Requiem for the Commons? Part III Movement: We’re in the Same Boat

by Jeff Tangel

In Requiem for the Commons, Part II: Prelude to Progress we left off with the good people of Tecoma, Australia “feeling like a community” having come together to fend off the siting of a McDonald’s “restaurant” in their idyllic nature/culture mash-up of a town nestled at the edge of a beloved national park in the Dandenong mountains. Recall the affront that McDonald’s is to the community: a corporate rover that won’t take no for an answer but instead files suits, evicts, arrests, litigates and demands that their “rights”, the rights of heraldic Maccas, supersede the rights of the community. And too, the townspeople were nearly unanimous in their opposition to this global company proffering its “food” and especially, its commitment to homogeneity of place, a process closely akin to colonization. In response Tecomians had mounted a number of campaigns to stop McDonalds, including occupying the space (they were arrested and removed)[1], building a community garden on the site, and sending a delegation to McDonald’s headquarters in suburban Chicago, a 10,000 mile odyssey with a simple message to management: to have the common decency to burger-off. They had run a huge ad in the Chicago Tribune to announce their arrival in which they urged readers to join their burger-off campaign—a chutzpa/civility mash-up that still has me laughing.

Picture 1

All of this and more, brilliantly executed with passion and art and civility and community, fell flat. Regional authorities overruled local objections and gave McDonald’s the go-ahead. Codified into law, the rights of Maccas (what locals call the “Golden Arches”) supersede the rights of people. As I suggested in Part II, this praxis is due to the “global proliferation of the idea that development, as defined by the biggest developers, is an unadulterated good” as well as a misguided sanctification of largely unreflective creative-destruction as good economics.[2] But the good folks of Tecoma are not done. If you ask me it’s because they found something too good to give up: each other.

On to Part III

But what about this “feeling like a community” among people who seem fairly well off? Are we supposed to be impressed by, and even feel sorry for these folks and their “first world problems?” No doubt this provoked more than a few eye-rolling “white-privilege” reactions from readers—especially since I entered into the problem dancing extemporaneously in my living room to Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejorQVy3m8E ). The song is a performance of a prayer-demand by the Australian rockers to restore the dignity of Australia’s Aboriginal people who have suffered dearly under colonization. Well there’s a gap. And so perhaps you’re doing that right now. But this process of commercial globalization is helping us white folk, who go through our daily routines largely unawares (because we’re largely privileged), get a glimpse—and I mean just a glimpse—of what Black folk and Indigenous populations have been experiencing all these many—too many years. Though we can never truly understand what it means to be utterly subjugated, maybe we can finally inch our way towards understanding that we are them and begin to ask some much needed questions about what is really going on in the world. The question is, can those of us who have benefitted from the dominant economic paradigm, find “fellow-feeling” with those who have not?  My thought is that given time, only the most heart-hardened Tecomian will fail to see that their feelings of trespass must be very much like the feelings of trespass felt by “the other”, by all others.

That’s my hope, anyway. Pain is universal, and affective affinity is far more powerful than any rational understanding that people everywhere are genetic family. That’s how Midnight Oil got me dancing in my living room, man: as if by magic, the pain and suffering of the Aboriginals became my pain and suffering. I was moved by a spirit and just had to dance in ritual communion—couldn’t help myself—each pounding note resonating in my body convincing me that yes, the truth is, fair is fair. [3]

Globalized capital is the new colonizing conquistador—the new maker of universal uniformity—which ironically must look at everyone in a sort of perverted egalitarian way: as commodities. That’s what “equal under the law” means in a neoliberal order; everything is fungible—labor, land, air, water entire ecologies and people—it’s a voting system through price. [4] As Phillip Mirowski, professor of economics and policy studies at Notre Dame, explains, “…there is no separate sphere of the market, fenced off, as it were, from the sphere of civil society. Everything is fair game for marketization.”[5] And little did most people know—least of all privileged white folks—but the giant eventually turns on its “own” and consumes them—consumes even its “beneficiaries”, its heretofore compliant, even eager believers. Such is its nature. Insatiability, or pleonexia, is hardwired into our economic structure with the result that nothing is recognized as sacred; nothing is out of bounds of the reproductive telos of capital. First profits; next, more profits—and it puts in place rent-seeking rules at all levels of government to enable its continued progress. That’s how McDonald’s got the go-ahead despite overwhelming opposition from people. Everything is absorbed into its universe—and everything incongruent with its growth is externalized. Mountains, streams, small shops, people’s lives and civility, a sense of common decency, even culture, all sacrificed on the altar of a narrow, even singular stupefied [6] notion of never-ending development. The corporate mission is the making of places in its own image, bringing these into a Ptolemaic orbit, making marks and shit-stains that invite more homogenized marks and more homogenized shit-stains, a bedevilment that turns localities and their inhabitants into subjects; prison colony-lite, if you like. Democracy becomes Demockery.

Picture 2
How many is enough? Nothing is ever enough for the pleonexic. http://www.burgeroff.org/

McDonalds and Walmart, not us, are rapacious ranchers on Hardin’s Commons

McDonald’s is close kin to Walmart sharing the singular corporate mandate to reproduce themselves without reservation. They too are a taker from the commons. Like Walmart, McDonald’s employees are woefully under paid, many of them relying on government programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Just to live. This is an egregious and morally reprehensible corporate welfare that all of us pay into serving to fortify the giants’ profits and enable an insatiable global appetite for expansion—which in the case of McDonald’s, ironically mirrors the obesity epidemic they help foster. And then, to add insult to injury, the company maintains a complete refusal to act with any character whatsoever. This, all told, is the mark of these mark-makers. These are shit-stains not to be missed. We all pay for their conquests—not just indirectly for being forced to live in their denuded world—but directly by providing basic subsistence, health care and food stamps, for their exploited employees, so they can continue to exploit their employees and continue to grow ever larger. It is a looting of the public purse—a commons—that institutionalizes theft and makes a mockery of our democracy.[7]

The orchestration of the world from dogmatically single-minded Ptolemaic seats of power is our present praxis—not politically—but economically, and worse, epistemologically. It is how these creatures understand the world and part of that understanding is to force everyone to understand the world in exactly that way. This is surely a fast-track mono rail towards a homogenized dystopic future—a mechanistic environment designed and ruled by “experts”. Sound a bit hyperbolic? Well consider bullet point #27 in the Victoria regional authority’s 52-page ruling that local opposition to McDonald’s was “irrelevant”. Warning: this may be too funny to read. It’s surely too much to bear.

“A large number of submissions opposing a development do not constitute evidence of adverse social or economic impacts. Such impacts would need to be identified through independent empirical study(s) using credible social scientific methodologies. They would need to identify adverse impacts on particular groups in the community and show that the impacts clearly arise from the development. It would need to demonstrate that the impacts would only arise if the development proceeds, and that the impacts would be significant. Such material would need to be presented to a hearing as evidence from an expert and therefore be subject to cross-examination by all parties. No such evidence was presented to us. We therefore acknowledge the community concerns, but cannot agree with the propositions that the number of objections is sufficient demonstration that this proposal would have adverse social or economic impacts.”[8]

Like I said, you can’t make this stuff up; and frankly, it’s time to get a bit hyperactive about it all.

In 2009 Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist, won the Noble Prize in economics for solving Garrett Hardin’s riddle of the Tragedy of the Commons by showing that people can and do self organize in order to manage and share common resources over the long term. Interestingly, her findings and her award were a surprise to nearly everyone (especially economists!). I liken her work to “autopoiesis” a term coined by the Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana in 1972 meaning “self creation” or production, a property found in living systems [9] —which as we will see, is remarkably more useful than lifeless economic strictures and models (if, of course, you’re interested in living). Thus, Ostrom argues, in order to maintain resources we have to allow people to self-organize and so must match the complexity of our institutions and our economics with the complexity found in the world. This must be done, she says through “multi-tiered systems at multiple scale (sic) so you don’t try to have a uniform top-down panacea that’s predicted to cure everything, but instead of curing it, kills it.” [10] (Emphasis added)

All of which makes a lot of sense to me, so: No Maccas Here!

Well, if nothing else, these good people Down Under—a place I may pay more attention to in the future—have set us a fine table of civil activism. How to bring people together, to organize, to self organize in a sort of autopoiesis, to throw off a dominant invader species that would otherwise wipe out local communities. It is, I think, another example of what Paul Hawken postulates as the Earth’s immune system fighting a global contagion in his terrific book, Blessed Unrest.[11] They are us, we are them, globally—education, environment, social justice of all forms, from poverty to peace efforts to breaking the prison industrial complex; urban gardening and health care, volunteering at food pantries, mentoring kids and driving seniors to doctors appointments. Even talking to your neighbor, face-to-face, has the potential to include you in what can only be described as a revolutionary movement.[12] All are acts of civility, indeed performances of civility, and model for us a civil society, a society that all who still retain an empathic capacity desire deeply; that is, we desire a just world from our hearts.

McDonald’s, et al, are rapacious ranchers, takers from the commons. You, me, us, nature, are not like McDonald’s and its kin. McDonald’s structure, though seemingly complex is actually singularly simple, perhaps as simple as the simplest organism. Where the residents of Tecoma gathered together for many meetings and discussions, bringing together all of their complexity: who they are, singularly and collectively, their understanding of what it means to live; their common though distinct understanding of the Dandenong Range; what development is, and importantly, what it is not; their histories and sense of self and place—putting all of that out onto a common table to work out—performing the hard work of community, the hard work of working things out, McDonald’s sees, pursues and demands the right of unencumbered profit and growth, all the while displaying an almost unimaginable singular hubris. McDonalds is a contra-civil monolithic institution hurtling through commons everywhere, capturing places, wiping out diversity and subjugating them to its own insular homogenized and simplistic view of the world. Why do we have such institutions as this? Why do we grant them so much power, imbue them with such rights and so much privilege? McDonalds, Walmart and all corporate rovers are products of an idea—an ideology that grinds complexity into fine uniform granules, and conscripts us all to serve a particularly particular world view: unfettered production as telos.

Perhaps the paradoxical silver lining here is that globalized capital ultimately reveals our similarities, our commonalities, and our weaknesses as well as our strengths. It puts us in the same boat so we can recognize each other: “Hey, I know you. Hello mate!” But it does this by causing pain; people are slowly coming to realize that more is not better, and that trespassing destruction is not creation. And more: the people of Tecoma realize they are boat-builders themselves, appreciating more than ever what they have already built and are now eager to keep it afloat.

In Part II I wrote about my own alienation from Australia, my confusion a result of the homogenized packaging of the products of that continent by mega-corps for globalized consumption—Foster’s beer, Outback steaks and barbecuing mates. Yuck. While at the same time my empathic response to conditions there are provoked by music that is shared, music about suffering and injustice—and the spirited mobilization of people coming together. I don’t know any of these people, but I can feel them—even from 10,000 miles away. And two things of note here: First, I’m thinking that homogenized development actually impedes affective capability, tending to stupefy people into acquiescence to its form. Next, that performance of community rings deeply in our evolutionary and revolutionary hearts—it’s what we do—and it may even be what saves us from rapacious ranchers.

The good people of Tecoma didn’t have to travel to the Outback to do ethnographic research—they became both the subject of the research and the researchers themselves. With any luck at all they’ll soon realize, like a noir detective, that they are implicated in a scheme they are just beginning to understand. It is a realization of existential shame—the reliance of all on all and the awakening to the inescapable responsibility for the other. And to our inherent fallibility. We simply cannot figure everything out—and “experts” can be as dangerous as they are helpful. No doubt some understand this already. As all become increasingly aware of the pleonexic reach of the globalized capital—and feel the pain caused by forced homogeneity—affective affinity among more and more “others” will grow.

Well, that’s my hope anyway.

Picture 3A protest march through the streets of Tecoma. (Note Jerry Garcia in foreground, apparently not dead after all—just gone down-under. And he appears to have lost some weight.). http://www.burgeroff.org/

The good people of Tecoma are performing their own version of a ritual dance; it is a dance in which they see themselves in the other as they are trying to reinvent the world.[13] That’s why Beds are Burning had me dancing extemporaneously in my living room—in service of the rights of the other—who is me. That’s what the NYC cops saw as they watched Midnight Oil perform John Lennon’s Instant Karma [14] on a flatbed semi-trailer, blocking traffic in Midtown despite (or in spite of) the laws being broken—they understood, and identified with the demand that Exxon take responsibility for the Exxon Valdez disaster. And my guess is, that through these shared performances of community, seeded by pain, even the privileged white folks of Tecoma will continue to change themselves, and by example and acts of concert, change the world.

A paradoxical silver lining indeed.

And wouldn’t you know it, the folks in Tecoma have just recorded an album, entitled “Resistance is Fertile.” And so it is. With songs ranging from “No Fries with That,” “Rude” and “Ronald is a Clown,” to “Boom Town”, “Forgiveness” and “Prophesy of Love,” the movement continues—and I’ve got my more than my money on them.

Well, in any case, if all this rambling has seemed altogether too much, the good people of Tecoma are surely a fine and admirable example of what a community can do. So God bless ‘em for that.

You can follow their campaign here: http://www.burgeroff.org/Picture 4

http://www.burgeroff.org/

Footnotes:

  1. I likened this to Occupy and pointed readers to University of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt’s essay Political Disobedience in Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience (U of Chicago Press 2013) for a distinction between civil and political disobedience; the former working within political institutions, the latter a movement that recognizes the system as wholly corrupt in need of fundamental radical change.
  2. Tangel, EJ. Requiem Part II. For legal details see http://www.burgeroff.org/storysofar/, “The McDonald’s corporation escalated the application to the VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal) for review. On October 10, 2012, VCAT overruled the Yarra Ranges Council’s decision deeming the overwhelming objections of the local community as ‘irrelevant’, and granted McDonald’s planning permission…” and specifically: http://www.burgeroff.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/McDonalds-Australia-Pty-Ltd-v-Yarra-Ranges-SC-2012-VCAT-1539-10-October-2012.pdf . Simply, McDonald’s fits into VCAT regulations; the community does not.
  3. “The time has come…to say ‘fair’s fair…to pay the rent…to pay our share…a fact’s a fact…it belongs to them…let’s give it back.” Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil, on Diesel and Dust (Columbia Records 1987), the album a result of ethnographic research, aka “The Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, in which the band traveled to the Outback, “Out where the river broke…” to see about repair, restoration if you like.
  4. If this makes you think of Citizen’s United, the infamous Supreme Court decision that declared corporations “people”, you’re right. “One dollar, one vote,” is part and parcel of neoliberal metaphysics—the market is an all encompassing referendum. For more see Phillip Mirowski’s insightful talk in Is the Market a Hyperobject? https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/is-the-market-a-hyperobject/ EC December 10, 2013
  5. Mirowski, Philip. The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism, the Utopian, June 19, 2013. http://www.the-utopian.org/post/53360513384/the-thirteen-commandments-of-neoliberalism
  6. Okay, I used this word “stupefy” twice now, so here’s a definition: to “make (someone) unable to think or feel properly: the offence of administering drugs to a woman with intent to stupefy her”. This is quite an extraordinary and apt description of “development”, though accidentally so. Worth exploring I think. http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/english/stupefy?q=stupefied
  7. More insult to injury: Regarding recent cuts in the federal food stamp program the LA Times reports, “William S. Simon, chief executive of Walmart U.S., told investors that his company could benefit if cash-strapped consumers look for bargains. Walmart estimates that it gets about 18% of all food stamp spending.” (Emphasis added) Get that? Suffering tends to help Walmart, indirectly. But by exploiting workers Walmart produces for itself an additional revenue stream—directly, from our government. Amazing. Cut in food stamps will hit retailers: One in five U.S. households is on food stamps, and many people could be rattled as their benefits are chopped. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-retail-sales-foodstamps-20131102,0,491146,full.story#axzz2kNLaY73Y LA Times Nov. 1, 2013.  And then this: a single mother calls McDonald’s “McResource Help Line” which directs employees to the same government programs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olUsgn-Ubh0 (2 min.) You can’t make this stuff up.
  8. http://www.burgeroff.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/McDonalds-Australia-Pty-Ltd-v-Yarra-Ranges-SC-2012-VCAT-1539-10-October-2012.pdf . Bullet #27, page 9. For an excellent overview of such “rule by experts” in the context of colonization see The Object of Development, Chapter 7 in Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity; Timothy Mitchell (UC Berkeley Press 2002). Similar to Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983)
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autopoiesis Not unproblematic.
  10. Ostrom, Elinor Sustainable development and the tragedy of commons, Stockholm Resilience Centre TV, in which she outlines the problem and rethinks the commons in 8 minutes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc
  11. Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest; Penguin 2007
  12. I am thinking about rethinking “revolutionary movement”, replacing it with either “rebellion” or “evolutionary movement”. The word “revolution” means to “overthrow” but also to come around, or “turn, roll back”—which is an apt description of revolutions throughout history—these never ending particularly well. Here we are after all. So as Camus calls for constant “rebellion” in his book The Rebel (1951), we might think of that in an Object Oriented Ontology’s horizontal sense (which it seems to me, he implied or perhaps even prefigured—perhaps especially in The Plague) that paradoxically moves us along, somewhere, out of the orbit we seem to be in. Thus evolution? Just thinking…
  13. My thanks to Bill Jordan for his book Sunflower Forest (UC Berkeley 2003), his concept of “shame”, his frequent reciting of the fairy scene in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and for helping me understand the value and importance of performance. His website in progress: http://environmentalprospect.org/ See especially the essay, Foundations of Conduct.
  14. Midnight Oil Instant Karma EXXON Protest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMyQSeOoYDw
  15. Resistance is Fertile http://www.burgeroff.org/media/music/
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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Requiem for the Commons? Part III Movement: We’re in the Same Boat

  1. cskolnik

    Once again I urge you to look at the role of the consumer in consumer capitalism. I also urge you to publicly clarify what you mean by “we” in this piece. I assume you know that we are privileged to have readers from all over the world.

    • Yes, I was pleased to see that we had a number of readers from Australia..Hello mates!

      The idea is that “we” privileged white folk, who have benefited from the dominant economic paradigm—while believing it was, or would soon be working for most everyone else—may be starting to see ourselves as “we” with the Indigenous peoples in the Global South, the Black folk in Watts, Englewood and Camden, and the poor white folks in Appalachia and so on. These are the people for whom the system never worked. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books 2012 http://vimeo.com/46079178), author Chris Hedges calls the most troubled of these areas “sacrifice zones”, on which globalized capital depends for unimpeded growth. Well, inasmuch as Voltaire was right when he said, “The wealthy rely on a plentiful supply of the poor,” and he was, it turns out that today’s super-wealthy don’t only rely on the poor—no, there’s not enough yield there—but on the compliance of what we can call the broad middle class, who themselves are unwitting actors in a self/people/nature-culture destructive process. But many people are beginning to reconsider what exactly they have placed their faith in. And part of that re-examining process is seeing—in many cases for the first time—those for whom the system never worked—and that these people are kin. A great, and I think moving example of this is the nascent Cowboy and Indian Alliance, formed in opposition to the earth-cooking XL Pipeline. Here’s a story about that: http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/cowboys-and-indians-camp-together-to-build-alliance-against-keystone-xl

      It seems to me there is also a broader motivation for this reconsideration (beyond unwanted “development”), and that is the ongoing financial crisis, brought to us by banks whose unmitigated hubris is an essential component of their being. With this, I think, people of necessity are reconsidering their “consumer lifestyle”—perhaps the millennial generation, which eschews cars and the big-house-in-the burbs paradigm, is emblematic. So too the baby boomers who have lost their jobs, and according to many analysts, may never work full time again. And close behind the financial crisis looms the ecological crisis picking up speed like an oncoming train; as Tim Morton’s says, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” [Hyperobjects; U of MN Press 2013] So combining what’s here now and what’s coming all too soon, is the mother of all mash-ups—and will very likely require building lifeboats.

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