Ypsilanti Vampire May Day
Dedicated to the students, young and old, of Southeastern Michigan and Northwestern Ohio
On May Day sometime in the 1890s, an ordinary Englishman boarded a train in Munich. His destination was a castle in Transylvania, a country wedged between the Danubian Provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia. It was a dark and stormy night when he arrived.
“Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things of the world will have full sway?” asked the landlady of a nearby hotel, and she implored him to reverse his course. Other commoners then warned him it was a witch’s Sabbath. Heedless, he persisted to the castle where pure terror awaited him in the personage of a bloodsucking monster. Count Dracula was at once as smooth, polite, and persuasive as President Obama, and as terrifying, shape-shifting, and diabolical as George W. Bush. He was undead—a zombie, or a werewolf—and lived only as long as he was able to suck human blood.
As for the crisis of our own lives, in 2009 Matt Taibbi assigned blame to the banks, calling Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”1 Reverend Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor, Michigan, referring to the Emergency Manager which was wrapped around the face of his city, said “he’s for the corporations that suck the life out of people.” Banks, insurance companies, and corporations belong to the total circuit of capitalism whence the sucking originates. When Alan Haber, the first president of SDS, spoke last winter at the Crazy Wisdom Book Shop and Tea Room in Ann Arbor about his experiences at Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street, he concluded his remarks by reminding everybody that “Capital is dead labor, which vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”
As May Day 2012 approaches Ypsilanti, by all means let us tell stories of ﬂowers and fertility rituals and of the ancient festivals on the commons; and let us, for sure, commemorate the great struggle for the eight-hour workday that reached a climax in Chicago at the Haymarket in May 1886, and gave birth to the holiday of workers around the planet, east and west, north and south. As the prospect of the appointment of an Emergency Manager (EM) looms over Ypsilanti—with powers to abrogate union contracts, close schools, sell public assets, expropriate municipal lands, and whose very word is law—we must also greet the day with the realistic gloom that comes from an uncertainty about health, roof, studies, and livelihood. The tooth is at our throat!
Our green parks are turned into toxic brownfields and our common lands have been laid waste as collateral for unspecified “development.” Our eight-hour workday is lengthened by multiple part-time jobs, or by the time-consuming caretaking of elders without pensions or children without day care. Our lives now are in the grip of mysterious forces called securitization or financialization, to which we submit in dumbfounded helplessness, though the blush on our faces reminds us that these forces are but the bloodsuckers of old. Voltaire wrote that “stock jobbers, brokers, and men of business sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight … these true suckers live not in cemeteries but in very agreeable palaces.”2
We face a crisis of production, yes, but also a crisis of reproduction. Production pertains to factories, sweatshops, mines, and fields; it is the realm of commerce, technology, and commodities. Reproduction pertains to kitchens, families, schools, neighborhoods; it is the realm of society, service, and a very special “commodity”—actually no commodity at all, rather: human beings. Reproduction takes place over various cycles of duration. It may mean the daily preparation for the next day or week—the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, etc. Or it may mean the preparation of the next generation, beginning with its creation and extending from diaper changing to graduate school. Michaela Brennan, a public health nurse at the Packard Community Clinic outside Ypsilanti, sighed in near despair: “So many people need looking after!”
Reverend Pinkney and Greece circa 2012
Benton Harbor is on the other side of the state, but its tale is Ypsilanti’s too. Reverend Pinckney opposed the expropriation of the parklands which had been deeded to the city a hundred years ago, to belong to it “forever.” Such places are common lands. Whirlpool Corporation wanted the land and so did the developers who had in mind a golf course for executives and the Chicago summer people. The people’s park had to go, and so did the people. When they squawked, an Emergency Manager was forced on the town. Its commons were then privatized by the 1 percent.
One aim of this book is to oppose EMs—in the name of democracy!—and, in the name of the commons, to oppose the capitalist system behind them. We are being hoodwinked.
In 2007 Reverend Pinckney quoted scriptures to a judge:
Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the ﬂocks of thy sheep…. The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inﬂammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish (Deuteronomy 28: 14–22).
The judge found these lines threatening and ordered Edward Pinkney to prison for three to ten years. Pinkney kept up the fight inside jail, where despite the mutual resentment of blacks, whites, and browns, he coordinated with each group and collectively they won better food for themselves.
An Emergency Manager is a dictator. In ancient Rome, Sulla was one of the patricians who opposed the populares, who were still in mourning for the death of the fraternal people’s tribunes of Caius and Tiberius Gracchus, whose Agrarian Law redistributed the land of the patricians and preserved the common lands of the people, or the ager publicus. Sulla ravaged Athens until its streets ran with blood; in Rome he slaughtered five thousand prisoners. Under an emergency, he had himself declared “dictator” and murdered his friends. His word was law, and law was death. The Roman people were offered bread and circuses; we are offered McDonald’s and golf. In Benton Harbor the ager publicus has been privatized; it now has no people and eighteen holes.
This phenomenon is worldwide. Take Greece, for instance. From Thessaloniki a woman named Anna writes me, “I don’t know if you are aware that since last fall, instead of having an elected government, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the European Bank have appointed an emergency government to manage the crisis.” The manager used to work for Goldman Sachs. He puts the funnel in to draw some blood.
In December of 2008, in an autonomous neighborhood in downtown Athens, a fifteen-year-old high-school student named Alexis Grigoropoulos was deliberately shot to death by a policeman. Lia Yoka, another colleague in Greece, writes me that the people of Nafplion—Ypsilanti’s sister-city in that country—protested by occupying the Town Council and the Theatre Department of the University of Peloponnese. A generation of young Greek people roused themselves from a decade’s torpor and sprung into outrage: high school and university students, immigrants, the unemployed, precarious workers, and others occupied the streets in riotous protest, and turned them into an urban commons. This occurred amidst the economic “shock therapy” that has accompanied the response to the Greek debt. A state of exception was declared.
The minimum wage in Greece has been sliced by twenty-five percent, making it the lowest in Europe. Allowances, benefits, pensions have been destroyed. Youth unemployment is at fifty-one percent. What was once a welfare state providing relief “from the cradle to the grave” has become a penal state that incarcerates some immigrants in special detention units and criminalizes others, including those who wear hoodies! Six out of ten Greek households are in arrears with their mortgage payments; seven out of ten are in arrears with consumer loans; one out of two are in arrears with credit card payments. This is a crisis of reproduction, and women are the hardest hit.
Fiscal terrorism operates emotionally as well as economically. Crisis is experienced as a multitude of personal failures; collective guilt and self-blame become commonplace, and neither trade unionism nor politicians have been able to respond successfully. One-day general strikes, sectional strikes by subway workers, bus drivers, secondary school teachers, hospital doctors, bank employees, and truck drivers have also been unable to halt the bulldozing of the Greek working class. Suicides have increased. The most effective antidepressant is collective action, yet this is criminalized.
The situation does indeed resemble Count Dracula’s castle: the barred windows of banks; the impregnable battlements of securitization; the bolted doors of financialization; the endless corridors of credit default swaps; the twisting stairways of lost mortgages; the heavy portcullis of fiscalism. Every view is hemmed in by enclosure, and each citizen is watched over by the omniscient Evil Eye of surveillance cameras. Even the Greek minister of Labor has declared “there will be blood.”3 We yearn to escape.
Here, then, as if from a nineteenth-century poet, is an Ypsilanti vampire story; only, this is not just a story. It is real, instructive, and documented history, and may also be a shadow from the future cast back onto the past. It may—it should—curdle your blood, quicken your heart, and rouse you to fury. We have been bamboozled.
Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States in 1980. Even if you possess only a single shelf for books and spices, this should be on it, right next to the salt! What is radical history? Zinn quotes sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, as he speaks to black college students in Atlanta: “All your life, white folks have bamboozled you, preachers have bamboozled you, teachers have bamboozled you; I am here to debamboozle you.”4
The B-24 was built at Willow Run in the township of Ypsilanti. As a young bombardier, Howard Zinn did not ﬂy “The Liberator,” as the B-24 was called, but instead in a B-17, a “Flying Fortress.” Zinn remembers that “the crews who ﬂew those planes [B-24s] died in great numbers. We who ﬂew the more graceful-looking B-17s sardonically called those other planes B dash 2 crash 4.” The B-24 had a longer range and could carry a heavier payload, but it tended to catch fire.5 It was “the worst piece of metal aircraft construction I have ever seen,” according to Charles Lindbergh.
Of World War II Zinn wrote, “I thought it was a just cause. Therefore you drop bombs.” He was the first to drop napalm, which he regretted for the rest of his life, and lived to remember a pilot who perished and who had told him, “You know, this is not a war against fascism. It’s a war for empire. England, the United States, the Soviet Union—they are all corrupt states, not morally concerned about Hitlerism, just wanting to run the world themselves. It’s an imperialist war.” This unnamed casualty de-bamboozled Howard Zinn, who became one of the most inﬂuential peaceniks of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Zinn, Albert Parsons changed his mind. In the Civil War, he had ridden cavalry on behalf of Confederate slave masters. Parsons and Zinn excelled at what they did, but after bitter experience each came to reject as false the virtues of valor and bravery when in service of war or slavery, but as true when in the service of peace and the working class. That is why, comrades, we must never give up on those who disagree with us.
At the base of the Ypsilanti water tower there is a marble bust of a Greek who looks grand despite having weathered eighty-four years since its creation. Demetrios Ypsilantis stares into the Michigan skies, with a splendid high collar to hold up his chin, dashing military braids to enlarge his chest, a gallant sash, and brush-like epaulettes that broaden his shoulders.
Demetrios and his brother Alexander, an aide-de-camp to Alexander I, Czar of Russia, had been officers in the military of the Russian Empire until the spring of 1821 when Alexander Ypsilantis, along with a small contingent, invaded Moldavia from the east; Demetrios entered Wallachia from the west. They thus fought the first battles of the decade-long war of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. It is an accident of history that the Greek War of Independence commenced in the Danubian provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, the very region and setting of Dracula. And there is still more to it: in these same provinces we discover a key genesis of the transition from expropriation to exploitation which characterizes capitalist modernity and the crisis we currently suffer. We confront three losses: the loss of blood, the loss of names, and the loss of commons. Only as a result of such a confrontation may we regard May Day and the beauty it promises. A green beauty and a red promise.
1. The Loss of Blood
The Battle of Waterloo put an end to Napoleon. Across Europe the jaws of a devouring darkness clamped upon the light of freedom. The wars against the French Revolution were finally over. Crippled soldiers and emaciated sailors returned home to haunt and to starve in city slums. The enclosed peasantry of England cried “bread or blood.” The gallows executed followers of Ned Ludd. The mechanization of production had begun. Anyone who dared even peep in demurral was imprisoned. Ireland was smashed; starvation prevailed. In America, slave-holders and Indian-killers ruled supreme.
Giant landlords owned England, the country that Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron ﬂed. In an immense carriage that carried his library, dining service, and lit de repos, Byron roamed across Europe to Switzerland. One famous evening of idleness and boredom, on the shores of Lake Geneva, these friends amused themselves by telling ghost stories. Mary Shelley told her Frankenstein tale, and Byron told a story which his physician, Dr. John Polidori, wrote down and published in 1819. It was a story entitled The Vampyre.
The stories were cathartic allegories of the historical forces engulfing Lord Byron and the Shelleys: slavery, or proletarianization, and mechanization, or technological innovation. These were the means by which the ruling class squeezed every drop of surplus-labor from the people. Slavery forces more people to work harder. Migrations, the middle passage, child labor, natalism for women, expropriation from land and subsistence: people are forced to enter factories or plantations. And what is it, this “factory,” if not a former West African slave-trading post and subsequently a housing for coal-fired steam engines? Machines merely made things more cheaply, using less labor per unit, and made more units in gross profusion. Human endeavor amounts no longer in cornucupia but in waste dumps.
How did this exploitation work? Alienation turned human beings into zombies, the undead. Monstrous forces sucked the life from women and men: either they produced absolute surplus-value, or else they produced relative surplus-value. The former lengthened the entire working day, while the latter shortened only that part of it which produced necessary value. But what is this value, and how is it extracted? Frankenstein was the prototypical tale of the hidden forces of technology and of the Faustian pride of creation. The technocrat combines the new, scarcely understood energy of electricity and applies it to body parts that have been collected by body snatchers, and in so doing he creates a new kind of creature. The tale’s subtitle compares him to Prometheus, the Greek demigod who stole fire from the gods and used it to create humankind.
Frankenstein was published in 1818. A year later John Polidori published his prose version of Byron’s ghost story, The Vampyre. Polidori drew on ancient peasant folklore and started a craze that reached its apogee with Dracula. The protagonist of The Vampyre is a philhellene—a lover of Greece and Greek culture—amusing himself in Greece by traipsing over ancient ruins and temples, but who is soon distracted by a beautiful and innocent country girl. He is smitten. In her childhood, her nurse had entertained her with a vampire story whose veracity is confirmed by the old men of the village. The vampire attacks in the woods. “Upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein: to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, ‘a Vampyre, a Vampyre!’”
The socioeconomic context of the story is provided by the expropriations of the era. Such superstition “constitutes a sort of religion applicable to the common household necessities of daily life,” writes a scholar of that time.6 Inasmuch as it had functioned to protect the household, the story belongs to the realm of reproduction. And nearly everyone is familiar with this story: what had once been the folklore of an exploited peasantry is now a universal truth for the 99 percent, and as such has become the fable of the world’s proletariat. Yet in its first, literary iteration, the bloodsucker became an aristocrat who bides his time with gambling, rape, and the biting of the neck that transforms life into living death. The story’s setting is a forest in Greece, and a year later the real forests of the Balkans and Greece will erupt in revolution. Demetrios and Alexander Ypsilantis are at the center of these conﬂicts.
We must keep these two stories in mind because one is a fable of technology and the intensification of labor, and the other is a fable of slavery and the extension of exploitation.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century Philhellenism had become a distinct ideology, one with powerful and lasting effects in Europe and America. It arose at the peak of the Atlantic slave trade and one of its principle effects was the disparagement of Africa. The Nile river valley, the great pyramids, and Egypt itself were no longer considered the birthplace of civilization. Christian bigotry, the growth of the doctrine of white supremacy, the teleological doctrine of progress, and romantic Hellenism each contributed to Philhellenism, which in turn would help justify the expansion of the cotton regime and its death camps, called plantations.7
The German concept of Altertumswissenschaft, or the science of antiquity, came to dominate research and school curricula. The “Classics”—the Greek and Latin languages—became the foundation of the curriculum at the same time that Greek-letter fraternities originated as chauvinist and anti-intellectual organizations. Sports also originated in the philhellene craze: the 26 miles, 285 yards of the marathon is a distance that commemorates the run of Phidippides, who carried to Athens the news of a Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon, in 490 B.C.E.
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free.
So Lord Byron mused (Don Juan, Canto III, st. 86). After 1821 the love of freedom revived, and the Greek War of Independence commenced, in the wake of a protracted reaction against the French Revolution.8 Shelley’s Hellas was composed in 1821 and published the following year: “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts all have their roots in Greece….” Philhellenism begins to turn into hellenomania. “This is the age of the war of the oppressed against oppressors, and every one of those ringleaders of the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers, called Sovereigns, look to each other for aid against the common enemy, and suspend their mutual jealousies in the presence of a mightier fear.” True enough.
The philhellenic movement grew in Germany, Russia, and England.9 All told, a thousand volunteers went to fight in Greece. They were mostly German, French, and Italian, but included in their ranks ninety-nine British and sixteen Americans. Byron (Don Juan, Canto VII, st. 18) took a jaundiced view of some.
Then there were foreigners of much renown,
Of various nations, and all volunteers;
Not fighting for their country or its crown,
But wishing to be one day brigadiers;
Also to have the sacking of a town;
A pleasant thing to young men at their years.
Byron himself died in 1824 in Missolonghi, fighting for Greece. In 1824, Samuel Gridley Howe, a Harvard medical student, established a free hospital. Relief committees formed across the United States. In 1826, the Independence movement’s greatest enemy was neither the Turks nor the Arabs, but starvation. In 1827, eight shiploads of supplies sailed to Nafplion, Ypsilanti’s present-day sister-city. Villages had been ruined and tens of thousands massacred. Starving families ﬂed to the mountains and lived on herbs, grass, and worms. The Governor of Massachusetts took a Greek orphan into his household.
2. The Loss of Names
The town of Ypsilanti has had other, earlier names. Rev. Mr. Harvey C. Colburn’s The Story of Ypsilanti (1923) is a history of white property-owners for white property-owners and therefore relies on an ample paper trail. Frenchman Gabriel Godfroy and his partners claimed large tracts of land by 1811. “The various treaties with the Indians made by Governor St. Clair and the extinguishment of their land claims resulted in their retirement westward.” Extinguishment! Land claims! Retirement! This is pure bamboozlement. Robbery, rather.
In 1790 the Potowatomis lived four days upstream from Detroit, in a place known as Sanscrainte’s Village among the coureurs de bois, the trappers and traders who scorned regulation and married Indian women.10 Although the land was common, “the women did all the work” of growing peas, corn, beans, and wheat. Jean Baptiste Romain dit Sanscrainte was a métis; that is, part Indian and part not. He was a trader and an interpreter in the network of Sauk Trail pelt trappers and traders, and sold, for instance, 73 kegs of whiskey and 170 kegs of tobacco to Anthony Wayne, a commander of the United States Army. In 1795 Sanscrainte signed the Treaty of Greenville, in which Ohio and Michigan lands were ceded by Native Americans.
In September of 1819, Lewis Cass “signed a treaty at Saginaw by which the future Washtenaw County passed forever out of Indian possession.” The Potawatomis along the Huron River neglected to harvest their corn and left it standing in their rush to go to Greenville to hear the Shawnee Prophet, who preached sobriety, restraint from wife-beating, and disassociation from the Long Knives (white men). In 1813 the Shawnee Prophet’s followers made new villages on the lower Huron River, and a force of Potawatomis established themselves twenty miles further upstream. Tecumseh’s confederacy of Kickapoos, Winnebagos, Sacs, Shawnees, Wyandots, Miamis, Munsee Delawares, Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Ottawas, Senecas, and Creeks retreated to Canada with twelve hundred warriors and their families in canoes. Several hundred Potawatomis refused to budge and remained in their villages on the Huron, under the leadership of Main Poc, a ferocious warrior, bullying drunk, and former foe of the Long Knives.
If this constituted the remnant that was to survive wars and settle in what eventually became Ypsilanti, its recent experience was one of defeat, retreat, and division.11 The skin must be cut before blood ﬂows. The Founding Fathers made the incision, and the Robber Barons drew the blood.
In 1823 the Woodruff brothers arrived. Sleep was fitful, as they were unfamiliar with the howling of wolves. Indians had prepared the fields for corn, and the European settlers took them over. The indigenous commons was thus expropriated. Some “families bought no farms but squatted on bits of unoccupied land, threw up shacks and proceeded to gain a livelihood in haphazard and dubious manners.”12 This was Woodruff’s Grove.
In the spring of 1825: “Land was cleared and fenced, dooryards inclosed and crops planted … and the wild life of the forest began to disappear.” Augustus Brevoort Woodward—a disciple of President Jefferson, a defender of slave masters, and an expropriator of the Detroit commons—bought the land (612 acres!) and platted the village, naming it Ypsilanti. He had studied Greek at Columbia University, and he published using the pseudonym Epaminondus, a mighty commander in ancient Greece. Woodward was involved in a lucrative Detroit currency and banking swindle. He was also a founder of the University of Michigan, which, possessed as he was by a very strong case of hellenomania, he termed a catholepistemiad with thirteen didaxia, or professors.13 He contemplated naming the upper peninsula “Transylvania.”
With ax, cart, and plough, “every stroke of his hand made him a capitalist, every uplifting of himself in the new community made of his children ladies and gentlemen.” What did this mean? The land is turned into the foundational means of social reproduction; it becomes constant capital, or merely “dead labor” (the Potowatomi land clearings are forgotten) to be revived by “living labor” in the vampiric manner. With-in a decade, after the fright of the 1832 Black Hawk War had passed, the first churches, tax assessments, railroad, and banks were established in Ypsi. In that same decade, Wallachia and Moldavia became connected to the Black Sea grain trade. The Danubian provinces thus become the principle supplier of Constantinople, whose bakers now depend on those boyards who had expropriated not just the woodlands but the peasant’s rights to such commonages.
Michigan toponymy is stratified, with names derived from its past inhabitants. Sanscrainte (métis), Godfroy (French), Woodruff (English), Ypsilanti (American). This is the loss of names. Doubtless the name will change again, but exactly when it will change or what its new name will be, will depend upon the nature of those who occupy it.
Shall we hasten that day?
The Ypsilantis family were Phanariots, or Greeks who ruled Moldavia and Wallachia on behalf of the Ottoman Empire as princes or hospodars, invested by the Grand Vizer of Constantinople as “God’s Annointed.”14 Phanariots were named after a lighthouse in the Phanar district of Constantinople. (Is the Ypsilanti city water tower inspired by this lighthouse?) Although they also belonged to the Filiki Eteria, a “society of friends” (modeled on the Italian Carbonari and on Freemasony) that conspired to lead the Greek War of Independence, the Phanariots were not liked at home. Indeed, an English historian of the region writes, “It is impossible to conceive a more disheartening task than that of recording in detail the history of these hundred years in Wallachia and Moldavia …”15 So many names, so many kings, so much oppression.
Alexander Ypsilantis, Demetrios Ypsilantis’s grandfather, had “reformed” the tax code of the Danubian Provinces, making it so rigorous “that a peasant would sometimes kill his cattle to escape the … cow tax, or even destroy his house to avoid the … chimney tax.” Young Alexander, brother of Demetrios, encouraged his troops to acts of terror, and it is therefore not surprising that to the peasants he was identified with rapacity and extortion, while to the boyards, or landlords, as an intruder. The common people had a proverb against Phanariot families: “the winter of Hângerli, the earthquake of Ypsilanti, the famine of Moruzi, the pestilence of Caragea.” Although Alexander Ypsilantis ignited the war, his ill-disciplined, excessive force did not last long, and others, including the Philhellenes, picked up the torch. Alexander himself was confined to a fortress in Munkács, Transylvania!
3. The Loss of Commons
The Greek War of Independence (1820–1832) bore certain similarities to the American War of Independence (1775–1783): a brilliant outpouring of rhetoric in opposition to empire, and financing from abroad. These wars also resembled each other in an oblique way: they were both land grabs. This is one of the reasons we call them “bourgeois revolutions.”
Demetrios Ypsilantis was appointed commander by the Society of Friends. He and his brother were given to making grandiloquent, ceremonious proclamations, and one such proclamation inaugurated the Greek War of Independence. In 1832, following two civil wars, multiple invasions, countless massacres, widespread famine, epidemic pestilence, international diplomacy, and huge bank loans, the War drew to a close.
The common patrimony of a Greek village before the War of Independence was called the hotar. “The bulk of the hotar consisted of meadows, grazing, and woodland, and these were used jointly by the whole village.” This was the commons. Economically speaking, the commons was a subsistence regime anterior to capitalism. Its disappearance could be sudden or it could occur bit by bit, as was the case in Wallachia and Moldavia. A boyard petition of February 28, 1803 shows that before they could take any surplus from the “boundary,” they first had to ask permission from the villagers. The essential customs of the people were traditional and unwritten. “Of these customs evidently none concerned the people so much as their right to the land, a right which remained unaffected by the historical events that were taking place.”16 But a vampire haunted the village borders, which were the location of communal lands.
In the middle of the eighteenth century some ancient rights (e.g. timber for building and for fuel) were granted in exchange for eight to twelve days of labor servitude. But what was a day? It was not measured in the peasant’s actual labor time, but fixed “the quantity of labour which, according to its nature, each peasant must perform in one day. This nart was twice or thrice as heavy as that which a normal man could do in a normal day.”
“The peasants also lost the valuable right to wood for fuel and building which they had enjoyed throughout the worst Turkish times.” The first attempt to restrict the peasants’ access to timber was in 1792. A British consular report of 1812 recommends a sweeping commercial program—the export of forest timber, and the reduction of fast and feast days to 240!17 In 1820 the British consul observed: “There does not perhaps exist a people laboring under a greater degree of oppression from the effect of despotic power and more heavily burdened with impositions and taxes than the peasants of Wallachia and Moldavia.”
The Treaty of Adrianople of 1829 put Russia in charge of Wallachia and Moldavia. Kiselev, a philosophe in the school of Voltaire and Diderot, became governor. He was a reformer and passed something like a constitution, the Réglement Organique. Boyards sought to restrict peasant cultivation of all lands, with concessions dependent on an extension of days of labor and servitude. The free use of wood from the commons was abolished, and forced service increased to fifty-six days a year. Rents tripled and wheat prices skyrocketed. Karl Marx was upset.
It was Marx, in fact, who said “Capital is dead labor, which vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” You’ll find these words in “The Working Day,” which is the tenth chapter in volume one of Das Capital, and is certainly the most powerful description of nineteenth-century capitalism.18 Part of its power derives from the authenticity of its vampire reference. In part four of this chapter, Marx refers to capitalism’s “vampire thirst of the living blood of labor,” and in part five he refers to its “blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labor …” In the following part he mentions stock-exchange wolves, and concludes the chapter by referring once more to the vampire.19 Marx drew for this chapter not only upon his massive reading and upon the tireless research of his daughter, but he was also drawing upon the “superstitions of the household” which, as a male Victorian scholar, he would not usually credit.
If not a black man, Karl Marx was certainly dark in complexion, his ancestors having come from Portugal and, before that, from North Africa. His children affectionately called him “the Moor.” The Moor defended the people’s access to the forest and its resources. What happened in the Balkans would soon happen to the people’s estovers in the Mosel River valley where the Moor grew up. (Estovers is the English name describing wood that a commoner may take; it derives from the French estover, or “that which is necessary.”) “The community of several thousand souls to which I belong,” wrote Marx, “is the owner of most beautiful wooded areas …” Statutes and executive orders dating to 1816 distinguish naturally distributed firewood and material for making household articles from building timber, if it is not used for communal building or to assist individual members of the community in cases of damage by fire, etc. It was the criminalization of such customs which led Marx to develop his materialist methodology. Nameless timber companies dealing to international markets bought up the forests of the Mosel where Marx’s parents had a share in a vine or two. The forests of central and eastern Europe were rapidly being consumed by buyers in western Europe. Marx was as powerless to stop the loss of humble subsistence customs as Warren Kidder was to stop the expropriation of his family farm at Willow Run years later. Because of the distress caused by the lack of firewood in the Mosel and its environs, Marx made plans to write a new article: “The Vampires of the Mosel Region.”20 Look closely and you will find puncture wounds on Marx’s neck, too.
The temporal coincidence between the Greek War of Independence and the expropriation of the customary rights of peasant commoners, both of which occurred in the 1820s and reached their climaxes in 1832, can be understood in several ways. From the viewpoint of traditional political economy, each was an example of a straightforward transition from “primitive communism” to “capitalist agriculture.” From the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, Greece’s independence meant liberation from the Ottoman Empire and rebirth as an independent nation-state. From the standpoint of neoliberalism, it illustrated the conformity between political independence and market relations. For those on the ground, however, it was an emergency: forest, pasturage, and field commons were lost to a regime of increased work, more working days, and more surplus labor. Though it could genuinely appear either as a Greek national liberation struggle or a transition to capitalism—economic development and modernization—to commoners it was bloodsucking. The destruction of the arboreal canopy in Michigan and in central and eastern Europe occurred at the same time. With the disappearance of Michigan woods “all [was] changed,” wrote George Perkins Marsh a few years later. “The face of the earth is no longer a sponge but a dust heap.”
Walker’s Appeal (1829) and the Monstrosity of Race
David Walker, a black, Bostonian used-clothes dealer, wrote an Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1829. In it he challenged the hypocrisy of American support for the Greek independence struggle:
But oh Americans! Americans! I warn you in the name of the Lord (whether you will hear it or forbear) to repent and reform, or you are ruined ! ! ! Do you think that our blood is hidden from the Lord because you can hide it from the rest of the world, by sending out missionaries and by your charitable deeds to the Greeks, Irish, &c.? Will he not publish your secret crimes on the house top?
On May Day we celebrate the workers of the world: blue collar, white collar, pink collar, in hoodies or prison green, this day belongs to the entire working class. It’s not the color of her skin but the clothes that maketh the woman. It is a day of human agency. Yet the fact remains that in America, built as it is on African slavery, the human beings who led the original workers’ struggle were African American. Walker demolished Thomas Jefferson’s lame notions of white supremacy, and he did so with stand-up language.
David Walker was born to a slave father and a free mother in North Carolina in 1785. He belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, and was to take part in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a slave revolt planned for 1822. Slave masters put thousands of dollars on his head. He studied Sparta and the equality of conditions under Lycurgus. The arts and sciences originated in Egypt and then migrated to Greece, according to Walker. People of color “are the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began.”21 “But I tell you Americans! That unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone ! ! ! ! ! !” He also compares whites to vampires: “The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and bloodthirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.” He helps us understand that the system of racism is a monstrosity.
In 1825 William Lloyd Garrison completed his typesetting apprenticeship in Boston. With his shirt collar unbuttoned in the manner of Lord Byron, he dreamed of sailing off to fight with the Greeks for their freedom. But because he suffered from seasickness, he spared himself the long voyage and stuck around, only to be moved by Walker’s Appeal, and he became one of the greatest anti-racists of his (or any) time, proving that not all white men are monsters!
The American working class of the time was organized around color: red, white, and black. An Egyptian army of six thousand soldiers invaded Greece in 1824 on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, and this army included many people described as “Negroes,” who roundly defeated the ill-organized Greeks and enslaved those whom they did not kill. Lord Byron led a small band of fighters—two hundred, according to some estimates—as well as many black women who’d been tasked with caretaking them as laundresses and cooks. Byron himself was chauffeured by a black West Indian named Benjamin Lewis, who was the poet’s groom and responsible for the care of his team of horses. Lewis befriended two black women who had been slaves of the Turks, but who had been liberated and were now starving. He begged for Byron’s help. “My determination,” said Byron, “is that the children born of these black women, of which you may be the father, shall be my property, and I will maintain them.”22 Although a martyr to Greek freedom, how can we claim that this Romantic hero was an abolitionist of slavery?
Elijah McCoy (1843–1929) helped to grease the wheels of industry and then to sprinkle the lawns of suburbia. A conductor on the underground railroad, he used the space beneath the false bottom of his wagon to transport fugitive slaves to Wyandot, from whence they were ferried over the river to Canada. His parents had ﬂed the slave state of Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River. On their way to Canada they passed through and then later returned to Ypsilanti. McCoy spent five years as an engineer’s apprentice in Edinburgh, Scotland; he too returned to Ypsi, and in 1872 took out a patent for an Automatic Steam Chest Locomotive Lubrication Device. Discerning engineers called this device “The Real McCoy,” while the rest referred to it as a lubrication cup. Thus Elijah McCoy oiled trains that hauled the coal and iron that together formed the foundations of industrial civilization. What was his role in the railway strikes of the 1880s? Eugene V. Debs, a locomotive man, union organizer, and socialist, united the engine drivers and the brakemen. When the powers-that-be tried to shift labor’s holiday from May 1 into September, Eugene Debs came to its defense. “This is the first and only International Labor Day. It belongs to the working class and is dedicated to the revolution.”23
As for reproduction, we remember Elijah McCoy for his lawn sprinkler patent. Following the destruction of the prairie, the sprinkler became a necessary item for the prettification of the suburban front lawns of the 1950s, when ticky-tacky houses for nuclear families were all the rage. McCoy died irritable and irascible. We might more easily remember his wife, Mary, who wrote an appeal against lynching: “Justice, where art thou? Thou Church of the Living God, why slumberest thou? Awake! Awake! And hear Ethiopia’s cry for her people!”24 Like David Walker or Percy Shelley, Mary McCoy prophesied by hurling anathemas at bloodsuckers in a voice intended to awaken the dead.
Let us follow her forward. She resisted the terrorism of the monstrous regime of labor created a hundred years earlier, at the beginning of the industrial-mechanical transformation. Death by lynching or execution reduces the value of life to point zero. Its exploitation depends, as we see in both Frankenstein and The Vampyre, upon dead labor. Now that we have addressed the losses of blood, names, and the commons, we may turn to the beautiful promise of May.
The Green …
Approaching Ypsilanti from the west, one passes the notoriously phallic water tower and is reminded of the traditional rhyme,
Hooray! Hooray! The First of May!
Outdoor f***ing begins today!
Across the globe people celebrate the arrival of spring, with its “fructifying spirit of vegetation.” We do this in May, which takes its name from Maia, who in Greek mythology is a mother of gods. The Greeks had sacred groves, the Druids worshipped oaks, and the Romans played games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland, herdsfolk formed circles and danced around fires. Celts lit bonfires on hilltops to honor Beltane, their own god. In the Tyrol, people encouraged their dogs to bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia fires were built and out came witches.
The world over, people went a-Maying. They went into the woods and returned with leaf, bough, and blossom, with which to garland their bodies, homes, and loved ones. Acts of theater featuring characters like “Jack-in-the-Green” and the “Queen of the May” were performed out of doors. Trees were planted and maypoles erected. There was dancing, music, drinking, and lovemaking. Winter was over. Spring had sprung.
In Wallachia and Moldavia, home to Dracula as well as to those rulers from whom the city of Ypsilanti takes its name, there was a May spirit. Emily Gerard, an English folklorist who tramped through the region in the 1870s, describes it: “The Gana is the name of a beautiful but malicious witch who presides over the evil spirits holding their meetings on the eve of the 1st of May. Gana is said to have been the mistress of Transylvania before the Christian era. Her beauty bewitched many, but whoever succumbed to her charms, and let himself be lured into quaffing mead from her ure-ox drinking horn, was doomed.”
Despite its complexities, whether May Day has been observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagans or by Christian, Muslim, or Jewish monotheists, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentle or calloused hands, it has always been a celebration of all that is free, green, and life-giving in the world. Whatever it was, it was not a workday, and therefore was attacked by those in power.
… and the Red
Don’t be bamboozled about the red May Day: it began here in America. There are two essential stories about this; one is Merry Mount and the other, Haymarket.
Let’s begin with Merry Mount. Gloomy Puritans wanted to isolate themselves (“the city on the hill”) and, having accepted the hospitality of native peoples, proceeded to wage war against them and to make them sick. Thomas Morton, on the other hand, arrived in 1624 and desired to work, trade, and enjoy life with the natives. He envisioned a life based on abundance rather than scarcity, and three years later he celebrated May Day with a giant Maypole: “a goodly pine tree of eighty feet long was reared up, with a pair of buckhorns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it.” William Bradford, who landed the Mayﬂower in Massachusetts, thought Indians were agents of the Antichrist. Of Thomas Morton and his crew, Bradford wrote in total disgust that
they also set up a maypole and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather, and worse practices. [It was] as if they had anew revived the celebrated feasts of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians….
Myles Standish destroyed Merry Mount, as Morton’s commune was called, and in so doing brought America’s first red May Day to a bloody end. Despite this, we remember Flora, the frisky fairies, and the beastly practitioners.
And we remember Haymarket. The movement for an eight-hour work day began at the conclusion of the civil war that abolished slavery. Ira Steward of the International Workingman’s Association, along with the National Labor Union, called for it. The American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L.) resolved in 1884 “that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from May First, 1886 …”
We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the ﬂowers.
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.
Work—Rest—Play: it’s a persuasive program, is it not?
Accordingly, a huge march was held in Chicago on May Day in 1886. Iron workers of the Molder’s Union struck at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. Police killed some of the workers, and to protest their murders a meeting was called for May 4 at Haymarket Square. Militant workers and armed police faced off, a stick of dynamite was thrown (nobody knows by whom), and all hell broke loose. Sam Fielden, Augustus Spies, Albert Parsons, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Louis Lingg were found guilty in a spectacularly unfair trial. Four of them were hanged on November 11, 1887, despite an international campaign against the trial’s injustice. The way was thus prepared for the Gilded Age of American capitalism, and May Day became a day of worker’s solidarity everywhere in the world except the United States. We have been bamboozled.
Now that we know, we shall not forget.
Whereas Green celebrations were carnivalesque and temporarily turned the world’s economic classes and power relations upside down, Red demonstrations sought to turn May Day into a revolution that had the abolition of the class system as its aim. While the Red and the Green stand together in opposition to avarice and privatization, there are ways in which they differ. Green May Day is related to the realm of the commons (the location of subsistence on the ground), while Red May Day is related to the public sphere (formed in relation to institutions of the state). The commons tend to be invisible until taken away, while the public realm is all too visible as a spectacle of not much more than purchase and sale. An Ypsi man named Oakley Johnson was both: a Green commoner and a Red revolutionary.
Oakley Johnson Learns “Take it Easy”
Oakley Johnson was born in 1890 in a log cabin in Arenac County, Michigan. He split wood, speared fish, and fell asleep at night to the sound of bullfrogs and whip-poor-wills. At school he read Aesop, ancient history, and Darwin. He attended Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational churches, but after reading Tom Paine and Colonel Ingersoll (“the great agnostic”) he began to doubt that “Jesus was the only son of God,” and was asked not to return to Bible class.
Johnson had learned “The Deserted Village,” Oliver Goldsmith’s long poem about the ruling-class theft of English and Irish common lands. Goldsmith (1730– 1774) was Irish and had investigated the matter.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.
Debilitation, drunkenness, and depression awaited the 99 percent. As for the 1 percent,
… The man of wealth and pride,
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken cloth,
Has robbed the neighboring fields of half their growth.
Not only did the wealthy landowner wrest away communal lands and sculpt them into picturesque views, he also monopolized the game (rabbits, pheasants, deer) and raised rents in order to be able to purchase his luxuries.
… those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn commons is denied.
And if the commoners objected, as frequently they did by rioting, poaching, and even playing football, the terrorism of capital punishment might await them.
… while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
Surely Oakley compared his remarkable achievement of memory (it is a long poem!) to his own life-experience, which included time spent in an Ojibway village near Harbor Springs. There he would have thought about the commons, which at that moment was the subject of worldwide conversation. In 1912 he attended what is now Ferris State University, where he became a revolutionary socialist.
In Davenport, Iowa, he attended Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobbly”) street meetings, and got to know Frank Little, whom he asked about sabotage. “We don’t advocate destruction of the products of our labor, that would be folly,” said Little, whose mother was native American.
But if conditions don’t permit us to quit work, we can work more slowly, can’t we? That would be striking on the job. The workers of Europe call this “Ca Canny,” or “Take it easy.” If the bosses refuse to pay us a full day’s wage, why should we give them a full day’s work?
In 1995 Ypsilanti became the headquarters of the I.W.W., with an office at 103 West Michigan Avenue.
Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana in 1917 by agents of the copper bosses. Johnson signed up for his red card, and attended the Michigan State Normal School which still stands opposite the Water Tower and the white marble bust of Demetrios Ypsilantis. Johnson then took a position as a principal at Grant High School in Ypsilanti. Midway through the school year, Johnson was yanked out of his classroom by representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice, who removed him to Grand Rapids in order to interrogate him about his nationality and to learn why he had contributed money to a legal defense fund established for Wobblies who were undergoing prosecution. Johnson refused to be bullied, and the following day he called a school assembly at which he recounted the entire story.
“From that day, the atmosphere changed,” Johnson later recalled.
The students and the farmers round about were on my side. In June, on the day before graduation, an out-of-town mob gathered at the school house to get me, but my students spirited me and my young wife out the back way, where farmers in automobiles rescued us and gave us hospitality for the night. The next day Professor Hoyt of Ypsilanti gave the graduating address, and expressed regret, I was told, that the mob on the preceding night had to go home empty handed. My graduating class refused to sit on the platform because I was not there. They picked up their diplomas later, after the “exercises” were over.
In October of 1920 Johnson starting teaching at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1928.
May Day 1934 and the Curriculum
On May Day in 1934, on the front cover of its journal The New Masses, the Communist Party in America issued a poetic call by “Joe Hill” author Alfred Hayes:
Into the streets May First!
Into the roaring Square!
Hayes casts his gaze back to Haymarket Square. For us the “roaring square” is an analog of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where people set in motion the momentous events of 2011, which in turn ﬂowered into such phenomena as Occupy Ypsilanti. Hayes was calling people to march to Union Square in Manhattan.
Shake the midtown towers!
Shatter the downtown air!
We remember and mourn the loss of three thousand fellow workers in the World Trade Center catastrophe of 2001.
Come with a storm of banners,
Come with an earthquake tread,
Bells, hurl out of your belfries,
Red ﬂag, leap out your red!
Out of the shops and factories,
Up with the sickle and hammer,
Comrades, these are our tools,
A song and a banner!
The hammer and sickle represented the alliance of industry and agriculture, or wage workers and peasants.
Roll song, from the sea of our hearts,
Banner, leap and be free;
Song and banner together,
Down with the bourgeoisie!
We hurl the bright bomb of the sun,
The moon like a hand grenade.
This poem was composed well before Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Pour forth like a second ﬂood!
Thunder the alps of the air!
Subways are roaring our millions—
Comrades, into the Square!
Despite its limitations, this attempt to compare the energy of the 99 percent to sublime terrestial and cosmic forces should be a challenge to our own movement and its creativity. In Egypt, Madrid, and Oakland, how can we translate the energy of the square into the beauty of the circle?
In the same issue of The New Masses, Oakley Johnson published two articles concerning “Education Under the Crisis.” He described how thousands of Ph.D.’s were looking for work, thousands of college teachers were laid off, and thousands of students who “normally” work their way through college could not do so; many who formerly paid tuition had nothing to pay with. He wrote, “there are no jobs….” Tuition was raised by twenty-five percent at Columbia. White collar workers—chemists, engineers, accountants, physicians—were also without work.
The people yearned to comprehend their economic situation; they were thirsty for knowledge in general. Book circulation jumped from thirty-three million to forty-three million in one year alone, while education budgets were reduced from eleven-and-a-half million to eight million dollars. Langston Hughes castigated the leaders of Negro colleges for reactionary policies, and half of the teachers at those institutions believed in the notion of the inherent inferiority of African Americans. Furthermore, graduate student assistants were expected to work “for nothing.”
Administrators believed that “education” could be a palliative to the injuries caused by economic disaster, that it could treat the depressed as if it were no more than Valium, Prozac, or Wellbutrin. Even the “starving poor” were expected to go to night school and passively ingest self-help classes. College deans and presidents advised unemployed Ph.D.’s to lead discussion groups and nature hikes for Boy Scouts. Medical schools weeded out any applicant who lacked a “gracious personality.” They were fearful of the “new leisure”; idle people should have hobbies. In Lansing, a “People’s University” was organized by the YMCA; its instructors were businessmen, and its meetings took place at a bank. Students empowering themselves on picket lines? Satisfying their hunger at integrated lunch counters? Cutting class in order to march on May Day? Blacks and whites dancing together? No, no, no, and no!
“The gigantic attack on the colleges,” Johnson wrote,
made under cover of the “depression,” is in fact an attack upon intellectuals as a class,—an attack upon middle class professional and white collar workers. It is an attempt not only to reduce the standard of living of teacher-intellectuals, but to reduce the over-production of intellectuals by striking at higher education.
He went on: “… students and teachers and professional workers must resist the attack. Particularly must college teachers, last to wake up and last to act, organize for struggle.”
In an earlier article, “A Five Inch Shelf of Books,” Johnson had tried to fashion a revolutionary answer to Harvard University President Charles William Eliot’s philhellenist bamboozlement in The Harvard Classics. Theoretical writing requires study, and Johnson warned that “the inquiring and newly radicalized intellectual must watch his step.” His study of political economy is essential to this inquiry and should not be postponed. Johnson recommended Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels, a work which featured an essay on the commons (“The Mark”). He also suggested the study of Alexander Trachtenberg’s History of May Day, and Lenin’s Imperialism, itself sorely in need of a revival.
Bob Marley also de-bamboozled the issue:
De Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers,
Building church and university,
Deceiving the people continually.
Between 1923 and 1928 the Negro-Caucasian Club met in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan. Oakley Johnson, then a teacher of English literature and of rhetoric at the university, was the Club’s faculty sponsor as well as the chaperone at its dances. With his wife he hosted the group in their home. The Club was started by Lenoir Smith, a student from Mississippi; another early leader was a young West Indian man by the name of Fairclough. One day, following an all-nighter and a morning hectic with lectures, exams, and papers, Smith went out for a quick lunch, and in the midst of her fatigue was stunned to be refused service at the lunch counter. The Club came to her aid and held a sit-in at the restaurant. Was it the first of its kind? Shall Ann Arbor, led by Ypsilantian Oakley Johnson, claim priority in the lunch counter sit-in movement?
The group also attempted to integrate college dances, as well as the university swimming pool and gymnasium, but without success. The Dean—who was “more than hostile” and boasted that his grandfather had owned slaves in Virginia—insisted that “the name of the University not be used in connection with the activities of the Negro-Caucasian Club.”25 The guest speakers the Club brought to town included Alain Locke, W. E. B. DuBois, Jean Toomer, and Clarence Darrow.
Willow Run and the Birth of Ypsitucky
Ypsilanti is sometimes called Ypsitucky. Here’s why.
Willow Run was built in 1940 and became the biggest factory in the world; it was a mile in length, and produced a bomber an hour. A quarter of a million people moved into southeast Michigan, “some tens of thousands of hillbillies, CIO unionists, and transients from the ends of the continent.” Ford recruited from Tennessee and Kentucky, establishing in “Ypsitucky” a cultural divide within its working class. At its peak in 1943 it employed more than forty thousand workers. Although there were fifty-six showers available at the factory, no provision was made for worker housing. Here was a crisis of both production and reproduction.
Warren Kidder was expropriated at Willow Run.
“Government conscription of our land … forced us off the farm …” With the roar of bulldozers echoing in his ears, the barn was burnt, the woods were cleared, and the tree stumps left in place. “[T]he horrors of what was happening to me and to my family left scars and hidden forces below the surface of the land and in my mind that even time would never cease.”
Harry Bennett was Ford’s pistol-packing director of personnel. He ruled “with his collection of Purple Gang mobsters and political fixers” and instilled terror throughout the hierarchy of Ford management.26 His “theory of supervision” consisted of the belief “‘the worker is never right.’” Armed guards oversaw production in factories that suffered high turnover (at a rate, in some years, of as much as one hundred percent). Among the top complaints of the factory workers was that there was “No Place to Stay,” even, in some cases, after having worked at the factory for years; another complaint was “Ran Out of Money.”27 Theft of tools was another problem (how to build a shack?), as was absenteeism (and when to build it?).
This insufficiency of worker housing resulted in “the worst mess in the whole United States.” The housing that did exist was lousy: tents, tarpaper shacks, or trailers with outdoor toilets.
Unless the husband had built a vestibule‚—prohibited in government camps—muddy shoes and rubbers tracked good old Michigan mud into the living room after every rain—spring, summer, fall, or winter. It was always wash day for trailer wives and mothers.
A woman’s work was never done.
The government solution to this housing shortage was to construct the first “free way” (toll-less government road) in the United States. An automobile commute enabled the workers to live as far away from their jobs as Detroit, for instance.
Rosie the Riveter, a phantom composite who proliferated in song and print, was in fact a representation of millions of women.28 In 1942 Betty Oelke, an eighteen-year-old, newly-married farmgirl, traded a dress for slacks, punched a clock and went to work. She stood on her feet nine hours a day, six days a week, building bombers at the Willow Run plant. “I’d drill all day, and another girl would put the rivets in,” she said. The work was repetitive and her bosses were male and mean. “They would stand right there and time you.” In hindsight she acknowledged “it was the beginning of women’s liberation.”
Women’s liberation would take some time—two or three decades. Meanwhile, right after the war, women were expelled from the factories, and a process of racial segregation was developed in the housing policies of Willow Village. A 1967 report by Alan Haber to the federal government stated that the black community suffered from
hate and self-hate, apathy, hostility and hopelessness, dead-end jobs, and a family and community life barren of the enrichments and varied opportunities for pleasure and growth that are taken for granted in the affluent, white community. The whites, too, are often deformed by racism, identifying the Negroes as an enemy group, which threatened their status, security, and physical welfare.
A golf course divided the white community from the black. In 1965 a community action project had been designed to mobilize poor people on their own behalf, “with maximum feasible participation,” as was the phrase of the day. It failed. The report reached two remarkable conclusions to account for this failure. First, “there was almost no ‘utopian thinking,’” and second, “the project lacked a sense of history.”29 These words were written almost fifty years ago, and anticipate both Howard Zinn’s people’s history project as well as our Occupy Wall Street–inspired dreams.
X2: Or, a Theoretical Excursus
We began by invoking two horror stories that were conceived at a moment of world crisis. One of them led us to the name of Ypsilanti and helped us to develop an international perspective. Both stories contribute to our understanding of two malignant structures of social life: first, the utter destructiveness of capitalism to body and soul, and, second, the monstrosity of racism. The former drains the body of life and the latter perverts the soul. If we could return to the structures of thinking of the peasant cultures whence the vampire story originates, the solution to its evil appears magically: garlic, or a stake in the heart. We might even dream up symbolic meanings to these ancient remedies. The spirit of May Day, however, requires that we take practical steps.
What is the relation between the bulldozers destroying homes at Willow Run and the construction of the world’s largest factory? What is the relationship between Goldsmith’s deserted village in Ireland, the Indian village of Sanscrainte, and the Communist proletarians of 1934? What’s the relationship between the golf course in Benton Harbor and economic austerity in Ypsilanti? And what of loss of fuel rights in Transylvania and the expansion of slavery in the United States? Here we find a morasse of bamboozlement!
What is the relation between the loss of our commons—their expropriation, so often achieved, according to the Moor, via letters of blood and fire, which for us means drones, Structural Adjustment Programs, invasions, civil wars, “sectarian” violence, “ethnic” violence, and school-closings, factory-closings, foreclosures, and enclosures—and the subsequent cuts to our social wages and institutions? Our schools, libraries, health clinics, city parks, medical insurance, and jobs have been knifed. With the expansion of mandatory overtime and the contraction of our vacations, our workdays and workloads—our working lives!—are lengthened.
I call this phenomeon “X-squared,” to show that expropriation compounds exploitation. For economist David Harvey, X2 means “exploitation by dispossession.” If you refuse to abide by this criminal racket (cunningly referred to as “entrepreneurship”) what awaits you is wage-stagnation, poverty, or prison.
How might we relate X2 to the crises of production and reproduction? Expropriation, as we have seen, refers to the theft of our commons and common goods. Our reproduction depends upon common land as well as the action of commoning. Even government-as-commoning has been possible, as Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown. When all is said and done, however, the solution to our crisis of reproduction is to discover and then reclaim our commons.
You don’t need to be an avid follower of the Occupy movement to know that in Washtenaw County the crises in housing and education are on everyone’s mind. Foreclosure is expropriation, while higher education fees and the massive student debt they incur constitute exploitation. In Ypsilanti, school district budget overruns coupled with diminishing state funding for education mean the imminent appointment of an Emergency Financial Manager. The housing crisis results in such things as Camp Take Notice, a homeless tent community outside Ann Arbor, a city whose own Occupy group has devoted its energies to the establishment of a twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week “warming center” for the shivering homeless. This initiative failed, as did plans to establish a commons on top of the multistory underground parking structure next to the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor Public Library.
The creature produced by the technocrat Dr. Frankenstein wandered all over the face of the earth, without any regard for national borders. Likewise, the vampire ignores national, sexual, and racial differences so long as the blood is red! Capitalist hunger for surplus value is international and achieves its exsanguinary goals by relocating plants, equipment, genes, data, and people as it pleases. When the International Monetary Fund met in October of 2011 in Nafplion, the trade unions organized a huge demonstration against it under the following banner:
your wealth, our blood!
Bloodsuckers are international, but then so are we, if we only …
Awaken! Arouse! Arise! Occupy for May Day
Bloodsucking is not only symbolic. Around the corner from the University of Toledo, where I work, are three shops that share a parking lot: a plasma shop, a check-cashing store, and a liquor store. They’ve stayed put, and have apparently prospered, while many University presidents have come and gone, and they conveniently enable that patently American lifecycle whereby a man sells his blood, cashes his check, and then gets plastered.
The land of zombies! Home of the undead. Oh, shame!
The dictator Sulla was wholly bent on slaughter and no sanctuary of the gods, hearth of hospitality, or ancestral home could defend against his wrath. But Sulla came to a bloody end, too. According to Plutarch’s Lives, it went something like this: his bowels were ulcerated (“his very meat was polluted”) and even his skin attracted lice, which no amount of picking or bathing could destroy. Having been told that a magistrate had allowed someone to defer the payment of a public debt, Sulla berated the man and then had him strangled. But his screaming and exertion were too great a strain on him, and with “the imposthume [abscess or cyst] breaking, he lost a great quantity of blood” and died. Even though, as David Graeber reminds us, credit and debt have always been backed by violence, it is rare for a dictator’s days to conclude so poetically, expiring by his own medicine.30 Remember Sulla!
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” advised a carpenter’s son. Let us also remember David Walker, Karl Marx, Mary McCoy, and Albert Parsons.
And let us not forget Howard Zinn, Oakley Johnson, Mary Shelley, and Reverend Pinkney.
There will be a test!
Let us not forget the English romantics, the Chicago anarchists, or the New York Communists. We brought an end to one kind of slavery: plantation racial slavery. We brought an end to one kind of capital punishment: lynching by mobs. Can we bring to an end the vampirine dictatorships of corporations and their Emergency Managers? Or do we simply mourn the eight-hour workday and our commons as dead and gone?
There will be a test!
Though we are the 99 percent, few Americans identify as “working class”: in our country this term has been seriously compromised, despite the fact that the world is yearning for a solidarity that might overthrow the princes, modern-day hospodors, CEOs, Caesars and Sullas, Emergency Managers, and the rest of the 1 percent. More of us are proletarian—lacking the means of subsistence—than ever before.
May Day is the day we perceive anew who we are and what we want. We dissolve the “I” into the “we” on this glorious and revolutionary day of unity, and by our words and actions we decide what kind of union we desire to build. Trade union, craft union, industrial union, marriage union, family union, national and tribal union, one big union, or even class union: these are our unions of production and reproduction. May 1 is a practical day; we discover who are our brothers and sisters and in so doing we forge solidarity. This is how we create the future: with collectivity and cooperation.
What are our responsibilities this May Day? We must preserve the General Assemblies of the 99 percent. Together we must occupy common space, and what better spaces to inhabit than the squares, parks, halls, streets, libraries, factories, schools, and plazas which have been privatized or simply abandoned? And what about the stolen-land-turned-golf-course in Benton Harbor? We should fill the streets and make our presences known to one another by sight, sound, and touch. We are Many, they are Few.
We must have a Maypole. We must preserve Ypsilanti’s public assets. We must fill the streets so that we may actually see we are the 99 percent. We must welcome fellow creatures who are undocumented. We must drive a stake through the heart of the monstrosity of white supremacy. We must avoid dictatorship even as it masquerades under pseudonym. We must envision for our children a future without prison. We must de-bamboozle what is offered to them in school. We must turn brownfields green. We must reclaim our commons and create new ones. None can accomplish this alone. Let us vouchsafe to ourselves that together in common we can, if we only
Awaken! Arouse! Arise!
Occupy for May Day!
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: email@example.com
This essay is available for free as a pamphlet from Occupy Ypsilanti.
1. Stoker, Dracula and Rolling Stone (July 9, 2009).
2. Philosophical Dictionary (1764).
3. I am especially grateful to two articles by “Children of the Gallery,” a Greek collective: namely “The Rebellious Passage of a Proletarian Minority through a Brief Period of Time” and “Burdened with Debt: ‘Debt Crisis’ and Class Struggles in Greece,” in Vradis and Dalakoglou, Revolt and Crisis in Greece. I am also grateful for a message from Anna in Thessaloniki.
4. Howard Zinn, The Politics of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970).
5. Howard Zinn, “The Greatest Generation?” The Progressive, October 2001. See also his Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993), and You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).
6. William Wilkinson, An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (London: Longman, 1820).
7. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
8. William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).
9. L.S. Stavrianos, The Balkans, 1815–1914 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963).
10. Jim Woodruff, Across Lower Michigan by Canoe 1790 (typescript, Bentley Historical Library, 2004). This is an account of a modern canoe trip following the route taken in 1790 by Hugh Heward as described in his journal. See also Karl Williams, “Gabriel Godfroy Wasn’t the First,” Ypsilanti Gleanings, April 9, 2009.
11. John Sugden, Tecumseh (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), pp. 148 and 362.
12. Harvey C. Colburn, The Story of Ypsilanti (Ypsilanti Committee on History, 1923), pp. 35, 37 and 40.
13. Frank B. Woodford, Mr. Jefferson’s Disciple: A Life of Justice Woodward (East Lansing: Michigan State College, 1953).
14. Wilkinson, An Account, pp. 155–166.
15. R.W. Seton-Watson, A History of the Roumanians from Roman Times to the Completion of Unity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934).
16. David Mitrany, The Land & the Peasant in Rumania (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), pp. 7, 9, 17, and 19.
17. Seton-Watson, A History of the Roumanians, pp. 7, 9, 19, and 141.
18. I once encountered evidence that German railway workers in St. Louis, Missouri, were the first to translate this tremendous chapter into English, but I’ve since been unable to track it down.
19. Mark Neocleous, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” History of Political Thought, vol. xxiv, no. 4 (winter 2003). I also recommend Amedeo Policante, “Vampires of Capigal: Gothic Reflections between Horror and Hope” (Cultural Logic, 2010; http://clogic.eserver.org/ 2010/Policante.pdf).
20. Rheinische Zeitung, January 15, 1843.
21. Peter J. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave-Resistance (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
22. Fiona McCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), p. 507. European racial slavery begins with the Romany people, or Gypsies.
23. Philip S. Foner, May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday (New York: International Publishers, 1986), p. 77.
24. Albert P. Marshall, The “Real McCoy” of Ypsilanti (Ypsilanti: Marlan, 1998).
25. Negro History Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 2 (February 1970) or the Michigan Quarterly Review (spring 1969). See also, “Trying to Live ‘Really Human,’” an autobiographical typescript written by Oakley Johnson for his grandchildren, located in a folder marked “Other Papers” in Box 2 of the Johnson Papers, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.
26. Warren Benjamin Kidder, Willow Run: Colossus of American Industry (1995), pp. 39–41. The Purple Gang muscled in on labor as it had during the Cleaners and Dyers War of 1927.
27. Lowell Carr and James Stermer, Willow Run (New York: Harper, 1952), pp. 9, 36, 104, and 208.
28. Ypsilanti Historical Society archives. Willow Run Collection, “Rosie the Riveter” file.
29. Alan Haber, The Community Organization Approach to Anti-Poverty Action: An Evaluation of the Willow Village Project, Report to the Office of Economic Opportunity (typescript, University of Michigan, 1967), pp. 53, 313, and 315.
30. Graeber, Debt.
Further Reading for Occupiers
Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, Cal Winslow (eds.), West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California (Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2012).
Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Boston: South End Press, 1972).
George Caffentzis, “On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review,” in Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Giovanna F. Dalla Costa (eds.), Women, Development and Labor of Reproduction: Struggles and Movements (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999), 153–187.
Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (New York: Common Notions, 2012).
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011).
James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006)
David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2003).
Nathaniel Hawthorn, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Twice-Told Tales (Boston: American Stationers Co., 1837).
Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864).
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume one, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976).
David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 30 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011).
Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan (London, 1637).
Franklin Rosemont and David Roediger (eds.), The Haymarket Scrapbook (Chicago, Ill. and Oakland, Calif.: Charles Kerr and AK Press, 2012)
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997).
Alexander Trachtenberg, History of May Day (New York: International Publishers, 1947).
Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou (eds.), Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come (Oakland, Calif. and London: AK Press and Occupied London, 2011)
David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829).
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).
Thanks to Kate Hutchens of the University of Michigan Library’s Labadie Collection; to the Ypsilanti Historical Society; to Constantine George Caffentzis; to Kate Khatib of AK Press; to Professor Ronald Grigor Suny; to Anna of Thessaloniki; to Lia Yoka of Thessaloniki; to Jeffery Pollock and Eric Albjerg of the University of Toledo; and to Michaela Brennan and Riley Linebaugh.