Reclaiming the Commons
by Nicholas Hildyard, Larry Lohmann, Sarah Sexton and Simon Fairlie
first published 31 May 1995
For many people in the West, the word “commons” evokes a medieval village pasture which villagers did not own but where they had rights to graze their livestock. Yet, for the vast majority of humanity today, the commons is an everyday reality which provides sustenance, security and independence. The commons is neither private nor public: neither business firm nor state utility, neither jealously guarded private plot nor national or city park.
But it is not usually open to all: the relevant local community typically decides who uses it and how. Indeed, commons regimes can be defined more through their social and cultural organization than their physical location: for example, local or group power, distinctions between members and non-members, rough parity among members, a concern with common safety rather than accumulation, and an absence of the constraints which lead to economic scarcity.
Industrial development, the creation of empires and states, business conglomerates and civic dictatorships has only been possible through dismantling the commons and harnessing the fragments to build up new economic and social patterns responsive to the interests of a dominant minority. The modern nation state has stripped power and control from commons regimes and created structures of governance from which the great mass of humanity (particularly women) are excluded. The market economy has expanded by enabling state and commercial interests to gain control of territory that has been used and nurtured by others, and by transforming that territory -- together with the people themselves -- into expendable “resources” for exploitation.
Enclosure is a change in the networks of power which enmesh the environment, production, distribution, the political process, knowledge, research and the law. It reduces the control of local people over community affairs. But enclosure has never gone unchallenged. Resistance to enclosure takes place in countless everyday ways in both the South and the North.
This articles is based on a presentation at the 1995 annual Conference of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom held in York.
- A Hidden Structure
- An Everyday Reality
- The Commons: Neither Public nor Private
- Perception of Scarcity
- The Worldly Commons
- Defining Oneself
- No Free-for-all
- Tending the Commons
- The Tragedy of Enclosure
- Commons Regimes and their Natural Surroundings
- Development as Enclosure
- New Values
- New Forms of Exchange
- New Roles
- Enclosure as Control
- Conceptual Trapping: the Enclosure of Language and Culture
- The Commons Resurgent
- The Balance of Power
- Everyday Commons
- A Concluding Remark
To Western eyes, the streets and lanes of Bangkok, like those of many cities in the South, may seem a strange mixture of order and chaos. In the shadow of high-rise hotels, apartment and office blocks, people live in dark, seemingly random collections of shacks near railway lines, on construction sites, and over swamps. In front of rows of concrete shophouses and air-conditioned banks, carts and stalls selling noodles, dried squid, curries and iced drinks jostle for kerb space with amulet sellers, fruit vendors and beggars. Souvenir merchants block pedestrian traffic by jamming their tables up against those of purveyors of cheap baby clothes, leather goods, sweets and dubious athletic shoes. Street corner vendors show open contempt for the solemnities of intellectual property by loudly inviting passers-by to invest in fake Rolex watches, pirated rock music cassettes and bogus Lacoste shirts. Under the eyes of bored traffic police, pedestrians jaywalk across roads congested with trucks, buses and motorcycles.
The hints of anarchy in these scenes may trouble the Western mind. Who are all these people raising chickens and drying clothes next to the railroad tracks? Why don't the police do something about the jaywalkers, the hawkers and the polluting vehicles? What is the law here? Is there a law here? Why doesn't anybody seem to know what it is? A Westerner setting up a food stall on the kerb of a busy street might have an uneasy sense of encroaching on public space, enforced by a worry about bureaucrats and police. Not the Bangkok vendors! Like squatters they seem ready to take all the space they can get. of course, now and then the police clear them off. But this hardly seems to be out of a real concern for public order. More likely the World Bank or a foreign dignitary is arriving for a meeting and some high official, fearful of losing face, has sent out an order to spruce up the streets. In any case, as soon as the police are gone the vendors trickle back. In a week things are back to normal.
Longer acquaintance with Bangkok may shift the Westerner's view. Beneath the seeming vacuum of public order and responsibility the outlines of a different kind of moral and environmental order begin to appear. It becomes clear that while public space may not always be respected, informal boundaries are well marked within communities of people who know each other. In the city are ramshackle shanty towns or along the row of street vendors, anyone who takes up too much space, or the wrong space, or leaves too much of a mess, is brought back into line by neighbours. The community may not possess much space, and has little opportunity to make it clean and attractive, but it makes the most of what it has. And because no one group is powerful enough to usurp too much space for itself, everybody has a share.
External borders are defended as well. When the police undertake a sweep of sidewalk vendors, furious mutterings spread down the lines of stalls. "This is our turf! We've been here for years! What right do the authorities have to evict us?" Elsewhere, outrage may lead to more organized resistance. In an area of orchards nestled in a bend of the Chao Phraya River near the city centre, landowners and squatters join together to protest the proposed conversion of their land into a "public park", pointing out that they and their ancestors have kept the place green for over a century. When lines of policemen step forward to begin dismantling squatters' homes, children rush forward to grasp their legs. Shaking them off, the police advance a few steps further only to come up against a phalanx of angry, taunting women, baring their breasts to shame them into retreat. Behind them, in reserve, wait the men of the community. People may recognise the city's law as a fact rather than as a social norm, and value customs more than contracts, but their sense of rights and justice is sharp.
The order people seek is seldom a public one. Few are overly concerned about obligations toward unseen strangers. Few set much store by anonymous and formal words typed or printed on headed paper, or on proclamations that this or that area is "public property". Rather, people try to establish personal, face to face connections. Strangers feel each other out to find out where they stand. Who is the most powerful person here? Who the most senior? Do I know any of their relatives? Where can I carve out a space for my family? How much can my family and friends get away with before we offend our neighbours? As new acquaintances jockey for position on the pavements, in the alleys, in the communities and restaurants and meeting rooms, invisible grid-lines are drawn, connections made, and unspoken rules laid down. As relationships become established and power is balanced, interdependence grows and benevolence is exchanged for respect. Insiders are distinguished from outsiders, and consideration and love flourish among familiars. Indulgences quickly become rights which cannot be violated without denying the growing personal ties themselves. It is in these right and ties, more than in the formal machinery of the law or an inculcated sense of "the public", that ordinary people, and even police and businesses, place their faith.
This order does not emerge from nowhere. It recreates in broken form a long tradition visible more clearly in the countryside: a tradition of the commons.[FN See for example: S. Ekachai, "Traditions resist Change" in S. Ekachai, Behind the Smile: Voices of Thailand, Thai Development Support Committee, Bangkok, 1990, pp.86-95.] There, until recently, the category of "the public" barely existed. In day-to-day practice, it was the community which exercised dominion over time, space, agriculture and language. Woods and streams feeding local irrigation systems remained intact because anyone degrading them had to brave the wrath of neighbours deprived of their livelihood, and no one was powerful enough to do so. Everybody was subject to everybody else's personal scrutiny and sanctions.
Bangkok twists this tradition. Benefiting from the growth of the state and "economic development", elites have gained the power to usurp larger and larger domains of common space - streets, clean air, green space - without having to concern themselves with the reaction of others. Webs of personal relationships have been stretched or frayed, losing their anchorage to a particular locality, reducing people's ability to defend their space and make it liveable. People whose livelihoods have been taken away by this process fall into increasingly abject dependency on those who have taken it away. At the same time, new webs of personal relationships ramify across the upper levels of society. Dynastic, commercial and military alliances concentrate and reconcentrate power largely beyond the ability of ordinary people to place checks upon it.
In this sense, disorder in Bangkok originates less in the city's huddled shacks or the haphazard rows of street vendors than in the forces - partly foreign - that lie behind the modern public and private high-rise buildings, fast-food outlets and brightly coloured billboards which look so reassuring and orderly to the Western visitor. Indeed, it is in commons such as those found on street vendors' turf that the order which can safeguard the interests of ordinary Bankokians and their environment is largely found. When subsistence is at stake, they often improvise or reconstruct rough-and-ready new commons regimes rather than pin their hopes on either the market economy or public institutions. For better or worse, the commons is the social and political space where things get done and where people derive a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives. In Bangkok, as in many places throughout the South, when the commons is gone, there is little that can take its place.
The tale of Bangkok and its broken commons may seem remote from Western experience. For many people in the West, the word "commons" carries an archaic flavour: that of the medieval village pasture which villagers did not own but where they had rights to graze their livestock. Yet, for the vast majority of humanity, the commons is an everyday reality. Ninety per cent of the world's fishers rely on small inshore marine commons, catching over half the fish eaten in the world today.[FN E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p.27.] In the Philippines, Java and Laos, irrigation systems are devised and run by villagers themselves, the water rights being distributed through rules laid down by the community.[FN See, for example: M.C.J. Cruz 'Water as Common Property: The Case of Irrigation Water Rights in the Philippines' in F. Berkes (ed), Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-based Sustainable Development, Belhaven Press, London, 1989, pp.218-235.] Even in the North, there are communities which still manage their forests, pastures, fisheries and water supplies jointly.[FN See, for example: J.M. Acheson, 'The Lobster Fiefs Revisited: Economic and Ecological Effects of Territoriality in Maine Lobster Fishing' in B. McCay & J. M. Acheson (eds), The Question of the Commons: The Culture and Ecology of Communal Resources, University of Arizona, Tuscon, 1987, pp.37-65.]
Moreover, new commons are constantly being born, even among what might seem the most fragmented communities. In the inner cities of the US, the dialects of black communities express concepts that the language taught in state schools cannot touch. In southern California, water users have crafted self-governing institutional structures, basin by basin, and watershed by watershed, to control water abstraction from local aquifers.[FN W. Blomquist, Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California, ICS Press, San Fransisco, California, 1992.] At toxic dump sites and around proposed nuclear plants in France, Switzerland and elsewhere, people have insisted on their "rights" to keep the earth and air around their communities free from the threat of poisonous and radioactive substances, damning the economic and "public" rationality which dictates that their homes are "objectively" the best locations for waste sinks. For them, the sentiments expressed by an elder of a Brazilian tribe, despite the religious language in which they are couched, cannot be completely unrecognizable:
"The only possible place for the Krenak people to live and to re-establish our existence, to speak to or Gods, to speak to our nature, to weave our lives, is where God created us. We can no longer see the planet that we live upon as if it were a chess-board where people just move things around."[FN Quoted in World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, p.114.]
Despite its ubiquity, the commons is hard to define. It provides sustenance, security and independence, yet (in what many Westerners feel to be a paradox) typically does not produce commodities. Unlike most things in modern industrial society, moreover, it is neither private nor public: neither business firm nor state utility, neither jealously guarded private plot nor national or city park. Nor is it usually open to all. The relevant local community typically decides who uses it and how.
The unlimited diversity of commons also makes the concept elusive. While all commons regimes involve joint use, what they define access to is bewilderingly varied: for example, trees, forests, land, minerals, water, fish, animals, language, time, radio wavelengths, silence, seeds, milk, contraception and streets.
More fruitful than attempts to define commons regimes through their domains are attempts to define them through their social and cultural organization: for example, local or group power, distinctions between members and non-members, rough parity among members, a concern with common safety rather than accumulation, and an absence of the constraints which lead to economic scarcity. Even here, however, it would be a mistake to demand too much precision. For example, what does the "local" in "local power" mean? In Shanxi province in China, communal forests were owned by villages, several villages together, or clans. In India, the relevant bodies may be caste groups, while for Switzerland's city forests, it is "citizenship" (election to a given community) that counts.
Similarly, what does the "power" in "local power" consist in? Sometimes it is the power to exclude outsiders or to punish them if they abuse the commons. Often this power lays the foundation for an additional structure of internal rules, rights, duties and beliefs which mediates and shapes the community's own relationship with its natural surroundings. Sometimes the meshes of power internal to commons regimes give rise to notions of "property" or "possession", but in many cases the relevant group does not regard itself as owning, but rather as owned by, or as stewards to, water or land.
A further characteristic often ascribed to the commons is that, unlike resources in the modern economy, it is "not perceived as scarce". This is not only because many things available as commons, such as silence, air or genetic diversity, will renew themselves continually until deliberately made scarce by the encroachment of outside political actors. More importantly, the needs which many commons satisfy are not infinitely expanding. They are not determined by a growth-oriented external system producing goods and services, but rather are constantly adjusted and limited by the specific commons regime itself, whose physical characteristics remain in everyone's view. Without the race between growth and the scarcity which growth creates, there can thus be a sense of "enoughness". Even where produce from the commons is sold, the "needs" defined by consumerism and external market demand for goods and services will be subject to internal revision.
Despite their resolutely local orientation and resistance to being swallowed up by larger systems, commons regimes have never been isolated in either space or time. Nor have their social organizations ever been static. Commons regimes welcome, feed upon and are fertilized by contact, and evolve just like any other social institution.[FN R. Norgaard, 'The Rise of the Global Exchange Economy and the Loss of Biological Diversity' in E.O. Wilson (ed), Biodiversity, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., pp.206-211: I. Illich, Gender, Pantheon, New York, 1982.] Communities maintaining commons often work out arrangements over larger geographical areas with other groups. For example, in the Philippines competing claims to water rights among different zanjaras, or communal irrigation societies, have customarily been decided by inter-village councils composed of zanjara officers and family elders in the community.[M.C.J. Cruz 'Water as Common Property: The Case of Irrigation Water Rights in the Philippines' in F. Berkes (ed), Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-based Sustainable Development, Belhaven Press, London, 1989, pp.218-235.]
Systems of common rights, in fact, far from evolving in isolation, often owe their very existence to interaction and struggle between communities and the outside world. It is arguably only in reaction to invasion, dispossession or other threats to accustomed security of access that the concept of common rights emerges. Today, such rights are evolving where access to seeds, air and other resources previously taken for granted are being challenged through commoditization, legal enclosure or pollution.
Each commons regime may be as different culturally from the next as all are from, say, a factory. But it is not only their cultural diversity that makes such regimes difficult to "capture" in technical or universal terms. Ivan Illich makes this point when he says that the "law establishing the commons was unwritten, 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."[FN I. Illich, 'Silence is the Commons', Coevolution Quarterly, Winter 1983, pp.5-9.] This is inexact; commons rules are sometimes written down; and where they are not, this is not so much because what they protect is complex as because the commons requires an open-endedness, receptiveness and adaptability to the vagaries of local climate, personalities, consciousness, crafts and materials which written records cannot fully express. But Illich's point is important. What makes the commons work, like the skills of wheelwrights, surgeons or machinists, cannot easily be encoded in written or other fixed or "replicable" forms useful to cultural outsiders. These forms can make some of the workings of commons regimes "visible" to those outsiders at the expense of commons regimes' viability.
In this and other respects, the concept of the commons flies in the face of the contemporary wisdom that each spot on the globe consists merely of coordinates on a global grid laid out by state and market: a uniform field which determines everyone's and everything's rights and roles. "Commons" implies the right of local people to define their own grid, their own forms of community respect for watercourses, meadows or paths' to resolve conflicts their own way; to translate what enters their ken into the personal terms of their own dialect; to be "biased" against the "rights" of outsiders to local "resources" in ways usually unrecognized in modern laws; to treat their home not simply as a location housing transferable goods and chunks of population but as irreplaceable and even to be defended at all costs.
For many years, governments, international planning agencies (and many conservationists) have viewed commons regimes with deep hostility. Nothing enrages the World Bank more, for example, than the "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" or "NIMBY" mentality which so many communities display in defending their commons against dams, toxic waste dumps, polluting factories and the like.[FN World Bank, World Development Report 1992: Development and Environment, Oxford University Press, New York, pp.15 and 83.] Many conservationists and delegates to the United Nations "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, similarly, view local control over land, forests, streams and rivers as a recipe for environmental destruction. The only way to secure the environment, they say, is to put a fence around it, police it and give it economic value through development.
In defense of such views, development agencies have played upon two related confusions. The first, promulgated most famously in the 1960s by Garrett Hardin and others, is the myth of the "tragedy of the commons". According to Hardin, any commons (the example he used was a hypothetical rangeland) "remorselessly generates tragedy" since the individual gain to each user from overusing the commons will always outweigh the individual losses he or she has to bear due to its resulting degradation.[FN G. Hardin, 'The Tragedy of the Commons', Science, 162, 13 December 1968, pp.1243-1248.] As many critics have pointed out, however, and as Hardin himself later acknowledged, what he is describing is not a commons regime, in which authority over the use of forests, water and land rests with a community, but rather an open access regime, in which authority rests nowhere; in which there is no property at all; in which production for an external market takes social precedence over subsistence; in which production is not limited by considerations of long-term local abundance; in which people "do not seem to talk to one another";[FN A McEvoy, 'Toward an interactive theory of nature and culture' in D. Worster (ed), The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, p.226.] and in which profit for harvesters is the only operating social value.
The difference is critical. Far from being a "free-for-all", use of the commons is closely regulated through communal rules and practices. For example, amongst the Barabaig, a semi-nomadic pastoralist group in Tanzania, rights of use and access to land are variously invested in the community, the clan and individual households. As Charles Lane explains, "the Barabaig recognize that, to make efficient use of resources, access to grazing needs to be controlled to prevent exploitation beyond the capacity to recover. Although surface water is universally accessible to everyone, its use is controlled by rules ... water sources must not be diverted or contaminated ... a well becomes the property of the clan of the man who digs it. Although anyone may draw water for domestic purposes from any well, only clan members may water their stock there."[FN C. Lane, Barabaig Natural Resource Management: Sustainable Land Use under Threat of Destruction, Discussion Paper 12, UN Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, 1990, p.7.] Whether land is privately or collectively owned, there are rules ensuring that the use made of it is not detrimental to the community as a whole, while certain species of tree are regarded as sacred for the same reason. Disputes, which are rare, are resolved by a public assembly or all adult males, though sometimes in the case of a particularly difficult issue a special committee is formed. There is a parallel council of women, who also have property rights over land and animals, and occasionally may be the head of a family. Women have jurisdiction in matters concerning offences by men against women and in matters concerning spiritual life. Lane describes how recently a women's council upbraided the men for ploughing sacred land. At a regional level, a similar council oversees the movement of herds and people to ensure that there is no overgrazing.
A second confusion that muddies the debate over the commons is between environmental degradation which can be attributed to commons regimes themselves and that which typically results from their breakdown at the hands of more global regimes. As many authors have pointed out, "tragedies of the commons" generally turn out on closer examination to be "tragedies of enclosure".[FN D.W. Bromley, Environment and Economy: Property Rights and Public Policy, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.] Once they have taken over land, enclosers, unlike families with ties and commitments to the soil, can mine, log, degrade and abandon their holdings, and then sell them on the global market without suffering any personal losses. It is generally enclosers rather than commoners who benefit from bringing ruin to the commons.
None of this is to suggest that all commons regimes are always capable of preventing degradation of forests, fisheries or land indefinitely. But as Martin Khor of Third World Network puts it, "local control, while not necessarily sufficient for environmental protection, is necessary, while under state control the environment necessarily suffers."[FN M. Khor Kok Peng, presentation at World Rainforest Meeting held on Land Insecurity and Tropical Deforestation, 1 March 1992, New York.]
One reason why local control is essential is that, as Richard O'Connor has argued, "the environment itself is local; nature diversifies to make niches, enmeshing each locale in its own intricate web. Insofar as this holds, enduring human adaptations must also ultimately be quite local".[FN R. O'Connor, 'From Fertility to Order', in Siam Society, Culture and Environment in Thailand, Siam Society, Bangkok, 1989, pp.393-141.] Biological diversity, for example, is related to the degree to which one locale is distinct from the next in its topography and natural and human history. It is best preserved by societies which nourish those local differences - in which the traditions and natural history of each area interact to create distinctive systems of cultivation and water and forest use.
This local orientation is displayed par excellence in small commons regimes. As Elinor Ostrom notes: "Small-scale communities are more likely to have the formal conditions required for successful and enduring collective management of the commons. Among these are the visibility of common resources and behaviour toward them; feedback on the effects of regulations; widespread understanding and acceptance of the rules and their rationales; the values expressed in these rules (that is, equitable treatment of all and protection of the environment); and the backing of values by socialization, standards and strict enforcement."[FN E. Ostrom, 'The Rudiments of a Revised Theory of the Origins, Survival and Performance of Institutions of Collective Action', Working Paper 32, Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1985.]
A second reason why local control is important is that where people rely directly on their natural surroundings for their livelihood, they develop an intimate knowledge of those surroundings which informs their actions. The Barabaig, for example, fully understand that if cattle were to be kept permanently on pastures near local water sources, the land would quickly become degraded. "As herds of livestock are brought to the river margins every day, whatever the season, they know that the forage there is needed by those who are watering their stock. If others are allowed to permanently graze it, this forage would soon be depleted and not available to those who go there to draw water. This would ultimately result in destruction of the land through over-grazing and damage from concentration of hoof traffic. The Barabaig, therefore, have a customary rule that bans settlement at the river margins and denies herders the right to graze the forage if they are not there to water their stock."[FN C. Lane, Barabaig Natural Resource Management: Sustainable Land Use under Threat of Destruction, Discussion Paper 12, UN Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, 1990, p.8.]
The key to the success of commons regimes lies in the limits that its culture of shared responsibilities place upon the power of any one group or individual. The rough equality which generally prevails in the commons, for example, does not grow out of any ideal or romantic preconceived notion of communitas any more than out of allegiance to the modern notion that people have "equal rights". Rather, it emerges as a by-product of the inability of a small community's elite to eliminate entirely the bargaining power of any one of its members, the limited amount of goods any one group can make away with under the others' gaze, and the calculated jockeying for position of many individuals who know each other and share an interest both in minimizing their own risks and in not letting any one of their number become too powerful.
Changes in the power base of a local elite or increases in effective community size entailed by integration into a global social fabric can rapidly undermine the authority of the commons. The sense of shame or transgression so important to community controls, as well as the monitoring of violations themselves, is diluted or denatured by increase in numbers, while envy of outsiders unconstrained by those controls flourishes. At some point, "the breakdown of a community with the associated collapse in concepts of joint ownership and responsibility can set the path for the degradation of common resources in spite of abundance."[FN F. Berkes & D. Feeny, 'Paradigms Lost: Changing Views on the use of Common Property Resources', Alternatives, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1990, p.50.]
It is precisely this process that development fuels. The expansion of modern state, international and market institutions entails a shrinking space for the commons. Today, virtually all "human communities are encapsulated within or fully integrated into larger socio-political systems" as are their "local systems of resource use and property rights",[FN B. McCay & J.M. Acheson, The Question of the Commons, University of Arizona, Tuscon, 1987, p.7.] making enclosure an ever-present threat. As political, social and ecological boundaries are erased, control is centralized or privatized, commercialized or placed under management. As their environments are destroyed or degraded, their power eroded or denied, and their communities threatens, millions are now demanding a halt to the development process. As the social activist Gustavo Esteva writes, "if you live in Rio or Mexico City, you need to be very rich or very stupid not to notice that development stinks ... We need to say 'no' to development, to all and every form of development, and that is precisely what the social majorities - for whom development was always a threat - are asking for."[FN G. Esteva, 'The Right to Stop Development', NGONET UNCED Feature, 13 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro.] For them, the struggle is to reclaim, defend or create their commons and with it the rough sense of equity that flows from sharing a truly common future.
The creation of empires and states, business conglomerates and civic dictatorships -- whether in pre-colonial times or in the modern era -- has only been possible through dismantling the commons and harnessing the fragments, deprived of their old significance, to build up new economic and social patterns that are responsive to the interests of a dominant minority. The modern nation state has been built only by stripping power and control from commons regimes and creating structures of governance from which the great mass of humanity (particularly women) are excluded. Likewise, the market economy has expanded primarily by enabling state and commercial interests to gain control of territory that has traditionally been used and cherished by others, and by transforming that territory - together with the people themselves - into expendable "resources" for exploitation. By enclosing forests, the state and private enterprise have torn them out of fabrics of peasant subsistence; by providing local leaders with an outside power base, unaccountable to local people, they have undermined village checks and balances; by stimulating demand for cash goods, they have impelled villagers to seek an ever wider range of things to sell. Such a policy was as determinedly pursued by the courts of Aztec Mexico, the feudal lords of West Africa, and the factory owners of Lancashire and the British Rail as it is today by the International Monetary Fund or Coca-Cola Inc.
Only in this way has it been possible to convert peasants into labour for a global economy, replace traditional with modern agriculture, and free up the commons for the industrial economy. Similarly, only by atomizing tasks and separating workers from the moral authority, crafts and natural surroundings created by their communities has it been possible to transform them into modern, universal individuals susceptible to "management". In short, only by deliberately taking apart local cultures and reassembling them in new forms has it been possible to open them up to global trade.[FN L. Lohmann, 'Resisting Green Globalism' in W. Sachs (ed), Global Ecology: Conflicts and Contradictions, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993.]
To achieve that "condition of economic progress", millions have been marginalized as a calculated act of policy, their commons dismantled and degraded, their cultures denigrated and devalued and their own worth reduced to their value as labour. Seen from this perspective, many of the processes that now go under the rubric of "nation-building", "economic growth", and "progress" are first ad foremost processes of expropriation, exclusion, denial and dispossession. In a word, of "enclosure".
Because history's best-known examples of enclosure involved the fencing in of common pasture, enclosure is often reduced to a synonym for "expropriation". But enclosure involves more than land and fences, and implies more than simply privatization or takeover by the state. It is a compound process which affects nature and culture, home and market, production and consumption, germination and harvest, birth, sickness and death. It is a process to which no aspect of life or culture is immune.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers a general definition of enclosure -- to "insert within a frame". Enclosure tears people and their lands, forests, crafts, technologies and cosmologies out of the cultural framework in which they are embedded and tries to force them into a new framework which reflects and reinforces the values and interests of newly-dominant groups. Any pieces which will not fit into the new framework are devalued and discarded. In the modern age, the architecture of this new framework is determined by market forces, science, state and corporate bureaucracies, patriarchal forms of social organization, and ideologies of environmental and social management.
Land, for example, once it is integrated into a framework of fences, roads and property laws, is "disembedded" from local fabrics of self-reliance and redefined as "property" or "real estate". Forests are divided into rigidly defined precincts - mining concessions, logging concessions, wildlife corridors and national parks - and transformed from providers of water, game, wood and vegetables into scarce exploitable economic resources. Today they are on the point of being enclosed still further as the dominant industrial culture seeks to convert them into yet another set of components of the industrial system, redefining them as "sinks" to absorb industrial carbon dioxide and as pools of "biodiversity". Air is being enclosed as economists seek to transform it into a marketable "waste sink"; and genetic material by subjecting it to laws which convert it into the "intellectual property" of private interests.
People too are enclosed as they are fitted into a new society where they must sell their labour, learn clock-time and accustom themselves to a life of production and consumption; groups of people are redefined as "populations', quantifiable entities whose size must be adjusted to take pressure off resources required for the global economy. Women are enclosed by consigning them to the "unproductive" periphery of a framework of industrial work, which they can only enter by adopting "masculine" values and ways of being, thinking and operating. Skills, too, are enclosed, as are systems of knowledge associated with local stewardship of nature.
Enclosure inaugurates what Ivan Illich has called "a new ecological order."[FN I Illich, 'Silence is a Commons', The Coevolution Quarterly, Winter, 1983.] It upsets the local power balance which ensured that survival was "the supreme rule of common behaviour, not the isolated right of the individual."[FN I. Illich, Gender, Pantheon, New York, 1982, p.111] It scoffs at the notion that there can be "specific forms of community respect" for parts of the environment which are "neither the home nor wilderness", but lie "beyond a person's threshold and outside his possession"[FN I. Illich, Gender, Pantheon, New York, 1982, p.18] -- the woods or fields, for example, that secure a community's subsistence, protect it from flood and drought, and provide spiritual and aesthetic meaning.
Instead, enclosure transforms the environment into a "resource" for national or global production - into so many chips that can be cashed in as commodities, handed out as political favours and otherwise used to accrue power. The sanctions on exploitation imposed by commons regimes in order to ensure a reliable local subsistence from local nature are now viewed "simply as constraints to be removed."[FN V. Shiva, 'Resources' in W. Sachs (ed), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1992, p.206.]
Control over those resources is assigned to actors outside the community. Most obviously, land -- and in particular, the best-quality land -- is concentrated in proportionately fewer and fewer hands. Enclosure of water and other resources has also generated scarcity and conflict. Large-scale irrigated plantations, for example, deny water to local farmers who work outside the plantation system.[FN V. Shiva, Ecology and the Politics of Survival: Conflicts over Natural Resources in India, Sage/United Nations University, New Delhi, 1991.] In central India "whilst staple crops in the drought stricken areas ... are denied water, the sugar-cane fields and grape vines are irrigated with scarce groundwater. a soil water drought has been created not by an absolute scarcity of water but by the preferential diversion of a limited water supply."[FN J. Bandyopadhyay, 'The Ecology of Drought and Water Scarcity', The Ecologist, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1988.] In cities, meanwhile, people without motor-cars are progressively shut out from access to the street.
Enclosure thus cordons off those aspects of the environment that are deemed "useful" to the encloser -- whether grass for sheep in 16th century England or stands of timber for logging in modern-say Sarawak -- and defines them, and them alone, as valuable. A street becomes a conduit for vehicles; a wetland, a field to be drained; flowing water, a wasted asset to be harnessed for energy or agriculture. Instead of being a source of multiple benefits, the environment becomes a one-dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose - that purpose reflecting the interests of the encloser, and the priorities of the wider political economy in which the encloser operates.
Enclosure reorganizes society to meet the overriding demands of the market. It demands that production and exchange conform to rules that reflect the exigencies of supply and demand, of competition and maximization of output, of accumulation and economic efficiency.
In commons regimes, activities we now call "economic" are embedded in other activities. The planting of fields or the harvesting of crops cannot be reduced to acts of production: they are also religious events, occasions for celebration, for fulfilling communal obligations and for strengthening networks of mutual support. Farming, for example, is carried out not to maximize production -- though a healthy crop is always welcome -- but to feed the gods, enable cultural practices to continue with dignity, or minimize risk to the community as a whole, not least by strengthening networks of mutual support. Thus, when enclosure begins, people feel threatened not only by material expropriation but by the cultural and personal humiliations that inevitably accompany it. Unsurprisingly, much of their resistance against enclosure is also developed and codified in non-economic forms; gossip, songs, jokes, rumours, drama and festivals.[FN J. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.]
Because economic relations need not be crucial to survival in commons regimes, they generally take a back seat to other social relationships. Homo economicus -- the obsessively rent-maximizing archetype around whose supposed universality modern economic theory has been constructed -- might in fact be unable to scratch together a living in many commons regimes. Unwilling to share with neighbours in times of dearth or to "waste time" in "unprofitable" labour-sharing, rituals of reciprocity, craft acquisition, gossip and the like, he or she could well be cut off from the community support needed to make ends meet.
As production and exchange are enclosed by the market, economic activity is cordoned off from other spheres of social life, bounded by rules that actively undermine previous networks of mutual aid. As Gerald Berthoud observes: "The market tends to become the only mode of social communications, even between those who are intimately connected. Within this universe of generalized commodities, it becomes logical that individuals increasingly become strangers to one another. Even for those who are culturally and socially close, the market mentality maintains a distance between them, almost as if close and distant relationships had become indistinguishable."[FN G. Berthoud, 'Market' in W. Sachs (ed), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1992, p.83.]
In an undiluted market economy, access to food, for example, is no longer dependent on being part of -- and contributing to -- a non-monetary social network; instead, food goes to those who have the money to buy it. Only those who, in the economists' jargon, have the income to translate their biological needs into "effective demand" get to eat. In the global supermarket, people earning perhaps 100 dollars a year -- if they are lucky -- must compete for the same food with people earning 100 dollars a week, 100 dollars an hour, or even 100 dollars a minute.
Enclosure redefines community. It shifts the reference points by which people are valued. Individuals become "units" whose "value" to society is defined by their relationship to the new political entity that emerges from enclosure. Increasing numbers of people do not have access to the environment, the political process, the market or the knowledge they need.
Enclosure also ushers in a new political order. When the environment is turned over to new uses, a new set of rules and new forms of organization are required. Enclosure redefines how the environment is managed, by whom and for whose benefit. Old forms of environmental management are forced into redundancy or vilified, derided or outlawed.
Enclosure not only redefines the forum in which decisions are made but also redefines whose voice counts in that forum. In order to place management in the hands of "others", whose allegiances and sources of power lie outside the community, it cuts knowledge off from local ethics. As Tariq Banuri and Frederique Apffel-Marglin note: "Local knowledge is bound by time and space, by contextual and moral factors. More importantly, it cannot be separated from larger moral or normative ends ... Once knowledge is meant to be universally applicable, it begins to gravitate into the hands of experts or professionals, those 'conspiracies against the laity', as George Bernard Shaw once called them, whose interests in acquiring, creating, promoting, or acting upon the basis of such knowledge begins more and more to be motivated by internal professional considerations, rather than by normative social implications. In fact under these circumstances, the activity can often become an end in itself and become unmoored from its narrow technical objectives."[FN T. Banuri & F. Apffel-Marglin (eds), Who Will Save the Forests? Political Resistance, Systems of Knowledge and the Environmental Crisis, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993.]
Enclosure opens the way for the bureaucratization and enclosure of knowledge itself. It accords power to those who master the language of the new professionals and who are versed in its etiquette and its social nuances, which are inaccessible to those who have not been to school or to university, who do not have professional qualifications, who cannot operate computers, who cannot fathom the apparent mysteries of a cost-benefit analysis, or who refuse to adopt the forceful tones of an increasingly "masculine" world.
In that respect, as Illich notes, "enclosure is as much in the interest of professionals and of state bureaucrats as it is in the interests of capitalists." For as local ways of knowing and doing are devalued or appropriated, and as vernacular forms of governance are eroded, so state and professional bodies are able to insert themselves within the commons, taking over areas of life that were previously under the control of individuals, households and the community. Enclosure "allows the bureaucrat to define the local community as impotent to provide for its own survival."[FN I Illich, 'Silence is a Commons', The Coevolution Quarterly, Winter 1983.] It invites the professional to come to the "rescue" of those whose own knowledge is deemed inferior to that of the encloser.
Enclosure is thus a change in the networks of power which enmesh the environment, production, distribution, the political process, knowledge, research and the law. It reduces the control of local people over community affairs. Whether female or male, a person's influence and ability to make a living depends increasingly on becoming absorbed into the new policy created by enclosure, on accepting -- willingly or unwillingly -- a new role as a consumer, a worker, a client or an administrator, on playing the game according to new rules. The way is thus cleared for cajoling people into the mainstream, be it through programmes to bring women "into development", to entice smallholders "into the market" or to foster paid employment.[FN P. Simmons, 'Women in Development', The Ecologist, Vol. 22, No.1, 1992, pp.16-21.]
Those who remain on the margins of the new mainstream, either by choice or because that is where society has pushed them, are not only deemed to have little value: they are perceived as a threat. Thus it is the landless, the poor, the dispossessed who are blamed for forest destruction; their poverty which is held responsible for "overpopulation"; their protests which are classed as subversive and a threat to political stability. And because they are perceived as a threat, they become objects to be controlled, the legitimate subjects of yet further enclosure. Witness the measures taken by the Tanzanian authorities to curb street-traders. After the Human Resources Deployment Act in 1983, "Those who could not produce proper identification were to be resettled in the countryside. In the Dar es Salaam region, all unlicensed, self-employed people, including fish sellers, shoe repairmen, tailors, etc., were to be considered 'idle and disorderly' and treated as 'loiterers'. President Nyerere ordered the Prime Minister to be 'bold' in implementing the Act, saying: 'If we don't disturb loiterers, they will disturb us.' The loiterers were compared with economic saboteurs and racketeers 'whom the nation has declared war on.'"[FN A.M. Tripp, Defending the Right to Subsist: The State vs the Urban Informal Economy in Tanzania, Wider Working Papers, World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University, 1989, pp.26-27.]
From the dispossessed beggars of 16th century England to illegal settlers in Sao Paolo, people have been defined as too poor, too dependent, too inarticulate, too marginal to be of "use" to mainstream society. They are shunted from one place to another as further areas are enclosed or, as in the case of the street children of Brazil, they are simply murdered. Enclosure creates, as one New Guinea villager has put it, "rubbish people" -- in the North no less than in the South.
Enclosure involves more than the taking over of public office, natural resources or markets by one group at the expense of another. By "taking something out of one social frame and forcing it into a new one", by redefining meanings, enclosure involves something akin to translation.
When a concept is enclosed in the context of a radically alien language, something is inevitably "lost in translation". When what is lost is essential to the identity and livelihoods of a group, yet they are unable to use their native language to regain or defend it, their defences are weakened. For women who have to use a language such as contemporary English with patriarchal elements and assumptions, there is often "nowhere to go in the language", no words or ways to express what is essential for them to express.[FN D. Spender, Man Made Language, Pandora, London, 1980.]
Nor is it easy for people to develop and articulate resistance to enclosure unless they are able to maintain a cultural and linguistic space in which to do so. For example, in the "villagization" campaign in Tanzania in the mid-1970s, in which people were encouraged to build Western style houses in new villages, the men were addressed as "you and your families". But, as P. Caplan observes: "In Swahili, the term 'family' in the sense of a bounded domestic group does not exist. Indeed it has been found necessary to take the English term and turn it into a Swahili form familia. Such a linguistic usage contains a number of premises -- that the unit in society is 'a man and his family', and that this unit requires a house and a unit of land. In other words, concepts foreign to this society ... are being introduced."[FN P. Caplan, 'Development Policies in Tanzania: Some Implications for Women' in R. Dauber & M. Cain (eds), Women and Technological Change in Developing Countries, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1981, p.107. Cited in P. Stamp, Technology, Gender and Power in Africa, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 1989, p.56.]
People who would oppose dams, logging, the redevelopment of their neighbourhoods or the pollution of their rivers are often left few means of expressing or arguing their case unless they are prepared to engage in a debate framed by the languages of cost-benefit analysis, reductionist science, utilitarianism, male domination -- and, increasingly, English. Not only are these languages in which many local objection -- such as that which holds ancestral community rights to a particular place to have precedence over the imperatives of "national development" -- appear disreputable. They are also languages whose use allows enclosers to eavesdrop on, "correct" and dominate the conversations of the enclosed.
This process of conceptual trapping has gathered pace through the eras of state formation, colonialism, economic development and, now, environmental management. None of these dominant systems can afford a "live and let live" attitude towards the thousands of other, more or less independent languages which make up the social universe. They must expand to global scale; other systems with their messy multitude of goals and ways of settling conflicts just get in the way. When they do, they become targets for enclosure -- for being squeezed into the new, overarching system, and reconstructed in the process. All conflict is viewed as settlable by criteria determined by the enclosers.
This conceptual trapping is justified morally by persuading people that they no right to refuse to abide by an alien translation of their words, practices and ways of life. Enclosure claims that its own social frame, its language, is a universal norm, an all-embracing matrix which can assimilate all others. Whatever may be "lost in translation" is supposedly insignificant, undeveloped or inferior to what is gained. As Stephen Marglin points out: "What it cannot comprehend and appropriate, it not only cannot appreciate, it cannot tolerate ... In the encounter of modern knowledge with [vernacular knowledge], the real danger is not that modern knowledge will appropriate [vernacular knowledge] but that it will do so only partially and will return this partial knowledge ... as the solid core of truth extracted from a web of superstition and false belief. What lies outside the intersection of modern knowledge and [vernacular knowledge] risks being lost altogether."[FN S. Marglin, Farmers, Seedsmen and Scientists: Systems of Agriculture and Systems of Knowledge, Harvard University, unpublished ms., March 1992, p.32.]
Because they hold themselves to be speaking a universal language, the modern enclosers who work for development agencies and governments feel no qualms in presuming to speak for the enclosed. They assume reflexively that they understand their predicament as well as or better than the enclosed do themselves. It is this tacit assumption that legitimizes enclosure in the encloser's mind - and it is an assumption that cannot be countered simply by transferring what are conventionbally assumed to be the trappings of power from one group to another.
Enclosure has never gone unchallenged, however. Throughout history, commons regimes have resisted the enclosure of the forests, rangelands, fields, fishing grounds, lakes, streams, plants and animals that they rely upon to maintain their ways of life and ensure their well-being. Such resistance has taken many forms, and its focus has been as various as the commons being defended. Machinery has been sabotaged, hay ricks burned, landlords and officials satirised and threatened, experts lampooned, loyalties shifted and bureaucratic defences tested in an endless flow of effort to stall or reverse enclosure. Whether overt or subterranean, thwarted or beaten down, channelled into ideology or action, this resistance has been opportunistic, pragmatic and resourceful. Frequently using local traditions as an arsenal, constantly faced with reversals, it always finds fresh ground to fight from, some of it created by the very system in opposition to which it must constantly transform and renew itself. Willing to adapt new developments to its own purposes, it is nonetheless uncompromising when the bounds it has set are overstepped.
It is partly through such resistance that the ideology of economic growth as the only concrete solution to poverty, inequality and hardship is slowly being dismantled. Millions of people in both the South and the North who know first-hand of its false promise need no convincing. Whilst most participants in the UN and similar forums have been interested only in "solutions" that will permit industrial growth to continue, movements that have been spawned through resistance to enclosure are carving out a very different path. Their demands centre not on refining market mechanisms, nor incorporating text-book ecology into economics, nor on formulating non-legally binding treaties, but on reclaiming the commons; on reappropriating the land, forests, streams and fishing grounds that have been taken from them; on reestablishing control over decision-making; and on limiting the scope of the market. In saying "no" to a waste dump, a dam, a logging scheme or a new road, they are saying "yes" to a different way of life: "yes" to the community's being able to decide its own fate; "yes" to the community's being able to define itself.
For some groups and communities, the focus of the struggle is the defense of existing commons regimes against enclosure: for others, the reclaiming of those commons that have been enclosed; and in still others, the building of new commons. In the North, for example, moves to reclaim the commons are often closely linked to attempts to disengage from the wider market, by networks of exchange over which a community or group has control. One example is to be found in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, now taking root in Europe, the US and Japan.[FN For detailed examples of attempts to defend, reclaim or build commons regimes, see Nicholas Hildyard, Larry Lohmann, Sarah Sexton and Simon Fairlie, Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan, London, 1993]
What begins as a fight against one form of enclosure -- a proposed incinerator, perhaps, or a plantation scheme -- often becomes part of a wide struggle to allow the community to define its own values and priorities. As Triana Silton notes of the movement to oppose toxic wastes in the United States, "Many community groups have moved from simply fighting off an incinerator to looking around at themselves, at the community they are part of, identifying what they don't like and attempting to solve those problems. The empowerment that accompanies a success, whether that success is having your voice heard or actually stopping the facility, allows people to have some control over the things that happen to them"[FN T. Silton, Environmental Justice: Ideas for the Future, unpublished ms., 1992, pp.13-14.]
Often making use of what James Scott calls the "weapons of the weak",[FN J.C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in collaboration with the Department of Publications, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpa, 1985.] groups, communities and individuals the world over are successfully resisting the web of enclosure and reclaiming a political and cultural space for the commons. The search is generally not for "alternatives" in the sense that Western environmentalists might use the term: rather it is to rejuvenate what works, to combine traditional and new approaches and to develop strategies that meet local needs. In that respect, the debate is not over such technocratic issues as how to conserve soil or what species of tree to plant - for those who rely on the commons, the starting point for addressing such questions is usually "Let's see what has worked in the past and build on that" -- but rather over how to create or defend open, democratic community institutions that ensure people's control over their own lives.
If there is a common denominator to the initiatives that have evolved from such struggles, it is not that they share a uniform "vision" of the future, or adhere to a single "blueprint" for change, but rather that they are all, in their many and various ways, attempts by local people to reclaim the political process and to re-root it within the local community. The central demand made by group after group is for authority to be vested in the community -- not in the state, local government, the market or the local landlord, but in those who rely on the local commons for their livelihood. As such, the struggle is for more than the mere recognition of rights over the physical commons: critically, it is also a struggle to restore or to defend the checks and balances that limit power within the local community.
Across the world, grassroots movements are working to open up more space for the commons by denying that any single social whole -- whether culture, language, livelihood, art, theory, science, gender, race or class -- has a right to assert privileged status over, and thus to enclose, all others of its type. They are creating space where, on the contrary, the local community has the right to decide its own future; the right to refuse to have to abide by an alien translation of its own words and practices; the right to its own culture.
Key to the struggle is increasing the bargaining power of those who are currently excluded or marginalized from the political process and eroding the power of those who are currently able to impose their will on others. Only in this way -- when all those who will have to live with a decision have a voice in making that decision -- can the checks and balances on power that are so critical to the workings of the commons be ensured.
Achieving that political order requires promoting the virtues of receptivity, flexibility, patience, open-mindedness, non-defensiveness, humour, curiosity and respect for the opinions of others as a counterweight to the formulas, principles, translations or "limits" which trap people in single languages. It involves legitimizing a type of rational decision-making and self-correction which emphasizes not the application of predetermined methods, technical vocabularies, "objective" data and yardsticks -the machinery of enclosure - but the indispensability of open-ended conversation, a willingness to listen and learn, to change one's view and to work at achieving a consensus.
For those who are used to imposing their will and languages on others, or who see the threats facing humanity as so overwhelming that only centralized decision-making by cliques of experts can meet the task in hand, the call for community control is at best a threat to their power, at worst a recipe for indecision and muddling through to disaster. But the evidence is overwhelming that local-level institutions in which power is limited and the common right to survival is the preoccupation of all, are the best means of repairing the damage done through enclosure. Equally overwhelming is the evidence that "non-local, state-management systems are both costly and often ineffective."[FN M. Freman, 'Graphs and Gaffs: A Cautionary Tale in the Common Property Resources Debate' in F. Berkes (ed), Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-based Sustainable Development, Belhaven Press, London, 1989, pp.92-109.]
It would be a mistake to see acts of resistance and reclamation solely as the province of those active in party politics, or of those whose "backs are against the wall". On the contrary, resistance to enclosure takes place in countless everyday ways in both the south and the North. Acquiescent behaviour towards enclosers, and feigned ignorance or incompetence in their presence, allow individuals to retain their own sense of dignity by mocking the stereotypes that have been imposed upon them. As an Ethiopian proverb has it, "When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts."[FN J. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.] More important, feigned acquiescence and subservience, by relaxing enclosers' scrutiny, makes it easier for ordinary people to find social and physical spaces where they can develop criticisms and alternatives to the dominant order. When workers on a site politely acknowledge the pontifications of a visiting expert in their presence, but laughingly ignore them once they have gone, the workers are asserting the validity of their own practical knowledge. Even humble actions, such as deliberately choosing local produce, buying jumble and second-hand furniture or saving jam-jars for home produce stalls, are ways in which people express their dissatisfaction with the enclosed world of consumerism and reclaim an element of control.
These small actions do not make headlines and may not even be noticed by the dominant groups within society; but they help empower individuals and communities and they create the confidence and vision to resist still further, whenever opportunities to do so present themselves. Indeed, as the structures of enclosure begin to falter and break down under the stress of economic recession, international debt, popular protest and everyday resistance to the anonymity of industrialization, new life is breathed into even the most seemingly dismal communities as people rediscover the value of coming together to resolve their problems. As Gustavo Esteva records for Mexico City in the mid-1980s: "With falling oil prices, mounting debts, and the conversion of Mexico into a free trade zone, so that transnational capital can produce Volkswagen 'Beetles' in automated factories for export to Germany, the corruption of our politics and the degradation of Nature -- always implicit in development -- can finally be seen, touched and smelled by everyone. Now the poor are responding by creating their own moral economy. As Mexico's Rural Development Bank no longer has sufficient funds to force peasants to plant sorghum for animal feed, many have returned to the traditional intercropping of corn and beans, improving their diets, restoring some village solidarity and allowing available cash to reach further. In response to the decreasing purchasing power of the previously employed, thriving production co-operatives are springing up in the heart of Mexico City. Shops now exist in the slums that reconstruct electrical appliances; merchants prosper by imitating foreign trademarked goods and selling them as smuggled wares to tourists. Neighbourhoods have come back to life. Street stands and tiny markets have returned to corners from where they have disappeared long ago. Complex forms of non-formal organizations have developed, through which the barrio (village) residents create protective barriers between themselves and intruding development bureaucracies, police and their officials; fight eviction and the confiscation of their assets; settle their own disputes and maintain public order."[FN G. Esteva, 'Development: The Modernization of Poverty', Panoscope, November 1991, p.28.]
The erosion of the global economy, far from being a disaster, ushers in a new era of opportunities -- the opportunity for communities to define their own priorities and identities and to restore what development has tended to destroy.
It is customary to conclude a paper such as this with policy recommendations. We are not going to do so. Our reasons are many but two of them have been expressed admirably (although in another context) by Philip Raikes in the introduction to his book Modernising Hunger: "It becomes increasingly difficult to say what are practical suggestions, when one's research tends to show that what is politically feasible is usually too minor to make any difference, while changes significant enough to be worthwhile are often unthinkable in practical terms. In any case, genuine practicality in making policy suggestions requires detailed knowledge of a particular country or area; its history, culture, vegetation, existing situation, and much more besides. Lists of general 'policy conclusions' make it all too easy for the rigid-minded to apply them as general recipes, without thought, criticism or adjustment for circumstances."[FN P. Raikes, Modernizing Hunger, Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 1988, p.v.]
Like Raikes's book, this paper (and the book from which it is drawn, Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons) is "full of implicit conclusions" and explicit demands, but to formulate them as "policy recommendations" would be to go against the case we have attempted to make. It would suggest that there is a single set of principles for change; and that today's policy-makers, whether in national governments or international institutions, are able to apply them. We reject that view.
A space for the commons cannot be created by economists, development planners, legislators, "empowerment" specialists or other paternalistic outsiders. To place the future in the hands of such individuals would be to maintain the webs of power that are currently stifling commons regimes. One cannot legislate the commons into existence; nor can the commons be reclaimed simply by adopting "green techniques" such as organic agriculture, alternative energy strategies or better public transport -- necessary and desirable though such techniques often are. Rather, commons regimes emerge through ordinary people's day-to-day resistance to enclosure, and through their efforts to regain livelihoods and the mutual support, responsibility and trust that sustain the commons.
That is not to say that one can ignore policy-makers or policy-making. The depredations of transnational corporations, international bureaucracies and national governments cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. But movements for social change have a responsibility to ensure that in seeking solutions, they do not remove the initiative from those who are defending their commons or attempting to regenerate common regimes -- a responsibility they should take seriously.