Posts Tagged ‘berman’


when you’re tired of london…

September 3, 2008

… it’s funny, because I’m really not tired of life, but god London is winding me up at the moment. It feels like a giant shopping mall stuffed full of chain stores and shoppers, where it never stops raining. Although Berlin has failed, comprehensively in my view, on their monumental architecture (Rogers’ dome on the Reichstag just didn’t do it for me), it has truly surpassed itself on neighbourhood life. JW and I spent much time discussing this and what made it possible. Clearly low rents and heavy subsidies to support new businesses fuels neighbourhood cafe culture. The whole vibe of the city, and people’s willingness to put quality of life ahead of pay packets, encourages it too. London lacks both the economic and the cultural drivers to create streets like Oderberger Strasse in Prezlauer Berg.

At a talk I went to by Marshall Berman, he was asked about consumer culture and how we could stop it. Berman’s answer was surprising and refreshing: he distinguished between commerce and consumerism, arguing that commerce – the buying and selling of goods, the agora – has always been an important source of art and politics. Far from being a social evil, commerce was a primary activity in the agora, where politics and culture were also negotiated in ancient cities.

Berman argued that one thing that distinguishes consumerism and commerce is the distance travelled between the thing being sold and the buyer. In ancient cities (and indeed, at least in Berlin cafes), culture and commodities were made nearby, an integral part of people’s lifestyle and income. For Berman, ‘an important part of being modern is being non-embedded’: culture and commodities are now made in far away lands and sold to us by global businesses.

It was Jane Jacobs who immortalised the importance of street life, where dirt and action and buying and selling and arguing were all tantamount to aliveness. London needs to recover some of this feel. Creating ‘faux’ versions of markets, like Spitalfields or the Brunswick Centre, is not the answer. We need fewer of the big statement buildings, and much greater investment in supporting local commerce. Local shops for local people. That would make me very happy. So long as they learnt to make good coffee and provide free wifi…


marx: the return

August 3, 2008

For a while now, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that Marxist analysis is due a revival. There’s something in the air that means suddenly his work is worthy of rehabilitation: whether it’s the credit crunch exposing the casino capitalism indulged in by banks around the world, or the growing awareness that a decade of Labour government has done little to shift the stubborn gap between richest and poorest, I think it’s time that Marx’s focus on power and forms of value return to centre stage.

So I’ve been reading up in anticipation… Marshall Berman’s All that is solid melts into air, and his Adventures in Marxism are both things I probably should have read already, but haven’t. I also picked up Francis Wheen’s delightfully readable tale of how Das Kapital was written (headline: it took a really really long time).

What have I taken from all this? Aside from a much better understanding of Marx’s economic arguments (more on that in a moment) I am really struck by the argument Berman makes about how modern life is somehow ‘flatter’ in its imagination and perspectives: we don’t like the poetry of dialectic, we are less able to hold opposing forces in our heads simultaneously. Wheen compares Marx to the great literary giants of the 19th century in his prose. What does it mean to live in a society where things are so much more one-dimensional, where we refuse to think big in the way Marx did? What do we lose? What do we become blind to?

Of course, Marx’s diagnosis on the state of capitalism is also, in my view, of increasing relevance. His argument that capitalism has within itself its seeds of destruction seems to me to be playing out around us as I type. The question is: what will we do about it? Is it just too fundamental to how the world goes round to dismantle now? How do we respond to the signs that unless we change how we live, we are likely to kill ourselves and the planet?

For Marx, part of the answer lay in critical thought itself. It was through analysis, debate, interrogation that capitalism would be brought down. He had enormous faith in our ability as humans to save ourselves, quoting Gramsci who described the quest for a balance of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

Critics of Marx, most notably Hannah Arendt (someone else I must read up on), feel that he over-values productivity and individual development. For Arendt, the risk of Marx’s analysis is that there is no ‘commons’, no ties by which people are bound together. Many links here for me to all my stuff around the value of unpaid work, the importance of the household…