Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to be involved in a series of events, talks and workshops called Redrawing the Maps at Somerset House, London, exploring the life and work of the artist, novelist and poet John Berger (now in his 86th year).
I did my talk on Berger's worldview, discussing his Marxist politics and what indications we can find in his work that suggests he may be rather pessimistic about a socialist future. I spoke for twenty minutes and then the floor was open to those who had come to listen and take part.
One of the questions put to me was: "OK, so Berger self-identifies with a set of politics, but this may not exactly bear out in his work - is this important?"
The question was not meant to be antagonistic, it was a fair point - and one which many people not interested in Berger, and his work, may ask: so what about this man?
My answer to this question is that Berger's pessimistic politics reveals quite a lot about where we politically are in general; that is to say it must be noted that, whatever our politics are, we ought really to accept that capitalism has won the toss.
One cannot help think of Francis Fukuyama in this sense. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama opined that this event was proof that liberal democracy ruled the day, and that no other totalising economic situation could ever come close to its dominance.
The cultural theorist and 'Elvis of philosophy' Slavoj Žižek once admitted that even Marxists like himself are quietly accepting of the fact that capitalism had won and socialism had lost. The tasks therefore of anti-capitalists was simply to make the best they could from within the system they hated.
This sort of 'realism' has a snazzy name in intellectual circles today - that is, an interstitial model. Erik Olin Wright, author of Envisioning Real Utopias, defines the interstitial model as a means to build new forms of social empowerment in the niches and margins of capitalist society.
In many ways the Occupy movement was an example of an interstitial vision in that it used the occupied space not simply as a place to discuss tactics regarding the eventual overthrow of capitalism, and build a new world order - but rather designed a microcosm of the sort of society that the activists desired more generally, holding free lectures, discussing politics and meeting friends without the trappings of advertising and consumer capitalism.
To be fair, however, for advocates of an interstitial vision, creating small spaces within the larger context of neoliberal capitalism is not necessarily an end in itself - but a means to an end, trying to out-compete the set of over-competitive social relations that are inherent to neoliberal society.
But for some who have accepted that capitalism is here to stay forever, despite the best efforts of socialists and Marxists, then an interstitial vision is all some have to stay positive.
When I gave my opinion at Somerset House that John Berger seems to have resigned himself politically to this 'realism', one person noted that when he said in 2007 "I'm still among other things a Marxist", that he was actually belittling Marxism by saying that it was no longer a totalising system that could inhabit the entire body of society and economics in the same way capitalism can and has. Instead, perhaps, it has been resigned to a pipe dream that exists in little enclaves rather than as the grand system that its theoreticians had hoped for.
During the session I was told that in another essay Berger mentioned two supermarket workers that he had observed, who, in among the crowded bolshiness of the capitalist setting, set eyes on one another for a second and smiled. This, Berger said, was a little moment of freedom. However it shouldn't go unnoticed that this smile was only noticeable and interesting because it was contrasted with the backdrop of a moribund consumerism. It has been my contention that Berger's politics of freedom is necessarily sustained by small moments of liberty, behind which is the unchallengeable horror of capitalism.
Even Francis Fukuyama changed his opinion in 2002, by saying that it wasn't neoliberal capitalism that was the end of history, but that that could be challenged through the jeopardisation of human dignity, nature and freedom in the advancement of biotechnology. However I here risk sounding even more radically Fukuyamian than Fukuyama himself - in saying that I think he was probably right.
Capitalism, or "the prison" as Berger referred to it in 2008, is here to stay so we had better get used to it. Many people who are advocates of capitalism have assumed this the whole time, and implicitly mainstream politicians today see this as standard. Nobody is at all threatened by the reds under the bed anymore.
But the reason Berger's thesis - that any freedom we are lucky enough to experience is entirely sustained by the 'prison' of neoliberal capitalism - should be of interest to everyone today is that even Marxists and socialists are assuming this point to. Capitalism has won. Socialism is dead.
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