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Society: Berlin’s “cyber-bohemians” don’t want to work

14 August 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

People working on their laptops at the Sankt Oberholz café, a popular hangout for Berlin's "cyber-bohemians"
People working on their laptops at the Sankt Oberholz café, a popular hangout for Berlin's "cyber-bohemians"

"Poor but sexy"; the German capital is a creative, forward-thinking centre, but only survives on subsidies paid by other states. There, lives a population for whom money is tight, and universal handouts are expected. Blogger Don Alphonso pulls no punches in his portrait of Berlin. Excerpts.

My friend H. is afraid, because he is at a critical age and nearing the point where in the real economy one would call him an “older worker”.

In Berlin, however, with a little muddling through, you can reach your mid-forties without ever having held down a regular job. H. himself is not one of those professional adolescents who have struggled along by working as project volunteers. He worked in the media. When I first met him eight years ago in Berlin, he lived for the day and splurged money hand over fist.

Today, he owns some real estate and is catching up on his studies, but is scared. It is this fear, that is driving him to back calls for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A UBI, he says, would set him free, and would free everyone else from the need to submit to the oppression of a job and the salary rat-race. The UBI would be his psychological liberation. He would continue to work his guts out, but would not have the continual anxiety.

To get by in Berlin you need at least €1,000 net a month, and even that might sometimes be too little. The money has to come from somewhere, either from the state, employers, parents or friends.

On the website of Christian Heller, a blogger who has been posting regular updates on everything about his life, you can get a pretty good idea, right down to the last euro-cent, of how long can a young man can live on cheap chocolate, chicken kebabs and packet soup.

If a little extra money arrives, it is time to splash out on the latest Apple gadgets, and boast about buying yourself presents on Twitter. If there isn't enough money, then an online debate ensues on whether the necessary stupefaction is to be carried out with hashish or beer. There is widespread conviction that the humdrum working life of their parents’ generation is a discontinued model.

One expert in such attitudes is Johannes Ponader, the policy director of the Pirates Political Party, who also lives in Berlin. Opinions on Ponader are divided. He considers himself an “agent of social change” while others see him as a menace to the welfare state.

Ponader is not only a leading proponent of the UBI, but also got his job because he promised his party he would devote forty hours of unpaid work a week to the UBI idea. While Germany’s long-term unemployment benefit is meant to help people like Ponader get back to work quickly, Ponader views it more as grant: “The State pays for me to live, and my political engagement is due to the fact that I'm alive.”

The fact that this attitude within the Pirate Party exists mainly in Berlin, may have something to do with the state where the city is found, which has been dysfunctional since 1945 and has seen cash from neighbouring states flow into Berlin as part of policy of "fiscal equalisation among the German states”.

Whether it’s Berlin’s airports or the Landesbank scandal, the S-Bahn or the inability to keep the roads passable in the winter, Berlin lives in a constant state of declared insolvency, kept going each year by the richer provinces. Their wealth and efficiency, however, are despised as “bourgeois”, as Internet philosopher Michael Sailor puts it, writing in an article of “the cultural fabric of our performance-oriented society drowned in the Protestant work ethic.” The rest of the country is dismissed as frumpy – but that doesn’t exempt it from paying tribute to the bustling metropolis.

In his wonderfully wicked novel, “Mandel's office,” Berni Mayer captures these restless and opportunistic figures of Berlin. After losing their livelihoods, the protagonists try their hands at being detectives, but it soon overwhelms them. They have a go at various things, but it usually goes wrong, and the fiascos break their friendship down into a non-committal cohabitation.

The only thing that can truly be counted on in the novel is the yellow Audi A8 from the Bavarian countryside. Convictions, relationships and emotions are all bargaining chips. The Berlin of the novel is a cynical bad bank, where everyone is waiting for the next bail-out so their bonus can be paid and everything can go on as before. And if not, they’ll look for something new.

Take the Internet entrepreneur Sascha Lobo. Lobo wanted to start working as an online advertising distributor, in order to professionalise the German blogging landscape. It worked as well as the Berlin S-Bahn. He tried it with books, which endorsed, among others, “Second Life”, the virtual world as a business model. His first novel, Strohfeuer, was about his experiences in the "New Economy".

Still, Lobo continues to do small-time gigs at conventions, where he explains to the audience their backwardness when it comes to the digital future.

Many people want to follow in Lobo's footsteps and get their place in the sun, at companies such as Speigel Online, writing guest posts or whatever it takes to earn the thousand euros, while there remains no universal basic income.

My friend H. told me about his money worries and his thoughts on UBI before we went to Italy. Near Innsbruck we talked about cakes; in the South Tyrol about bacon, and around Lake Garda about the question of whether if he sold his property, he could get away from Berlin – aiming to just sit by the lake and do something that he's really good at.

Maybe that would also drive away his anxiety and drive this champion of the UBI out of that city that no one has made capable of paying its own way, but that knows very well who should hand over the €1,000.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.