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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.
A Concluding Remark
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.
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