BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 28 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Going for a Song

On the value of nursing, education and culture

BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 28 FEB 12

Exhibition poster, „Der Eiermann und seine Ausleger“, 1997 (Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln & Estate Martin Kippenberger; Photograph: Elfie Semotan)

So the bell rings, and I open the door to find one of the last conchies standing there. He asks if I’d like to donate to the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB). They’re having a spot of financial bother since the recent abolition of compulsory military service has also put an end to the cheap labour provided by conscientious objectors opting for the alternative of community service. I nearly told him: ‘I was a conchie myself. I’ve done my service to the nation, fifteen months as a cheap male nurse. And now we’re supposed to come to the aid of the state again? Helping to cover up the crisis in the nursing sector? Why are conchies being sent out to beg for the money that they themselves don’t cost? So that no one has to admit that those who opted for community service are proving hard to replace in the health care sector? Let’s demonstrate instead of going round shaking the collection tin!’

I kept this speech to myself. Why? The ASB flies you home if you have an accident abroad. Which is very useful. So I became a paying member.

But that doesn’t mean the matter is resolved. For his Christmas address to the nation, Germany’s Federal President invited a silent chorus of good citizens to stand behind him and lauded them for ‘being there for others. Just like that.’ Every year it’s the same old story: During the festive period, the president praises voluntary social engagement, thus distracting attention from the fact that many non-voluntary staff in the social sector can hardly live on their wretched wages!

Not that I didn’t have a great time as a conchie. Quite the contrary. On the way to work in the morning, in the taxi-bus with children from the Rur Valley school for children and adolescents with mental and physical disabilities, when ‘Ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, here comes the egg man!’ came on the radio (a merry ditty about, you guessed it: a door-to-door egg salesman with a bell) and all the children on the bus ecstatically joined in, then I knew two things for sure: firstly, that the Rhineland is blessed and secondly, that if carnival lasted all year, the world would always be as delightful as any perfectly normal day at our school. The days usually began with the severely disabled girl I looked after most of the time greeting me with a broad grin and a heartfelt ‘Aua Mama!’ while tugging at my long hair with both hands. Her vocabulary consisted of three words: ‘Aua’, ‘Mama’ and ‘Caca’. But we never had any trouble communicating. In any given situation, creative recombination of the three words allowed her to express everything she wanted to say. After such an experience, no one needs to tell you about the principles of concrete art or pragmatic semiotics. Or changing nappies. The trick here: even when things get heavy, keep breathing – but not through your nose!

All good, then. Except for the fact that I naively accepted to do the job of a skilled worker for next to no pay, thus contributing to state wage-dumping in the nursing sector.

Nowadays I work at art schools in Rotterdam and Tel Aviv. When we demonstrated with students in The Hague against the right-wing Dutch government’s radical cutbacks in cultural funding, it transpired that nurses had been protesting in the same square the previous day against cuts in the health care budget. Which makes you realize that we’re in the same boat: neo-liberal politics wants to pay neither for nursing nor for culture and education.

‘Capital doesn’t want to pay for life,’ my colleague Joshua Simon observed recently as we strolled down Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where he spent last summer with masses of other people demonstrating, like the Occupy movement around the world, in support of the intrinsic value of the commons. Why doesn’t capital want to pay? Not because of any lack of money, but because the commons is a goldmine if its various branches are converted into service industries. People will always need help; they will always want to partake of culture and learning. So up with the prices and down with the wages. The helpers will find ways of fending for themselves and cultural workers are known to prefer being ‘poor, but sexy’ …

Do we have to put up with this? Nah. Because where would society be if we egg men and egg women didn’t keep ringing people’s bells and delivering fresh supplies of care, education, art and culture? Being an egg person is an honour, not an office. But that doesn’t mean we have to die as paupers.

In this spirit: Long live the commons! Ding-a-ling-a-ling!
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.