Brian Coleman wants to sack all London’s Firefighters

Brian Coleman, or Mr Toad, is now trending on twitter – the reason being is that he has “run out of patience with the FBU” and as the Evening Standard are reporting “will press ahead with [the London Fire Authority’s] “fallback option” of re-employing staff under new terms and conditions.”

It’s hard to believe, but since the union does not want to be pressured into signing new contracts, and because Coleman wants it his way, 5,500 London firefighters could face the sack.

This is the kind of austere democracy we’ve come to expect from Coleman.

Though he wouldn’t like it up himself.

Coleman is Britain’s highest paid councillor (a different side to the EasyCouncil of Barnet). He’s been repeatedly caught out over his expense claims, which tallied up largely reveal expensive taxi fares.

For 2010-2011 this is no different, as his London Fire Brigade expenses will reveal. At a time when we’re all in this together, some notable claims made are:

  • 21/11/2010 – Taxi (invoiced) – Taxi journey for Chairman and Chairman’s Lady – from the Cenotaph, Whitehall SW1 for Annual Service of Remembrance (£66.09)
  • 12/11/2010 – Taxi (invoiced) – Taxi journeys: Chairman and Chairman’s Lady – to GLA Annual Remembrance Service at City Hall, SE1; Chairman only – from GLA City Hall to CLG Eland House, SW1 for Fire Futures Steering Group; from CLG Eland House to Bevis Marks Synagogue, Heneage Lane EC3 for Service of Thanksgiving; from Bevis Marks Synagogue to home (£145.93)
  • 27/10/2010 – Taxi (invoiced) – Taxi journey from Houses of Parliament SW1 to Union St. (£19.20)
  • 12/09/2010 – Taxi (invoiced) – Taxi journeys with Mrs Coleman – drop off at Church of St Bartholomew the Great, EC1; pick up from St Pauls Cathedral, EC4 – Firefighters Memorial Trust Annual Service of Remembrance (held in two different locations) (drop off at Church of St Bartholomew the Great, EC1; pick up from St Pauls Cathedral, EC4 – Firefighters Memorial Trust Annual Service of Remembrance (held in two different locations) (£140.55)

Anyone would think he didn’t get free travel around London worth £1,700.

But for all his misgivings about firefighters having two jobs, Mr Coleman in fact has four. And he’s not short of a few bob either (something to be considered when you think how much he costs the taxpayer for car mileage and the congestion charge – when we’re all in this together).

Investigative journalist David Hencke did some number crunching to reveal his income:

Brian Coleman holds down four jobs all funded by the taxpayer. They are:

Member of the London Assembly                                                      allowance: £53,439

Cabinet member Barnet Council                                                         allowance: £38,177

Chair London Fire Brigade                                                                   allowance: £26,883

Chair LGA* fire services management committee                    allowance: £10,365

Grand Total from the taxpayer                                                                                £128,864

*Local Government Association, a voluntary body funded by councils from council taxpayers.

And of course his expenses:

Brian is a great expense claimer never knowingly underclaimed. He can claim for expenses for three of his four jobs – the LGA don’t allow him.

He is a big patron of London cabbies claiming once over £10,000 a year  from the London Assembly on trips (2006-07). He is now more modest – claims have varied between £8000 -plus a £1700 travel card (2007-08) and £345 for 2009-10. All from the taxpayer.

His fire brigade expense claims are not much different.These include a £119 taxi fare to the Fire Service Awards Ceremony in  May 2009 and £143 to attend Westminster’s Lord Mayor’s reception for the Lord Mayor of London. He also spent £402 on a  rail ticket to go a LGA conference in Manchester. Little difference in 2011 -with a £145 taxi fare for him and his mum to go to a  firefighters service of remembrance  and meetings in London.

His red letter claims day is May 12 this year – where he managed to claim car mileage, congestion charge and over £67 in taxis  for a dinner -all on the same day.

His gifts include four dinners (three of them before the company won the contract) and a £350  Harvey Nichols hamper from the head of AssetCo, John Shannon, the company which has a £9m PFI deal with his authority and provided strike cover.

There’s also some interesting details on his home life, and his landlords the Methodist Church in Finchley.

Colman justifies all this by saying he works 100-hour weeks with few days off, but this hasn’t been enough to convince the website, aptly called Is Brian Coleman a tedious cock?, who remind us that:

How long will he get away with it for?

“Tuition fee rise could boost our college” – quite beyond the point

Being on the other side of the wagon, I tend not to think the pro-cuts, pro-student-fee-increase lot have a leg to stand on with their sums, but of course there are to every argument good and bad.

The following example, from tonight’s Basildon Echo, represents the bad, nay, utter nutbag daft corner. The article is titled ‘Tuition fee rise could boost our college’ and is an interview with the principal of my old college which I left 6 years ago. I’ll fisk as appropriate.

On the subject of “riots in central London, MPs quitting frontbench positions and an attack on the royal car”:

These incidents … dominated the news agenda towards the end of last year and attracted a lot of criticism.

I ought to point out for reference, this particular paper, with its award-wnning estate agent turned journalist Jon Austin, spends most of its time waxing hysterical about the local travellers. It didn’t cause too much fuss about the election of the Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe, who when I emailed to ask him, in vain, to vote against tuition fee rises, replied – in short – no! In short, the paper will probably make no bones about stating all the criticism without the amount of PRAISE the students received.

Jan Hodges, college principal and cheif executive, said higher university tuition fees mean more people may choose to study locally.

Surely the only logic here is that people will not be able to afford to move out, which while this may be a good guess, is pulled straight out of the wind. Also, it’s rather perverse; the notion that your poverty could keep you in Southend will not be pleasing anybody.

In her, slight, defense, Hodges is quoted as saying:

The increase is not a good thing, but it might be something we capitalise on.

Do we suspect Ms Hodges isn’t taking this, backdoor creeping financial exclusivity seriously? She goes on:

It might be the case the tuition fees increase means people look to study locally instead of at university – the local education offer is a strong one.

Is that really the two alternatives? Does this even make sense? At this stage I wonder whether Hodges actually said this, or whether the journalist was making shit up. To draw a serious comment from this, is it good to keep local people taking up local education? From her perspective shouldn’t it be about retaining numbers? Instead of making inglorious attempts to address how the fee rises could help benefit college – which really is contestable – would it not be better to address how bad the fee rises are generally? As old wisdom will tell you, if you have nothing sensible to say keep your trap shut – so what if the local education offer is a strong one if, in her words, “the increase is not  a good thing”.

Internal bickering versus “whistling in the dark”

Hopi Sen, in his intellectually impure and prosaic manner, said on twitter last night:

Oh-ho, has the new left thingummy reached stage three of all left wing movements then (tedious internal bickering?) / Campaign model for all leftie “revolutionary “groups – Stage 1: Campaign. Stage 2: overblown rhetoric about transforming world. / Stage 3: Internal bickering. Stage 4: Assign blame for failure to achieve stage 2. Stage 5. Appear on Newsnight to criticise Labour party.

Droll, I’m sure. But what has been characterised here as ‘internal bickering’ is a vital component of assessing next stages of any successful movement of people.

Questions on whether applying theory to practice is necessary anymore have emerged (see NLP here, SWP) as well as questions on whether leadership is necessary in such an organised gathering of protesters (see Seymour; Seymour; and Seymour’s apology) – particularly concerning UK Uncut (a better summary of events can be found at The Great Unrest blog).

The argument against discussing theory – characterised by some as meaningless intellectual masturbation – and against leadership – characterised by some as the adoption of old, stale bureaucratic structures – is made while drawing on the current success of the movement (see Laurie Penny and Marcus Malarky on this, then see Owen Jones on the problems of leaderless youth). But to pretend these structures are unnecessary, and that the movement is unique and distinct from other movements, is a grave error, and one which has been host to so many casualties. Take for example the struggle of German labor movements from 1912 to 1923. Paul Mattick had this to say about them in 1947, and it sounds very familiar to the place where the student movement is at now:

In retrospect, the struggle of the German proletariat from 1912 to 1923 appeared as minor frictions that accompanied the capitalistic re-organization process which followed the war-crisis. But there has always been a tendency to consider the by-products of violent changes in the capitalistic structure as expressions of the revolutionary will of the proletariat. The radical optimists, however, were merely whistling in the dark. The darkness was real, to be sure, and the noise was encouraging, yet at this late hour there is no need to take it seriously. As exciting as it is to recall the days of proletarian actions in Germany – the mass meetings, demonstrations, strikes, street fights, the heated discussions, the hopes, fears, and disappointments, the bitterness of defeat and the pain of prison and death – yet no lessons but negative ones can now be drawn from all these undertakings. All the energy and all the enthusiasm were not enough to bring about a social change or to alter the contemporary mind. The lesson learned was how not to proceed. How to realize the revolutionary needs of the proletariat was not discovered.

Mattick recalls the excitement of the actions; I fear the excitement of the actions taking place during current demonstrations and direct actions today make it difficult to see the necessity of assessing next steps, theory and leadership. But so as to ensure nobody today is “whistling in the dark” internal dialogue must remain – even if Hopi Sen and the other New Labour Dinosaurs laugh about it.

On the Multiculturalism/Zizek debate

I put off writing this because I had already got the subject out of my system, but it has returned and it’s very difficult to ignore: it is the question of multiculturalism, and more specifically what this means to anti-fascists.

Richard Seymour recently produced a blog entry about philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to critically analyse violence and provocation carried out against the Strojan family – an extended family of 31 Gypsies, 14 of them children.

Seymour’s beef is with two things: firstly the outcome of the events, which culminated in the police succumbing to pressure by violent mobs and forcing the family to leave, who, as he notes, had they not “driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades.”

The second thing Seymour has beef about is Zizek’s poor research on the matter. Zizek has used this example to underline his own controversial view of multiculturalism (more of which in a moment) but what he has failed to do is properly understand what happened to the family. As Seymour says in a reply to critics of the aforementioned entry:

I find no evidence that the Strojan family are car thieves, and they didn’t murder anyone. It is true that locals blamed the Strojan family for a number of thefts, but it’s also true that they acknowledge when pressed that the Strojans have been scapegoated on this issue.

I’m with Seymour here; had Zizek done his homework, he would’ve seen that this is a case of scapegoating, or at best a heavy-handed response to petite-theft among some individuals of a family, perhaps spurred on because of the family’s racial background. Zizek here is not being racist, he has just erroneously placed this disgraceful event in the wrong context; by implication I feel that Zizek’s “apologia for anti-Roma racism” is due to a misjudgement by the Slovenian.

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As it happens I find Zizek’s critique of multiculturalism very useful (which is why one can agree with Seymour on this issue, and still be in defence of Slavoj Zizek, so to speak). I will attempt to place it in its correct context.

Multiculturalism, according to Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, has come to be defined as a policy promoting diversity among a society of people with fixed identities, partly as a reaction to inharmonious feeling at a time of increased immigration into the UK. For Malik this has simultaneously become the problem and solution to intolerance. While it rather nobly aims to celebrate difference, it also rather crudely pigeon-holes people, on account of their racial or national heritage.

In trying to effect “respect for pluralism [and] avowal of identity politics” – which have come to be “hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook” – segregation has simply become institutionalised.

As a consequence to the respect agenda, all cultures have become of equal value, which may mean that in purely multicultural terms everything is permissible if it can be justified on the grounds of cultural heritage – which leads to the question who can authoritatively account for what a cultural trait is (for Malik, such policies in the eighties served only to strengthen conservative Muslim leaders in Birmingham, on the daft assumption that they alone could authoritatively account for what Islam is).

For Zizek, there is a bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism that is repulsed by (far) right wing populism of the Other (the immigrant for example) to the extent that it starts to fetishise the Other. Not content with opposing all racism directed at this Other, it starts to think the Other can do no wrong. Take as an example the song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” often sung by Julius Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League; the real anti-racist would oppose this song in spite of its historical context, for whatever the white farmers’ crimes during the apartheid, this is a song that is derogatory towards a race. The bourgeois liberal fetishist, of the ilk to which Zizek refers, may justify singing the song on the grounds that such retaliation is historically justified (you could perhaps ascribe to this the notion of “white guilt”).

For Zizek, the bourgeois liberal justifying Malema singing the song is akin to expressing the belief that Melama knows no better, leading Zizek to assert that certain modes of politically correct tolerance of the Other is grounded upon the belief that certain groups can be judged differently (which is why the BNP for example are wrong for being racist populists, but Malema is clear on the grounds that he has experienced racism himself). This ends up being monoculturalism based upon a rather stereotypical ideal of how the Other should act – the point being that the bourgeois liberal, for Zizek, is deluding himself by thinking he is a mutliculturalist, since it is almost a colonial understanding of the foreign Other who he is identifying.

In short, this notion of multiculturalism masks a racist idea of the Other who needs to be “tolerated” (for more on this see Naadir Jeewa’s excellent analysis).

The confusion here lies in who we identify as this bourgeois liberal, naïve apologist? For many people who subscribe to multiculturalism this simply doesn’t resonate. For me, Zizek’s analysis is less a critique of multiculturalism, and more a critique of naïve, neo-colonial monoculturalism (which I assume he is well aware of, though if not, we ought to understand that the bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism is not necessarily inherent to multiculturalism proper). But maybe the word multiculturalism lends itself too easily to the idea that cultural relativism is appropriate– since we’re immediately in a struggle to identify what we can call culture (authority on which, as Malik explains, can often fall into the wrong hands).

When most people support multiculturalism, what they mean is that a country ought not to have a dominant national character immigrants are obliged to adopt as a guarantee of their debt to their new homeland. Instead a country should allow all to practice what they wish, as they wish, provided that it doesn’t harm anyone. Perhaps I’ll adopt the term socialist universalism?

A fight without sectarianism, is not a fight without arguments

The strength in the anti-cuts movement, emanating from the draconian and dangerous agenda of cuts from the existing government, and led in many ways by students and trade union activists, has increased greatly in its current form – and as a consequence further questions are being raised inside it, that extend further than merely “what is it we are against?” (as Tom Miller has rightly written about here).

As the movement grows even stronger, numbers increase and demands start to be met, it is inevitable that questions will get tougher: “Yes, we want change to government policy, but what will that change look like?” and “Yes, the government should crumble, but how do we promote and help form a credible government in its place?”

Many people have been fairly scepitcal of entering into debates on theory, saying things like “save this waffle for the dinosaurs at the branch meeting” – I’m not of that opinion, and I’m also glad of the reference Miller, mentioned above, makes about Lenin (I myself used the Spanish Civil War, for example, to illustrate a point on so-called “left unity” ).

A common criticism of Marx is that while he critiqued and criticised capitalism expertly, he spent less time mapping out what Communism would be like operationally or morally. Perhaps he needn’t have. This, people will say, allowed Communist leaders to do some pretty drastic things justifying their means by their ends, while public intellectuals could excuse killing if it meant a Communistic outcome. It’s no surprise to me that in the periods from WWI to the end of the Cold War the left were not only carved up into Reformists, democratic socialists, revolutionary socialists, utopian socialists, Communists, and Anarchsists, but each of these were carved up in the form of libertarian socialists, Bolshevists, Menshevists, Council Communists (you get my gist).

The left is a broad spectrum, inevitably it will fall out on issues, and at points one faction will wonder why another is being compromised with (why, for example should a statist reformist, work with an an anti-statist libertarian socialist, while he compromises with a civic republican on certain matters). It’s good to belong to a broad church, but differences should be rationalised, and difficult conversations should be engaged – and they should be done earlier rather than later. It is not an option to put off this conversation, no matter how difficult, and no matter how inconsequential it seems at the time, particularly as some of the activism is so exciting and so all encompassing.

In order to steer clear of in-fighting later on, difficult conversations are a must – now.

The movement of students, workers and sympathisers of whatever stripe, with continued energy, focus, and direction, will start to see differences; there was a feeling the night before the tuition fee bill vote that Lib Dem MPs were on their backfeet – we may have lost that battle, but there is a war to be won (a cliche, sure, but you see my point). Unity can bring this disgusting and ideological government to its knees, but as that other cliche establishes, action without theory is aimless.

In lieu of a sustainable livestock law

Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, failed to get his sustainable livestock bill through Parliament on 15 November, which would have allowed farmers to swap imported soy animal feed for home-grown alternatives. Dependency on imported crop is unsustainable for the protection of the planet, which has near unanimity among politicians and business leaders today, yet opposition to the bill focused on its attempt to forge new regulation on an issue already being addressed by the food industry.

According to Pits n Pots news in Stoke on Trent, the bill enjoyed support from some 55,000 people, Friends of the Earth, and had the backing of 176 MPs, but in the end only managed to secure 62 votes – with some pointing out that many MPs needed to stay in their constituencies that day for Armistice Day Services.

Nevertheless, the failure of the bill to be passed does not spell doom. During the bill debate held in the House of Commons on 12 November, the more thoughtful Conservative opposition noted the work by many individuals and organisations helping to decrease dependency on imported crop and save rainforests in South America.

Tony Baldry for example, the MP for North Oxfordshire and as he refers to himself, the last surviving Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the House of Commons, recognises the benefits of increasing British livestock production, however he is unimpressed with how much “red tape” the bill required.

Like Flello, Baldry wants British reliance on imported soy to decrease in order to lower the nation’s carbon footprint. Additionally he would like Britain to address the problem of chronic poverty in developing nations caused by livestock asset loss (such as losing the benefits of mixed farming methods, livestock consumption of waste products, pest control, fertiliser and food production) however he is confident the industry can bring about the changes itself.

Jim Paice, the Minister of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) noted in the debate that the Dairy Supply Chain Forum’s Milk Roadmap is a good example of where producers, processors and retailers come together and commit to common goals on environmental stewardship, nutrient planning, and recycled plastic milk bottles among other concerns of the day. He reminded MPs that the beef and sheep sectors are also working towards sustainability measures.

While well meaning in their criticisms, they forget that this law was not created to undercut good work taking place, but to ensure mechanisms are in place to stop unsustainable farming and to drive out wrongdoers. The reason the bill enjoyed so much support from organisations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Heart Forum, and Compassion in World Farming is not in the hope of frustrating self-directed sustainable measures, but to counter unsustainable ones.

A legal framework to combat reliance on soy – which two thirds of all manufactured food products in the UK contain – grown in South American plantations would begin to reduce the amount of rainforest being converted into farmland. Though livestock is not the only sector where soy reliance exists, measures to incentivise the maximisation of local production have not gone far enough; the bill would’ve made a significant difference to local production while ensuring other nations keep more of their produce.

Other criticisms suggested that the bill would place a ban on large dairies, reduce meat and dairy in people’s diets, and set trade barriers on imported animal feed. However if true, this will be the case even if sustainability measures are taken in ways described by Tory opposition to the bill, at least with the first two.

If local production of milk and soy is increased, it will be precisely this, and not cheap foreign imports, competing with large dairies to stock shop shelves. Furthermore, in growing more reliant on national livestock farming, whether through law or through accepted milestones mentioned by Jim Paice, the availability of meat and dairy will be dependent upon production supplying to demand – just as usual. The real problem here, much like that of the price disparity between local produce and cheaper imports in general, is whether people will be able to afford good diets while measures are taken to cut import reliance. Organic and locally produced foods can be up to double the price of imported produce. What had been missing from Flello’s bill were measures to make sure consumers could afford to maintain healthy diets while a reduction in imports took place.

Solving this problem would not mean reinventing the wheel. The Healthy Start vouchers for pregnant Mothers or families with one child under four and who are claiming income support, is a government scheme providing free milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, infant formula, and vitamins. Flello should have taken the opportunity to promote widening this scheme so many more families could be entitled to help. In the absence of the law, yet with willing participants in the farming industry eager to meet the goals of the bill, organisations should call on the government to compensate by extending local produce vouchers to those who will be most affected by the rise in their shopping bills.

As for barriers to animal feed, goods inside the EU are not considered imports, so this will only apply to trade countries outside the EU, and for reasons already explained is an appropriate measure to take in promoting sustainability and reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

The failure of the bill to be passed will make it a lot harder to ensure sustainable practice is carried out, but not impossible. Individuals and organisations need to continue putting pressure on the government to oversee realistic and effective objectives are achieved in the farming industry, while ensuring people can afford a healthy diet alongside changes to production are made for the betterment of the planet is a national must.

The Human Prison: A review of John Berger’s “Meanwhile”

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.

http://twitter.com/paulstpancras/status/16225667674804224

John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best 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 has rightly noticed, descriptions of history need word, 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 have 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 – 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 clearly that hitherto has been 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.