Lucas de Man’s play In Search of Europe makes you think about the future, but where are the concrete suggestions for what we, the audience, can do?
In Search of Europe is nothing if not thought-provoking. In five parts it explored the idea of the visionary: a person with original ideas about the present or future and, in de Man’s view, someone prepared to act on these ideas.
He began with a basic history lesson, specifically with the moment in the 16th Century when a remarkable number of “visionaries” lived contemporaneously. Among others there was Machiavelli, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Thomas More and Copernicus. De Man pinpoints the Black Death, the Discovery of the Americas, the resultant doubling in Europe’s supply of gold and the invention of the printing press as instrumental in turning the tide in favour of European global pre-eminence, at a time when the continent was host to an expanding Ottoman Empire. This succession of events dramatically changed Europe’s economic infrastructure and broke the traditional relationships between the different social groups, leading to the emergence of the capitalist and the capitalist system.
From that jumping off point he recounted his Europe-wide search for this generation’s group of visionaries. In the following three parts, in a clever use of video interviews, he spoke to an array of Europeans from across the continent, discussing the future of our society with them, whether they are pessimistic or hopeful about its prospects, and what they feel needs to happen to realise a better society.
Throughout the play my mind wandered, meandering through the possible implications of what he was discussing. It occurred to me about two-thirds of the way through that de Man hadn’t really defined his position, he seemed shy about defining the nature of his critique of contemporary society. It was taken for granted, perhaps rightly, that our current system is not working. In other words, his message was implicitly anti-capitalist. But while those who he spoke with were more explicitly anti-capitalist the term never cropped up, and nor did the word Marxist.
This is 2016! It’s no longer necessary to be hesitant about these things. Podemos and Syriza, both mentioned in the play, are both parties that are unabashedly Marxist. Granted, they achieved electoral success with a populist rather than traditionally Marxist message. But they have not been coy about their philosophical influences. It was by shying away from calling his arguments what they were that he diminished their potency. Because it was unclear what he expected of us, the audience. If his proposal is to transform the system should he not have ventured a few concrete examples of what we might do?
The lack of any clear ideas of how we might bring about his desired change was most apparent in the final act of the play when De Man became Giorgio, an artist who had become disillusioned with the art scene bubble and begun working with a squat (perhaps it was stated and I didn’t listen but I just assumed Girogio was someone de Man had met on his travels). Giorgio relayed an impressive story. He had spent several weeks trying to gain the confidence of the squat before he was allowed in. When he had gained access he observed a struggling community who lacked the time and space to indulge in social activities. In response, Giorgio took it upon himself to inject a cultural life into the squat, first proposing they make a voyage to the moon and then attempting to recreate the museum of modern art.
In a legal system which had criminalised squatting, Giorgio described the power of art to protect the squat. After inviting artists to exhibit their art in the squat, and thus putting it on the cultural map, it had accrued a cultural capital which the landowner was happy to cream off. Due to this making the building more profitable to the landownder than forcing the squatters off his property the squat could temporarily evade the usual process of eviction.
In Giorgio’s monologue the value of the art that had been made on the property seemed to have overshadowed the common wealth of the community, a common wealth which existed well before Giorgio’s intervention. This common wealth is harder to diminish. Were it to accumulate and proliferate, it would be much more radically transformative on a much wider scale, than Giorgio’s intervention.
This is not to say that Giorgio had wasted his time, only that Giorgio/de Man seemed to have missed the fact that the wealth was already there and the reason it is not properly acknowledged is because our society’s conception of value is completely out of whack. After all, is it not strange that the community’s value is measured more by the cultural cachet it had acquired than by the strength of its pre-existing communal bonds, in its capacity for mutual aid and in its ability to sustain itself, especially given that it is the latter attributes which make for a truly anti- or indeed post-capitalist society?
Giorgio’s model is anything but a solution. It is not a commons but a pseudo commons, because it is still at the mercy of the capitalist profit-motive. And more to the point, it is a situation that cannot be replicated.
So as my my mind wandered, dissatisfied with the lack of concrete suggestions about what could be done I thought of a few things myself…
To curtail the pre-eminence of the property owner in situations like Giorgio’s it would be necessary to revolutionise our system of exchange, by contributing to the proliferation of local currencies and currencies that cannot be hoarded, thus ceding control of the commonwealth to those producing it.
It would also be a good idea to curtail the concentration of private property ownership (or abolish it altogether and place all property in the actual commons). Individually, we might also be advised to develop a form of economy that could supplant our current capitalist economy through some of the following: contributing to the propagation of mutual aid networks, consuming as little as possible, directly participating in voluntary activity, withdrawing support and investment in companies that do not invest ethically and as much as possible, doing things that are useful, not things that are profitable.
Admittedly I had considered some of this before but it was nice to have a few moments to engage with all this. And for that reason I thoroughly enjoyed the play. In spite of the lack of an agenda it really got me fired up. And besides, it was a play not a political speech so I shouldn’t be so hard on the guy.