It’ll take organizers to expropriate the landlords.

October 9, 2019

In Berlin, there is a clear consensus that the rent is too damn high. People on the street aren’t afraid at all to drop the ‘E’ bomb. On April 6th, 40,000 tenants took to the streets of the capital and thousands more demonstrated across the rest of Germany demanding a referendum on the expropriation of large property owners (a demand which would effective socialize roughly 200,000 flats). Polls taken the day after showed that 49 percent of the population supports expropriating big property owners, while another 22 percent are on the fence. You can’t walk down the streets of Berlin’s working-class districts and not hear people talking about rent.

Over the course of a few months, really, Deutsche Wohnen and Co. Expropriation [Deutsche Wohnen and Co. Enteignen] campaign has become a reference point for tenant struggles around the world. English-speaking press outlets – from the Nation to the Guardian to (of course) even the Financial Times – have shown interest, excitement, and concern (depending on the outlet). So how did this happen? International coverage has certainly caught some of the crescendo, but there’s a lot to uncover as to how a dispersed movement, composed of a number of loosely affiliated tenant initiatives coalesced into a campaign machine that was able to question the very premise of private property – at least in regards to housing.

Here I provide a set of theses regarding the process of movement formation that the Expropriation campaign has revealed as a supplement to the interview.

1. It takes organizers to make a revolution

What might appear to be spontaneous to outside observers is often anything but when seen from the inside. The expropriation campaign is the result of sustained, long-term organizing efforts happening sometimes visibly, but mostly under the surface of that which gets represented.

Similarly to the ways Rodrigo Nunes points out in his work that polemicizes the notion of spontaneity and its supposed contrast to organization, the Expropriation campaign started somewhere (across many points in a broader network) and was organised by some people. It was a subjective and ultimately contingent process. It was not born out of the ether of some kind of spirit. As Nunes argues: “it takes ‘inventions’ brought forward by particular individuals for something new to happen, but these inventions are nothing more than the recombination of trends already present around them.”

This is evident if you look at the forces that launched the campaign: an organizing core from this tenant initiative, another from another, people from the older 2015 referendum, new initiatives that came to existence after those others – the Enteignen formation is simply a successful recombination of previous forces, factors, resources, and capacities that have congealed into something new and different.

In this way, we can admit, as Nunes would further urge us to, that there is an intermingling between what appears to be spontaneity and leadership: a “spontaneous” process is one in which organizers “motivate people to do something they might not have otherwise done, but which they informedly choose to do, and take on as their own action.” In this way, the organized become organizers as well.

This new “recombination of trends already present” that resulted in the creation of the Jumpstart Working Group [AG Starthilfe] was a keystone organism to the broader movement ecology of the campaign. As a tenant organizing school, Jumpstart’s turns angry tenants into capable organizers. It’s function in the broader apparatus is to congeal data from the field of struggle and previous battles (what we can call combat-organizational know-how) in order to circulate that know-how in such a way as to systematically build the capacities and resources of those people inexperienced with class struggle. That is, turning the organized into organizers.

In developing a function specifically tuned towards the development of militant capacities and resources (of providing a space where tenants learn to struggle and to build a collective vehicle), they were able to extract the know-how that was previously trapped in the minds of discrete individuals, garnered through years of experience, and convert that into something others can learn. We see the recombination of experiences from someone from the Otto Sühr initiative housing initiative, someone else from the Kotti and Co. housing initiative, someone else from the Interventionist Left (an extra-parliamentary communist organization), and see this converted into a know-how, a craft, that can circulate across a network, loosening the dependence on those with experience.

This marks a novel development in the broader ecology of Berlin’s social movements. Inquiry from sections of Berlin’s left movement ecology uncovered the existence of an inhibiting discursive-practical arrangement that assumes equality of capacity and inhibits the production and transfer of combat-organizational knowledge.

Quite similar to observations made by Chris Dixon in the US and Canadian context, in wanting “that everyone should be able to participate equally in making decisions and carrying out plans [. . .] we frequently assume that the way to put this into practice is to proceed as though everyone is already pretty much capable of doing everything or will quickly figure it out.”1

As Dixon further observes, “the notion ‘that we’re all the same’ is a fallacy. In accepting and sustaining it, we confuse acknowledging differences in skills, knowledge, and confidence with justifying such differences and the power bound up in them.”2 Quite ironically, under such a framework, “we are all equal” assumes undifferentiated social subjects, i.e. assumes dividuality and discounts subjectivization/social subjection. Hence, according to this formula, anyone can abolish the power relation, despite the very differences that constitute capitalist subjectivization processes, thus making all of us replaceable cogs.

Hence, the unstable discursive combination of, “Of course, we are not equal subjectively” yet “we are equal in capacity”. This discursive formation is stable only because we forget that subjectivization actually spells out capacity and confuses that with potential. That is, everyone has the potential to be transformative agents, but many lack the capacities and resources.

Where the militant-minority historically helped this knowledge-gap, the militant-minority of the broader Berlin ecology here doesn’t function in this way. One can speak of it as is a lack of a “militant-minority-function,” in a way quite similar to how Barry Eidlin and Micah Utrecht posit the way the Communist Party functioned in from the 1930s through ‘40s in relation to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.3 That is, the Communist Party functioned as both an incubator of a political viewpoint and as an incubator of an effective political praxis. They knew capitalism was the problem and, as Jane McAlevey makes clear, they had a “whole skill set,” a “whole [trade] craft of organizing” that was combat-effective.

Today, in Berlin, while left militants can analyze structural formations and what things mean, there is a severe and quite feelable gap about what to do and how to do it. In this way, most – not all – left organizations function as incubators of political viewpoints, but struggle to develop as incubators of effective political praxes.

What we see with Starthilfe is an overcoming of this blockage within a field of struggle, an experimentation within the component parts of the movement ecology that developed to try out something new: to systematically address the question of combat-organizational know-how and to circulate that know-how within a situated movement environment. Beyond simply providing workshops to anyone that wants to come by, they target actual social bases and build their capacities and resources. Once the boat can float on its own, they move on to the next project.

And as we’ve seen, it has had remarkable success so far.

3 and 4. This leads us to two further tentative observations

Firstly, this process should really push us towards considering organization building ecologically. That is, to quote Rodrigo Nunes’s forthcoming book, Beyond the Horizontal: Rethinking the Question of Organization, we should be thinking organization “as a distributed ecology of relations traversing and bringing together different forms of action (aggregate, collective), disparate organisational forms (affinity groups, informal networks, parties, trade unions), the individuals that compose or collaborate with them, unaffiliated individuals who attend protests, share material online or even just sympathetically follow developments on the news, webpages and social media profiles, physical spaces and so on.”

As Nunes observes, thinking in such a way should make us consider the ways we indirectly shape each others fields of possible actions, in ways that can be symbiotic – or parasitic and corrosive. Indeed, within the three levels of the campaign ecology, we see an arrangement of initiatives (some more connected with others, some less so), we see the creation of a number of autonomous actions alongside more coordinated ones, we see special organs (like Jumpstart) that serve very particular functions, and we see big struggles (the expropriation) that correspond and compliment local ones (individual tenant initiatives).

This allows for the development of an ecology that has multiple points of entry and creates reinforcing feedback loops: particular struggles at particular housing complexes make the struggle concrete and immediate, but also provide a gateway to the broader struggle against private property through the big expropriation campaign, where people come together for actions on the one hand, and a referendum on the other.

This has even had a beneficial impact on the left-wing of the Berlin parliament, where, thanks to the success of broad mobilization and deep organizing, decision-makers are pressured to do something about it. For Die Linke (the Left parliamentary party), this has given ammunition against neoliberal forces. This then creates a broader symbiotic effect and exchange across the web of relations.

“To think organization ecologically,” Nunes explains in his book, “implies a shift from conceiving this as a zero-sum competition to seeing it as a matter of cooperation.” Its not about what is the correct form and which single actor can win the most – its about the development of a broader tendency and the ecological functions needed to sustain it, and the acknowledgement that we co-create the field of possibilities.

In one part of the interview I omitted due to length, Hannes and Jan talk about how an arrangement of actions and actors came together that were also part of the ecological growth: when Die Linke commissioned a study on gentrification, when academics created raw data and identified a number of issues in the privatization wave, when activists got a hold of that, when someone in the banking world told activist upcoming plans to renovate, etc. A whole chain of actions became articulated into/onto the campaign ecology, making its own source multiple and dispersed. In this way, a number of institutions and actions came into play – academia, parties, etc. – further demonstrating the potential of activating a field of possibility across springs, sources, and organizations. Of course, it should be remembered that this chain of articulations did not occur mechanically or automatically – they were the result of contingent and subjective actors acting upon opportunities and openings. That is, organizers seized a long chain of opportunities that allowed for this process to deepen and spread.

Secondly, this campaign should make clear structure-based organizing works. Borrowing from Jane McAlevey, “structure-based” organizing is that organizing that focuses around “structures” that produce bases that are bounded to them. Workplaces produce a bounded base of workers. Schools produce a bounded base of students and workers. Hospitals, a bounded base of workers and patients. In this case, housing projects produce a bounded base of tenants.

As McAlevey argues, the objective of structure-based organizing is to win over a majority of the constituents that form a base that is bounded to the structure. Given the bounded nature of the base, organizers can easily assess progress in convincing tenants given the quantifiable nature of the base (say, there are 500 tenants at a project).

Rather than trying to convince those that are already convinced, the Enteignen campaign is interested not only in winning a broad cut of society through the referendum vote, but doing so also means organizing specific structures – housing projects owned by companies like Vonovia or Deutsche Wohnen, etc. That is, the goal is not only to win a referendum, but to empower a base. And to do so means organizing them and developing solidarities beyond those specific bases creating a two pronged pressure of directly organized tenants and allied tenants.

The structure-based campaign design allows progress to be measured in three ways: by the amount of participation coming from each housing project in their local struggles at their own housing project; the amount and quality of participation at the demonstrations they organize; and by the referendum vote itself. In this way, an array of feedback loops are built into the campaign that allow organizers to measure support, motivation, and militancy forming a series of embedded “structure-tests” within the campaign machine.

Rather than simply hold demonstrations in the hope of attracting people, organizers systematically targeted the structures that bound the bases of their concern (in this case, tenants) with the explicit and concrete objective to involve those very bases in the campaign so that they may directly build their own power.

5. Lastly, organizing still proves to be one of the best tools against the rise of fascism.

When I moved to Germany in 2015, Alternative für Deutschland was beginning its transformation into an openly far-right political vehicle (AfD, is the budding radical right parliamentary party steadily winning power). There was a great deal of debate within the left as to how handle AfD voters themselves as many of them are coming from blocs of society that compose sections of the old Fordist working-class.

For many comrades, voting for AfD precluded any terms of engagement less than direct violence.

But in the interview, Hannes brought up that at various points they’ve encountered and organized AfD voters. Their political viewpoint became clear mostly in off-hand comments (typically about immigrants or refugees) or in private conversations with organizers.

Out of this process organizers noted that many had voted for AfD because they had felt AfD was “doing something” about their deteriorating social conditions. And many times, these AfD voters were also quick to jump into the campaign because it was obvious that the Enteignen is also “doing something” in very concrete ways.

In this process, however, something interesting developed. Hannes, one of the expropriation campaign organizers, remarked “Over the course of attending meetings and struggling together, these AfD people come to realize, ‘Oh shit, my rent didn’t go up because refugees are here – this process started long before their arrival. It’s been capitalists all along. And I can name the concrete mechanisms and techniques in which vehicles of capital have been screwing me over.”

In this way, involving people who were previously not involved in social movements comes to function as a deeply educational experience as they learn through doing. Struggles function as educational and experiential processes that demystify social relations and provide openings to articulate new social relations of solidarity.

Because of organizings dialogical foundation (because organizers talk with and not to these bases – unlike the monological communications that define more mediatic processes of just mobilizations and just electoral processes on their own), it provides a key buttress to the transformative process. And this is because it is about encounter. It’s about meeting people that are different than you, working with them from where they are, in order to see what we can do together and become together.

And out of this encounter, over the sustained meetings, dialogues, events – a competing image of reality is produced, an image that counters other narratives that are explained through the media. Those other narratives become weaker as the source of their misery comes to light, becomes demystified over their own combat with capital.

And that’s where the possibility lies to initiate a broader transformative process. That is, while the results of this process come from many sources, a key novelty has been the approach to do structure-based organizing and to systematically circulating combat-organizational know-how. In the end, this process depends on many, but the layer of seasoned organizers and their ability to transform newcomers into competent militants – not by telling them what to think or how, but how to do through doing – has proven to be a catalytic factor that if replicated, could help us develop an alternative to fascism.

But if there’s anything we learned from the movement, it is that nothing comes about automatically – it’ll take organizers to expropriate the landlords.

  1. Chris Dixon (2014) Another Politics: Talking across Today’s Transformative Movements, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, p.182. 

  2. Dixon, Another Politics, p.182-3. 

  3. Micah Uetricht and Barry Eidlin, (2019) ‘U.S. Union Revitalization and the Missing “Militant Minority”’, Labor Studies Journal, 44(1): 36-59. 


Daniel Gutiérrez (@_dierrez_)

Daniel Gutiérrez is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Freie Univeristät. His research focuses on the composition of student struggles following the financial crisis of 2008. Since 2015, he has been organizing with Solidarity City Berlin, a migrant’s right to the city organization and is a founding member of the Berlin movement school, Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung.