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
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:
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.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
by Peter Linebaugh, Counterpunch