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Specter of confusion: on being a cog in the wheel

In the height of demo and protest season, Sarah M Harrison reflects on how resistance seems to dissolve so easily

Sarah M Harrison by Alexa Vachon

Jun. 26, 2017 – By all accounts, International Workers' Day in Berlin came and went without major incident this year. Most of the streets in Kreuzberg were closed for MyFest, a police initiative introduced in 2003 as “an alternative to riots and demonstrations.” The streets pulsed with sounds of jubilant people rather than the usual traffic, roadblocks flexing for police vehicles, an occasional food vendor and the Jägermeister van.

None of this is news; May Day demos in Berlin have long been eclipsed by the jammed bottleneck of drunken revelers on Oranienstraße. If the day is characterized by rebelliousness, it’s manifested as individualistic carelessness – smashing beer bottles and unrestrained littering hold little resemblance to collective struggle or cohesive political action. And while the city also hosted a huge Labor Union march, an anti-gentrification rally, an anarchist demonstration and a few burning cars, the day’s proceedings seemed overwhelmed by a specter of apathetic confusion rather than that of Rosa Luxemburg or historical workers’ movements.

This confusion is not specific to May Day; it is the same pervasive distraction that haunts us, in one way or another, on a daily basis. It is the tension that stretches and breaks between the need to resist gross, systemic injustice and our individualistic desire to succeed in that same system. It is the disjunct I feel in my body as I am repulsed by conditions that my every minute movement seems destined to reproduce. It is the contradiction of our collective will to end an unethical economy while recognizing that our private plans for the future rely upon its perpetuation. It is the deliberate incoherence of the state telling us that the Labor Movement is a historical success story to be celebrated while continuing to dismantle the rights and conditions that were fought so long and hard to achieve. It is the widespread characterization of rebellion as singular creative expressions.

Queer culture and identity are historically, and still today, deeply invested in positions of resistance and critique, very often conceived of individualistically. The well-practiced stance of defiance is accepted as ethically – and morally – good, as such individual expressions of defiance – interspersed with collective celebration – chug the system along with little but symbolic disturbance. Cynically, these gestures are stepping stones to professional or social success, thus perpetuating the structures they critique.

Though we never have trouble finding things to complain about, I and most of the people around me work in conditions that are difficult to form cohesive resistance to. Wound up in the aesthetics of privilege, conditions wear the gloss of success. Living in Berlin and working (inter)nationally is not only normalized, it is often revered. The reality is an inability to find reliable local employment which leads to jet lag, dislocation, and generalized precarity. None of this is news either, but it also isn’t old, unfortunately – shitty working conditions are relentless and very contemporary.

Sarah M Harrison is a writer living in Berlin since 2008. Her debut novella All The Things is available via Arcadia Missa and at Motto here in Berlin



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