By Maria Méndez
In the short story “La autopista del Sur” (The Southern Thruway, 1966) the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar narrates a highway traffic jam on a Sunday afternoon. After several hours, all calculations of yards versus time become useless, and the characters begin to speculate about what has paralyzed traffic to such an extent. A few days later, with no conclusive news, the people get out of their cars and begin to constitute modes of organization: they put together all the food and water they have and ration them; they start sharing cushions and blankets at night; and they create a common fund to buy more provisions for everyone whenever necessary. In addition, as weeks pass and the weather gets colder, they create an inventory of coats and sweaters available in the group; and since people cannot afford to keep the heaters on all the time because of battery life, they decide to reserve the two best equipped cars for the sick. The traffic jam is so big that beyond this specific group, other cells become organized and face similar problems. Around them, there are fields and farms, but no one approaches them to help.
Finally, one day, after various changes in terms of seasons and what could have been weeks or months, the traffic finally clears up and people are able to drive back to the city. Amid the excitement, the protagonist realizes the created sense of community has been lost in a split second, but he keeps moving, “[…] not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead” (Cortázar 29).
There are a few factors present in the story by Cortázar that are applicable to the real world during times of crisis. For instance, the way in which the story unfolds is a good example of the ideas posed by Elinor Ostrom’s research, as “more often than not communities self-organize and manage to control access and use of shared resources” (Varvarousis and Kallis 30). In this line of reasoning, the main drive behind commoning is “always bounded to an economic reasoning directly related to a community’s survival” (Ibidem). Varvarousis and Kallis suggest to approach these alternative economies and practices as commoning projects, thus “emphasizing processes of cooperation and sharing that produce new forms of economy and also new forms of living in common” (ibidem). The authors further argue that often times these new commons are generated through liminal conditions, which leads to an “in-betweenness” that makes it possible for individuals to forego (at least temporarily) their fixed identity.
Cortazar’s story shows this both metaphorically and explicitly: during the traffic jam, people are not known by their names, but by the cars they are driving; as names stop being important, the characters let go of a vital part of their identity. Moreover, while being stuck on a highway, they are quite literally in between places. These are people from all over the country, some of them foreigners, and what brings them together is the fight to survive on the highway for as long as necessary; as explained by Varvarousis and Kallis, “in a liminal commons, the glue that brings the actors together is the practical production of the common” (131). Further, the need for this is brought forward by the crisis. Thus, the dynamic created by the traffic jam is “the result of the loss of an established identity, which allows space for a precarious and fluid ‘we’ to emerge” (Idem 132). As the state fails to provide for them and simply claims to work on the road, the people in the story find an alternative social organization.
Now, some aspects of the current health crisis can also be compared to Cortazar’s story. As we approach day 80 (is it?) of staying at home, there is a sense of time not mattering as much, of the days flowing into each other in a stagnant way, similar to the traffic jam. Secondly, there is an urgency to go back to our “normal” lives that is not questioned enough: in the story, this is portrayed when, in the last minute, the sense of community created by the characters is immediately and unavoidably forgotten.
However, this leads to a key difference between reality and fiction that must be mentioned. Although in these times there is, to some extent, a sense of community worldwide that stems from the fact that we are all fighting against the same threat; the story can unfortunately seem a bit utopian as, for instance, distribution of resources and provisions across the world has never been done fairly and is still not being done fairly now. In addition, new complications arise since, as explained by Doug Antin in an article for Medium, “a global pandemic creates a tragedy of the commons when self-interest conflicts with the actions that need to be taken for the greater good”. This is easily exemplified by the hoarding of groceries, toilet paper or personal protective equipment, but can also be applied to controversies about the duration of lockdowns and moreover, the use of economic resources to help various nations through the upcoming crisis.
On another note, a health crisis as grave as this one entails an added tragedy for the commons, since commoning is based on gathering and there is currently a clear impossibility around this. Hence, we have to resort to a new way of commoning, one that is applicable to the circumstances we are facing today. (1)
Although I do not have an answer for the puzzle this creates, I do know one thing: the current health crisis and the imminent climate one call for what the sociologist Ulrich Beck urges as a “global” response. If we turn towards the arts and humanities, we can surely find examples of this to inspire us – even if they are utopian or only metaphorically applicable, such as the one in The Southern Thruway. In this way, we might be able to let go of (parts of) our national identities and personal interests, even if just temporarily, for the common good.
Antin, Doug. “How Coronavirus Creates A Tragedy of The Commons”, Medium, March 2020. Web. May 2020.
Cortázar, Julio. “The Southern Thruway”, in All Fires the Fire and Other Stories, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1993.
Varvarousis, Angelos and Giorgos Kallis. “Commoning Against the Crisis” in Another Economy in a Time of Crisis. Ed. Manuel Castells, Polity, 2017.
Wimmer, Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck” in Journalism Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2006, pp. 336-347.
(1) An example of this would be some sort of virtual commons. For instance, the Mexican initiative Albora.mx, which is dedicated to share, through their digital platform, an inventory of initiatives which are worth common funding knowing about.