When BBC Berlin correspondent Steve Evans brought together three generations of a family living in old East Berlin, for Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, neither Anna, who was in her sixties or her son, Maxim Leo, had any regrets about having left behind the times when their house had no bathroom.
The youngest of the three, 14-year-old Clara, born 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, said she could not imagine being unable to travel to the other side of the city or having to use the public baths to wash as her grandmother had done. Contemplating the now gentrified street they lived in, where organic vegetables and vegan ice cream are sold, the two elder family members said while they did not miss the reality of their lives, they felt the loss of “ideas and convictions” – the sense they were building a better world. Maxim Leo, now in his mid forties, summed up the changes that had taken place in the neighbourhood over the last 25 years by saying it had become “richer and a little bit more boring”. In the 1980s their street was populated with writers and artists, poets and journalists. The walls of the houses were still riddled with bullet holes from the Second World War and life was slower – people were “millionaires in time”, said Maxim Leo who added that he saw the neighbourhood as a symbol of the country:
“It’s much more comfortable, but it’s also more boring than before. Before ’89 we had real existential problems, we asked ourself how it could be possible to have more freedom in our life, the possibility to realise our ideas. On the other hand we are free of problems today, and if you don’t have problems in an existential way, you start to have artificial problems, you start to have lifestyle problems. What is the right food to eat, what is the right water to drink. This is a little bit sad.”
This summer I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, a story of a group of friends living in Paris at the end of the war who were grappling with the same kind of existential questions Maxim Leo remembered – although in this case they were about the future of France and whether it, with the rest of Europe would be swallowed up by capitalist America or Soviet Russia. The group of artists and intellectuals were in their various ways wrestling with the political realities of their time, examining their individual desires in relation to the bigger political picture. Where did their dreams fit in to the greater political project? To what extent should they sacrifice their own wishes, even their ethics, to pursue a greater good? What role did art play, could they justify writing a ‘light novel’ or should they focus on educating, teaching, making a point with their work, serving a greater political purpose? While neither the Soviets or the Americans did invade De Beauvoir’s France, Maxim Leo’s assessment that with the advance of capitalism comes the fixation with “artificial problems” seems valid everywhere.
A fascinating part of the history of the “artificial problems” that preoccupy us is the role played by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud who is considered the founding father of public relations. Among his successes were making it appealing to women to smoke in public and to halt the trend away from wearing hair nets after the war. Bernays not only succeeded in encouraging people to shop, but also sought to promote fear of communism and to divert the masses away from “dangerous” political engagement. Thus the man who is said to have used propaganda to facilitate the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala also played a major role in transforming people into what Herbert Hoover described as ‘constantly moving happiness machines’.
Surely the knocks on the windows from outside that occasionally disturb our consumer idyll are getting louder, more insistent, challenging the notion that we don’t really have anything to worry about. Have the ‘existential questions’ really been put to bed when in the UK the 100 wealthiest people have as much money as the poorest 18 million? And when just about everything we own connects us to a global market, is it really possible to avoid asking questions about our personal responsibility, as Maxim Leo did in East Germany and the Mandarins did in France?
The world we are in is one where we’ve perhaps become used to saying that ‘something should be done’ – with “ethnic cleansing” being carried out by IS in Iraq, the conflict in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 190,000 people, the escalating crisis in the Ukraine, where a million people have been displaced from their homes, let alone the situation in Egypt where activists and journalists have begun a hunger strike in protest against their imprisonment. But it’s also a world without a framework, where there seems to be no clear answers to the question of what exactly should be done, nor any assurance that the world’s leaders know what to do. If we believe that we as people have responsibility, as much as it is the politicians, to do something about this world, then of course the very next question has to be what can we possibly do? It’s an attempt to look at this question that is at the heart of Winnable Game.
Martin Bell said on the same episode of Broadcasting House that in all his career the only period he had known to be so dangerous worldwide was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I want to use this blog to explore and find out where the answers might lie, to go outside the current media discourse and engage with people who are grappling with todays ‘existential problems’ and trying to find new ways of tackling them…