Berlin and Occupy seem to be a perfect match, at least if we accept the city’s self-image as an indicator: it presents itself as the unofficial capital of vegans, penniless artists busy working on “projects,” or simply “poor but sexy” as Mayor Wowereit declared in 2003.
Why, one wonders, has the Occupy movement failed so epically in gaining momentum in Germany’s capital? As early as October 2011 Thomas Straubhaar, the Swiss economist and director of the Hamburg World Economic Institute, argued that the movement’s famous slogan – “we are the 99 percent” – was inappropriate for the German economic context, making it very unlikely that Occupy Germany could become a popular movement comparable to the US. Since Germany is blessed with a comprehensive welfare state, relatively low unemployment and a low inflation rate, Straubhaar suggested there was no German “99 percent” that could potentially unite against a wealthy and powerful minority.
On October 15, 2011, the day of the first large-scale demonstrations in Germany, this material analysis was proved wrong. On sunny Alexanderplatz in central Berlin, I found myself part of a very diverse crowd of demonstrators: elderly pensioner couples, families with pre-packed sandwiches and tea, smart men in suits, hipsters, naked hippies, radical leftist groups and a large number of very normal-looking people. Two weeks later the magazine Focus reported that 87% of all Germans questioned could relate to the global protestors’ resentment. What was it that this vast majority of people could agree on?
Even though the Occupy Wall Street movement has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of a clear political agenda, the name itself actually suggests two very simple and straightforward sentiments: a profound dissatisfaction with the financial sector, and the demand for more democratic control. The same applies to the “99 percent” signifier. While the number clearly refers to income inequality in the US, it is as much a prescriptive statement as it is a descriptive analysis. Even though 99 percent of Americans share a similar position with regard to income distribution, the recent presidential elections have illustrated once again that no political agenda can be automatically derived from that shared material agenda. Even if 99 percent of all Americans are similar in this one respect, the life of an indebted college graduate student, for instance, is structurally very different to that of a working-class single mother. Rather than being an economic analysis, “We are the 99 percent” is a demand to unite, despite our differences; the vast majority of people who do not benefit from financial capitalism against those who do. In fact, Occupy Berlin initially felt much more like a strategic alliance between various socio-economic groups than a coherent movement united by material economic conditions.
Once the almost carnivalesque crowd had found its way to the Kanzleramt (where Mrs. Merkel resides), however, this initial feeling of sharing a limited but significant political agenda faded away as quickly as it had emerged. The people around me, at least, managed to ignore a woman’s ten-minute speech about her community’s fight against an underground CO2 storage unit in Brandenburg, and why the 99 percent should be, or rather were, on her side. But a strange feeling of discomfort began to spread when an ambitious “sexy but poor” artist advertised his personal website – notably through the human mic. “Occupy Berlin” was admittedly already ambiguous, as the lowest common denominator among the 99 percent was dissatisfaction with the financial system (Wall Street or Frankfurt) rather than the entire German political system (Berlin): one anarchist group re-interpreted it further, and turned it into “Occupy Parliament” by setting up camp in front of the Bundestag, the German Parliament building.
I am not against radical political demands in principle, and although I do not identify as an anarchist, I believe that anarchism constitutes a legitimate political belief. However the problem of the very first Occupy Berlin protest was its inability to maintain a universal political agenda, which could nonetheless be shared by the various particular social groups involved. The beauty of the original assembly at Alexanderplatz lay in the fact that very different individuals could not only relate to that vague feeling of dissatisfaction with the financial system, but also felt obliged to go out and express their dissent.
In the late afternoon, most of the ordinary-looking people had disappeared: some at least, I believe, bewildered by what they found themselves demonstrating for. Once a movement has gained momentum, concrete solutions have to be developed; finding more concrete solutions that involve not only 99 but even 100 percent of the population is a painful, tiring and slow process. Occupy Berlin could not even reach that point because specific interests tried to monopolize what had begun as a near-universal protest, under their particular agendas. Only when I walked home did I realize that I had not attended a protest. Rather, it was me, along with all the other disappointed participants who had originally constituted the very protest we ended up disagreeing with.