At a time when the end of History and the rise of Empire have been proclaimed, as borders lose their significance and cultural specificity increasingly gives way to the grim homogeneity bequeathed by capital, we are bizarrely told that we should feel at home. The reduction of differences and the championing of plenitude and entitlement accompany the dubious rhetoric of global community. Of course, we don’t feel at home. The alienating effect of capital is not a mere proposition – it is palpable. There are two consequences that are of interest here. First, we lose our sense of home as both labour and culture are increasingly uprooted from their spatial moorings. Second, we become increasingly able to identify others, across time zones, seas and languages, who share the same feeling of displacement. If there are defining characteristics of the various anti-capitalist movements of today it is surely that they are not reducible to local struggle and that they are nomadic.
The notion of nomadic political agency is not new. Hardt and Negri, for instance, have famously made that case that the very dissolution of differences and borders, amongst other things, provides the conditions in which an immanent, organic structure of resistance to the new hegemony can arise. And it is true that political agency is increasingly solidified across apparently diverse groups, with the recent ‘Put People First’ march in London being an exemplary case in point, uniting environmentalist, anti-poverty, economic and even religious causes under a single banner. Furthermore, and importantly, this sort of agency and action is not localised, but can arise wherever opportunity strikes (the annual protests against the G8 summit providing another apt example). Just as the ‘target’ moves, so too does the resisting force.
We should take the ideas and histories of homelessness and nomadism seriously. It may be argued that rather than representing a new form of political agency which has only become enabled over the past half-century or with the advent of ‘globalisation’, nomadism has in fact been present in the resistance to capitalist political economy from the very beginning.
The original nomads par excellence are the Gypsies, those who live a ubiquitous global presence, recognisable but often invisible, embodying the extreme limit of disenfranchisement and marginalisation. They are a fragmented set of communities who are in a kind of permanent exile, forever lacking a home territory of their own, and who perhaps elude determination by much else than their resistance to society and state. Although many propose there to be an identifiable racial heritage, it has been alternatively argued by academics that those who have come to be identified as Gypsies across Europe are not foreign migrants from North Africa or India, but are the original detritus from the change from feudal society to the emergent capitalist state in the late Middle Ages. The theory states that in this seismic social, political and economic shift, many were thrown into perpetual motion by the turbulence of the time and resisted their proletarianisation. Those who were opposed to the new forms of governance, labour and social organisation, which is of course underpinned by private ownership of property, would become the Gypsies. They are, under this understanding, a remainder to the modern capitalist state as such, produced within, or by, the states they occupy rather than arriving from some exotic foreign land.
The inherent obstacles to tracing the lineage of the Gypsies, not least the lack of a substantial written history, means this remains one theory amongst others. But it is a powerful and compelling theory, and one that should make us hesitant about the more commonly accepted and politically correct theories of their determinate geographic and ethnic origins, which unfortunately serve to assimilate such people into the logics of racism and state-citizenship. (It is for this reason that the word ‘Gypsy’ is used, as opposed to ‘Roma’, for instance.)
It is also a theory that frees the Gypsy from the logic of migration. These people do not seek a home, nor have they fled from one. They simply occupy.
If we entertain this notion of their being an original and constitutive resistance to the state, it becomes easy to understand their consistent oppression. Their treatment by the state has taken many forms, with their outright illegalisation in the British Isles (punishable by death) in the 16th century and their (grossly under-reported) persecution and extermination in Nazi Germany four centuries later representing the high water marks of their subjugation. And although thankfully facing much less violent measures since 1945, their position in (or perhaps more appropriately, ‘upon’) the field of post-war Europe has always been, to say the least, uncomfortable. What is interesting is that although post-1989 Europe is perceived by many as freer and more harmonious, there is evidence that Gypsy groups preferred the more overtly harsh conditions of communist society. This is largely due to an ideological opposition to wage labour, which is seen as providing less self-sufficiency and less autonomy than the conditions of life in communist regimes. Today, although the plight of the Gypsies is more hidden, they still face a perpetual struggle to resist the logic of private land ownership that permeates modern society.
The political status of the Gypsy is a difficult issue. The ethics held by our liberal society naturally wishes political inclusion. But the line (if there is one in this instance) between inclusion and assimilation is not easy to determine. Gypsy culture is, to a significant extent, determined by an active opposition to the ‘gadje’ – a term used to denote all non-Gypsies, often used in a pejorative context. The reluctance held by Gypsies to enter the mainstream arenas of politics throws up deep dilemmas for anyone who seeks to see them ‘politicised’ or represented. But what is clear is that the Gypsy embodies an already deeply political sentiment, namely the calling into question not only of policy, but of the very political and economic structure that underpins the society we recognise.
It is a common misconception to think that Gypsy communities are an historical artefact, a dying breed of old-fashioned people who haven’t quite caught up with the reality of modern living. This simply is not the case. Estimates of their worldwide population stretch as high as 14 million. And so, at a time when we feel increasingly uprooted from community, when the polarity between the power of the people and the power of the sovereign is being intensified, when contemporary political struggle loses its locality, when people are increasingly politicised in opposition to a system of global capital that is manifestly collapsing, it can be tentatively asked whether the Gypsy is actually becoming more like ‘us’ or whether, instead, ‘we’ are becoming more like the Gypsies.