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Review of Joachim C Häberlen’s “Beauty Is in the Street” – Exploring Plastic People, Pedal Power, and the Power of Protest


The Provotariat, a group of Dutch anarchists and performance artists, declared in 1965 that car power is worshipped by the foolish through daily human sacrifices.

Prior to Ulez, 15-minute cities, and Just Stop Oil, the Provos were already attempting to put an end to what one of them referred to as “the overwhelming presence of motor vehicles and asphalt”.

The Provos proposed that Amsterdam’s city center be inaccessible to cars, and instead, a fleet of white-painted bicycles should dominate the streets. These bicycles would be freely available for communal transportation.

The plan did not make sense to the police in Amsterdam. They claimed that the bicycles were not secured and therefore posed a risk for theft, so they were taken away.

Joachim C Häberlen argues that a variety of events, including the actions of countercultural European groups such as the feminist activists at Greenham Common, the enragés of Paris ’68, the Plastic People of the Universe in Prague, and the Orange Alternative in Poland, have all contributed to challenging authority and consumer culture. This is discussed in a comprehensive and friendly manner in Häberlen’s extensive history.

Many of these groups believed that Karl Marx’s ideas were outdated. They disagreed with his belief that religion was the opiate of the masses, instead attributing this role to consumer capitalism in general and the obsession with cars in particular. The Provotariat even stated that the toxic fumes from cars could be seen as its form of worship.

According to Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure in the New Left movement, the traditional Marxist heroes, the proletariat, were no longer suitable for sparking revolution. In his popular 1964 book, “One-Dimensional Man,” Marcuse suggested that marginalized groups such as people of color, women, gay individuals, hippies, and those who reject white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist norms could take on the role that the working class had once held.

According to Häberlen, it was these particular groups that caused a revolution in Europe by advocating for the legalization of abortions and gay rights, advocating for fair treatment of undocumented immigrants and refugees, and opposing authority on both sides of the iron curtain.

The Orange Alternative utilized the strength of absurdity. In the early 1980s in Poland, during strikes and martial law, the authorities would paint over anti-state slogans on walls with white paint. In response, Waldemar Fydrych and his friends painted small red dwarf figures. Fydrych was beaten by police for this act, who then asked him, “What is the meaning of the dwarves?” Fydrych replied, with a serious expression despite his injuries, “I desire a revolution. A revolution led by dwarves.”

Fydrych and his companions handed out red paper hats to people passing by. Meanwhile, others danced, played guitars, and sang the chant, “We are the dwarves/ Hop sa sa/ Hop sa sa/ Our houses are under mushrooms.” A police officer announced through a megaphone that anyone not removing their unique hats would need to present their identification. Once again, the officers seemed to have lost control of the situation.

Häberlen proposes that the downfall of the Soviet bloc may have been influenced by small-scale displays of governmental absurdity. This theory may hold merit. However, movements centered around concepts like flower power and rebellious liberation could potentially transform into oppressive forces – or even worse. In a section discussing street violence and terrorism, Häberlen argues that instead of striving for a new society, organizations such as the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction in Germany and Italy’s Red Brigades “began to imitate the state, adopting its language and structures”.

Häberlen is good on the sliding scale of countercultural protest – from putting flowers in soldiers’ rifles on the one hand to political murder on the other. In the middle, he finds the euphoria of fighting in the street. Rioting is a joyful event if you are doing it right, argued a 1960s West Berlin group called Fighters of the Erupting Sado-Marxist International. Their greatest pleasure was destroying what made life unbearable: “Commodities, cars, concrete traffic, fragmented time…”

The author primarily concentrates on Germany, specifically providing a thorough and captivating examination of Berlin’s techno music scene. However, there is no mention of Britain’s 80s rave culture, which was also characterized by rebellious attitudes.

The author’s analysis of Greenham Common women’s peace camp protesters, pictured here in 1984, is ‘wonderful and touching’

Although some of his analysis may seem lacking and superficial, there are certain aspects that stand out. In Chapter 11, the author discusses the women’s and gay movements, attempting to connect various struggles. However, his examination of the Greenham women’s peace camp, a site of protest against the deployment of cruise missiles from 1981 to 2000, is truly remarkable and moving. Not only does it delve into the concept of nonviolent political activism, but it also recognizes the remarkable achievement of these feminists in Thatcher’s Britain. By creating a safe space for women to explore practical alternatives and move beyond the conflicting ideologies of the cold war era, they made a powerful statement.

He is also highly skilled in discussing the topic of individuals who occupied abandoned buildings in areas close to the Berlin Wall, and exploring the concept of communal living. In Kreuzberg, this included setting up long tables on the streets for shared meals, getting rid of private rooms, and challenging the traditional bourgeois family structure. While some may view it as a nightmare, others may see it as a utopian ideal.

What impact have these movements left behind? According to Häberlen, they did not lead to the downfall of capitalism, but rather, contributed to its evolution and continuation by promoting anti-hierarchical beliefs that transformed work culture. Instead of traditional perks like access to executive washrooms, companies now use supposedly democratic methods such as providing beanbags and breakout zones to foster loyalty.

According to Häberlen, the goals of countercultural protest are still motivating, despite everything. What are these goals? “A society without discrimination based on gender or race, a society that values and preserves nature instead of exploiting it for financial gain, a society where citizens have the right to their city, affordable housing, and public spaces.”

He makes a valid argument: picture cities without locks on bicycles, automobiles, or front doors, with open public spaces where you can sit without feeling obligated to make a purchase and where you may interact with individuals outside of your usual social circles. Although it may seem like a distant dream, it is still a worthy cause to strive for, and one that holds a certain beauty.

  • The book “Beauty Is in the Street: Protest and Counterculture in Post-War Europe” by Joachim C Häberlen is available for purchase from Allen Lane for £35. To purchase and support the Guardian and Observer, please visit guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.

Source: theguardian.com