The Early Modern 99%

Battles against today’s ruling class might look back to the movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for inspiration.

When Occupy Wall Street suddenly appeared in lower Manhattan in September 2011, many commentators began searching for a genealogy of the movement: Seattle in 1999, European anti-austerity protests, the Arab Spring. But perhaps we should reach farther back — to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the social movements that rose up to challenge the emerging capitalist world order.

In this context, Ben Wheatley’s latest film, A Field in England, is an intriguing cinematic experience. Set in 1648, it follows a cowardly alchemist’s assistant named Whitehead who flees an English Civil War skirmish along with some other deserters. They encounter the cruel O’Neill in the middle of a nondescript field, who through threat of force and the administration of hallucinogenic mushrooms conscripts them into finding the treasure he believes to be buried there. Long shots in black-and-white linger on the field and the motley group within it, illustrating this ordinary field’s transformation into an arena for elaborate mind games.

But cannon and musket fire periodically intrude. Reverberations of battle are the soundtrack to developments in England at the time, where King Charles I would be executed the following year and his kingdom transformed into a commonwealth. During the course of the film, the educated and principled Whitehead is forced into labor together with the alcoholic Jacob and the simpleton Friend by O’Neill, a rogue Irishman seeking self-enrichment.

The abuses suffered by these Englishmen under O’Neill seem to allude to the actions of Sir Felim O’Neill, an Irish noblemen responsible for massacres of English and Scottish colonists during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Occult references abound, from a fairy circle within the field to O’Neill’s scrying mirror he uses to divine the truth; this period coincides with the peak of witch hunting in England. And from their independent streak and the disdain they hold toward noblemen and the rich, one could easily imagine that Jacob and Friend would make fine Levellers or Diggers. Not just England was in turmoil at this time — much of Europe and the growing number of territories it ruled across the globe experienced extraordinary upheaval during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Though the “General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” thesis originally developed by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has since been challenged and amended, a number of broad themes can still be distilled. Religious dissent and political radicalism challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and monarchs who ruled by the grace of God. Conflicts like the Thirty Years War descended into endless nihilistic pillage and slaughter before lending themselves to the creation of the modern state system. The ruthless quest for precious metals and profits fueled the conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.

Perhaps one of the most powerful conceptualizations of this period can be found in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s book The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, the ruling classes imagined themselves to be the latter-day incarnation of Hercules, laboring to bring order to a chaotic world. The embodiment of their enemy was the mythological Hydra, whose many heads represented its multifarious elements: religious dissenters, radical commoners, rebellious African slaves, fiercely independent Native Americans, and freethinking women.

In the Americas and on the Atlantic, “the plebian commonism of the Old [World]” encountered “the primitive communism of the New World” and formed a hybrid, alternative vision that set itself against the emergent order of modernity. Late in A Field in England, a hallucinating Whitehead declares, “I am my own master”; this realization is precisely what the ruling classes feared most in the Hydra.

Despite its multitudes, the Hydra was ultimately unsuccessful at challenging the emerging capitalist, colonialist order of modernity. In the centuries since, it would be difficult to imagine a group that parallels the Hydra in its diversity, utopianism, and in the threat it poses to the ruling classes — that is, until today. The emergence of the 99% as a social grouping that has come to be dreaded and despised by members of the 1% reproduces the dynamics and the discourse of that era.

While a new era of globalization erodes the economic security of the vast majority of the US, the 1% and their political supporters insist that they work harder than the rest of us and thus their ownership of nearly half of the world’s wealth is for the greater good. Recently, we have been treated to numerous declarations from members of the 1% suggesting that they are under threat from the 99%.

These shrill cries about impending repression — invoking Nazism seems popular — reveal the degree to which the 1% identify with one another and fear the masses. Like the Hydra, the 99% is a rhetorical construction rather than a social formation with clear class consciousness. Its very diversity constitutes its greatest weakness. The repeated spread, defeat, and resurrection of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s indignados resemble the scattered but persistent revolts of the Hydra. Today’s Occupy activists should recall that a revolutionary conspiracy by a group of New York City laborers — black and white, slave and free — emerged in 1741 out of a waterfront tavern just blocks from today’s Zuccotti Park. With goals that are simultaneously utopian and practical, these movements appeal to both the basic needs and the deepest desires of common people around the globe.

So given our culture’s love of historical allegory in film, where past drama informs our present day, why are films on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries so rarely tapping these themes? Critics praised Julie Taymor’s 2010 adaptation of The Tempest for its ambition and casting of Helen Mirren as a female Prospero. But a truly ambitious filmmaker could look to the play’s inspiration in the British colonization of the Americas, in particular the stranding of the crew of the Sea Venture in Bermuda in 1609, or adapt Aimé Césaire’s version set in colonial Haiti.

Similarly, Terrence Malick’s The New World flirts with the radical vision depicted in The Many-Headed Hydra, where a rebellious John Smith becomes entranced by an Edenic Virginia. Even worse are TV miniseries like The Tudors or The Borgias, which seem to embody Jane Austen’s pithy remark of history as “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”

If contemporary TV and film prefer a shallow view, older films have often not done much better. The Last Valley captured the horrors and chaos of the Thirty Years War and featured character dynamics similar to A Field in England — a meek teacher (Omar Sharif) pleads for restraint and compassion from a ruthless mercenary captain (Michael Caine) while he occupies an idyllic German village — but was a massive commercial failure.

In Europe, the social history of this period is better known, but recent films offer only a superficial examination. The Russian epic 1612 anachronistically depicts the Time of Troubles as a period of Russian patriotism among commoners — embodied by the protagonist Andrey and his wisecracking Tatar sidekick — and sets them against evil, greedy Poles and their Catholic mercenary army.

One model might come from East Germany, of all places, where in 1956 Martin Hellberg directed the film Thomas Müntzer. Inspired by Friedrich Engels’ book The Peasant War in Germany, Hellberg’s film focuses on the life of Thomas Müntzer, a German priest who took part in the Protestant Reformation. Played with intensity and charisma by Wolfgang Stumpf, we see Müntzer’s growing radicalism as he parts ways with Luther and comes into conflict with the princes of Germany, Catholic and newly Protestant alike.

Müntzer rallies the peasantry around his vision of realizing the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, using religious language to undergird this social revolution. This rebellion culminates in the 1525 Battle of Frankenhausen, in which Müntzer’s followers are slaughtered by the mercenary armies of the princes and he is captured, tortured, and executed.

To a contemporary audience, some elements of Thomas Müntzer might seem a bit unsophisticated, with depictions of upright peasants, scheming noblemen, and declarations by Müntzer like “So I think that a law that is against the people, is no law!” But the film does capture the radical elements of the Protestant Reformation that sought social revolution along with religious reform; in light of Lutheranism and Calvinism’s eventual success, these have been largely forgotten since their adherents were massacred or expelled from Europe.

Dismissed by the West German press at its release and still to this day unrestored and lacking English subtitles, this is a film that deserves reconsideration. Yes, Thomas Müntzer was produced under a Stalinist regime; but in unabashedly depicting the struggle for rights and dignity by common people, it is an epic about the sixteenth century rather unlike Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

Alain Badiou sees “the invariant features of every real mass movement: egalitarianism, mass democracy, the invention of slogans, bravery, the speed of reactions” embodied in both Thomas Müntzer’s movement of the 1500s and in Tahrir Square of the 2010s. As disparate groups occupy public spaces from Cairo to Madrid to New York, asserting their rights and presenting an alternative vision of their societies, we should not forget the members of the Hydra who fought against the exploitation of the ruling classes in favor of another world during the early modern period.

Some will argue that our present time is too distant to draw many practical lessons from this period. But that does not mean we cannot look to its events, personages, and symbols for inspiration. By coincidence, the rainbow flag used by today’s LGBT and peace activists bears a striking resemblance to the rainbow flag Thomas Müntzer once used to rally the German peasantry — a fitting symbol in any period for uniting a diverse coalition and insisting that another world is possible.