robertogreco + tyranny + capitalism   4

John Berger, Written in the night: The pain of living in the present world
"I WANT to say at least something about the pain existing in the world today. Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against. This is the logical basis for the ideology's pitilessness.

Everyone knows, of course, that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativise it. All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativise the pain suffered on earth. So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment. Likewise the discovery of Sacrifice. And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness. One could argue that philosophy began with the question: why pain?

Yet, when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.

I write in the night, although it is daytime. A day in early October 2002. For almost a week the sky above Paris has been blue. Each day the sunset is a little earlier and each day gloriously beautiful. Many fear that before the end of the month, US military forces will be launching the preventive war against Iraq, so that the US oil corporations can lay their hands on further and supposedly safer oil supplies. Others hope that this can be avoided. Between the announced decisions and the secret calculations, everything is kept unclear, since lies prepare the way for missiles. I write in a night of shame. By shame I do not mean individual guilt. Shame, as I'm coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead. We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere, under very different conditions, are asking themselves - where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?

The well-heeled experts answer. Globalisation. Postmodernism. Communications revolution. Economic liberalism. The terms are tautological and evasive. To the anguished question of where are we, the experts murmur: nowhere. Might it not be better to see and declare that we are living through the most tyrannical - because the most pervasive - chaos that has ever existed? It's not easy to grasp the nature of the tyranny for its power structure (ranging from the 200 largest multinational corporations to the Pentagon) is interlocking yet diffuse, dictatorial yet anonymous, ubiquitous yet placeless. It tyrannises from off shore - not only in terms of fiscal law, but in terms of any political control beyond its own. Its aim is to delocalise the entire world. Its ideo logical strategy, besides which Osama bin Laden's is a fairy tale, is to undermine the existent so that everything collapses into its special version of the virtual, from the realm of which (and this is the tyranny's credo) there will be a never-ending source of profit. It sounds stupid. Tyrannies are stupid. This one is destroying at every level the life of the planet on which it operates.

Ideology apart, its power is based on two threats. The first is intervention from the sky by the most heavily armed state in the world. One could call it Threat B52. The second is of ruthless indebtment, bankruptcy, and hence, given the present productive relations in the world, starvation. One could call it Threat Zero.

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken. There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don't have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day? This was a question posed by the director of the World Health Organisation last July. She was talking about the Aids epidemic in Africa and elsewhere from which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next 18 years. I'm talking about the pain of living in the present world.

Most analyses and prognoses about what is happening are understandably presented and studied within the framework of their separate disciplines: economics, politics, media studies, public health, ecology, national defence, criminology, education. In reality each of these separ ate fields is joined to another to make up the real terrain of what is being lived. It happens that in their lives people suffer from wrongs which are classified in separate categories, and suffer them simultaneously and inseparably.

A current example: some Kurds, who fled last week to Cherbourg, have been refused asylum by the French government and risk being repatriated to Turkey, are poor, politically undesirable, landless, exhausted, illegal and the clients of nobody. And they suffer each of these conditions at one and the same second. To take in what is happening, an interdisciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the fields which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political. The precondition for thinking politically on a global scale is to see the unity of the unnecessary suffering taking place. This is the starting point.

I WRITE in the night, but I see not only the tyranny. If that were so, I would probably not have the courage to continue. I see people sleeping, stirring, getting up to drink water, whispering their projects or their fears, making love, praying, cooking something whilst the rest of the family is asleep, in Baghdad and Chicago. (Yes, I see too the forever invincible Kurds, 4,000 of whom were gassed, with US compliance, by Saddam Hussein.) I see pastrycooks working in Tehran and the shepherds, thought of as bandits, sleeping beside their sheep in Sardinia, I see a man in the Friedrichshain quarter of Berlin sitting in his pyjamas with a bottle of beer reading Heidegger, and he has the hands of a proletarian, I see a small boat of illegal immigrants off the Spanish coast near Alicante, I see a mother in Mali - her name is Aya which means born on Friday - swaying her baby to sleep, I see the ruins of Kabul and a man going home, and I know that, despite the pain, the ingenuity of the survivors is undiminished, an ingenuity which scavenges and collects energy, and in the ceaseless cunning of this ingenuity, there is a spiritual value, something like the Holy Ghost. I am convinced of this in the night, although I don't know why.

The next step is to reject all the tyranny's discourse. Its terms are crap. In the interminably repetitive speeches, announcements, press conferences and threats, the recurrent terms are Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism. Each word in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to. Each has been trafficked, each has become a gang's code-word, stolen from humanity.

Democracy is a proposal (rarely realised) about decision-making; it has little to do with election campaigns. Its promise is that political decisions be made after, and in the light of, consultation with the governed. This is depend ent upon the governed being adequately informed about the issues in question, and upon the decision-makers having the capacity and will to listen and take account of what they have heard. Democracy should not be confused with the freedom of binary choices, the publication of opinion polls or the crowding of people into statistics. These are its pretence. Today the fundamental decisions, which effect the unnecessary pain increasingly suffered across the planet, have been and are taken unilaterally without any open consultation or participation. For instance, how many US citizens, if consulted, would have said specifically yes to Bush's withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement about the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect which is already provoking disastrous floods in many places, and threatens, within the next 25 years, far worse disasters? Despite all the media-managers of consent, I would suspect a minority.

It is a little more than a century ago that Dvořák composed his Symphony From the New World. He wrote it whilst directing a conservatory of music in New York, and the writing of it inspired him to compose, 18 months later, still in New York, his sublime Cello Concerto. In the symphony the horizons and rolling hills of his native Bohemia become the promises of the New World. Not grandiloquent but loud and continuing, for they correspond to the longings of those without power, of those who are wrongly called simple, of those the US Constitution addressed in 1787.

I know of no other work of art which expresses so directly and yet so toughly (Dvořák was the son of a peasant and his father dreamt of his becoming a butcher) the beliefs which inspired generation after generation of migrants who became US citizens.

For Dvořák the force of these beliefs was inseparable from a kind of tenderness, a respect for life such as can be found intimately among the governed (as distinct from governors) everywhere. And it was in this spirit that the symphony was publicly received when it was first performed at Carnegie Hall (16 December 1893).

Dvořák was asked what he thought about the future of American music and he recommended that US composers listen to the music of the Indians and blacks. The Symphony From the New World expressed a hopefulness without frontiers which, paradoxically, is welcoming because centered on an idea of home. A utopian paradox.

Today the power of the same country which inspired such hopes has fallen into the hands of a coterie of fanatical (wanting to limit everything except the power of capital), ignorant (recognising only the reality of their own fire-power), hypo critical (two measures for all ethical judgments, one … [more]
johnberger  2013  presence  present  consumerism  pain  ideology  worldhealthorganization  aids  africa  health  healthcare  priorities  power  powerlessness  kurds  turkey  iraq  war  tyranny  baghdad  saddamhussein  democracy  decisionmaking  participatory  participation  dvořák  us  military  freedom  economics  capitalism  language  euphemisms  media  resistance  words 
january 2017 by robertogreco
Fellow Prisoners – Guernica
"The best way to understand the world, writes Berger, is not as a metaphorical prison but a literal one. And what better way to inspire solidarity than seeing ourselves (them) as fellow prisoners?"



"The wonderful American poet Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent lecture about poetry that “this year, a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that one out of every 136 residents of the United States is behind bars—many in jails, unconvicted.”

In the same lecture she quoted the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:

In the field the last swallow had lingered late,

balancing in the air like a black ribbon on the sleeve

of autumn.

Nothing else remained. Only the burned houses

smouldering still.

***

I picked up the phone and knew immediately it was an unexpected call from you, speaking from your flat in the Via Paolo Sarpi. (Two days after the election results and Berlusconi’s comeback.) The speed with which we identify a familiar voice coming out of the blue is comforting, but also somewhat mysterious. Because the measures, the units we use in calculating the clear distinction that exists between one voice and another, are unformulated and nameless. They don’t have a code. These days more and more is encoded.

So I wonder whether there aren’t other measures, equally uncoded yet precise, by which we calculate other givens. For example, the amount of circumstantial freedom existing in a certain situation, its extent and its strict limits. Prisoners become experts at this. They develop a particular sensitivity towards liberty, not as a principle, but as a granular substance. They spot fragments of liberty almost immediately whenever they occur.

***

On an ordinary day, when nothing is happening and the crises announced hourly are the old familiar ones—and the politicians are declaring yet again that without them there would be catastrophe—people as they pass one another exchange glances, and some of their glances check whether the others are envisaging the same thing when they say to themselves; so this is life!

Often they are envisaging the same thing and in this primary sharing there is a kind of solidarity before anything further has been said or discussed.

I’m searching for words to describe the period of history we’re living through. To say it’s unprecedented means little because all periods were unprecedented since history was first discovered.

I’m not searching for a complex definition—there are a number of thinkers, such as Zygmunt Bauman, who have taken on this essential task. I’m looking for nothing more than a figurative image to serve as a landmark. Landmarks don’t fully explain themselves, but they offer a reference point that can be shared. In this they are like the tacit assumptions contained in popular proverbs. Without landmarks there is the great human risk of turning in circles.

***

The landmark I’ve found is that of prison. Nothing less. Across the planet we are living in a prison.

The word we, when printed or pronounced on screens, has become suspect, for it’s continually used by those with power in the demagogic claim that they are also speaking for those who are denied power. Let’s talk of ourselves as they. They are living in a prison.

What kind of prison? How is it constructed? Where is it situated? Or am I only using the word as a figure of speech?

No, it’s not a metaphor, the imprisonment is real, but to describe it one has to think historically.

Michel Foucault has graphically shown how the penitentiary was a late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century invention closely linked to industrial production, its factories and its utilitarian philosophy. Earlier, there were jails that were extensions of the cage and the dungeon. What distinguished the penitentiary is the number of prisoners it can pack in—and the fact that all of them are under continuous surveillance thanks to the model of the Pantopticon, as conceived by Jeremy Bentham, who introduced the principle of accountancy into ethics.

Accountancy demands that every transaction be noted. Hence the penitentiary’s circular walls with the cells arranged around the screw’s watchtower at the center. Bentham, who was John Stuart Mill’s tutor at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was the principal utilitarian apologist for industrial capitalism.

Today in the era of globalization, the world is dominated by financial, not industrial, capital, and the dogmas defining criminality and the logics of imprisonment have changed radically. Penitentiaries still exist and more and more are being built. But prison walls now serve a different purpose. What constitutes an incarceration area has been transformed.

***

Twenty years ago, Nella Bielski and I wrote A Question of Geography, a play about the Gulag. In act two, a zek (a political prisoner) talks to a boy who has just arrived about choice, about the limits of what can be chosen in a labor camp: When you drag yourself back after a day’s work in the taiga, when you are marched back, half dead with fatigue and hunger, you are given your ration of soup and bread. About the soup you have no choice—it has to be eaten whilst it’s hot, or whilst it’s at least warm. About the four hundred grams of bread you have choice. For instance, you can cut it into three little bits: one to eat now with the soup, one to suck in the mouth before going to sleep in your bunk, and the third to keep until next morning at ten, when you’re working in the taiga and the emptiness in your stomach feels like a stone.

You empty a wheelbarrow full of rock. About pushing the barrow to the dump you have no choice. Now it’s empty you have a choice. You can walk your barrow back just like you came, or—if you’re clever, and survival makes you clever—you push it back like this, almost upright. If you choose the second way you give your shoulders a rest. If you are a zek and you become a team leader, you have the choice of playing at being a screw, or of never forgetting that you are a zek.

The Gulag no longer exists. Millions work, however, under conditions that are not very different. What has changed is the forensic logic applied to workers and criminals.

During the Gulag, political prisoners, categorized as criminals, were reduced to slave-laborers. Today millions of brutally exploited workers are being reduced to the status of criminals.

The Gulag equation “criminal = slave laborer” has been rewritten by neoliberalism to become “worker = hidden criminal.” The whole drama of global migration is expressed in this new formula; those who work are latent criminals. When accused, they are found guilty of trying at all costs to survive.

Over six million Mexican women and men work in the U.S. without papers and are consequently illegal. A concrete wall of over one thousand kilometers and a “virtual” wall of eighteen hundred watchtowers were planned along the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico, although the projects have recently been scrapped. Ways around them—though all of them dangerous—will of course be found.

Between industrial capitalism, dependent on manufacture and factories, and financial capitalism, dependent on free-market speculation and front office traders, the incarceration area has changed. Speculative financial transactions add up to, each day, $1,300 billion, fifty times more than the sum of the commercial exchanges. The prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones can 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.

***

It’s the first week in May and on the hillsides and mountains, along the avenues and around the gates in the northern hemisphere, the leaves of most of the trees are coming out. Not only are all their different varieties of green still distinct, people also have the impression that each single leaf is distinct, and so they are confronting billions—no, not billions (the word has been corrupted by dollars), they are confronting an infinite multitude of new leaves.

For prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement.

***

Today the purpose of most prison walls (concrete, electronic, patrolled, or interrogatory) is not to keep prisoners in and correct them, but to keep prisoners out and exclude them.

Most of the excluded are anonymous—hence the obsession of all security forces with identity. They are also numberless, for two reasons. First because their numbers fluctuate; every famine, natural disaster and military intervention (now called policing) either diminishes or increases their multitude. And secondly, because to assess their number is to confront the fact that they constitute most of those living on the surface of the earth—and to acknowledge this is to plummet into absolute absurdity.

***

Have you noticed small commodities are increasingly difficult to remove from their packaging? Something similar has happened with the lives of the gainfully employed. Those who have legal employment and are not poor are living in a very reduced space that allows them fewer and fewer choices—except the continual binary choice between obedience and disobedience. Their working hours, their place of residence, their past skills and experience, their health, the future of their children, everything outside their function as employees has to take a small second place beside the unforseeable and vast demands of liquid profit. Furthermore, the rigidity of this house rule is called flexibility. In prison, words get turned upside down.

The alarming pressure of high-grade working conditions has obliged the courts in Japan to recognize and define a new coroners’ category of “death by overwork.”

No other system, the gainfully employed are told, is … [more]
johnberger  prisoners  solidarity  metaphor  2011  adriennerich  yannisritsos  zygmuntbauman  imprisonment  panopticon  jeremybentham  capitalism  nellabielski  power  tyranny  hanstietmeyer  cyberspace  misinformation  rumors  commentary  humankind 
january 2017 by robertogreco
School’s Out Forever – The New Inquiry
"Education has become the way to talk about class and labor in an American political system that is profoundly uncomfortable with both. In the hands of reformist technocrats, inequality is a matter of nuanced social engineering rather than a conflict between two unequal and opposed sides – those who profit and those who only work. If society wanted to reduce the growing discrepancy between rich and poor, we would worry less about tweaking the educational system and simply pay or give the poor more money. Marsh writes, “Given the political will, whether through redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, or a renaissance of labor unions, we could decrease poverty and inequality tomorrow regardless of the market or the number of educated and uneducated workers.”

Although Marsh takes the reader back to historical junctions when choosing such paths toward a more equal country seemed possible — like President Johnson’s war on poverty or President Nixon’s proposal for a national income — those days are long gone. As Governor Walker’s successful move against public unions in Wisconsin shows, organized labor’s fight for survival isn’t conducive to winning higher wages. Marsh is not optimistic about the likelihood of an American labor renaissance; the best outcome he can imagine is that we might hold the debate about class and wealth distribution in undisguised terms. “We ought to acknowledge the limited but nevertheless real role education plays in providing individual economic opportunity and may play in generating national economic growth,” he writes, “At the same time, we should seek to make education more of an end it itself and less of a means toward some other end.”

While Marsh uses all his considerable analytical prowess to dispel the myth of class mobility through education, he accepts the conventional wisdom about the “true” purposes of education without a second look. If schools can’t solve society’s economic problems, he suggests, then they should focus on what they can do. Citing Thomas Jefferson through Christopher Lasch, Marsh offers only these two possibilities: “To give everybody the intellectual resources — particularly the command of the language — needed to distinguish truth from public lies” and “to train scholars, intellectuals, and members of learned professions.”

A school system devoted to those two goals wouldn’t make the country more equal, but it might restore English professors like Marsh to their former glory. He writes, “The liberal arts might regain the stature their inevitably central locations on campus indicate they once had. How much better for students’ souls — for their future happiness — to have studied the humanities or some branch of the liberal arts?” Putting aside the supposed strength of the correlation between majoring in literature and happiness, the answer to “How much better for their souls?” isn’t graphable. But being an English professor means never questioning the transcendent impact of your own thought on others."



"Just like the aberrational student elevated out of poverty through education, the exceptional teacher who can impact a student’s soul provides a flawed justification for a system which fails to provide anything of the sort on a larger scale. The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.” Classrooms, tellingly, are usually depicted in popular culture as excruciatingly boring. Teachers post Calvin and Hobbes cartoons about the soul-crushing banality of compulsory attendance on the classroom walls. In TV shows and movies about young people, class time is depicted only so that it can be interrupted by something more important — whether it’s whispered gossip, singing montages, or vampire slaying. Or, à la Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, class is so awful as to be a self-explanatory joke.

With the economic logic ripped apart, the only reasoning Marsh presents for keeping students in the prison/school for 12 to 16 years is that their souls might benefit from compulsory membership in a gerontocratic book club, even if we have to put a sizable proportion of them on amphetamines for it to work. This isn’t coincidental, it’s prefigurative, a determining sneak-peek at the adults they’ll become. High schools and colleges knowingly teach and enable the Adderall-seeking behavior that graduates will need to compete in the work world — that is if they don’t have standing prescriptions from elementary school. When a sixth-grader isn’t paying attention in class because he’s too busy clenching his knees together so as not to piss his pants before the bell rings, he’s not learning to be a better citizen or intellectual, he’s learning to be a better prisoner, employee, or soldier.

One of Marsh’s most suggestive comparisons is the number of striking workers against the number of new college admittances over time. Although the lines crossed long ago, the juxtaposition suggests the classroom is only one possible choice in pursuing a better life, and not necessarily the best one. Elsewhere around the world, young people try to construct better lives for themselves outside the classroom, as in Spain and Greece, where students fight against the austerity and increasing economic inequality Marsh fears, or in Egypt or Tunisia where revolution is not to be confused with an SAT-prep company. Using expert knowledge no teacher could have inculcated, young hackers risk jail to expose public falsehoods and build solidarity with peers overseas by fucking around on the internet. They’re not willing to leave the problems of their inherited world for moribund labor unions or withering socialist parties. Students in America could try a different kind of strike based on what’s occurred in Cairo and Athens — out of the classroom and into the streets. And how much better would that be for their future happiness, how much better for their souls?"
2011  education  schools  schooling  schooliness  learning  labor  unions  economics  solidarity  capitalism  corporatization  unschooling  deschooling  teaching  authority  conformity  conditioning  clavinandhobbes  poverty  inequality  malcolmharris  johnmarsh  politics  class  classmobility  socialmobility  policy  edreform  why  tyranny  control  supression  liberalarts  opportunity  corporatism 
june 2014 by robertogreco

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