Earth Day, 24 April 1016
Library Lot, Ann Arbor
Last year on Earth Day we sang the Digger’s Song and I promised not to come again unless it was with a jackhammer. Here I am with no jack hammer. So it was at best a hope deferred or at worst a false promise. In any case a defeat.
I was asked to speak about “the commons” and I shall. It begins with where we stand, the library lot. Is it to be a parking lot for developers to lounge at the trough and consume the swill as the vision of development, with Governor Snyder in the middle on Main Street? Passing the buck and making a mess of water, earth, and air?
A hundred years ago today in Dublin the Easter Rebellion commenced. This was an urban insurrection, in the revolutionary tradition. Not more than a thousand participated. It lasted five days, before the British military had slain hundreds, and sixteen were executed including those who had signed the Proclamation of the Republic.
The Proclamation called on Irishmen and Irishwomen to strike for freedom. The republicans were “supported by her exiled children in America.” “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.” Sovereignty meant independence from Great Britain, the United Kingdom, England. James Connolly explained, “the essential meanness of the British Empire is that it robs under pretence of being generous.” What was true of the British Empire is doubly true for the American who call robbery “aid.”
“Ownership” referred to forms of the commons, distorted by colonialism, ruined by famine, enclosed by ranchers. That ownership was “indefeasible,” which means it cannot be undone.
The Easter Rebellion pertains to us because it refers to land. Secondly, it pertains to us because of the audacity of its advocates.
The Easter Rebellion pertains to us for a third reason. Ireland has never been a single island or even a divided one; its people have carried ideas of saoirse, liberation, to the four winds. It was international. In India Gandhi paid it attention. Bengali militants raised their children singing Irish political songs. Sumit Sakar told me. In India, the British Raj, the Irish rebellion was heard by the revolutionary Hindu and the revolutionary Muslim.
Easter was heard in that massive continental shut-in, Tsarist Russia, whose millions trudged back from the mud and blood of war, and Lenin had the wit to see in them the force of the future. Lenin jumped for joy in Zurich where he was composing Imperialism; the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Trotsky too recognized this first revolt against the European war, the first 20th century insurrection against imperialism.
James Connolly was called a fool. Amid the charred remains of bodies lynched that year W.E.B. Dubois lamented, “Would to God some of us had sense enough to be fools!”
The Easter Rising did indeed lead to civil war and then to partial independence. But it did not restore what James Connolly called “Celtic communism.” Irish nationalism separated the flag from the land with deep damage to “her exiled children in America” who no longer could accept the commons.
What is a democratic socialist? What is a political revolution? These are questions that have been raised in the Presidential campaign. Deep answers invariably come to the commons. Common good, common weal, common wealth, common land. We must think about it in relation to the unfinished Easter Rebellion. Can the commons be restored without insurrection? How can force and power be exerted collectively and massively? What can a few people do? That’s the political question expressed by the insurrection of the Easter rebels. It was a John Brown kind of thing; if not a dress rehearsal exactly, then a presagement.
The New York Times this morning leads with a story about income inequality, how 1% of households own 42% of wealth. It goes on about the “velvet rope,” gold cards, skin care, special scotch, butlers, policies of income segmentation aboard cruise ships, &c., and quotes disgraceful academic research showing that “envy can be good for the bottom line.” While equality and the common good is implied throughout the article, the commons is not about distribution or envy; it has to be about justice and the origin of wealth.
The major story in the weekly review is called “This is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.” It advocates a right to roam. “No Trespassing” is not good for health: the commons is coming back as an issue, this story suggests, because people are too fat and need to walk it off. But the 5th Amendment requires compensation for public use of private property. Actually, historically, it is the other way around: private property was once public. All those squares and rectangles you see when looking down from an airplane, those endless straight-as-an-arrow highways, was how “the founding fathers” surveyed the stolen indigenous commons before selling it off.
We must lay the axe to the root. The causes of inequality include the ownership of the means of subsistence.
Land is the ground of our being. Its enclosure is the start of oppression. It has been common for tens of thousands of years of human habitation. Its privatization is the beginning of capitalism. Now called development by realtors, now called progress by economists, called TINA (“there is no alternative”) by Margaret Thatcher, now called neo-liberalism. It is the crimes of “tieves of everybody’s tings,” as the London hip-hop artist Akala says.
Land is turned into real estate, into a commodity. It is stolen, by means of extermination of indigenous culture, by means of the rape of indigenous women, by means of the destruction of indigenous subsistence, by means of direct and indirect germ warfare. Ann Larimore, emeritus professor of University of Michigan, tells the dominant story of America in ten simple words as follows: “Male capitalist enterprises seized land from women farmers and gatherers.”
They called it “constitution.” They put slavery and private property in place of community and the commons. All else stems from these crimes. It is the source of “income inequality.” It is the source of fencing, Keep Off, and No Trespassing. You can’t even walk about.
The poet Yeats wrote a poem called “Easter 1916” to commemorate this rising. He said “a terrible beauty was born.” Well, beauty can mean many things. He is ambiguous. The good part of his poem refers to animals—a horse, long-legged moor hens. The bad part is this: He said the revolutionaries were bewildered by an excess of love. He claimed they were like a stone obstructing the water, and their hearts had become like stone. This is not right, the insurrectionists were more like the waters of justice than the stone of obstruction. Because the idea of saoirse keeps on rolling, rolling on, plump as a long-legged moor hen in the river or as sharp as a horse’s hoof plashing on a rock.
I conclude with two animal stories, and an animal poem.
Two weeks ago we learned of the octopus who escaped the aquarium in New Zealand and used the sewer pipes as a mean of freedom, and the chimpanzee who escaped the zoo in Japan and used the electrical power lines as an escape mechanism. The infrastructures of enclosure become means of liberation. Can we learn from the creatures? Suppose we heard them speak. Thanks to the songwriter Dave Bartholomew we can listen in to the animals.
The monkey speaks his mind
And three monkeys sat in a coconut tree
Discussing things as they are said to be
Said one to other now listen, you two
There’s a certain rumor that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life
Yea, the monkey speaks his mind
And you’ve never known a mother monk
To leave her babies with others to bunk
And passed them on from one to another
’Til they scarcely knew which was their mother
Yea, the monkey speak his mind
And another thing you will never see
A monkey build a fence around a coconut tree
And let all the coconuts go to waste
Forbidding other monkeys to come and taste
Why, if I put a fence around this tree
Starvation would force you to steal from me
Yea, the monkey speaks his mind
Here’s another thing a monkey won’t do
Go out on a night and get all in a stew
Or use a gun or a club or a knife
And take another monkey’s life
Yes, man descended, the worthless bum
But, brothers, from us he did not come
Yea, the monkey speaks his mind
Yea, now the monkey speaks his mind