They told me I had five sense to inclose me up,/And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,/And sunk my heart into the Abyss….Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.”
– William Blake, Visions of the Daughters
I sat in the cloud-refracted /soft sunset glow seeking the/ vaulted nave’s snowbound silence;/ found instead a strum-humming dull background roar/ of steel-snow low blades and high-flying jet airliners. / I sat still with the trees and dropped down deeper/ to a space they made below machine cacophony/ where the plush snow hush was only/ now and then broken by the distant call of a crow.
– Orin Domenico, Yesterday at Dusk
Hanging out with the street people they got it down
Hanging out with the street people drifting from town to town
Who’s gonna work and let the economy grow if we all hang out in the street
Well I don’t know and I don’t care just as long as it ain’t me
– Bobby Charles, Street People
Reading historian Peter Linebaugh’s fine book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, the idea of the commons (and enclosure) has taken root in my imagination in a new way. Being a latecomer to anarchist thinking, it has taken me a long time to connect personally, rather than only historically with ‘the commons’ as having a meaning beyond historical events in late 18th century England. In fact, the story of our small coffee shop business is one of contending with unfriendly top-down policies that serve other interests (such as the tech industry) than ours. In the “blameless” neoliberal way – pandemic or no – local businesses like ours get crushed, leaving in their stead faceless chainstore corporate entities. Moreover, Linebaugh’s understanding that the commons, like “interdependence,” has undeniable spiritual (mystical) and nature-based underpinnings, evident in his use of Romantic poet Blake’s words for his title, has opened me to its fuller meaning as our human inheritance: “the community of mankind joined with the community of the earth.” (Gerrard Winstanley)
For this reason, Orin and I cannot let our coffeeshop die, as it is meant to do under neoliberal realpolitik, but continue to muster our aging, pandemically exhausted efforts on its behalf. But our, to us, meaningful sacrifices on behalf of the commons threaten constantly to turn into an intolerable burden. The meaning evaporates. Not due to loss of faith on our part (though we do have to replenish the supply constantly!). Not entirely due to the pandemic, though the stress load in the last 11 months has increased excruciatingly. It’s due to the nonrecognition and incomprehension of the liberal society that both sustains our business as customers and remains clueless as to the fully tragic story, repeated from 300 years and more of ongoing enclosure, of what is happening to it. Our community is largely clueless to the fact that the vulnerability of our business-as-commons is not Kim and Orin’s “fault,” another of those sad, not-to-be-helped things.
That is, they ought to join us – be comrades! – on the side of outrage at what is being done to us! The unfriendly climate for small businesses is entirely connected to the destruction of the environment, the climate catastrophe, the embedded class inequities, blatant racial injustice, etc. All these problems, though deplored, are not sufficient to make them see our vulnerability and theirs is included in the ongoing catastrophe. That is, because indeed we’re all connected, the meaning of preserving small family businesses (the ones that by the way, make you feel better about your community and yourself for living here), is on everybody who wants to retain a habitable planet.
For the commons is always vulnerable, always fragile, needing honoring and protection for its intrinsic meaning and worth, not for its potential for wealth-making or celebrityhood. All the America’s, North and South, were a commons before the coming of white conquerors and settlers. Now, although it is still possible to drop down deeper to a “ space below machine cacophony” the land is enclosed in a system that provides vast profits for a miniscule few and mass misery on the other, much more populous end, while the indigenous people who treated the land as a commons are practically wiped off the face of the earth. Enclosure seeks to make an “impregnability,” the opposite to the commons, and it produces people who likewise seek to be secure and impregnable above all other values. If this cannot change, if people cannot find the clues to knowing their own inclusion in commonness and in the vulnerability of the commons, there is no spirit or strength with which to stand up to Neoliberalism’s total domination.
Though I was not at the time thinking in terms of “the commons,” back in the early 2000’s, Orin and I lived in the dream of “commoning,” a consequence of the “unenclosed” spirit we shared but for which we had as yet found no form for it to take here where we live in the small tattered post-industrial Upstate city of Utica. At the time unhappily employed as a schoolteacher, Orin’s dream had taken more directly concrete form as the desire to run his own business. Mine was the consequence of a “spiritual breakthrough” that had occurred in my forties and had opened the door to my imagination from its enclosure (also not a term I would have used then) in Neoliberal, materialist, individualist reality. Blake would have understood this“breakthrough” as I did, as revelation of my own mystical poetic depths, wherein invisible connection (and therefore meaning) is real and inherent, its process the healing of the “obliteration from life.
As such, it was my awakening from the enclosed reality that’s been the collective bane of our society – with important exceptions – since the spiritual ruptures of the Enlightenment and the social and economic ruptures of the Industrial Revolution, to which Blake bore witness. The gift was perhaps too great for me, a woman of middling talents and already at mid-life to make maximum use of. But partnered with Orin, who’s possessed of a different set of talents than my own, inspired by this energizing, marvelous discovery of the alive imagination, we started our coffeeshop business out of our shared vision for a place meeting the soul’s need for beauty, the gourmand’s desire for the best possible coffee, and the citizen’s desire for a “commons.”
Until the time of my personal escape from the enclosed imagination – which I hope to make clear I recommend for everyone! – I was a decently committed leftward liberal like practically everybody I knew. My opinions were impeccably liberal, I took part in protests and demonstrations, and went even further than some in electing to reside with our family in a mixed lower-class mixed-race city neighborhood. But I gave no thought to the neoliberal machinations going on behind, underneath the smiley-face DNC, liberal news media presentation, nor had I any deep critique of changes in economic policy such as free trade capitalism, NAFTA, the outsourcing of jobs, etc.; I did not understand them. For this leap to seeing the structures of evil embedded in bourgeois liberal reality, one has to have a “clue,” and I was clueless – the term we now use ubiquitously that, intentional or not, accurately names our collective mesmerized condition in near totally enclosed (sacked, tracked and monitored!), media saturated, neoliberal reality.
In other words, though I may mainly fail in my personal efforts to make use of the gift of restored imagination, and though I struggle continuously and many times futilely (especially now, in a pandemic, in bleak Upstate NY February), to hold onto my vitality, I was no longer clueless. I had discovered aspects of my own story of which I’d had no inkling, these layers of meaning that opened one into another, finding my own imagination alive and well within, as if it had only been waiting for me to gain the persistence and strength to make the painful journey to the place where things connect. I’d been granted my own Annunciation: connection is real, cluelessness and isolated, self-hating consciousness, not real. Such an insight is a stick of dynamite to enclosement. And it is a first-magnitude arousal that in some form or other, by some means or other an individual must have in order to escape the totality of enclosure and preserve her in-common humanity.
Through the personal failure of mental breakdown I had discovered the inner “template” of the Commons, loss of which, historically, had motivated so much extraordinary upheaval and activism that is the focus of Linebaugh’s history. The commons were both a fact of history and the enduring dream of human beings for the total relatedness, all things meaningful, the longing for the conditions for wholeness, health and personal freedom that abide in human hearts. By now, as in my case, the derogation of imagination in Neoliberalism’s enclosed banal reality has made “going mad” (i.e., abandoning reason) the opening to the Commons.
In fact, though the importance of inspiration cannot be overstated, we can look to inspirational others (such as Blake and other Romantic spirits, even Jesus) to do no more than point the direction. The very totality of enclosure (particularly during the mishandled pandemic) means we hardly discern the shackles of our bondage behind the 24-7 smoke and mirrors of the constantly churning media industry, let alone escape it. Recovery, if it’s to be, must look to the creative ferment of inward-seeking individual souls that will defy the tyranny of well-defended egoic subservience to rationalist supremacy. Once the sacred inner fire in the heart is found, and tended fiercely, monotheistic reason will step down to its proper role, subservient to the heart.
Vulnerability’s the key to the Commons
For liberal bourgeois white supremacist reality, lulled by euphoria over the Biden victory, imaginations contained within our media inputs, a “false commons” is often substituted for the real thing by lending sympathy to oppressed groups. Rather than seeking our social clue to the commons in relation to the preferred oppressed people – immigrants, people of color, the incarcerated, trans people, etc. – we might look to those we find truly distasteful. The “street people” we sometimes encounter as panhandlers asking us to open our wallets or pockets to drop them some of our relative abundance may be the closest we come to signification of the commons we’ve lost! Surely the disturbance they cause us is due to their invocation of the reality of interdependence and its mutual obligations calling to us and heard dimly through our waking sleep!
That is, the encounter with the panhandler is disagreeable not because she’s a bum, but because she reminds us of our own real fragility, the dependence of our human hearts upon a commons – a propertyless mutuality – that no longer exists. That we have collectively accepted enclosure instead may keep us fooled about the truth of our human fragility, but our souls are not deceived. I’m not ashamed to say I am “mentally fragile,” next door to being a street person myself. I consciously include this fact in almost everything I write. In declining to make such disclosures (always risky because they threaten the enormous defenses of enclosure), we reinforce enclosure and separation and encourage pretense, sameness. In never disclosing the terrible vulnerability that is both our otherness and our commonness, we make ourselves and our expression compatible with mass-market media, whose #1 duty is to sell the Dewar’s or the Lexus, not to make a commons. In refusing to risk disclosure, we opt for enclosure wherein my vulnerability and yours are secrets, betrayal of our mutual secret an “actionable” offense.
The Cafe business, as we imagined it and served it, was always vulnerable. We resisted being strong the capitalist way – i.e., get bigger, keep wages as low as you can get away with, get wi-fi’d, replicate the corporate Starbucks aesthetic, etc. For us, our shabbiness was not just chic, but beautiful! We depended on attraction, on our vibe, on people “getting it,” rather than on “marketing.” Our vulnerability exposes us to the brutality of rule-by-profit the liberal world unwittingly serves and also reveals that enclosed reality to us in a way our friends who are not comrades cannot see. Finding the way out of neoliberal enclosure is a matter of befriending and defending the very vulnerability that is intolerable to enclosure’s monotheist, absolutist need for impregnability. In our vulnerability is our in-common-ness with other human beings, but others are unlikely to thank you for reminding them of it!