A review of Beyond Economics and Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich.
Order a second-hand copy of one of Ivan Illich’s books over the internet, and it will more than likely come with the insignia of a university library and a stamp confirming that it has been ‘Withdrawn’. This says something about the trajectory followed until recently by the reputation of this deeply radical thinker – but the publication of a new collection of four of his most insightful essays suggests that the rediscovery of Illich is gathering momentum.
For a time in the 1970s, Illich was a kind of intellectual celebrity, brilliant and controversial. At the centre of his work was the idea of “the threshold of counterproductivity”: the point beyond which more schooling starts to make us stupider and more health care makes us sick. He dedicated himself to revealing the idiocies of industrial society. He once calculated that, when all the hours worked to pay the direct and indirect costs of cars and roads were taken into account, the average speed of automotive transport was less than 5mph.
What is harder to imagine now is the reach that these ideas had. The essay in which he made that calculation – an extended version of which appears in this collection as Energy and Equity – was first published on the front page of Le Monde. The New York Times dedicated an extensive article to the details of his falling out with the Vatican. (Illich had started out as a Catholic priest, though his critique of institutions included a call for the church to get rid of professional clergy, and the fierceness with which he criticised more modern institutions grew out of his sense that they were repeating the mistakes of institutionalised Christianity in secular form.) He hated the loudspeaker, calling it the most anti-democratic technology humanity had invented, but when he gave public lectures in those years, his voice would often have to be relayed to audiences that spilled over into neighbouring lecture halls.
Around the start of the 1980s, he slipped from view. History had turned a corner: many of the possibilities for a saner reaction to resource scarcity, environmental and economic crisis that had been glimpsed during the previous decade were now lost in the dustcloud of the neoliberal juggernaut. From a status in which no university library would be without his books, Illich reached the point where they could be safely discarded.
Yet, as Sajay Samuel argues in the introduction to this new collection, Illich’s voice speaks now more clearly than ever. When the contradiction of ‘sustainable development’ was launched upon the world later in the 1980s, Illich immediately saw through it. He warned, too, of the danger of treating the environmental crisis in isolation, rather than recognising its roots in the deep cultural contradictions of our economic order and the worldview that underpins it. In the company of an extraordinary collection of friends and collaborators, he sought to excavate the buried assumptions on which modern societies have been founded and to show us how strange those assumptions would have looked to most of the people who have ever lived. “All through history,” he points out, “the best measure for bad times was the percentage of food eaten that had to be purchased.”
Sometimes the insight is contained in a single sentence, sometimes we are led to it over pages, through the back alleys of history, but the reader will encounter many of them in these pages. And even now, perhaps there are university librarians placing orders for Beyond Economics and Ecology as a first step towards rebuilding that gap on their shelves.
First published in Resurgence: Issue 286.