Ivan Illich and the contemporary commons movement

August 5, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedFor the past three days I’ve been attending a fantastic conference, "After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich today," in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts.  Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions.  His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or "vernacular domains," as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity and, indeed, the source of commoning.

We have not had a social critic of Illich’s originality and caliber in some time.  He was classically trained yet traversed disciplinary boundaries with ease and rigor. He was disdainful of conventional political categories and ideology because his critique came from a much deeper place, beyond left or right.  He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition. 

This gathering, organized by Professor Sajay Samuel, has been a wonderful reunion of Illich’s former colleagues, friends and admirers, as well as a venue for Bay Area political activists and citizens to get to learn more about Illich.  Governor Jerry Brown, a friend of Illich’s going back to the 1970s, gave an opening talk at the conference and showed up for the later sessions to listen.  I am told that the nine talks given at the conference will eventually be put online; I will give any updates on that promise.

In the meantime, here is the talk that I gave yesterday:

The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich’s Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement 

I come here today as an ambassador of the commons movement – a growing international movement of activists, thinkers, project leaders and academics who are attempting to build a new world from the ground up.  It’s not just about politics and policy.  It’s about social practices and the design of societal institutions that help us live as caring, intelligent human beings in spiritually satisfying ways.

Many Americans have not heard of the commons except in connection with the word “tragedy.”  We’ve all heard the famous tragedy of the commons parable.  It holds that any shared resource invariably gets over-exploited and ruined.  Since the “tragedy meme” appeared in a famous 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin, it has been drummed into the minds of undergraduates in economics, sociology and political science classes.  It serves as a secular catechism to propagandize the virtues of private property and so-called free markets. 

Thanks to the tragedy smear, most people don’t realize that the commons is in fact a success story – that it is a durable artifact of human history, that it is a way to effectively manage shared resources, and that it lies at the heart of a growing political and cultural movement.

I have been a part of this movement for the past fifteen years, writing books, blogging, organizing conferences, giving talks, writing strategy papers, working with partners and trying to raise money.  On this journey, I have discovered that the commons contains vast worlds within worlds, most of which are invisible to the Harvard-trained policy wonks who dominate Washington and the neoliberal economists from the great universities.    

The commons is in fact alive and well in countless manifestations.  It includes millions of open source software communities that have created Linux and infrastructure that powers the Internet; tens of thousands of Wikipedians who write and edit in more than 150 languages; and scientists and academics who contribute to more than 9,000 open access scholarly journals.  The Internet amounts to one of the great hosting infrastructures for the creation of commons.

The commons can be seen in irrigation collectives in Latin America; in farming ejidos in Mexico; and in coastal fisheries off Chile.  The commons is alive and well in community forestry systems in Nepal, participatory budgeting systems in Brazil, and stakeholder cooperatives in Canada.  The commons is hard at work in seed-sharing communities in India and community gardens in cities around the world.  It is powering the “collaborative consumption” that lets people share cars, apartments and tools.  The commons lies at the heart of indigenous cultures as well.    

You could say that the commons constitutes the great invisible sector of the economy and human society.  Or as Illich would have put it, the commons is vernacular culture at work.  It’s important to stress that the commons is not a resource.  It’s a resource plus a community plus that community’s particular rules and norms for managing the resource.  You could say that the commons is a socio-ecological-political-cultural paradigm and worldview.

Let me also stress that the commons movement is not a utopian or ideological project.  Nor is it about conventional politics or public policy.  The commons is mostly about building working systems for meeting everyday needsoutside of the market and state.  It is practically minded and reality-based.  It is a grassroots, do-it-yourself, take-charge-of-our-future kind of movement.  Commoners are determined to open up new social and political spaces in which people can make their own rules, negotiate their own governance, and craft solutions that are tailored to their local circumstances. 

It should be obvious by now why Ivan Illich was passionate about the commons.  It embodies so many of his core ethical, ecological and political concerns.  It serves as a paradigmatic response – a counterpoint – to the pathologies of modern markets, government, science and large institutions.  He understood how the commons could foster a different, more spiritually wholesome pattern of life – and perhaps how it might provoke a new sort of political struggle to achieve it.  

You could say that Illich was engaged in a life-long struggle to find a new vocabulary, a new language and logic, that could express how commons work and why they are important.  In his great essay, “Silence as a Commons,” Illich explained:    

People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect.  People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. 

The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.

Illich approached the commons not as a social scientist or anthropologist, or as a theorist or economist in any strict sense.  He spoke as a radical Christian searching for embodiments of the divine in human affairs.  He therefore spoke as a real human being – living, breathing, passionate, idiosyncratic, present – and not as an academic mandarin encased in an armor of abstract analysis.  He was really more than an analyst.  He was a witness…..and that’s precisely why his writings still resonate today – because we remain dangerously entangled and confused by a culture of modernity from which there seems to be no escape.    

I think that this was the predicament from which Illich hoped to liberate himself – and us.  It is my immodest belief that the commons offers some important pathways to continue Illich’s work.  I’d like to review how so many of his ideas are quietly being realized by the contemporary commons movement. 

The commons draws its enduring strength from what Illich called the “vernacular domain,” the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they learn about the world, how they find meaning and spirituality, how they manage the resources they love and depend upon.  You could call the vernacular domain “the street.”  As Trent Schroyer puts it in his book, Beyond Western Economics:

The vernacular space is the sensibility and rootedness that emerges from shaping one’s own space within the commons associations of local-regional reciprocity.  It is the way in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence- and communitarian-oriented communities.  It is also central to those places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restorations against the forces of economic globalization.

Unfortunately, the great, unacknowledged scandal of our times is the enclosure of such spaces.  Modern capitalism and its bureaucracies are determined to decontruct commons and convert them into (putatively) rational, efficient markets.  Enclosure is the means by which to convert the collective into the private; the subjective into the objective; and the local and particular into the global and universal.  This process represents a profound dispossession of our humanity and of vernacular culture.

In a famous chapter in his book Shadow Works, Illich described how Spain in the late 15th century became the first nation-state to develop a formal grammar – a contrived “mother tongue” – that deliberately attempted to wipe out the diversity of local and regional vernacular languages.  Power needed to consolidate and defend itself.  Localized diversity represented a lurking if not serious threat to centralized power.  The development of a formal dialect of power was the daring solution. 

As Illich wrote:   

Dependence on formal teaching of the mother tongue is the paradigm for all other dependencies created in an age of commodity-defined existence.  The general framework implied here is that every attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular activity “has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty”….Step by step the war against subsistence has defined as commodities what was essential for living communities, and in each case has resulted in new hierarchies and new forms of domination.

Thus the war against subsistence was begun.  (Subsistence must be understood not as bare and brutish survival, but as a sustainable life outside of the market order.)  Just as the Catholic Church proceeded to monopolize, regiment and institutionalize the realm of the spiritual – insisting that professional priests and church structures are needed to attain salvation – so the state, too, began to see the advantages of colonizing vernacular life.  And that, crudely put, is the history of the 19th and 20th Centuries (and continuing today, of course).

The point of enclosure is to undermine our sovereignty as intelligent people capable of self-determination.  The point of enclosure is to de-skill us.  The point is to take away the infrastructure and tools that we need to emancipate ourselves.  The point is to denigrate the vernacular and collective, and to shift attention and allegiances to the contrived mother tongue of Power – a project now directed by what I call the “market/state.”

Enclosure is not an abstraction.  It’s the great, unacknowledged scourge of our time.  Illich spoke of a profound enclosure in his native land of Dalmatia when the electronic loudspeaker was introduced.  “Up to that day,” he said, “all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication…. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.”

The classic paradigm of enclosure is the collusion between the English aristocracy and Parliament in seizing village pastures, forests and farmlands in order to convert them into market resources.  Commoners were forced into cities to become beggars, shanty-dwellers and exploited wage-slaves – characters in a Charles Dickens novel. 

This is more or less what’s happening today in Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia.   International investors and national governments are now buying up farmlands and forests on a massive scale, at discount prices, in collusion with host governments.  Traditional communities that have grown and harvested their own food for generations as a matter of custom (ah, but without property deeds!) are being thrown off their lands so that large multinational corporations and investors can take them.  The basic goal for national governments to secure a geo-political advantage; to feed their populations at another nation’s expense; or simply to leave the land idle and make a speculative killing. 

Today’s globalized markets are driving countless enclosures, privatizing and commoditizing everything with some shred of marketable value:   

  • Biotech companies and universities now own one-fifth of the human genome.  While the US Supreme Court recently struck down patents for human genes, biotech companies remain eligible to patent many other lifeforms.
  • Mathematical algorithms can now be owned if they are embedded in software and supposedly serve a novel commercial function. 
  • McDonald’s claims a trademark in the prefix “Mc,” so that you can’t name your restaurant McSushi or McVegan or your hotel McSleep. 
  • The American music licensing body ASCAP once demanded that hundreds of summer camps for boys and girls pay a blanket “performance license” for singing copyrighted songs around the campfire.  These are not exceptional cases, mind you. 
  • A surging nano-technology industry is developing synthetic forms of basic matter that “improve upon” nature — and then substitute proprietary nano-matter for naturally occurring matter.  This imitates the strategy developed by Monsanto to use GMOs to displace natural seeds, and multinational bottling companies have made branded, proprietary water a “superior” alternative to ordinary (and cheaper) tap water – and then charge 100 times more.
  • The most mundane forms of everyday experience are now being colonized by tech companies that openly talk about “experience design” – a concept made possible by wearable computing, sensor-based networks, the rise of Big Data and new types of data analytics that are making possible “predictive inference,” as they call it.

I’ve barely ventured into the vast range of enclosures that are going on today, but let me just reference a few other major domains:  the atmosphere, the oceans, taxpayer-funded drug research, the Internet as an open, shared infrastructure, public spaces in cities, public highways, prisons and airports. 

Remember:  the point of enclosure is to convert a shared community resource into a fungible commodity so that it can be privately owned and sold in the marketplace. The generosity and mutualism within vernacular communities must be replaced by an ethic of extreme individualism and consumerism.  In the end, enclosures are all about imposing hierarchies, celebrating inequality and redefining “development” as market growth.

Now, it is important to remember that Illich was no reactionary.  He did not want to revert to a premodern time.  He just wanted to hold tight to many timeless human practices and aspirations.  As he wrote:  “I do not oppose growth oriented societies to others in which traditional subsistence is structured by immemorial cultural transmissions of patterns.  Such a choice does not exist.  Aspirations of this kind would be sentimental and destructive.” 

What mattered most to Illich was “to secure political or participatory space for forms of governance….”  Ordinary people need to have the tools to determine their own future, independent of elite institutions and professions. 

Happily, that is what the commons provides.  It is a systemic tool for achieving a “convivial reconstruction,” as Illich would have put it.  The commons gives us a way to re-imagine production, governance, economics and culture in one integrated package.  It provides a scaffolding for us to co-imagine and then co-invent a different vision of humanity – a vision quite at odds with the ones peddled by Washington, D.C., Madison Avenue and Wall Street. 

Illich’s achievement was to dare to be a pariah – a persistent, outspoken, provocative and yet scholarly pariah — in advancing ideas that were so anathema to mainstream politics, economics and culture.  He just happened to be way ahead of his time.  My pet theory is that we needed to experience the past thirty years of neoliberalism since Reagan/Thatcher to understand the true barbarism of the system.

The good news is that many, many people around the world are increasingly choosing to self-designate themselves as pariahs – as dissenters from the dreamscape of modernity.  One need only look to Tahrir Square and Gezi Park, to the Indignados in Spain, to the Occupy movement, to the protesters in Athens and the UK, among many others, to understand that the neoliberal fantasies of progress through material growth and consumption are coming apart at the seams.  Even though homo economicus – the rational, utility-maximizing individual that economists say we are – is now exposed as a grotesque fiction, our societal institutions persist in treating us as economic robots and demographic categories.  They refuse to honor our diverse social identities, our local commitments, our spiritual needs, our desires to sacrifice for the greater good and future generations.

Yet here we are:  a burgeoning movement of commoners.  From software to urban parks to ethno-botanical stewardship, the movement is building a sprawling global infrastructure of projects and subcultures.  It consists of a surprising number of transnational tribes who are starting to find each other. 

A short list includes the Solidarity Economy movement, the Transition Town movement, alterglobalization activists, water activists attempting to prevent the privatization of water, the Landless Workers Movement/Via Campesino, free software and open source software hackers, the millions of users of Creative Commons licenses, the digital nation of Wikipedians, the open educational resources (OER) movement that is making open textbooks and shareable curricula, the P2P urbanism movement, the global gift economy known as CouchSurfing, the Slow Food movement, community-supported agriculture, the permaculture movement, the Pirate Parties in Europe, and many others.

While any one of these movements may or may not espouse the commons discourse, their social practices embody the core values of the commons:  participation, inclusiveness, fairness, bottom-up control, community-based innovation, accountability.  They all seek to combine production, consumption and governance into an integrated paradigm of change – one that empowers vernacular culture to take control of its own resources and culture.  Many of these efforts are profiled in a collection of essays called The Wealth of the Commons, which I co-edited with Silke Helfrich (available at www.wealthofthecommons.org).

There is a good reason why the struggle to recognize and protect the commons is so difficult.  The commons challenges some deep structural categories of belief and institutional life.  The commons movement seeks to reconfigure many of the embedded dualities of our time – the state and market; public and private; objective and subjective, the universal and the local.  Vernacular culture is so feared because it threatens to disrupt the mother-tongue of neoliberal capitalism. 

This helps explain why two of the leading American economics textbooks – by Samuelson & Nordhaus and Stiglitz & Walsh – make no mention of the commons except as a “tragedy” – even though an estimated two billion people in the world depend on subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, farmland, and so on, to meet their everyday needs.  Neoliberal economic and policy analysts quite literally can’t see the commons!   

Dougald Hine, writing in STIR magazine (a terrific UK magazine that focuses on commons-based and community-led alternatives) suggests that the commons is gaining momentum because so many people around the world believe that “to put hope in government is now the most utopian position of all.”  He continues:

Into this vacuum, the commons enters as an alternative to both the public and private.  I find myself wanting to push this further, to suggest that it indicates a significant historical rupture, in at least two senses:  a breaking of the frame of politics as a tug of war between the forces of state and market; and the failure of the project of the public, the promise of liberal modernity to construct a neutral space in which we could meet each other as individuals with certain universal rights.  This latter point is particularly uncomfortable…since many of our ideas of social justice are founded on the framework.  Yet it is true that the rise of the commons reflects the failure of the public, it is not clear that we can simply expect to borrow it assumptions.

A politics that has abandoned the public might justly be called a post-modern politics.  We have already seen the cynical form of such a politics in the hands of Bush, Blair and Berlusconi; the reliance on controlling the narrative, the disdain for the “reality-based community.”  Against this, the appeals to older public values looks sadly nostalgic…..The attraction of the commons, then, may be that it promises the emergence of a non-cynical form of post-modern politics.

But even this promise requires that we deal with the deficient, misleading categories of thought of the liberal polity, which is too focused on the individual, rationality and competition to understand the ontology of the commons and the kind of society that it implies.  A friend of mine, German theoretical biologist and eco-philosopher Andreas Weber, argues that we need to attempt an upgrade to our worldview.  He calls it Enlightenment 2.0, or more accurately, the Enlivenment.

As a scientist, Weber criticizes the mainstream accounts of biology and evolution because they are captive to reductionist categories of thought and logic.  They regard living organisms as mere automatons who respond to various external, impersonal forces.  They refuse to see that living beings are intrinsically creative, sense-making organisms whose subjectivity and “consciousness” matter.  Indeed, our subjectivity is an indispensable part of biological evolution, Weber contends. 

It is entirely appropriate for biological sciences to begin to ask, “What do we live for?  What are our inner needs as living creatures?  What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order?”  This new brand of science would be a “first-person science” that shows “poetic objectivity.”

I mention Weber’s essay on Enlivenment because it speaks to the institutional pathologies of our time – and to the role of the commons can play in bringing about an Enlivenment.  The commons helps us challenge the “bioeconomic worldview” that conjoins Darwinism and free market economics, and claims that life is all about individuals, competition, efficiency and growth. 

This perspective flat-out wrong as a matter of science, argues Weber.  Nature isn’s efficient.  The biosphere isn’t growing.  There are no property rights within natural systems.  Competition is not generally produce new species.  There is no scarcity in nature so much as biodiversity within natural constraints.  Weber sketches out a different, empirical interpretation of biological systems, and finds that it is about interdependencies and cooperation.  Our need to create meaning – a biosemotics – is in fact a powerful force in evolution, says Weber, that helps us honor the role of life itself as a biological reality.

From this perspective, we can see the commons as a new/old social organism and metabolism for honoring life and our need for meaning.  It is a different species of governance.  It decentralizes power and invites participation.  People are free to contribute their creativity on a decentralized, horizontal scale.  They don’t need to remain supplicants to elites who manage large, expert-driven, hierarchical institutions.  They don’t need to remain disengaged consumers or alienated citizens blindly hoping that some charismatic leader or government agency or corporation will solve their problems.  They won’t. 

Commoning lets people become protagonists in their own lives, and control their own resources, which yields immense satisfactions and joy, not to mention sustainable production.  One might say that it is a path to enlivenment.

While Ivan Illich would surely challenge many aspects of the commons movement as insufficiently transformative or failing to embody the right spirit or having retrograde aspects – I think of the Internet — I like to think that he would smile on the general direction of this diverse set of vernacular communities struggling to find their way out of the crises of modern times.  Illich’s ideas remain important beacons for guiding us forward, and the commons provide a socio-political vehicle of immense promise.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: enclosure of the commons, Ivan Illich, policy, social movements, the commons