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In Berlin, We Won a Vote to Nationalize the Big Landlords

Last Sunday, Berliners voted to nationalize the big landlords and win housing justice. We managed to get over a million people to vote to expropriate 240,000 apartments owned by mega-corporations.

Thousands of Berliners march near the Brandenburg Gate to protest against rising residential rent prices. (Omer Messinger / Getty Images)

In a time of defeats for the Left, it’s something special when we can celebrate a resounding victory. On September 26, some 56 percent of Berlin voters — over 1 million people — backed the radical demand to socialize two hundred forty thousand apartments in the German capital. The fact that this campaign made such successful use of Germany’s constitution (or Basic Law), deployed the tools of organizing, and united such disparate movements is itself a real political achievement. Its victory over the privatizing trends in the rental market and beyond was truly historic — hence its international resonance.

Yet amidst such a heady triumph, we risk losing sight of the fact that the campaign to take back control of the places where we live is not yet over. For the campaign now needs to make sure that the referendum vote is translated into practical change. Here, it has to not only rally and organize people, but also engage in a robust confrontation with the Senate. Incoming Social-Democratic (SPD) mayor Franziska Giffey is already threatening to legally delay implementation, citing funding issues as a reason not to implement the decision. Her claims lack any factual basis, but they are politically effective.

This preventative strategy and the strength of the real estate lobby were foreseeable factors, which the campaign was always going to have to reckon with. If it is to continue to make headway, it will now have to use all legal and political leeway available to it. At the same time, without a strong party in high office to implement its demand, it will reach a certain political limit — precisely the limit that any single-issue movement always reaches. As effective as this mobilization may have been, it cannot be sustained forever.

The truth is that this successful campaign, like almost all left groups and parties, produces contradictions of its own. Even looking at the left-wing Die Linke party’s poor result in the general election also held on September 26 (slumping to under 5 percent support nationally), it would be misleading to say that the single-issue campaign worked while the party didn’t. For both share the same problem: their core is recruited from activists and not from the breadth of society.

For various reasons, 56 percent of the Berlin population marked a cross next to Yes for socialization. But we do ourselves no favors if we see this only as a sign of self-empowerment. For if we are to repeat this success, we also need to look realistically at the strengths and limitations of one of the most exciting and important campaigns of our time.

A Dynamic Field

First, it’s worth recognizing that Berlin was almost predestined for a referendum like this. The spirit of the squatter scene still wafts through the capital’s streets, and no other German city has changed as rapidly in the thirty years following reunification. Rising rents, gentrification and privatization, holiday flats and Airbnbs, vacancies, displacement, and the protests against them have all written themselves into the city’s history. So, the topic of housing pushed itself onto center stage.

The fact that different tenants’ protests and initiatives finally joined in one common struggle owed to the realization that individual resistance groups can’t do anything against the overwhelming pressure of the real estate giants. The autonomous politics of squatting and rebelling had failed. The recourse to earlier socialization debates — from trade unions’ discussions under the Weimar Republic to Article 15 of West Germany’s 1949 Basic Law, providing a constitutional basis for the socialization of land, natural resources, and means of production  — is a consequence of this. How else could effective pressure be exerted?

But other circumstances also played into the campaign’s hands. The rent cap imposed by the Berlin city government in early 2020 didn’t solve the rent madness but did contain it. This was a partial success for the movement, yet also took the wind out of the sails of the expropriation demand. The fact that the cap was lifted by the Federal Constitutional Court after only one year, following a complaint by legislators from the uber-neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Christian-Democrats, is a subtle irony of history. For the anger that flared up this March, a result of being faced with the court’s ruling, gave the push for expropriation the impulse that it so urgently needed.

“Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co” collects signatures for it’s campaign in Berlin. (Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen / Facebook)

The first weeks of the campaign were difficult: it was cold and wet, and the coronavirus did not make it any easier. In the neighborhood teams, the collection of signatures needed to prompt the referendum went according to plan, but not yet with momentum. This changed only when the urgency of the demand became clearer after the rent cap was overturned.

But we also shouldn’t neglect the strategic stupidity of the real estate giants — and the audacity of the Berlin SPD. The planned merger of the two largest housing companies, Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, was bound to leave already angry tenants shaking their heads. Yet they advanced this idea even during a referendum campaign in which Berliners would get to have their say on expropriating the big landlords. Even more daring was the action of the SPD under outgoing mayor Michael Müller, who also supported the merger.

The SPD-led city council’s actions became even more ludicrous when it bought fourteen thousand flats in need of refurbishment from Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia at a horrendous price just a few days before the vote. In doing so, the SPD undermined its own argument that a wider buyback would be only a burden on the city budget and do nothing for housebuilding. Rather, most voters realized that the city was being ripped off; indeed, its mayoral candidate Giffey’s narrow electoral success was testament to this. As a staunch opponent of expropriation, she will remain the campaign’s biggest opponent, alongside the real estate lobby itself.

It Wasn’t Just “From Below”

After a failed 2015 referendum on affordable rent, activists had learned that a campaign taking on landlord power had to be well-organized and legally watertight. But for this reason, it’s a bit misleading to glorify September’s referendum simply as a movement from “below.” For it was politically active people from the Berlin leftist scene who networked and initiated the campaign that led to victory. They remained at its core, organizing an effort from “above.”

The fact that others also then joined the campaign, becoming politically active for the first time, is surely to its great credit. In the teams rallying support, the busy organizer meets with the energetic communist and the Kurdish woman with networks across her local community. Some neighborhood teams, like in Neukölln, consist mainly of young activists, including many expats, others from a past Aufstehen group. They all brought life to the campaign. The fact that for a certain period they refrained from fighting over their political differences speaks to the structure and common goal which held the initiative together.

Through the course of the campaign, everyone learned: Whereas the first flyer was still coded in academic jargon, the last one read briefly and concisely. Many learned skills such as organizing a meeting or a group in their respective neighborhood team. Much of the movement mastered digital communication with incredible discipline.

At the same time, it would be wrong to claim that there was no informal hierarchy or dominant groups within the campaign. Most activists came from the (autonomist) Interventionist Left, or else Die Linke. Individuals who did not come from these latter confirmed that the core consisted of actors who, in addition to the campaign, worked to strengthen their own organizations. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in this sense the initiative was no unmediated movement “from below.”

The diversity of the neighborhood teams is not reflected in higher-level organizing meetings. Here convened political activists used to hour-long meetings. Even a dynamic movement like this resembles a party apparatus in its structure, even if some do not like to admit it. Autonomist political forms are based on flat hierarchies, but they always develop informal hierarchies, especially through codes, language, and a certain habitus. Primarily young, academic activists dominate the space. With glitter and flags, they create high-profile images, but are ultimately part of a milieu that has relatively little to do with the bulk of society.

Niche

The fact that hundreds were forced to get in touch with the people of Berlin by collecting signatures and talking to residents door-to-door was a real step forward for left politics. Suddenly, we were not just waffling abstractly about property or capitalism but having to convince people that socialization is a plausible and necessary way forward.

This sharpened our arguments and also reduced them to the essentials. Some people would have liked to recite Capital, but eventually had to realize that the problem of unaffordable rent was closer to what is on most people’s minds for the time being. We could say that the campaign brought the Left back down to earth. For a Left often rather alienated from the rest of society, this was a blessing.

But especially in the last weeks before the decision, when signatures no longer had to be collected, mobilization within the neighborhood teams also dropped off, especially in outlying districts. Help had to be sent from more well-heeled parts of Neukölln and Kreuzberg because local organizing had not been sufficiently successful. Even Marzahn-Hellersdorf, an area dominated by old East German high-rises, saw only a narrow majority for the referendum in the end, despite massive build-up work. Other neighborhood teams felt it overbearing to be shown by the Neuköllners how best to use emojis to mobilize.

While socialization was put forward in understandable and effective language in a campaign video shortly before the decision, the campaign’s social media was still mostly tailored to those who already knew about or were enthusiastic about it. As recently as February, union organizer Jane McAlevey warned that we not only needed to massively scale up our activist base, but stop wasting our energies on social media. We spent most of our time mobilizing the vote rather than organizing tenants in the concerned buildings for the long term.

The alliance with trade unions, the Jusos (SPD Youth) and Green Youth, Fridays for Future, and the Tenants’ Association were essential for anchoring the campaign in civil society. At the same time, while the campaign thus had strong partners, it was not possible to mobilize the breadth of society. At the rent demonstrations, it was essentially the same ten thousand leftists who took to the streets.

As important as these events are to keep up morale, they come from a movement repertoire that does not reach people in the outskirts, like the prefab Plattenbaus, the terraced housing estates and allotments. The anger and frustration of many people is not reflected in feel-good video clips, which is probably why a large part of the population did not feel they were being spoken to, even though 85 percent of people in Berlin are tenants and thus the voter potential was insanely large.

For example, it was discussed quite early on that migrants’ right to vote should also be an issue for the campaign. Though this demand is correct — after all, in Berlin around 25 percent of residents are not allowed to vote — it should be equally clear that this is a problem that requires its own referendum. Nevertheless, with scarce resources, there was a long debate about the extent to which the collection of “political signatures” should be addressed. In trying to get everything right, there was a danger of overextending ourselves.

The electorate’s partisan attachments were also a matter of concern: to get a majority, we needed people who vote for right-wing parties, too. Fortunately, there is no test before signing a petition. So, it wasn’t uncommon to have discussions on the street with conspiracy theorists who thought that the real estate lobby was controlled by three people, or with right-wingers who hated Die Linke and the Greens, and wanted to act “against the Senate” by backing the campaign.

This was hardly a majority view, but it is part of society. The fact that a left-wing project managed to reach many people across all political affiliations with a message about redistribution was — and is — the campaign’s strength. It is surely better to endure the ambivalence of not being able to convince everyone of socialism in one conversation, than not reach people with other views at all.

The campaign also threatened to fail when an accusation of sexual assault within its own ranks dominated meetings. The campaign could clearly not pass judgement on the allegation itself. But instead of an orderly process, there were debates about the process that paralyzed and divided the campaign and deepened preexisting divisions between activists of varying ages and milieus. The learning experience from this can only be that a campaign of this size and scope must first adopt due process for such cases.

A Campaign Isn’t a Party (Or Vice Versa)

The fact that the Yes vote won anyway owes to the design of the referendum, the urgency of the issue, but also to the professionalism of the campaign, which stood out in comparison to the amateurish general election campaign simultaneously being run by Germany’s political parties.

The posters and materials were beautifully designed, and the argumentation and signature collection workshops also enriched activists. A core of activists were highly motivated, and another part let itself be mobilized for actions again and again, at least for a time. It will be harder to keep this motley array of activists in line, now that the vote has been won.

But when it comes to the problem of making the result a reality, the limits of the campaign become abundantly clear. For without a strong political force, implementation in parliament is not assured. This would have needed Die Linke — the only party to support the referendum from the beginning — to have done better. With just under 14 percent in the Berlin Senate elections, it did even worse than in the last such contest.

Although it pushed through the rent cap in the city and made rent policy an issue in its election campaign, it could not benefit from the expropriation campaign’s success. A party is more than just an initiative that mobilizes for a specific issue; it must also radiate assertiveness.

If a party is only perceived as an appendage of a campaign, it makes itself look small. When party officials go out to collect signatures, that may be welcome, but their real task was to compete with the SPD to provide the best rent concept for a livable city, rather than to reduce themselves to street activists.

Thus, the impression hardened that the party was desperately trying to gain a small increase in voters and members in the slipstream of the campaign. But a movement is not a party — and the opposite applies, too. Parties can strategically position themselves to campaign; they can combine issues and focus on government projects — but the two should not collapse into one.

The campaign has rightly sought a certain distance from Die Linke, partly because the privatization of municipal housing — the move which makes expropriation necessary in the first place — was tragically implemented by a Senate governed by an SPD–Die Linke coalition. At the same time, the autonomist understanding of politics has clearly reached its limit, given that the implementation of the decision is now pending in parliament.

Ultimately, a campaign like “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co” has to admit that it is operating within state institutions, when it is already relying on the Basic Law of the Federal Republic. For all the effectiveness of organizing, you can’t seize power in the state without a left or socialist party. In this respect, hopes for implementation are unfortunately bound to the relative defeat of Die Linke. A perpetual mobilization outside the institutions — the classic autonomist strategy — will only be supported by an activist core; the breadth of the campaign cannot sustain this at a high level in the long term.

Reality Is More Radical Than We Are

In thousands of conversations, we could see that the people at the front doors and on the streets are sometimes more radical than those of us participating in the Left project. This should make us feel positive. Most people know very well how high the last rent increases were and what the big companies have to do with it. They understand the principle of profit for the few. And they also know that they are being ripped off every month and are having to pay more and more for ever-increasing rents.

We don’t have to explain anything at length here. We should confidently campaign for our concrete demand, which could improve the living situation of hundreds of thousands of people. For this to succeed, we cannot fall back on niche communication and a narrow social base. This also applies to Die Linke. It can speak straightforwardly and win majorities for itself. The Berlin example provides an impressive demonstration of this.