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Origins of Our Economic Powerlessness

Ivan Illich traces poverty and consumer dependency back to the enclosure of the commons

By Ivan Illich

(Photo by Josemota under a Creative Commons license.)

In Mexico City twenty years ago, the streets were true commons. Some people sat in the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to drink coffee or tequila. Children played in the gutter, and people walking could still use the road to get from one place to another. The streets are now roadways for automobiles.

Commons is a Middle English word. 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 law of the commons regulates the right of way, the right to fish and to hunt, and the right to collect wood or medicinal plants in the forest.

The enclosure of the commons inaugurates a new ecological order. Enclosure did not just physically transfer the control over grasslands from the peasants to the lord. It marked a radical change in the attitudes of society toward the environment. Before, most of the environment had been considered as commons from which most people could draw most of their sustenance without needing to take recourse to the market. After enclosure, the environment became primarily a resource at the service of “enterprises” which, by organizing wage labor, transformed nature into the goods and services on which the satisfaction of basic needs by consumers depend. primarily a resource at the service of “enterprises” which, by organizing wage labor, transformed nature into the goods and services on which the satisfaction of basic needs by consumers depend.

This change of attitudes can be better illustrated if we think about roads rather than about grasslands. What a difference there was between the new and the old parts of Mexico City only twenty years ago. In the old parts of the city, the streets were true commons. Some people sat in the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to drink coffee or tequila. Children played in the gutter, and people walking could still use the road to get from one place to another. Such roads were built for people. Like any true commons, the street itself was the result of people living there and making that space livable.
In the new sections of Mexico City, streets are now roadways for automobiles, for buses, for taxis, cars, and trucks. People are barely tolerated on the street. The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple resource for the circulation of vehicles. People can circulate no more on their own. Traffic has displaced their mobility.

Enclosure has denied the people the right to that kind of environment on which—throughout all of history—the moral economy of survival depends. Enclosure undermines the local autonomy of a community. People become economic individuals who depend for their survival on commodities that are produced for them.

Excerpted from a 1982 speech delivered in Tokyo and collected in a book of his speeches, In the Mirror of the Past (Marian Boyars, 1992).

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