creating the Vernacular Republic

Ivan Illich, from In the Mirror of the Past

Rather than life in a shadow economy, I propose, on top of the z-axis, the idea of vernacular work: unpaid activities which provide and improve livelihood, but which are totally refractory to any analysis utilizing concepts developed in formal economics. I apply the term ‘vernacular’ to these activities, since there is no other current concept that allows me to make the same distinction within the domain covered by such terms as ‘informal sector, ‘use value,’ ‘social reproduction.’ Vernacular is a Latin term that we use in English only for the language that we have acquired without paid teachers. In Rome, it was used from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D. to designate any value that was homebred, homemade, derived from the commons, and that a person could protect and defend though he neither bought nor sold it in the market. I suggest that we restore this simple term, vernacular, to oppose commodities and their shadow. It allows me to distinguish between the expansion of the shadow economy and its inverse the expansion of the vernacular domain. 

One of Les Murray’s collections of poems is called The Vernacular Republic, and while that title is usually thought to refer to Australia simpliciter, I don’t think that’s right. The Vernacular Republic is more an ideal image of Australia, what it might have been and perhaps (with repentance) still could be. 

I think if we take Illich’s understanding of the vernacular domain, and add to it the image of an alternative but “more comprehensive” economy that Wendell Berry writes of, then we have a rough outline of what a genuine Vernacular Republic would be. The Vernacular Republic is an “informal sector” that opposes the logic of commodity and gradually but steadily practices the Kingdom of God.