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  • Tadzio Müller: “I’m afraid of a Corona society.”


Tadzio Müller: “I’m afraid of a Corona society.”

We spoke to the climate activist about sexual politics post-lockdown, the physicality of resistance and why the left needs to catch up with the Greta generation.

Image for Tadzio Müller: “I’m afraid of a Corona society.”

Tadzio Müller is a German environmental and LGBTQ+ activist born in Frankfurt am Main in 1976. He has a PhD in politics and international relations. Photo: Daniel Cati

Earlier this year, the climate activist Tadzio Müller discussed sexual politics post-lockdown, the physicality of resistance and why the left needs to catch up with the Greta generation.

Tadzio, the last few months have seen a lot of talk about viruses, personal contact and lockdowns. How has it been for you?

I must admit that in the beginning I did have sex with people against Corona lockdown regulations, including with a guy I’ve since fallen in love with madly, and that’s quite wonderful. Normally I feel good about breaking rules, like when I take drugs, have sex in public or shut down a fascist march. But with breaking the Corona rules I was a bit like, “Hmm, am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I doing a neutral thing? I don’t know.” We’d meet on the street, give each other an elbow bump, close the door and I’d immediately have this cock in my mouth. So it’s like, “Oh, that’s not very Corona compliant.”

How do you feel now about breaking Corona rules?

When I sort of came back into normality, I suddenly realised, “shit”, and some friends were quite critical. They said, “You don’t fly to Bali on holiday because you’re a climate activist, so how come you do this?” I realised that one of the big dangers of the ‘Corona world’ is a sort of re-traditionalisation of our relationship to our bodies and family relationships.

This was a sentiment shared by some feminists who worried that Corona would bring women back to the home.

Exactly! During lockdown, if you lived in a traditional family, you got to see your people, but if you lived in a WG, in a collective, it was like you had to prove you live together. And if people of different colours sat together on the street, a cop walking past would assume that they’re just a random group of people. You had to convince them that, “No, we actually live together”. But if you’re mummy, daddy, girl, boy and a little doggie, the cop would think: “Good white German family.”

So how can we avoid slipping back into this traditional mindset?

What’s going to happen is that our relationship with our bodies is going to change. And my position is, if we want to talk about liberation, emancipation and progress, we need a political story that makes being left-wing more at- tractive than being fascist – it needs to include more about oxytocin than diesel engines. We need to tell a political story where touching and fucking each other is more legitimate than producing and selling cars.

That’s a fundamental problem in the Corona world, because in the middle of society you have this rational regulation of bodies. Now, I say rational regulation of bodies without judging it. I’m saying that the government mentality is: “We have to flatten the curve, it’s very dangerous if we don’t, so these are the rules.” Again, I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but it’s a fact that the rules are infringing on people’s lives and causing frustration. Footnote: When I’ve had sex with people since Corona, it’s been some of the best sex I’ve ever had.

Why? Because it’s transgressive?

Yes, but also because people are so hungry for touch and intimacy. A very close friend of mine, an older woman, lives in a collective. There was a young woman who was looking at a room in the collective and my friend sort of wasn’t thinking, so she just got up and shook her hand, and that girl’s reaction was, “Oh my god, thank you!”. For just a handshake! This was a few weeks ago when the lockdown was much stricter. She sounded exactly like I sound when I have S&M sessions and I’m thanking the dom for whipping me.

Imagine a whole society with that hunger – a whole society that’s defined by a lack of intimacy and touch. We know from studies what happens to bodies that don’t get touched, to kids growing up without physical interaction – it’s very detrimental.

How long do you think this new normal will last?

I used to have two big fears: climate crisis, and a sort of renewed fascism. Now, a third fear has been added: the Corona world. Back in mid-March, we thought there’d be a post-Corona time, that everything would be fine again in July or September. Do you remember that?

And now there’s this fear that there won’t be such a thing as ‘after Corona’, ever.

There will be an after, but not any time soon. It realistically takes years to develop a vaccine, and with coronaviruses you don’t get lasting immunity. So you’re suddenly in a world that, as a gay man, I know well: since the early 1980s, gay men have had to be afraid of other bodies and of their own, of infecting the people they love. I was HIV-positive for two years without the medication, and I had a negative boyfriend. Can you imagine? And we weren’t particularly smart, so we got high and had sex without protection. I’d masturbate and my cum would look like a poisonous, dangerous substance to me, because in a way it was. It took me years to overcome this fear of my body.

You’re speaking of your fear as the infected one, but of course on the other side there’s also the fear of the other – the fear of infection.

Yes, but I’ve experienced both sides: not being infected and fearing the other, and then being infected and having the fear of spreading it to others. With Corona, you can actually be both, because of the sense of uncertainty, because a lot of people haven’t been tested. This sense of being afraid of everything, of everybody, and of your own self as being able to hurt your loved ones – that is something truly destructive.

I used to have two big fears: climate crisis, and a sort of renewed fascism. Now, a third fear has been added: the Corona world.

That’s where both post-structuralist theory – Foucault, Derrida and others – and disobedient activism come together; the body and feminism and queer theory and practice. The body isn’t just the site of oppression, it’s also the site of resistance and struggle. It’s where we start building power. So I’ve been doing civil disobedience for 22 years now, mass disobedience.

Why civil disobedience?

Civil disobedience is the mass breaking of rules that we find wrong. So if there’s a rule which says that it’s okay to mine lignite from brown coal to create cheap energy and destroy the climate, we say “No, fuck that.” Now, using your own body, using a collective body to shut down something like a coal mine gives you an incredible sense of empowerment that isn’t primarily rational. You get this collective sensation of power. And that, for me, is the central experience of politics – empowerment. The ability to affect and be affected by the world. In this way, Corona is a sort of self-operation by our entire society on its own body.

Given the importance of the body, of contact, of the collective, do you think that what we’ve been through could help us re-evaluate what it means to be touched?

The Corona society will be one where touching each other will be seen sceptically. That will mean we cannot build collective power on the street as movements. We can’t demonstrate. We can’t take big actions.

Image for Tadzio Müller: “I’m afraid of a Corona society.”

“I actually consider Greta a religious figure, and I say this as someone who’s deeply atheist,” Müller says. Photo: Kathrin Tschirner

But look at the Black Lives Matter protests in June, over 20,000 people showed up.

It was a great moment and we need more of these. But the whole idea of a demonstration has to be justified so much more right now. I’m afraid of a Corona society where we cannot build collective power because it’s much harder to assemble on the street. I’m also afraid of a society where, because of this hunger for touch and intimacy, a political force, a right-wing force, offers a story where white Germans can touch each other, and then there are those who are weak or unwanted – the leben-sunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) in Nazi Germany – who are destined to die.

You see how we closed the borders trying to protect ourselves from the Corona-bringing Seuchenschleuder (plague catapults) – how immigrants, refugees have become the the ‘virus spreaders’. So you have the rational regulation of bodies in the centre, and then you have a really easy fascist story about closed borders. It’s about who gets to touch each other, and whose life is or isn’t worthy.

Do you see concrete signs of this scary narrative?

For example, there has long been a group of dissident, irrelevant SPD backbenchers who’ve wanted to prohibit prostitution under the pretext of wanting the Nordic or Swedish model, where the act of buying – rather than selling – sex is punished. But all studies show this disproportionately affects sex workers. This until-recently-irrelevant group has now found (SPD politician) Karl Lauterbach, a really powerful social democrat, as their new sponsor, because in the Corona world, sex work is of course taboo. Although, by the way, nobody has proven that Corona is sexually transmitted.

Maybe not, but it seems hard to observe social distancing while having sex, right?

Right. But what about social distancing when some crazy Christians crowd themselves in a Frankfurt church and end up infecting 107 people? Why do those nutjobs get to worship their imaginary golden calf, but I don’t get to suck 20 beautiful, actually existing cocks at Berghain? That’s not clear to me. Where are the priorities? Why are 22 guys in shorts allowed to butt-fuck each other on the football field but my sex worker colleagues don’t get to work for their livelihoods? Who’s deciding when we can break those rules or not? I want a societal discussion about what is systemrelevant.

Don’t you think the problem might go beyond regulations, of who’s allowed or not to have bodily contact. With Corona, people might just feel uncomfortable touching each other.

I agree and that’s the level of self-regulation which is always the most effective and scary. I’ve got a good friend who’s as much of a bottom slut as me. He broke up with his lover just before Corona. He lives alone and is somebody who takes regulations very seriously. He called me one afternoon, sobbing, and I realised that nobody had put their hand on his neck for six weeks, let alone their cock inside him, and he’d been deprived of that feeling of giving yourself up to somebody when you’re having sex. That nearly broke him. I spoke to him a few days later and said, “Wow, you sound really stable and fine.” He said, “Yeah, I spent the weekend in a non-Corona-compliant situation.”

If anything, the Corona crisis has prompted governments to realise the importance of investing in their healthcare systems, but also in care jobs in general. But do you think they have a narrow-minded, conservative understanding of what care is?

Yes, the German left has constructed the term ‘care’ in a very functionalist sort of way. They consider care to be the practice of not letting bodies die, and they’ll typically think of people like the nurse at Charité. And they have jobs where touch is essential. I worked in a nursing home and it was actually really hard, maybe because I’m not a very good carer in that sense. But for me the emblem of the care sector isn’t necessarily that nurse, although they do a spectacular job and I have all respect for them, but….

… but it’s the sex worker.

Precisely! And that’s where the left has lost its capacity to be attractive. Everybody wants good health care. It’s important. But good health care isn’t sexy, public transport isn’t sexy. It isn’t emancipatory. So we need to reclaim the ability to tell a fun, joyful story. I’m not saying all the Corona regulations are wrong. I’m saying, now that they’re lifted, let’s talk about how we can make life fun again. I’m not a communist so I can fight for everybody to have access to a good subway!

What about your fight for the environment? Is it “sexy”? You’ve been an eloquent climate activist for over a decade, and Corona’s clearly made your commitment more relevant than ever.

For 12 years I’ve been trying to shut down the fucking German coal industry. What have I gotten? A ridiculously late coal phase-out in 2038. Our next enemy is the car industry. It’s so hard to attack, you can’t even imagine where to start. The funny thing is that the Corona lockdown has actually led to coal, oil, gas, cars and aeroplanes being grounded, being shut down.

I actually consider Greta a religious figure –  the way she functions in society mirrors religion. Her appearance created new truths and new actors.

There’s been a 14-17 percent reduction in daily emissions globally. This level of reduction was never achieved before, because capitalism had never taken this much of a dive since records began. I understand it’s become difficult for people who depend on those shut down economic sectors, but at the same time, if we want to prevent the collapse of civilisation, we should take some action to shrink those sectors permanently.

In an interview with EXB last year, you said it was pretty unlikely we’ll be able to save the planet, and clearly your pessimism was linked to the lack of political will to take more radical steps. Has the Corona-induced decision to shutter the global economy made you more optimistic?

I’m gonna stick with ‘pretty unlikely’. But clearly Corona’s made us realise we can reduce economic activity in a way that helps the environment. And when I say Corona I mean the political decisions taken in response to Corona, which can be summed up as “Let’s shut that shit down!” Now, obviously these are not the conditions under which I’d like those radical decisions to be made, but when will conditions be right?

We need to say, “Hey, some of this shit has to remain shut down.” But then we only tell depressing stories of less – less travelling, less shopping. Why don’t we tell a story of more? That’s where the body comes in. More nurses, more subways? Not only! People want more fun, more joy!

You’ve been a fervent supporter of Greta Thunberg and Germany’s Fridays for Future. Do you see much of that missing fun and joy there?

Greta has a specific role. She’s a prophet. I actually consider Greta a religious figure – the way she functions in society mirrors religion. Her appearance created new truths and new actors – that “magical realism” of politics and a whole new generation ready to fight for climate.

Fridays for Future is this current avant-garde. Now, this generation’s reality might not be particularly sexually liberated, but I believe they have a historical potential almost like Marx did for the industrial proletariat. They have the potential to turn this thing around because they’re globalists. When you speak to younger people, it seems absurd to many of them that the world is divided into so many countries and nations. Also, they’re actively afraid of climate change, even if they’re in the Global North.

So according to you the Greta generation is fulfilling a historical role. Where do you fit in?

I’m the storyteller. Greta, like a medieval prophet of doom, basically says if you don’t act, the world will burn, God will make it rain fire and brimstone. It’s dark and they’re a generation, not a political group, so my role is to work with them. I may be quite vain and arrogant, but I’ve recognised that the actor leading the struggle for climate justice will have to be the younger generation, not a bunch of aging, bearded anti-capitalists. And I’ve realised it’s the role and mission of storytellers and political leaders to spread a narrative that is climate-just, that’s just in terms of gender, race, sexuality, but also fun.

Where are the Friday kids now? It feels like Corona overshadowed everything.

First of all, they needed a break. They’re gonna come back in 2021, and that’s when it’ll become complicated. Fridays for Future will have to decide on a fundamental level whether they expect the existing political forces, political and economic systems to deliver what they need, or should they engage in political action themselves? Will they engage in the political game or disrupt it?

We need to tell a political story where touching and fucking each other is more legitimate than producing and selling a car.

A lot of the Fridays organisers are like me, quite bourgeois, it’s a fact. It means that they also have an instinct to keep everything the same. That’s why Fridays for Future are the perfect reformist radicals. They have to change everything so that everything can remain the same. They’re both extremely radical and extremely centrist, and in that space the defining political battle of the coming years will take place.

How do you make a revolution against neoliberalism with neoliberal subjects?

That’s the struggle that this generation faces. The Fridays kids have to know that the only way to change society is to change themselves and vice-versa, which makes their challenge much greater, and I don’t envy them. They basically have to achieve policy and societal change, they have to do everything because we left them fucking alone to fix the mess, and that’s why September 20 last year was so important because psychologists for future, faggots for future, teachers for future, metal workers for future, grannies for future, everybody was there, and that, I think, was the most inspiring thing. You kids are the ones who can make us old people believe that change is possible again.

Image for Tadzio Müller: “I’m afraid of a Corona society.”

Around 120,000 people attended a Fridays for Future rally in September 2019. Photo: Nico Roicke / Unsplash

This sounds like an intersectional dream come true. So what’s the way forward?

For example, Fridays can say no, we’re not gonna let you start up car production again, we’re calling for disobedience, and not just symbolic disobedience. We’ll actually stay sitting on stuff until it’s shut down – airports, car factories, coal mines. We had 1.4 million people on the street in Germany on September 20th last year. How many supporters would Fridays lose if they now issued a call to civil disobedience? Would they lose 20 percent of their people? Fifty percent? It’d still be a huge movement occupying those airports.

Too radical for some of these kids, no?

The thing is, you cannot be serious about climate change or saving the planet by lobbying for electric cars, you’ve got to realise there is no green growth. You know, like in Blade Runner 2049, those endless fields of renewable energy production and a five-lane motorway with electric, self-driving cars? It’s the future as seen by Volkswagen. The only thing that’s ever reduced global greenhouse gas emissions is reduction in absolute economic activity, including production, distribution, consumption, the whole thing. If you reduce that you reduce emissions.

And you know the answer from the left parties: “Sorry we need to preserve jobs!”

I’m a methodological globalist. Anybody who says, “Yeah but we can’t shut down the car industry because what about the jobs?” I want to respond: “If you think that German jobs are more important than Filipino lives, you are a racist asshole.”

We live in a globally unjust world where the majority of people in the Global North benefit economically from the destruction of the planet and the exploitation of others around the world. And that’s not just lefty crazy shit, it’s a fact. Which is why I’m talking about new coalitions. If you work in the car industry maybe you don’t join a big climate protest as a car worker, maybe you do it as a parent.

Do you think Corona can help create a majority around radical change?

That’s where we need to tell different stories. If all we talk about is jobs, material consumption, functional health care and running subways, if those are the things that we like as a society, there’s no way in hell we’re gonna get a majority for climate-just reform. We need to talk about a different kind of life, that’s more about harmony, tranquility, about touching each other, about fucking each other in the park rather than producing cars in Wolfsburg. That’s what I want the story to be out there.

Political leaders won’t go for that – instead they speak about ‘Green new deals’, you know, clean industry, Green Pacts, etc.

The term ‘clean industry’ is a bit like clean coal. There is no clean electric car industry. If we want to live globally, in a world that’s not completely fucked, we in Germany will have to take material cuts. And when I say ‘we’, some leftists say, “Oh it’s only gonna be the one percent”, but that’s complete and utter horse shit. If you wanna have a climate-just Germany, 95 percent of us will have to take cuts in our material wealth. This is why it’s important to talk about these immaterial things that don’t involve the consumption of commodities.

It took me years of pain and struggle to get there, and ask myself why I was so afraid of an HIV infection. Why didn’t I tell my best friends?

My husband, for example, one of the things he really loves doing is just walking around gardens and taking photos, really beautiful detailed photos, like a bumblebee on some flower. He could spend days doing that. That’s what an immaterial, not so resource-intensive life means, and it differs for everybody. For me it’s maybe sex. Also just lying around. Getting stoned. I really love getting stoned and listening to an audio book.

It sounds like the perfect Corona confinement routine.

That’s why I enjoyed Corona confinement so much! It was like the best time of my life. In the beginning it was a challenge because your head keeps producing stuff, but the moment when I realised, ‘Woah, I’m actually bored!’, I started doing a little dance.

Has the lockdown also been positive for society at large? You wrote an article saying it created a series of positive precedents – shuttering the economy, putting big polluters on hold – Snap! All possible! How do you explain that Corona could convince leaders to do what climate activists weren’t able to achieve in the last 50 years?

First of all, it’s our fear of pandemic and infection. How many pandemic movies are out there? A pandemic, as an invisible omnipresent enemy, triggers something. I’m not a Jungian, but I think it triggers an archetypal kind of fear, a kind of cultural memory from the Black Death to the Spanish flu.

Exactly, so what was so different this time?

This is the first pandemic in a fully globalised world with fully globalised production chains. That’s why SARS and the others were like warm-up runs. It’s the first time where this actually came to the North. Also, as anybody who’s been working on climate change knows, the way politics responds to threats has nothing to do with the numbers.

Or the actual threat.

Right. I also know from HIV, that the response to a virus is always more about what society thinks is right or wrong than what society knows about the virus. It took me years of pain and struggle to get there, and ask myself why I was so afraid of an HIV infection. Why didn’t I tell my best friends about it for up to five years?

I remember one moment when a friend of mine was giving himself an insulin injection. He always asked, ‘Do you mind?’, he’s very polite. I realised his life with diabetes is much, much harder than mine with HIV. I just take the pill. That’s the moment I realised it’s not the materiality of the virus, it’s the shame: AIDS is connected to shame and morality and doing wrong and right. With Corona it’s something else: Maybe a world where we’re incredibly afraid of death, putting enormous resources into postponing death to the point where there’s no more quality of life left. My husband and I, we’ve decided we don’t wanna grow decrepit together. At some point when we’re both still conscious, we’ll maybe invite a bunch of hot escorts and have them literally fuck us to death. I’m serious.

So this virus is a reminder that we don’t control everything, that science can’t save us despite all the faith we put in its power to cure and maybe, one day, to make us immortal?

Yes, the virus is the ultimate non-controllable element, because it’s invisible, it crosses borders – political and corporeal borders – so vulnerability, control, health, death, all these things play into our Corona response much more than the material reality of the virus. And that really is a realisation I want to impress upon everybody who hasn’t dealt with HIV. There’s the Corona threat, and there’s the threat that emerges from this control, this rational regulation of bodies. It’s now up to each of us to find a strategic path, to navigate through this, and that is unbelievably challenging.