December 18, 2010 John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best – if at all – for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing – a work written partly in homage to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2008 Drawbridge Books published an essay of his called, simply, Meanwhile, which attempts to look at our historical age as we live it – an impossible task.
As Berger rightly noticed, descriptions of history need words, words need definitions, definitions need figurative images to serve as landmarks and without landmarks “there is the great human risk of turning in circles”. The landmark, as Berger notes, that he has found, to define our age, “is that of prison.”
The advent of the penitentiary, so Michel Foucault once noted, was linked to industrial production, “its factories and its utilitarian philosophy.” Time has not stood still. And neither has the world – which has come to be defined by capital relations. Thus, Berger notes in today’s era of globalisation, it is not industrial, but financial capital which has informed the logic of criminality and imprisonment. The utilitarianism of the pentientiary, of which Berger mediates, put specially selected individuals – criminals – under surveillance, while the dawn of new financial instruments and global logics of capital have emerged at the same time as surveying us all – hence prison being the landmark that defines our age. We are all imprisoned.
As Guy Debord, French Situationist writer, once noticed, via the Swiss urbanist and architect Le Corbusier, “commuting time … is a surplus labor which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time”. A mere modernist pseudo-problem in hindsight. In the dystopian, postmodernist, neo-liberal, late capitalist world imagined by Berger, the worker never enjoys free time, owing to finite free space – since all space is de-centralised financial capital, locked into a consumerist Arcadia. While “[s]peculative financial transactions add up, each day, to 1,300 billion dollars” as Berger points out, “[t]he prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb. What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”
Berger obviously foresees drab things for the immigrant worker. In an American context, he ponders upon the criminalisation of the Mexican worker, but of course it is not overseen the neoliberal agenda of the global oil industry – unable to be properly contained by any major government or power, and cynically, never being in that power’s interests. However, the faddish crux of neoliberalism has possibly made Berger cautious not to speak wildly on the green agenda. Marxist writers specifically in the wake (or shadow) of Frederic Jameson such as Terry Eagleton or Alex Callinicos have all picked up upon the ruinous corporate exploitation of natural resources, and indeed nature; but the more eagle eyed writer like John Gray – still steeped in enough cynicism – notices that out of the green agenda is a market as well as a set of life-saving moral predicates. On this very basis, it is not out of the reach of conglomerates to “green up” – faddishness, to say the least, is a necessary and almost obligatory component of late capitalism. The deal which capitalism, and its state sanctioned protectors, have been unable yet to settle is how to cope with human flight when vast areas of land, and indeed whole countries, start to become uninhabitable and undernourished owing to global warming. The oil business, it would seem, is designing its own type of worker, who Berger believes neoliberalism has rewritten as “hidden criminal” – that is a criminal as a consequence of natural catastrophe and illegal immigration.
The prison which Berger has designated as our current lot is actually free of indoctrination, but authorities will do their best to misinform. Being tuned in to new technologies, cyberspace is a means with which (mis)information is channelled in order that indoctrination is rendered quite pointless. But here, forgets Berger, is a space to subordinate that misinformation. While our only power online may be to apprehend information when its too late – consider for example the realisation, tonight in fact, that the US has the power to close down a global payment system, with disastrous effects – knowledge is power. Wikileaks, if it has achieved nothing else, has shown itself to be locked in a power struggle – this does not spell the dawn of a new hegemony, from the bottom up, but at least frames the struggle as equals at war, whereas before the powerless were expected to fend off the advances of the powerful. Wikileaks is a gamechanger; but what we now realise about the game, is that the powerless could gain power without actually subordinating the existing status quo – something hitherto overlooked, not understated.
Freedom and liberty however is separate from power entirely, and it seems as though Berger is far more willing to accept that in our prison we can be free. As he notes “[f]or prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement”. This can simply be read as a question of contrast; small changes mean more to the prisoner than massive changes do to he who is free. So given that the issue with our historic place, our prison, is the lack of free space, we must forge such a space free from the trappings of capitalism. The problem some will have with this is the same problem many have with Naomi Klein’s books – she seems to be happy and content with the communalist existence of space subordinate to capitalism, which already still renders capitalism existent. In fact within the faculties of late capitalism, or postmodernist capitalism, such communalism is actively encouraged, since subordination is commodifiable. It almost seems as if there is no hope. Berger’s essay concludes by saying: “[l]iberty is slowly being founded not outside but in the depths of the prison”. It sounds like the conclusion of so many disillusioned voices post-Cold War; it’s almost impossible not to feel its ferocity.