Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017

When Tom Paine helped deliver the key of the Bastille to the new president of the new U.S.A., George Washington, he accompanied the gift with a letter written on May Day 1790.

The man who named the U.S.A. – the United States of America – told the man who led the armies of independence, “that the principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted; and therefore the key comes to the right place.”  As one revolutionary to another what did he mean by “the principles of America”?

The Bastille was the giant dungeon in the center of Paris which was attacked on 14 July 1789 by thousands of poor Parisians who feared starvation for their lives and families.  The prison contained arms which the people needed to defend themselves against a royal police state which was believed to be organizing famine.  The liberation of its prisoners and the fall of the Bastille marks the beginning of the French Revolution and July Fourteenth is still celebrated for liberté, égalité, and fraternité.  It was not long into the revolution before the people of Paris organized themselves in common as a municipal commune.  Tom Paine became a citizen of revolutionary France.

It might, therefore, be thought that freedom from prison was a “principle of the America” but in fact this was not the case. Tom Paine summarized the ramifications, “Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot.”  The first penitentiary in the world based on the principles of solitary confinement and incessant work began to be constructed in Philadelphia, the capital of the USA in 1790, the Walnut Street Jail.  George Washington was president.  A year or two later the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in New York setting up the stock exchange in Wall Street.  Meanwhile George Washington attended the yard of the Walnut Street jail to witness the first hot-air balloon ascent in continental America.  Taking a long view of American history from then to now we discern from these three facts – prison, stock exchange, and air travel – three principles:  the principle of incarceration, the principle of avarice, and the principle of air war.

With Washington presiding over the penitentiary and Paine locked up in a Paris prison, what had happened?  The revolution of 1776 was not the same as that of 1789.  As far as America was concerned that of 1776 was against British empire and that of 1789 was for an American empire.  1789 in France meant revolution but in the USA it meant counter-revolution.

How might we reverse the disaster?  The short answer was enunciated clearly at the time, it is omnia sunt communia, or “all things in common.”  This is a Biblical expression describing the practices of the down trodden of the Roman Empire, it is the slogan of the massive peasant revolt of central Europe beginning in 1526, and it is the title of an extraordinary new book by Massimo De Angelis.   The book, the slogan, and the practice call for new ways of constituting human societies where enclosure, imprisonment, slavery, and war are no longer the means of production and reproduction.

The constitution of the U.S.A. began when an assembly of rich white bankers, lawyers, and slave owners gathered behind closed doors in Philadelphia in 1787.  They organized a government which in the first instance monopolized money-making and war-making and in the second instance did so with a series of legal mechanisms to minimize democracy – the Electoral College, the 3/5s clause, the Senate, the Supreme Court – so familiar to us.  They were led by “the father of the constitution,” a man owning more than a hundred slaves, James Madison.  He makes clear the fear that underlay this constitution; it was omnia sunt communia.

The states ratified this constitution over the next two years in no small part because of the tireless efforts of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison collected in The Federalist Papers.  The tenth of these papers tells it all.  There Madison expresses his fear of “theoretic politicians,” that is, those who advocated an “agrarian law” or equalization of land, those who favored “perfect equality,” those who were “equalized in their possessions.”  In brief, the U.S.A. was to become a massive state against the commons.

This was an appeal to the men of property, the men of private property, the men who commanded property as capital.  The problem as Madison saw it was that this ruling class failed to unite itself against the commons.  It was divided in four parts, or “factions” as he called them – the landlords, the merchants, the manufacturers, and the bankers.  These personify four moments of capitalism – agrarian, commercial, industrial, and financial.

In turn they exploit and organize to produce surplus value among enslaved workers on the plantation; sailors, dockers, teamsters, and porters of transportation; artisans, women, and children in the shops and factories; and servants to serve the tea, make the meals, and do the cleaning for the coupon-clippers, i.e. financiers.

The U.S.A. and the U.K. have done historical damage.  They are political entities whose time is done.  We must devise a replacement for suffering humanity and the earth’s sake.  The constitutional republic of the U.S.A. was constituted by taking other people’s land, killing them, and turning the land into a commodity, or by taking other people from one land and enslaving them on another.  The constitutional monarchy of the U.K. constituted itself by enclosing land belonging to common people, and by enclosing them in factories, or when they refused confining them in penitentiaries, organizing life by buying and selling, and expanding warfare upon ever more distant nations, Wales, Scotland, and then Ireland with India, Australia, Canada, not far behind.

In the summer of 1787 they passed the 3/5s clause, the dehumanization, mutilation, and fractionation of the African-American slave while at the same time they passed the North West Ordinance which opposed the indigenous forms of commons in the north west while opening up the south west to slavery. This is why omniastuntcommuniaWilliam Lloyd Garrison called he constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Madison, leader and architect behind the closed doors and drawn shades of the constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia of 1787, was recorded as saying during the secret deliberations, that “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place.”[1]  He was correct in this assessment.  The ‘agrarian law’ was the short-hand name in the 18th century for any project of equalization, or a commons of land, that derived from ancient Rome and the laws of the Gracchi brothers.  This was the background fear.  The 1787 Massachusetts rebellion led by the debtor, Daniel Shays, gave the fear its reality.

The anti-commonist drive of the Constitution became clearer with the ratification debates in the states as the debates went out doors.   In 1788 James Madison with Alexander Hamilton wrote a prodigious number of essays favoring ratification.  These were the Federalist Papers.  The tenth one laid out Madison’s case against the commons.

They were afraid of communism (in the strict sense of economic equalization). It was likewise with Madison’s colleague at the convention, James Wilson, who introduced the 3/5’s clause and became one of George Washington’s first supreme court justices.  In April 1791, just a month after Thomas Paine published Rights of Man, James Wilson lectured at the law school of the University of Pennsylvania “On the History of Property.”  In this lecture he argued for the superiority of private property.  He agreed that its superiority “over common property has not always been admitted.”  Like Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” Wilson argued “what belongs to no one is wasted by everyone.”  This lecture was delivered at a revolutionary time in history with settler predators waging war upon the indigenous commons of the old Northwest and losing, and with eager planters establishing slave labor camps producing cotton in the Southeast.  The U.S.A. was thus the name of that government with a double design, first, to destroy the commons in the north, and second, to make way for the cotton plantations, or death-camps as Professor Baptist calls them.

War, ideas, and politics put the commons on the history’s agenda.  As for war, the U.S.A. was losing the battle for the American commons.  “The Battle of a Thousand Slain,” or St. Clair’s Defeat, was won by Little Turtle (Miami) and Blue Jacket (Shawnee) on the Wabash River, a few months earlier, the first battle of the U.S.A.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a similar process was transpiring of conquest, the enclosure of common lands, and the criminalization of customary income.   Adam Smith provided he theory writing in The Wealth of Nations, volume 2, book 5, chapter 1, part 2.  “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor.”  The practise came from central banking, agri-business, and planned manufactures were new state policies proposed and implemented by William Pitt during the 1790s and by the first administrations of the U.S.A.  The cotton factory and the cotton plantation, though on opposite sides of the Atlantic, required each other, developed with one another, and became the means of the global division of labor.  The United Kingdom (1801), or U.K., following the destruction of independent Ireland became the name of the political entity that paralleled the U.S.A.  One might even say that the anthropocene was actually the “anglocene”; in 1900 the U.K. and the U.S.A. made up 60% of cumulative CO2 emissions.  Coal became the material substratum of the production of surplus value.

I am arguing that both political entities originated in the violent expropriation of commons in order to prepare the ground for the plantation and the factory.   The class relations pertaining to this “special relationship” are coerced labor (slavery and the proletariat) and privatized means of production and means of subsistence in the control of the One Per Cent.  The entire historical, geological, political and economical concatenation has resulted in the anthropocene, or the world turned upside down.

Actually, a “special relationship” began to emerge between two political forms, republic and monarchy, whose names begin with unions, the United States of America (1789) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (1801).  What this points to is an integration of different labor regimes, an expansion of the labor market, in the one case of states and in the other of kingdoms.  The unity both within the political entities and without them, for an extraordinarily dynamic system of exploitation lay at the basis of this “special relationship.”  Each was “united” in its confrontation with commoners amid all the “Atlantic mountains” (Blake).

Sven Beckert describes a familiar division: “The empire of cotton from its 1780s beginnings to 1861 in effect rested on two very different forms of labor, and two very different forms of the organization of production.  On the western shores of the Atlantic were the … enormously profitable slave plantations….  In Europe itself … [the] spectacularly productive spinning and weaving mills based on wage labor.  Connected by the mediation of a group of merchants, these two systems grew side by side, the one feeding the power of the other.  Capital, personified by merchants, facilitated the rapid expansion of both slave cotton plantations and wage labor cotton factories, connecting the seemingly opposing legacies of the one to the other….”[2]

Capital is not a thing, it is a human relation.  It consists of persons, namely the owners of means of life and the living persons who worked. The persons providing the labor power of “connection” were sailors – them and the dockers, carters, warehousemen of the ports of the world.  Their struggles are omitted in both accounts except in his style of writing.  He writes that merchants “dispatched” ships, merchants specialized in “moving,” merchants “transported bulk commodities over vast distances,” when they did nothing of the sort because the actual dispatching, moving, and transporting was the work of sailors aloft among the sails, below with the bilges, weighing the anchor.  It was cooperative labor.

A global perspective of an “integrated manufacturing process” based on bourgeois theory will see “capital” without labor only in its money or commodity form.  These however rely the industrial form, that is, on the exploitation of actual workers and their labor process.  This is the virtue of Edward Baptist’s work, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. It begins with the voices of labor and the facts of the labor process in producing labor camps or death camps known as plantations.  They constituted the “subcontinental empire.”  Human labor is gathered in coffles, black feet in chains in forced marches walked from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi, like a “human millipede.”

The productivity increased fourfold between 1801 when 28 lbs of cotton were picked on average a day and 1861 when more than 300 lbs.  By 1800 the pushing system was introduced.  Innovation in violence was the foundation of he pushing system.  Baptist shows that the whip was as important in growing cotton as sunshine and rain.  To the sweet and soft botanical attributes the plaited, twelve foot leather whip must be added as the ‘technology’ of this huge change.

The perspective is national.  “slavery’s expansion linked the nation together.”  During the 1790s the slave population grew fast, from thirty thousand to a hundred and seven thousand from 1790 to 1810 in Georgia alone.  The loss of one slave regime, Haiti in 1804, was replaced by the creation of an even greater slave regime in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  This was the geo-political accomplishment of Jefferson, “a massive extension of human bondage.”  New Orleans was transferred to the USA the same year.

Both authors stress the role of banks.  The national system of the USA was anticipated, if not planned, by Alexander Hamilton in his role as Secretary of the Treasury in December 1791 when reacting to “the destruction and devastation attendant on the insurrection in Hispaniola” he advised the “vigorous pursuit” of cotton by federal bounties, encouragement of mechanization, and territorial expansion. He praised “the cotton mill invented in England within the last twenty years.” He noted its “the great use of women and children,” as well as “the agency of fire and water” in reducing skilled labor, and making night work possible.  What propelled him?  It was a struggle launched from the commons of the Bois de Caïman in north-west San Domingue. The historic fury of hundreds of thousands of suffering slaves exploded in an all-out war culminating twelve years later in the independence of Haiti.  Hamilton planned that the USA could sidestep the sugar plantation and its perturbations by encouraging the cotton plantation.

The national perspective limits the global.  Yet each was necessary to the other, the aggressive energy of the national produced the sea-faring force upon which empire was based, while imperial wars caused the re-organization of economies of nations, the destruction of cotton production in India and the Ottoman empire, and the growth (financial, urban, demographic, social) of the U.S.A. and the U.K.  This is why the era of war was functional to the capitalist accumulation.  War does not hinder capitalism; it is necessary to it. When we say that capitalism knows no national boundaries what we mean is that its powers of exploitation include national belligerence organized by central banks with refined connections to institutions of political sovereignty – money and war.  The rich man’s war and poor man’s fight, just as true in UK as USA.

De Angelis has been active in social movements and the commons.  The subtitle to Omnia Sunt Communia is “On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism.”  He has rich experience in the Andes of south America, in particular in the struggle for water in Cocabamba, with forms of the minga (a Quechua word for community labor), with dozens of self-organized health-care clinics in Greece, with attempts to privatize electricity and water in South Africa, with the Occupy movements beginning in Zuccotti Park, with issues of food sovereignty and community farming in his village of Monchio near the Appenines.  He is founder of an influential web magazine called The Commoner.  He is one of those “theoretic politicians” who so annoyed James Madison.

De Angelis has written a deep and stunning book which established him as a major voice in the world-wide discussion of the commons.  He is a “politician” only in the sense that this book begins with the exodus from capitalism, that is to say, it is based firmly in our times of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the movements against it.  It is “theoretic” in two senses.  First, it eschews various apocalyptic notions of revolution.  This is not an ideological book though it is a book of ideas.  Second, it challenges economic, cybernetic, and systems theories with fluent abstractions, concepts, and linkages of its own.  Philosophy is especially required when old ideas – in this case the wretched and self-serving ideology of neoliberalism – no longer express either accurate description of social life or the horizon of aspiration.

De Angelis does not anticipate another constitutional convention of rich white men behind closed doors devising capitalist rule – enough already! – instead with the aid of powerful concepts, particularly the concepts of commons, commonwealth, and commoning, he gives us the lineaments of discourse and connections and their potentials.  This is a work of science or knowledge production rather than a utopian prayer.  Like Marx or Spinoza there is a terminology which at first is novel and soon opens up to view clear and practical horizons to the transformation to postcapitalism.

Think of the imagination required after 1776 to square the circle of democracy and imperialism with a multitude of thirteen states into a powerful sovereign entity of class rule.  Think of the imagination required to turn the rivers, woodland, and prairies of north American into the squares and rectangles of property for sale.  Think of the imagination require to turn that terror of childhood arithmetic, fractions, into fractionations of human life (division of labor) and human lives (slaves).  This was the imagination of the bourgeoisie, of James Wilson by name.  He was a justice on George Washington’s first Supreme Court, and a professor at Penn, the first law school.  His lecture just a month after Tom Paine published Rights of Man might just as well have been called Rights of Privatizers because in it he denounced the commons in every way flying against the sum total of human experience hitherthereto.  There was the road not taken, there is the sign to our road ahead:  Omnia Sunt Communia.

Our mobilizations on May Day bring together working people, poor people, undocumented people, refugees, shut-ins, and people of color to help us find what we have in common. It has been so in north America at least since 1627 when the first May Pole went up in Quincy, Massachusetts, when gay and straight, native and refugee, and run-away danced in common.  It has been so since 1886 when at Haymarket in Chicago the spirit of resistance from the emancipation of slavery struggle was revived among the wage-slaves fought for the eight hour day. Four were hanged the year following.

Now today how shall we re-constitute ourselves in common?  Earth aches for our answer.

Further Reading

Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia:  On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (New York: Zed Books, 2017)

Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (NY: Vintage, 2014)

The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. By Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966)

Robert Yates, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 (Washington D.C.: Templeman, 1886)

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: