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  • Thomas Oberender: “The future is truly open.”


Thomas Oberender: “The future is truly open.”

The Berliner Festspiele director ponders the role of the arts and why we need to introduce a universal basic income.

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Thomas Oberender has been artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele since 2012. Photo: Liam Hayes

Playwright, critic, essayist and publicist Thomas Oberender has been artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele since 2012. His new book Empowerment East. How We Grow Together is published by Tropen Verlag. Peter Laudenbach found out why he’s feeling hopeful.

They say you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Does the pandemic offer opportunities for reorientation?

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are once again living in a time of change. The transformation in agriculture, the transformation in transportation, the transformation in energy – suddenly there is talk of “transformation” everywhere. The Corona situation has interrupted many routines. We have been snatched away from our usual everyday logic, sometimes very brutally. We have to improvise and be inventive. We are experiencing the distress and fragility of this exceptional situation, and realise the fragility of the circumstances in which we live.

In this situation, solidarity becomes important. Face masks are a medical necessity, but they are also a powerful image of social and human cohesion. And the virus has reminded us that the fabric in which we live includes not just other people, but other species. Here, too, our solidarity is called for: the earth is not a supermarket where we can endlessly take goods off the shelf. All of this is now blossoming in our minds… The future is truly open.

If you had one wish for the coming year, what would it be?

I would like the voices of change experts like [transformation researcher] Maja Göpel and the philosopher Andreas Weber to be heard. They are pioneers of the new territory we are all heading toward. People like [coronavirus expert] Christian Drosten have been our pathfinders and have given a whole country new language and understanding – all without dividing and agitating. A functioning state has a protective function for the community, and ours is functioning well. But perhaps this crisis is also an opportunity for the community itself, for civil society, not to delegate crisis management to the state alone.

Even before the pandemic, there was a renaissance of cooperatives. The concept of the common good, having a thing which everyone has access to and which is borne by society as a whole, is becoming more important. Not everything has to be commodified and subjected to the exploitation logic of the market, be it parks in cities, the water supply, forests, education, access to culture, or good health care.

After all, it is no coincidence that countries with a halfway functioning welfare state have come through this crisis better. We should at least consider a universal basic income as the next logical step in this development – having a benefit that the community provides to each individual as a right. Many models show that this is perfectly affordable in a rich country like Germany.

What do you think a universal basic income would bring, besides alleviating everyone’s money worries?

Well that would already be a great deal. The basic income changes the concept of work and frees it from being tied to wage labour. Work for the community should be just as valuable as paid work. People who do not have to work exclusively for wages could also make their labour available to the community or, for example, caring for their parents instead of leaving it to carers. In times of crisis, a great many people are suddenly dependent on the support of the state – in other words the community of taxpayers.

I’m a big fan of universal basic income: having a life in dignity as a civil right.

Perhaps this experience will increase people’s willingness to stand up for one another more generously in better times. I am a big fan of universal basic income: having a life in dignity as a civil right. It would probably be the greatest social experiment imaginable. It’s fundamental. Of course, I’m not talking about a basic income just for artists, as is sometimes called for, but for all citizens.

If basic income were to be linked to membership of artists’ social insurance as some in Germany have suggested, then it would not be universal.

Exactly. Of course, there are neoliberal models in which the basic income fobs people off at the lowest level. To put it bluntly, it’s charity to pacify the marginalised. That is the opposite of an instrument of emancipation and social inclusion. And it also explains why many trade unionists distrust such ideas. For me, the basic income is linked to a concept of freedom and justice. It’s not about handouts from the strong, but about everyone having an equal right to share the fruits of society and culture.

The lockdown has had a dual impact on the cultural sector: there are the financial implications of course but also the existential questions it raises about what the arts are really for. How do you view it?

There has been none of the outcry [following the closures of theatres] that took place when Frank Castorf left the Volksbühne. Yet the lockdown has also meant disruption for our audiences. It’s urging us to reassess: what are we missing without theatres, museums, concerts? It’s not just about money, it’s also about the meaning of it all. The last time I experienced such intense discussions about changes in the arts was in 1989, during the fall of the GDR.