Charles and the Commons


November 13, 2005


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There was a lot of eye-rolling during the week, and cracks about a media hoard that was rumored to exceed 400. Still, on Saturday, people came out anyway, lined up along Main Street two hours before Charles and Camilla were due. Charles was here at the invitation of local organic farmers. The couple would visit the farmer’s market at Toby’s Feed Barn, and then go to an organic farm. But why were we there, lined up behind the barriers, waiting for a glimpse?

This part of Northern California is not given to celebrity worship. Sure, it’s hard not to be curious when the Prince comes to town But there was more to it than that. My sense was – and others agreed – that the excitement was less about seeing Charles and Camilla, than about being part of the seeing of them. It was a community occasion, a chance to share an experience that soon would become part of something that still exists out here – local memory.

There once was an abundance of occasions such as this. For centuries, feasts and festivals were metronomes of village life. In his book Will of the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt discusses how these – and the theatrical productions that came with them — were a key to the development of young Will’s dramatic imagination.

Markets arose in connection with such communal gatherings. Trade went where the people were; what we now call “the market,” with the magisterial article, was a social system before it was an economic one in the narrow contemporary sense. It was an occasion for getting together, before it was a means for the propagation of money and stuff. The conviviality was part of the exchange.

Today most of that social function – the social product, if you will — has been stripped away. The spontaneous sociability of Main Streets has given way to the hermetic enclosure of malls — anonymous spaces where people do not know one another, and where nothing is permitted that might interfere with the buying mood. Then came the Web, which eliminated human interaction entirely. Now commerce is just a mechanized warehouse – an economist’s heaven that comes with great, though unacknowledged, loss.

At the same time, civic festival has become commoditized entertainment – rock concerts, professional sports, and professionalized big-money politics We always are dancing to someone else’s desire to make money, and inhabiting spaces contrived for that purpose. Nothing is done for its own sake. Nothing is permitted to just happen. The result is a repression that is as pervasive as it is hard to grasp, because it looks like its opposite.

This helps account, I suspect, for the rampant increase in addiction in the U.S. – that is, the inability of people to stop consuming. People are chronically hungry, no matter how much they eat; and needy, no matter how much they buy. Things do not satisfy because they are not capable of doing so. It always was the social dimension of commerce – the occasion for getting together – that provided what stuff can’t. Take that away, replace the bonds of community with the ersatz “tribes” of brands, and you are left with a hunger that cannot be filled.

Why do we avoid restaurants that are empty? It’s not just the suspicion that the food might not be good. Eating out isn’t just about food. It’s a social occasion, and we feel awkward and deprived doing it alone. It is the compulsive eater – the addicted – who eats alone.

All this helps explain why the royal visit was so refreshing. It was a civic occasion in the traditional sense. There was no ax grinding and no one out to make a buck – unless you count the local farmers, and theirs is about as benign an ax as one could find. The Prince (who in his middle years is more duke-ish than princely) has a genuine interest in growing food in a way that that doesn’t leave poison and destruction in its wake. He has an organic farm himself and gives the proceeds to charity.

He and Camilla spent more than an hour chatting with farmers at the Saturday market. Several remarked afterwards that he knew his stuff. Camilla seemed uncertain in her new role, and winningly so. (She’s also shorter than she appears in pictures.) Charles seems aware of the absurdity that attends his role in life, and plays off it to good effect. At one point he almost knocked a large bucket — of garlic I think — off a farmer’s table. The farmer, who is legendarily crusty, cracked, “You break it, you buy it.” He was only half joking, and Charles loved it.

The couple went beyond the call to shake hands with the people gathered on the street. Their royal distance was just slightly comic in this home of the laid back, and Charles’grey suit came across as a token of respect as much as of social elevation. Whatever, there was a rare good feeling. It was odd in a way, a scion of the British crown here to celebrate a new kind of independence – from oil and commercial enclosure — of a kind the George in the White House does not seem to grasp, as he wages his war for dominance in a distant land.

But historically there is precedent of sorts. The British Crown did oppose many of the enclosures of the common fields that Parliament enacted in the 17th and 18th centuries. The king stood with the commoners and their customary usages, against the complete commoditizing of land. He had his reasons of course. The history is not uncomplicated But old ideas sometimes do acquire new relevance as the wheel of history turns. The concept of boundaries to the market once could seem reactionary. But now it is the way forward, because the market is so different now, and so completely dominant.

There is something to be said for a position of stature outside both the market and the formal structures of the state, to give voice to such causes. Monarchy is history. But superfluous royalty of the kind that showed up here last week, isn’t so bad.