Advanced Man


April 24, 2006


Browse in Commons Philippines

The privatization of the earth and all it contains ultimately is justified on the grounds of something called “progress.” To enclose a resource, or process, or aspect of life — that is, to impose a corporate ownership regime around these — is to re-render them in a way that will lead to human advance. Oases will bloom in the desert, miracle cures will emerge, invention and the arts will rise to ever-higher peaks of achievement. Just look at commercial television — pardon me, I tipped my hand there.

We commons advocates usually dispute this premise on its own terms. We point out that often the imposition of a corporate property regime upon a commons stifles innovation, as when a patent minefield stymies the cause of research, and the over-reaching of copyright impedes the artisitic creation the copyright laws was supposed to encourage. We also point out how the enclosure of a knowledge or resource commons drives the use of those in the direction of corporate convenience and gain rather than of human good. We get baldness cures instead of malaria vaccines, theme parks instead of wetlands and forests. And yes, commercial television.

These points are all important. But ultimately the question goes deeper, to one we generally don’t get to: namely, what is progress in the first place? What does it mean to be more advanced? Does it lie in the tools and devices at out disposal, the conveniences we enjoy — in external circumstance, in other words? Or does advance lie in ourselves, our capacity to know and do and understand, in some sense, what we are for?

That question occupies my mind whenever I visit my wife’s family rice farm here in the Philippines. It is a small farm on the island of Panay, in a remote barangay (village) of the municipality of Lambunao, about an hour and a half by jeepney from the privincial capital of Iloilo. Her father is a small quiet man who, though in his seventies, has the lean wiry body of a teenager. (In fact he’s leaner and more wiry than most American teenagers.)

Tatay, as they call him, built the family home himself, with hand tools that could be rejects from a garage sale in America. He cut and split the bamboo, designed the house and constructed it, with inlaid patterns that add an artistic touch. He designed the plumbing system too, which — until electricity came a few years ago — was based on rainwater he collected from the roof, in a big tank he constructed himself out of sheet metal, with a soldering iron he heated over a fire.

This was in addition to his farming, in which he used a caribou — water buffalo –to plow, and rose at 1:00 AM to do so, to avoid the scorching daytime sun. Tatay no longer works the fields; he has earned some rest. But he still is busy all day, fixing and improving. He’s talking about rebuilding the house now, to accomodate his enlarging family. (His seven kids have produced 18 grandkids, and they are still coming.) Just last year he built a bamboo cottage with a thatched roof that is utterly exquisite.

I watch Tatay go about his daily tasks. I see what he has built, and I have to ask — who is more advanced. Myself, with all the sophisticated devices at my disposal, or him, with his rusty tools? He can build a house with those. With my computer, all I can do, really, is shop. I write too, and yes that’s hard. But somehow, on the scale of human development and self-sufficiency, it does not match up to building a house and raising food.

Or take my wife’s brother Arok. Arok is the sibling who stayed in the village. He has his “issues”, as we say in the U.S. But he too is multi-capable. He farms, built his family house, has made a business out of a chain saw he obtained, has another business involving water pumps. One afternoon, a couple years ago, Arok appeared at his parents’ house, and what seemed like negotiations ensued (in the local dialect, Kari-ya, so I couldn’t tell for sure.)
The next morning Arok came back with two helpers and his chain saw, and proceeded to cut a tree from the hill behind the house. It was apparent from the angles of the cut, and the way he instructed the helpers to deploy the ropes, that he knew something about felling trees, and how to keep one from crashing down into a house.

He cut the branches off the tree and then, somewhat to my amazement, he cut it lengthwise into planks that were remarkably uniform in width. They stacked the boards next to the house and that, I thought, was that. But later that day we walked over to the adjoining village where Arok lives, to visit a few of my wife’s many relatives there. A crowd was buzzing around his yard, so we went over to see what was going on. Arok was putting the finishing touches on a pair of upholstered benches that would go into the old jeepney he had gotten from his father-in-law and was trying to resurrect, to add a transportation business to his portfolio. (As I have described previously, a jeepney is a kind of improvised stretch jeep that is the main form of transportation in this country.)

The jeepney apparently never made it off the blocks. This last week, we saw one rusting near his house. Such is life in this country in which nothing, it seems, ever gets completed. But that does not change the essential fact: from tree to upholstered bench in one day. Arok combines, in his own person, the skills and functions of woodsman, saw mill, furniture maker, upholsterer, as well as those of farmer and many other things. I have to buy what he can do. So again, who is more advanced?

The economist says it’s me. Advance means division of labor, and the enclosure of the commons is what serves that end. James Surwiecki, who writes an economics column for the New Yorker, exhalted in this point a few months ago. The more functions we contract out — the more we rely on others to do our parenting, the production of our parties and meals, the selection of our clothing etc. — the more advanced we have become, because the more this thing we call “the economy” has grown. The religion of the individual called market economics has given rise to a view of progress that is almost entirely systemic and collective, and that has no capacity whatsoever to look at what this advance actually means for the people it involves.

Myself, I’m not so sure. As the corporate market becomes more advanced, it seems, the less capable we who comprise it become. This is not just a matter of our inability to provide our own food, shelter and clothing. It is not just a matter either of our increasing inability to perform elementary life functions such as raise our children and exercise our bodies without the assistance of counsellors and coaches. (Even the expression of an emotion such as grief requires the intervention of professionals to assist us with what we apparently have lost the capacity to do for ourselves.)

This incapacity has reached down into our very beings, our ability to control our own impulses and the functioning of our own psyches. Is a nation that needs pharmaceutical companies to enable people to deal with shyness and nerves, or simply to feel okay, really on the path of advance? Or is it regressing into an infantile state?

Ortega y Gassett, the late Spanish philosopher, was onto this question. In his book Revolt of the Masses, Ortega observed that as humanity becomes more “modern”. it also becomes more primitive. Most of us understand as little about the processes that sustain us daily as cave people did. Ortega was concerned mainly about the political consequences: as people become more primitive they become more petulant, and demand that their leaders keep delivering the benefits of “advance” without any willingness to pay or sacrifice for these.

You could extrapolate much of the Bush agenda from that, but my concern here is with the process of “growth” and the corporate enclosure that both fuels and is justified by it. If it turns out that this process as presently conceived, is causing regression rather than advance — if it is making us humans less, so that the economy we comprise can become more — then the argument for enclosure has taken a major blow. Not in each and every case, but as the unchallenged assumption that it is today.

Taty and Arok are people of the commons. All their tools and know-how are in what we call the “public domain.” The value they embody is not in things but in themselves. If the corporate market is dividing us to the point of diminution, then we really do need a revived commons to begin to claim ourselves back.