Ivan Illich: The Progressive-Libertarian-Anarchist Priest

illichI‘m sure my readers have told me about Ivan Illich before (if I had a way to search my blog’s comments I could thank those who tried). But I need to thank David Gurteen for telling me at the right time — when I’m looking for a model to revamp education around critical skills, and for a way to unite progressives and libertarians (who Lakoff believes are at heart conservatives) against the onslaught of the neocons in a Green Movement. Illich has some powerful answers for both these urgent needs.

Illich grew up in a wealthy European family, entered the priesthood in the 1950s and did missionary work in Latin America before his ideas and methods, learned on the front lines among some of the most impoverished and repressed people on the planet, got him expelled in 1969. Until his death in 2002 he wrote and lectured extensively about the need for reforms in all human institutions and systems — education, business, government, health care, and economics — to make them more responsive to universal human needs and our essential nature. His ideas effectively merge the philosophies of progressives, libertarians and anarchists, but his opposition to the more doctrinaire positions of all three movements has resulted in uninformed and unfair criticisms from all three groups.

I confess I am just starting to read his work, so this article will be just an introduction to him. But I want readers of How to Save the World to read his work, which is substantially available online for free, dispassionately and tell me if you are as intrigued as I am with his thinking, and if you think he might have put his finger on why neither progressives nor libertarians have been able to make a broadly compelling argument for their political philosophies. Here is how one Illich site sums up his philosophy [my comments in square brackets]:

Institutions create the needs and control their satisfaction, and, by so doing, turn the human being and her or his creativity into objects. Illich’s anti-institutional argument can be said to have four aspects:

  1. A critique of the process of institutionalization. Modern societies appear to create more and more institutions – and great swathes of the way we live our lives become institutionalized. ‘This process undermines people – it diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems… It kills convivial  [social, sociable, joyful] relationships. Finally it colonizes life like a parasite or a cancer that kills creativity.
  2. A critique of experts and expertise. Ivan Illich’s critique of experts and professionalization was set out in Disabling Professions and  in his exploration of the expropriation of health in Medical Nemesis. The medical establishment has become a major threat to health. The case against expert systems like modern health care is that they can produce damage which outweigh potential benefits; they obscure the political conditions that render society unhealthy; and they tend to expropriate the power of individuals to heal themselves and to shape their environment.  Experts and an expert culture always call for more experts. Experts also have a tendency to cartel-ize themselves by creating ‘institutional barricades’ – for example proclaiming themselves gatekeepers, as well as self-selecting themselves. Finally, experts control knowledge production, as they decide what valid and legitimate knowledge is, and how its acquisition is sanctioned.
  3. A critique of commodification. Professionals and the institutions in which they work tend to define an activity, in this case learning, as a commodity (education), whose production they monopolize, whose distribution they restrict, and whose price they raise beyond the purse of ordinary people and nowadays, all governments. Illich put it this way: “Schooling – the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock…..By making school compulsory, people are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his social value… Learning becomes a commodity, and like any commodity that is marketed, it becomes scarce”. Furthermore, echoing Marx, Illich notes the way in which such scarcity is obscured by the different forms that education takes. This is a critique of the tendency in modern industrial societies to orient toward a ‘having mode’ – where people focus upon, and organize around the possession of material objects. They, thus, approach learning as a form of acquisition. Knowledge becomes a possession to be exploited rather than an aspect of being in the world. 
  4. The principle of counterproductivity. Counterproductivity is the means by which a fundamentally beneficial process or arrangement is turned into a negative one. Once it reaches a certain threshold, the process of institutionalization becomes counterproductive. It is an idea that Illich applies to different contexts. For example, with respect to travel he argues that beyond a critical speed, “no one can save time without forcing another to lose it…[and] motorized vehicles create the remoteness which they alone can shrink”.

Illich’s writings were founded essentially on intuition, without any appreciable reference to the results of socio-educational or learning research. His criticism evolves in a theoretical vacuum. This may explain the limited acceptance of his theories and proposals.

Here’s an excerpt from Illich’s 1973 book (available entirely online) Deschooling Society, and a 1971 lead-up article in the New York Review of Books about how to reform the education system:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

Educational resources are usually labeled according to educators’ curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his own goals:

  1. Reference Services to Educational Objectsówhich facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.
  2. Skill Exchangesówhich permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
  3. Peer Matchingóa communication network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
  4. Reference Services to Educators-at-largeówho can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, para-professionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.

And here’s an excerpt from his 1975 book (available entirely online, and a must-read) Tools for Conviviality, about how to solve the environmental crisis [emphasis mine]:

Fascination with the environmental crisis has forced the debate about survival to focus on only one balance threatened by tools. A one-dimensional dispute is futile. Three trends have indeed been identified, each of them tending to upset the balance between man and the physical environment. Overpopulation makes more people dependent on limited resources. Affluence and overconsumption compel each person to use more energy. Faulty technology [he’s using this in the broadest sense of the word] degrades energy in an inefficient way. If these three trends are considered to be the only significant threats, and the physical environment is considered as the only fundamental milieu that is threatened, only two central issues must be discussed: (1) To decide which factor or trend has degraded the environment most, and which factor will impose the greatest burden on the environment during the next few years, and (2) To decide which factor merits most attention because we can in some way reduce or invert it. One party claims it is easier to do away with people, the other that it is more feasible to reduce entropy-producing production. Honesty requires that we each recognize the need to limit procreation, consumption, and waste, but equally we must radically reduce our expectations that machines will do our work for us or that therapists can make us learned or healthy.

The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. Such an inversion of the current world view requires intellectual courage for it exposes us to the unenlightened yet painful criticism of being not only antipeople and against economic progress, but equally against liberal education and scientific and technological advance. We must face the fact that the imbalance between man and the environment is just one of several mutually reinforcing stresses, each distorting the balance of life in a different dimension. In this view, overpopulation is the result of a distortion in the balance of learning, dependence on affluence is the result of a radical monopoly of institutional over personal values, and faulty technology is inexorably consequent upon a transformation of means into ends. The one-dimensional debate among proponents of various panaceas for the ecological imbalance will only inspire the false expectation that somehow human action can be engineered to fit into the requirements of the world conceived as a technological totality.

Bureaucratically guaranteed survival under such circumstances means the expansion of industrial economics to the point where a centrally planned system of production and reproduction is identified with the guided evolution of the Earth. If such an industrially minded solution becomes generally accepted as the only way of preserving a viable environment, the preservation of the physical milieu can become the rationale for a bureaucratic Leviathan at the levers which regulate levels of human reproduction, expectation, production, and consumption. Such a technological response to growing population, pollution, and affluence can be founded only on a further development of the presently prevailing institutionalization of values. The belief in the possibility of this development is founded on an erroneous supposition, namely, that, as Marcuse said in The One-Dimensional Man, “The historical achievement of science and technology has rendered possible the translation of values into technical tasks — the materialization of values. Consequently, what is at stake is the redefinition of values in technical terms, as elements in technological process. The new ends, as technical ends, would then operate in the project and in the construction of the machinery, and not only in its utilization.” The re-establishment of an ecological balance depends on the ability of society to counteract the progressive materialization of values. Otherwise man will find himself totally enclosed within his artificial creation, with no exit. Enveloped in a physical, social, and psychological milieu of his own making, he will be a prisoner in the shell of technology, unable to find again the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years. The ecological balance cannot be re-established unless we recognize again that only persons have ends and that only persons can work toward them. Machines only operate ruthlessly to reduce people to the role of impotent allies in their destructive progress.

Wow! Did this give you the same ‘aha’ moments it gave me? Is the problem with most solutions to our current crises that they are institutionally based, when what is needed instead are non-institutional, organic solutions? Instead of being obsessed with ‘building something better’ should we instead be focused on ‘deconstruction tools’ that liberate us from institutions and government and business and systems, and allow us to apply them to self-organized community-based networks? Did you, as I did, initially misconstrue Illich’s anti-technology, anti-modernist bent as ‘noble savage’ romanticism? And could Illich’s anti-hierarchy philosophy be the common ground we need to unite progressives, libertarians and even anarchists against, and unseat, today’s powerful and ruinous neocon/corporatist hegemony?

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15 Responses to Ivan Illich: The Progressive-Libertarian-Anarchist Priest

  1. Doug Alder says:

    Must have been a problem with Salon earlier Dave, when I couldn’t comment. This post of yours ties back to couple you and I did in August 2003- http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2003/08/31.html#a425 and http://www.thealders.net/blogs/2003/08/31/deschooling-society/

  2. Cyndy says:

    There is so much here. Keep the thought. Build on it. I think it’s perfectly valid common ground. I find it all overwhelming and need time to absorb it. Smaller doses! My bwain is stuttering between aha!, wow!, and, ‘but’.Maybe it’s me, but it hits very close to home, hence the overwhelming nature. I’ve lived much of his philosophy for reasons I don’t understand; it just happened that way. My personal lack of formal schooling without societal support has had deep pitfalls. people are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against I don’t think I’d change the way I did things, however, support from and sharing with community would have been welcome. We are entering a more creative era and institutions will only hold us back. We need to break the grip and in doing so, get a grip on our natural surroundings with fresh eyes. institutionalization of values What an incredibly strong phrase. Use it often, it’s a good frame.

  3. Derek says:

    I’ve read a few parts of select papers of his “Energy and Equity”, “To Hell with Good Intentions”, “Education without school”; and I find that while I might believe some of his facts, I don’t connect with his ultimate conclusions.For instance in “to hell …” he says: “By now it should be evident to all America that the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth.”. I don’t see that at all, and even if it is true, his side lost (as the biggest opponent to our imperialism was China, which has not embarked on a race to replicate our energy wasteful way of life).In “Energy crisis” he says, “Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.” This is an interesting conjecture, but he doesn’t back it up at all (at least not in the first installment). He seems to feel that anything that brings about an inequality with raw human muscle-power is socially destruction. One wonders if he was against the horse and buggy.

  4. Derek says:

    A correction: “China, which has now embarked on a ract to replicate our energy wasteful way of life.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Illich is a fine, original and essential thinker, and brings to mind also Erich Fromm and Guy debord (The Society of the Spectacle).I might or (I think) could argue that in a perverse and forced way (bumping up against the limits of effectiveness) we are being re-acquainted with much of Illich’s principles. It seems clear that we are indeed approaching or are in the early stages of the materialization of values … hence the early instances of pushback – Voluntary Simplicity / Simple Living and many other (small) movements such as Do Nothing days, or Buy Nothing days, or the Work Less movement or the Slow Food movement, etc. I’m sure there are many other examples.

  6. Raging Bee says:

    Okay, I’m gonna try to repost my response WITH the break tag. You can delete the first or second iteration as you wish…The infed site’s “explanation” of Illich’s failure to gain mainstream acceptance is interesting:”Illich’s writings were founded essentially on intuition, without any appreciable reference to the results of socio-educational or learning research.”In other words, he’s just rambling, and making no attempt to ground any of his thinking on facts, logic, peer review, empirical observation or proof.”His criticism evolves in a theoretical vacuum.”So what IS it grounded on? Even Marx had a coherent theory, and could ground it on more facts than what you’ve quoted here.”This may explain the limited acceptance of his theories and proposals.”Well, DUH! If you can’t state a coherent theory OR use it to assemble the facts into a coherent and meaningful picture of reality, then no one will have any use for your “criticisms.”The ramblings you’ve quoted are nothing more than classic anti-intellectual ignorance, with a hefty dose of obvious paranoia, badly hidden in a fog of fancy words that sound kinda flash, but dissipate into nothing on close inspection.The paranoia is most obvious: he claims that “society” creates “institutions” that turn “people” into “objects” – seemingly oblivious to the fact that “society” and “institutions” are themselves composed entirely of “people.”The claim that “Institutions create the needs and control their satisfaction” is an instant warning of paranoia: is he trying to tell us that we’d all have no needs, desires or wants if it weren’t for the insidious manipulations of (unspecified) “institutions?” Would none of us be hungry but for the meddling of those cursed “institutions?”Furthermore, his allegation that educational institutions “restrict” the availability of knowledge, when any sensible adult can see that they actually create, accumulate, share, and organize knowledge (albeit for a price, of course), is beyond ridiculous.And what’s all this about “The medical establishment has become a major threat to health?” Tell that to someone who needs “the medical establishment” to find a cure for a deadly disease, or explain why everyone near a certain factory is getting some wierd cancer that no one else seems to get.This whole paranoid diatribe against “experts” and “institutions” is something I’d expect to hear (and, in fact, do hear) from far-right survivalists, anti-science Republicans (whom you rightly condemn), industry-sponsored “environmental scientists,” uncaring pro-business Libertarians, Creationists, religious fascists, and con-artists great and small, all of whose scams are threatened by the “institutions” we create to pool our knowledge and protect ourselves from fraud, ignorance and bigotry.I find it utterly appalling that you could condemn the obscurantism of today’s anti-science right-wingers, and then embrace exactly the same nonsense in a slightly different disguise.

  7. Dermot Casey says:

    Davethere is an alternate approach to Illich who interests me and about whom I need to read more. The approach that of John Dewey. Philospher and Educationalist. Some interesting links to Dewey can be found at http://www.wilderdom.com/experiential/JohnDeweyPhilosophyEducation.htmlWhat I like about him is that he successfully ran schools.RegardsDermot

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug/John/Dermot: Thanks for the additional links and reading ideas. Another individual who was a bold experimenter with education was Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. He was profiled recently in The New Yorker, and may be the pioneer that allowed all of the more recent education reformers to see what was possible.

  9. Dave,I think one of the most interesting chapter of Deschooling Society is the one called “The Learning Webs” (remember: Illich wrote it in 1971!). You can read it there:http://www.pkimaging.com/mik/infoall/illich/iitext/desch6.htmlObviously, his vision is actualy taking form with the Internet… but we were missing important part of the system he describe until the happening of 43things.com and Quackers (in a couple of days). You could read about it there:http://robotcoop.com/weblog/53/here-comes-quackershttp://robotcoop.com/weblog/54/help-is-on-the-wayIf you read french, I can suggest you a couple of books on the concepts behind all this stuff.I think we are just getting in touch with the true “subversive” potential of Illich ideas.

  10. Raging Bee says:

    ‘I think we are just getting in touch with the true “subversive” potential of Illich ideas.’How about the “constructive” potential? Is there any?

  11. “…could Illich’s anti-hierarchy philosophy be the common ground we need to unite…” I think that Dave is showing us what the “constructive” potential of these ideas can be. Instead of building an opposing hierarchical structure (as Communism did in opposition to Capitalism), we should use the network as the model for sustainable development. Networks for work, networks for governance, networks for learning, etc. Neither managerial capitalism nor big government are sustainable models. Blogs have provided only a glimpse of the power of networked individuals, and I’m sure that we can do more. My suggestion is to find some small projects to start with and share our findings. Your natural enterprise model is a good example. Once we see this model being used successfully, the network can help to virally distribute it.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Merci Clément: Evidemment il était très préscient. He really was ahead of his time. Derek above chastizes him for saying “the U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth”. But in fact that’s exactly what has happened — the US depends on the rest of the world lending them money, in their bankrupt currency, in return for agreeing to buy their underpriced goods. If any significant portion of the world breaks the chain of dependence on The American Way, that Way is toast. Harold: Thanks. I think we’ve got our work cut out for us. We have yet to find ways to leverage networked individuals well enough to balance big-government/big-business power. The greatest grassroots success so far is MeetUp, and it wasn’t enough to get Dean nominated or Kerry elected in the face of overwhelming opposed power-structures. This really is all about power. We have individual power as citizens and consumers, but until we can organize it — into boycotts, coups of undemocratic institutions, campaigns with enough energy to bring about grassroots change, it won’t be more than an interesting novelty (like the 43things that Clement refers to). And even if we can leverage it to be politically or economically powerful, in more than a disruptive, guerilla way (like file-sharing), then we will face the full fury and energy of the power establishment, and we risk having our grassroots power coopted by groups or leaders (well-meaning or vain) who will turn it into just another big, anonymous, unresponsive power structure.

  13. Dave: I agree with you when you said: “until we can organize it — into boycotts, coups of undemocratic institutions, campaigns with enough energy to bring about grassroots change, it won’t be more than an interesting novelty (like the 43things that Clement refers to).”That’s absolutly true. And that’s why we must do everything that is possible so that those interesting novelties “explode” from the web (that’s the success of MeetUp). That’s why, I hope, 43Things will be understand by the people of Quebec in a dramatically different manner, in a couple of year, because we are actually working on the idea of making Quebec an “educating city”.I hope 43Things can be a catalyst. Certainly not a “starting point”. We need a new vision of the city first.

  14. John Verity says:

    I just found your site while searching the Web for sites about Illich. He is easily one of the most incisive and useful critics of industrial and modern and Western society. He is as radical a questioner of assumptions and “truths” as you will ever find. There is a criticism of Illich on your page stating that he worked in a theoretical vacuum. I think one way to understand him was as a prophet. He was an historian, a theologian, a sociologist, and critic. But ultimately, he was working out a vision and understanding of the world that was deeply rooted in faith – a radical faith, if that is the right word. The turnoff for many people, I believe, was that he called for us to recognize and understand our fundamental powerlessness; power, the believe that we can change and remake the world, is what has gotten us into such dire straights, ecologically and socially and so forth. Very difficult to summarize, but hardly vacuous.Anyone who is interested in Illich’s thought might wish to check out these items:1) Conversations with Ivan Illich, by David Cayley – a book from 1988 (?) that provides the most thorough overview of Illich’s life and the evolution of his thought until that moment. Cayley is a producer of radio programs for Canadian radio network CBC; his two main programs about Illich are available on tape from CBC/Amazon: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman, based on the same interviews printed in the Conversations book, and The Corruption of Christianity, from 2000, in which Illich lays out his “theory” (if someone is looking for such!) that the Western world can be explained as a perverse version of the Gospel. (There is a third program, also on tape, called Life as Idol, which is equally interesting.)2) Pudel Group, in Bremen, Germany, where Illich taught and eventually died. http://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/ Many of Illich’s later papers and those of some colleagues are available here. One of the most interesting and important of these is by Barbara Duden: http://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/pdf/Iv_tra_b.pdf, entitled Ivan Illich. Beyond Medical Nemesis (1976): The Search for Modernity’s Disembodiment of “I” and “You”3) http://homepage.mac.com/tinapple/illich/ where many Illich links and even a recorded talk about education can be found.

  15. Marion Delgado says:

    In a word? No.First of all, my experience being in the Alaska Libertarian Party trying to get even an iota of humanity out of those far-right smug narcissistic sociopaths with their Nietzchean delusions and their perpetual Dunning-Kruger Effect in everything they surveyed convinced me that libertarians are the problem, not the solution.Second, Ivan Illich was all declarative sentences and no actual solutions. When I finally got around to reading him I was appalled at his ivory tower posturing. I actually taught Hmong refugees out of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and I am somewhat of a fan of Schumacher, of Wendell Berry, and so on.But his whole circle’s somewhat cultlike appeal (Zerzan comes to mind as someone who’s taken it to such an extreme that it’s a lot more evident) stems from a lack of criticism. It’s kind of uncool to point out that wishful thinking is no basis for society.It also kind of spits on the research of people like Jared Diamond or Jeremy Rifkin – reality is not going to naturally provide for human desires, and you’re not going to wish them away. There is a mustiness to people like Ivan Illich that used to be kind of Goth and romantic and cool to me and now just makes me angry. We’ve learned a lot since the 1800s, it turns out. And life when most people were peasants and royalty did all the science and writing was not better.I have to say reading Deschooling Society just made me angry. It was the dead opposite of the attitude of a good teacher attacking the system.For all its phoniness – it was pretty gagworthy – the truth is I got more out of watching Dead Poets Society than out of the whole of Deschooling society.I had read a lot of ivan illich articles in the Whole Earth Catalog and the Coevolution Quarterly, but it was only when I read full books by him that I started getting quietly angry.

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