Brussels as a shopping center and occupied city: a clash of two cities

What is a bustling city? The alderman of Economy of Brussels Marion Lemesre – and her marketing – knows: “At the heart of the city you feel your beat, especially in the stores” (In het hart van de stad voel je het jouwe kloppen, vooral in de winkels). This slogan was seen everywhere in Brussels. There has been much to do around it because there was a linguistic mistake in the baseline, “The heart of Brussels beats only four you” (vour jou). They had apparently hastily translated from French (pour toi). However, it is the slogan which is a shame; and about that there was hardly any noise. It is a flawed sentence in Dutch, but a whole treatise in itself, a whole vision of the city. The heart of Brussels beats for you and your heart must beat faster in Brussels, and the essence of all that emotion is – the shops. That is loud and clear: the city is a shopping center. That slogan is not only shameless but also witty, as a lapsus, a slip of the tongue. Marion Lemesre gave herself away: she wants to make Brussels a shopping center.

That has its consequences. In a shopping center homeless, loitering and political protesters are unwanted, and that is also the case in the city as shopping center. This program has since been implemented in a very concrete way. The benches were removed at Sainte Catherine and large umbrellas and terraces now take just about any space and conceal the church. The young people who gave rendez-vous for years on their Saint Cath (known as the SMS-code name 54 – cinq quat[re]) shot in action last summer: “Free 54!” picked up the privatization of public space, this ‘terracing’ of the square will not succeed. (Meanwhile, the activists have won their battle at home: there are many more bench-seats placed at the church and the terraces are more shuffled under the trees. A fine compromise, even if the activists want have still other requests and first of all want to be recognized.)

Then the political manifestations. Previously, it was quite an effort to let manifestations through the main artery of the city, but now it would be extremely easy as the central boulevards are car-free, however just about all manifestations are redirected outside this core axis, and fairly systematically since 2013. I know it because I walked in many demonstrations: they go either around the city (on the inner ring, where you should chant towards empty buildings) or from the Central station towards South station (such as the labor union demonstration). Why a pedestrian is not suitable for a march? that you have to explain it to me. The city officials continue to assert that there is no method in the madness “Mon oeil”.

Besides the city as a shopping center, what I call here “the neoliberal city”, it is in any case a neo-liberalization of the city, with the privatization of public space, the commercialization and gentrification, there is another phenomenon which we recently were introduced to: the “city of siege”, the sedentary city, the lockdown. After the attacks of Paris the whole city life was halted and almost all events were canceled. Since then, the army is very visible on the streets. After the attacks in Brussels and Zaventem on March 22nd- the first version of this text was written before the attacks – it was even more the case. My point is that another face of the city became visible. One could call it the “neo-conservative city”, the city under the iron hand of the muscular politics. Because “the army on the streets” was high on the wish list of some politicians long before Charlie Hebdo and the attacks on the Bataclan; or on the Brussels metro and the airport.

Bart De Wever, the Mayor of Antwerp and most powerful man of Belgium (as he is the president of the biggest party, the Flemish separatists of NV-A) already asked the government in the spring of 2014 to deploy the army after his problems with the fairground of Sinksenfoor (the people of the fancy fair refused to move their yearly site and protested by blocking roads). That was then refused. He asked the question a second time when dockworkers threatened to block major roads to Antwerp. It was denied. He asked a third time to deploy the army after the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, to secure the Jewish buildings in Antwerp. That was again refused. But when the N-VA won the election and in the coalition agreement, De Wever apparently held the pen. Page 138 of that agreement states that if the level of security threat goes to level 3, the military can be deployed. Still on the night of the events in Verviers, De Wever announced already that the army would be deployed in Antwerp. This history (which I gratefully take over from Jan Blommaert) shows that it is a political issue, a political message that the N-VA wants to give, under the impetus of its president and with the participation of its Minister of Defense and the Minister of the Internal Affairs.

What does this mean? It means that the attacks in Paris and Brussels are the alibi to implement that program and finally send the army in the street. The point is not security but muscular politics. De Wever likes it a lot as the neocon he is. Fear and the display of power is good politics. He has now even a word for it: “Armed governance” (Gewapend bestuur). As I edit this text in the early September of 2016, De Wever and his party want to introduce the state of emergency as a legal possibility (which it is not possible in Belgium; you cannot suspend the constitution in any way).

Besides, everyone knows that it doesn’t work: having ten years of army on the streets in France could not prevent neither the attack on Charlie Hebdo nor the attack at the Bataclan. The army does not belong on the street in a democracy. And the fable that it is saving money, forget it. It is very expensive. Go after the 700 million of the “excess profit tax ruling” and grab Ikea (for 2 billion those guys have evaded taxes) and “bar the purchase” (en schaf de aankoop) of those aircrafts (9 billion! 15 in all)? That I’d call saving money. To “save” democracy is dangerous play. The state of emergency is only wanted by supporters of totalitarianism and, for some obscure reason, neoconservatives. Read Strauss and look at the politics of Bush, especially his first term, when his administration was swarming with neoconservatives: Warrior Politics. It claims to be one of the cult books of Theo Francken, our state secretary for migration.

Incidentally, it was also Christmas market during the lockdown. When I, on November 29th, the Sunday that Brussels was silent, walked around with a journalist of Vrij Netherlands, I was a little embarrassed, actually totally blown away by the fact that my cozy town suddenly had become an occupied city. Yes, I was a bit speechless. That interview was about my new book, but also about my speechlessness. For ten years, since 9/11 I had written about the war on terror as a state of exception, almost like a chorus line until I was tired of hearing myself, but I just had to keep knocking on the nail and now the state of emergency was here in my very own Brussels. I had nothing more to say. But in my speechlessness I did not realize I witnessed that day a clash between two cities, between two paradigms: between the neoliberal city and the neoconservative city, between the commercialization of the city, the city as a shopping center, and the city under curfew, the city under the state of emergency, the occupied city. And we know that it is really about two programs: the slogan of Marion Lemesre is a whole program, and “the army on the streets” as said in the coalition agreement. Now I see it only fully: it is a tale of two cities. A collision: with machine guns and armored vehicles the tourists and day trippers remain at home. Curfew and “les plaisirs d’hiver” do not match. It was a fiasco, only half of the visitors, especially during those first weeks. That’s not a coincidence. I mean, regardless of the circumstances, which I do not want to underestimate the seriousness of it, the fiasco showed that these two paradigms do not mix.

But they have something in common. They are two faces of the same dragon. It is rather a contradiction at the heart of the neoliberal-neoconservative syndrome, for which there was a warning from the very beginning in fact: neoliberalism, the shock therapy of Milton Friedman, was first tested under … Pinochet. And still the neoliberals have a mouth full of freedom. Can you believe it? That the NV-A is neoliberal, that’s obvious – but that they are neoconservative, is unfortunately less known. Oh dear compatriots, wake up, be alert for this neoliberal-neoconservative syndrome, “the extreme center”, the extremist political center, such as Tariq Ali calls it aptly.

But fortunately, the Brussels residents fight back. The commercialization since ‘Free 54’ has become a right to ‘no passaran” for many city activists and their supporters abroad Brussels. The loiterers Saint Cath will continue to oppose the vast parasols and gentrification and commercialization (terracing) of one of the most beautiful squares of Brussels. And, may they be warned for the upcoming manifestation, I hope we will march strait through Brussels, pass the steps of Bourse, with or without permission. The city belongs to everyone, including the homeless, the loiterers and the protesters. But it is no place for soldiers. Only when the soldiers go away, the tourists will come back.

(Text: Lieven De Cauter // Cover photo: Franck Vander Eeckt)