(An earlier version of this post came out in Common Rhetoric in 6/2014.)
In a collection of essays on the commons called Stop, Thief! (2014), historian Peter Linebaugh begins by citing an anonymous English poem. It goes:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
How is this quatrain potentially revolutionary, but also problematic? What does it point to? What is it doing? The poem performs the classic Marxist move of demystification, even though its composer may not have self-identified as Marxist. First, what is happening, at least apparently? “The man or woman […] steals the goose”—a criminal act justly punished by “the law” that “locks up” this man or woman. This is what it looks like. This is what is seen. As the chant goes on, however, something else takes place: a call for reversal that, as hinted at, is more just than the law owing to the fact that the relation was reversed to begin with; as such, only a subsequent reversal, the one invoked by the last two lines, would set things right.
It looked as though the unqualified “man or woman,” i.e. the common man or woman, was stealing goose from off the common, that this man or woman was taking what’s not his, what she has no right to, from “the common” protected by the law. But this is contradictory: How can the common be designated by the law? How can the common be guarded by the law? The common is prior to the law, and, in many ways, is the opposite of the law. In fact, this contradictory enclosure of the common by the law is the act of the “greater villain” or, more precisely, the greater and more villainous act that “steals the common from the goose,” an act sanctioned precisely because it is done by means of the law.
As it turns out, it is not the man or woman who steals, but the greater villain behind the law, through the law. It is not the common who steals the goose from off the common, but the law that steals the common from the goose. What looked like the primary theft of the goose turns out to be secondary to the primal theft of the common, rendering the subsequent theft just, the truly just act that is the only thing that can set right the original and greater theft. As the common is stolen from the goose, it looks as though the man or woman is stealing the goose from off the common when, in fact, the goose is merely recovering the goose (nothing to do with goods), putting herself back in the common, in which he belongs. At the same time, this process, the poem suggests, involves difficulty and incommensurability. Something is irreparably lost in the original theft that cannot be recovered, as the common has become goose, dupe, fool, which, it seems, is the subjectivity given to man or woman in the theft of the common, and which s/he has to take in taking back the common.
What the quatrain points to, then, is the enclosure of the commons, done legally but unjustly through the expropriation of the common and the containment and disempowerment of the commoner, what in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, as Linebaugh points out, takes the form of privatization and incarceration. The quatrain likewise directs attention to duplicity, that is, the doubleness that marks every rhetorical move, in this case criminal, namely: (1). the act itself (theft); and (2). the discourse (law) that, by imposing the perpetrator’s point of view (position, presuppositions, and frame) and reversing the original relation, justifies the act; in the law’s own terms, the crime and the cover-up. What does this imply? What solution to the injustice and its legitimation is proposed by the quatrain, if only indirectly? In positing the primal theft as a duplicitous move, the quatrain implies that dupes can only and must reverse enclosure to restore the commons.
While instinctively appealing, this logic of reversal aimed at restoration is beset by certain problems. The quatrain does a good job of demystifying what seems like a straightforward situation: the theft by the common man or woman, it turns out, is predicated on, and is a response to, the crime of the greater villain. This resonates with Karl Marx’s critique of the concept of primitive accumulation in political economy. As he writes in a famous passage in Capital, volume 1:
[Capital’s] origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. […] Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. […] In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.
Marx’s distinction of political economy’s account as anecdote and his own, in his critique of political economy, as actual history, both of which are rooted in legend/theology, is telling of demystification’s characteristic move. Demystification presupposes that once the mystique is removed, what you have is the truth; thus it aims, against the cover-up, to lay bare the truth, which would then be revolutionary. Without defending one account over the other or saying that both accounts are equally valid, I would argue for the need to treat both accounts (not necessarily equally) as “truths,” approximating what Michel Foucault calls power/knowledge. In other words, rather than positing a binary opposition between accounts, e.g. between legend and history, I argue that both should be treated as discourses. Thus, rather than “What is the truth?” the focus is on questions such as: What does this “truth” do? What are the effects of these discourses? Who tells this story, and for what purpose? Who gets to tell history?
Doing this, I argue, enables the questioning not only of the dominant discourse (the law), but also of the alternative (the goose), especially regarding its own shortcomings and dangers, even as we locate or incline ourselves closer to the latter. Both discourses, it must be noted, are predicated on the “past” (either as “anecdote” or “actual history”). Whereas the dominant discourse uses the past to justify the present, the subordinate or alternative discourse, if only implied in the quatrain, invokes the past in a call to restore it, to restore the original state before primitive accumulation (which, as Marx points out, was characterized by force, violence), before the primal theft (the stealing of the common). Without discounting history (both the discourse and that of which it claims to speak), it must be pointed out that such propositions are always problematic. For one, there is the matter of the gaps that constitute history, notably between discourse and its object, between the past and the present. Secondly, there is the impossibility of determining the so-called origin, or, at the very least, of resolving the contentions involved in such an undertaking. This is not to argue that history is impossible; it is, however, to point out that it is necessary to be cognizant of its problems, which, I argue, discredits simplistic political deployments of history.
Just as the quatrain implies that citations of the law, given its partiality, should arouse suspicion, I argue that invocations of origins call for caution. It is easy enough to reify, even deify, the origin, including the common. In the above discussion, for example, even as there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the law is indeed partial, does this mean that the common is exempt from law, or that it does not have its own laws, if different in kind? The common may precede law as currently established, as we know it, but is the common necessarily a state without law, the opposite of law, i.e. an anarchic state? This proposition implies that the solution to the partiality of the law is the abolition of law. Are these the only options? Is the choice, in other words, necessarily between law and anarchy?
Moreover, as the quatrain itself acknowledges in its double use of the term “goose,” there are also problems with the means by which restoration is attained. In the quatrain, restoration is predicated on reversal, in which the subordinated subject, in the struggle against the dominant (the greater villain whose dominance is instituted in law), does the same thing as the original offense (the theft, the enclosure), if on a smaller scale, for a longer time. This is perhaps predictable. In the move backwards, the subject that aims to restore the origin, reified as the ideal state, does the same things (as goose) as the subject (the greater villain) pointed to as the original offender. The hope, it would seem, is that, somehow, through the same actions—but this time against the offender—or through imitation of the logic that disrupted the ideal state—but in reverse—a wrong could right a previous wrong, the primal wrong, and return things to the time before the offense, restore the origin (the common). Whereas the previous possibility implied by the quatrain (anarchism) seems all too radically different from the problem, this (imitation), it would seem, gets too close. In what does a more precise response consist, a response resistant yet organic, organic without losing its resistance?
Linebaugh, Peter. Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance. Oakland, CA: PM P, 2014. Print.