Traces of the Middle Ages | Alistair Noon

A good slogan is a challenge, in more ways than one. Yesterday, your correspondent and a few thousand other Berliners attended the Umfairteilen demo. The name of the demo was a play on the German for “redistribute”, umverteilen (note the pun on the second syllable). So a close-ish translation, losing the wordplay, might be “Fair Redistribution”. Or perhaps a little peppier: “Redistribute Now”. The assembly point was at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s attempt to create a central business district, complete with skyscrapers. But Frankfurt is having none of it – the banks have stayed put.

“Sink capitalism” (sprayed on boiler suits)

Placards translated as “If I wasn’t poor, you wouldn’t be rich” or “Since there isn’t enough to go round, the poor will have to cough up (Ernst Bosch)”. “Smash the power of the banks and corporations” read one handwritten piece of cardboard in German, from the Wedding Migrants’ Group (Wedding being the Communist stronghold in the 1920s and early 30s, and now one stronghold of Berliners with non-German origins, such as the holder of the placard and your correspondent). The Turkish translation on the reverse seemed even peppier, as far as my near non-existent Turkish could judge: Sisteminiz batsin. Attention was drawn to the 32 trillion dollars in onshore and offshore tax havens worldwide.

We passed a part of the Berlin Wall in the state it was after people starting chipping and knocking holes in it in 1989. To stop any more chipping or knocking, it’s now permanently fenced off.

Elsewhere along the demo route, a couple of other structures were cordoned off with riot barriers. The first was the Springer building. Axel Springer was Germany’s Murdoch, and the building is a classic target of left-wing demo ire. A few years back, the local Green Party usefully and ironically got the name of the street changed to Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, Dutschke being the 1968 student leader that the Springer newspapers hounded and defamed till a right-wing nutter went and shot him in the head. He survived, but died a decade later from an epileptic fit related to the consequences of the shooting.

The other structure under guard, a large but nevertheless discreet building that barely advertises itself, is the light and airy House of German Industry, right by a bridge over the river Spree. It’s where various employers’ associations meet under a glass-roofed atrium, and the Chancellor may be invited around of an evening for a glass of wine, at a couple of hundred Euros a bottle (I have a second-hand but credible source for this).

As usual, the police looked mostly miserable, but so would you if you had a riot helmet dangling off your leg, or had to march around with a five-digit number on your back (recently and controversially introduced to identify coppers who whop demonstrators over the head) and in full-body protection that made you look like you’d been on a SupersizeMe diet. Spread out along the riot barriers by the Springer building and the House of German Industry, they had that very furrowed brow they often have, except when they’re standing close enough together to chat with their mates.

As well as the guys and gals in their riot-gear look, the other constants of German left-wing demos were there: Christian Ströbele, now over 70 and white-haired, with his pushbike, pullover and black bushy eyebrows as ever, last remnant of whatever radicality the Green Party may have preserved in its Long March through the Institutions; and the song Keine Macht für Niemand (roughly, “No Power For Nobody”), demo anthem from cult 70s/80s band Ton Steine Scherben. As this was a broad alliance demo, each participating party / organization / movement brought its own van-borne sound system. The Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD (Germany’s New Labour, more or less, except that they never really needed to get New) were, alarmingly, playing AC/DC. We took cover behind Attac.

From a round, bright pink tower a few metres high, marked with the big white words “Traces of the Middle Ages”, two policemen looked down, their riot helmets in their hands, their five-digit ID numbers invisible. The tower was advertising a current exhibition in Berlin, and we passed the exhibition pavilion, which looked more like a large and slightly dilapidated greenhouse in a gardening centre, beside the three-lane highway we were walking down one side of. Along the pavement, officially sanctioned print graffiti tied in with the exhibition, explaining for example that the bridge was where logs were collected in the Middle Ages before being floated further downstream, a trade controlled and taxed by the Margrave of Brandenburg.

At the final rally, beside the stalls of various organizations and left-wing newspapers (which exist in Germany), a stage was set up that could have accommodated a band with enough space for a vocalist to run around. Slogans are even harder when someone expects you to chant them: a female/male compère duo attempted to rouse the participants into mass exclamations of Um-Fair-Teil-En! Um-Fair-Teil-En! and Reichtum besteuern! Reichtum besteuern! (the latter with roughly the meaning and certainly the naturalness of “Taxation on wealth! Taxation on wealth!”). But the rally was decidedly slow on the uptake.

In fact, it was positively comatose. It may have been the polysyllabicity of the slogans. Or else the gut feeling that a slogan needs to be intuitive and more or less – assuming a few shared principles – beyond argument. Given the enormous surplus value creamed off other peoples’ hard work 24/7 by major shareholders and top managers, coupled with the pressure on public finances for things like old-peoples’ day centres (our local one is under threat), big-style redistributive taxation seems to me a more than legitimate demand.

But much as we might agree on it, its subject matter is not as reducible to a moral imperative as old demo favourites such as Nazis raus! There’s the issue, for example, of how to ensure democratically that the retrieved tax billions are used for public services rather than more bank bailouts the next time they come. And the nagging feeling that a Marxist scepticism towards reform of the current system might not be wholly up the spout. The female/male compère duo continued their attempts to get the audience to sing along, a slight note of desperation creeping into their voices, then to be replaced by defiance again. Few joined in. I checked out the stalls. The longest queue was for the Bockwurst.

There was also a group dressed in white boiler suits, that held up a banner sideways to the march, stating that what was needed was not redistribution but smashing Capitalism (with another play on words I forgot to note down). At the rally they were chanting their own slogan, the kind prevalent among the more anarchistically inclined, that literally requires choir practice, and which one witnesses much as one might listen to cathedral choristers: beautiful to listen to, and hard to join in with.

Then we nipped off for a coffee.

30 September 2012

Alistair Noon’s Longbarrow Press pamphlets Across the WaterAnimals and Places and Swamp Area are available to buy here.  To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here.  Earth Records (his first full-length collection) is available from Nine Arches Press.

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