For this post and hopefully many others, we want to experiment with different forms and styles of writing – especially as inspired by friends such as Jonathan Wyatt and others who have been practicing more collective and collaborative forms of writing. As this particular post begins to explore ways that we have been learning and thinking about autonomy, particularly as it is linked with a sense of connection (rather than individual independence), we thought to write this post as a form of dialogue.
Udi: One of the deepest learnings for me in Mexico has been around the concept and practice of autonomy. From the example of the Zapatistas and the 2006 teachers’ uprising in Oaxaca, to the day to day practices and experiments associated with Unitierra, from the critiques of industrialization, capitalism, colonialism and modernity found in the works of Gustavo Esteva, John Holloway and before them Ivan Illich and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, autonomia appears as a running theme through the most exciting social, cultural, intellectual and political initiatives happening in the country. Many of us ask ourselves how we reproduce and perpetuate the systems and institutions that govern our lives or to which we feel dependent on. Through many of the practices and ideas we experienced and learned from in Mexico we had a sense of how such questions are being or can be answered in action. What is this idea and practice of autonomy for you Kelly and what did you learn about this in Mexico?
Kelly: From what I am beginning to understand more holistically, being autonomous is not just to feel free to do whatever we each want without any sense of responsibility to the impacts and effects on the rest of the world. Rather, it is to begin by rooting ourselves to where we are – the place – and critically reflecting on all aspects of our lives and the relationships that we impact and depend on, the ways in which we affect others (human and otherwise) around us, as well as the relationships through which we might feel constrained by in some form or another. It is to critically explore what we are dependent on and how these dependencies are realized in our everyday lives – from where (and how) our various dependencies are met. These range from basic necessities of food, water, shelter and sanitation to where and what knowledge I am relying on and from what sources. How am I bound to different institutions and how are they constraining my own creativity and sense of community and culture? It is to consider and explore different ways we might perceive and act on our dependencies – for instance, how might I grow some of my own food or buy food that is produced locally and in accordance to seasonal patterns? How might I harvest and capture water that comes naturally from the sky? How is my waste polluting various sources and how might I and the community I live in do something so that we can be dependent on ourselves and each other and therefore enable a more reciprocal relationship with the land within which we live? These are some of the types of enquiries (and many others) that Unitierra have and continue to explore. With an emphasis on creativity and absorbing yourself in the type of learning that you feel passionate for, these different questions are explored through many inventive, inspiring and unexpected ways. The really important question that Unitierra keeps coming back to is how autonomy or freedom of our ‘self’ is inseparable from community, including humans and non-humans. How are you making sense of this Udi?
Udi: There is a more habitual understanding we are used to where autonomy is often associated with individual freedom from constraint or freedom to pursue some course of action. I think the practice of autonomy we have been seeing and hearing about here in Mexico in these initiatives goes beyond this sense of individual or ‘self’ freedom because there is a clear awareness that autonomy happens in a community together with others, human and non-human living beings. Two overlapping key terms and practices that come together with autonomy here are ‘comunalidad‘ and the commons. Comunalidad is the expression of an indigenous ‘cosmovision’, a way of seeing and being in the world, which Jaime Luna Martinez, a Zapotec activist and anthropologist, explained to us in an interview we did with him. Comunalidad involves developing a relationship with the territory or land you grow in, a relationship to the work you need to do in that place to sustain life, including your own, a relation to others so as to organize that work, and finally a celebration of that work and of life through the fiesta, through celebrations of community and life!
In this sense autonomy revolves around the self-reliance and generation of all aspects that sustain the life of a community. So it is clearly not just about individual freedom but instead the creation of a commons that supports life. The commons here is an incompatible notion and practice to capitalism as it is something that cannot be bought or sold or owned by individuals, instead it is that which is cared for by a collective of people and the ties that bind people to the commons are not those of the market but rather often come from shared values or identities. Kelly, do you want to say something about these values or qualities related to autonomy and the commons which we learnt about in Oaxaca?
Kelly: The notion of ‘we’ and ‘commons’ came up a lot with Gustavo, as well as this wonderful concept and practice of comunalidad. The meanings of each of these are strongly related to each other as they each remove the central focus being on the individual, the self, or ‘me’. I remember being told that in many indigenous languages in Oaxaca (and beyond) there is no word for ‘I’ or ‘me’. Every time a person talks about a need or desire in these indigenous languages, it is articulated through a perspective of ‘we’. This to me is profound. I noticed after learning this how often I only refer to myself… ‘I this….’ and ‘I that….’. When referring to myself, if I was to automatically refer simultaneously to ‘we’ and/or to a much broader commons, I would have to be immediately more thoughtful to the much wider world of which I am a part. This perspective brings with it a completely different sense of responsibility and existence in the world. It does not erase the sense of self – in speaking for, or representing others, rather it is a constant reminder that there is no ‘I’ without ‘we’. Any part of ‘me’ is a part of a much greater ‘we’ – nurturing commons is about thinking and doing through this ‘we’ perspective. The notion of ‘commons’ in environmentalist sort of discourse is typically related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which is about the over-use and exploitation of resources (until they are depleted) specifically because of this inability to think and do through a ‘we’ and ‘commons’ perspective. As you mention, living in accordance to a ‘we’ or ‘commons’ perspective is pretty much in complete opposition to beliefs and values inherent within our deeply capitalistic society.
At Uniterra, autonomy as part of ‘commons’ is all-encompassing. There is an ethic of ‘we’ and a hospitable way of being that permeates the way that everyone interacts with each other. To begin with, anyone can enter the building that houses Unitierra in Oaxaca city, anyone can attend a workshop or seminar, engage in conversation, developing ideas with others. There is no superiority of one person over anyone else – regardless of age, gender, ethnic background, educational background. At Unitierra, we are all just human beings exploring what it is to be in the world in ways that critically engage with currently struggles of all kinds. This way of interacting, or learning together is really rare from my experience. Although this ethic was influenced quite significantly from Gustavo, it comes before this, from Gustavo’s relationship with Ivan Illich, and the many thinkers and activists that came together (with Ivan) to explore these different perspectives and ways of being in the world starting in the 1970s in Mexico until Ivan’s death in 2002.
Ivan Illich is a major source of inspiration at Unitierra. This is not just because of Gustavo’s close friendship with Ivan that he developed over the many years that Ivan lived on and off in Mexico, but it is because of the way that Ivan engaged and built hospitably relationships and ultimately deep friendships. Ivan Illich was a person of many identities – a philosopher, radical social critic, former Roman Catholic priest – but to many who knew him, he was just a beautiful, hospitable and humble soul. Ivan’s text, Deschooling Society, is probably his most famous publication – as well as his most mis-understood. The book is not against education per se, but rather the institutionalization of learning as a form of cultural colonization. There are many critical and creative insights and threads woven through the book, Deschooling Society, but two are particularly worth mentioning. The strongest thread is for me to do with institutions – what they are, where they are, how they come to be, how they constrain us, solidifying us into positions that are impose upon us that are often abstracted from what we really want to be in our lives with ourselves, our families and the Earth. All the while, Illich argues, we are made to believe that we need to learn from others, to rely on accepting knowledge as it is passed down from others and then to others, primarily from teachers in schools – and often in pursuit of obtaining a certificate or diploma to verify that our knowledge, or what knowledge we have successfully consumed is sufficient. Illich and others have called this process of following the achievement of diplomas as ‘the diploma disease’ upon which the system of education not only rests, but legitimizes itself through. This is exactly what Unitierra counters through its openness, hospitality and attention to practice – its focus on self and community-driven learning that is theoretical as much as it is practical.
Udi: In my limited understanding, Illich’s originality was to give a contribution to Marx’s critiques of capitalism which focused on labour and production, by addressing not only industry but also services. Illich saw service industries, especially around education and health, as also being part of an alienating and bureaucratic logic of industrializing modernity, something contemporary university workers seem to be increasingly aware of and vocal about. Illich’s work and living example explores ways of ‘escaping’ this logic and instead creating more autonomous spaces of learning or service that are based instead on principles of hospitality, generosity and friendship. In this way his views and practice, his cosmovision you could say, tapped into a deep aspect of human experience and qualities, those of friendship, hospitality and generosity, as orienting values, through which to create new spaces to be and learn together and potentially to organise communities. This is in the opposite direction to much economic and social science thinking around ‘human nature’ as comprised of selfish and profit-maximising individuals, very much in line with the ‘I’ – ‘we’ continuum you describe above. It is interesting to note, as Gustavo mentioned in our conversations, that Illich learnt a great deal from the indigenous communities in Mexico whilst he was here and that his work does show the influence of practices such as that of communalidad.