by Maddy Costa
The fantasia of the march begins at 60 beats per minute: the tick of the clock, the heart at rest. It begins on the first warm day of spring. It begins with dogs and their walkers lingering in the park, with school children pulling their parents to playgrounds, with commuters almost reaching the station then turning and walking in the opposite direction. Alarms are ignored. Toilets are not cleaned. Security guards coming off the night shift find no one to whom to hand over. The air is scented with lilacs. The polarities are shifting.
Let him who desires peace, prepare for war. So instructed Vegetius, a writer born into the embers of the Roman Empire, in De Re Militari: a manifesto of military principles intended – as the unknown author of an introduction to a British edition printed in 1940 put it – “to restore the degenerate Romans of the 4th Century to the military virtues of the ancients”.
Vegetius believed in hierarchy, and the daily drill of marching. He believed in the necessity and power of “entrenching camps … for in a camp, well chosen and entrenched, the troops both day and night lie secure within their works, even though in view of the enemy”. He believed in discipline: that discipline could achieve more than numbers or brute strength.
By 1940 advances in technology had outdated most of Vegetius’s recommendations. The practical ones, that is. Culturaly, linguistically, metaphorically, his commitment to the principles of warfare live on.
116 beats per minute: the cadence of the march.
“Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.”
Rebecca Solnit started writing Hope in the Dark, a manifesto for belief in resistance, before Trump, before Bannon, before Farage, before Bolsonaro, but after George W Bush was re-elected, after the declaration of wars on Iraq and terror, after what some describe as the failure of public marches worldwide in protest against those wars. She wrote it to refute the language of failure. A march, she wrote, is:
a moment of communion
a moment of trust
a moment when history would be made not by weapons and secrets but walkers under the open sky.
(Imagine a metronome ticking. 80bpm now: depending where you’re coming from, a gentle rise in pressure or a significant fall.)
The month of March takes its name from the Roman god Mars, commonly known as the god of war, in the way that common knowledge, controlled by patriarchy, obscures so much complexity. Most of the Roman gods had more than one function: Mars was also a god of agriculture, presiding alike over the deaths of battle and the rebirth that comes each spring. Although linked to the Greek god Ares, a brute concerned only with violence, Mars more favours Athena – goddess of wisdom, handicrafts and military strategy – taking military strategy away from Minerva, Athena’s Roman counterpart. Athena and Minerva alike were born from the heads of their fathers, a mythological trope designed to remind women that the ability to bear children didn’t make them anything special. The Roman poet Ovid resisted this insinuation, instead suggesting that Mars was the son of only Juno, her revenge on Jupiter for stealing a march on womanhood.
The fantasia of the march begins when all the parks are full. This is where people have gravitated first: to the sharp lime of fresh grass and the contented cat stretch of unfurling trees. Its slow movements murmur like the imagined roar of distant waves. More green, more sky, more green, more sky, silent words pounding to a steady, reaching heartbeat.
The polarities are shifting and from the windows of offices the march seems industrious, purposeful, strong, drawing people away from their desks, along corridors, down stairs, outside, into its swell. Bank tellers lock the doors behind them as they leave. Supermarket staff clear the biscuit aisles first. Only estate agents stay by their phones, just in case.
Rosa Luxemburg knew. In an essay from 1899 called The Militia and Militarism she wrote precisely and acutely of how, “for capitalism, militarism creates the most profitable and indispensable kind of investment”.
In the face of entrenched capitalism, are we the earthquake, gathering force? Or the soft drip of water, wearing away stone?
Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.
It’s hard to say what Vegetius, or his translator, meant by care there.
In care, well entrenched, people lie secure within their works, even though in view of the enemy.
Somehow the cadence is wrong.
100bpm: a boiling point in time
To steal a march is to gain an unexpected or surreptitious advantage over someone or something.
An idea that is on the march is steadily becoming more popular.
To march to the beat of a different drum is to stand out from the crowd, to take pride in difference.
To beware the Ides of March is to fear the possibility that a conspiracy of activists might rise against the state.
To distress the enemy more by famine than the sword is a mark of consummate skill.
That last is Vegetius, although it might be the Tory party. They too are practising this principle with consummate skill.
“It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion,” writes historian Yuval Noah Harari. The same is true of any “imagined order”, including society as a whole. Order “requires some true believers”: belief in whatever abstract idea, “be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.” Such is the power of belief, Harari argues, that “a single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers – far more cheaply and effectively”.
We could do worse, Solnit hints, than to believe in jazz. She nods to Cornel West: “To be a jazz freedom fighter,” he writes, “is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism.”
History scuttles on, bringing a surge of right-wing populism. It also brings Ada Colau and municipal activism in Spain, feminist strikes in Argentina, the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, anti-government protests in Hong Kong, Greta Thunberg leading children into protest all across the world. Each body that marches held together in the palm of the open sky.
The fantasia of the march begins on motorways, with a hundred thousand cars turning on their hazard lights at once. No one asks what the hazard is or suggests logistics solutions. It begins on railway tracks where trains have trundled to a halt. Drivers slip from their seats and begin to walk, passengers trailing behind. At the airports queues for passport control shiver with the shift in polarities. The barrier is broken. No one collects their suitcase.
South of the equator it is the first kind day of autumn. The fantasia of the march has been in progress there for months already. Genetically modified bananas and pineapples rot in swaying trees.
In the way that common knowledge, controlled by patriarchy, obscures so much complexity, it’s possible that March, the month, holds a second meaning in its name. A march is also a frontier, a boundary, a border – the areas of land where England meets Scotland and Wales, for instance, were once known as the Marches. And so March, the month, perhaps takes this name because it is the boundary between winter and spring. Boundaries in space and boundaries of time are spectral, invisible, imposed. They exist in name, only to the extent that they are policed, militarised, or believed.
This isn’t war. We’ve outsourced war. But if it were war, how should we prepare?
With discipline, or flexibility?
Order, or chaos?
Hierarchy, or decentralisation?
Battle plans, or improvisation?
Unquestioned uniformity, or critical consensus?
Violence, or care?
It is Tuesday 4 June 2019, and people are gathering on the streets of London in protest against a state visit by Donald Trump. A soft dull rain has begun to fall. I sit at my desk, trying to write this text, but really looking obsessively at photographs of the march on twitter, feeling punched in the stomach every time I encounter a white man – they are almost all white men – praising Trump. I think about my lack of discipline. I think about my belief in story. In the afternoon I argue with my daughter about the efficacy of marches: she finds their obtrusion into daily life oppressive, thinks there must be better ways to register protest and the desire for change. The rain continues to fall.
He who hopes for success should fight on principle, not chance.
The kingdom of Prussia was declared into existence on 18 January 1701 and dissolved with the end of the First World War. At its heyday it was described as not so much a country with an army, as an army with a state. An army tautly disciplined in accordance with the principles of Vegetius and yet incapable, ultimately, of ensuring the state’s survival. Its borders have melted into history.
It is a matter of principle to fight against borders. It is a matter of principle to fight against the deaths of black men in police custody. It is a matter of principle to fight against homophobic attacks on women kissing in public or refusing to kiss in public. It is a matter of principle to fight against the vilification of trans women. It is a matter of principle to fight against abortion control. It is a matter of principle to fight against homelessness and poverty. None of these acts of violence exists as a matter of chance. All of them exist as a matter of principle.
The fantasia of the march has no centre. It seeks no common cause beyond the damage caused by the march of progress. It begins in a slough of despondence, in the shift of polarities that makes the end of all hope a fresh start. It shares tactics to contend with the reality of the army, of water cannons, tear gas, the machinery of social control. It has begun and is beginning, and beginning, and beginning.