A few weeks into the current lockdown, as fatalities and reported cases of COVID19 were continuing to rise, news from the frontlines of Ireland’s food production and agri-sector began to arrive, casting an unsettling light on the many – and now overtly dangerous – levels of exploitation on which this cornerstone of the national economy is based.
First, in April, the public learned that Keelings had flown in (and lodged in shared accommodation) almost 200 casually contracted workers to shift the bulk of the coming season’s fruit for market: a decision that seemed deliberately to ignore the health and safety guidelines specified by the HSE’s emergency Coronavirus taskforce. Such a course of action was justified by Keelings on the basis of keeping domestic and global supply chains open, with little comment made as to the risks posed to the fruit-pickers themselves, their families, and, indeed, anyone in contact with them, as a result of company policy.
This reckless managerial focus – on meeting previously projected revenue margins, at workers’ expense and during a global pandemic – reared its head again in a similar, if even more disturbing, case of industrial recalcitrance in May, when an outbreak of the potentially lethal virus was recorded in a number of Irish meat factories. The sub-heading to The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the scandal was appropriately ominous: ‘Workers share COVID19 fears over lack of social distancing, crowded accommodation and being forced to buy their own PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]’.
The story makes for difficult reading, exposing a culture of normalised exploitation and industrial slaughter, in which low-paid, poorly contracted migrant workers ‘feel intimidated and vulnerable’, unsure of their legal rights, and fearing for their medical safety, with one whistleblower also expressing his combined horror and sadness at the cruelty with which, even in normal circumstances, Irish cattle are butchered and turned into meat. In such a scenario, COVID19 posed an immediate threat to the life and health of factory employees; and yet the overall impression the interviews conveyed was that, from the point of view of both the workers and the animals they were dealing with, business as usual was a systematically ruthless and dehumanising affair.
Although occurring five years after the publication of Jason W. Moore’s book, both incidents could be cited as living (if also quite morbid) proof of the validity of his central argument: that ‘Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.’ Cheap labour, migrant and working-class bodies, brutalised animals, rigorously schematised seasonal cycles, are all – equally and as a whole – fodder for the relentless pillage, the forever-primary drive for profit, that is capitalism’s life-in-the-world.
Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique and revision of environmental concepts and approaches, rather than a miscellany of insights into present environmental struggles (as in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, for example). Such a focus, however, is not necessarily negative: what Moore’s analysis lacks in activist-oriented urgency it arguably makes up for in the expansiveness of its critical scope. Moore’s writing is that of a sincere, discerning and formidable critic of ecological and political arrogance, both capitalistic and leftist; and crucially (against that most insidious of critical bugbears) he is methodical and convincing in suggesting an alternative series of attitudes and understandings.
As implied by the title, Moore sets out to dismantle the distinction between humanity and nature, industrial civilization and the environment, as binary, separate forces, and instead proposes a long-view and multi-faceted perspective: one that recognises how dependent human activities and power dynamics are on natural seasons, cycles, and ecosystems. We change them, Moore argues, and they change us, continuously: and it is on such a ‘world-ecology’ that the success of future efforts to disband and replace neoliberal civilization with radical and sustainable communities-in-process will depend. ‘A capitalist looks at a forest and sees dollar signs,’ Moore observes,
an environmentalist sees trees and birds and soils; a world-ecologist sees how humans and other species have co-produced the forest, and how that “bundled” forest simultaneously conditions and constrains capital today.
At first glance, the significance of such an argument may seem somewhat remote: an example of the kind of linguistic and theoretical tinkering that only an academic Marxist could afford to spend their time discussing or disputing. But as Moore’s analysis unfolds, its pertinence to contemporary anti-capitalist struggles is clear to see. ‘Yes, diseases make history,’ Moore notes, but only insofar as they (and the conditions that intensify their effects) are understood as ‘bound to commerce and empire’.
So today, as historian Mike Davis and others have also argued, the COVID19 pandemic itself may be viewed as having its origin in – its capacity to wreak so much damage stems from – the networks of relentless intervention and attempted control (over bodies both human and ‘natural’) that sustain the capitalist project globally. Broadly speaking, the same may be said of the climactic and civilisational dangers that accompany continued carbon emissions, or global warming. In Moore’s terminology, capitalism’s ‘way of organising nature’ is inherently destructive of the ‘web of life’ on which its own existence (along with everything else) depends. Or as Karl Marx observed:
All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility […] Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer.
To his immense credit, Moore treats the latter perception less as an aphorism to be glibly quoted than as a key to a palpable, dialectical conflict in which we are, collectively, enmeshed. Likewise, recalling Marx’s earlier recognition of ‘the merciless vandalism’ with which land usage in both England and Germany had been standardised by way of ‘the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil’, Moore surveys the twenty-first-century vista of global, market-driven, genetically modified industrial agriculture as a field of combined ecological and material violence. He concludes:
We can say with some confidence that food – not just land – has become a central site of the world class struggle in a way that is entirely unprecedented, and unthinkable even three decades ago….. As neoliberalism’s [manufactured] definition of food has rolled out – shifting from the Green Revolution’s caloric metric to the ‘edible food-like substances’ that now line our supermarket shelves – it seems to have made food, and by extension nature, much more fundamental to the Old Left questions of liberté, égalité, fraternité than ever before. The class struggle of the twenty-first century will turn, in no small measure, upon how one answers the questions: What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?
So it is, Moore suggests, that campaigns for food justice, for ethical and non-industrialised farming, for environmental sustainability, for ecological restoration, all drive to the heart of the toxic, earth-spanning, wage-devouring monster that is the modern capitalistic world-order (or disorder). At the same time, these seemingly specialised movements challenge activists to sharpen our understanding of what we mean by – how we envision and situate ourselves, our resources and our relationships within – that horizon of political emancipation that draws us forward.
Moore’s critical perspective is illuminating, his meticulous dissection of capitalist accumulation most incisive when he relates his analysis to the tensions and contradictions of our present moment. Moore is refreshingly and emphatically opposed, for example, to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, for instance, who in an interview with the so-called Duke of Cambridge at the World Economic Forum at Davos last year stated that ‘the Anthropocene, or age of humans’ was effectively to blame for climate change.
‘The Anthropocene makes for an easy story’, Moore writes,
Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. The mosaic of human activity in the web of life is reduced to an abstract Humanity: a homogeneous acting unit. Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more, have been largely removed from consideration. At best, these relations are acknowledged, but as after-the-fact supplements to the framing of the problem.
Such skepticism of ‘The Anthropocene’ and its eloquently embedded public advocates in the Euro-American climate movement is well-founded, as even a cursory examination reveals: of Attenborough himself, who previously has posited famine as an acceptable natural check to the supposed ‘disaster’ of ‘overpopulation’ in the global South, or a figure like Michael Moore, whose most recent film gives credence to the same Malthusian and racist world-view.
By contrast, Moore’s work correctly pins the blame for impending climate collapse on the the globe’s expropriators-in-chief and the systematised practices that serve them, insisting that the fight for an ecologically sustainable society and future is by nature a struggle against ‘[i]nequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more’. Moore’s sober, but clear-eyed discovery is a valuable one: that we are both riven and empowered by our own interconnectedness; that with so much at stake, so much already lost and gone, disfigured and deranged, we still, together, have a world to win.
Speaking in the extended aftermath
of the so-called Indian Removal Act of 1830, Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning
US president famed for his previous (and merciless) warfare against Creek and
Seminole tribes in the American South, laid out the case for indigenous
extermination. ‘They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral
habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable
change in their condition,’ he claimed, concluding that as the many native
communities of the South were now ‘established in the midst of another and a
superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or
seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of
circumstances and ere long disappear.’ By the end of Jackson’s second term of
office, ‘the force of circumstances’ – implemented by a combination of
wild-firing federal troops and unrestrained settler militias – had resulted in
the violent relocation of almost sixty thousand indigenous people from their
land and homes to regions west of the Mississippi river, in what historians
(shy of the term ethnic cleansing)
oftenrefer to as the ‘Trail of
‘All the presidents after Jackson
march in his footsteps,’ Dunbar-Ortiz by contrast observes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United
States, a powerful chronicle of native life and struggle over the
approximately five centuries of European colonization that witnessed the
shaping of the USA as we know it. ‘Consciously or not,’ Dunbar-Ortiz writes,
America’s ‘ruling class’ has consistently imitated the task Jackson set for his
own administration: how (in her words) ‘to reconcile democracy and genocide and
characterize it as freedom for the people.’ Tellingly, Jackson’s portrait today
graces the modern $20 US dollar bill, while the nation’s current
commander-in-chief has praised him as a political forefather to his own brand
of toxic, bigoted, wealth-wielding populism.
In Jackson’s era as now, however,
the imperialistic arrogance of the US government was met with (at times
brilliantly effective) resistance; and it is one of the many merits of
Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical account to foreground the continuous uprisings of
indigenous peoples, as well as the persistence and diversity of indigenous
cultures, in the face of intensifying colonial aggression. Cataloguing the relentless
and self-heroising savagery of US policies (federal and settler alike) towards
indigenous populations, her narrative in the process shakes loose many of the
foundational assumptions on which American politics and historiography has
traditionally been built. Eloquently, meticulously, and with an almost
devastating critical focus, she not only dissects the doctrines of manifest
destiny (the right to colonize Westwards) and civilizing mission (the right to
whitewash such colonization, and expand it globally), but also probes inherited
concepts concerning property, the use and ownership of land, industrial
development, and the like. ‘The Haudenosaunee peoples,’ she notes of the
alliance of tribes spanning the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River to the
Atlantic, and as far south as the Carolinas,
avoided centralized power by means of a clan-village system of democracy based on collective stewardship of the land. Corn, the staple crop, was stored in granaries and distributed equitably in this matrilineal society by the clan mothers, the oldest women from every extended family.
As here, throughout her account
Dunbar-Ortiz refuses to fossilise indigenous traditions, writing instead as if
the same modes and formations of communal organisation were living
possibilities (and perhaps they are). In a similar fashion, we encounter
Tecumseh: a Shawnee warrior and one of the key figures of an indigenous
confederacy formed in the early nineteenth century to resist the decrees and
incursions of the US government and speculators. ‘The way, the only way to stop
this evil’, he is recorded as saying,
… is for the red people to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now, for it was never divided, but belongs to all. Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?
Such episodes hold up a mirror to
the many, violent commodifications of capitalist society – modern and
historical – exposing its delusions, as well as its frequent brutality
(Tecumseh himself was eventually killed in 1813).
As with issues of land and property,
the question of class – of who works, who gains, and how these social relations
are developed and enforced over time – is latent in much of the story that
Dunbar-Ortiz returns to the record, and sometimes openly bares its fangs.
‘Although a man of war,’ she writes, General Philip Sheridan of the Union Army
‘was an entrepreneur at heart’; she quotes Sheridan in a letter to Ulysses S.
Grant in 1867, ‘We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians stop the
progress of [the railroads].’ Systematic, sustained colonial violence was the
pre-condition for capitalist accumulation in the emerging republic; tracing the
profit motive through its history is to discover, again and again, the stench
of scorched earth and race hatred that made many of its most esteemed
emissaries rich, from the oil and railroad baron, John D. Rockefeller, to
industrialist and Wall Street tycoon, J.P. Morgan.
Sheridan himself is an unsettlingly
emblematic figure in this narrative. The originator of the genocidal aphorism
that the only good Indian is a dead
Indian, this ‘entrepreneur at heart’ was born to Irish parents who fled
serf-like rural poverty in Cavan for America in the early nineteenth century.
As such, Sheridan was never fully accepted as an equal by the political and
military elites who nonetheless praised his uncompromising zeal as a commander
and, indeed, his later supposed achievements as an environmentalist (he
championed the founding of Yellowstone National Park, after having forcibly
cleared the same region of its original inhabitants). This dynamic is evident
in Abraham Lincoln’s aloof and subtly eugenicist description of the fast-rising
officer: as a ‘brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not
enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can
scratch them without stooping.’
Sheridan’s case was in many ways
typical. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the most
ruthless regiments and settler militias of the emerging United States –
responsible for the murder, mutilation, and destruction of thousands of
indigenous tribes and villages – were lead and stocked by Irish emigrants,
themselves (like their relatives in Ireland) very often racialised as un-human
or sub-human in popular and press culture. One result, as David Roediger has written,
is that ‘politicians of Irish and Scotch-Irish heritage’ in the same period
worked diligently to disseminate ‘the idea that a new white American race,
decidedly inclusive of the Irish, had superseded the Anglo-Saxon race as the
benchmark of fitness for citizenship’ in the new democracy: setting the terms
of a discourse with which white nationalists and supremacists, including the
likes of Steven Bannon, still engage. Such themes are of course particularly
resonant in Ireland today, which in recent months has witnessed a surge in
racist mobilising and violence deliberately designed to appeal to a (diffuse,
but insidious) tradition that ties Irishness to notions of white supremacist
victimhood. Some awareness of the history of these ideological postures is
arguably more necessary than ever. As Dunbar-Ortiz summarises, ‘living persons’
may not be ‘responsible for what their ancestors did,’ but ‘they are
responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.’
Time and again, in fact, we are
reminded that populations dehumanised, displaced, and even exterminated by
colonial dogmas and military directives have participated, in one form or
another, in the ethnic cleansing and conquest of indigenous communities
elsewhere: communities with whom, superficially at least, they would appear to
share common cause. On this last point, she is unflinchingly factual, observing
that former slaves and freedom fighters of colour in the American Civil War,
for example, joined (and were deliberately stationed by federal authorities on)
the frontlines of anti-guerilla campaigns against native communities, an
apparent contradiction that adds an edge to Bob Marley’s song on the same
Soldier’. Likewise earlier, during the
Spanish campaigns of the sixteenth century, we learn that ‘Cortés and his two
hundred European mercenaries could never have overthrown the [Aztec] Mexican
state without the Indigenous insurgency he co-opted’. In this case, however,
one of the great strengths of Dunbar-Ortiz’s account is her equally clear-eyed
perception that ‘resistant peoples’ hoping ‘to overthrow [an] oppressive
regime’, should not be blamed for, their cause cannot be used to excuse, the
‘genocidal’ aims of the ‘gold-obsessed Spanish colonizers or the European
institutions that backed them.’ By persuasion, force, or guile, every colonial
enterprise in history has enlisted sections of the populations it sought to
subjugate for the furtherance of its aims (exploiting existing divisions in
order to secure whatever form of hegemonic power best favoured its own
perceived interests); the racist, resource-hungry killing machine of the
Spanish conquest was no exception to this pattern.
Although completed in 2014,
Dunbar-Ortiz’s research and approach nevertheless speak to a number of
political realities that have evolved in the years since. Reading so unified an
account of indigenous life and struggle, indeed, it’s difficult not to interpret the extreme levels and
incidence of violence against indigenous women in the US today (‘one in three
Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the
rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national
average’) as a continuation of a history of state formation for which the
murder and brutalisation of native women and children specifically was standard
procedure: whether in crimes such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (one of
several atrocities that Dunbar-Ortiz rightly posits as precursors to later
chapters in America’s imperial story, including the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968)
or through federally implemented separation and re-education policies (forcing
children into missionary, abuse-laden institutes) of the early twentieth
Dunbar-Ortiz’s prose is also
palpably sensitive to the ‘centuries of resistance and storytelling passed
through the generations’ of indigenous communities, reminding readers that for
native tribes still living under conditions of imposed marginality and social
invisibility, ‘[s]urviving genocide’ is itself a form ‘dynamic, not passive’
resistance. From which vantage-point, the Wet’suwet’en nation’s ongoing, militant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to install a gas
infrastructure on their land – like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance
(beginning in 2016)
to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US – may be seen as part of the long,
many-seasoned trajectory of indigenous self- and environmental protection that
Dunbar-Ortiz outlines: protection in the face of settler-colonialist state
projects that have always regarded such actions as illegitimate, such
communities as disposable. As the preface has it, everything in this ‘history
is about the land: who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained
its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (‘real
estate’) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ In that
respect, the struggle goes on, drawing on traditions that books like this keep
fresh in the memory, vivid as spring.
Peter Linebaugh’s 2019 book Red Round Globe Hot Burning is his greatest masterpiece yet in a lifetime of triumphs. It is a mind-blowing contribution to his lifelong quest for the commons. This is a quest begun through his apprenticeship to the late Edward Thompson (whose copy of The Trial of Edward Despard Linebaugh has carried with him in his luggage all his life), and deepened with his stunning work The London Hanged. Then there is Linebaugh’s utterly miraculous collaboration with ‘fellow shipmate’ Marcus Rediker on The Many-Headed Hydra. Throw in his unforgettable Mayday Essays and his work on The Magna Carta Manifesto, not to mention his Stop Thief, a wonderful, Wobbly-inspired titled collection of essays and you have a writer of such extraordinary power that reading him can move you to tears (and will always lift your spirits). His subjects are the picaresque proletariat of the revolutionary Atlantic: some of the boldest, most irrepressible characters to ever walk the earth.
The title of this recent book is taken from William Blake’s Vision of The Daughters of Albion
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Linebaugh, like his mentor Thompson, is a Blake enthusiast. He writes perceptively about Blake’s work, seeing the revolutionary thinking in Blake’s complex prophecy in The Book of Urizen which he interprets as an allegory designed to describe the Atlantic transition to child labour and slavery.
It is how Linebaugh glosses the phrase ‘Red Round Globe Hot Burning’ that speaks to everything about our world today, beset as with are with fascist berserkers and a climate out of whack. In his tale ‘at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class, and of Kate and Ned Despard’ Linebaugh, ‘the people’s remembrancer’, depicts two revolutionary lovers who broke through the hardening walls of white supremacy and made a valiant attempt to overthrow the still nascent industrial capitalist system and restore the commons. In the words that they wrote together while Despard was in prison, and that he delivered from the scaffold not long after other legendary heroes from the United Irishmen suffered similar fates:
But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.
Edward Despard was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army who once saved the life of Nelson and was greatly respected for his abilities as an engineer. He married Kate, an African American woman, and turned revolutionary in part because of his experiences among indigenous commoners in Nicaragua and Honduras. It was Despard’s open sympathy with people of colour that provoked the baymen of Honduras ‘to take arms in Defence of our lives and properties against an armed banditti of all colours’. Kate, ‘the fearless abolitionist, the tireless prison reformer, the United Irish woman, is the hero of this story’. She visited Ned in three prisons, was a terror to the authorities, for to quote Nelson, she was ‘violently in love’ with Ned. In one awesome campaign she successfully prevented Jeremy Bentham from building his panopticon on Tothill’s Fields commons.
The themes of Linebaugh’s latest book
The methods that Linebaugh uses to tell this tale are bold and well suited to his themes. He roams like a true commoner through space and time and across many disciplines (History, Literature, Climate Science, Thermodynamics, Engineering, Mycology, Zoology, etc) which makes his book such an incredible read. I have been through it now six times and each reading offers fresh delights. He makes great use of the poetry of John Clare and Blake, two fervent lovers of the commons, and of the poetry of the ‘hidden Ireland’ where insurrectionary thoughts were never far from the surface. He employs both statistical and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the truth behind his favourite peasant ‘koan’:
The Law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the commons,
But leaves the greater villain loose that steals the commons from the goose.
Also, like a true Blake enthusiast, he has an uncanny knack for reading hostile official sources in a ‘Satanic light’ to provide brilliant evidence of the class struggle. What always stands out in Linebaugh’s work is his love of language, particularly the language of poets and proletarians. You really get the sense of Linebaugh relishing the language of each quotation he uses. There is one from an extraordinary passage: part Linebaugh, part William Covel, execrating the enclosers of Enfield commons, which nicely illustrates how much of ‘a true Leveler’ Linebaugh has become through his years of thinking and writing about a tradition inspired by Winstanley and the diggers.
[Covel’s] class consciousness was vivid. He inveighed against the possessors, their fat and scornful eyes, their taunting speech – “What lyings! What cheatings! What blood! What murders! What divisions! What tumults! What pride! What covetousness!” “Oh how the buyers and sellers are guarded, fenced with walls, and defended with Laws!” He said that the wicked of the world rule by three principles: 1) strength united is stronger, 2) “divide and spoil,” and 3) “make poor enough, and you will rule well enough”. In particular, he denounced lawyers, clergymen, corporations, and great tradesmen. Gold and silver were their signs of glory “but to others [they were] a sign of death.” In contrast, mariners, those who follow the plough, and those who practice handicrafts were useful, for on their labors all others depended.
You could with great success and much happiness for yourself practice bibliomancy with Linebaugh’s book. It would be a great spiritual defence in these frightening times to open the text at random and read his glorious prose or the many brilliant quotations he has selected. His discussion of the different kinds of love, for instance, is marvelous,
This is a story both of a couple and of the commons. Doubtless eros was part of their love – Ned and Kate had a son- and so was philia, or that egalitarian love of comrades and friends. The love of the commons was akin to that love the Greeks called agape, the creative and redemptive love of justice, with its sacred connotations.
So, what is the commons that Linebaugh writes of? I would say a permanent revolution in social reproduction inspired by the history of commoning. He advocates for the omnia sunt communia of Thomas Müntzer, the great religious communist leader of the German peasants’ revolt. The great digger, or ‘true leveller’, Gerard Winstanley’s ‘the earth was made a common treasury for all’ inspires his thinking. Linebaugh distinguishes between the radical claims on the commons made by Winstanley to those of Thomas Rainborough.
Winstanley propounds a communist theory of land. Rainborough is all about government and the nation, whereas Winstanley is all about land and subsistence. Rainborough was a Leveler, while Winstanley called himself a “True Leveller”. Rainborough is deferential (“truly, sir”), while Winstanley is declarative (“freedom is the man who will turn the world upside downe”).
Spence is one the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, irrepressible radical worker intellectuals from the British Isles. He wrote brilliant tracts like the extraordinary work on social reproduction, The Rights of Infants.
Aristocracy (sneering): And is your sex also set up for pleaders of rights?
Woman: Yes, Molochs! Our sex were defenders of rights from the beginning. And though men, like other he-brutes, sink calmly into apathy respecting their offspring, you shall find nature, as it never was, so it never shall be extinguished in us. You shall find that we not only know our rights, but have spirit to assert them, to the downfall of you and all tyrants. And since it is so that the men, like he-asses, suffer themselves to be laden with as many pair of panyers of rents, tithes, &c. as your tender consciences please to lay upon them, we, even we, the females, will vindicate the rights of the species, and throw you and all your panyers in the dirt.
When he wasn’t revisiting his plans for a commoners’ republic, Spencer was singing revolutionary songs, like A Song to Be Sung at the Commencement of the Millenium.
Hark! how the Trumpet’s sound,
Proclaims the Land around The Jubilee!
Tells all the Poor oppress’d,
No more shall they be cess’d
Nor Landlords more molest
And, if not that, he was chalking slogans on walls and roads (“You rogues! No landlords!” “Fat Barns! Full bellies!”). He minted these class war coins with slogans like “Let tyrants tremble at the crow of Liberty”. When he was arrested, as he was many times, he used his trial to restate his plan for an egalitarian society. As Linebaugh writes, ‘Spence was for all creatures – animals, as well as humans – regardless of gender, race, or age’. His thinking which evolved from the commons into ‘a precursor of communism’ was made up of many strands:
Spence combined the practicalities of the commons’ customary rights with the ideals of universal equality. He drew on several ideas and traditions, the Garden of Eden, the golden age, utopian, Christian, Jewish, American Indian, millenarian, dissenting. All of these ideas were experienced in a context of a commons of the sea (his mother was from the Orkney Islands) and of the land (the Newcastle Town Moor), not yet enclosed.
Linebaugh on the great slave revolt of San Domingue (Haiti)
One of the ‘Atlantic Mountains’ that is a towering presence in the book is the Island of San Domingue (Haiti). The greatest slave revolt in human history which was begun on the night of August 22 1791, at the Bois De Caiman (a commons), ‘an all-out war began that culminated twelve years later – at the time of the Despard conspiracy – in the abolition of slavery and the independence of Haiti. It is a great and horrifying story of human freedom that reverberated throughout the Atlantic mountains, shaking every peak and valley’. The successful ‘black Jacobin’ revolutionaries led by Toussaint Louverture taunted their French adversaries (who were sent on a genocidal mission of extermination by Napoleon) by singing songs of the French Revolution, now in Thermidorean decline. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who took over as leader following the capture of Louverture named his army ‘the army of the Incas’ in a fabulous salute to the failed Tupac Amaru revolt in the Andes of 1780 which had first caused the Atlantic Mountains to shake. Linebaugh refers to the work of Susan Buck-Morss, whose book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, underlines the vital influence that the Haitian revolution had on Hegel’s development of the Master-Slave dialectic. It is incredible to think of the Haitian revolution as a root of the Marxist dialectic when you consider that Marx’s great hero of world history was another slave revolutionary, Spartacus.
Another of the great revolutionary movements of the time was that of the United Irishmen with whom Despard would eventually intersect. He became a member of the United Englishmen and of the London Corresponding Society. After Despard’s hanging, Kate disappears into the fold of the surviving cohort of United Irishmen. The United Irishmen was a glorious moment in Irish history made up of the amazing characters, a movement for ‘the men of no property’, although there were bourgeois figures like Valentine Lyons (whose mansion Kate found refuge in). The military leader was Edward Fitzgerald, ‘scion of the most privilege strata of aristocracy’. But the mass of the people was ‘helots’, a term used by William Drennan, who also coined the phrase ‘the emerald isle’ and composed the oath of the United Irishmen. These were the dispossessed, many of whom seethed with revolutionary discontent. ‘In Ireland’, Linebaugh writes,
We witness popular mobilization for the cooperative production of subsistence, in a powerful political practice known as “hasty diggings”. The Northern Star, the Belfast newspaper of the United Irish, reported that when William Orr of county Antrim was imprisoned, between five and six hundred of his neighbours assembled “and cut down his entire harvest before one o’clock on that day – and what is passing strange, and will no doubt alarm some people, would accept of no compensation”.
Revolutionary influences coursed through the Atlantic. In The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker describe the picaresque proletariat as transmitters of revolutionary messages. In an extraordinary passage that beautifully describes how Robert Wedderburn who was radicalised by the ideas of Thomas Spence became a ‘linchpin’ of the revolutionary Atlantic: they write,
Like the linchpin, a small piece of metal that connected the wheels to the axle of the carriage and made possible the movement and firepower of the ship’s cannon, Wedderburn was an essential piece of something larger, mobile and powerful.
Linebaugh has often referred to the ‘boomerang’ of the revolutionary ideas from the Diggers and the Ranters from the English revolution of the seventeenth century as they hurled about the Atlantic and returned to the British Isles in the eighteenth century. Both Despard and the United Irish were part of this movement influenced by the revolutionary currents of the time and attracted to the commoning traditions of indigenous peoples. Edward Fitzgerald was inducted into the society of the Iroquois having been saved from near death by his servant Tony Small, a freed slave. The revolutionaries of Haiti and Ireland were greatly influenced by the writings of Constance Volney, ‘one of those aristocratic Frenchmen whose enlightened outlook contributed to the breakdown of the old regime and whose thinking soared with the revolutionary waves that began to break in 1789’. In 1799, Captain Marcus Rainsford, an officer in the British army, who had served during the American revolution got to experience firsthand revolutionary Haiti: ‘the sons of revolution, American and Haitian, ate from a common dish’. The ‘dish with one spoon’ that the Iroquois leader, Joseph Brant spoke of is an inspiring example of radical egalitarianism in dialectical opposition to the refinements of fine dining. Linebaugh writes:
The meal may be the basis of human solidarity or a mirror of social hierarchy. By the seventeenth century, at least among European nobility, eating from a common dish was finished: everyone had a spoon and a fork and their own plate. Such became the bourgeois savoir vivre by the eighteenth century. These notions of civilite and politesse slowly became a means of differentiating humanite.
Captain Rainsford meets a black labourer who keeps a copy of Volney’s Travels, one of the earliest European texts to posit the African origins of human civilization, much as Martin Bernal did in the late twentieth century. It is one of the many beautiful pieces of anecdotal evidence that Linebaugh presents where humans transcend the pernicious barriers of racial supremacy. Ironically, Volney’s Ruins includes ‘the revolutionary invocation’:
Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchers and silent walls!….confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, [you] had announced to man the sacred dogma of equality.
This text, beloved by the United Irish, was definitively translated by Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow, two inveterate racists. Such are the contradictions of history.
Climate Crisis in Red Round Globe Hot Burning
‘Red round globe hot burning’ refers to the effects that our climate is now experiencing from our carbon-based economic system. The rise of Industrial capitalism was intimately tied up with the theorization of the earth as a machine. Linebaugh quotes from James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, published in 1795:
When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of these several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end.
‘A geological epoch commenced with a machine, the steam engine, at the same historical moment that the study of the earth, or the science of geology, conceived of the earth as a machine with heat energy at its source.’
But Linebaugh is rightly wary of an uncritical use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ which puts equal blame on the coal miner forced to labour long hours in hellish conditions with the big mining interests who were at the apex of a brutal class society, whose rise (per Karl Marx) was written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire. Any reading of Marx’s Capital, especially the utterly horrifying sections on ‘The Working Day’ or even more pertinently his section on primitive accumulation would lead one to recoil from a catch-all term like the ‘Anthropocene’ which avoids any mention of class struggle, the very motor of historical materialism. Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital provides a brilliant Marxist analysis of this intense period of class struggle and technological change.
Linebaugh is also scathing of the ‘stages’ theory of history.
Historical determinism is the law of empire: knowledge of the future is gained by its stadial methods, and its signs are the machines of social production.
Stadialism put the imperial centre and the colonial periphery in different time frames: civilised and primitive. ‘In the new United States, the stadial theory anticipated extirpation.’ It is interesting that the one text of Karl Marx that Linebaugh includes in his bibliography is The Ethnographical Notebooks, described by the late, great Labour historian, Wobbly biographer and Surrealist Franklin Rosemont as one of those ‘works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers.’ Rosemont’s essay ‘Karl Marx and the Iroquois’ is a fascinating and provocative look at late Marx who was seriously inspired by his reading of anthropological texts. Rosemont writes:
The neglect of the notebooks for nearly a century is even less surprising when one realizes the degree to which they challenge what has passed for Marxism all these years. In the lamentable excuse for a “socialist” press in the English-speaking world, this last great work from Marx’s pen has been largely ignored.
Rosemont bemoans the fact that few Marxists had bothered to take up the challenge laid down by these notebooks which both radically altered the traditional ideas of stages of history on evolutionary progress through class struggle and technological change and looked back to the excitement of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.
Fragmentary though they are, the Notebooks, together with the drafts of the letter to Vera Zasulich and a few other texts, reveal that Marx’s culminating revolutionary vision is not only coherent and unified, but a ringing challenge to all the manifold Marxisms that still try to dominate the discussion of social change today, and to all truly revolutionary thought, all thought focused on the reconciliation of humankind and the planet we live on. In this challenge lies the greatest importance of these texts. A close, critical look back to the rise and fall of ancient pre-capitalist communities, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and his other last writings also look ahead to today’s most promising revolutionary movements in the Third World, and the Fourth, and our own.
I would argue that Linebaugh is a worthy successor to this late Marx. This book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, is a wonderful testament both to revolutionary and creative writing and to the forgotten heroes of the working-class movement.
Ned and Kate were colonial subjects who lost their bid to put humankind on a different path, a road not taken. Their love for each other was part of their love for the commons. Eros, philia, and agape met their downfall in the Malthusian love of calculated breeding, or ektrophe, which serves the state and capital.
But in the words of the lovely poem by Thomas Russell, quoted by Linebaugh,
Damien Dempsey has been a powerhouse on the Irish music scene for nearly two decades. He brings a voice to the struggles of those suffering in Irish society and beyond with poetry and sincerity. Damien’s Christmas Vicar Street gigs have become part of the Christmas calendar for many of his devoted fans. Saturday’s performance was no exception, with a packed-out venue. Damien has never been ambiguous about his politics and his music reflects this. The crowd in the gig represented all ages, with an overwhelming working-class representation and with people from all corners of the island. Hearing the whole audience sing out songs such as Colony highlights the level of consciousness Dempsey has raised in his loyal fans over the years.
From the stage: Damien Dempsey live
From the stage, Damien spoke openly about his own mental health struggles; he creates a space with his music to help break the stigmas around mental health and encourage people to talk openly about their own struggles. As two people in the middle of a crowded floor we observed so many resonating with this message as they openly sung along to Sing All Our Cares Away.
Not only does Damien sing about the scourge of mental health and its destruction to so many, he also brings a message of anti-racism and the importance of the power of women to his songs and gigs. His music talks about the gentrification of Dublin and beyond in the guise of a housing crisis at the expense and displacement of the working class. Damien is known for his activist and solidarity work, from supporting the anti-water charges movement, to singing at the Moore Street occupation, as an activist in Apollo House and supporting Repeal. The range of influences in Damien’s music includes reggae, R&B, and Ireland’s folk tradition, fused to create a multi-dimensional sound, one that is accompanied by lyrics that convey a strong message of class politics in a way that everyone can relate to. The value and influence of an artist such as Damien Dempsey to working class struggles can’t be underestimated: like many others before him, Damo’s sincere and simple music raises issues that affect us all and vocalises the social and economic issues in a way that resonates widely with people.
It’s accessible and revolutionary at the same time.
The redoubtable Ken Loach has followed up his Palm D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake with a devastating drama about a family struggling to make ends meet in a precarious working environment. Along with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has crafted a very necessary film about working life for so many people today.
Ricky has gone from ‘shit job to shit job’ since the crash of 2008 derailed the family’s prospects. A constant plaintive refrain heard throughout the film by different family members is: ‘I just want to go back to the way things were’. Ricky takes a job as a self-employed delivery man believing (probably out of desperation) that it will finally give him the means to succeed. But, in order to put down the deposit on the van of £1000, he convinces his wife Abbie, a home carer on a zero-hours contract, to sell her car. From these desperate beginnings things soon begin to get worse. This brilliantly acted film will leave you emotionally spent as you watch this increasingly frazzled couple attempt to battle the exhaustion of long hours in high stress conditions and the fall-out of neglect at home.
There is a scene in the film that nicely weaves the personal with the political and provides a wider
background to the film. Abbie is visiting Mollie, a favoured care recipient. Against the rules of the agency
that she works for, (you’re not supposed to be friendly with your clients!) they are enjoying a fugitive
moment of companionship sharing photographs with one another. Mollie shows her photos from the
1984 miners’ strike where she helped run the canteen. They are treasured memories of friendship and
solidarity but from a tragic defeat for the labour movement. Abbie’s funny photographs are from her
courtship with Ricky (at a rave), from a happy time when it seemed that they were going to buy their
own home. But, the collapse of Northern Rock put an end to their hopes. It’s only in the photographs
that Ricky and Abbie look happy. Now, they are exhausted and struggling to cope. A moment of marital
intimacy is aborted because Abbie says she feels so sad she could cry for a week.
You always get a character in a Loach film who articulates very convincingly the point of view of the class enemy. Here, we have Moloney, ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’. He thinks that a company’s shareholders should erect a statue to him because he runs such a brutal operation for them. In the interview at the opening scene he gives Ricky some insidious language about this new economy, ‘you don’t work for us; you work with us’, but, before long, we see the brutal reality behind this rhetoric. Drivers are constantly monitored by their scanners, on severe time constraints, liable to sanctions, if they fail to meet targets. Ricky is horrified when his friend gives him a plastic bottle for emergency piss stops. But this is reality for the armies of delivery drivers frantically meeting the orders from companies like global giant Amazon. In an interview, scriptwriter Paul Laverty sardonically quipped, ‘I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos pissing in a plastic bottle because a meeting went on too long!’ When Ricky does need to use the bottle one time to relieve himself, he is savagely beaten and robbed. As he sits in the hospital waiting room with Abbie waiting to her from the X-ray results, Maloney rings him to inform him that he is liable for over £1500 because of the robbery. This, after he had incurred numerous sanctions after missing work because of domestic issues with his son, Seb. The reality of the new economy: all the costs to the worker.
Ricky and Abbie have two kids, Sebastian, the eldest and Liza Jane. Though Liza, Jane looks distraught at what is happening to her family (one terrible moment, when she bursts out crying after confessing to something is utterly heartrending), she is performing well in school. Sebastian, or Seb, is in trouble at school. He seems completely disabused of the entire system, and shoplifts spray paint for his graffiti art. The scenes
with Sebastian and his friends are probably the only ones that point to self-activity or self-expression:
Seb even sold his winter coat to purchase spray paint! When Sebastian gets arrested for shoplifting
during a particularly fraught time for the family, Ricky collects him at the police station. Luckily, he
meets a kindly copper who gives him a well-meaning talk about how fortunate he is to have a loving
family and that he can get his life back together and be what he wants etc. The message of the film for
me would imply that all this is well meaning nonsense. Sebastian’s graffiti collective is closer to some
truth about class war politics than pieties about bootstraps and knuckling down.
It has always been a great strength of Loach that he manages to get such brilliant performances from
inexperienced actors. The performances of the four main actors in Sorry We Missed You are superb,
particularly in some emotionally fraught scenes. The cumulative effect of watching Ricky and Abbie
struggle through the long working days (“What happened to the 8-hour day?” Mollie says at one point)
and try to deal with the issues at home is really devastating. This is one of the most unflinching
portrayals of working life ever seen on screen but also, one with an obviously deep sympathy for the
characters. Ken Loach is one of the great socialist filmmakers.
So, it is probably surprising that the film ends on a note of such despair. I watched the film in the IFI with two friends and we were distraught at the end, in shock, could hardly look at one another. When you remember earlier Loach films also during times of defeat, like Riff Raff, there was some satisfaction when Robert Carlyle burned down the building site at the end in revenge against a brutal employer. Here, we don’t have that. I am thinking that Loach sees the total hopelessness of the current system and that it must go. But, destruction of this atomising system of colossal enrichment of the few is a collective project.
Everyone goes through a crisis of belief at some point in their lives. We grow up with certain views of the world presented to us and when they don’t fit experience, have to revise or abandon them. This process can be incredibly painful and in the case of Helena Sheehan, it’s hard to imagine a more total collapse and rebuilding than her journey from nun to communist. Her autobiography, therefore is an important book, not just for documenting her times and the very interesting circles she moved in but in allowing the reader to explore in some depth a crucial question for us all: how do I know my current belief system is right?
That’s a big question
for anyone, but it’s especially important if you are going to devote years of
your life to a particular political strategy and try to persuade others of it.
Helena Sheehan’s political
trajectory, charted with complete honesty in this book, was from conservative
Catholic, to the US New Left of the late 1960s, to Official Sinn Féin on her
arrival in Ireland in 1972 and to the Communist Party of Ireland in 1975, which
she left early in 1980. Joining the Labour Party in 1981, Helena helped found
the Labour Left group and was close to Michael D. Higgins.
There’s plenty in the
autobiography for those wanting to cherry pick her insights into characters
like Seamus Costello, Tomás Mac Giolla, Betty Sinclair and Michael O’Riordan,
but my interest is in the deeper story.
In 1965, having committed
herself to the Sisters of St Joseph in Pennsylvania, Helena found herself at
odds with the lifestyle of the order. In particular, watching news broadcasts
on the march from Selma to Montgomery in spring 1965, she saw nuns participating
and wondered why she couldn’t do the same. She taught, ‘We shall overcome’ to
the kids in her class. In other words, it was waves of history (as she puts it)
that tore her away and while a few years later, nuns left the order in droves, Helena
was one of the first to do so.
The intellectual crisis this brought about, compounded by losing her teaching job for being too ‘controversial’ and falling out with her family, was nearly fatal:
I was alone and desperate as it was possible to be. My world was in ruins. In time, I would rebuild on new foundations. But between the collapse of one worldview and the construction of another, there was only an abyss. I often wonder where I found the strength to endure that emptiness.
Eventually, Helena found a way forward via philosophical existentialism to the radical left in Philadelphia (she was studying at Temple University) and by 1970 was deeply involved with city politics. This is a fascinating part of the book, depicting a non-stop lifestyle and a feverish intensity of revolutionary discussions and actions that has rarely been seen since. Helena was in constant discussion with Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, anti-Vietnam protestors, members of the Weather Underground movement, Feminists, Gay rights activists, etc. Her background and intellectual rigour seems to have made her an extremely valuable activist, more able to connect the revolutionaries to wider audiences than many of her peers. And also to spot nonsensical posturing.
This is also the part
of the book that in my view, most meets a challenge that she states in the
preface, of wanting to connect the social and economic changes of her times
with the experience of an individual. Her grasp of the totality of US society,
allows her writing to be both wonderfully vivid at a personal level and at the same
time to portray a massive systemic crisis. The same strengths are not evident
in the sections on Ireland and the USSR, not because her beautiful writing
style falters but because I don’t think, even now, reflecting on her life, she’s
as clear about the nature of the social systems she’s writing about. These chapters
lack her ability, for example, to juxtapose popular culture and sub-culture the
way she does so brilliantly with the chapters on the USA.
And this brings me
back to the question of belief systems. For a long time Helena was, to put it
bluntly, a Stalinist, even after leaving the CPI. Since ‘Stalinist’ is an insulting
term that evokes dictatorial practices and bullying, I need to state that Helena
comes across as never anything but totally honest and someone who does not
believe (as, alas, so many on the left seem to, even today) that there are
situations where the ends justifies the means. As she quite rightly observes,
ends and means are connected. Helena’s loyalty to the USSR was one of genuine intellectual
conviction. Having studied Marxism of a certain type, seen its power, coherence
and strength of insight, especially when compared to the anaemic philosophy she
encountered while working on her PhD at TCD, Helena sincerely accepted that the
USSR was socialist.
How does it happen
that someone who has struggled to pick herself up from near death for having
invested herself in one ideology (Catholicism) that came crashing down upon
her, then adopted another that would do the same? The book stops in 1988, just
before the fall of the Berlin wall, with a signal that this would be the second
great intellectual crisis of her life. The cheap answer, which seems to have been
thrown at her several times, is that this is just her nature, to uncritically commit
to a big-picture ideology. From nun to communist is not such an extraordinary
journey from this perspective.
Helena’s own rebuttal
to that is that she’s acquired her second, communist, worldview after years of effort
to achieve intellectual and moral clarity, whereas she stumbled into the first,
unformed and driven by forces of which she was largely unconscious.
Let’s agree that, broadly
speaking, to be a socialist is a fine thing. Really, this is an inspiring book
because it is about a life spent largely in causes that have improved the position
of working people, of those nations resisting empires, and especially the
position of women. Nevertheless, as soon as you think you have the full
picture, worse, if you defer to someone else in your party you think has the
full picture, you’re doomed to one day finding yourself articulating a view
that no socialist should hold.
In Helena’s book, I
don’t think she ever defers to someone in authority, except perhaps the dead
authorities of brilliant thinkers. But I do think her model of Marxism is (at
least for 1975 to 1988), ultimately, a sterile one, by which I mean the
categories that Marxists use to discuss social structures (mode of production,
surplus value, etc.) have been imposed on history rather than derived from it.
How do I know my
current belief system is right? Because I’ve
studied; I’ve fought; I’ve struggled to change the world; I’ve tested it
constantly against unfolding events; I’ve had to build it up from the ruins of
previous belief systems. That’s all impressive but it’s not enough. My view
is that you also have to be open to the possibility that this hard-fought for model
is wrong. It’s difficult, because the path to becoming a post-modernist
(something that Helena despises, with good reason), begins with surrendering
the primacy of your belief system.
Yet when I see a human being who clearly has great honesty and integrity fail to mention the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in her discussions of Eastern Europe; fail to support the Prague Spring or the early days of Solidarity in Poland and instead, describe her sojourns in the USSR largely in halcyon terms, I have to shake my head in dismay. Now the book only ends in 1988, so Helena’s current views might be much closer to mine on these issues (i.e. on the side of those who rose up against the rulers of Russia and the eastern block). But for me the most fascinating aspect of this candid auto-biography is that it makes you question your own understanding. Readers will ask themselves: if someone with Helena’s strengths can end up a Stalinist, then where am I heading?
It’s not easy, being ambitious
and determined enough to believe the whole world can become a place of equality
and freedom, yet modest enough to accept your current approach to achieving
that goal could be flawed. Yet on reading this entertaining autobiography, it
seems to me that’s the fast-flowing contradiction that socialists have to