Organic Citizenship. Reflections on the Berlin Wall’s memory

While in Berlin for an “active citizenship” seminar, the hottest debate in the local public sphere was whether to keep the Eastside Gallery, a remnant of the Berlin Wall, as it is or to breach it for developers could erect some luxury projects on the Spree riverbank. Besides good sewage systems and green parks, urban ecology entangles memory and tight connection with the city dwellers. It is commonly known that urban sprawl leads to the extension of suburban areas into natural ecosystems. However, nowadays there is an inner sprawl, a pressure towards the city’s center that is almost all the time exerted by private developers allied with a weak local government against historical sites. Powerful interests – big developers, land speculators, construction corporations – get rich off this inner sprawl, also named infill building.

Cities are human altered ecosystems, all different from one another. People, inhabitants along history, give them uniqueness, by living in them, using and changing them in a diachronic evolutionary process that shapes the past and the present. Currently, this evolution is curbed by developers that, artificially and within a very short time span, reshape the city’s ecosystem, surpassing the citizens’ desires. Despite an apparently improved functionality, communities are losing buildings and spaces that developed organically and spontaneously, spaces that mark turning points in history, local creativity and heritage. They are losing memory.

Just a week after the seminar, at the break of dawn on Monday morning the bulldozers broke through the wall, thus “segmenting” the Eastside Gallery. Both developers and authorities were sneaky, they avoided any sort of opposition or dissent from the citizenry that organically integrate memory into the community’s ecosystem.

Memory and the communal sharing of the public space becomes a category of consciousness that pre-exists private property – just as reciprocity, once it too becomes a category of consciousness, marks the first step towards exchange and individual interests. Proudhon’s early writings on anarchism celebrate “mutual aid” and contractual federalism; Marx hails communal property (and planned production). However, they make no advance from the primary principle of usufruct in the primal (romantic) organic societies. We are captive to the notion of interest, to the rational satisfaction of our egotism. Developers in Berlin, backed by police, despite their push of utter destruction, based their actions on rational and “correct” interest, in accordance with today’s worldview. But why did they do it at night and as almost in hiding? Why did they avoid citizens’ dissent?

Memory and ecosystems in today’s citizenship is a result of a symbolic usufruct, the freedom of individuals in a community to “appropriate” beauty and fruits of their environment merely by virtue of the fact that they are using or enjoying them. Symbolic function of our constructed environment replaces our hallowed concept of possession. It brings forth an unconscious emphasis on use itself, on need that is free of psychological entanglements with property, work, and even reciprocity.

The green critique that I came forth with does not entangle merely the issue of the Eastside Gallery. In Istanbul, people did not flood the streets just to save a little park in Taksim, Bulgarians did not surround the Parliament merely to express their disenchantment with energy bills, students in Budapest did not block the Chain Bridge over the Danube only for the budget policy of prime minister Orban, ecologists in Romania do not protest merely against cyanide mining in Rosia Montana, but against a corrupt and acculturated political realm of possession and domination.

Forgive the commonplace, but people in Europe strive for equality and freedom. And this is where the green critique hails organic societies of the New World; notions of equality and freedom do not exist therein. They are implicit in the societal outlook itself and they cannot be defined as they are not placed in juxtaposition to concepts of “inequality” and “unfreedom”. Murray Bookchin, the American philosopher, was amazed at the absence of coercive and domineering values in organic cultures such as that of the Wintu Indians. Terms commonly expressive of coercion in modern languages, in Wintu syntax they denote cooperative behavior. A Wintu mother does not “take” the baby into the shade, she “goes” with it. A chief does not “rule” the people, he “stands” with them. The verb “to have” does not express possession, but in direct translation it means “to live with”.

We must learn that, which for our peers from far away lied within.

East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin

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