Hold Everything Dear: Despatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger
There are two leitmotifs to this book: the way Israel has turned itself into a gaoler state, and thus corroded its identity by running the largest ghetto on earth; and those emblems of late capitalist insanity, George Bush, Dick Cheney et. al. The al. here is changing with some rapidity, depending on recent dismissals, disclosures and even prison sentences. Rumsfeld has gone, since even Bush’s elastic notions of political credibility do not stretch quite far enough to hold him; Wolfowitz went to the World Bank, and has now been obliged to leave there in a hurry too. Richard Perle was last reported as having received five million dollars of Hollinger International’s shareholders’ money. For what? Talking to Conrad Black about the new apocalypse? Explaining the latest stage in full spectrum dominance, or where the Project for a New American Century has now got to?
Berger’s contempt verges on incredulity, and it’s hard not to sympathise. We live in a world dominated by late capitalism in its corporate finance stage. The rich get richer, and they have no shame whatsoever about it: they believe themselves to be the chosen of the earth. What is so astonishing is that they believe themselves to be the chosen of the heavens too. The most witless and bellicose American President in living memory, a child of wealth, corruption and privilege, tops it all off with a garnish of piety. Even the Almighty would surely have preferred the fornications of JFK to the posturings of this born-again bombing instructor. He arrived on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared that the war in Iraq was now a ‘Mission Accomplished’. That was some years back. Nobody knows how many deaths ago, because no one bothered counting. Berger’s book was already printed by the time Scooter Libby, condemned to prison by one of Bush’s own appointees, for deliberating trying to pervert the course of justice, had his sentence commuted by Dubya, the mighty, the merciful. He has, apparently, ‘suffered enough’. And this from the man whose glee was apparent whenever another execution was arranged on his watch as Governor of Texas.
We live increasingly in homogenised space, a space delocalised so that it is a more effective receptacle for commodities. Berger alludes to Guy Debord, who very astutely diagnosed this condition decades ago. Digital communications move effortlessly through such a space; all natural resources – oil, water, food – can be appropriated by corporations, transported from one part of this space to another. Money, of course, in its latest electronic incarnation, is at home anywhere in the commodified arena: it owns it. And we are nowhere. Our identity becomes virtual. Berger points out how many human beings now spend their lives speaking into mobile phones, explaining to others elsewhere where they are, as though only by such electronic mapping and co-ordination can they be sure that they are anywhere at all. We seem increasingly to be anywhere but where we are. This is a new form of alienation.
This displacement of ourselves from wherever we are leads Berger to a reconsideration of the work of Francis Bacon. The loneliness, the radical displacement, of all his spaces, now begins to seem like a prophetic insight, as we grow ever more distanced from our habitation and our name. Marx spoke of commodity fetishism and reification. We adore what we have created, orient our lives towards our own products, recapitulating the idolatry of the golden calf; at the same time as we treat as fixed and eternal what has been brought into being by our own social structures. The first chapter of Capital seems more relevant with every day that goes by. This is one reason why Berger says that he is, ‘among other things’, still a Marxist.
So what do we do? Hold the fort of perception at least, Berger says, and continue to use language so that it retains some truthfulness, some self-respect. One of Berger’s characteristic modes over the years (it is indistinguishable from his ‘style’) is the constant questioning of how the language in its formulations is working, how it is having its effect upon us. So in his meditation on the consumer he writes: ‘The consumer is essentially somebody who feels, or is made to feel, lost, unless he or she is consuming. Brand names and logos become the place names of the Nowhere.’ There is a connection between the expropriation of another country’s resources, according to terms sanctioned by the World Bank (with or without Wolfowitz) and the killing of a child in the inner city for a pair of trainers.
This book displays an intellectual passion, and an exasperation with injustice, that makes it exemplary.