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The Capacity for Second Thoughts: Ivan Illich

From his rise to prominence in the late 1960s to the last conversations with David Cayley, published as The Rivers North of the Future, Ivan Illich sought to uncover the hidden assumptions on which modern industrial societies had been built.

A review of Beyond Economics & Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich.

I want to cultivate the capacity for second thoughts, by which I mean the stance and the competence that makes it feasible to enquire into the obvious. This is what I call learning.

‘Ascesis’, 1989

Those words could stand for the desire which underlies the work of Ivan Illich and the effect his writing can have on the reader. Sometimes the second thoughts are triggered by short, simple statements, capable of detonating what we think we know: ‘All through history, the best measure for bad times was the percentage of food eaten that had to be purchased.’ In other cases, they come when we have the patience to stand alongside him, looking into the mirror of the past, until our eyes adjust and we begin to recognise the strangeness of ideas we have always taken for granted.

From his rise to prominence in the late 1960s to the last conversations with David Cayley, published as The Rivers North of the Future, Illich sought to uncover the hidden assumptions on which modern industrial societies had been built. He saw this as a revolutionary project, one that went deeper than most formulations of revolution:

The political revolutionary wants to improve existing institutions—their productivity and the quality and distribution of their products. His vision of what is desirable and possible is based on consumption habits developed during the last hundred years. The cultural revolutionary believes that these habits have radically distorted our view of what human beings can have and want. He questions the reality that others take for granted, a reality that, in his view, is the artificial by-product of contemporary institutions, created and reinforced by them in pursuit of their short-term ends.

‘The Need for Cultural Revolution’, 1970

Ten years after his death, the promises of industrial society are unravelling all around us, yet this does not bring any great confidence in the possibility of change. The project of political revolution belongs to an earlier age, one in which the future still seemed capable of serving as a vessel for people’s hopes and desires, rather than a source of anxiety, something from which we try to distract ourselves. Yet there is an anger and a hunger below the surface of our societies for which nothing short of the language of revolution seems large enough. The reverberations of Russell Brand’s performance on Newsnight are one signal of this.

In such a context, the four short, powerful essays republished in this new collection deserve to be read widely. A quiet rediscovery of Illich has been underway for some time, whether (as David Bollier has suggested) within the commons movement, through events such as last summer’s After the Crisis conference in Oakland, or in the pages of the Dark Mountain journal. Yet this hardly compares to the level of public attention which their author enjoyed, or endured, in the period in which the earliest of these essays was written.

‘Energy and Equity’ first appeared on the front page of Le Monde in early 1973, as the rising prosperity of the post-war decades was giving way to oil shocks and limits to growth. By then, Illich had reached the strange position of an intellectual celebrity. (The closest equivalent today is Zizek.) A Catholic priest who had fallen out with the Vatican, the story of how he outwitted the Inquisition was reported in entertaining detail by the New York Times. His critiques of the sacred institutions of secular society—the education system in Deschooling Society, the healthcare system in Medical Nemesis—were debated in journals and by professional bodies whose members polarised between responses of outrage and recognition.

The memory of those debates means that his name is often included on lists of radical educators, alongside the likes of Paulo Freire and John Dewey. Yet this is misleading, for he did not write about these institutions to lay out pedagogical principles or advocate for educational reform, but as key examples of a larger phenomenon. He sought to illuminate the underside of economic development, to give us tools for thinking about those aspects which go conveniently unmeasured and those which elude measurement. So he talks about the ‘thresholds of counterproductivity’ beyond which the increased production of goods and services becomes self-defeating—prisons make us criminal, hospitals make us sick and schools deaden our minds—and the realm of ‘shadow work’ which grows in parallel with the industrial production of commodities. However good our intentions, he insists, if we do not pay attention to this underside, we will define the problems we face in terms that lead us to make matters worse. This happens today when economic and ecological crises come to be defined as a lack of jobs and a lack of clean energy.

Against this, Illich asks us to revisit the histories out of which the industrial world of ‘energy’ and ‘employment’ came into being. Neither of these terms, he argues, names a phenomenon that was simply waiting to be discovered by economists and physicists:

Most languages have never had one single word to designate all activities that are considered useful … For the last three decades, the Ministry for Language Development in Djakarta tried to impose one term bekerdja in lieu of half a dozen others used to designate productive jobs … But the people continue to refer to what they do with different terms for pleasurable, or degrading, or tiresome, or bureaucratic actions—whether they are paid or not.

The unifying abstraction of ‘employment’ in its modern economic sense did not arrive as a revelation of a reality that had been there all along, but as an imposition that was massively resisted by ordinary people for generations. Until the Industrial Revolution was well under way, ‘wage work’ was considered a sign of destitution. What changed was that the other means by which people had been able to support themselves were taken away, through the enclosure of commons and the outlawing of subsistence practices. Under these conditions, radical dependence on the money economy became normalised to the point where it is those who do not have employment who are in need of rescuing.

In drawing attention to such histories, Illich does not pretend that it is desirable or possible to turn back the clock. There is no golden age here, but a refusal to reduce the ways in which people have lived in other times and places to a homogeneously miserable past from which we should simply be glad to have escaped. At which point, we may come to recognise ourselves as seen through the eyes of Miguel, a young Mexican visiting Europe in the 1970s, who writes to Illich of his host:

Señor Mueller behaves as todo un senor [a true gentleman might be the English equivalent]. But most Germans act like destitute people with too much money. No one can help another. No one can take people in—into his household.

‘Destitute people with too much money’: does that not touch precisely on the paradox of the ‘developed’ societies, the strange coexistence of what remains—even in these times of ‘austerity’—an unprecedented consumption of goods and services, with a pervasive atmosphere of insecurity and precariousness? The percentage of food eaten that has had to be purchased can never have been higher.

Since the rise of the modern environmental movement, critics of industrial society have generally looked to ecology as a source of hope. Yet here, too, Illich asks us to think twice. ‘Energy’ like ‘employment’ is an abstraction by which quite different phenomena are merged together. To define the problems we face primarily in terms of environmental crisis is to mistake the symptom for the disease, to ignore the social and cultural roots of the mess in which we find ourselves. Long before today’s schemes for geo-engineering, he saw the nightmares that experts would propose in the name of saving the planet.

It is sometimes said that Illich is too negative, offering criticism without practical alternatives. In fact, the influence of his ideas can be traced in practical projects from John McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development to the work of Gustavo Esteva and friends in Oaxaca and Chiapas. In another sense, though, this objection underestimates the practical value of criticism. As Sajay Samuel writes in the introduction, ‘The task of living differently entails the task of thinking differently.’

I don’t expect this book will reach as wide an audience as Brand’s YouTube video—though someone should probably send him a copy—but there is something in the approach of this cultural revolutionary that has survived the failure of the future, that continues to be useful in making sense of our situation and tracing the possibilities that remain, when we can no longer put flesh on the resonant words of political revolution.

First published in STIR: Issue 04.