ESSAYS Mousse 72
The Musical Chairs That Is Capitalism
by Estelle Hoy
Photo: Estelle Hoy
“No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.”1
—Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language, 1978
The 5K Berlin coronavirus emergency grant was a parthenogenesis of capital—investor nest eggs were fertilized beyond our willing involvement. A collective semiotic activity that is monstrous and cruel, not least because it took advantage of “corona chaos” in all its virile forms. The eternal reemergence of the deictic function of the artist. A nonconsensual dependence on capital. It’s a joke and a swizz—they have imagined us because we didn’t have the luxury of imagining ourselves.
To rephrase Marx, one punk thing about a puppeteer is that there can only be one.2
The coronavirus closures shut down the Berlin art scene almost overnight. Freelance artists were suddenly thrown into serious financial precariousness, shrinking into Plath’s bell jar like a formaldehyde baby. As luck would have it, the (very) white knight that is Investitionsbank Berlin galloped heroically onto the scene and freelancers, including artists, were rumored to have access to 5K of unimpeded, mic-drop grant money and the glitzy inversion of otherness. COWABUNGA! Mass suicide mug shots were replaced with euphoric gratitude and dissociative fugue, brought back to life by a resplendent, yet radioactive, publicity stunt. Artists were told they were vital to the city’s infrastructure, the phrenic capillaries of Berlin, and like most artists I’m motivated by stingy praise.
Besides, I was in no position to refuse. I’d thrown myself at Berlin apartments for years to get something rent controlled, but so far my attempts had been dampened by estate agents hired by a family of werewolves. There was plenty of life in Berlin before people decided to squeeze cash from it, but the narcoleptic desuetude of downtown Kreuzberg had made way for trust-fund bohemians with their clean rap sheets and the determination/time to take on Berghain’s manic-depressive door policy. They’d turned each Kiez into a bona fide albino art scene with their general panache, beauty, and good breeding. Enough for artists like me to lag behind rental hikes and develop a depression brought on by malnutrition, whack-a-moling a hemorrhoid every other day—there’s only so many two-euro shawarmas a person can eat. Fortunately, I caught a break via the usual friend of a friend of a friend who’d outgrown fifty-four square meters at the same rate he collected paternity payments. All I’d need is a month’s rent and month’s bond, up front. Oy vey. The 5K couldn’t come soon enough.
I remember the day clearly. It was almost three o’clock and I was strolling down Sonnenallee trying not to move for other people, which never lasted very long, listening to someone wailing about their kid’s jaundiced skin, or something equally unmemorable. I wasn’t registering all the hoopla down Sonnenallee because by comparison to the madhouse where I lived, the street wasn’t very hoopla, at least not in the way I knew, but why I felt proud of that I couldn’t really tell you. People hammed up the one-and-a-half-meter distancing rule, bumping elbows in pantomimed greeting, brushing shoulders with other artists who’d mastered the very fucking confusing coronavirus grant application with that “a good time was had by all” vibe.
You gotta use who you gotta use, amirite?!
It was an ecclesiastical shitshow, the first day registering more than eighty thousand applicants, which pulverized the program—a digital neoliberal revolution collapsing under the halitosis stink of desperation. Painters and critics fell through the cybernetic cracks, turning artist solidarity into Lord of the Flies. Suddenly, what kind of artist you were mattered even more. “Gap-year” artists became the embodiment of evil, stealing food from the mouths of “real” artists—the diehard professionals making off with fifty bucks a show, if they were lucky. The application was rigged or flawed or whatever, and some freelancers received 10K by accident. An ethical dilemma ensued against an upbeat carnival tune—“There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
How large is the pot of gold? Should I return the excess 5K for other applicants?
All accompanied with a desperate lack of irony.
Track: “Heroes,” by David Bowie3
Enter stage far right: Investitionsbank Berlin
Investitionsbank Berlin is a development bank and foremost promotional institute of the state of Berlin. Its ultimate aim is supporting the Berlin economy and, da da da daaaa, housing development, offering low-interest loans for landlords, investors, and homeowners.4 The bank “charitably” splintering money has a vested interest in Berlin maintaining a hip “art glow,” since real estate development in Berlin hinges on that very image. My cynical impression is this: Investitionsbank circulates on its own orbit of profit built on the backs of nervous, androgynous artists, so of course they’re going to prop it up. It’s a trend toward history, the same rag or rip, turning contemplation to distraction. As usual Hito Steyerl says it better:
“I love history
But history doesn’t love me back.
Whenever I call her I get her answering machine.
She says: ‘Insert logo here.’”5
Glamorous and unfazed, our hero has the wealth and Imhofian staying power to be Xeroxed, recycled, and ultimately reincarnated. In a pretty winning insight in Heroes (2015), Franco “Bifo” Berardi observed, “Capitalism is based on the exploitation of physical energy, and semiocapitalism is grounded in the subjugation of the nervous energy of society.”6 A sycophantic hermeneutic loop. There’ll be no Judgment Day for their virtual ethical bankruptcy.
The piranha frenzy continued with a switch to federal control, our simulated hero winning the cover-up, heightening the mirage of generosity through artificial delirium. Artists were pitted against artists. So many applicants, people whispered, so few chairs, there’s a thirty-minute window to start your appeal before the slot evaporates for the next pirate/stowaway. Tax numbers and freelance digits were hysterically consolidated for the big moment of planetary alignment. The less fortunate claimants folded into neutron stars mid-application with the collapse of a digital system under pressure. A meltdown off the back of a meltdown. The prospect of irreversibility had etiolated artists in tears. “The buttons didn’t work!” we cried. “The German was archaic!” shouted the Ausländer. Nobody could afford noncompliance, let alone a slip of the magic mouse cursor. Zoom orgy parties were abandoned in the wee hours to apply for the grant with mathematical ferocity.
It is a grant, though, right?
The rules and eligibility were in stupidly fine print and no one I know has a hair dryer let alone insurance covering optometry. We researched the tiny disclosures, just to be sure, reading aloud from some reliable source like Wikipedia.
I asked my parents for their opinion. “It’s pronounced l-o-a-n.” My parents, coming in with a logic I cannot deny.
Like I said, I was walking down Sonnenallee in the midst of my attack of dissociation when the email alert came in, super sneaky, not even the red exclamation button, just a friendly reminder that if thirty minutes lapse my life will end. I’d rather not talk about the extremes I took to get home, but I got there with mere moments to spare. The drop-down options for my field and gender didn’t work, so my final application reads like a Renaissance masterpiece from the Quattrocento. I identify as male (not entirely untrue), and I’m a fisherman. (Are there bona fide fisherman in Berlin? Hmm.) Cemeteries of remorse kick in, realizing I’ll have to justify my fisherman career in the audit. I don’t even eat meat. After I flogged myself a while, I surrendered to a bottle of grappa, feeling hypocritical, exploited, defeated, squatting in the crotch of the gutter like I was too evolved to use a chair. I’d join a gang or a cult for the botoxed affect and financial security, but I’m not really a team player. My precariat homeboys and I, in the end, just involuntary spermatid for capital, propping up the captains of Club Med.
Was it worth it?
“And everyone will fuck in his own social class, the dynamic junior executives will breathe with rapture the smell of their partners’ aftershave, and even the Pope will no longer be able to detect anything wrong with it.”7
What did a well-adjusted William S. Burroughs say of artists? “People like us are lucky because every shitty thing that happens to us is just more material.”8 But he didn’t live upstairs from an AfD member clipping his toenails, and all the other unfortunate truths about Berlin.
I jump on my prepaid phone and start Googling: “cost of living comparison Berlin versus Dakar.”9
Meanwhile, at Investitionsbank headquarters, a gathering of white men with white teeth and expensive-looking hair plugs shifted their weight from one leg to the other, like morticians preparing the dead. Our lead protagonists’ offering is no longer a subject, but an object: a thing, a public image, a deceitful and splendid effigy. A commodity soaked with desire, iron-poor blood, and X-ray greed. The exciting totalitarianism of COVID-19 had them licking their chops, tripling their image, collapsing the possibility of an imagination that is self-determined.10
It’s a pretty shameful day when institutions incubate on a phenomenology of panic and desperation, reproducing “organic” growth off the insecurity of bioluminescent plankton and other bottom feeders. It’s all very Fassbinder. The ideology is a trompe l’oeil, but it’s a damn sight better than our suspected and feared alternative: demise. Banking invertebrates create just enough of an illusion of “easier times” if we simply accept the delirium—which, we’re told, is totally, totally rational. Their authenticity is hanging by a couple of threads. When delirium meets interest you create a life force, documented beautifully in dreamy diary entries all over Berlin:
April 7, 2020
Once I arrive on the edge of the sea there’ll be green swans, free lunch, and a winning hand of solitaire. Baggy proletariat clothing will make way for pearly mermaid scales, sweetened condensed milk, and fish-shaped pillows. Lungs will inflate in coral clusters of resolve and the vibrant neon colors of arrival. A land Pocahontas would return to, Slavs and Tatars would retire in, and my mother, my Other, would approve.
If April were a drink, it’d be bong water.
In the capitalistic market, things are not considered according to their usefulness, but rather in terms of their exchangeability, their performability—crackerjack used-car salesmen setting up the sunshine and noir dialectic. It’s the perfect ruse. Not an unfamiliar predicament: hard-up people who can’t afford to be long-sighted. We cooperate because we’re desperate, delirious, and confused, but the exchange ultimately serves to fertilize the market economy and its deep, deep pockets. An unwilling gamete. The upshot is: nature is artificial, suspect, and ultimately corrupt.
But the ejaculate doesn’t stop there. Our entire precarious life is submitted to this one imperative: competition. It’s the cul-de-sac of democracy. Once you convince people they need to fight one another in order to survive, it ultimately leads to panic. And panicking people aren’t galloping to the Badlands of revolt; they’re not anchored enough to execute a political metempsychosis. If you’re spooked and paranoid you’re too occupied to think about how you’re being occupied. Self-determination is rented out, our agency on time-share, imagination is floated in a stock market in which we have no stock. Economic phenomena are saturated with psychopathological terms: depression, slump, supply, projection, withdrawal, excoriation, ups and downs—it’s hardly surprising we’re wards of the state. And whilst they’re busy valorizing capital
and playing some epic heroism, we’re close to terminal collapse. The final analysis: we miscalculate where the power actually lies.
False histories are made daily.
Hidden deep, deep down is the potency of our collective unconscious and the pimped-up potential of our social brains. This economic collapse could mark the start of an insurrection. This is really a crisis of imagination about what our future can be. There’s beefed-up high priests in central bank, stockbrokers and financial powers with their dogmas and algorithms on steroid compounds, compounding their interest whilst serving their interests. Powers built on exploiting precarious cognitive labor whilst promoting a “happy ending.” Pun definitely intended.
I’m straddling the chasm that is Gen X and Gen Y, trying to figure out what the restoration of democracy could look like, stomach rumbling. We keep flipping the pages of capitalism to find nourishment, but it’s just a book full of dog-ears marking time and not much else. Through force of habit we persevere, but when daily interactions are ill at ease, the whole soul is sick.
For two days in a row I bumped into people dressed exactly the same as me, albeit one and a half meters away. First, a giant pink outfit, head to toe like a fairy-floss blimp. The second, a striped San Quentin prison-PJ getup—hers by Gucci, mine by Humana. One outfit of abandon, the other of totalitarianism, in dialectical prefiguration. I’m trying to continue being a nuisance to government, small hiccups of revolt vis-à-vis the computer screen that does my bidding. Our building rations the commons—shared toilet paper here, split sardines there, planting out some bio Gemüse. We start the odd Avaaz petition and house the untouchables, joining forces in cosmic murmuration. Small signals of community are great and all, but we need something bigger here, something dismantling. Power isn’t about making things easier. I’m open to big ideas. I’m wanting to merge with others. I’m behind people, really I am. I don’t know what I want exactly, but it’s not the crummy, plastic folding chairs they’ve been giving us.
I just want more for the people at the bottom.
Which probably includes you.
 Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language (New York: Norton, 1978), 16.
 Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Hamburg: Otto Meissner Publishing, 1867), 45. A little artistic license here, but truly, how far can you push an artist?
 David Bowie, Heroes (West Berlin: Hansa Studio by the Wall, 1977).
 From Investitionsbank Berlin website, English-translated version: “Housing and Urban Development: In this field, we offer low-interest loans for landlords and investors that are used for new construction, to purchase properties or for projects to modernize and refurbish existing properties.” And: “Through IBB Beteiligungsgesellschaft, we provide venture capital for Berlin’s vibrant start-up scene.” See https://www.ibb.de/en/homepage/homepage.html.
 Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (London: Verso, 2017), 65.
 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (London: Verso, 2015), 53.
 Guy Hocquenghem, “We All Can’t Die in Bed,” in Hatred of Capitalism (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 292.
 William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (Paris: Olympia Press, 1959), 34.
 Dakar is twenty-five percent less expensive, just quietly. See https://www.expatistan.com/cost-of-living/comparison/dakar/berlin.
 See Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Uprising; On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012), 51.
Estelle Hoy is a writer and academic based in Berlin. Her second book, Pisti 80 Rue de Belleville (After 8 Books, 2020) was just released, with an introduction by Chris Kraus.
Originally published in Mousse 72