The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

August 8, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI had always admired Ivan Illich for his penetrating insights into the pathologies of modern life and the human condition.  Like dormant seeds, they sprouted at just the right time in my life and helped me develop a vocabulary for better understanding the commons. 

The recent conference in Oakland – “After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich Today,” on August 1-3 — gave me an enlarged, fresher understanding of Illich’s life and writings. Below I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conference, which can help us recover and rejuvenate Illich’s thought for our time. (Illich wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, and died in 2002.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time friend of Illich’s, opened the conference with a short talk. He had met Illich at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County, in the 1970s. Brown noted that Illich’s work cannot be fit into any political, religious or philosophical pigeonhole because, “He ranged freely across artificial disciplinary boundaries, and put a central emphasis on aliveness (which is distinct from “life”)”.  Much of Illich’s work, said Brown, was about challenging “the certitudes of modernity.”

In a short, just-released collection of four Illich essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology  (Marion Boyars Publishers) Governor Brown writes in the preface that Illich “questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church.”  In the 12th century and after, the Church and later the nation-state began to appropriate for themselves Christ’s narratives about salvation and the sacred, and put them to decidedly more secular, worldly use. 

This has culminated in the profound alienation of modern times, in Illich’s view.  As Governor Brown writes, Illich “saw in modern life and its pervasive dependence on commodities and services of professionals a threat to what it is to be human.  He cut through the illusions and allurements to better ground us in what it means to be alive.  He was joyful but he didn’t turn his gaze from human suffering.”

The Oakland conference consisted of ten speakers, most of whom had known Illich as collaborators and sparring partners.  I can’t summarize all of the presentations or capture all of their subtle complexities, but let me excerpt a handful of thoughtful comments.

Institutional Dispossession of Self

Richard Westheimer, a former public school teacher and schools consultant, noted a theme that Illich often focused on – the ways in which “we define ourselves by what we lack, and therefore our dependencies.”  Medicalized childbirth is one such example – “our inaugural ritual inducting us into our church of neediness,” said Westheimer, an advocate for home birth.  He described the ways in which hospitals use machines and medical charts to “establish and verify their institutional and professional relationship to us.”  This process is how “medical institutions constitute the patient apart from their consciousness” and human agency – the beginning of institutional dependence.

This dynamic plays out in many areas of life, particularly education, where the empty rituals of “education” and the quest for marketable credentials eclipse real learning.  Westheimer blames this reflexive dependence on institutions as a key factor in the student loan/indebtedness crisis.  Some 45% of US college graduates are now working in jobs that don’t require degrees, and another third are working in jobs that require degrees purely as a credential (but are otherwise irrelevant to the specific job).  Formal schooling has become a marketable ritual.  Learning occurs accidentally or elsewhere.

Other speakers echoed this theme.  Jean Robert, an activist and architect from Cuernavaca, Mexico, focused on how economics today amounts to “a painfully acquired form of blindness” that ignores the “moral sentiments” that Adam Smith had once celebrated as central to humanity.  But in the hands of economists, the sympathies that we feel for other human beings were turned into a formal economic theory about the “envy of riches.”    

Robert pointed out that there used to be a clear distinction between “the economy” and subsistence, the latter being a form of household provisioning that lay outside of the marketplace.  But economics aggressively annexed the idea of subsistence.  This destroyed the distinction that once recognized self-provisioning as a separate endeavor that connected us to each other and to nature.  Illich’s contribution was to re-establish and re-articulate this distinction.  In so doing, he brought a focus back to the human body and human sensibilities in economic life.  He often called this the vernacular domain.

Robert pointed out the consequences of internalizing the categories of mainstream economic thought:  It warps our self-perception.  “To be enmeshed in a system is to charge your perception of yourself,” Robert said.  Our sense of “autoception” – how we form our identities and relationships to others – becomes skewed.  This is why we need to “reclaim the vernacular,” he said. 

One of the more provocative claims made by Illich was that our autoception as human beings changed radically with the introduction of the alphabet and writing.  We became creatures of the text.  We began to read the texts and identify with them more than we “saw” each other.  “The invention of texts created the individual and memory,” said Robert, recounting Illich.  “You don’t have any distality [distance; perspective] when you have internalized the alphabet,” said Robert.  “You become a textual individual.”

The Dangers of Totalizing Systems

Trent Schroyer, who has been active in exploring alternative economic cultures — most notably as the former president of “The Other Economic Summit” and the author of Beyond Western Economics — emphasized this theme as well.  Citing Illich’s criticisms of “development” as material, economic progress, Schroyer described development as “a form of secular messianism” that is profoundly “autistic.”  That is, it is incapable of integrating emotions and consciousness into the larger institutional system.  He sees four ways to try to combat this trend:  the regeneration of publics, the cultivation of non-consumer perspectives, a focus on livelihoods and the relocalization of economics.  Notably, all of these are commons-based approaches.

Gustavo Esteva, the founder of Universidad de la Tierra and the author of The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Autonomous Movements, elaborated on this theme.  He noted Illich’s conviction that “systemic thought is terribly dis-incarnating,” meaning that it elevates abstract universals at the expense of our individuality and humanity.  Illich pointed out that the Spanish royalty tried to eliminate the great diversity of local and regional languages in 15th century Spain by establishing a formal, state-sanctioned system of grammar and syntax.  The goal, quite literally, was to override and eliminate locally based ways of seeing, thinking and communicating.  It was a standardized language of power:  a pattern that has recurred countless times since.

“Systemic being is disincarnated being,” said Esteva.  The most powerful antidote, according to Illich, was friendship.  “Real friendship is heretical and political,” said Esteva, explaining that its subversive qualities lie in its ability to help us see ourselves truly:  “Now I know who I am because I can see myself in my friends.” 

So, too, with the commons:  “A commons is not a relationship to the land, but a relationship with each other, said Esteva.  “That is the way to challenge the system:  You are the relationship itself” – an embodied, personal relationship that cannot be corrupted by systems of power.  To the extent that systematic thought misrepresents and corrupts how we feel and interpret lived experience, said Esteva, “in the end, there is only poetry.”

Recovering our sense of social relationship is a key challenge to Illich, said many speakers, because it is the only way that we can recover our humanity and our sense of ecological limits.  “The systematized ‘we’ is a corruption of the carnalized communion of people,” said Jean Robert.  “Only within limits can the ‘we’ be made carnate.”  Or as Gustavo Esteva put it, citing Illich, we need to recover “a disciplined renunciation that is defined by the community.” 

Esteva noted that in oral cultures, there is no “I” and “you” in the modern sense; there are, however, a variety of terms with different shadings to describe “we.”  There are terms for “a few of us,” and for “all of us,” and for “the community as a whole,” for example.  The term comida in Spanish does not just refer to “eating a meal,” but to the many activities associated with growing, preparing, serving the food and eating it socially, so that comida amounts to a symbol of a place where a given community of people lives.  “Comida reinforces people’s relationship to the food, to the place and to each other,” said Esteva.

Illich and Marx

In his formal talk, “Commonism:  Enclosing the Enclosers,” Esteva observed that Marxists don’t read Illich because they see him as a reactionary priest with a narrow agenda, and Illicians don’t read Marx because they often see no clear connection between him and Illich.  But Esteva argued that “the combination of their ideas offers the best clues to understanding the current conditions of the world and particularly to react to the horror falling on us.” 

Marx was not the only major influence on Illich, Esteva conceded, agreeing that Gandhi, St. Thomas and others were also important models for him.  But Esteva believes that “Illich “started when Marx ended and followed the direction of Marx’s thinking.”  For the speakers of this conference, however, it remained an open question just how influential was Marx on Illich’s thought.

However one interprets Marx’s influence, however, it was pointed out that Illich’s perspective is valuable today precisely because he provides a way out for people caught between Marx’s Promethean frame of thought and the perception that alternative systems of production are impossible.  Illich functions as a corrective to over-reliance on Marx while still recognizing that Marx’s theories about human alienation are powerful.

I hope that Esteva’s talk is put online at some point because it is a rich, scholarly account of his interpretation of Illich, especially from a Latin American perspective.  Esteva, who is half-Zapotec, an indigenous culture in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, had a lot to say about the Zapatistas, their resistance to modern capitalism and their ingenuity and courage in creating a new way of living. 

Illich on Religion and Aliveness

There was much else said at this exciting, vigorous conference, including a series of talks on Illich’s views about politics and religion by Carl Mitcham, author of “After Illich:  The Politics of Energy”; Wolfgang Palaver, an Austrian theologian at the University of Innsbruck, Vienna; and David Cayley, formerly of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who produced a series of interviews with Illich, The Rivers North of the Future.

From that day, let me recount only the stories about Illich’s revulsion against the “idolatry of life.”  This refers to the tendency of people to make pious commitments to universal, abstract ideas of “life” – which is something very different from lived experience and human presence.  “Life” often serves as a bloodless substitute for the sense of “aliveness” that Illich always sought to cultivate.  He wanted to honor the sense of immediacy and recognition of the Other that is the essence of aliveness.  He wanted us to recognize our identities as biological creatures living in particular circumstances and within ecological constraints.

The possibility of grace can only emerge through aliveness, Illich said, because that is the only place in which the artificial boundaries (social, political, intellectual) that separate us can be overcome.  This is the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan:  universal benevolence is less important than authentic caring and connection at an existential level.  The “idolatry of life” is often used to prevent such human communion and mask pain and tragedy.  Illich believed that the only way to open ourselves to grace is by honoring aliveness.

I found myself wondering throughout the conference how Illich’s thought applies to contemporary politics.  Perhaps Governor Brown said it best when he said that Illich’s thought is not reducible to politics, but it is highly illuminating of contemporary politics.  

For more on Illich’s writings, you might want to visit David Tinapple’s website, and a collection of Illich writings posted at the Preservation Institute website.  You may also want to check out John Verity’s New Scare City blog which also has a great collection of Illich materials as well as some terrific photos from the Illich conference in Oakland.  

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: Ivan Illich, the commons