Beauty is in the street by Joachim C Häberlen – Plastic People, the power of pedaling and the force of protest

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“Human sacrifices are made daily to this idol of idiots: the power of the automobile,” said the statement issued in 1965 by countercultural Dutch anarchists and performance artists who called themselves the Provotariat.

Long before Ulez, 15-minute cities and Just Stop Oil, the Provos (nothing to do, needless to say, with Irish republicanism) were trying to end what one of them called “the asphalt terror of the motorized masses ”.

The Provos argued that Amsterdam’s city center should be closed to cars and that an armada of white-painted bicycles should flood the city. The bikes would be unlocked to provide the “first free community transport”.

The initiative clearly did not go down well with the Amsterdam police. They argued that “the bicycles were not locked and therefore invited theft” and removed them.

These and more events served, in that ugly verb, to problematize authority and consumer society, argues Joachim C. Häberlen in this friendly and vast history of European countercultural agitators, including the feminists of Greenham Common, the Paris enragés of the 68, the Plastic People of Prague the Universe and, my favorites, the alternative orange fetishist of the Polish dwarfs.

Karl Marx was outdated, many of these groups thought: it was not religion that was the opiate of the masses, but consumer capitalism in general and the cult of the automobile in particular. “His incense is to suffocate with carbon monoxide,” argued the Provotariat.

In fact, the traditional heroes of Marxism, the proletariat, were no longer fit for revolutionary purpose, argued Herbert Marcuse, dean of the New Left in his 1964 bestseller. one-dimensional man. Subaltern groups – people of color, women, gays, hippies, and anyone who yearns to live beyond the constraints of white supremacist, heteronormative capitalist norms – could fill the gap left by the working class.

It was these groups, Häberlen maintains, who revolutionized Europe by fighting for legal abortions, gay rights, decent treatment for “illegal” immigrants and refugees, and otherwise imposed it on men on both sides of the curtain of iron.

The Orange Alternative mobilized the power of the absurd. On walls whitewashed by the authorities to cover up anti-state slogans during strikes and martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, Waldemar Fydrych and his colleagues painted small figures of red dwarfs. The police beat him for this outrage before asking him: “What about midgets?” “I want a revolution,” he responded, bruised but expressionless. “A revolution of dwarfs.”

Riots are a joyous event if done right, argued a 1960s West Berlin group called Fighters of the Erupting Sado-Marxist International.

Fydrych and his friends handed out red paper hats to passersby, while others danced, played the guitar and sang: “We are the dwarfs/ Hop sa sa/ Hop sa sa/ Our houses are under the mushrooms.” “Whoever does not take off the special hat must show his identity card,” said a police officer through a megaphone. Once again the police had lost their way.

Häberlen’s suggestion is that the collapse of the Soviet bloc was made more likely by such microdemonstrations of state stupidity. You may be right. But flower power and transgressive liberation could mutate into oppression… and worse. In a chapter on street violence and terrorism, Häberlen concludes that rather than imagining a different world, groups such as the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy “began to reflect the state, its language, and its institutions.” ”.

Häberlen is good at the sliding scale of countercultural protest: from putting flowers in soldiers’ rifles, on the one hand, to political assassination, on the other. In between, he finds the exhilaration of fighting in the street. Riots are a joyous event if done right, argued a 1960s West Berlin group called Fighters of the Erupting Sado-Marxist International. His greatest pleasure was destroying what made life unbearable: “Goods, automobiles, concrete traffic, fragmented time…”

Much of its focus is on Germany, meaning, for example, there’s a long, engrossing analysis of Berlin’s techno scene, but nothing about its near-contemporary 1980s British rave culture, although the latter was not , in any case, less antinomian.

Some of your analyzes seem a bit threadbare and symbolic. Chapter 11 deals with the women’s and homosexual movements, for example, shoehorning together different struggles. That said, her analysis of the Greenham anti-war women’s camp, which from 1981 to 2000 opposed the siting of cruise missiles in Berkshire, is wonderful and moving, not only for its analysis of nonviolent political protest, but for its realization that these feminists did something extraordinary in Thatcher’s Britain, creating a queer space where women could try practical alternatives to living beyond the competing ideologies of the Cold War superpowers.

He is also very good at squatting and writes passionately about those who moved into abandoned buildings in neighborhoods near the Berlin Wall and experienced collective life. In Kreuzberg, this involved setting up long tables on the streets for communal meals, abolishing private halls, and undermining the traditional bourgeois family. A hell for some, but a vision of heaven for others.

What is the legacy of these movements? On the one hand, Häberlen correctly points out that, far from overthrowing capitalism, they helped it mutate and survive, since his anti-hierarchical ideas helped change work culture. Instead of offering keys to executive bathrooms, companies now instill loyalty with bean bags and supposedly democratic seating areas.

And yet, there is still something inspiring in the aspirations of much countercultural protest, Häberlen maintains. As? “A world without sexist and racist discrimination, a world that protects and values ​​nature instead of exploiting it for profit, a world in which residents have the right to their city, to affordable housing and to public space.”

He’s right: imagine cities without locks for bikes, cars or front doors, with public spaces where you can sit without having to buy things and where you can meet people beyond your echo chambers. A dream, perhaps, but it still sounds worth fighting for, even beautiful.

  • Beauty is in the street: protest and counterculture in postwar Europe by Joachim C Häberlen is published by Allen Lane (£35). to support the guardian and Observer Order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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