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The Right to the City and the Greed of the Rich

by Julia Lis and Michael Hartmann Friday, Dec. 01, 2017 at 3:32 AM

Thanks to everyone who resisted the GOP tax giveaway! Unlike the security state, the constitutional state should mean compromises, negotiations, concessions, and countermeasures to reverse exploding inequality and precarious work.


By Julia Lis

[This article published in: Rundbrief 40 (2013) from the Institute for Theology and Politics is translated from the German on the Internet,]

"They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit. They shall not plant and another eats; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity)" (Isa 65, 21f).

The biblical promise of a world in which self-determined people live and dwell free from exploitation and oppression sounds enticing even to modern ears. At the same time, it makes us strikingly aware we are far from such a vision.

Living Space as a Commodity

In the capitalist social order in which we live, housing is also a commodity subject to the logic of the market and profit maximization. We experience the consequences of this logic ever more clearly in our cities: expensive mammoth projects, "gated communities" and consumer pressure on one side and repression of the homeless, settlement of migrants at the peripheries and rising rents that fewer and fewer people can afford on the other side. Cities change into businesses with their own marketing that should help create an investment-friendly climate. The situation worsens in times of the financial crisis. Real estate is regarded as a secure investment. "Concrete gold" is extolled as financial investments promising high profits.

This development obviously does not affect all cities in the same way. A clear polarization occurs. On one side, there are parts of the city that are considered attractive where "ghettos of the rich" arise and at the peripheries of cities in other quarters the structural substance increasingly decays and residents are excluded more and more from the social and cultural life of the city. Alongside the "rental madness" that has broken out in many cities and makes the search for housing nearly hopeless for poorer renters, there are massive vacancies in other cities as in East Germany or in the Ruhr area.

Munster is one of the cities where the rent level has risen again and again in the last years… Only in Dusseldorf and Koln are the average rents higher.

Resistance stirs against this development and against the often cynical reaction of politicians (the Düsseldorf mayor Elbers said people who can't afford the expensive apartments in Düsseldorf to move to the outskirts).


"Right-to-the-city alliances" have existed in Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt for a long time. In these alliances, groups, initiatives, and individual persons organize and demand housing as a human right for everyone, resist displacement, evictions, and privatization and urge the participation of everyone in decisions affecting their environment.

These activists have developed many creative ideas for bringing their resistance into the public: sit-in blockades to prevent evictions, "public living rooms" in the open air that point to the problems in searching for housing and anti-campaigns that ironically satirize the advertising slogans of city marketing. At the same time, the alliances make clear again and again that "the right to the city" means more than only criticism of high rents and a misguided house-building policy. Rather the demand for a city for everyone touches political fields like anti-racism when the question about the desired invisibility of refugees in cities is thematized or the question about the effects of the European crisis on policy in Germany leading to an intensified "class struggle from above."

These different facets of the theme were clear in the action week carried out by the Munster "Right to the City" Week from September 8-14.Through actions, lectures and city walks, racist police checks at train stations were thematicized as well as real estate speculation, evictions and the increasing camera surveillance of public spaces.

"Right to the City" International: Istanbul and Brazil

The struggle for a "right to the city" marked by the utopia of a city as a place of good life for all its inhabitants is an important theme of social struggles in other parts of the world and is not only a central field of political conflicts of local social movements. So the protests this year in Istanbul and Brazil were also ignited in themes that are part of the "right to the city": the planned development or overbuilding of the Gezi-park by a shopping center and the higher prices for local transportation.

The struggle against the neoliberal city is articulated differently and in new ways in the most different places. Gentrification in the capitalist city is a worldwide phenomenon. The city now becomes a place of social protests in which broad alliances meet that reach to the middle classes. As the protests in Istanbul show, alliances between groups that hardly spoke to each other were suddenly possible. Members of the urban middle class, communists, socialists, Kurds, unionists, activists from the lesbian-, gay-, and transgender movement and football zealots demonstrate together.

Thus, the theme "right to the city" offers the chance for new alliances. Broad social mobilizations and the hope of new perspectives of a just, solidarity and communal city could arise from these struggles. To that end, organizing the local resistance, establishing alliances and initiatives and protesting instead of inactively observing repression and exclusion are important. Keeping the global aspect in view is also vital. Analyzing the connecting lines between the different struggles and developing common international ideas that could bring us nearer that utopia of a city organized according to the desires of the many that live there and not the few who profit from it are crucial.


How Egoism Replaces Solidarity

Interview with sociologist Michael Hartmann

[This interview published on 11/11/2017 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Bonuses in the millions, golden handshakes, tax fraud – at the top end of society, everyone wants the largest possible piece of the cake, says the sociologist Michael Hartmann. This principle has become part of everyday life since the elites are models.

Four-and-a-half million euros for the CEO of the insolvent Air Berlin while the simple employees worry whether their salaries will be paid. This is symptomatic for the development of German society.

“At the top end of society, everyone seeks as much as possible from the total cake,” Hartmann said on the culture hour of Deutschland radio. “This has even trickled through to the rest of society in the last decades. This competition principle has largely replaced the mutual helping and supporting that was relatively strong in the postwar decades.”

Individual self-interest above everything

For Hartmann, the roots of this de-solidarity lie in the 1980s. The basic principle was that everyone must prevail individually with performance and elbows in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

“A person optimizes him/herself on all planes so one can feel entitled to as much as possible,” the sociologist emphasizes. “When you look at the world of work today, the working world is increasingly marked by an embittered competition of completely isolated persons. You know this from the media with the many self-employed persons … A hierarchy exists…

The rich want a positive image

Hartmann rejoices over the public pressure on the rich to face their social obligations will increase through revelations like the Paradise papers. “The rich do not like being pilloried and this whole problem is repressed.”

The complete interview

Ute Welty: A cold wintry night, a freezing beggar and a shared coat. On November 11, Christians celebrate St. Martin’s Day. According to the legend, St. Martin on a cold winter’s night encountered that beggar with whom he shared his mantle and who then appeared in a dream to him as Jesus Christ. Martin’s act was and is regarded as a symbol of mercy and charity. For that, he was canonized in 397. Michael Hartmann, professor of sociology in Darmstadt for many years, analyzes why sharing is so hard for contemporary elites. Good morning, Mr. Hartmann!

Individuality instead of Solidarity

Welty: You diagnose a new spirit of the times: more individuality than solidarity. Why is that?

Hartmann: The conduct of members of the elite is represented as a model in society. That is the current situation in Germany. The airline company Air Berlin went bankrupt. The CEO got four-and-a-half million euros guaranteed. The employees are not sure whether they will see any money.

The chairperson of a savings bank association, a former Bavarian minister of finance, has a problem with the tax court because he forgot to file his income tax return in time for several years.

This series could be easily extended.

The more people have, the less they want to give

Welty: Do people give less, the more they earn?

Hartmann: Yes, that is a general rule.

Welty: Why is that?

Hartmann: This basic principle of looking out for yourself prevails in our new society. This individualization began in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan. That everyone must prevail with his or her performance and elbowing is firmly anchored in heads.

The higher one is, the greater is the sense one can draw up one's own rules. One does not need to observe the rules to which the others are held because one is much better than the others.

More public pressure on the super-rich

Welty: How can these rich and super-rich learn sharing? What can bring about a change?

Hartmann: The Paradise Papers is a point where we see what actually happens when tax liability is avoided. The majority could force this tiny elite by increasing public pressure on a legal plane.

Many wealthy persons try to maintain a positive image in society and for posterity. There are many foundations in the US and Germany… The Paradise papers reveal withholding taxes and not paying taxes in legal ways by utilizing many tricks.

Embittered competition rules in the world of work

Welty: Is there a bust for that in the German Museum in Munich?

Hartmann: There is not only a bust in the German Museum. The one who pilfered much money from Mannheim has his own museum there. A good public image is important.

Welty: What policy toolbox is available to increase this public pressure?

Hartmann: Why this basic principle changed in the last decades must be discussed. The famous 1987 saying of Margaret Thatcher that there is no society, only individual men and women, must be considered critically. What is society? Society is based on cooperation and mutual help and not only on this principle. Everyone competes against everyone else. This must also be carried out in all social areas. These basic structures must be critically questioned and changed.

Selective assistance does not help

Welty: The enormity of poverty became clear through the refugee movement in other parts of the world. The German minister of development urges relearning sharing. How can this succeed internationally when we obviously have not advanced far nationally?

Hartmann: The question internationally is how easy it is to evade taxes. The Panama Papers showed this. This is also true for the rich from poor countries. In poor countries, there are very rich persons who earlier shifted their money to Switzerland and now shift their funds to the Caribbean.

Secondly, a drastic change of EU agricultural policy regarding Africa would be really helpful because traditional agriculture in Africa is ruined by EU agricultural policy and the cheap export of subsidized foods. The same conditions exist in the textile sector while cheap textiles ruin the textile economy or the burgeoning textile industry. The setting of points must be revised so policy goes beyond selective assistance and individual projects.

Elites have a model function

Welty: When I listen to them, I have the impression that St. Martin would have a hard time in the 21st century.

Hartmann: He would have it very hard in the 21st century. The beginning of this refugee movement showed there are still many people who are ready to help. This principle has not completely disappeared. How the elites act is very important…

Welty: On St. Martin’s Day, I have spoken with the sociologist Michael Hartmann about sharing. Many thanks!
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