Winter may not be over, but it’s only temporarily paused, and a strange spring cunningly calls us out to gather together and touch each other as we’d never imagined we could.
No contact. Ban on assembly. Strict restrictions on going out. It seems that in corona times we have to cut back all our political activity. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We show you now corona-compliant occupation. By far, with respect, but also with passion and necessity. Apartments for everyone are more necessary than ever. While we’re supposed to stay at home, there are tens of thousands of people who don’t have home for themselves. People without shelter. People in closed institutions. At the same time there are tens of thousands of apartments are empty. Because of Airbnb, vacation rental, or speculative vacancy. We’re not waiting for Senate and the government.
We start redistributing today.
I find these sentences in the live-streaming platform twitch.tv, otherwise mainly used by gamers. They are followed by a scene with people with their protective masks on, with glasses, colorful hats, rotating the hands of a toy clock. It’s the #besetzen collective. In times of a pandemic they are live-streaming their squatting actions. “We have nothing to lose but the next rent increase,” they say.
The following text could be interpreted in various ways but is above all untimely. Even when it was still fictitious, I was catching up with current or past changes and trying to adapt to events that caught me unprepared and uncomprehending. The decisive factor that compelled me to write whatever and however I’m capable of, despite not only the publicistic but also existential unpreparedness, is the current pandemic, a global crisis. This last unpreparedness, in fact, is the only one to which I can hope for the reader’s sympathy. Therefore, if someone descends upon these lines, I would want them to initially feel out of sync with them – as I was for a long time before getting them arranged – and only then, seen through the prism of the total current crisis, to understand them. Let’s experience the disturbing untimeliness and disjointedness as a productive, hopefully even inspiring fragmentation of time, and hence – of narrative.
Never rent in peace
I’ve never been good at dealing with moments of “last farewell,” I’ve even actively avoided them, especially when it comes to death. Fortunately, in this case it wasn’t exactly about that. Additionally helpful was the fact that my understanding of German is still struggling to reach that of a five-year-old.
It was seven in the evening, it was dark, cold, with barely any pedestrians and very few cars. A large boulevard (by Berlin standards – a street like any other), a crossroad, a bus stop, and on the sidewalk behind it a group of around fifty people was standing around in several arcs. The main entrance of a large, administrative-type building. On the ground before it and along the walls were lying candles, photographs, flowers; banners were spread, poems and critical articles were read, music was heard, food and beer were given out. The atmosphere was mournful, but there was a perceivable nuance of reconciliation and intimacy, and mostly of hope that no last farewell would ever suggest. This wasn’t a commemoration, but a meeting for untimely memories of the future.
Drugstore is one of the oldest youth centers in Germany and the oldest self-organized one in Berlin (founded 1972). A focal point for the punk and anarchist scene, for music, discussions, movie projections, exhibitions, but mostly – “a free space, separated from every-day capitalism; a safe space, opposing machismo and discrimination.” After the initial termination of their contract in 2015, two extensions, and the symbolic key hand-over in 2018, on the 6th of February 2020 this pocket of autonomy ceased to exist. At least physically. At least for now. Because the collective remains active and continues to organize various events and initiatives throughout the city, even to this moment. The pocket of autonomy remains, dissolved into something larger.
Wir bleiben alle!
Squatting, not handing over the key to the new tenant and intentionally moving it around various districts and places, refusing to leave the property until eviction, slogans “We’re staying,” everywhere – what follows from all this?
Some people from the Sponti movement would say, probably after a deep reading of Nietzsche, that the will and the irrational, the emotional precede reason. Therefore, the pure will and spontaneous emotion are more reliable engines of human action in the face of uncertainty. The ancients’ fear of the gods and the phenomena of demonic occurences, the passionate, spontaneous organization of demonstration, cultural event, or occupation have more potential for substantial change than the endless arrangements and procedures of the party or the state. And don’t we experience the current days as if we have opened Pandora’s box? In such situations especially the obsession with analysis, with theory, knowledge as a rational attempt to contain and direct reality will lead us nowhere.
Yet still, more analysis: the root of the word “temporality” (temp-, lat.) can be literally translated as stretching, expanding, lengthening.
Endings, beginnings, remainings
I find myself imprisoned for a third consecutive week in a small apartment in Berlin and I feel it’s necessary to recall how all this started.
Together with dVERSIA, a newly-created collective at that time, we started the column Pockets of Autonomy in 2015 with an interview with the Social center Adelante in Sofia. The reason was that the center was relocating and in need of support for finding a place. Some months later it was closed down, as the activists considered the project to be maxed out. At the beginning of 2016 we continued with Social center Xaspel, also in Sofia, but it also closed doors after a couple of months because the collective wasn’t able to pay the rent and maintain the space. Again, in 2016 we interviewed the Autonomous Worker’s Syndicate in the city of Varna, which later on had to endure significant changes, and in 2019 reorganized itself into the Autonomous Worker’s Confederation. In 2017 we had a conversation with the just-opened Fabrika Avtonomia, created by members of Adelante and up to this day has been going through huge difficulties in paying rent as well, after already one relocation. Lastly, in 2019 we interviewed the Social center Ex-OPG in Naples, which gave birth to the significant Potere al Popolo movement, housed in an already closed institution for mentally ill people with criminal offences.
Where are the conditions for other futures that will not be a reproduction of the present? Here, in the present. Where will this lead? I do not know. What I do know is that an alternative to the present can be reached through the creation of other autonomous pockets of power and expression, of other ways of using the capacities of the anonymous. That is to say, by maintaining and renewing the forms of existence of a power that is not oligarchic.
These are the words of Jacques Ranciere from a discussion with Ernesto Laclau in 2012, that inspired this column. In this concrete context, his statement’s main point is to criticize the Marxist orthodoxy that capitalism’s contradictions would inevitably create a subject, which would ultimately destroy it (a critique, valid for any orthodoxy of modernity based upon fantasies of a homogeneous political subject). But in reality, the idea of capitalism as something external, which we can oppose as a united whole, has expired long ago. The question is how to oppose it from underneath or from the inside of it, all the while being a multitude of different subjects. How, for instance, to struggle for a better world from home, or if you go to work, while being afraid of infection, or when every movement and thought can be traced, if not even anticipated?
For Ranciere (following, in turn, Alain Badiou, Being and Event, 1988) politics as essential change (instead of a governance of the status quo), always begins from some kind of pocket, from some separate space, which the subject (a group, party, movement, or whatever it may be) ceases following the dominating order, organizing itself in new ways. It stops time, as it was passing until then, and creates and prolongs its own, different time. From the revolutions of the previous centuries to the movements and big protest waves of the last decades, every significant change has begun in one way or another with the seizing of buildings, squares, public spaces in general, from where a new (possible) order announced itself – the republic, the commune, the councils, “democracy” – i.e. the new epoch. At the time I write this it could be the last day of germinal (according to the French revolutionary calendar), March 1491st (according to the French movement Nuit Debout from 2016), and there could be no Sunday comming (according to the Soviet calendar between 1929 and 1940). (Alas, it’s Thurdsday, April 30th actually, and the 48nd day since I am imprisoned at home.)
While I’m talking to Jasmin, Paul, and Brot, around a dozen people join us at times, and at other times take up cleaning and tidying up the space. The reason to meet is the same: the threat of eviction and the possible end to yet another pocket of autonomy. Potse, which opened seven years after Drugstore on the same floor of the same building in Potsdamer Straße, lost the court case against their new landlord in the summer of 2019. Even though it’s about a youth center, the judge, following the law verbatim, refuses to admit people under the age of 16 into the courtroom. For these and other reasons, a new case against the judge himself was filed on charges of partiality. Just recently, however, it was lost as well.
Currently the collective is occupying the space and refuses to hand over the key while expecting eviction in June. After the losses in court they’ve stopped the concerts and other cultural, social, and political events they were holding until then. They open only in the evenings, and not every day. Besides maintaining the space and dealing with the authorities they just don’t have the time and energy for something else. When they can, they simply gather and enjoy still being able to be together, and of being together exactly here. I found myself together with them during one of these evenings of joy.
Slowly people began to gather. In one of the two rooms left after all the changes, more and more teenagers were piling up. It turned out that a large part of the visitors are typically between the ages of 13 to 20, and that the core of the collective was made up of older members. But several generations have passed through – the children’s children of some of the first in Potse continue to come, and sometimes 50 to 60 year olds come to remember the old times. I had a similar impression on the last farewell of Drugstore – all kinds of people, of every age.
The Senate (the executive power in Berlin), and more specifically the Department of Education, Youth, and Family, recognizes Potse as a youth service, admitting its role for the cultural and social integration of young people. Initially, the building had been their property, then – of the BVG (the municipal company, responsible for Berlin’s public transport), and then – of another company, and now – of yet another. Potse’s collective hasn’t stopped, with the help of the Senate (paying their rent even after the court’s decision, when it’s significantly higher), to search for a new space, unfortunately without success. Either the rent is unbearably high, or the spaces aren’t meeting the needs of the youth center.
The tradition of youth centers throughout the Western world is long, complex, and diverse. To this date hundreds of them exist in Germany, but most are institutionalized, professionalized as services for adolescents and youth. The wave of which radical spaces like Potse and Drugstore are part of is, however, more peculiar. It stems from the 1970s, from the encounter of social workers, bohemians, and leftists in West Berlin, and the attempt to rebuild and rethink abandoned, bombed out buildings with low rent, located by undesirable corners of the Wall. In practice all of the city’s pockets of autonomy emerged somewhere in the echo of 1968, between the Italian autonomist movement and its local realization – Autonome, as well as between the Green, the squatting and the Sponti movements.
That’s why the attitude of the people I met towards everything happening surely shouldn’t surprise me: they have a rich legacy, a lot of support, little romanticism, more nihilism… Questioned how they imagine their future, in Potse they hope to have found a new space, and to not have problems with the neighbors by 2025 (a horizon I proposed). Brot believes that the squats and all these other autonomous spaces are “remarkably prepared to handle evictions.” Yet they didn’t mention anything about a different political order. At first I found it strange, to say the least; now I’m not so sure.
At the time there was no way for them to know how much they were prepared for a global pandemic. But they knew that since they had received the first preliminary notice from the authorities in 2015, the whole collective has been much more politically conscious. And that the generation growing up around them in these times of insecurity have a different, more comprehensive understanding of how to do politics.
I began working on this text at the beginning of January. On a friend’s recommendation I met with Domi – an old member of Drugstore and a recognized activist in the circles. Neither the cigarette smoke, nor even the beers, but the first few minutes of my conversation with her made me feel dizzy. It turned out I was completely unprepared for what I was facing.
Initially my wish seemed quite simple – to find an accessible and curious model, practice, project, collective in Berlin and to present it to the Bulgarian audience. It turned out that would be, to put it mildly, inadequate, and already in the course of my conversation with Domi the fiction behind this text began to emerge. I realized that over 70 active spaces, which could be dubbed pockets of autonomy – squats, bars, youth and cultural centers, community gardens (inter-block spaces and courtyards collectively managed by the residents), so-called Hausprojekte (providing affordable accommodation for those in need) and others, are scattered throughout the whole of Berlin.
From this encounter I understood also that I have to make sense of a whole ocean of information on a great current problem, of which only small drops had reached me so far. The gentrification process in Berlin has become unbearable in proportion. Renovations and new constructions had virtually seized the whole city; real estate capital is concentrated in the hands of just a few market mastodons; excessive demand is at play (according to some, every apartment owned by the major players on the market in the autumn of last year had around 800 willing to rent it). All of this has led in the past years not to affordable life for everyone in the megapolis, as the benevolent if yet invisible hand of the market should have arranged, but to an unprecedented housing crisis. Hundreds of thousands can’t afford to pay, and the new landlords usually refuse to negotiate. Despite some measures like capping the prices for five years, property purchases by the municipality, and encouraging construction of new residential buildings, apparently the state isn’t able (or willing) to fight the endless greed of businesses. Shops, establishments, cultural centers, whole housing cooperatives and their residents, the pockets of autonomy, more and more homeless people, and thousands of disenchanted newcomers – all fall victim to the cruel economic race.
The biggest movement resisting these processes comes in the face of Mietenwahnsinn, or “Rent Madness” – a movement uniting over 150 different groups and organizations.
The smaller, but more radical association which interests me here calls itself Die Interkiezionale. An obvious reference to the socialist Internationals, the word Kiez in Germany and especially in Berlin is a part of a borough, a neighborhood, which is defined by the residents themselves and which rarely coincides with the official administrative division. Mainly coordinated by a couple of collectives and partnering with Mietenwahnsinn, Die Interkiezionale unites the autonomous spaces of Berlin around slogans like
We want all to stay!
We want to stop rent hikes, evictions, and speculations, here and everywhere!
We want the abolition of rent and property relations!
We want collectivization now!
formulated at an assembly in January
I immediately found all this to be extremely interesting and significant. Autonomous, but not closed-off pockets (as any other pocket in clothing, the entrance/exit is tight), connected and open to a broad range of not necessarily radical groups of people. All of them united to solve the common crisis, and since recently – to solve it within another even greater crisis.
Not one project, not one home less!
While Berlin presents itself as a queer capital, a queer-feminist housing project is about to be kicked out. Enough!
While Berlin has an urgent need for youth and social services, the city watches how the two oldest self-organizing youth and social centers are being forcibly displaced. Enough!
While affordable residential and commercial space is becoming increasingly scarce, important alternative residential and project locations such as Lause and Køpi are on the verge of being resold and thus facing an uncertain future.
Many of our own stories show that projects of solidarity cohabitation, networks for social engagement in the neighborhoods, and non-commercial spaces for initiatives and associations emerge from occupations. Nevertheless, the appropriation and utilization of vacant space are thoroughly persecuted by police violence within 24 hours.
Give the G17a their apartment back! All housing communities threatened by eviction stay!
The supply of new places for accommodation is usually reserved for tourists and many Berliners simply can’t afford them. At the same time, bars existing for years, which are often organized collectively and usually provide space for socializing of the neighborhood’s residents, for consultation in social questions and political events, are being kicked out. Enough!
While alternative ways of life find self-determined spaces to live and work such as wagon sites, they are increasingly threatened by repression. Enough!
This is part of a petition available at keinhausweniger.info. One of my hosts drew my attention to a poster dedicated to it. I had asked them to take me around the space and to show me posters and everything that could possibly help me understand what was happening.
The time is in the very first days of February, about seven in the evening – cold, but even more so, humid. The place is located in Neukölln, not far from the closed airport Tempelhof. While it was active, the noise of the airplanes had made this part of the neighborhood unattractive for others except for poor migrants and simple workers, and thus had made it cheap. Now, in times of tumultuous gentrification, its excellent connectivity and roaring life condemned its residents to the same fate as shared earlier by those in Kreuzberg, soon by those in Wedding, etc.: the consolidation of property and an ever more unaffordable standard of living for the majority.
This is the Syndikat – a collectively run bar and a pocket of autonomy with 35 years of history. Some days ago I met Domi there, and this time I was talking to Lukas and Christian.
Particularly revealing is the story about the exposure of the new owner of the building they’re inhabiting. As with Potse and Drugstore, they too have faced refusal to negotiate and have gone to court. In a flat note, however, the other side’s representative has declared to be simply an authorized person only and that he’s unable to say anything about the actual owner. Little by little activists and investigative journalists reveal the truth – 76 companies, registered in one and the same address in Luxembourg, a gigantic tax scheme, and ownership of at least 6,200 properties in Berlin. At their top sits a British dynasty called Pears Global, managing real estate worth over six billion pounds around the world. The Berlin public, including politicians, is shocked – for so long no one suspected that a gigantic monopoly was literally overtaking the city in front of everyone’s eyes!
The other mastodon, this time a local one, named Deutsche Wohnen, and its subsidiaries own more than 115,000 properties throughout Berlin, which is over two-thirds of all properties for accommodation and commerce in the city. Opposing the purchase of over 240,000 properties in total by similar conglomerates in 2019 activists filed a petition calling for a referendum, to decide whether the citizens agree to implement the idea that all large-scale owners are forbidden to hold more than 3,000 properties, and the rest to be purchased by the municipality. So far the petition is successful, but the referendum is being dragged on with the argument that a legal mechanism is being sought.
But with Lukas and Christian we were mainly talking about Die Interkiezionale through their perspective, especially since Syndikat is one of the movement’s coordinators. For them, as well as for me, this connecting of the collectives is unprecedented and very significant, but one success is even greater – that under a common threat an unseen solidarity between large groups of Berlin’s residents has evolved. Even older locals and not just heavily politicized people have begun expressing their concerns about how things are changing – the disappearance of neighbors, shops, establishments, without any transparency and without anyone asking them. Christian told me about a case where an old guy from the neighborhood came in the bar specifically to tell them that although he doesn’t particularly like them and doesn’t agree completely with what they’re doing, he supports them in their struggle and wouldn’t want them to disappear as well. At other times, people of different parts of the city, being affected as tenants of apartments, have come seeking advice on how to organize, how to get involved in the resistance.
But for us there is no complaining, // Winter will in time be past
My encounters and explorations in Berlin, the writing of this material, made me rethink the way in which I perceive the pockets of autonomy completely. If I’d stayed lost in their beginnings and endings, their comings and goings, merely counting the places and how long they survived, as if they were random, isolated holes in the otherwise homogeneous space-time of the dominating order, I’d be doomed to not understand anything at all.
But now I think of a fox hole – a maze of tunnels with a multitude of entrances and exits. To look at the separate holes in the ground and whether they are open or collapsed doesn’t tell you anything substantial. The substantial thing is that here exist a multitude of times, and each is passing differently to the one on the surface; that sustaining them, like the affirmation “We’re staying!” and writing about them, have exactly this task – to keep alive the potential of a possible, knowable temporality, different to the dominating one, and therefore of a possible, conceivably better world. After over 350 different events held in its space, “Fabrika Avtonomia” exists up to this day, in the 48th spring of squatting in Berlin.
In time the winter will be passed, and meanwhile the ideas and practices of new possible worlds need to be exercised and sheltered somewhere. As paradoxical as it sounds – only now I realize! – if the pockets of autonomy aren’t being linked, they’re incomprehensible. From the 1970s to this day and from Sofia to Berlin we can (and have to?) imagine this experience as one. Or at least as a common temporality. Or at least as temporalities, connected by the rejection of the dominating order, the time of the status quo, and of history as a rational narrative line from past to future, with every single one of us doing everything they can (and way beyond it) to save themselves from its end…
But today is the 49th and the 42nd day since Bulgaria and Germany respectively have declared emergency measures in response to the pandemic of the new coronavirus.
It’s not quite clear if and how the pockets of autonomy in Berlin are functioning at the moment. Youth centers offer remote counseling for mental health problems and in cases of domestic violence. #besetzen showed how to squat in times of quarantine. But where the pockets are places for people to come together their activities became impossible, and those depending on their daily income like bars, experience especially hard times and don’t succeed in gathering the funds they need to pay their already unbearably high rents. The Senate has kindly requested landlords to not persecute those tenants who demonstrably can’t pay during the period. In the meanwhile, even though they eventually changed their decision and apologized, giants like Adidas had planned to not pay rent for their stores during this period. Evictions have been suspended for now as well – the kicking out of the Syndikat, planned for April 17th, has been postponed for now, but the eviction of Potse in June remains in force. This, in short, is how the relationship between landlords and tenants looks like in these extraordinary times from the position of the pockets of autonomy. Or at least, how I saw it.
In his book Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy, and Resistance after Occupy Wall Street (2013) Jason Adams endorses a useful argument. According to him kairos (the right moment to do something) and kronos (time as an all-embracing whole) are not necessarily opposed in the sense that kairos can stop and rearrange kronos, as maintained in the tradition from Benjamin to Badiou, Agamben, and Ranciere. On the contrary, both can be transcendental lines, imposed “from above”, and then there is, for instance, a perfect time to marry, a perfect time to open or close a youth center, and so on. The timeliness of even the most carefully planned and rational political action does not necessarily mean that it is subversive and in the direction of change. Instead, Adams proposes the concept of kairopolitics, in which kairon and kronon become simply rhetorical figures for the deliberately inappropriate – from a official political point of view – the “right” moment for something to be done. This way, creating pockets of autonomy and writing about them becomes productive only if it’s untimely in the sense of out of place, inappropriate, and ultimately – destined to be incomprehensible from the official order’s perspective. That’s why in the beginning I too had been chasing and already passing – or even past changes, and hadn’t understood anything having just recently arrived in Berlin from a completely different context, I found myself within a storm of great changes. I found my time had to fit in between the dominating one – and those of the pockets of autonomy.
The pandemic and the measures against it did strange things with our time. At first glance time is finally universal and equal to all, because we are all silently expecting the pandemic to somehow end, in order for us to continue. That, of course, is only a deception, because even in such a period the class society brings forth totally different experiences of everyday life for doctors, office workers, cleaners, etc. Rather, in an unprecedented way, we found ourselves in the terrible endlessness of Kronos, the great destroyer. It’s unknown when the end will come and what it will mean for every one of us. It seems as if now is not the right time for anything and even the official order “from above” is hesitant to recommend anything other than “wash your hands and stay at home.” But as #besetzen demonstrated at the beginning of this text, it doesn’t have to be this way. Because, with only a slight paradigm shift we may as well be stuck in an endless kairos.
And like the latent last farewell with all that is familiar (including life itself), always lurking behind the corner, behind the next minute, flickers also a latent spark of hope. Today’s situation suddenly blocks the hustle in which we were living – you cannot be productive below the maximum of your potential every day, every hour; you cannot miss this deadline (including to write this text); you cannot stop, because otherwise everything connected to you will stop as well, including your very self. These days we see that this is all just a theater directed by something ethereal which is not us. The obvious, everyday facts of the production to which we had gotten used to have collapsed overnight but, aside from that the world isn’t ending at all.
In a terribly challenging way the current situation is “more now” than ever. Maybe it is the only untethered from all the destructive, carefully aligned into one chain from past to future “nowness” which we’ll be experiencing until the end of our days. Maybe right now every second is kairon – the right moment to act, to write, to connect.
The coronavirus, apologies for the distasteful wordplay, unleashes a kaironavirus. Millions of people around the world are getting infected with the potential of acting in the time of now – “with respect, but also with passion and necessity,” as #besetzen put it. The digital space is bursting with new ideas and practices – lectures, webinars, discussions, sharing of materials, the organizing of new forms of political action, of pressure on a status quo fallen into chaos – about how the decades-long dormant, possible worlds may break out onto the surface. What better moment for the pockets of autonomy to be sought, talked about, connected, expanded?
Because winter may not be over, but it’s only temporarily paused, and a strange spring cunningly calls us out to gather together and touch each other as we’d never imagined we could.