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Jurek Wotzel

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Jurek Wotzel

Will a modern apple a day keep the doctor away?

Written by Jurek Wötzel

Being conscious about the health effects of the foods you buy is exhausting. Meat gives you protein, but is often packed with hormones and antibiotics; fish contains so many beneficial omega-3s, but is contaminated with heavy metals; vitamin-stuffed fruits and vegetables come with a great deal of pesticides.

As though these problems aren’t enough, people have become worried about the depletion of vitamins and minerals in grains, vegetables, and fruits produced in industrial agriculture. Now, this is truly problematic. What if your apple a day isn’t going to keep the doctor away anymore?

Researchers such as David Thomas have been studying the composition of foods for decades and have found some alarming results. For instance, analyzing government food tables between 1940 and 1991, Thomas concluded that the calcium content of potatoes has dropped by roughly 35%, broccoli has lost 80% of its copper content and carrots lost 46% of their iron. A group of Canadian researchers found that between 1951 and 1999, potatoes lost 100% of their vitamin A and 57% of their vitamin C.

Nutrition scientist Donald R. Davis told the New York Times in 2015 that the decline in minerals in foods may be particularly present in crops that have a strongly increased yield today than, say, 50 years ago. This “dilution effect” means that there is an inverse relationship between crop quality and crop quantity. In his 2009 study, he added that the dilution effect is also present with regards to protein levels of broccoli and potatoes.

Irakli Loladze, a trained mathematician that turned to biology, reported to Politico in 2017 that the rising CO2 levels may be a reason for changes in the composition of plants. The increasing availability of CO2 for plants makes them store higher levels of carbohydrates, which crowds out other compounds such as minerals and vitamins. Thus, another dilution effect appears to take over; while rising CO2 levels are beneficial for plant growth, meaning that there is potential for higher food production, this will likely result in lower quality fruit and veg.

But is our diet really getting worse as a result of the decline in trace elements and vitamins?

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Robin Marles doesn’t think so. He acknowledges the dilution effect in some crops, like fruits and vegetables, but says that there are increases in other trace elements and vitamins. In addition, as broad groups, many fruits and vegetables naturally have wide ranges of variation in their mineral or vitamin content. Hence, different breeds of a plant may display different levels of certain compounds. Simply classing all breeds under the same category, as previous studies have done, skews the results because some breeds may be much more prevalent today than decades ago.

Richard Mithen from the UK Institute for Food Research says that our health is, in fact, largely unaffected by the changes in food composition. “We use different fertilizers now, we have different pollution which may have an effect. Some of these minerals may have gone down, others will have gone up. However, the health implications of this are not at all apparent”, he tells The Guardian. Slight mineral or vitamin deficiencies have been linked to chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system or diabetes, but it is unclear whether this cause-effect relationship holds. Nonetheless, Mithen, too, must admit that the dilution effect is real, and that many plants that have been bred for yield have not been able to take up trace elements and vitamins proportionally to their carbohydrate content.

So what’s the deal? For one, the composition of some of our foods is changing. Second, this may be due to a variety of reasons including climate change as well as industrialized agriculture. This does not mean that our diet has worsened to a concerning level, but it does mean that we have to be diligent in ensuring that we get enough of the right nutrients in our body.

It is worth considering reducing the amount of grains, fruits, and vegetables that one buys from large supermarket chains and, instead, switch to locally produced goods that aren’t affected by modern agronomic technology. Anthony Fardet and Edmond Rock from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research note in line with a great deal of other researchers that the reductionist view of food composition, as I have used it in this article so far, is insufficient to account for the true health effects of diet. The reductionist view presumes that we can isolate 1-1 cause and effect relationships when it comes to nutrition. Nutrition scientists such as Fardet and Rock think this is too simplistic. Rather, they support the view that the health effects of diet are nets of multicausal links.

Acknowledging this means adopting a holistic view of preventive nutrition. Vitamins and minerals cannot be isolated and simply be ascribed the same effects in different circumstances. For example, an apple may contain a range of different fibers and carbohydrates which ease vitamin C resorption, whereas a banana may lack those properties. Different foods have interaction effects with each other, enhancing or diminishing the benefits of their compounds. So the change in the composition of our foods can have long-lasting effects which cannot be measured by purely looking at the amount of mineral X or vitamin Y. Analysis needs to encompass a greater variety of variables.

Therefore, to take the safe route, one can buy the produce breeds people have been eating for hundreds of years. They are likely to be unaffected by modern production techniques that are thought to significantly alter dietary effects. In line with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s philosophy, it is always a good idea to only expose your body to the foods that we have ancient wisdom about.

A great example of applying this principle is sticking to the Mediterranean diet, which has frequently been shown to reduce mortality and risk of chronic diseases. A holistic approach means that without yet knowing the concrete causal links, we know that something about this dietary pattern is good for us. Additionally, in Mediterranean countries, the degree of industrialization of agriculture is much lower than in the US, the Netherlands, or Germany, for instance. Foods are less subjected to intervention, and thus, their composition is not prone to quick changes.

All in all, if you generally eat well, your daily apple will probably still save you your trip to the doctor. Yet, if you want to be sure about what you eat or improve your diet even more, take a holistic approach and be aware that industrially produced foods may have different nutritional values and different compositions. In the end, it is difficult to know whether your otherwise healthy industrially produced diet has an immediate impact on your well-being; but given a choice, choosing the safe option is never a bad idea in itself, even if it is a little exhausting.

Jurek Wotzel MADNESS - July & August 2018

Politicizing Mental Illness in the Age of Absurdity

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

The madman is a curious category. It works as the opposite of the ideal functioning person: everything that the functioning person is and does, the madman is not and does not. It is a concept that is essentially defined through what it is not, rather than what it is.

While medical literature did exist in premodern times, the scientific interest in mental illness explosively grew from the 1960s onwards. Modern forms of mental illness have been clustered under various terms nowadays.  Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorder, anxiety, psychosis, bipolarity, the list goes on. Categorization still largely relies on the statistical testing of patterns of lived experience. Both, reports of the inner feelings of patients and external observations of doctors, family members, and friends remain to be the main source for classification and diagnosis. While there have been some advances in uncovering physiological mechanisms lying at the heart of these mental illnesses there’s no consensus. There are researchers that believe serotonin imbalance causes depression, researchers who believe it is actually dopamine imbalance, and those who find the real reasons in genetics. Recently, a study found that our chances of becoming depressed in our lifetime is one in four – and if one of our parents had depression, it’s three in four.

The difficulties that we have with finding medical causes of mental illness may be overcome with time, but the dangers that come treating it a scientific problem will stay. One such issue sparked by the insufficient exploration of mental illness by medical researchers is that treatment often does not match the condition. Many times, chemical antidepressants prescribed by doctors bring little actual improvement and fight symptoms rather than causes. A meta-study by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre showed that across the field, antidepressants relieve the symptoms by 50% after two months, but those who have experienced incidences of depression know it comes at a cost. Yes, you sleep better, and your mood is improved, but then you also get the side effects.

Photo by Stefano Pollio

Another trending illness is ADHD. The UK National Health Service says symptoms of ADHD are essentially of two types: inattentiveness and hyperactivity/impulsiveness. A closer descriptions of symptoms lists ‘excessive talking’, ‘acting without thinking’ or ‘interrupting conversation’ as problematic behaviors.

Indeed, these problematic behaviors can cause distress for the patient. Repulsive reactions of peers in school or nursery, as well as problems in managing everyday life as an adult, are common issues related to ADHD. However, framing these behaviors as a disorder ignores the fact that the social organization necessarily produces misfits. Those who struggle to function within the established society are given a medical diagnosis and a medical treatment with the aim to make their personalities fit in. For ADHD, the medications often given, Adderall or Ritalin, are strong stimulants that can have long-term side effects such as heart-rhythm disorders, psychosis, and addiction. Headaches, dizziness, and anxiety belong to the more harmless side effects the patient may experience daily.

The most dubious of all classes of mental disorder are those of the personality disorders. Among them are for example the ‘antisocial personality disorder’ and the ‘obsessive-compulsive personality disorder’. The NHS says that expressions of anti-social personality disorder are “manipulative, deceitful and reckless, and won’t care for other people’s feelings”. They often have histories of repeatedly breaking the law. Obsessive-compulsive behavior means that a certain thought causes stress and anxiety, which is then relieved by repetitive actions that temporarily relieve this. While the antisocial personality disorder does not come with pharmaceutical treatment, OCD is treated with an antidepressant, an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) which can cause insomnia, reduced sexual desire and has been found to double the risk of suicidal thoughts.

All these examples inherently have political relevance. We should ask ourselves to what extent mental illnesses are serious medical conditions of the individual or simply deviations from the norm – which could be totally fine to live with. Only our definition of what is normal produces the unnormal, which we for some reason cannot integrate in the workings of society. It is wrong to give strong drugs to children with the aim of making them behave like all the others, especially since many of the symptoms are based on social interaction in the first place. Even in cases when there’s no medical treatment as with the antisocial personality disorder, personality differences or non-conformism should not be treated as a medical condition, but accepted as a social phenomenon.

It is wrong to pretend as though the upsurge in depression is merely a result of increasing diagnosis rather than systematic causes that lie at the heart of the social order. In the past decade, depression has increased significantly among U.S. teens and it is estimated to become the world’s leading cause of illness by 2030. High-speed capitalism, the progressive up-breaking of stable social ties due to increasing job flexibility, and the constant fear of economic and social decline are just some of the societal developments linked to depressive disorders.

In general, I think there is a lot to be learned from investigating what is called mental illness. Often it can actually give us a hint at societal issues we would not have seen as issues otherwise. This can work in two ways. First, through addressing the question of whether something is an individual mental illness, or actually the symptom of a greater problem; and second, by questioning the extent to which the normalization of the individual is desirable. Repoliticizing mental illness instead of accepting it as a medical condition is crucial and it can be done by saving the debate from revolving around pure pharmaceutical expertise.

Jurek Wotzel TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

How Israel Got This Way

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

While US and Israeli officials celebrated the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, one of the most violent protests of the past years took place a few dozen miles away, in Palestine. It was part of a greater wave of protests this year in relation to the March of Return. Palestinian officials say that in the past seven weeks, about 100 have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces and a few thousand injured. Now, Palestinians have asked for an official ICC investigation into the occurrences at the Israeli border since 2014.

At the subsequent UN Human Rights Council session, Spain, Belgium and Slovenia voted together with 26 other countries in favor of the investigation, while 14 countries abstained, among them Germany and Britain. Only Australia and the United States voted against. Israel’s reaction to this was to immediately summon the Belgian, Spanish and Slovenian ambassadors to the foreign ministry.

In the West, the political divide over the Israel-Palestine conflict runs across the whole political spectrum. From right to left, there is disagreement about the responsibilities of the two conflicting parties, as well as potential peace-building. Staunch Israel defenders argue that Israel must be protected as a refuge for the historically oppressed Jewish people and as the center of stability in the Middle East. Critical voices complain about human rights abuses. Following the recent killings, the UN rapporteur for human rights in occupied Palestine issued a statement asserting that this “blatant excessive use of force […] must come to an end” and that those in charge must be held accountable.

History matters for present-day politics. It gives us a lens through which we can judge the legitimacy of political action. The particular histories of most European countries, involving colonialism and genocide obligate, Europeans to find ways of rehabilitation. In the same line of argumentation, Israel’s present-day politics should be conscious of how the state came about.

The idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine was an essential part of Zionist ideology of the 19th century. It had in part sprung out of the realization that even the liberal turn would not bring about a conflict-free coexistence of the Christian majorities and Jewish minorities in Europe. Theodor Herzl in 1896 formulated this idea in his work “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”) and became the main figure of the movement. Thus, the seeds of eventual Jewish settlement in Palestine were planted at the end of the 19th century. Under the influence of British Zionist lobbyists, the British first promised Palestinian land to Jewish settlers in the 1917 Balfour declaration. In 1922, Palestine fell under British rule as a result of a League of Nations agreement the British Mandate for Palestine. Subsequently, the imperial rulers facilitated Jewish settlement in Palestine, causing the social fabric to change drastically: in 1918, 10% of the population residing in Palestinian lands was Jewish, by 1945, it was 30%.

During the British mandate, Jewish settlers, the ‘Yishuv,’ were increasingly given more rights to self-determination. Roads, schools, and hospitals were built in previously uncultivated, desert-like lands. The increase of Jewish presence both in numbers and quality was often met with Arab violence. Groups of Jews were massacred, shops were looted, property destroyed, finally culminating in the Arab revolt of 1936.

The reaction of the British was to put an end to Jewish immigration – at a time when the Nazis started mass persecution of Jews in Germany. In Palestine, extreme Jewish nationalist underground militias such as the Lehi and Irgun gained influence, demonstrating increasing Zionist radicalization. Several attacks on British officials, and the bombing of the King-David Hotel in 1946, killing 91, led the British to give up on Palestine.

Photo by Rob Bye

The 40s were a decade that made history. Freshly founded following the end of WWII, the UN was charged with solving the civil conflict in Palestine and in resolution 181 it split the territory into a Palestinian and an Israeli part. For Europeans, a Jewish-majority state seemed to be the perfect way to finally emancipate the Jewish people, centuries of anti-semitic persecution had culminated in the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis. In 1948, when the British had fully retreated, Israel declared its independence and an Arab coalition of six states immediately declared war.

During the first Arab-Israeli war, al-nakba (the catastrophe) saw a mass exodus of Palestinians. 700,000 Palestinians fled because they were dispelled or wanted to escape the violence. An important trigger: the extreme brutality of the Irgun and Lehi, or Stern Gang, which were obsessively anti-Arab. In the infamous Deir Yassin massacre, for instance, about 100 Palestinian civilians were killed, raped, and cut into body parts. Since then, the UN officially demands Israel to grant these Palestinians the right to return to their homes, which has not yet been realized even to this day. At the time of al-nakba, Anti-Jewish violence in other Arab states led to the immigration of roughly 750,000 Jews to Israel.

Israel finally won the war with the support of both the US and the Soviet Union, extending its 1947 borders by taking roughly 40% of the designated Palestinian lands. This resulted in a massive growth of anti-semitism in the Arab world.

The Zionist project was not destined to result in the violent ouster of Palestinians. Early settlement in uncultivated lands was not bound to create conflict. In fact, many Zionists believed in the possibility to share the land and live at peace with the Arab neighbors. Extreme views as they were held by Irgun and Lehi were not the norm. And before the 1970s, Israeli governments tended to condemn further settlement in Palestinian lands. But when the right-wing Likud party, which Netanyahu is currently chairman of, came to power, all this changed. It has continuously dominated. Israeli politics and has supported the push of ultra-orthodox Jews to further settle in the West Bank.

Likud is far away from appropriate historical awareness. Settlements into Palestinian land are continuing, and the opening of the US embassy demonstrates further consolidation of the purely Jewish character of the area. In Israeli political discourse, it is emphasized that Israel ought to remain a Jewish-majority state – defying potential Palestinian emancipation at its root.

Even worse are the apartheid-like conditions in which the Palestinians find themselves. Palestinians occupy a second-class citizen position, not even having Israeli nationality. Human Rights Watch criticizes the preferential treatment of Israelis in the West Bank as well as the restriction of movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza strip. Palestinians face employment barriers, travel bans, significantly worse access to education, and social discrimination. In addition, forced displacement continues as Israelis are further settling in Palestinian territory with the help of the Israeli government. Approximately 600 people have been displaced in the West Bank in 2017 alone.

Israel’s government officials defend their treatment of Palestinians by pointing out the anti-semitism of Hamas and other Palestinian movements. Hamas is openly anti-semitic in that it suspects a Jewish world conspiracy and has called for killing Jews worldwide. Often, reports of Palestinians wanting to simply do “Whatever is possible, to kill, throw stones” appear in Western newspapers. Radical Palestinian organizations also regularly fire rockets into the Israeli mainland, which are mostly ineffectual because of the Iron Dome defense system, but this gives rise to the impression that Israel is constantly under attack and is solely acting in its right of self-defense.

Yet, no state’s right to self-defense justifies human rights breaches as are happening in Israel. Indeed, next to open Palestinian hostility, Israel is also still officially at war with many Arab countries, only Egypt, Jordan, and just recently Saudi-Arabia have agreed on peace treaties. As the US, Russia or China must be criticized for their rights violations, so must be Israel. As Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, Turkey, you name it, must learn to deal with their violent histories, so must Israel. And it must do so soon, since that violent history is not over yet, but still expresses itself every day.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Jurek Wotzel

Moria: When Home is Neither Ahead, Nor Behind

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

It’s a regular day on the island of Lesbos, Greece in late March 2018. In the infamous Moria Camp, a young Syrian refugee sets himself on fire after learning that his application for asylum has been rejected for the second time. He would rather die than go home.

Home, that is where the bombs fall, where the sirens scream, where the relentless fire of the machine guns keeps you up at night. It isn’t for no reason that millions of Syrians have abandoned their home since the beginning of the war, five years ago. Many of them ended up in Lesbos, waiting for the authorities to decide their fate.

Since the EU-Turkey deal was put into effect, refugees arriving in Greece are immediately detained in Moria Camp. When the Greek state erected the camp in 2015, it was supposed to temporarily host 2,000 people. Now, that number has increased to 6,000.

Payman Shamsian, a former NGO worker at Moria camp saw many people arrive there. “They are so happy that they have made it to the land of freedom,” he says. “They think their life is becoming better and better from now on. They come to the camp with thousands of hopes and dreams. And wait. And wait. And wait. I witnessed the entire process of collapse and destruction for many asylum seekers, and how the reality hits them on their face over a course of even one week.”

About 2,500 asylum seekers land on the island every month. Most of them will soon be accommodated in sparsely equipped tents, providing just the bare minimum to keep them sheltered. Each year, when winter approaches, new headlines about the humanitarian crisis in the Greek camps appear in media outlets all over Europe. Still, no one really seems to be bothered.  

The conditions in what has earned the name ‘Moria Prison’ among refugees are horrendous. Not long ago, Greek migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas warned they are potentially life-threatening. Yet, detainees do their best to deal with homesickness, the fear of deportation, and the daily struggle to survive.

“I have seen or personally been in many situations that people in the camp talk about their traditions, their culture, and language with others”, Payman remembers. “Homesickness has a huge presence in the camp. Expressions of it range from the way people decorate their tents to strong hatred toward their tents because it’s not their home.”

The atmosphere in the camp is a pendulum between hope and frustration. “Refugees and asylum seekers mostly don’t want to accept that they don’t have a home anymore. They either think that one day they go back home or think they can make the new place they are moving to their new home.”

It’s not only the homesickness that causes hatred. Anger about being rejected, intra-group conflict, and simple overall despair spark violence and aggression. In 2016, a large group of refugees set fire to their tents in the french Calais camp, leading to outrage at the dinner tables of European families. In Moria, too, riots erupted several times. In the same year, a riot led to a fire resulting in the evacuation of 4,000 detainees. These incidents exacerbate the misery even more.

“The camp can’t be a humane place to have a dignified life, let alone being a home”, Payman tells me. “Every person has a different coping mechanism to face this reality. Some can’t cope with it, some can. It depends on many things. But one of the main problems is that your social status in the camp is totally different from the outside world. Coping with that aspect is the hardest part for people.”

Photo by Roman Kraft

Hannah Arendt, who lived as a Jew in Nazi Germany, was particularly concerned with the lack of belonging one experiences as a refugee. She saw the struggle of the refugee being no different than the struggle of the stateless person. The loss of legal protection of a sovereign state makes the refugee cease to have any social status at all; their actions become meaningless. They have no political community in which there is good and bad, right and wrong. Being stateless is essentially the loss of political identity.

Payman is less worried about abandoning your community of origin in general. “I personally believe that associating the concept of home to a country, usually your birth country, is very overrated. Home can be anywhere for various reasons and change over time for different people based on their life experiences. Even not having a place to call home is becoming very common among people.”

There is a difference, though, between those who left home voluntarily and those who were forced to leave. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well your neighbors running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.

Obviously, this is not the story of voluntary migration. It is a story that should end with the possibility of permanent resettlement or the possibility to return home. Unfortunately, the realities of the Syrian war and European refugee policy continue to prevent both. The increasingly prevalent image of the refugee as the criminal immigrant who is nothing but a parasite to society is not a positive sign for change. It also isn’t making it easier for refugees to feel at home in a new country once they manage to leave camps like Moria or Calais behind.

“The only thing I want from any country hosting refugees and migrants anywhere in the world is to see and perceive refugees and migrants as simple persons living in a society”, Payman replied when I asked him for advice for Europe. “They’re not necessarily angels or hard-working and full of hope all the time. They are not necessarily evil and criminal. Let’s not romanticize them. Let’s not get shocked when one of them becomes successful or hate them because one of them commits a crime. Let’s just see them as what they are, and embrace them in our societies, as any other person in the society.”

Hence, what Payman and Hannah Arendt would agree on, is the need to include refugees in a new community. A community that allows to them to feel at home, that allows them to have a political identity and that allows them to live a purposeful life.

Moria does not do any of that. Instead, it puts refugees into a political purgatory situated between the hope of a new life and the fear of deportation. A truly humanitarian response of the all-so humanist Europeans would look different.


Payman Shamsian currently works for the migration team of Samuel Hall, an independent think tank providing research and strategic services, expert analysis, tailored counsel and access to local knowledge for a diverse array of actors operating in the world’s most challenging environments. He has obtained two masters degrees before joining Samuel Hall. He obtained a joint basters degree on Global Studies between Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg and Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO Argentina) and he studied at Central European University in International Relations and European Studies program. Prior to working for Samuel Hall, Payman worked for the Danish Refugee Council as a Protection Assistant in Greece.

Jurek Wotzel THE CITY - April 2018

A City Grows Up

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

When I moved to Leipzig as a child, the city was a dead end. Now, there are few places in Germany that investors have more faith in than Leipzig. It is a city on its path to adulthood. Yet, the results of its growth aren’t all bright and rosy.

Those who took to the streets in the fall of 1989 couldn’t have foreseen what the close future of East Germany would look like. The decade to come taught the liberated citizens of the GDR a lesson about unemployment, poverty, and exploitation. As state-owned factories and businesses were shut down one after the other, the harsh realities of a sudden change to a market-based economy forced many to leave Leipzig to seek a better future in the West.

By the mid-1990s, the city had shrunk to 440,000 inhabitants, whereas in the 1960s it hosted 600,000 people. The scent of economic decline was in the air, neo-Nazi youth were patrolling the streets, and the population was aging drastically as a large number of young people fleeing the city. But Leipzig was cheap. Even in its most expensive areas, the cost for a two-room apartment would amount to no more than 400 euros. Investors could buy beautifully renovated three-story houses in the architectural style of the Founding Epoch for cheap at about 250,000 euros.

The city turned into a paradise for students, artists, and musicians. In the 2000s, a small, but dynamic alternative scene developed and brought fresh energy. A vibrant squatter scene emerged occupying a large number of old, unrenovated houses. Soon, Leipzig’s anti-fascist movement grew and managed to reclaim the streets from the nazis bit by bit. The result was that by 2010 it was the fastest growing city in Germany with an annual influx of about 10,000 people.

With the growth came the hype. Leipzig, often called ‘Hypezig’, the ‘Better Berlin’ or the ‘New Berlin’, was increasingly put in the spotlight. At the beginning of this decade, rents were still incredibly low, there was plenty of space and the cultural offer was immense for a city of its size.

Cineding: a small cinema in Plagwitz, Leipzig’s West

Leipzig was home to an abundance of free open-air raves, small ateliers, political theatre groups, cheap bars, non-profit cinemas, you name it. Before I left Leipzig in 2015, I could feel that there was movement, with a new place or event to check out each week. It was a city in puberty.

That puberty stage of a city, when there is vibrant dynamism, is maybe the most interesting time. Whether it was Amsterdam in the 80s, Berlin in the 90s, or Leipzig in this decade – the spirit of the adolescent city is unique. Like a teenager, the city tries out different paths, sometimes they turn out to be crazy, sometimes brilliant.

An atelier in the “Baumwollspinnerei”, which used to be one of Europe’s biggest complex of cotton processing factories.

Now, three years later, things have started to change. Leipzig is growing up. Living space is getting rarer, especially for groups that are ‘unfavourable’ to landlords, like students, artists, and musicians. Much of the vacancies have been bought, renovated, and sold. The squatter scene is being driven out of the city, house by house.

Everywhere there are new condos: clean, white, luxurious apartment buildings that few locals can afford. The streets are being upgraded and the boroughs polished.

This is no surprise: the market logic prevents any city from being frozen in time. At one point, capital will flow, houses will be bought and society will be commercialized.

Those spaces that made Leipzig special are being crowded out of the city. The non-profit bars and clubs, the small-scale cinemas and theatres, the neighborhood ateliers. Opportunities for self-expression beyond economic needs are getting rarer. In short, the city is losing its spirit of freedom.

Take for instance the club scene. Westwerk, a non-profit club that hosted techno events on Wednesdays for a one euro entry fee closed, because the landlord can earn more money renting the space to a supermarket chain. While the Institut für Zukunft, Germany’s second most popular techno club according to the readers of Groove Magazine, recently struggled with noise complaints from neighbors. Nightlife sounds do not fit into the working person’s schedule.

The Kohlrabizirkus: its cellar is home to the Institut für Zukunft

Leipzig has grown into a city close to adulthood. Big corporations like Porsche, BMW, DHL or Amazon have settled in, and are continuously expanding. The business climate is exuberantly optimistic. Over the years, a dynamic start-up scene established itself in the city. Tourism has led to the opening a range of new hotels, mainly large international chains such as Hotel One or Novotel.

And that is good news, given that the region used to be Germany’s poverty capital just a few years ago. In 2017, unemployment was at 7.0% compared to 10.5% in 2013, the lowest level since 1991. In 2010, 27% of Leipzig’s citizens were susceptible to falling into poverty, compared to the 14% German average. That number is slowly decreasing.

Still, I look at the rapid development with a deep ambivalence. Could it be is possible to find a way to eternal urban youth? Then, cities could preserve more of their character, more of their dynamic spirit. They could develop into a better version of themselves, rather than just another version of the standard city.

I hope that Leipzig will find a way to sustain much of what made it what it is today. In that case, it can set an example for those cities that are yet to experience similar growth.

Jurek Wotzel POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Towards an Ever Closer Union

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

Europe needs to get ready for the future. The nation-state has lost all its benefits of scale and needs to be abolished. If we finally took the principle of subsidiarity seriously, we would shift power to Brussels – and the regions.

Why The Nation-State Is Useless

“We want to be an independent, self-governing, normal nation”, lead Brexiteer Nigel Farage said in his speech to the European Parliament after the United Kingdom had voted to leave the Union. He was trapped in an illusion. It seems to me that it is a rather problematic image of independence and self-governance that Mr. Farage had in mind when he arrogantly mocked his fellow MEPs in a rush of revenge. He would have done well to include a concrete outlook on how any European nation-state could truly be independent in the age of a globalized economy.

National leaders around the world find themselves torn between poles. On the one hand, they face the imperatives of global power politics and economic interdependence, on the other hand they are accountable to the needs of their citizens.

The narrative of the race-to-the-bottom is well-known: as countries compete for business investments, governments cut corporate and top-rate taxes. Italy, wanting to attract the wealthy to stimulate investment and consumption, just granted tax breaks on foreign income in exchange for a 100,000 euro flat tax. The Dutch, who together with Ireland and Luxembourg make sure that big corporations practically pay no EU taxes, want to further reduce corporate income taxes and to abolish dividend taxes this year. The worldwide prisoner’s dilemma of tax cooperation spares no one.

When an overwhelming majority voted OXI (NO) in the 2015 Greek referendum on the bailout deal, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras should already have known what was lying ahead. In spite of the immense popular resistance against the conditions of the bailout package displayed in the vote, the government was eventually forced to cut pensions, unemployment benefits and increase the VAT yet again. Minister of Finance Varoufakis was smarter and resigned, foreseeing the inevitable surrender to EU political forces.

One can only speculate why Farage decided to resign just after the Brexit vote. Perhaps in a short moment of epiphany, he grew aware of the massive economic and political struggles that Britain would go through in the years to come.

Brexit has resulted and will result in a range of economic and political hardships for the UK. The pound plummeted directly after the vote and is still far from reaching pre-referendum levels. The Bank of England issued a statement warning that bank resettlements will cost the British about 75,000 jobs, loss of the all-so-important finance sector is hanging over Britain. For a little irony of fate, the 490-million-pound deal for producing the post-EU British passports went to a French-Dutch firm.

This scenario was of no interest to Farage, though. “What the little people did, what the ordinary people did – what the people who’d been oppressed over the last few years who’d seen their living standards go down did – was they rejected the multinationals”, he had announced on that fatal 28th of June. ”They rejected the merchant banks, they rejected big politics and they said actually, we want our country back, we want our fishing waters back, we want our borders back.”

Naturally, these words hit a sensible spot. Upset with their politicians’ inability to make binding decisions even in domestic affairs, citizens across Europe are seeking shelter under the umbrellas of nationalist demagogues. These reactionaries are summoning the demon that is largely the root of the current political stalemate in the first place – the nation-state. However, there is a crucial conclusion to be made from this movement: politicians have been unable to sustain proximity to the electorate. This development has led citizens to realize that the principal-agent relationship of national representative democracy has ceased to work.

Yet, just as the underlying trigger of this is not the EU, neither is the solution a strengthening of the nation-state. European countries aren’t turtles that can simply retreat into their shells and wait till the evil outside goes away. Britain with its less-than-one percent share of the global population is a dwarf on the global political landscape. So are Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands. The dynamics of the global economy cannot be altered by the decision of a single nation.

The Farages, Le Pens and Gaulands of our time provide easy answers to complex questions. It’s time for some complex answers. For a start, let’s acknowledge that the nation is absolutely useless as a counter-balance to the power of global corporations. It has failed in its core business: sustaining a healthy connection between representatives and the electorate. The nation-state is a relict mobilizing its remaining resources in a last awakening.

Photo by Christian Battaglia

The Superstate of Regions

Without claiming that a United States of Europe would be strong enough to enter the ring against big business, it would at least be strong enough to exert serious pressure. In total, the EU has 508 Million inhabitants, and its GDP amounts to 17.1 Trillion Dollars, making it the second-biggest economic power next to the United States.  To put this into perspective, it is useful to look at the actions of the superpower across the Atlantic. While European countries were hesitant, the US imposed a 4.3 Billion Euro fine on Volkswagen in the aftermath of the emission scandal. While European countries were hesitant, the US imposed a 7.2 Billion Dollar fine on Deutsche Bank and a 5.28 Billion Dollar fine on Credit Suisse for their part in the economic crisis.

Admittedly, large states come with great perils, too. One obstacle to popular support for European integration is undoubtedly the undemocratic structure of EU institutions. Moreover, Brussels is in the eyes of many synonymous with lobbyism, technocracy, and general political degeneration. But please, EU-critics, I ask you: do you secede from your country when your representatives in the capital don’t listen to you? The issues of EU institutions exist in national institutions, too, only there we tend to particularise the problem and address it. If there are institutional problems, we tackle the problems, not the institution.

The answer must be reform, not resignation. Give the European Parliament the power of a parliament, let the people elect a European government, make Europe a democracy!

Of course, establishing a United States of Europe must be done right. The complexity and the sheer scale of political decision-making created a feeling of powerlessness that has catalyzed the populist turn. A larger state will have more power, but a reduction in the power of an individual voter may just amplify the angst among the population. Centralisation must, therefore, go hand in hand with regionalization.

Europe needs to be divided into regions, smaller entities than the current Member States. This way, there can be a re-politicisation of regional or even local policy. It would give us a more proximate instance where the effect of our voting behavior can be seen, where we can understand accountability structures, where we can observe where tax money goes. Only some policy areas should be Europeanised: fiscal & monetary policy, foreign policy & defense and aspects of social welfare.

Regionalisation will also make Europe a lot more resilient. In his book “Antifragility – Things that Gain from Disorder” Nassim Nicholas Taleb classified many kinds of structures as fragile, robust, or antifragile. Based on considerations of probability, large structures are inherently bound to be fragile, at risk of complete breakdown in case of disorder. However, dividing Europe into many smaller entities could make it antifragile. It would allow a range of policies to be tried out. If a policy fails, then the whole system would gain from knowing how not to go about tackling a problem. If there is vast disorder, the likelihood that one region will find a successful policy and set an example for the others is higher. Most importantly, the likelihood of fatal mistakes is drastically decreased.

“What happened last Thursday [Brexit Referendum] was a remarkable result – it was a seismic result. Not just for British politics, for European politics, but perhaps even for global politics too”.

Those were Farage’s words. To be honest, I even hope he was right. What he and I disagree on, however, is what Europe should make of this seismic result.

The past two years were both promising and frustrating for the hopeful European. Yet, those who firmly believe in the project of a European unity that ensures peace, freedom, and prosperity ought to take matters into their hands. The current halfhearted muddling-through approach won’t suffice to put up with global and domestic challenges. Let’s get real and move Europe into the future!

Jurek Wotzel POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Good, Better, Impossible? – The Value of Dreaming of a Different World

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

1516 was a pretty good year for visionaries because of the publication of a certain English novel, Thomas More’s “De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia”. Utopia for short.

Written at a time in which humanism still lay in its cradle, More’s book turned many long-standing assumptions on their heads, but, More was not the first to hypothesise a fictional society, this political idealism has its roots in ancient Greek. Plato outlined the ideal state in the Republic, followed by Aristotle in Politics, yet, it was More who gave this idealistic spirit a term: ou-topia, The non-place. Anglophones eventually gave it a new meaning: eu-topia, the good place. In everyday parlance, calling an argument utopian really means: “nice idea, but that is just unachievable”. It seems unlikely that More thought that England could turn into Utopia immediately after the book’s publication.Then we might wonder what it was that drove him to write this work. It is frustrating to find justification in immersing oneself in dreams about the optimal, if the optimal is illusionary, unfeasible, a mere thought-experiment.

The novel is centered around a dialogue between the fictional representation of More, and a sailor, Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have lived with the so-called ‘Utopians’ for a time. Recounting his life in Utopia, Raphael paints an antagonistic picture of the reality of 16th-century English life. Raphael shows Thomas how it could be different by explaining the structure of the Utopian society. There is no private property, everyone has access to healthcare, education is directed towards both mental and physical labor. Parts of it still seem utopian nowadays.

There is great value to be found in Thomas and Raphael’s conversations. Utopias bring us guidance. They make us aware of the imperfections of the present, and more so they make us aware of society’s problems. They give us a space in which we can open up a moral dialogue without overhanging ideologies of religion or the realism of science. An arena of argument that is absolutely crucial for societies to determine a desirable long-term path.

We should ask ourselves what it means to live a good life, and what role society plays in enabling us to do so. Discussing Utopias, our ideal societies, can provide that link between how societal conditions can help us enjoy our own lives and realize our social responsibilities, and it points to the ways in which current circumstances prevent us from doing this.

One example that provides food for utopian thought is automation. The striking developments in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence promise a world of extreme productivity, in which no one has to do much work. Maybe it could be this which would allow us to be a fisher in the morning and a philosopher in the evening. It could be this that allows us to use our time to actually develop and enjoy all the capacities that make us human. However, this is only possible if progress is managed in an egalitarian fashion.

The framework of representative democracy makes it easy for us to lose sight of those goals that take longer than one government term. Voting behavior is bound to stay within the realms of that which is attainable in the short-term, and so are policies made to deliver in the short-term. If a government wants to be re-elected, the voter must feel the success of policies before the next elections. The public sphere marked by discourses of pragmatism, risk-avoidance, and reactionary attitudes plays in an endless cycle.

This is why we need to keep talking about utopias; why we need to keep bringing them back on the agenda. It’s revolutionaries that push the reformers, the minds of dreamers that change the minds of realists. It is the Raphaels whose messages inspire the Thomases. Of course, it is impossible to achieve Utopia if we immediately discard the good place as the impossible place. Even if we will never reach the absolutely good place, coming close to it will already be pretty great.

Yes, heavily subsidizing renewable energies may lead to temporary economic stagnation and market inefficiencies. Yes, reforming the democratic system to make make it more participatory and emancipatory is a disruptive process. And yes, gender or race-based affirmative action programs can foster temporary feelings of injustice. But the rewards for these measures are coming.

A fight that is given up before it’s fought cannot be won.

Healthy, reasonable debate about Utopias can help to take off our blinding short-term glasses. What we need is more Raphaels, and more Thomases that give them a voice. What we need is more ambition and creativity. What we need is more Utopianism.

DRUGS - February 2018 Jurek Wotzel

The Drink Made Me

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

You wake up. Headache. Nausea. Weakness.

Not again, you think. The cosy darkness of the night again seduced you to leave the world behind. Ethanol, a simple molecule consisting just of a few carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms had made its way through your body and done its damage.

What did I do, you wonder. You recall fragments of conversations. Friends, Strangers, and, oh god, your crush was also at the party. A fist of anxiety hits your diaphragm. Frantically you pick up your phone. You can only hope you didn’t talk about your feelings. In a rush of panic, your shivering fingers massacre your phone screen: “Soooo sorry, I really really wasn’t myself last night”. Sent.

That’s such a standard phrase, though let’s be honest, does anyone believe that? It sounds like a cover up. A cover up for the fact that everyone knows that last night’s drunk version of you was actually your truer and more genuine self.

In vino veritas, in wine there is truth, is a deeply ingrained wisdom. Alcaeus’ famous aphorism seems so evident, so unquestionable to us that we don’t even consider the possibility that it might be otherwise. Yet, alcohol may actually only influence the self, rather than reveal it.

Across cultures, drinking is understood as the magic potion that works as a mirror to our soul. “It is a peep-hole to man”, Alcaeus continues. For the ancient Chinese it was clear that “wine is followed by truthful speech”. The Persians were sure that “if you are drunk, you speak the truth”.

It seemed so promising. A way to freedom from social constraint. You remember your first drink, your second, your third. How light and pleasant the atmosphere was. Soon though, the memory becomes blurry.

In the morning, the black feeling of regret takes over. It is Judgment Day. You feel vulnerable, having shown something, having committed something, having dropped your moralist veil for a good while. Unwanted self-revelation is the name of the viscous liquid that bitterly runs up your throat as acid reflux.

Yes, it is hard to get the thoughts of self-hatred out of your mind after a night of heavy drinking, but please don’t draw quick conclusions. Humanity has yet to find out exactly what alcohol does to us. In case you accidentally confessed your love, your crush would do well to be suspicious of whatever you said last night. Let me be your hangover psychiatrist for a little while.

First of all, the self is a mythical thing. No one really knows what it is. I know, everybody says they know a little more about their, or their friends, real selves after a proper night out. We believe that we know more about our real desires, our real attitudes and our real abilities. Real, as though there is a real self that is unexpressed due to the prison of social norms.

But the self is not a stable thing. Instead, it is constantly subject to change. The self exists in a state of constant becoming, such that only a momentous pause in time could ever give us a concrete, graspable idea of what it actually is.

There is no natural you. If you feel like social norms make you behave a certain way, it does not automatically mean that you would like to behave another way. Since where would your other desire or need come from? It could come from your family, your school, your football club.

The point is, the self necessarily forms from social interaction. Without social influence, you wouldn’t know anything about yourself at all. Social influence is never done and over with, but will continue to affect you for the rest of your life. Anything you could know about yourself is just the most recent accumulation of social cues.

Whatever the self means as a concept, it changes as we live, we perform it. As Aristotle said that the virtuous man is he who acts virtuously, as Sartre said that the genius is he who realizes his genius, so are you only the role that you continuously play.

My dear hangover patient. As much as you were wrong when you said you weren’t yourself last night, anyone who would take your drunk self as your ‘real’ self would be wrong, too. There may be some truth in what you said last night but how many times did you exaggerate, deceive, or blatantly lie when you were drunk? I bet often enough to downplay the seriousness of any love confessions.

Heads up, you poor party veteran. Alcohol doesn’t really reveal who you are. Perhaps just a little bit of who you would like to be. Now take some time, stay in bed, drink lots of water and sleep as much as you can.