understand. And even within the scene, those who can talk the smartest gain the highest esteem. We have to break it down into simple bits, pick people up where they are and give out our radical, little folk zines. Thanks UK for this piece of D.I.Y.!


5. Setting up Temporary Spaces of Resistance

While we are at it. Have you ever seen a private business pulling up a marquee with a Caterpillar on a Camp for Climate Action? And Dixie toilets? And essentially important Diesel generators? I have! Climate Camp 2008 in Germany. And all this shit was organised by self-declared experts. How about self-organisation? D.I.Y.? Collectively erecting this space of resistance? Pre-figurative politics in infrastructure? Little chance you get this over here. I am really happy to know that there are alternatives over there in the UK, like the Activist Tat Collective...


6. Modesty and Self-Reflection

I believe modesty and critical self-reflection would do us quite good. All too often there is self-glorification, the delusion of false unity and in order to achieve this the formation of alliances for exactly this sake: pushing your brand if you are Attac or 'solid or satisfying your ego or personal career if you were summoned to be the “movement’s leader”. An undogmatic, open and public culture is completely absent here in Germany. Mainly because it would challenge the mentioned privileged and their political practices.


7. Connecting Struggles

“Radical ecology?” “No, sorry I am an Antifa.” Get what I mean? Lately I have been on an activist permaculture course in Devon. Queer-feminism, radical ecology, anti-racism, anti-capitalism and so on. It was all there. Shared passionately by all. Of course we have our preferences. But how absurd would the common German practice seem; to pick whatever hot topic there is (Globalisation, G8, Climate Change) to push your own label-identity-politics or personal movement-esteem? Even worse if you don’t even have a connection or passion to the issues itself anymore.


8. Autonomous Spaces

Compare an Autonomous Centre in Germany with a Social Centre in the UK. When stepping into the Common Place in Leeds I feel a warm and welcoming atmosphere and the attempt to be inclusive to the neighbourhood and the local community. Maybe also a space to charge up if you’re emotionally fucked. An autonomous squat in Germany: Smoky, dark, black, dirty, lame tags and graffiti all over. The neighbourhood mostly wants to get rid of this “dirty blob” and the extremely rigid norms of a restrictive subculture wear out activists and newcomers a like. Maybe we need a norm to question all norms?


9. Towards Utopia

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. Says Adorno. And so does the great part of the (radical) left in Germany. Radical everyday alternatives as practiced in workshops and the build-up of the Camp for Climate Action have a hard time here. But isn’t that exactly what we need? Similar to a reflection on COP15 I would say: What if... we mobilised 100,000 people to act more locally in trans-local solidarity, to provide much needed help to create new and support existing anti-capitalist ways of production, approaches of relating to each other, of actively resisting and creating autonomous spaces for all to skill-share and educate each other in order to imagine and approach the utopia of a liberated society.

In the end this is what this whole article is about. Striving towards our utopia of a political culture and practice.


Glimmers of Hope

And if it was not for all the glimmers of hope that I personally often find in the UK, the political culture and practice that I experienced in Copenhagen the last weeks would force me to look into a bleak future. With few exceptions there was everything but a move towards the goals formulated in this article. But I guess everybody can do the balance themselves.

Lastly it remains to be noted that of course none of the statements above is absolute. Maybe I have dramatised and exaggerated. But for me the tendencies are clear. Of course it’s not black and white. UK is no paradise and Germany is not hell. If you drop by get in touch and check out the anti-nuclear resistance, GMO-field squatters, occupations of animal-lab construction sites or woodland protest-camps against airport expansion or coal-fired heating-pipelines. To name just a few nice little projects.

So... Be on the watch, wherever you are.

First published in Shift Magazine #8 (http://shiftmag.co.uk/)

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