Beauty Is in the Street by Joachim C Häberlen review – Plastic People, the power of the legs and the strength of the protest

Beauty Is in the Street by Joachim C Häberlen review – Plastic People, the power of the legs and the strength of the protest

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

Long before Ulez, 15 minute cities and Just Stop Oil, the Provos (needless to say, Irish republicanism) wanted to end what one of them called “the asphalt terrorism of the motor people “.

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

This initiative was clearly not calculated for the Amsterdam police. They argued that “the bikes were not locked and therefore they were invited to steal” and they were taken out.

These events and more, in that ugly word, contributed to the problems of authority and the consumer society, claimed Joachim C Häberlen in this massive friendly history of European counter-cultural instigators including Greenham Common feminists, Paris ’68 enragés, People Plastic Prague of. the Universe, and, my favorite, Poland’s dwarf-fetishing Orange Choice.

Karl Marx was out of date, according to many of these groups: the opiate of the majority was not religion, but consumer capitalism in general and the cult of the car in particular. “Carbon monoxide is the cause of asphyxiation,” argued the Provotariat.

Indeed, the traditional heroes of Marxism, the proletariat, were no longer fit for the revolutionary purpose, argued Herbert Marcuse, the doyen of the New Left in his 1964 bestseller. One Dimensional Man. Subaltern groups – people of color, women, gays, hippies and anyone who wished to live beyond the heteronormative white supremacist capitalist norms – could confront the breach left by the working class.

It was these groups, according to Häberlen, who revolutionized Europe by fighting for legal abortion, gay rights, proper treatment of “illegal” immigrants and refugees, and otherwise argued with the man on both sides of the iron curtain.

The Orange Option evoked the power of absence. On walls that were whitewashed by the authorities to cover anti-state slogans during strikes and martial law in early 1980s Poland, Waldemar Fydrych and his colleagues painted odd little red figures. The police beat him for this anger before asking: “What do dwarves mean?” “I want a revolution,” he replied, crushed but unyielding. “Revolution of the dwarves.”

A riot is a joyous occasion if you’re doing it right, claimed a 1960s West Berlin group called Fighters of the Erupting Sado-Marxist International

Fydrych and his friends distributed red paper hats to passers-by while others danced, played guitars and sang: “We are the dwarves/ Hop sa sa/ Hop sa sa/ Our houses are covered with mushrooms.” “Anyone not wearing their special hats must show their identification papers,” a policeman said into a megaphone. Once again the police had lost the plot.

Häberlen’s suggestion is that the fall of the Soviet Union was more likely from such micro-examinations of state hypocrisy. He may be right. But flower power and transgressive freedom can transform into oppression – and worse. In a chapter on street violence and terrorism, Häberlen concludes that, rather than imagining another world, the likes of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades “started to mirror the state, its language and its institutions”. .

Häberlen is good on the sliding scale of countercultural protest – from putting flowers in soldiers’ rifles on the one hand to political murder on the other. In the middle, he finds the euphoria of fighting in the street. A riot is a joyous event if you’re doing it right, claimed a 1960s West Berlin group called Fighters of the Erupting Sado-Marxist International. Their greatest pleasure was to destroy what made life unbearable: “Commodities, cars, concrete traffic, fragmented time…”

It focuses a lot on Germany, which means, for example, that there is a long and funny analysis of the Berlin techno scene, but nothing on the British rave culture of the 80s, although the latter, if anything , less antagonism.

Some of his analysis feels a little threadbare and tokenistic. Chapter 11 is about women and gay movements, for example, bringing different struggles together. That said, his analysis of the Greenham women’s peace camp, which from 1981 to 2000 opposed the staging of cruise missiles in Berkshire, is fascinating and moving, not just for his analysis of political protest. non-violent, but out of understanding that the feminists did something. unusual in Thatcher’s Britain, creating a quieter space where women could experiment with practical alternatives to living outside the treacherous ideologies of the cold war superpowers.

He is also very good at squatting, writing passionately about those who moved into abandoned buildings in neighborhoods near the Berlin Wall and experimented with living. In Kreuzberg, this involved setting up long tables in the streets for communal meals, eliminating private rooms and undermining the traditional bourgeois family. Hell for some, but a vision of heaven for others.

What is the legacy of these movements? On the one hand, Häberlen rightly points out that, far from destroying capitalism, they helped to transform and survive capitalism, as their anti-hierarchical ideas helped to change the work culture. Instead of offering keys to executive washrooms, companies now enforce loyalty with democratic bean bags and separate zones.

And yet there is something inspiring about the aspirations of much countercultural protest, says Häberlen. As? “A world without sexist and racial discrimination, a world that protects and values ​​nature rather than exploiting it for profit, a world where residents have a right to their city, affordable housing and public space.”

He has a point: imagine cities without locks on bikes, cars or front doors, with public spaces where you can take a seat without having to buy things and where you can meet people outside of your echo chambers. A dream, perhaps, but one that still sounds worth fighting for, even beautiful.

  • There’s Beauty in the Street: Protest and Counterculture in Postwar Europe by Joachim C Häberlen published by Allen Lane (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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