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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

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