Omnia sunt communia
– Thomas Muntzer (1488-1525)
All things are in common. It was this confession that led to the beheading of Thomas Muntzer, theologian and revolutionary. Muntzer’s severed head and body was intended as a warning against heresy, and served to enshrine Muntzer an ambiguous role in history. Beloved more of future generations of radicals and revolutionaries than of the church, Muntzer continues to live in the shadows of theological and political discourse. Now, with talk of “the commons” and community increasingly permeating socio-cultural discourse, this ghostly figure haunts us once more – violently condemning our complacency.
Violently, but not very loudly. From his original manifestation as a powerful theological voice in the turmoil of the Reformation and an inspiring visionary and leader in the Peasant’s War, Muntzer next prefigures as a minor analogical character for the Marxist revolutionaries of the 19th century. In our own epoch Muntzer’s embodiment is a literary one, in the novel Q published by an anonymous group of Italian authors under the pseudonym Luther Blisset.
Under the banner of this novel, and some others, protestors took to the streets in Italy last November, marching against Berlusconi’s proposed education reforms. The authors of the book, along with a number of other Italian writers, have also been subjected to a proposed blacklisting and banning of their books from library shelves in Italy. Muntzer continues to haunt the political powers of the world, then, not only through the content of works like this but also in the form its production and dissemination whereby the authors endeavour to make their works publicly accessible through free online downloading.
But all is not well. For in the very aspect of “Creative Commons” and various “free” and “open” Internet organizations and technology we are faced with a farcical notion of commonality that has to blind itself to the economic contexts and realities in which it is implicated, and in some ways perpetuates a much more noxious and undoubtedly more precarious version of capitalist consumption.
The group of authors above, who are known collectively as Wu Ming, are a case in point. Upon entering their website one is greeted with the options of downloading one of their books for free, and possibly giving a donation through the PayPal technology, or purchasing a physical copy of the book through Amazon.com. One of the concerns here, of course, is the replacement of more localized forms of exchange that for all their inequality do contain a certain level of trust, reflexivity, and responsibility on behalf of all parties involved – these forms are replaced by a megalithic enterprise that opens up a space of virtual freedom, a “commons” from which it alone profits.