- Contesting neoliberalism in an ‘activist city’:working towards the urban commons in Berlin
Berlin enjoys a reputation as an ‘activist city’ and in many ways this is justified. This is a city with a long culture and history of political protest, a vibrant scene of DIY politics and grassroots organisations and, in recent years, numerous, often successful urban social movements.1 It is also a city where the left have often been strong. During the 2000s the Left Party (DIE LINKE) governed for ten years in coalition with the Social Democrats (and was heavily criticised by social movements). Berlin is, then, undoubtedly a great place to observe the ways in which neoliberalism is contested at the urban scale. However, it is also a city in which the unfolding of globalisation and urban neoliberal policy is intense, in the aftermath of decades of [End Page 88] disconnection from global capitalism. It is, then, also a great place to observe the ways in which neoliberalism becomes embedded in a context of relative contestation. Our concern here is to reflect on the dialectics at work in the city. We are not so much concerned with providing an assessment of success or failure as we are with, more constructively, examining what can be learnt from urban social movements in Berlin. Three points from the experiences of Berlin appear to be of general importance. First, that privatisation and depoliticisation of governance are (of course) not irreversible - even seemingly hopeless situations change quickly. Second, that the broad idea of a ‘Right to the City’, as popular as it has become, benefits from having a ‘material’ dimension, a clear focus on aspects of urban everyday life. And, third, that urban social movements and left parties must find ways to accommodate inevitable antagonisms and continue to collaborate with each other.
Repoliticisation and a return to public ownership are possible
After reunification and re-entry into the global economy, in the 1990s Berlin experienced systematic privatisation of infrastructure (gas, electricity and water), broader restructuring as a ‘global city’, and austerity politics in the face of rising city debts. During this period there was little sustained public opposition to privatisation. This began to change in the 2000s as a Red-Red (Social Democrat-Left Party) coalition (2002-2011) came to power. But even with the Left Party in power privatisation in some sectors (e.g. housing and state property) continued. This created discontent on the left and fed into a growth in urban social movements contesting globalisation and urban development.2 It was during this period that infrastructure and public space become a focal point for diverse social movements in Berlin, with notions of a democratic rather than statist ‘public’ and the broad agenda of ‘Right to the City’ (RTC), transforming discourse around urban infrastructure.
The most visible result of this development has been the remunicipalisation of the partially privatised Berlin Water Company. The Berlin Senate (executive) bought back the shares from the private owners of the Water Company. There are further plans to establish in the near future a municipal energy and gas utility. Other campaigns around urban infrastructure issues include the successful referendum against the development of the former airport Tempelhof and the promotion of cycling infrastructure, as well as the unsuccessful protests against the extension of [End Page 89] the inner city motorway (A100). All these initiatives illustrate that politicisation of urban infrastructure is possible through concerted action, and that one breakthrough success (in Berlin, reversing the privatisation of the water company) can help reshape the political discourse, at least at the urban level.
Infrastructure and the Right to the City
While in legal terms remunicipalisation is the return to public ownership of privatised assets at the local and federal state level, in Germany it has led inevitably to political debate on alternatives to existing forms of urban governance, including those connected to broader debates on the ‘Right to the City’.3 David Harvey (following Henri Lefebvre) has argued that the ‘Right to the City’ should be adopted as ‘both a working slogan and a political ideal’ in the quest for an ‘urban commons’.4 This big-picture politics is...