Two different ways of thinking go under the banner of the commons, today. One speaks of the management of shared resources; the other struggles to remember a form of social relations in which the world is not seen as made up of resources. The law of the commons was unwritten, according to Ivan Illich, because it protected ‘a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’ In our commodity-intensive societies, where do we find the traces of that unwritten reality?
Out of my conversations with Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca in late 2012, there was one thread that wouldn’t be left alone. Two or three times over those afternoons, Gustavo had returned to the theme of friendship: as the starting point for the new commons, the category for the reconstruction of society.
The following spring I was invited at a few days’ notice to speak at the Commoning the City conference at Stockholm’s Architecture Museum. It was a chance to pull on that loose thread, to try to make sense of why friendship might be a good starting point from which to think about the commons and about political possibility today.
I went on to write about the experience of the conference and the thoughts it prompted in an article for STIR magazine – and I still have unfinished business with this tangle of themes. Until I find another way back to them, though, here’s the video of that talk.
In December 2012, Nick Stewart and I travelled to Oaxaca where we spent two afternoons filming with the Mexican activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva. Among the fruits of those afternoons was a dialogue published in the fourth issue of Dark Mountain. Starting from the extraordinary turns of Gustavo’s life, we follow a thread of conversation that leads through his friendship with Ivan Illich, the political possibility of friendship itself, the way in which even the attempt to speak about climate change brings us up against our own arrogance, and the question of whether we are ready to deal with our own shit, both physically and morally.
There were eagles riding the air overhead as we took the backroad out of San Pablo Etla to the Casa Esteva. The taxi driver had left us at the crossroads: at ease in the highspeed free-for-all of the highway, he had no desire to risk his exhaust on the unpaved road ahead, so a young man from one of the neighbouring households drove down to collect us. It was three months into the dry season. We bumped across the bed of an empty stream before climbing again towards the adobe house among the trees.
After days in downtown Oaxaca, its streets clogged with fumes, the air up here was a release. Twenty-five years earlier, when Gustavo Esteva and his partner left Mexico City to settle here, they must have felt that same contrast. For Gustavo, it was a return to his grandmother’s village: the grandmother who, in his childhood, was not allowed to enter his parents’ house by the front door, nor to speak to her grandson in Zapotec.
‘For my mother,’ he told me, ‘the best thing that she could do for her children was to uproot us from any connection with our indigenous ancestry, to avoid the discrimination she had suffered.’
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