the innovation of poverty

by Antonio Dias

In an excited rush to discover this new continent, of Ivan Illich’s writing, I’m caught up by a desire to stop and write about the implications of what I’m reading or even simply to celebrate what I’m finding!  At the same time, I want to devour the writing so I can gain a perspective on it as a whole, or at least as a wide swath.  I think its important to do both.  There is, if not reason to hurry, reason not to waste time, and get on with communicating and moving ahead; there is also value in a preliminary acquaintance.  There is a power to call forth, out of myself and my own thinking, that arises from the first reactions and insights I get from reading a new voice I find compelling.  The collision, and an amalgam of intuition and even misunderstanding, may call into being a fresh perspective.  There’s even a power that arises from chewing on someone else’s writing, as a voice, as a way to string together words and to lay out thoughts and emotions, turns of phrase, and ways of speaking; that generates a craving to try it on myself and see where I can take it.  This can vary from a specific desire to create an “impression,” as when someone does an “impersonation,” or as subtle as just wanting to enter into conversation with that newly acquainted voice.  If we wait for a more deliberate digestion to occur, all of these opportunities are left behind.

I’ve begun reading Illich’s essays HERE.  This morning, reading his, The Silence is a Commons, I found this phrase and stopped.  So much flooded in as I read it.  In part, following his point, relating the story of the “enclosure of the pastures” in Eighteenth Century England, and the way this usurpation of the common good carved a hole out of which commercial interests mined wealth, not only from the land, but from their fellow citizens; and as a result created a kind of structural poverty that was new, and one that has been pernicious and continues to spread.  Along with this particular example, there are many more in the chronicle of modern life, our focus on Haiti these days highlighting one of the most successful and longest running examples; it brought to mind the initial “innovation of poverty.”  Whatever we may want to say about the earliest human societies or the remnants that have survived to the present day, or at least into our recorded history, there was no poverty in those lives.  There was scarcity, there was hardship, there was danger and often sudden death; but no poverty.  Poverty was invented.

Vinay Gupta, in the video I linked to yesterday, had another great turn of phrase, he said, “The grass grows and the young are optimistic.”  This is his reason for hope.  I share in this hope.  These are the great driving forces behind life.  They have worked for half a billion years on this earth of ours alone, who knows where or for how long elsewhere.  The one thing I would add is that as humans we create as well as partake in the Plenitude of Being.  We suffer from much that we create, but we have the potential to create having learned from our errors.  One of the largest impediments to this next step is that we either forget that so much of what surrounds us we made – and therefore we should be able to remake – or we assume that what we’ve created is simply the way things are.

This hits us in everything we do, but I think it has a major part to play in our relationship to what we call economics.  I’m still waiting to delve into Illich’s Energy and Equality, I see this as a potential grand new continent to explore in this regard!  Even if I misapprehend what it may really cover, it has the lure of the far off Indies for me in this 1491 moment of mine.

We treat economics and the questions it’s concerned with, and even the “answers” it gives, as if they were all “facts of life;” intractable, unchangeable “truths.”  This is the giant Fallacy of Economics. The reason why is embedded in Illich’s little phrase, “the innovation of poverty.”  To be fair, it’s in many other similar statements, what they all share is the assertion that when it comes to economic issues, we deal with human constructs, with concepts made concrete, and then taken as immutable laws.

This goes back to what I was getting at in my recent post Where do I Stand? Unless we put a radical effort into perceiving where we are, instead of adopting poses and calling them “Stands,” as if there were something noble in being arbitrary, we are doomed to repeating, deepening their impacts, making our situations chronic and intractable: a recipe for a multitude of new Haitis.

That is the power of a simple statement like “the innovation of poverty.”  In a swoop, it comes down and pulls away the veils.  We do these things to ourselves and others, not because we are following an intractable Law, but because we find it expedient, or we are confused into feeling powerless to do anything else.

So much of the energy we spend, physical and psychic, today is expended in fearful reaction to a sense of paralysis and powerlessness.  We rail at enemies, we seek out scapegoats, we fetishize our own safety – within narrow and easily exploited parameters –because we feel powerless to do anything useful in the face of intractable Laws.  Funny thing, the real intractable Laws, of the finitude of this Earth we all share for example, we are happy to ignore; while we remain in such deep awe of the constructs we have ourselves made, given life to, and whose power over us is held by the level of our own submission to them, not by any outside “Authority.”