May ’68 Forever

Neukölln, 11 May.

The Sixties are a cliché. They have been since the 1980s. But, who wouldn’t argue that the era isn’t preferable to the one we live in now. Everything in politics is about time these days. Nostalgia, in particular.

The past’s appeal couldn’t be more clear. With conservative politics again the order of the day, and the world on the brink of yet another world war, it seems like the West has only regressed since the 1960s.

That’s the feeling one gets encountering street art like this. As an act of remembrance, it is meant to highlight the deficiencies of the present as much as remind us of the events of May 1968, when France was overwhelmed by near revolutionary conditions.

The idea that such an event could take place in 2018 seems entirely out of place. Revolutions are a thing of the past in the West. The political logic of contemporary capitalism appears resistant to such interruptions. Despite persistent financial crises, the status quo inheres.

The hackneyed idea of disruption is just that. Borrowed from tech boosters, in sticks because it accurately describes what substitutes for revolution: Sudden transitions of the same, not class conflict with indeterminate outcomes.

The foreignness of the left to today’s world is reflected in the language of these posters. They’re largely in English, which is noteworthy insofar as they are posted in Germany’s capital city, not in London, or New York.

Berlin, of course, is an international city, with a high percentage of English-speakers. And, similarly, the events referred to in these prints took place somewhere else – France. Yet, one cannot help but get the feeling that the language reinforces their alien political character.

Still, few cities are more appropriate for such reflection than Berlin. The capital of Europe’s wealthiest country, it is also Germany’s poorest city, boasting an unemployment rate of  8.4 %,  and over 10,000 homeless persons, helping underwrite its reputation as a ‘failed city’.

Infrastructure is in a state of disrepair, Berlin carries a debt of over 36 billion euros. Unable to support itself on its own tax revenue, it is Germany’s largest recipient of equalisation funds, meant to put all of its states on an equal financial footing, receiving over 3.6 billion in support from other German lander in 2017 alone.

It’s a fraught situation, helping drive resentment for the city’s cosmopolitan character and over-dependence on tourism and culture. Foreign investors might like it for its cheap real estate, but for right-wingers, it looks like Sodom.

Hence, the appeal of revolutionary symbols of the 1960s. Their foreignness is simply a way of forcing a conversation about the uncomfortable, both locally and in general, about the German economy and the prevailing ideology of its present.

Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. Published under a Creative Commons license.