what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Burning and ....Celebration of Books

My local branch of the Thalia bookstore chain was offering remaindered books yesterday in the huge Rhein Centre Mall just minutes from the house I’m renting in the delightful Bahnstrasse whose quiet street goes back 100 years. I emerged clutching 4 books for 10 euros – all of them real finds. First Umberto Eco’s stunning 450 page On Ugliness (although my version was in German, Scribd gives me the full version here in English!!) which immediately goes into the short list I have of “beautiful books” (others include The History of Reading; The Embarrassment of Riches; and Bean Eaters and Bread Soup.

It was 80 years ago (10 May 1933) that the infamous “burning of the books” took place in Nazi Germany – an event which is still marked today. Volker Weidermann is a German literary critic who has published The Book of Burned Books which was my second purchase. The website I love German books noted 3 years ago that it -
provides portraits of every writer on a list compiled by the librarian Wolfgang Herrmann who drew up his list of books by 131 writers of “un-German spirit” for removal from public libraries. It was the student organisation Deutsche Studentenschaft that organised the book burnings around Germany, using the list to select the titles. The writers in question were communists, Jews, anti-militarists and feminists – in a few cases all of the above. The book burning had different consequences for many of them. There were those who went into exile, many of them dying far from home, those who resorted to “inner emigration” of varying degrees of hypocrisy – and some who adapted to the regime, openly writing propaganda for the Nazis. Many of them are still household names in a certain kind of household today, while others died in poverty and obscurity. Plenty of names would be familiar to English readers: Klaus Mann, Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. And Weidermann gives us some quirky details on these writers, such as the letters exchanged between Zweig and Roth and Heinrich Mann’s fading optimism in the USA.
And one man – Georg Salzmann – started in the 1970s to collect specimens of these books from flea markets and antiquarian bookshops, amassing a collection of 12,000 which he donated in 2009 to the University of Augsburg. I admire such obsessions!

My third book is actually a comic – the first I have ever bought (in any language). Der Bewegte man (I thought it meant the “aroused man”) appeared in 1987 was probably one of Germany’s first gay comic strips. The author - Ralf Konig - reminds me of Claire Bretecher and is now the country’s most famous “bande desseinist”. I won’t make the obvious comment about the meaning of “bander” in French!  

My final bargain was a collection of short essays What do we want? by one Ingo Schulze who turns out to have interesting views about contemporary events, for example in this issue of Der Freitag which is a worthy German weekly. 

It seems appropriate to end with this link to a marvellous table listing about 150 novels in the German language which Guardian readers recommended for a World Literature Tour, The equivalent French list is here.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Footloose and fancy free

Several times on this blog, I have highlighted the nomadic life I have lived for the past 22 years – with least 20 addresses during that period. Although my project life has been quiet for the past 3 years, I still commute between 3-4 locations and have been on the lookout for an urban base which I could really call home. In 2010 I explored the idea of a house in Brittany but realised that I did not need another rural retreat but rather an urban base for winter. Living in Koln these past 2 months has made the idea of a German base one worth further study. Notwithstanding the sourness of a lot of German journalistic comment at the moment, their transport systems; greenery; civilised behaviour and general costs make this a very attractive place to live.
I’ve been looking (casually) at the housing market during my present 2 month stay in Koln – the internet and also the VOX television programme called “Mieten, kaufen, wohnen” allow me to get a good sense of what the market is like. Furnished rented accommodation is not easy to find – I’m paying 8 times here what I pay in Sofia for my central flat – which, unlike food, petrol and communal services, is about the right relationship given incomes in Bulgaria. And there are signs of stress – the free copy of Der Spiegel which I was given this week as part of a special offer has a story about the extent of decay in the country’s infrastructure which I had not expected to read in a German paper.
Long lines stretch out in front of apartments in Munich, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Frankfurt during house showings. Desperate apartment hunters are even starting Facebook campaigns, writing chain emails or posting ads on streetlights: "A small family is looking for a home in this area! Please give us a chance!"
Politicians are starting to react. Hamburg has proposed housing students and trainees on ships. In Berlin, Federal Minister of Transport, Building and Urban Development Peter Ramsauer of the conservative Christian Democrats plans to convert vacant military barracks into dorms and is urging the city to be imaginative. Meanwhile, Peer Steinbrück, the centre-left Social Democrats' candidate for the Chancellery, is promoting subsidized housing during his campaign. Even the ever-hesitant chancellor, Angela Merkel, suddenly seems to feel inclined to put an end to rising rents.
Merkel even surprised many in her own party with her campaign pledge a few weeks back to cap price increases on properties coming up for re-rental to 10 per cent of average rents in the area. But when the Green Party, which has been touting the issue for two years, tried to push a similar initiative through parliament on Friday, Merkel's coalition parties rejected it. The chancellor appears keen to chalk up a victory on the popular issue in her next term in office.
 A Run on Fashionable Areas
The overall impression is that Germany's big cities are facing a housing shortage as bad as the one caused by Word War II. But experts, real estate associations, German renter groups and municipal building companies convey a different message: There is no general housing shortage in Germany. Instead, there is a massive run on certain fashionable areas in popular cities, which inflates prices. Too many people want to live in the same neighborhoods and yet they are surprised that prices for apartments are increasing.
 Comparisons to Hong Kong
"A much greater number of people today exclusively focus on the hip districts in spite of prices. So rents continue to rise and the search for apartments is growing increasingly harder," says Axel Gedaschko, president of the Federal Association of Housing and Real Estate Associations (GdW). That's the reason why many people get the impression that the housing shortage in large German cities has grown to dimensions comparable to Hong Kong.
Often it's only two or three subway stops that make all the difference. According to an analysis by Internet portal Immobilienscout24.de, which runs classified ads for rentals and property for sale, five times more inquiries are made for apartments in Cologne's city center compared to the district of Bilderstöckchen -- which isn't much further out.

"It makes my blood boil," says the manager of one property management company is responsible for around 4,000 apartments. "Those who claim that there are no affordable living spaces in all of Cologne and in other big cities are lying," he insists.
The average rent excluding heat and utilities in Cologne has risen by 9 percent. But dramatic increases in price have only occurred in re-rentals in some popular neighbourhoods. He says the hikes in price are also a result of the government encouraging homeowners to conduct renovations to make homes more energy efficient -- costs that are in part then passed on to the renter.
He also places some blame on today's generation of renters, who he says make it easier for property owners to raise rents on a regular basis. "Today's renter tends to be unsettled," Pass says. He points to singles as an example. At first they're satisfied with 50 square meters (538 square feet), but after they receive their first pay raise, they move into a 70-square-meter apartment. That gives apartment owners the perfect opportunity to turn the screws: They have no problems whatsoever increasing the rent when the re-rent the old apartment to a new tenant.
Already today, around 50 percent of the people residing in large cities are living alone, in some cases occupying living space that would be suitable for up to three people. Something urgently needs to be done for families with low incomes.
If true, that's an amazing statistic - 50% of people living alone in large German cities. I feel we need more flexibility. Take my case - I want to buy somewhere - but only for use during the winter. The place I'm currently renting (upper floor of an old house) would be ideal - but the market doesn't cater for such eccentricities...... 

Coincidentally, The Guardian has today a story about developments in the English market for rented accommodation 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bulgarian protests get serious

OK, time for some normal service! I left Bulgaria in mid-April - leaving my nice flat in the heart of the city for the summer months. After a couple of weeks in Bucharest, I then flew on May day to Koln where I have been undergoing some medical treatment. I hope shortly to get back to my mountain house in the Carpathians where the weather has apparently been as cold and wet as the rest of Europe. Pity my old villagers and their helpers who have been trying to get the first of the summer hay in!!
But, in the meantime, my Bulgarian friends have been taking to the streets yet again. I am grateful to The Guardian for this coverage -
In recent weeks the world has been transfixed by protests in Turkey and Brazil. Fewer media outlets have reported on the anti-government protests in Bulgaria, now well into their second week. But make no mistake about it: Bulgaria is undergoing a profound crisis of representation.
Every night for more than a week up to 10,000 people have taken to the streets of Sofia, initially protesting against the appointment on 14 June of the media oligarch Delyan Peevski as Bulgaria's "security tsar", the head of the State Agency for National Security (Dans), the Bulgarian CIA.
Peevski, who is 32, comes from a well-connected family that owns Bulgaria's largest newspaper and television group (it controls 80% of print media in the country) and has no experience in the security sector. In 2007 he was sacked from his post as deputy minister and investigated for attempted blackmail. He is an MP for the ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which supports the prime minister Plamen Oresharski's governing coalition, led by the Bulgarian Socialist party (BSP). His appointment took place without a debate in the National Assembly.
Dans is the agency responsible both for Bulgaria's internal and external security. Its role was elevated significantly in the wake of the terrorist attack on Burgas airport in July 2012 (attributed to Hezbollah) which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. This executive role has been strengthened even further recently after controversial amendments in the Dans legislation were signed giving the organisation responsibility for dealing with organised crime.
Bulgarians are protesting against far-reaching and systematic corruption and the "capture" of the state by rent-seeking oligarchic networks. Oresharski was appointed by the BSP to head a so-called "expert" government, after a general election in April produced a tight outcome. The technocratic government came about because the leading figures within the two largest political parties, the BSP and the centre-right Gerb (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) were widely discredited. And although the prime minister has now withdrawn the appointment of Peevski, for protesters the episode suggested that even respected figures like Oresharski are incapable of shaking off the shadowy world of oligarchic power in Bulgaria.
In Bulgaria it is often impossible to know where organised crime ends and legitimate business begins. The nexus between the two is characterised by complex bureaucratic structures, opaque corporate accounting and a maze of offshore accounts. In Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city, the protests have taken direct aim at TIM, a business conglomerate allied to Gerb and long the real power in the region. Some estimates suggest that it controls up to 70% of Varna's economy, including most of the tourist infrastructure. When protesters in Varna yell "M-A-F-I-A" they are automatically collapsing business into politics and implicating local municipal officials as the agents of this powerful oligarchic network.
Varna perfectly illustrates why the current protests are largely non-party-policitical and anti-politics in tone: the definitive division in today's Bulgaria is no longer between right and left, but between the citizens and the mafia. This is a world where the guilty don't just go unpunished; they ascend to the highest citadels of power.
Although corruption and the abuse of power are the central themes of this protest, economic hardship also plays a role. New data from the EU demonstrates that Bulgarians have the lowest standard of living in the European Union, at around 50% of the EU average. Even Croatia, which will accede to the EU on 1 July, is significantly more prosperous than Bulgaria.
The irony here is not lost on Bulgarians. At the onset of the EU financial crisis in 2008, Bulgaria had one of the lowest levels of public debt in Europe at 15% of GDP. Its budget deficit was below 3%. And yet the government of Boyko Borissov embarked on a foolish programme of austerity measures, the logic of which was almost entirely predicated on demonstrating to Brussels what a good pupil Bulgaria now was. Reductions in public spending coupled with large increases in the price of electricity and other utilities brought people out on to the streets in February. But, like Turkey, what began as a protest against a specific appointment has quickly mutated into a general opposition to the government.
Oresharski also has to grapple with increasing ethnic tensions in the country. Many Bulgarians resent the influence of the junior coalition party, the MRF which represents mainly the Turkish minority (about 10% of the population). The far-right party Ataka, which won 23 seats and 7.3% of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, has sought to exploit this sentiment at every opportunity. Its leader, Volen Siderov, continues to stoke the flames of hatred against both the ethnic Turks and the Roma population.
A further destabilising element is the continued feuding between the leaders of Bulgaria's largest political parties. Last week, Borissov vowed to initiate a libel lawsuit against Sergei Stanishev, leader of the BSP and president of the Party of European Socialists, over claims by the latter that Borissov had a criminal record. The timing of all these developments could not be worse for Bulgaria as it comes under more and more scrutiny in the run-up to the June European council summit meeting.
The protesters, meanwhile, cherish the attention. They want to re-enforce their message to Bulgaria's politicians: an end to vertiginous and voracious oligarchical power and the normalisation of Bulgarian politics.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A sado-masochistic canter through some German books on contemporary society

Everything is going to the dogs, if we are to believe the books to be found on the shelves of average mainstreet German bookshops today. Thomas Wieczorek is a prolific (and angry) German journalist who has been charting the excesses of the power elite over the past decade, for example in The Dumb Republic – how the media, business and the politicians are selling us which first appeared in 2009. His latest title can be translated variously as "Ruined" or Fucked up - why our country is going downhill and who's profiting from this which gives a pretty good sense of its drift. 
Juergen Toth’s Webs of power – how the political and business elite is destroying our country (2013) seems to be a powerful critique of neo-liberalism and its effects on Germany. It plots the tight links between business, politics, media, think tanks etc and therefore covers the same ground as Wieczorek (who is strangely not acknowledged in the notes)

Sasha Adamek’s The Power machine (2013) tries to shine a light into this murky area by focusing first on the two astounding recent resignations of German Presidents and then on the work of lobbyists. Horst Koehler had apparently to go because he was too independent; Christian Wulff for the opposite reason – he was too dependent on and pally with dubious business friends. Adamek suggests that crony capitalism is alive and well in Germany -  
In total, about 18 000 German officers work in Berlin and Bonn ministries. In addition, 620 members of parliament with their average of two employees. Thus nearly 20 000 representatives of government and parliament are facing about 5,000 lobbyists. Statistically, a lobbyist take care of four representatives from politics and government. More than 400 lobbyists paid by corporations or associations also  contribute a desk in the federal ministries.But why we are already living in a corrupt republic? The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was published recently in the 2010 comparative study "Life in Transition Survey II" to the question of how common are experiences of greasing or favors in different countries. Who has made in the past twelve months, an unofficial payment or presents a gift to the other person "like a"? At least ten per cent of the respondents affirmed this specific question. So that more people in this country gave to real acts of corruption as for example the inhabitants of Georgia, Italy or Croatia. The advantage is an integral part of everyday life and thus also the power structure in Germany.
Klaus Norbert is apparently another critical German journalist with several critiques to his name. The title of his latest book is certainly one which I would not normally apply to Germans - Idioten– made in Germany (2011) and shows that restless educational reform is not merely a feature of modern Britain but is also wreaking havoc here in Germany.

Two other books completed my sado-masochistic canter through current German publishers’ lists - Our prosperity and its enemies by Gabor Steingart; and German soil – a participant observation by Moritz von Ustar

The painting is an Otto Dix

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

German introspection

I’ve spent 7 weeks so far in Koln – Germany’s fourth largest urban district. The same time I spent in Berlin in 1964. It is my first real venture into the country since all of 50 years ago. The bubble in which I existed then and there was, of course, a very different one from the one in which I am presently enveloped.
I was 22 then, just finished University, living in a room in a small Berlin flat and encountering a new civilisation for the first time - as student pressures were building prior to the 1968 explosion. And it was a mere 3 years after I had seen with my own eyes (and from a train crossing East Germany parallel with Russian tanks) the first bricks of the Berlin wall being laid.
Now I’m in an affluent Koln suburb making a daily crossing of the Rhein to receive medical treatment and trying to understand the Germans through bookshops rather than friendships.
Helmut Schmidt remains big here – about 8 of his books spread on a table in the huge 3 storey bookshop on Neumarkt (plus 2 of his late wife's; and 2 of his daughter Susanne's. The latter is a financial journalist).
From a great remaindered bookshop nearby I had last week picked up for 5 euros Deutschland for Beginners which was published in English in 2007 by Ben Donald as Springtime for Germany. It’s a light-hearted romp through the country which seems to have annoyed most of its British readers none of whom seem to have spotted the basic logic of the book’s chapter structure – words which go to the core of German identity such as
  • weltschmerz;
  • angst
  • gemutlichkeit
  • gesundheit
  • kindergarten
  • schadenfreude
  • zeitgeist
  • lebensraum
  • wanderlust
  • weltmeister
I'm enjoying the book - which I'm able to read (slowly) in German making my usual pencilled annotations for later checking.
I spotted several “zeitgeist” titles about the country aimed more at a German audience on the Koln bookshelves – such as Stefan Gaertner’s Deutschlandmeise – forays into a crazy country (2012) which seems a rather hurriedly-written set of notes for a satire on German tourist resorts.
Mein Deutschland, dein Deutschland by Stamer and Buhrow (2011) records the first impressions of Germany of a journalist couple after being absent in France and the USA for more than a decade; and a highly controversial tour of Germany - Allein unter Deutschen by New York based Israeli Tuvia Tenenbom (2012) was initially refused publication for its scurrilous accusations about German racism;.
The most interesting, however, looked Die Rupelrepublik - The Bully Republic – why we are so unsociable by Jorg Schindler (2012).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

German rulers out of touch?

As I was wading through last Thursday’s copy of Die Zeit, I was hit with a full-page ad from a group which is trying to bring a radical perspective to autumn’s national election here in Germany (which is currently looking a foregone conclusion, so great is Merkel's lead over the SDP in the polls) .
"Das Generationen-Manifesto" gives first ten short but blunt warnings -
WE CAUTION - In the interest of future generations and the social and ecological balance
 Climate change is the biggest threat we have ever experienced. The federal government and all parties are not treating the issue with the highest priority. The  life and well-being of future generations is being put at risk.
 2 The energy revolution, the most important project of our generation is being dealt with in a half-hearted and inconsistent way by policy makers . We will make them liable if they negligently endanger the chances of this future project because of party political power games.
 The rulers govern past us citizens . They hide in their ivory towers, without explaining what consequences will result from far-reaching political decisions (eg energy policy and euro crisis) for our lives and the lives of our children.
 4 The present policy places massive debts on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren. The government deficit is further increased rather than reduced, and thus the scope of the next generations curtailed dramatically.
 Profits are privatized, losses socialized. Our rulers have been seduced by the financial industry and disregards the interests of the citizens.
 Politicians are splitting society with their inaction. Recent years have seen the divergence between rich and poor increase to an unacceptable degree.
 7 We are increasing our prosperity at the expense of people in the emerging and developing countries, who often work under inhumane conditions for us. It is a shame that we struggle with obesity and excess, while the rest of the world millions of people don’t even have the basic necessities of life.
 8 Our education system is failing miserably in the face of challenges posed by the future. Policy-makers from politics, economy and society know that our education system is unfair and opaque and not prepare our children for future learning content requirements. But there is a lack of courage for radical change.
 9 The sustainable modernization of the economy is demanded in speeches, but not taken seriously. Unless subsidies overtook place in trendsetting industries and technologies are directed, we forego the opportunities that present themselves to Germany as an international pioneer of a green or blue economic change.
 10. The generational contract has been terminated unilaterally. The present generation of parents and grandparents are protecting their own vested rights at the expense of their children and grandchildren.
The signatories include one particularly famous name – that of Professor Ernest von Weizsacker, one of the country’s most prominent intellectuals; writer on ecological and sustainable issues (and brother of Richard, from 1984-94. the country’s most respected President). Otherwise, the list of 28 signatories seems to consist mainly of actors, writers and Foundation people - with one bank President. The manifesto goes on to set out 10 demands which, for me, are curiously light on detail - 
WE DEMAND - courage, honesty and generational just action
 1 The fight against climate change must be taken as a national objective in the Constitution. A law passed at the beginning of the new term climate protection law needs to provide the basis for it. If Europe and Germany lead the way on climate change and the introduction of mitigation techniques, others - already competitive reasons - follow.
 2 The energy transition must be actively pursued, both as a "green" energy production, as well as energy saving turnaround. Through innovations in energy efficiency and a focus on energy savings in companies and households can manage the transformation of energy at reasonable costs for all involved. With the great energy transition opportunities are economically connected, not only for our country but also for Europe and for the world. Today's generation has a duty to provide a safe power base for future generations.
 3 We demand our right to a participation and voice. Citizens want to actively participate in decision-making in politics, economy and society. If politicians do not want to jeopardize democracy, they must justify and convey what they are doing and why. We call on our leaders to leave their ivory towers to seek sincere discourse with citizens and make decisions on this basis. The voters need to know what they can choose and rely on politicians.
 4 We urge the government to reform government finances so that the debt reduced and new priorities for a future just and sustainable output design can be set. The interest burden on the state budget must be reduced and sustainable future investments encouraged. Only a financially stable state can ensure security, education, culture, research and development, social security and other public goods to all citizens.
 5 We call for a reform and strict regulation of private finance. Banks are servants of the economy and the citizens, not their rulers. "Systemically important" banks take an entire society hostage. Therefore, the limitation of bank power is indispensable. The polluter pays principle must also enter in the financial sector to bear: the consequential costs of financial crises must bear those who earn high profits with incalculable risks. As a bank customer, we call for full transparency in the use of entrusted funds and crisis-proof variety of banks.
 6 We demand social justice in Germany . Poverty and lack of opportunities must be overcome. A crash programme is needed o stop the growing rift between rich and poor. Participation in private prosperity and public goods must be secured and strengthened social cohesion. An effective minimum wage would be an essential bulwark against the social crash. High earners and the wealthy must contribute more to the financing of public tasks. 
7 We demand a serious effort to fight hunger, poverty and underdevelopment in the world. need for this is an emergency package of measures to implement the Millennium Development Goals. Multinational companies must be required by law to protect the social and human rights of workers in their factories and suppliers, and to contribute to a survivable level to raise their living standards.
 8 We call for a sustainable development of our economy, fair competition rules and the reduction of environmentally harmful subsidies. With the sustainable transformation of our economic system, great opportunities for Germany are possible because environmentally friendly technologies and products will be a competitive advantage and export in the future.
 9 We call for a comprehensive nationwide reform of the education and training system, because education is the most effective, most social and economical way of securing the future of our society and the fuel . It is a prerequisite for participation in society and creates the potential for innovation in our country. All young people need regardless of their parents' income equal access and opportunities for advancement in the education system. Curricula, teaching methods and grading systems of the past must be checked and designed so that the desire to learn, commitment and talents of young people are supported in their diversity and their self-confidence is strengthened. School must be a place of enthusiasm, the strengthening of self-awareness, the development of individual potentials and prepare them for the challenges of the future.
 10. We demand a new fair contract between generations. If our children are to have at least the chance of a life as it was our generation, we must stop the destruction of natural resources and the exclusion of talents and cultural diversity of people . We need new visions and debates about the future of the good life. We want to give our children a society that allows them and enables them to realize their dreams. Because our children especially in times of demographic change are entitled to a promising life.
We call a strategy of change for Germany, Europe and the world . Sustainability requires more than a few cosmetic changes. And she needs to close ranks with the emerging and developing countries that have a special meaning for all sustainability issues due to their dynamic development. We must with a long breath and consistently work towards an ecologically and socially just society. We call on all politicians to make decisions in their choice not dependent on short-term forecasts, power shifts or lobby interests. 
Although there seem to have been a generally favourable reaction, I sense a lack of excitement - something very cerebral..... contrasting with the intensity which has been characteristic of German discussion of social issues in recent times.
And it would be interesting to compare and contrast it with the UK Power Inquiry of 2004 which was a powerful diagnosis of the ills of British democracy........but which sank like a stone after the 2010 elections.....My own take on its analysis is here...Interesting that Europe simply doesn't figure in the German manifesto!

Monday, June 17, 2013

June 17 1953 - Electing another people!

Sixty years ago today, East German workers rose against their government - an event which is being marked extensively in the German media. 

The uprising (quickly put down) is nowadays best known for a short poem written by Bert Brecht at the time - which was not however published until 1959 after his death in 1956. 



Die Lösung
The Solution
Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Although I am a great admirer of Brecht's poetry, I readily admit he was not the most admirable of human beings...

Greek freedoms

The events around Taksim square in Istanbul rather drove the Greek government’s sudden and inconceivable closure of the state media (ERT) last week off most front pages. Journalists are not everyone’s favourite group of people; and it may well be true (as the Greek PM said) that there was a lot of slacking and underemployment in the state radio and television studios.But that is no justification for the sudden closure – Europe’s first in the post-war period. Yanis Vroufakis, the Greek economist who wrote The Global Minotaur, is hardly an admirer of the state broadcaster which actually banned him for more than 2 years from appearing on its channels - but he chose to spend 3 nights with the journalists who are, with quite a bit of public support, resisting the closure. His reasoning is a powerful comment on the current state of our freedoms..... 
As probably the only Greek commentator to have been blacklisted by ERT over the past two years (due to the previous government’s annoyance at my insistence that Greece was bankrupt and should default in 2010, instead of adding huge new loans to un-payable debts) I feel I have the moral authority to cry out against ERT’s passing. Despite ERT’s many ills, its sudden, authoritarian closure by our troika-led government is a crime against public media that all civilised people, the world over, should rise up against.
Why? Because however stale, inefficient, even corrupt our public media organisations may be, they are essential to a well functioning society. In our stratified societies the legal system, for instance, is arguably unfair toward the weaker members of society who cannot afford the top lawyers or who are inarticulate. Even in the most civilised society, courts offer us nothing more than a chance of justice. There are no guarantees of it. Similarly with our public education systems. Frequently, they serve the interests of the middle class better than those who truly need public education. Nevertheless, this is no reason to close down the courts or our public schools.
Similarly with public television and radio: they offer us no guarantee of current and affairs pluralism and cultural diversity. What they offer us is merely a chance of it. A chance for an electronic public space where values are irreducible to prices and voices can be heard that annoy our society’s high and mighty.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A good - and lovely - man

Another good man has died – the Scottish writer Iain Banks - at age 59. A computer scan revealed he had inoperable cancer – and he died 3 months later while at the crest of his craft and zest for life. You can get a good sense of both his writing and what he stood for in the last interview he did before his tragically early death 
As we chat, he frequently loops off into hilarious denunciations. "I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you're just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brain-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it's not about you. It's what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. 'Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs' – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not."
His political zeal burns equally ardently. He confesses that "for half a second", as he and Adele travelled across the Alps from Venice to Paris on honeymoon, he was "elated" when he heard that Thatcher had died. "T
hen I realised I was celebrating the death of a human being, no matter how vile she was. And there was nothing symbolic about her death, because her baleful influence on British politics remains undiminished. Squeeze practically any Tory, any Blairite and any Lib Dem of the Orange Book persuasion, and it's the same poisonous Thatcherite pus that comes oozing out of all of them.
In the unlikely event that I'm around for the referendum on Scottish independence I'm definitely voting 'yes'. I was saying last year that if we don't get it in 2014 we'll get it in my lifetime and now it turns out my lifetime might not extend as far as the first referendum and that just seems wrong – a Scotland still shackled to a rightwing England, especially with the rise of the bizarrely named Ukip (I think they'll find their acronym should be EIP actually) – I won't be sorry to be missing that. I won't miss waiting for the next financial disaster because we haven't dealt with the underlying causes of the last one. Nor will I be disappointed not to experience the results of the proto-fascism that's rearing its grisly head right now. It's the utter idiocy, the sheer wrong-headedness of the response that beggars belief. I mean, your society's broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No let's blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don't even have the vote, yeah it must be their fucking fault. So I might escape having to witness even greater catastrophe.
Attracting fans is not difficult in this age of personalities - what is much more difficult for artists is to retain a strong sense of decency and principles. I read only a few of Banks's books but was impressed more by what I knew of the man and the courage of his convictions.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

German reading

German newspaper stands offer a profusion of titles – with the various regional titles reflecting perspectives not available in centralised England and France. The (weekly) Die Zeit is the country’s most weighty publication – in more senses than one (!). I had enjoyed last month the glimpse one of its articles had given us of ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s long love affair with painting - not least those of the German Expressionists. Schmidt is now a still active 94 year-old whose trademark cigarette was on display in a recent television interview here. He was not only German Chancellor 1974-82 but also publisher of the Hamburg-based paper for a couple of decades after he left the Chancellory. And I am now reading with interest the account of this rich life of his – Unser Schmidt written by Theo Sommer.
He will doubtless be reading with his usual critical eye the latest fat issue of Die Zeit whose special magazine today focuses on questions such as What is the good life?

From the profusion of titles, I’ve developed a taste for the much thinner and leftist daily - Die Tageszeitung whose sentence construction is less convoluted than the heavies such as Der Spiegel which I have now deserted for the easier Stern. Although Bavaria is a stronghold of the right, Die Suddeutsche Zeitung is an attractively packaged  left-leaning daily with interesting content. Franfurte Allgemeine Zeitung is a rather boring conservative paper - and the Cologne titles are very superficial.

Der Spiegel's English edition continues to be part of my daily reading - its latest offers first a take on some of the construction scandals which are filling the columns of German papers; then a rare insight into war-time Berlin -
The diary of Brigitte Eicke, a Berlin teenager in World War II, is an account of cinema visits, first kisses, hairdos and dressmaking, along with a brief, untroubled reference to disappearing Jews. Recently published, it highlights the public indifference that paved the road to Auschwitz.
Hers is a perspective seldom glimpsed in Germany's World War II literature, a field in which the female voice took a while to be heard.
"
In the 1950s and '60s, the focus was more on memories of battle and the male experience," says Arnulf Scriba, who coordinates a project at the German Historical Museum called "Collective Memory," an archive of personal testimonies. "The school had been bombed when we arrived this morning. Waltraud, Melitta and I went back to Gisela's and danced to gramophone records." (1 Feb 1944)
Young girls are made of stern stuff. In December 1942, while Allied bombs rained on Berlin and Nazi troops fought for control of Stalingrad, 15-year-old Brigitte Eicke began keeping a diary. For the next three years, the young office apprentice wrote in it every single day.
Now published in German as "Backfisch im Bombenkrieg" -- backfisch being an old-fashioned term for a girl on the cusp of womanhood -- it adds a new perspective to Germany's World War II experience and shows not only how mundane war can become but also how the majority of Germans were able to turn a blind eye to Nazi brutality.
Until relatively recently, accounts of Germans' own wartime suffering were considered something of a taboo, their own trauma eclipsed by the horror of the Holocaust. But now that the wartime generation is dying, every slice of first-hand social history has inherent value.
Another story focuses on the German Constitutional Court's current consideration of the legality of  the ECB bond buying program known as Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT). 
The program, announced last autumn, envisions the ECB buying unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds from ailing euro-zone member states to hold down their borrowing costs. To date, the ECB has not made any bond purchases, but the mere announcement that it might has proven enough to calm the markets and provide European leaders with some to seek agreement on longer-term measures to solve the crisis.
Even opponents of the program have acknowledged its success. The OMT "has been the most successful measure taken in saving the euro thus far," says Dietrich Murswiek, who represents co-claimant Peter Gauweiler, a member of parliament with Bavaria's Christian Social Union.
But despite its success, the OMT program is illegal, say the plaintiffs. "State financing, whether direct or indirect, is not allowed for the ECB," says one of their attorneys, Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider. And his complaint is far from fanciful -- it is difficult not to see the OMT program as state financing. In essence, the court is being asked to de
cide whether economic pragmatism trumps a strict interpretation of the law.
Open Europe has a blog on the issue

The painting is one of Hans Purrmann's - a glorious colourist I have just come across who was strongly influenced by Matisse - and whose paintings were banned by the Nazis.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Saturday in Junkersdorf

The world could not have been more beautiful yesterday at the Rhein Energie Stadion and the Junkersdorf woods. The area is huge and intensively used by Koln people at weekends whether for ball games, cycling, festivals - or simply walking around its picturesque small lakes. 
A Sporting High school is also located in a superb wooded area. 

Yesterday an ecumenical group was singing its heart out in the stadium; a family athletics fair was in full swing in a nearby racing track; and a large number of young men and women were taking part in the finals of the German Touch Rugby competition in the complex of football fields. 
First time I've seen this game – the friendly spirit evident was very impressive – as was the sheer mix of shapes and sizes of those taking part.
Germany at its most civilised!

Monday, June 3, 2013

German Europe??

Ulrich Beck is a German sociologist whose name I encounter from time to time – from his work on risk society (which I don’t pretend to understand). He has now jumped to almost best-selling status in the UK by virtue of his small book with the fairly self-explanatory title of "German Europe"
It appeared in English in April and has got the English chattering classes drooling covering, as it does, two of the hate subjects of the English – Europe and the Germans.
The book itself seems a bit incoherent – a bit of knock-about fun at Angela Merkel's expense; an emphasis on her (and Germany's) Protestant/Lutheran discipline (rather missing the point about the Catholic contribution to the concept of the social market); some obvious assertions about the new divisions in Europe; and then some wishy-washy points about the future....... 
You can make up your own mind from this interview, podcast; and summary
I would say that the first thing we have to think about is what the purpose of the European Union actually is. Is there any purpose? Why Europe and not the whole world? Why not do it alone in Germany, or the UK, or France?
I think there are four answers in this respect. First, the European Union is about enemies becoming neighbours. In the context of European history this actually constitutes something of a miracle. The second purpose of the European Union is that it can prevent countries from being lost in world politics. A post-European Britain, or a post-European Germany, is a lost Britain, and a lost Germany. Europe is part of what makes these countries important from a global perspective.
The third point is that we should not only think about a new Europe, we also have to think about how the European nations have to change. They are part of the process and I would say that Europe is about redefining the national interest in a European way. Europe is not an obstacle to national sovereignty; it is the necessary means to improve national sovereignty. Nationalism is now the enemy of the nation because only through the European Union can these countries have genuine sovereignty.
The fourth point is that European modernity, which has been distributed all over the world, is a suicidal project. It’s producing all kinds of basic problems, such as climate change and the financial crisis. It’s a bit like if a car company created a car without any brakes and it started to cause accidents: the company would take these cars back to redesign them and that’s exactly what Europe should do with modernity. Reinventing modernity could be a specific purpose for Europe.
Taken together these four points form what you could say is a grand narrative of Europe, but one basic issue is missing in the whole design. So far we’ve thought about things like institutions, law, and economics, but we haven’t asked what the European Union means for individuals.
What do individuals gain from the European project?
First of all I would say that, particularly in terms of the younger generation, more Europe is producing more freedom. It’s not only about the free movement of people across Europe; it’s also about opening up your own perspective and living in a space which is essentially grounded on law.
Second, European workers, but also students as well, are now confronted with the kind of existential uncertainty which needs an answer. Half of the best educated generation in Spanish and Greek history lack any future prospects. So what we need is a vision for a social Europe in the sense that the individual can see that there is not necessarily social security, but that there is less uncertainty. Finally we need to redefine democracy from the bottom up. We need to ask how an individual can become engaged with the European project. In that respect I have made a manifesto, along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, called “We Are Europe”, arguing that we need a free year for everyone to do a project in another country with other Europeans in order to start a European civil society.
The Council of Europe published recently a series of lectures by various intellectuals on the crisis and Beck's Europe at risk - a cosmopolitan perspective gives a good sense of his book - and his other contributions. Self-indulgent academic sloganising which comes from too much time in incestuous discussions.
Earlier in March, the Guardian had given us a typical piece of shallow British prejudice in their coverage of the same topic - giving us Beck and a German comedian (resident in the UK). Almost 500 respondents took part in the subsequent discussion thread - which confirmed just how little Brits seem to know about Germany

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The curious behaviour of German banks

I mentioned the state-owned regional banks as one of the lynchpins of the post-war German success story – their support of the essentially family-owned industrial companies endowing its society with a long-term perspective difficult for Anglo-Americans to understand. In any other society, such a combination of finance and politics would make for collusive corruption of the highest degree - as is shown in the behaviour of the Spanish Cajas.
The consensual nature of corporate decision-making - as embodied in the Mitbestimmung system of worker representation and involvement has also been a key feature of the post-war German model. But. as Perry Anderson showed in his 2009 article on The New Germany 
the landscape of the Berlin Republic has become steadily more polarized in the past decade or so. At the top, traditional restraints on the accumulation and display of wealth were cast to the winds, as capital markets were prised loose and Anglo-American norms of executive pay increasingly accepted by German business.
Gerhard Schröder gave his own enrichissez-vous blessing to the process in the first half of the 2000s, slashing corporation and upper-bracket income tax, and rejecting any wealth tax,. Structurally still more important, by abolishing capital gains tax on the sale of cross-holdings, his government encouraged the dissolution of the long-term investments by banks in companies, and reciprocal stakes in firms, traditionally central to German corporatism—or in the consecrated phrase, the ‘Rhenish’ model of capitalism. In its place, shareholder value was increasingly set free. By 2006, foreigners had acquired an average of over 50 per cent of the free float of German blue-chip companies
I haven’t so far picked up any analysis on the internet about exactly how this has changed the German “social market”. On the face of it a lot of the basic features are still there – although the scale of the German banks’ exposure to the sub-prime market disaster did take us all by surprise. Michael Lewis got himself into some trouble a couple of years ago with his Vanity Fair article on Germany which focused a bit too much on anal vocabulary – but his article did contain some important vignettes -
He is a type familiar in Germany but absolutely freakish in Greece—or for that matter the United States: a keenly intelligent, highly ambitious civil servant who has no other desire but to serve his country. His sparkling curriculum vitae is missing a line that would be found on the résumés of men in his position most anywhere else in the world—the line where he leaves government service for Goldman Sachs to cash out. When I asked another prominent German civil servant why he hadn’t taken time out of public service to make his fortune working for some bank, the way every American civil servant who is anywhere near finance seems to want to do, his expression changed to alarm. “But I could never do this,” he said. “It would be disloyal!”
The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money during the past decade was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. The rest of Europe, in effect, used Germany’s credit rating to indulge its material desires. They borrowed as cheaply as Germans could to buy stuff they couldn’t afford. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people alone simply ignored the offer. “There was no credit boom in Germany. Real-estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behaviour is rather alien to Germans. Germans save whenever possible. This is deeply in German genes. Perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.” The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, “there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you’re not adhering to fiscal responsibility, you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way.
In that moment of temptation, Germany became something like a mirror image of Iceland and Ireland and Greece and, for that matter, the United States. Other countries used foreign money to fuel various forms of insanity.
The Germans, through their bankers, used their own money to enable foreigners to behave insanely.
This is what makes the German case so peculiar. If they had been merely the only big, developed nation with decent financial morals, they would present one sort of picture, of simple rectitude. But they had done something far more peculiar: during the boom German bankers had gone out of their way to get dirty. They lent money to American subprime borrowers, to Irish real-estate barons, to Icelandic banking tycoons to do things that no German would ever do. The German losses are still being toted up, but at last count they stand at $21 billion in the Icelandic banks, $100 billion in Irish banks, $60 billion in various U.S. subprime-backed bonds, and some yet-to-be-determined amount in Greek bonds. The only financial disaster in the last decade German bankers appear to have missed was investing with Bernie Madoff.
A German economist named Henrik Enderlein, who teaches at the Hertie School of Governance, in Berlin, has described the radical change that occurred in German banks beginning about 2003. In a paper in progress, Enderlein points out that “many observers initially believed German banks would be relatively less exposed to the crisis. The contrary turned out to be the case. German banks ended up being among the most severely affected in continental Europe and this despite relatively favorable economic conditions.” Everyone thought that German bankers were more conservative, and more isolated from the outside world, than, say, the French. And it wasn’t true. “There had never been any innovation in German banking,” says Enderlein. “You gave money to some company, and the company paid you back. They went [virtually overnight] from this to being American. And they weren’t any good at it.”
What Germans did with money between 2003 and 2008 would never have been possible within Germany, as there was no one to take the other side of the many deals they did which made no sense. They lost massive sums, in everything they touched. Indeed, one view of the European debt crisis—the Greek street view—is that it is an elaborate attempt by the German government on behalf of its banks to get their money back without calling attention to what they are up to. The German government gives money to the European Union rescue fund so that it can give money to the Irish government so that the Irish government can give money to Irish banks so the Irish banks can repay their loans to the German banks. “They are playing billiards,” says Enderlein. “The easier way to do it would be to give German money to the German banks and let the Irish banks fail.” Why they don’t simply do this is a question worth trying to answer.
…..On the surface IKB’s German bond traders resembled the reckless traders who made similarly stupid bets for Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. Beneath it they were playing an entirely different game. The American bond traders may have sunk their firms by turning a blind eye to the risks in the subprime-bond market, but they made a fortune for themselves in the bargain and have for the most part never been called to account. They were paid to put their firms in jeopardy, and so it is hard to know whether they did it intentionally or not. The German bond traders, on the other hand, had been paid roughly $100,000 a year, with, at most, another $50,000 bonus. In general, German bankers were paid peanuts to run the risk that sank their banks—which suggests they really didn’t know what they were doing. But—and here is the strange thing—unlike their American counterparts, they are being treated by the German public as crooks. The former C.E.O. of IKB, Stefan Ortseifen, received a 10-month suspended sentence and has been asked by the bank to return his salary: eight hundred and five thousand euros.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

German perceptions

Germany is in election mode – although Neal Ascherson makes the point in the current LRB that
Europe and the euro crisis scarcely figure in this election campaign. Listening to the speeches or reading the manifestos, you would never guess that boys and girls in other countries are charging water cannon and raving about German neo-imperialism, or burning pictures of Merkel as the destroyer of Europe. There is some heavy cliché about wanting ‘a European Germany, not a German Europe’. But where are the positive ideas about how German economic strength might relieve nations swamped by debt? The turmoil seems a long way off.
Those who are aware of how hated Germany has become in parts of Southern Europe feel merely pained, misunderstood. The self-image of Germany as a bewildered, kindly nation, helpless to defend itself against greedy neighbours, dies hard. It was lent credibility a few weeks ago by an eccentric European Central Bank report which asserted that – in terms of ‘per household property’ – the Germans were among the poorest in the Eurozone, with an average wealth of €51,000 – less than the Slovaks and far less than a Greek or Cypriot household. This morally comforting estimate was soon rubbished; it ignored family income, which puts the Germans near the top of the league, and crudely set bank wealth against population (billions in septic bank holdings divided by the total number of Cypriot households equals €267,000, equals meaningless).
And yet, beyond the nonsense, the report implied some interesting things about German political psychology. People still prefer to rent rather than to own their homes, a contrast to post-Communist nations in the Eurozone where public housing was sold off to its tenants. The Germans tend to put their money into local savings banks (Sparkassen) at low but secure interest, rather than buy real estate or invest in the stock market.  Thrift and caution are still hard-wired into society. ……..