Editorial: Celebrating the Commons on May Day

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Today is May Day, the first of May, the occasion in many cultures for festivities of one kind or another. The ancient Celts took their herds from winter quarters to summer pastures at this time of year, with appropriate excitement. Socialists of all stripes, especially in Europe, have traditionally celebrated May Day as a labor holiday, though it has sometimes been used as an excuse for ugly displays of weapons. The excitement which culminated in the Haymarket riots in America started around this time of year. Young folks, especially in Europe, danced around May poles, with fertility probably lurking in the background motivation in some fashion. Girls have often been crowned Queen of the May, and Catholics around the world sometimes crowned statues of Mary as well. In England and the United States, children and lovers delivered flowers to doorsteps anonymously in May baskets. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and their friends celebrate the ejection of French invaders from Mexico this week, culminating on Cinco de Mayo, and May 1 has become a day for demonstrations on behalf of all immigrants. 

Are all of these celebrations connected? Probably. Today is about halfway between the Vernal Equinox and Midsummer’s Day(the summer solstice) so it can be considered the first day of summer. Birds everywhere are singing up a storm. It’s a day when you can be pretty sure summer is really on its way, though we saw snow in the Midwest more than once in the second week of May. In beautiful Northern California we can expect our May Hot Spell any time now: the week or so of sunny mornings and torrid afternoons which gives us false hope that summer in San Francisco won’t be cold and foggy.  

All of this makes May Day a good day to stop and consider the deep interconnectedness of practically everything. As a May Day preview, last weekend I had the good fortune to find out about a conference appropriate to this topic. Sponsored primarily by the California Studies Association, with the title of “CRISIS of the California Commons,” it mostly took a Chicken Little perspective: things have been good until now, but danger lurks ahead.  

From the program: “The bountiful commons Californians once enjoyed are a gift of nature and the fruit of social decision and collective effort. Today they are under sustained assault—our natural resources degraded, our public services privatized and our public spaces increasingly pre-empted.” Such a dim view is not wrong, but some presentations also devoted a fair amount of time to a positive historical perspective, what previous generations accomplished to promote the common good and how they did it.  

The central theme was that much of the world has always been shared by humans for the benefit of everyone, but it will take a lot of vigilance to make sure this continues. A few highlights from the three sessions I was able to attend: Dick Walker, a UC geographer, talked about themes from his most recent book, “The Country in the City,” an account of how people (mostly women) in the Bay Area preserved a remarkable amount of green space for common use. Gray Brechin discussed his Living New Deal project. He and associates are working on documenting the physical legacy of the Roosevelt administrations on behalf of the public, in California and elsewhere. Iain Boal, an Irish social historian of science and technics, took a particular delight in deconstructing what was a hot topic in the seventies, Garrett Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons: an over-extended metaphor based on the belief that grazing land maintained in common is eventually exhausted by individual herdsman seeking to maximize consumption for their own flocks. Boal said that “commons” is the opposite of “commodity”, and he derided the currently trendy notion that privatization and pricing of shared resources is the best way to preserve them. Ignacio Chapela explored the continuing attempt to sell public universities to industrial interests, as exemplified by UC’s impending contract with British Petroleum. Ruth Rosen spoke about what she calls “the care crisis”—even though women have been well into the workforce for four decades, society has yet to make adequate provision for replacing what they did for family care, for doing what used to be called “women’s work.”  

Most of these sessions were standing room only, in small hot rooms in the airless and windowless basement of the new Berkeley City College. (The building comes nowhere near the elegant WPA standard for public amenities—the central “atrium” struck me as a cross between the Hyatt Regency and Alcatraz’s catwalks.) There were many provocative ideas exchanged which deserve wider circulation, so we’ve asked some of the speakers to contribute them to the knowledge commons by writing short commentaries for the Planet on the topics they raised. We’ll be running their piece in these pages as an ongoing symposium for the next few weeks, and we’re looking forward to getting our readers’ reactions. Ruth Rosen’s piece on the family is in today’s paper. 

Speaking of genuine family values, another highlight of the conference was Saturday night’s performance at Anna’s Jazz Island by Country Joe McDonald, in what was billed as “A Tribute to Woody Guthrie.” It was certainly that, but it was more, especially for a Berkeley audience. Joe is the son of two beloved Berkeley figures, Bud and Florence McDonald. He described them as an Oklahoma cowboy married to a New York Jewish intellectual, and noted that Woody and his wife fit the same description. He wondered out loud how his parents ever managed to stay together (Woody and his wife didn’t), and got his biggest laugh of the evening with the line that “it must have been the chicken”—both of his parental cultures eat a lot of chicken. He confessed that his upbringing by parents active in the Communist Party left him with a residual distrust of both communism and capitalism, but his voice, often unaccompanied, was still strong and true on the leftish songs he must have heard at home. The audience was on their feet cheering as he finished, and they cheered even louder when he sang the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” as an encore (“next stop is—IRAN’”) complete with Fish cheer. He’ll be doing this show again soon in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, in case you missed it here. Go if you can—it will cheer you up.