Saturday, 15 August 2009

Fanonian Practices and the politics of space in postapartheid South Africa: The Challenge of the Shack Dwellers' Movement

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by Nigel Gibson, Frantz Fanon Colloque, Algiers July 7, 2009

The nation does not exist in the program which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders … [but] in the muscles and intelligences of men and women.
Fanon, Les damnés

To speak about Fanonian practices in postapartheid South Africa one first needs to think about the question of method in two not necessarily opposite directions. First, as an engagement with Fanon’s critique of decolonization in its contemporary South African context; and second, from the perspective of new emergent movements of the damned of the earth that challenge philosophy. At the same time, since philosophy—not simply practical philosophy but an elemental philosophy of liberation—is always already present in the strivings of liberation of the damned of the earth, a philosophic moment makes itself heard when the exchange of ideas becomes grounded in both the strivings for freedom and lived experience from those excluded, marginalized and dehumanized and when, as Marx puts it, philosophy grips the masses. These dialogues—often hidden, underground and subjugated—make up what could also be called a philosophy of liberation.

Since his death, practicing Fanon’s philosophy of liberation has taken many forms. For example, one could consider the resonances of James Cone’s “Black Theology of Liberation” in the U.S. or Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of Liberation” in Brazil (Cone 1986, 1997; Friere 1970). Each drew significantly upon Fanon as a liberation theorist. But on the African continent it was Steve Biko in South Africa who was perhaps the most significant practitioner of Fanon. In a new context Biko extended Fanon’s project and developed “Black consciousness” as a philosophy of liberation. In this paper I want to consider how Fanon’s philosophy of liberation is being challenged by new movements from below, specifically the shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo and how such a movement has made concrete the importance Fanon places on the politics of space.

While Fanon’s philosophy of liberation emerges from a specific physical space, “reality” has a proper time and the form of his work is therefore “rooted in the temporal” (1967 104, 14). “Every human problem,” Fanon adds, “must be considered from the standpoint of time” (1967 14-15). Yet, we are stuck in time, a neocolonial/postcolonial time. At the same time the present also seems far away from Fanonian invention. Indeed, so much has changed since Fanon’s day that it is fashionable to remark that Fanon is no longer relevant. And, certainly, in today’s globalized, “post-race” liberal “cosmopolitan” world, the colonial world that Fanon described so vividly seems no longer applicable. After all, in South Africa, apartheid, that bulwark of colonial terrorism, has officially ended. We can date that “ending” to April 1994, when the African National Congress (ANC) won the first fully franchised election. We could even create a timeline which would include the date of Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison on February 11th, 1990, the repeal of the pass laws in 1986 and so on. We could review the new constitution of South Africa and its guarantees of rights and freedoms, we could look at successful governmental elections and at South Africa’s economy, all of which seem to prove Fanon wrong. The question is, is Fanon’s critique simply outdated? Indeed some might wonder whether Fanon’s philosophy of liberation is still relevant to contemporary realities.

Yet also, the Ghanaian Fanon scholar, Ato Sekyi-Otu, forcefully argues, Fanon’s “slight revision of the Marxist analysis” is manifest in the elevation of spatial metaphors in the structure of dominance. Thus, added to a critique of inequality and the Manichean haves and have-nots, Sekyi-Otu’s reading of Fanon’s “stretched Marxism,” emphasizes how the “absolute difference and radical irreciprocity” of the colonizer-colonized relation is made manifest spatially (Sekyi-Otu 72-73). In the Wretched Fanon argues that the oppressed is literally pressed from all sides and is only able to find freedom of movement in dreams of muscular prowess. Since Colonialism is also an experience of spatial confinement, of restraint and prohibition, a narrow world of poverty, oppression, and subjugation. Fanon’s description of the open and strongly built colonial city, a town of light and plenty, on one hand and the cramped oppressive hungry “native town” on the other (1968 39); The Manicheanism of the colonial world—with its absolute difference between the colonizer and colonized, which finds its apogee in apartheid—is thus clearly expressed in spatial realities. In the colonial world “space and the politics of space ‘express’ social relationships and react against them” (Lefebvre 2003 15). Because the socio-economic spatial reality of the compartmentalized, divided colonial world can never mask human realities, an examination of this division—“the colonial world’s … ordering and its geographical layout”—Fanon argues, “will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized” (1968 38-40, my emphasis). In other words, since social relations are manifested in space, one Fanonian test of post-apartheid society is to what extent South Africa has been spatially reorganized. On this score, it is quite clear that “deracialization” of the city has been an essentially “bourgeois” phenomenon with full membership and rights now accessed by money and consequentially with urban policy—under the guise of providing “housing”—geared mainly toward the removal of the poor from urban areas.

In other words, by creating urban settlements, the shack dwellers had created some freedom for themselves as apartheid began to crumble but with plans to remove these urban settlements, post-apartheid policy has returned to the Manicheanism of the earlier period. A fixation on creating “formal” structures—the government has built around two million housing units since 1994 tells us very little since the new housing for the poor. Those frightfully small and poorly built structures called houses are based on the removal of the poor from city centers and built far away from bourgeois eyes and fears outside urban spaces: The poor are othered, uninvited, and the shack communities fragmented. Postapartheid housing, whether that be gated communities, or temporary tin shacks thus reinforces spatial segregation. In the minds of the city planners, urban policy technicists and real estate speculators, and FIFA (World Cup) administrators, a “world class” city cannot be built with shack settlements in the line of sight. Moreover, shack settlements and middle class housing cannot exist side by side. And just as with other gentrification schemes, under the guise of “upgrades” the poor are “removed” from the city. These “forced removals”—to use the language of apartheid—are the outcome of the ANC’s current promotions of “slum clearance” which threatens millions of people who live in urban shack settlements with removal to “transit camps” and other so called “temporary” tin-shack housing.

So what is at stake in Fanonian practices is not simply a critique of government failures and its inability to keep up with housing needs in terms of sheer numbers but the ways the “ordering and geographical layout” of post-apartheid South Africa remaps apartheid (see Robinson 1997).

Since colonialism is about the expropriation of space it is immediately political. Addressing the politics of space, Fanon challenged the newly independent nations to deal with the legacies of colonialism by redistributing land and decentralizing political power, vertically and horizontally. This move seems counter-intuitive in the context of Fanon’s critique of regionalism and chauvinism, and the threat of xenophobia, but the point is that the degeneration of national liberation arises in part from the race to take over the seats of power, leaving intact the privileges of the centers of colonial administration and expropriation. Additionally, for South Africa, Fanon’s critique is an important challenge to the centralistic and hierarchical culture of the ANC.

As Fanon argues, decentralization is not simply an administrative or technical issue; it is connected with the goal of involving the damned of the earth in what Abahlali call a “living politics.” And explaining to the formerly excluded but newly politicized people that the future belongs to them, that they cannot rely on an imaginary leader, prophet, or anybody else (1968, 197), necessitates a decentralization of politics. But also that emergent movements demand it and challenge intellectuals to break with their elitism and work out new concepts.
Born in Durban in 2005, the shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for people who live in shacks) has become the largest autonomous grass-roots organization in South Africa with members across the country.

Propelled by those who have almost nothing, the shack dweller’s movement, which lives in a daily state of emergency and contingency, represents a truth of postcoloniality and offers a critique of its ethics in the most Fanonian sense. After all, the damned of the earth judge wealth not only by indoor plumbing, taps and toilets, but also by human reciprocity and the relationships that develop through a rigorously democratic and inclusive movement. It is a wealth that builds on and emphasizes thinking, namely the thinking that is done collectively and on a continuing basis in the shack communities. Theirs is a politics of the lived experience of scale that begins at the bottom. It challenges policy-makers “up there” to come down to the settlements and listen to the poorest of the poor and thus by doing encourages a new language of dialogue. The shack dweller movement represents a clear and emergent case that makes the intertwining of household and community scale explicit with national politics and responds to Fanon’s critique and call to realize the radically humanist, decentralized national scale of postcolonial struggle. Fanon’s revolutionary theory also necessitates that space is produced differently. Abahlali may not equal Fanon’s “future heaven,” but in its participatory democratic, decentralized and inclusive form, it is implicitly the idea of “new society.” At the very least, it is a challenge to theoreticians to engage with it and rethink philosophies of liberation to help create cognitive leap. What is significant about this new organization is that it expresses a new beginning in the daily struggle, and its brilliance lies in its grassroots democracy and “living politics” that is its “own working existence.” For example, while land and housing are essential elements to the struggle for a decolonized society, they understand that the struggle is ultimately about building spaces that recognize the humanity of all.

In short, the shack dwellers are voicing their right to live in the city, challenging the idea of citizenship and insisting on an active democratic polity. In this sense, these organized shack dwellers are expressing a new kind of inclusive politics from the ground up, one which appears local and reformist, such as providing services to settlements, but is also radical and national. They do not speak in terms of a critique of “the state,” nor in terms of a critique of political economy, but they do address the politics of the state and the spatial political economy of postcolonialism that concerned Fanon: If the shacks dweller’s demand for housing in the city is won—and in Durban negotiations are currently taking place between AbM and the city —and if housing policy is based in fully democratic and open discussions with the poor, the spatial and political economy of the city could be radically altered, and a fundamental shift in post-apartheid social consciousness and a decisive intervention in its spatial economy could occur. Crucial to this shift, and toward the “reconceptualization of the urban” (Lefebvre 2003 15), would be a move from technocratic state planning toward “grassroots urban planning” (Souza 2006).

Such a radical change of consciousness, where “the last would be first and the first last” (quoted in Fanon 1968 37), would encourage a shift in the geography of reason from the elitist and technical discussion of service delivery—mediated “between those who decide on behalf of ‘private’ interests and those who decide on behalf of higher institutions and power” (Lefebvre 2003 157)—to people’s needs mediated by the minds of those who were so recently reified as dirty, uneducated, poor, violent, criminal, not fully human, named the damned of the earth. This double movement—the decommodification of the city and “the new rights of the citizen, tied in to the demands of everyday life” (Lefebvre 2006 250) would amount to a defetishization of the city: a shift away from the Northern-focused elite discourse of creating “world class” citadels in South Africa. But this movement from the praxis of “the underside” of humanity will not be easy nor will it come all at once. In July 2009 a new period of revolt and violent repression began. Alongside mass-arrests, a number of people have been shot dead. “Here,” writes Richard Pithouse (2009) in Business Day, “the lives of the black poor count for something between very little and nothing. When the fate of protesters killed or wounded by the police makes it into the elite public sphere, they are generally not even named.”

Indeed Abahlali emerged from an earlier period of revolt that has been ebbing and flowing since 2004. The revolts emerge from necessity—namely from the state of emergency that is its daily reality and a historical necessity—and in the challenge to thought about the post-apartheid city itself toward humanist geographies based in people’s needs. In 2008 when xenophobic violence spread through the shack settlements across the country, Abahlali’s response was to take action declaring quite simply, while others dithered, that no one is illegal:, everyone counts, “a person cannot be illegal. A person is a person whether they find themselves.”

In place of a conclusion

The organized shack dwellers have developed an infrastructure for self-organization in what they call the “University of the Abahlali.” It is a new kind of organization: not outside, not above, not separate from the shack dwellers, but self-organized and insistent on decentralization, autonomy, grassroots democracy and accountability. It appreciates acts of solidarity but shuns money and political power from government and nongovernmental groups. It is an organization, as Fanon understood it, a “living organism.” The shack dwellers call it a living politics, and it represents the kind of challenge to committed intellectuals and activists that Fanon mapped out in Les damnés, namely that intellectuals need to put themselves in “the school of the people.” After experiences of the elitism of some left, often Northern, intellectuals who actively deny that poor people can think their own politics, S’bu Zikode, the elected chair of Abahlali argues:

"We have always thought that the work of the intellectual was to think and to struggle with the poor. It is clear that for [some] the work of the intellectual is to determine our intelligence by trying to undermine our intelligence. This is their politics. Its result is clear. We are shown to the world to not be competent to think or speak for ourselves" (Zikode 2008).

In the discussions that Abahlali has named “Living Learning” what remains crucial is the principle that the usefulness of whatever is learnt from outside the shacks in schools and university courses is judged by the lived experiences of the struggle of people in the shacks. Knowledge is thus considered neither private property nor the means for private advancement; it is to be a shared endeavor that begins by shifting the geography of reason by putting “the worst off” at the center.

Fanon’s visionary critique of postcolonial elite politics mapped out a “living politics” based on a decentralized and democratic form of self-governing which opens up new spaces for the politics of the excluded from the ground up. Thus, Fanon’s project can be understood as building counter-hegemony from below that opens up spaces that fundamentally change the political status quo and contest the moral and intellectual leadership of the ruling elites. Recently Fanon conclusions to Les damnés--with its challenge to Europe and its call to work out a “new humanism” based on the inclusion, indeed centrality in the “enlightening and fruitful work” of nation building (1968 204)—has been concretely rearticulated by S’bu Zikode of Abahlali (2009): “It is one thing if we are beneficiaries who need delivery. It is another thing if we are citizens who want to shape the future of our cities, even our country. It is another thing if we are human beings who have decided that it is our duty to humanize the world.”


Abahlali baseMjondolo. 2009. Http:// accessed on July 4.

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Bhabha, Homi K. 2005. Foreword to Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth (translated by Richard Philcox) New York: Grove Press.

Biko, Steve. 1978. I Write What I Like. London: Heinemann.

Biko, Steve. 2008. Interview with Gail Gerhart (October 1972) in Biko Lives: Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko edited by Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander and Nigel C. Gibson. New York: Palgrave.

Cabral, Amílcar. 1970. Cabral Revolution in Guinea New York: Monthly Review.

Cone, James H. 1986. A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books [1970])

Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 1968. The Wretched of the Earth (translated by Constance Farrington) New York: Grove Press.

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Gibson, Nigel C. 1999 Rethinking Fanon. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.

Gibson, Nigel C. 2003. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination.

Gibson, Nigel C. 2007. “Relative Opacity: A New Translation of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth—Mission Betrayed or Fulfilled?” Social Identities Vol. 13, No. 16, January.

Huchzermeyer, Marie. 2004. Unlawful Occupation: Informal Settlement and Urban Policy in South Africa and Brazil. Trenton NJ: Africa World Press.

Huchzermeyer, Marie. 2008. “Slums law based on flawed interpretation of UN goals.” Business Day May 18.

Kovel, Joel. 2007. The Enemy of Nature, London: Zed Books.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2003. The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ntseng, David & Mark Butler, 2007. Minutes of the Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting to Discuss Legal & Political Strategies to Oppose the Slums Bill [online]. Available at:
Pithouse Richard. 2009. “Burning message to the state in the fire of poor’s rebellion,” Business day July 23.

Pithouse, Richard. Forthcoming. “A Progressive Policy without a Progressive Politics: Lessons from the failure to implement ‘Breaking New Ground’” Town Planning Journal No. 54.

Sekyi-Otu, Ato. 1996. Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge: Harvard U.P.

Souza Marcelo Lopes de. 2006. “Together with the state, despite the state, against
the state: Social movements as ‘critical urban planning agents’” City, Vol.10, No. 3, December, 327-342

Zikode, S’bu. 2008. “The Burning Issue of Land and Housing”

Zikode, S’bu. 2009. “Meaningful Engagement,”
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"Everything in Common" The Commons, the Castle, the Witch and the Lynx

by Peter Linebaugh, Counterpunch

One day at Crottorf we eat mouthwatering strawberries and yogurt for our lunch-time sweet.

Crottorf is the name of a castle, or schloss, in Westphalia, Germany. Twenty-one of us are assembled from around the world to discuss the commons. We come from India and Australia, Thailand and South Africa, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, England, Greece, California and the Great Lakes. It is midsummer. Surrounded by green meadows and cool forests, the castle seems sprung from a German fairy-tale, a piece of paradise. Indeed the Italian plasterer said as much in 1661 carving onto the hallway ceiling the words,

Un pezzo del paradiso
Caduto de cielo in terra

For three days we sit in a circle, twenty-one of us, discussing, if not heaven on earth, then the commons. Somehow that term, ‘the commons,’ comes to embrace the entire social product of human beings, the countries of the world, the substances of earth, air, water, and fire, the biosphere, the electro-magnetic spectrum, and outer space. Speaking passionately, choosing words carefully, stammering sometimes in frustration of inadequate expression, we demand of ourselves maximum hope in conditions of undeniable desperation. The atmosphere and the climate change, the earth and gardening, the rise of slime, the internet and software, the rich and the poor, the enclosures and foreclosures, the shack dwellers of Johannesburg, the disappeared pedestrians of Bangalore, the workers of Brazil, Frankenstein foods and genetic monsters, the totalization of the commodity form, the transformation of expropriation to exploitation, the convergence of ecological crisis and capitalist crisis, the neoliberal assault on the commons and its criminalization from the rain forest to the village: these provide some of the topics, themes, and theses of this Crottorf consultation.

I would not, could not, summarize, though Googeleers will find summaries on various websites (David Bollier, onthecommons, Massimo De Angelis, thecommoner). What I remember are the refreshing interludes between the bouts of intellectual intensity. They were in a different register, even a kind of dream time - strawberries, singing in the ball-room, and woodland strolls.

We set off to walk in the woods. Our host, the noted forester, Hermann Hatzfeldt, stops among the tall beeches straining to the sky from the dense underbrush, and we form a circle under their canopy to listen to his stories of the war, of wilderness and cultivation, of cat-and-mouse with elusive mushroom gatherers. The life of the forest was changing in surprising, wild ways which depart from the venerable and admired traditions of German forestry. He says that there are even reports that the lynx might return. (And it would, but not in a way I could have imagined in a million years).
We assemble on a pathway between the drawbridge over the moat and the four-towered schloss for an after-lunch tour to a site less than two miles away. It takes a few minutes for all of us to gather, so I take the opportunity to read aloud a report of Handsome Lake’s vision at the Strawberry Festival in western New York in 1799, two hundred and ten years earlier. These berries of midsummer, I feel, can act as jewels of remembrance.

Handsome Lake was the brother of Cornplanter, both were Seneca Indians, one of the six nations of the Iroquois League, or Haudenosaunee. He was a drunk, or an addicted victim of the white man’s systemic alcohol poisoning. He reached a near-death bottom in April 1799. Then he had his first vision. Three men appeared to him, messengers, dressed in clean raiment, cheeks painted red, carrying bows and arrows in one hand, and a huckleberry bush and other kinds of berries in the other hand. They told him that the juice would provide medicine against alcohol withdrawal, and he must celebrate the strawberry feast. The red checked messengers then continued.

“They saw a jail, and within it a pair of handcuffs, a whip, and a hangman’s rope; this represented the false belief of some that the laws of the white man were better than the teachings of Gaiwiio. They saw a church with a spire and a path leading in, but no door or window (‘the house was hot’) and heard a great noise of wailing and crying; this illustrated the point that it was difficult for Indians to accept the confining discipline of Christianity.” (Wallace, 243) The punitive regime of capitalism with its prisons, granite churches, and factories - ‘the great confinement’ as Micheal Foucault, the French philosopher, called the era - was rejected at a moment of its inception. Certainly that rejection is part of the significance of Handsome Lake’s prophetic career.

There on the bridge between the moats I skipped ahead three years in the story of Handsome Lake, little knowing what I was leaving out, because I wanted to get to 1801 when Handsome Lake advised the Iroquois “that they should not allow their children to learn to read and write; that they might farm a little and make houses; but that they must not sell anything they raised off the ground, but give it away to one another, and to the old people in particular; in short that they must possess everything in common.” (Wallace,264). John Pierce, a Quaker, translated the speech which is why it has a familiar ring.

“Everything in common.” The phrase should strike home: evictions in America, destruction of shacks in south Africa, taking down the forests in Peru, drying up the rivers, privatizing the resources of Iraq, obliterating the African village. In our world of neoliberal privatization, the phrase easily becomes a slogan if not a panacea. But in 1799? Looking at the conjuncture of the late 1790s from a nominalist perspective, the phrase looks to the past, coming as it does from the earliest translation of the English Bible (Wycliff, 1380s). In the midst of the Atlantic revolutions (France, Haiti) the phrase also looks to the future and the true communism in the workers’ movements with its eternal statement of just conditions: from each according to his or her abilities, to each according to his or her needs.

The Iroquois had long held up the mirror of commoning to European privatizing. A hundred years before Handsome Lake, Baron Lahontan who travelled among the Iroquois in the 1680s wrote, “the Nations which are not debauch’d by the Neighbourhood of the Europeans are Strangers to the Measures of Meum and Tuum [mine and thine], and to all Laws, Judges and Priests.” That’s the best of anarchism straight up, and as a chaser he adds, “a man must be quite blind who does not see that the Property of Goods is the only Source of all the Disorders that perplex the European Societies.”
The Haudenosaunee have been on my mind for personal and political reasons. The personal reason is this. The Appalachian mill-village of Cattaraugus in western New York is my ancestral home, and my parents are buried there in Seneca ground. In respect to them I felt a kind of historical pride in bringing to Crottorf the commons of the Seneca. Then the political reason is that in the post-Marxist world the late Marx has begun to come into its own, with the Ethnological Notebooks so dependent on the labors of Lewis Henry Morgan whose Ancient Society, based on his studies of the Iroquois conducted in the 1840s, helped Marx to return to the communist themes of his youth when, also in the 1840s, he stood philosophy on its head. To him philosophy meant action.

Toward the end of his life Marx studied the Arabs, the Algerians, the Iroquois gens, and the Russian mir. Marx became convinced that “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia”. Marx speculated in the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that Russia’s “peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.” In one of his famous letters to Zasulich he wrote “The rural commune [in Russia] finds [capitalism in the West] in a state of crisis that will end only when the social system is eliminated through the return of modern societies to the ‘archaic’ type of communal property.” He then quotes Morgan,“the new system will be a revival, in a superior form, of an archaic social type.” Marx was impressed with the grandeur, complexity, and basic superiority of primitive society. The sense of independence and personal dignity are the qualities which moved Morgan, then Marx, as Franklin Rosemont has made clear.

Whether we conceive dialectical reasoning as the historic movement from thesis (the commons) to antithesis (privatization) to synthesis (revolution), or as the mutual interaction between theory (communism) and practice (commoning) Marx was a practitioner of both. The boy who collected berries from common lands in Trier, or the fiery young journalist who defended the peasants’ estovers, or customary access to fuel in the woodlands of the Moselle Valley, was both a great theorist of proletarian revolution and an ordinary commoner with practical knowledge. His wife, Jenny, kept his body and soul together, living with the deaths of their children, with poverty, with defamation, disaffection, unceasing repression from all European authorities, and exile. Crottorf is in the same part of Germany, Westphalia, as she was from - Jenny von Westphalen.

So in her ancestral country that evening two of us bicycle into the gloaming. It is all atmosphere: the deserted roads through gentle hills, the solitude of silent cottages, a small flock of sheep, a mare peacefully grazing in the last light startled only by the squeak of a noisey bicycle brake. We climb a hill to a tower that once served as a dungeon; in fact, where witches had once been tried. We coast back to the schloss in the midsummer twilight mulling over communism and the commons.

On another day we go for another walk. Silvia Federici, the scholar of European witchcraft, learned that three witches had been destroyed several centuries ago in the hills near by. Hermann Hatzfeldt kindly proposes to lead us to the site of those crimes. The path is long and the sun is high. On a knoll overlooking neat field and forest and a village nestled within the Westphalian landscape a small red chapel stands. (Scottish ancestors on Jenny von Westphalen’s mother’s side had suffered violent deaths at the stake.) The red chapel was erected more than three hundred years ago in remorseful memory of a woman who had been executed as a witch at the linden tree. Though the red chapel is locked, we can see through the tiny window that there is enough room for two straw-plaited chairs - one for sitting, one for kneeling - as well as fresh flowers adorning the interior of this simple place of piety and remembrance.

The truth must be told, even at this late date. Standing under that linden tree Handsome Lake’s vision did not seem so bright. Was he implicated in murder?

In February 1799 Cornplanter’s daughter died. Witchcraft was suspected so he ordered three of his sons to kill the suspected witch, an old woman. On 13 June 1799 they found her working in a field and in full view of the community stabbed her to death and buried her. We do not know for a fact that Handsome Lake was part of this murder, though the circumstantial evidence does not look good. It certainly gives us pause before offering unqualified praise to Handsome Lake’s version of the Seneca ‘commons.’ Tradition recounts several other witch killings between 1799 and 1801. (Wallace, p. 236; Mann, p. 321) Handsome Lake accused a mother and daughter of Cattaraugus of using witchcraft to cause a man to moon Handsome Lake and fart loudly while he spoke. The mother and daughter were bound to a tree and given twenty lashes. Female spirit workers and clan mothers opposing Handsome Lake were redefined as witches, “the slur du jour,” as Professor Mann says.

Leaving to one side the dispute about the meaning of witchcraft among the Iroquois during the 18th century, those familiar with Silvia Federici’s work in Caliban and the Witch will approach the subject as an aspect of the transition to capitalism. This means the expropriation of reproduction and the expropriation from land. The consequences of these forces is disempowerment of women and creation of a proletariat.

The Iroquois people had been matrilocal, matrilinear, matriarchal. In 1791 Lafitau reported that the clan mothers admonished the men, “you ought to hear and listen to what we women shall speak, for we are the owners of the land and it is ours.” “The economy of the village depended on the women, who owned it collectively,” writes Wallace (p. 190). He sums up: “the prophet gave emphatic encouragement to the transformation of the Seneca economic system from a male-hunting-and-female-horticulture to a male-farming-and-female-housekeeping pattern.” (281)

The four key words in Handsome Lake’s first vision reflect the demographic desperation of the Iroquois – whiskey, witchcraft, love-potions, abortion. A crisis of reproduction, of the society, of the children, of men-and-women, of the culture, of the land. Al Cave writes that in Handsome Lake’s visions “women were frequently portrayed as particularly offensive sinners.” (213) To Handsome Lake women “bore much of the responsibility for the moral decay he found rampant among the Iroquois.”

The demographic condition had deteriorated rapidly after the wars of the American Revolution. Call it genocide or call it depopulation. The former term conveys the exterminating human agency of the conquerors, the latter suggests natural, Malthusian mechanisms of social change. The raids in 1779 by Sullivan, Brodhead, Van Schaick, waging total war, destroyed Indian settlements by burning houses, cutting down apple and peach orchards, torching corn, squash, bean, and incinerating hay fields. George Washington was called “the town-destroyer.” To this day the region of New York between the Genesee and Allegheny rivers is known as the burned-out district. Measles and smallpox epidemics struck subsequently. War, exposure, disease, and starvation reduced the population of the Six Nations in half. Loss of confidence was deliberately inflicted by government policy. Alcoholism, family violence, and witch-hunts were the pathological results. The dread of dispossession haunted the inhabitants of these slums in the wilderness. “Now the Dogs yelp and cry in all the houses for they are hungry.” Social disaster provided the conditions for the introduction of the land market. The earth became a commodity. Here’s how it happened.

Robert Morris “owned” four million acres of Iroquois country. Morris was a Liverpool immigrant who thanks to his slaving and privateering enterprises became “the financier of the American Revolution,” the first to use the $ sign, a Founding Father of the U.S.A., and a capitalist who was so fat that when he sold his property deeds at the Treaty of Big Tree (1797) in Geneseo, N.Y., to English investors and the Holland Land Company, his son negotiated with the Iroquois while Robert Morris apologized for not attending in person on the grounds of his “corpulence.” Gluttony was basic to the art of diplomacy and the Iroquois were kept in a state of unrelieved drunken stupor.

The clan mothers of the Iroquois appointed Red Jacket as their spokesman. A year later he spoke against the treaty. “we have injured our women & children in the sail [sic] of our country.” “we now speak soberly” “we women are the true owners we work on it & it is ours” (Sagoyewatha, 98, 99). Evidence of the commons is found in his speeches. Red Jacket visited Washington D.C. in Feb. 1801 at the end of Adams administration seeking justice for the victims of US soldiers who killed three horses “although it was an open common on which they were killed.” (108) In 1802 Red Jacket on the sale of a stretch of land along the Niagara river reserved the beach to encamp on, wood to make fire, the river for fishing, and the use of the bridge and turnpike toll free. In June 1801 Red Jacket was accused of witchcraft by Handsome Lake.

Quakers went to Iroquois lands with Bible, plow, and good intentions prepared as it were to revolutionize both the base and the superstructure from primitive communism into full-scale capitalism. In 1797 John Chapman carried appleseeds into western Pennsylvania and Ohio so settlers could produce the cash crop, strong cider, whose political and social function was fully analogous to the poppy of Afghanistan, or cacoa of the Andes. A barrel of alcohol provided the lonely settler with a poisonous gesture of welcome to Indian visitors. Thomas Jefferson in 1802 wrote Handsome Lake explaining private property. “The right to sell is one of the rights of property. To forbid you the exercise of that right would be wrong to your nation.” Oh, the sly discommoner! He will familiarize these strangers to the measures of meum and tuum. Get the Indians into debt, advised this ‘economic hitman’.

The man who made these dynamics crystal clear at the time was a parson, Thomas Malthus, and like Marx after him he drew on the Iroquois. The first edition of his An Essay on the Principle of Population was published anonymously in 1798. It was a critique of William Godwin’s doctrinal espousal of theoretic communism and of the French revolutionary Condorcet who, while virtually peering up at the glistening blade of the guillotine, sang the possibilities of human benevolence. Malthus attacked both arguments with a bit of smarty-pants sophistry, saying that since humans increase geometrically while food increases arithmetically organized death was inevitable. In 1803 he fattened his second edition with substantial research beginning with his dire ‘observations’ of the American Indians including the Iroquois. His list of the checks on their population reads like the bigoted symptomology of victimization: “the insatiable fondness” for liquor, the decrease of the food supply by procuring of peltry to exchange for drink, dishonorable forms of warfare, cannibalism, degradation of women, and “a want of ardor among the men towards their [sic] women.”

Produced after two years of revolutionary struggle against scarcity and near famine in England and Ireland, Malthus categorically denies to all human beings the right to subsistence. He criticizes Tom Paine’s Rights of Man in particular and argues that in America the number of people without property is small compared to Europe. He infamously wrote, referring to the dispossessed and poor, “At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him” and explained, “the great mistress of the feast … wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.” (Book iv, chapter vi). The principle of European economics – scarcity – is personified as a woman, at the historic moment when on both sides of the Atlantic actual women were disempowered by either the Poor Laws of England or the Land Sales of Iroquoia. Malthus says “humanely refused” and we know what Hazlitt meant in saying “his tongue grows wanton in praise of famine.” Genocide.

In August 1799 at the time of the Strawberry Festival Handsome Lake had a second vision. A messenger came to him and revealed the cosmic plan. The rejection of the white man’s law and the white man’s church was repeated. He saw a woman so fat she could not stand up, symbolizing the white man’s consumerism. He saw a chief who had sold land to the whites now forced to push huge loads of dirt in a wheelbarrow for eternity. Thus began the years of a new religion, based on nativism, evangelism, temperance, and repentance.

Handsome Lake was influenced by Henry O’Bail, son of Cornplanter, educated in Philadelphia, 1791-1796, an accomodationist if not an assimilationist. He imported European concepts of monotheism (“the Great Spirit”) and dualism (heaven and hell). Handsome Lake’s struggle was also a struggle against traditionalists. He opposed armed struggle, he opposed Red Jacket, he opposed the medicine societies, and he opposed the traditional religion of the clan mothers. But what was the traditional?

The land conquest, the witch killing, the nativist commons must be put in their historical context of the French Revolution. The years 1798 to 1803 saw repressive forces and events conjoin. The conjuncture of the Haitian war of independence, of the Irish rebellion, of the naval mutinies, of millennial outbursts, of trade union organizing, of massive mechanization of the human crafts, of the Alien and Sedition Acts, of the advance of the slave plantation based on cotton, of English Enclosure Acts (basically deeds of government robbery), and of English Combination Acts (prevented workers from organizing to increase wages or decrease work but not capitalists from doing so for the opposite purposes). Privatizing and profiteering were dominant values: the commodity and the market ruled supreme: the global planning of morbidity and industrialization went hand in hand. That was the historical conjuncture. During it the spirit of human liberty went underground.

We hike to the Red Chapel, but not everyone of the Crottorf commons consultation comes along. Nicola Bullard takes a gander into the woods.
She sees the lynx.

It most certainly sees her first. They observe each other before the cat casually, characteristically, sauntered silently on. Later as she tells this, people are speechless not knowing quite what to make of it.

and our hearts
thudded and

writes Mary Oliver in her poem on seeing a lynx. Called a “nature poet” we could also call her a poet of the Ohio commons for her respect of the Shawnee, the Iroquois, and creatures like the lynx. For me, it was not only the heart that thudded and stopped but my research bump was alerted too. I continued my studies into the Iroquois commons with the works of my Ohio colleagues, Professor Al Cave, historian of native Americans, and Professor Barbara Alice Mann, scholar and exuberant polemicist on behalf of the women of the Haudenosaunee. I wanted to learn more about women and witchcraft and this led me (back) to … the lynx.

Handsome Lake’s religion evicted Sky woman from her central place in tradition (Mann 336). The relationship between monotheism and commodity production, or class society, is clear in the evolution of ‘the great spirit’ in the mid-18th century north American Indian societies adjusting to the invasion of the Europeans (Cave, passim). Religion grew precisely as the gentile commonality shrank. And this paralleled the attacks on women. The “women formed the spiritual backbone of the culture, acting as its prophets, healers, shamans, and seers, untangling the hair of generations.” (Mann, p. 354) “If materialism underpins capitalism, spirituality is the core of Iroquoian communalism.”

Barbara Mann surveys the anthropological and historical literature, and she issues a cautionary tale of her own to the collectors of oral tradition, for ever since the Europeans in the seventeenth century sought to make dictionaries and grammars they have been the subject of droll disinformation, comic and profane. Thomas McElwain warned his colleagues that the Haudenosaunee enjoyed some fun with the facts. For instance while collecting material for his Seneca dictionary (Handbook of the Seneca Language New York State Museum and Science Service, Bulletin, no. 388, 1963), the informants to the New York anthropologist,Wallace Chafe, grew fatigued from going through his long list of botantical names. Entry 1228 used a word for “low blueberry bush that sounds a good deal like ‘f**k off,” but according to McElwain “the gloss for high bush blueberry … is the correct one for both forms.” The Seneca word for the low blueberry bush points to an essential principle of the commons, the principle of limitation. Bearing that in mind, here is the story of Sky Woman and how the world began.

In the first epoch of time the people of the Sky World passed Earth, or the water world. The dog-tooth violet tree held together the top and bottom of sky. The Sky People toppled it by mistake. Sky-Woman was pushed through the hole by the machinations of her husband who was jealous of her shamanic abilities. Sky Woman gripped the roots of the tree grasping the Three Sisters (corn, squash, beans) with her right hand and tobacco with her left before tumbling further on down. Loon and heron saw her falling and joined their wings to parachute her down to a safe landing. But there was no place to land.

The water animals held council agreeing that Sky Woman could not live in water. A giant tortoise volunteered his back. If only earth could be found to put on it, he would be still for ever. By turns otter and muskrat plummeted to the depths of the ocean to bring back dirt. Each perished in the attempt. When beaver tried he stirred up the ocean floor with his spatula-like tail, and surfaced successfully. The others smeared the dirt across the back of Turtle, which thus became North America or Turtle Island.

Loon and heron near to exhaustion were able to set down Sky Woman on her new home. Sky Woman was pregnant, and gave birth to Lynx who when she grew older became the inseparable walking companion of her mother. They roamed the length and breadth of Turtle Island planting seeds wherever they went. Lynx, for instance, created potatoes, melons, and sunflowers. Sky Woman became too old but Lynx continued wandering on the four Shining Roads returning every night. One day, longing for children of her own, she was seduced by North Wind who wooed and impregnated her behind Sky Woman’s back. The delivery was difficult; in fact, she died giving birth to boy twins. The twins were named Sapling and Flint. Theirs is another story. Here we just say they continued the work of creation of plants, animals, mountains, and the running waters. Barbara Mann informs us that “Sapling is honored for creating the strawberry…” (p. 33). Meanwhile Lynx was buried and became Mother Earth.

Professor Mann quotes the primary sources of the 18th century. In 1703 Lahontan found that the Iroquois would “choose rather to die than to kill” a lynx (I, 345). Heckewelder was with a hunting party in 1773 which refused to eat a lynx even though the hunters were starving. “Mother Earth was (and still is!) a living entity. Her Spirit was the Spirit of the Lynx, Herself” (Mann, p. 204). Mary Oliver again:

we’ve heard,
the lynx
wanders like silk
on the deep
hillsides of snow –
it lunges in trees
as thick as castles
as cold as iron.
What should we say
is the truth of the world?
The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
or the push of the promise?

The particular lynx of Crottorf and the Ohio lynx which caused the poet to ask about the truth of the world are not quite the same. The poet broke the historical silence over the destruction of the Ohio commons and the trauma of the defeated Iroquois with a tone of sadness and a concept of Nature separate from human activity. The Crottorf lynx appeared in the form not of destruction but return and in the context of the restored forest. The return was in the midst of our powerful talking of a non-capitalist future partly instigated by the indigenous revolt which is no longer romantic, primitive, utopian, or surreal. We have an idea of the truth of the world and we push toward the promise of ‘the commons.’

Putting the Iroquois and the lynx to one side, what does this mixture of coincidence and the tangled hairs of the commons amount to? What tales are we creating? Is the commons tribal or cosmopolitan? What values are shared by commoning in a high tech environment and a low tech situation? What holds together the microcosm of the urban garden and the macrocosm of the polluted stratosphere? Does it necessarily gum up the money-making machine? Does the red commons require revolutionary war while the green commons requires unpalatable compromises with NGOs? Why must the crêche be its base?

These are now the conversations of the world, ‘mother earth’.

The actuality for the people of the Long House was the law of hospitality where none is refused. Karl Marx noted “at twilight each day a dinner in common served to the entire body in attendance…” and with the commons came gratitude. Marx noted the meal began with grace: “it was a prolonged exclamation by a single person on a high shrill note, falling down in cadences into stillness.” (Marx, p. 172-3)

Such ends the story of the commons, the castle, the witch and the lynx.
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