Is It Possible to Rid the World of the Go-Go One Percent?
Utterly exhausted I dozed off on the train, leaving in the netted compartment attached to the back of the seat in front of me a copy of Crisis and Revolution in Europe with its commanding sub-title, People of Europe, Rise Up! It is a manifesto and analysis by the Madrid research collective, Observatorio Metropolitano. It calls for radical changes which the political class and its economic élites are unable to bring about. It has been edited by Irish writer-researchers and it is available from Traficante de Sueños. It takes us from the Arctic circle to the Arab spring; it observes that a spectre is haunting Europe, and it asserts that it is not a crisis but a con. Days later at a meeting in north Dublin a Turkish comrade cut to the chase, ‘we all know what is wrong, the issue is we don’t have the power.’ I’m not sure that the “spectre haunting Europe” is the commons but I am sure that’s what people are talking about and many are laboring toward (as in birth).
I was in Spain to launch the Spanish translation of Magna Carta Manifesto so I spoke about American lawlessness, their Drones, their prisons, and the continuity of the commons over eight centuries past. Among several human possibilities, here was one legal tradition. Could it still help? The publishing collective at Traficantes de Sueños evidently thought so. The moment two years after the 15 May movement or the camping on Puerto de Sol and now in the midst of the Green Tide (educators, scholars, students) and the White Tide (nurses, doctors, patients), massive mobilizations against the austerity cut-backs, the muttering against the political class was beginning to turn into a constituent moment. Constituent moments are those when new social contracts take a constitutional form. Was it possible to rid the world of the go-go 1% and take a world-wide breather?
In Madrid I spoke at the Museo Reina Sofia. I called my subject “The City and the Commons,” though I was telling again the story of Edward and Catherine Despard, this time as a vehicle to investigate the manifold of the Atlantic commons which was nearly destroyed by that combination of slavery, enclosure, prison, and machine misnamed “the industrial revolution.”
Days later in Barcelona with two comrades having another coffee on the roof of the old customs house overlooking the harbor I tried once again to utter the entire human history of the city and the commons in one breath, so to speak, from the beginning to the end, or now. The rain nearly soaked us. By the time I got to Mao Tse-Tung, we had to duck for cover, and the breath of inspiration grew short. Yet there it was, the city: the court, the fort, and the port. Its principles of law, force, and trade now occupying the country-commons by commodity, privatization, and transport of road, rail, sky, and sea. ‘Neither public nor private,’ ‘neither market nor state,’ these were the slogans meant to help us think again about omnia sunt communia, here, now, in the actual city.
There are two approaches to the room at the Museo Reina Sofia where Picasso’s “Guernica” is displayed. One of these is a screening room where you watch a black and white news film of the funeral of Durutti in Madrid in 1937. You see thousands, tens of thousands of people, solemnly marching with the coffin. You see thousands more silently bearing witness on the sidewalks. And you do not see a single automobile. Durutti said, “We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here in our hearts.”
The other approach to “Guernica” took you through two or three ante-rooms. In one of these were glassed in cases displaying first editions of books about the war. You could see W.H. Auden’s poem, “Spain 1937,” published by Faber as a pamphlet. To Riley and Michaela, on Saturday morning, 25 May 2013, I read it aloud, including the stanzas he struck out in later Cold War-ish versions. It was like the renewal of vows. Among the many stanzas, there was this, the historic decision:
“What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.”
I wondered, can we make an historical decision, not that one of 1937 certainly, but a deep one based on our best historical consciousness? Auden goes on to pay tribute to the international brigades:
They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, though the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes: they came to present their lives.
And then, acknowledging the mother continent,
On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
And then these, which he censored out, suggesting as they do values beyond pleasure or individual health, and positing class war as a means of historical action: “the menacing shapes of our fever”
Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad. and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin
Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.
Having a few free moments in Madrid I made a mistake, and chose to walk to the Palacio Real (completed 1764), and the Cathedral Saint Almudena (completed 1993). They face each other, the palace and the cathedral, across the Plaza de la America. Architecturally, here is the power of Church and State mediated by Empire. I’d advise any tourist to skip it as just another instance of the giganticism of ruling class fantasy. This was a con I couldn’t quite laugh off; it left me feeling decidedly ill. Hurrying away I passed through the Plaza Mayor where I paused, feeling better because its north-east corner was filled with stalls on this particular Sunday morning, selling postage stamps for collectors. Hundreds of little stalls, it seemed. I felt eleven years old again. But back then when I was eleven Spanish stamps were all the same, the same rotund, thick-necked, stupid profile on them, Franco. I was to give up stamps and become obsessed by baseball statistics.
In the Prado standing with a crowd, inching my way forward to Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” I saw its middle panel and the strawberries. Philip II sent it to El Escorial in 1593 when it was described as a “painting of the variety of the World, which they call the strawberry tree.” I had been quoting John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” as an urban commons (his aunt said they hanged people in the olden days for trespassing on that particularly sweet part of Liverpool) in contrast to the rural commons of the Seneca people for whom the June strawberry festival was the central communal event. And later in Málaga in an urban commons the strawberries were ripening in fact.
Mobilization is quick. Within a matter of hours I was on a fast train south, to Málaga, birthplace of Picasso, and then within a matter of minutes introduced to five commons. There was the “Good Bank”, an abandoned one that neighbors turned into a collective kitchen and base for anti-eviction activity. Then there was the Esperanza collective of a five family squat. Third, was an urban garden commons with the strawberries. Fourth, the beach, still a commons despite efforts by developers to encroach meter by meter upon the sea. We ate at a neighborhood café, Barcelona supporters, and enjoyed wood toasted sardines, the first of the season. Fifth, the squatted, five-storied, former aristocratic dwelling in the old city, now a splendid social center in whose court-yard we had a celebrated discussion into the night.
In Málaga I received the quickest, deepest history lesson since I saw Monte Alban in Oaxaca. A small glass pyramid in the pavement enabled you to look down to the Phoenician wall, the earliest Mediterranean sea-farers. Then you look around and there’s a Roman amphitheatre. Look up and you see the Moorish fortifications. Then higher still, the cathedral. Surrounding it all, the roar of automobile civilization. What’s next? Can we help it along with our painful contractions, our deep, reflective breathing, and our mighty pushes into life?
In Zaragoza I spoke at the Pink Panther, a fine book store, ate at a vegetarian restaurant, slept at a collective house run by two women, walked at night on a square like a chessboard, observed the Moorish decorations in the church façades, and in the morning purchased espadrilles at an atelier. The town is named after Caesar Augustus. I think it is the capital city of Aragon. The Battle of the Ebro was fought (1938) on the river that runs through the town pretty much putting an end to the 2nd Republic whose constitution, by the way, contained a provision taken from the Mexican article 27 protecting the ejido.
The fine folks at Traficantes de Sueños, the trafficker of dreams, have lunch together everyday in a room overlooking a square. On the south side of this square is a huge brick ruin, cylindrical in shape. It was bombed by the anarchists during the Civil War because the Falange used it as an ammunition depot. The story is told in the novel by Arturo Barea, The Forging of a Rebel, translated and published in 1946. The ground floor has been renovated and it is now a handsome public library, cool during the heat of the day for the scholars searching for truth!
Often the truth is right in front of you, if only you have eyes to see it. Once we were walking through this neighborhood square and one or two dozen people were sitting on the square in a circle. Some of the people were dark as if they were from Africa, some were not. They were patiently yet eagerly listening to the speaker. Was she offering instruction about immigration? Were they considering some local proposition? Were they organizing a fund-raiser? We did not stop to find out. However, it seemed characteristic of the level of mobilization, such neighborhood, ad hoc assemblies.
I was a guest at the Autonomous University of Madrid. To get there we had to take the metro. One of its stops was named Fuencarral which I later learned from Vittoria, part of the research group, was the village of her father. Growing up he treated the king’s hunting preserve, the Pardo, as a commons, indeed his whole village did. You get up on your hind legs and say what you have to say and people have the most interesting, helpful reactions. The grafitti on the walls said “El maestro luchando también está enseñanda” (The teacher in struggle is also teaching).
In 1952 the coast north of Barcelona, the Costa Brava, was still described in a guide book as “savage” though the salt air “caressed” the pines. It was here at the age of ten I danced the sardana in the village square at dusk after the fishermen had brought in their catch. This circle dance included, I guess, more than half of the village population of seventy-six plus a few travelers and visitors. Though prohibited by Franco, the Guarda Civil did not interrupt our dance which already impressed itself on me with an eternal notion of the human circle.
My mom explained that our waiter was active in the underground struggle, and that I must not betray his name. More than sixty years have passed, the dictator gone, the “transition” accomplished, the 15 May movement begun, and the troika (EU, IMF, EuroBank) now in charge. While my comrades in Barcelona consider the sardana a completely boring dance, they say I must integrate my Catalonian past with our present and they assured me that it would be safe to mention Paco’s name.
Oh, how well do I remember, sixty years earlier, looking into Paco’s face, into its thick shaven beard, into the lines around his eyes, and into his dark eyes, and wondering, as only a boy can, what dangers and sacrifices lay hidden therein. A white jacket, a folded linen towel over his forearm, he took the breakfast chocolate from the tray and put it on the table before me.
In Barcelona after the packed night-time talk at the anarchist social center, Virus, a tall man named Pablo joined my interpreter in the street outside. My interpreter’s name was Soledad. Soledad said Pablo had been following every talk I gave in Spain! He was a forester, and the two of them were re-locating this summer to a communal village in Navarre near Pamplona and he was taking a job protecting the customs in the forest. 50% of forests there are common whereas in the rest of Spain it is 20%, he said. This guy was a doer rather than a talker.
I came across reading groups in every town. Das Capital (“of course”), Polanyi, Harvey, Federici, Ostrom, and Hardt and Negri. And the list was similar in Dublin where Mick Byrne and Paddy Bresnihan had invited me to participate in a day-conference trying to answer the question, What is the political significance of the commons today? People from Ireland, Spain, the U.K., Turkey, Washington D.C., and the incomparable Ana de Mendes, my editor and guide in Madrid, came with their ideas and experiences,. Although the configuration of forces differ in Ireland than in Spain and although the mass and speed of mobilization differs, out of the desperation of austerity comes a similar question. As one sober, down-to-earth mother of four put it to me in docklands referring to capitalism, Could you not find one idea to replace the one we have now?
In Merrion Square, Dublin, it was a feather from a magpie that I picked up. The last time I’d seen one was in September 1993 when we gathered in Wick Episcopi to mourn the death of Edward Thompson. The magpies may have been trying to tell me something in my solitude but all I could hear was their mocking as if grief were a distracton. “From what?” I wondered. “Well, from the day,” I answered myself. I found the statue to O’Higgins presented by the Chilean ambassador. I also found a cherry tree planted in 1980 in memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims of the atomic bomb. Who would have thought? In the midst of hectic shoppers, clamorous partyers, and congested traffic to find a place for walking meditation on Ireland, Americas, and Fukushima.
With friends we walked half the length of the Great South Wall extending nearly four miles from Dublin harbor into the Irish Sea to prevent the harbor from silting up. The fresh sea air, the expanse of horizon, the twenty meter wide sea wall: Dublin was left behind. You could see why Joyce walked here. It had been built on the orders of Captain Bligh as part of the infrastructure of merchant capitalism. He chartered and mapped Dublin harbor, and directed the construction of the north wall. Half way along there is a swimming club.
A friend at Merrion Square informed me that the crisis had not really landed yet on those whose income puts them with lowest third of Irish incomes. True, construction and service had been hard hit. The multinationals were doing just fine, more exports last year than ever before in history. Everywhere you looked in the former docklands, glass and steel office buildings were tagged with huge “To Let” signs. At the Convention Center a former docker remembered his boyhood when friendly dockers would give him bananas and he’d go fishing in the Liffey for eel. Foraging and lifting: the traditional urban commons, invisible unless you had ‘a need to know’.
A musical commons? At the Smock Alley Theatre (1662) I heard the fine Irish harper, Cormac De Barra, jam with Kyungso Park who played the ancient Korean string instrument, the gayageum. They reached along the earthly latitudes for a common vibration, and gave us some musical craic. Afterwards, the bicyclist Iain Boal in Ireland as author of The Green Machine, spoke of the oyster commons and the double meaning of the word “want” as deprivation and as desire, offering an intellectual riff on the commodity-form so utterly and totally opposite to the commons of the musicians.
The night before I met the great journalist and CounterPuncher, Harry Browne, at a fund-raiser for Rabble magazine, and here traditional Irish music quickly transported you into involuntary neural leg jiggling and amazing mental aislings. In such groups if any musician get too big for their boots, the others as if on cue, just change the tune. It’s the way they maintain equality, assure harmony, and govern their commons. Speaking of big boots, check out Harry Browne’s amazing muck-raker, The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) Verso 2013.
Like all travelers I am grateful for the meals and hospitality – the ham and beans in Catalonia, the tapos in Barcelonetta, the soup at Traficantes, the blue cheese pizza in Zaragoza, the crunchy sardines by the salt sea, the oysters and lemon at the “Good Bank,” and then last this: Paddy Bresnihan had made a sandwich for me on sesame-seed brown-bread, with several leaves of crunchy lettuce, tart Irish cheese, and apple chutney which came from his father’s apple tree in co. Sligo. Oh my! If this be part of 21st century revolutionary solidarity count on me, I’m all in.
The militant researchers of Spain and Dublin call on the European people to rise up: against the cuts to education, health, and safety – yes; against the evictions from apartments, houses, and land – yes; against the political rascals representing us – yes: we present ourselves as the experts of our own lives. To this an American brings the news of war and prison, also essential to the neo-liberal program. The historian of commoning must distinguish the commons of poverty and deprivation (Lear expresses it on the heath, King Lear) from the commons of equal abundance (Gonzalo expresses it on the beach, The Tempest). The one is compelled by necessity, the other is demanded by justice.
Instead of saying good-bye as I slipped away from the company at the Korean pub, “The Shakespeare,” Paddy quoted a Blasket Island man saying farewell to him in the Irish language when they were on some other island together. As Paddy translated, “we’ll be at each other’s funeral.”
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:firstname.lastname@example.org