July 2016 Archives

On This Side of the Wall

    Reading John Berger's collection of essays, Hold Everything Dear, a number of years ago, I became fascinated with the concept of "the wall" as developed by the British novelist and critic.  Berger, who has lived for many years in a small French village, is probably the pre-eminent Marxist art critic of our time.  He is also a subtle thinker and a Marxist "amongst other things," as he carefully describes himself.
    Berger, when he wrote down his thoughts in 2007, was brooding over the increasing tendency of global elites to insulate themselves from "the wretched of the earth" via literal and figurative barriers, the wall cordoning off Palestinian Gaza a prime example.  In recent times the "wall" has taken on the added negative symbolism of a fear-ridden nativism that would exclude the growing refugee populations of our world from the hoarded resources of the more well-off countries.  Need we mention Donald Trump's proposed Mexican border wall as our current most egregious literal example?
    I first became a fan of Berger's writing with his trilogy, Into Their Labours, which charts the transition from the old peasant way of life to modern global urbanism (or should I say, modern urban globalism).  In this fictionalized account of the exodus into cities of people who have traditionally lived on the land, Berger found a way of metaphorically telling one of the secret stories of our times.  His work thus provides a skeleton key to unlock our own sense of exile and unbelonging in a world increasingly friendly to money and hostile to human life and perhaps to life itself.
    In Hold Everything Dear, Berger homes in on the economic exile we experience as colonial clients of the multinational corporations which have, already to a large extent, supplanted national government entities as the ruling powers of our world.   
    In the end, Berger's subject is what is being done to us all by those corporate lords and their purchased politicians, and how we respond (or do not) to their often unrecognized control of our lives and fortunes.
    My purpose here is not to take that subject up directly, nor to give an overview of Berger's collection of essays, but rather to think a little more about one particularly striking image that looms over Hold Everything Dear like its restless spirit, which perhaps it is.
    Berger does much gnarly rumination over the world we have become in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  He has much illumination to shed on the fear tactics by which we have been ruled since that time, and he strongly suggests that the whole deceptively named "war on terror" is really a strategy for further consolidating the power of the rich few over the poor masses, the war of the haves against the have-nots.
    These themes crystallize and converge in Berger's image of the wall, which he elaborates in his essay "A Master of Pitilessness?" on the painter Francis Bacon.  The art criticism context of his remarks need not be summarized here in order to appreciate the profundity of the analysis.  "The present period of history," Berger writes, "is one of the Wall."

. . . Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls.  Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich.  The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to health care.  They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world.  The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.  (p. 94)

    The wall divides our world into two camps or realities.  If we are at all aware of the world as it exists beyond the narrow consumer viewpoint legitimized by our media conglomerates, we will recognize the two realms as Berger defines them:

    On the one side:  every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour.  On the other:  stones, short supplies, feuds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night--or perhaps one more week -- together.  (p. 94)

    Reading Berger challenges the reader to ask of himself or herself the question, Where do I encounter the wall in my life?  Leading up to the great financial meltdown of 2008, shortly after Berger's book appeared, workers in the American auto industry found themselves on the "stones" side of the wall, as did the millions of home-owners experiencing foreclosure.  In more recent times a growing awareness of gross income inequality has served to define the 99% on the "stones" side of the wall versus the gated 1%.  Politicians endlessly attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act stand on the protected side of the wall against the under- or uninsured who live one medical emergency away from poverty.  On the world stage, cynical right wing politicians play on the fears of their constituencies to erect more than figurative walls against the growing number of refugees generated by the Mideastern wars that have done so much to enrich the transnational 1%.  The worst wall of all is the one that has been raised to block the flow of love and compassion from the hearts of a frightened populace.
    For each of us, Berger says, has in some way internalized the wall.  Perhaps the single most arresting point Berger makes in his essay is that how we choose to align ourselves in relation to this internal wall makes a very great difference in our ability to find a meaningful and honorable place for ourselves in the quickly changing contemporary world:

. . . Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to.  It is not a wall between good and evil.  Both exist on both sides.  The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.  (p. 94)

It's this final sentence that shocks me awake, and from which, no matter how many times I read it, I never quite recover my balance, so upsetting its truth on both visceral and intellectual levels.
    We see many Americans in a state of "self-chaos" today--in fact, we would have to say that the country as a whole has been in a state of demonstrable "self-chaos" for at least the past decade and a half, if not longer.  Self-chaos exists when one's beliefs and opinions do not serve the actual conditions of one's life, when the results of one's politics actively undermine one's best interests and the real interests of one's country.
    One can be in "self-chaos" when one is mentally on the rich side of the wall but materially on the poor side of it.  There is another, perhaps less destructive form of self-chaos when one's opinions are on the side of the poor but one's material circumstances are on the rich side of the wall.  There is at least some consistency--though with its own toxicity--for those who are, in both their mental and material circumstances, on one side of the wall or the other.
    We know that many wealthy people fight generously on behalf of the poor.  And being poor and oppressed doesn't necessarily make for virtue.  The biggest losers of all, it seems to me, are the working poor who mistake the interests of the ruling and media elites for their own.  These are the real victims of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, the politically incoherent underclass (or so-called "low-information voters") who can't seem to avoid being manipulated, by way of fear and anger, into sabotaging their own well-being.
    In this still-young, desperate century, whole countries and peoples now live on the stones side of the wall, including, we must note immediately, since it is host to our longest-running war, Afghanistan, where the average life expectancy is now 24 years, thanks to decades of exploitation and siege at the hands of powers from the rich side of the wall.  The wall also figures prominently into the problem of global climate change, in which the poorest nations--those on the stones side of the wall--pay most dearly for the consumption and pollution habits of the richest nations--those on the armed or tanks side of the wall.  In 2009 Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that weather-related disasters resulting from climate change were already killing 300,000 people annually, with the numbers projected to rise to 500,000 by 2030.  Given the collapse of farming which has flooded some Mideastern cities with internal economic refugees, it's no stretch to attribute the recent refugee exodus into Europe in part to climate change.
    More and more, these ugly and disturbing facts indicate that the dominant conflict of our time is, beneath its diverse manifestations, a war of ownership waged by the world's privileged elites against the poor.  The conflict is, as Berger has pointed out, the current guise for what a more politically astute era knew as "the Class War."  But where, prior to the 20th century, that war was fought society by society, our present War of the Wall finds the global elites joined in de facto solidarity against the increasingly hungry, desperate, and therefore threatening masses.
    To seriously contemplate the depth of the trouble we face as a world is to risk the paralysis of silence.  Every day, in the most practical terms, greater numbers of economically and politically betrayed Americans are wrestling with a realization that the wall is not only, as we may have believed, a wall between America and the rest of the world, but also a wall erected in our midst, separating bankers from the foreclosed, employers from the jobless, the insured from the uninsured, "dark" money sources from grassroots donors, and politicians from their nominal constituents, to whom the former often appear maddeningly deaf.
    We must first come to the awareness of this wall and all it implies for the future of democratic society before we can hope to actively address it.  The wall itself is neither Republican nor Democratic, but has been maintained by politicians on both sides.  The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision has aided many anonymous efforts to build the wall higher.  
    During the demoralizing destructiveness and lawlessness of the Bush years, many more of us began to realize the extent to which our government has become not a government beholden to "we the people" but a government beholden to shadowy money interests that have, so far, successfully enriched themselves at our expense behind the 1-percenters' wall.  Unfortunately, the election of Barack Obama as President did not substantially change this.  In our present best-case scenario, we now face the prospect of Hillary Clinton as American chief custodian of the wall.  This is not to say that Clinton is not infinitely preferable to Trump, only that the wall is bigger than any president.  No president by himself or herself possesses the political clout to decisively change the relationship of tanks side and stones side.  That power belongs, as it always has, only to the people, and then only if they can muster the will to wield it.

(NoteThis unpublished and newly updated essay was written a few years before the current absurd wall-talk.  Our present national moment, when an alarmingly significant segment of the American public seems to take such isolationist fantasy seriously, is as good a time as any to add the above thoughts to the conversation.  God save us from the possibility of what conservative columnist David Brooks has called the "American Putinism" of Trump.)