The New Observer Book Reviews,Ivan Illich Review: Celebration of Awareness by Ivan Illich

Review: Celebration of Awareness by Ivan Illich

This book is a collection of illich’s papers and presentations on a range of themes. Quite a few concern the role of the Church in the modern world. Others are concerned with questions of the developing world and how best to provide aid. The book was first published in 1971. The thoughts and insights in it are if anything more relevant today.

1. A Call to Celebration

This was a manifesto which Illich produced with a group of friends in 1967.

Perhaps rather infused with the tone of the late sixties, early seventies. A call to live a life of self-realisation and mutual co-operation. There is no critical discussion about the lack of a unitary set of values to live by in the West. People are just enjoined to pick a value system which embodies values of self-realisation and non-dominion – and work it out themselves. (That said; what else can one do in the West?)

The call is explicitly socialist:

to celebrate our joint power to provide all human beings with the food, clothing, and shelter they need to delight in living

It also reflects a sixties concern for “expressing one’s feelings”:

to be responsibly aware of your personal ability to express your true feelings and to gather in their expression

This piece also makes clear that Illich was a proponent of the model of “pre-figurative change” rather than revolution. In the model of pre-figurative change individuals and groups are called upon to live, now, the kinds of life that they wish to see as the future of humanity. (In our review of Chp. 12 below we consider the possible weakness of this as a model of effecting social change. Essentially; it does not fully address the power of power to frustrate change).

However; there is some awareness of the political situation in this piece. For example the piece acknowledges systemic problems which mean, for example, that industry must always accept whatever innovations increase productivity and then must use whatever methods of advertising ti can to sell the resulting (over-produced) goods. This is an acknowledgement that economic systems not just cultural attitudes are the problem. And, especially timely at the present time (2017 – with concern about “information wars” in the media), there is an awareness of the role that the media plays is selling these destructive systems as good and beneficent. It is possible that the language in this piece which explicitly discusses “confronting existing systems and values” did not derive from Illich, but from one of the other contributors. These ideas are not present in the other essays in this book.

2. Violence: A Mirror For Americans

A lot packed into a short paper. Illich is good because he realises that Americans do not invade and bomb the world because they are evil. The truth is far more alarming than that. The problem is that they are idealists:

Fundamentally this is the same war fought on three fronts; it is the war to “preserve the values of the West”. Its origin and expression are associated with generous motives and a high ideal to provide a richer life for all men. But as the threatening implications of that ideal begin to emerge, the enterprise grinds down to one compelling purpose: to protect the style of life and the style of death that affluence makes possible for a very few; and since that style cannot be protected without being expanded, the affluent declare it obligatory for all.

The mission of the US to spread its way of life to the whole planet derives from a naive belief in the superiority of the American system. They are not cynical and evil. They really believe that they can spread the boons of living life the American way to the whole planet.

However; for practical reasons, this is not possible. The levels of consumption cannot be sustained on a global scale. What happens then is that only a small elite in a target country adopts Western liberal values and consumption levels. They then have to be protected by arms. (This paper was of course written at the time of the Vietnam war). Furthermore; the population reacts more against the imposition of Western idols than they do against the sheer fact of military domination. There are some passages here which could almost be taken as prophetic in connection with Al-Qaeda and militant Islamic groups. For example:

If I read present trends correctly, and I am confident that I do, during the next few years violence will break out mostly against symbols of foreign ideas and the attempt to sell these.

Finally; Illich comments that once the poor take guns into their hands they become at risk of being led astray – of becoming not a peasant army, but a force for evil and gangsterism.

3. Not Foreigners, but foreign

This paper is about the large-scale influx of people from Puerto Rico to New York city in the late 1940s. As such it does not have an immediate relevance to British readers of today. Except that Illich brings to his discussion of this matter his usual patient insightfulness. Immigrants can be welcomed as foreigners but not simply as foreigners – that would be condescending. On the other hand they are not already ‘American’ (or ‘British’). Either approach avoids seeing the other in the other. In considering their assimilation (a much better word than ‘integration’ which implies a one-way process) it is necessary to consider what is unique about their heritage and background. How do their own customs map onto the new life? All of this could of course (and perhaps should) be delivered as a lecture to many in the UK today who believe that immigrants are ok only so long as they pretend to be British (and, usually, ‘white’ as well).

4. The Eloquence of Silence

This piece is a “points for meditation” piece which was delivered by a participant (possibly Illich?) at an evening prayer meeting for a group of (mainly) priests training to work with Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans in inner city New York in the fifties.

The mediation discuses how simply learning the language of another is not enough to be able to be in solidarity with him. Illich walks us through several stages of silence, in positive and negative aspect and interpreted in terms of Christian theology. The context is the ‘silence of the missionary’. Will he simply learn the language of the native people to whom he has been sent, or will he learn about the silences in their language as well? Silence in prayer is linked to silence before the language of the other and contrasted with one whose pauses in speech are merely delays while he prepares the next platitude or even the silence of one who is busy preparing hostile words. Beyond this kind of silence is the silence which is beyond words altogether. Here one faces the Word (logos) in silence or one turns away from Him in silence. And this too has an analogy with the situation of the missionary. Should he simply learn the language and preach in order to bolster his own ego he will not connect with the natives – he will be in a kind of a hell.  Ultimately the missionary must know the silence of the Christian mystery; the redemption of mankind by God who sent his Son into the world to suffer at the hands of men and thus redeem them.

The text can be read simply in terms of a reminder that communication is not just about blasting the other with words learned from the dictionary (like the caricature of the Englishman shouting ‘merci’ to the French). And in terms of Christian missionary work one can clearly see how this would be such poignant advice. The text is redolent with Christian doctrine. For non-Christians this may seem a little like a cult. Phrases like “only a Christian believes in the Word as coeternal silence” sound like a Christian claim to religious exclusivity. Nonetheless the article can be read as being a sensitive call to remember the value of silence in communication with someone from another culture. Words may assist but being with people is something which happens in silence.

5. The Seamy Side of Charity

The context for this article, which appeared in a Jesuit magazine in 1967, was a missionary programme by the American Church to South America. Illich criticises the programme. We find here familiar Illichian themes. The priests who are sent consciously or unconsciously act as salesmen for the American order – capitalism. Indeed in some of the documentation for the programme explicit mention was made of the “red danger”. To use priests to promote an ideology – any ideology – is an abuse of the gospel. The programme was geared towards developing the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It saw a flow of funds into the South American churches and raised them to a financial level which they could not natively support. This induces dependency. The investment in the Church hierarchy stifled community level experimentation with ways of celebrating Christ – for example, married priests, communion celebrated within the family circle. There was little money available for training – which might have represented a long-term investment in local capacity building. What money there was was spent on training in bureaucratic methods. In short – this kind of help props up the giver (in this case the Church hierarchy) and is unhelpful to the recipient.

Similar criticisms could well be made of US aid in the world today. For example in Afghanistan. [1] Expensive Western style infrastructure projects such as schools are initiated but once the donor leaves the new building is seen as a foreign imposition. There is insufficient local capacity to make use of it. And it appears alien and strange. The donor has reinforced certain of his own favoured institutions (contracting companies, certain NGOs). Certain members of local elites may have benefited. But despite the large expense involved (paid for in this case by the US tax-payer or in Illich’s example by the parishioners of US Churches) no local people have been helped. The world keeps making the mistakes outlined by Illich 50 years ago.

6. The Vanishing Clergyman

This paper was published in 1967. It concerns the future of the Roman Catholic church. As elsewhere in this collection of essays it is clear that Illich was to some extent caught up in certain enthusiasms of the sixties. Here he appears to believe that the Catholic Church as an institution is about to collapse. He predicts that by the end of the decade (the 1960s) a majority of the Church’s staff will have abandoned ship. In this context he proposes a new model for a clergyman.

Illich envisages priests (who may remain celibate) disembarking from the (sinking, he thinks) ship of the Church and yet continuing to fulfil the spiritual role of priest as they live and work in the community in an ordinary way. This is a vision of a distributed Church. Illich does not believe that institutional bureaucracies can do any good. He is forthright about this:

Fewer still see that the Pope himself would grow in evangelical stature and fidelity in proportion as his power to effect social issues in the world and his administrative command in the Church decline.

Illich was, apparently, a man of faith. The Church does not do “God’s will” by setting up charities and commissions to plan and execute social programmes. It does “God’s will” by undergoing a spiritual revival and spreading faith in the world by supporting and nurturing, from a thin, non-institutional base, a network of spiritually committed individuals. These, priests of the future, will work at ordinary jobs and (there is something touchingly naive about this idea) because of “increasing leisure time and more social security benefits” will have the time to carry out an informal self-study in theology and minister to their flocks. Being outside the formal Church hierarchy there will be a level playing field between them and their consecrants. Thus this new priest will not feel obliged to act as if he has all the answers to problems of his consecrants. Whether the collapse in numbers of serving priests in the Catholic Church has ever happened the present writer is unable to determine; as he has no familiarity with life in Roman Catholic communities. His impression is it hasn’t; at least in the rich North/West. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a seed idea here. The idea appears to be that a spiritual giving to life happens in life. It isn’t something which can be organised, mandated, monitored and delivered by a Church hierarchy whose administrative systems and practices win top praise from management consultants. For this author at least this is akin to the teachings of the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche . Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche  taught an approach to life which he called “Spiritual Warriorship” which concerned being open in our hearts to people around us, and to the world, in daily life. Illich’s idea that spirituality is nothing special would make sense to Chögyam Trungpa.

On the question of celibacy Illich is clear. He values celibacy as an authentic spiritual choice (one saves oneself for a mystical bridal intimacy with the divine) but does not believe that celibacy should be tied to the role of priest. On this model; some priests (his new, ‘secular’, priests) may choose to be celibate. Others not. Illich was against the ordination of married men as priests because he felt that would give an extra lease of life to what he saw as a dying institution. Better to move straight on to the future.

Illich (naturally) envisaged that in the future, reformed, Church the role of theological colleges would be reduced. Learning would be distributed, more personal. Organised courses in theology are not very good at communicating the special essence of the Christian revelation – a sense of the Church of Christ. A more personal learning will in turn be reflected in the style of Church teaching moving away from issuing encyclicals on abortion and social justice and towards supporting networks of local communities each sustained by the living Word.

It is not hard to see why Illich was not popular with the papal authorities. It seems he aimed at the top. He aimed to topple the King and bring about a sort of ‘peasant’s revolution’ of love from below.

But; did the clergy vanish? As already mentioned, this writer does not have any first-hand knowledge of the contemporary Catholic Church. But there is no obvious sign that the Church has indeed collapsed as Illich envisaged. But then, perhaps he wasn’t the only prophet in the Christian/Judaic tradition whose speeches conveyed deep truths, even if he did get the date of the Second Coming wrong.

7. The Powerless Church

This piece was first offered as a contribution to a conference on social issues held by the Anglican Church in 1967.

The piece reads as a somewhat time-specific (this was the sixties) celebration of a diverse range of ‘social action’ groups. Some of the language used by Illich to discuss these ‘radical’ and ‘humanistic’ endeavours may have been more intelligible at the time than it is now, fifty years after the event. With that reservation, the central idea is clear. The Church (one assumes Illich means ‘Church’ in its broadest sense as encompassing both Roman Catholic and Anglican) should stand apart from social action and agitations for social change. One reason Illich gives for this is that the disputes about tactics between various social action groups would necessarily involve the Church in disunity. Though, his deeper reason, is not itself tactical, but spiritual. The Church should withdraw from power. The Church should focus on (so to speak) what it does best. Celebrating the mystery of Christ.

Illich proposes a kind of meta (or as he says transcendental) role for the Church in social change. The Church is not to be an agent of social change. Radical, secular, humanists can work for social change. This change leads to development. The real meaning of human development is “growth into Christ”. The Church, who acts as the custodian of this mystery, can thus interpret the experience of change to people, can provide a spiritual – and Christian – back-drop to the experiences of social and individual change. The Church does not become involved in social change; except that in celebrating Christ in certain forms of social change it may act as an accelerator of change. Thus Illich specifically calls for a ‘powerless Church’. This is not a Church where priests enjoin parishioners to go on marches. Or where the Church funds educational projects as a way of changing society. This Church sticks to its mission; to celebrate the mystery of Christ. At a time of rapid social change the Church can thus act as a bed-rock and a unifying factor.

Illich was not a political revolutionary. Not only does he call for the Church to ‘stay out of politics’ (while being present with its sacraments to those whose experience of change makes them open to seeking meaning) but he also explicitly affirms his belief in social change through osmotic change, and not through a ‘seizure of political power’:

The change which has to be brought about can only be lived. We cannot plan our way to humanity. Each one of us and each of the groups with which we live and work must become a model of the era we wish to create.

Known as ‘pre-figurative change’ this wise model is the lesson the Bolsheviks missed in their plans to reconstruct society.

8. The Futility of Schooling

This article was first published in a magazine in 1968.

Illich discusses the results of educational investment in Latin America. Investment in education by governments and foreign donors was intended to transform the rural poor into a productive middle-class, sharing a value system with the middle-classes of the industrialised North. Illich asserts that the actual result has been the creation of an elite class of urban administrators; with the poor (who are now urbanised as a result of technical developments) remaining as marginalised as ever. Illich describes this process in terms of a “liberal myth” which claims that schooling is the key to social integration. Observers of the British scene will not be unaware that this myth was peddled assiduously by Tony Blair, architect of Britain’s New Labour party. Under New Labour (1997-2010) Britain saw a massive increase in public spending on education. [2] However, social inequality measured in terms of income inequality under New Labour was not improved. Two specific groups, children and pensioners, did see a significant reduction in poverty levels due to large increased welfare payments to these groups. The key point is that the spending on education did not make the country more equal. [3] Claiming that spending money on schooling will reduce/abolish social inequality is a liberal scam.

Illich exposes the sordid underbelly of this myth (with especial reference to the role of schooling in developing nations):

As the only legitimate passage to the middle-class, the school restricts all unconventional crossings and leaves the underachiever to bear the blame for his marginality.

That is, schooling, while claiming to promote equality in fact serves to legitimize inequality. Illich argues that in 19th century America schooling did have some role to play as a ‘social leveller’. 6 years of school could place someone on the same level as the author of the textbook or on the same level as an unschooled entrepreneur. However; in the more technical modern world the role played by schools is different. In the modern world only the tiny fraction who complete higher education benefit from schooling. The result of schooling for everyone else is not liberation but, rather, that they are marked out for unfulling, low-paid, roles in society. In Illich’s analysis schools are sacred because they do produce a small elite of graduates who are indeed highly productive wealth generators. Because these elite achievers do indeed raise national income, the others, the great majority, also see incremental rises in their incomes – albeit at nothing like the level of the privileged educational elites.

That mass schooling fails those who are not academically able is in fact accepted, to some extent, even by educational bureaucrats. One attempt to address this problem (motivated either by a desire for fairness or, more likely, in an effort to generate productivity in divergent material) is vocational education. (Britain’s New Labour, for example, toyed with various initiatives to permit 14 year olds to adopt a more vocational curriculum). Illich is critical of these endeavours. He argues that to do this properly is prohibitively expensive. He also doubts whether vocational schools can adapt to the ever changing demands of a technical economy:

Trade schools pretend to educate by creating a spurious facsimile of the factory within a school building.

Illich suggests that instead of bringing the factory to the school, the students should be brought to the factory. He proposes, in effect, a system of “on-the-job training”. Such a system currently exists, to some extent, in the UK. The current system was introduced in 1994 under the Conservatives and developed under New Labour throughout their term (1997-2010). It continues today. Under this system young people work in a company, learning “on the job”. They also attend a college or training centre for one day a week. The government subsidises the scheme. The apprenticeships are paid minimal wages by their employer. The formal, classroom, training component and qualification reflect (arguably) an inability of the originators of this scheme to really break away from schooled education. They are perhaps, trying to obtain the benefits of this kind of “on-the-job” training while not really relinquishing the schooled and credentials approach to education. As Illich points out the idea of “deschooling society” implies far-reaching political changes. By developing an “on-the-job” training scheme but at the same time delivering it as a plug-in to school contemporary authorities (in the UK) are seeking to avoid the political implications of truly replacing class-room education with in-site industrial training.

Illich also suggests that adult education is an effective form of education. He refers to Paulo Freire’s work with raising literacy through politically charged educational programmes in Brazil. Adults learn better because they are more motivated. (A fact that any teacher will tell you). Illich suggests drawing a quite practical lesson from this; reduce investment in mass schooling of young people and put the resources into adult education. People will learn what they need to when they need to.

In summary; Illich proposes that rather than a unitary system of mass schooling, which raises expectations it cannot deliver and which thus fuels social tensions, education be devolved and distributed to a number of loci throughout society. Parents can be trained to deliver early years education, training in technical skills can be done in factories; focussed adult education and a minimal education for young people can deliver instruction and more cultural aspects of education.

The obvious criticism of these ideas is that Illich is working against the poor. He is, a believer in schooling would argue, denying young people their “chance to betterment”. Illich might reply that it is just that “chance” that he is arguing against. A chance which sees only a minority truly benefit.

Interestingly many of these ideas have been taken up; in the UK concepts such as “life-long learning” and the commitment to Apprenticeships, discussed above, being examples. But the authorities cannot give up their addiction to mass schooling. All these ideas are added onto the base given by mass compulsory schooling. Thus no radical transformation of society takes place.

9. School: the Sacred Cow

This piece was originally given as a graduation speech at the University of Puerto Rico.

The idea that school is the “central myth-making ritual” of industrialised societies is key to illich’s thought. In critiquing the school system Illich is not simply an educational reformer (in the manner for example of the insipid A. S. Neil). He is critiquing Western (and indeed all industrialised societies) society in its heart. If Illich’s ideas on schooling were to be meaningfully taken up they would imply a radical decentralisation of society. Power would transfer back from hierarchical institutions and to the individual. This is why these ideas won’t be taken up.

This is the essence of Illich’s idea:

Only if we understand the school system as the central myth-making ritual of industrial societies can we explain the deep need for it, the complex myth surrounding it, and the inextricable way in which schooling is tied into the self-image of contemporary man.

Illich locates the historical genesis of the idea that schooling is the necessary means by which a person becomes a useful member of society to a period about 250 years ago. Compulsory mass education was introduced in England in the late 19th century. This was a consolidation of efforts undertaken at first quite largely by religious institutions. Foucault has analysed how in the 19th century it was religious and moral practices and services provided by religious organisations which were taken up and co-opted by governments and refined as instruments of docilisation and discipline. (Whereas Illich focussed on the school Foucault analysed the methodology and practice of discipline as it was developed in a range of institutions in the 19th century. But the target is the same. For Illich universal schooling was the means by which everyone was to be incorporated into industrial society whereas Foucault links the school to the workshop; both shared the same disciplinary methods). While the analyses are different, both Foucault and Illich agree about the period (Foucault would link it to a certain mode of knowledge or epistime) in which modern societies have developed their grip on men. (Men in the anthropological sense of course).

In his address to the graduates of Puerto Rico University Illich pointed out that one of the ‘virtues’ of the school system is that anyone who has attended 5 days a week, week in week out, for 16 years, is, likely to make a reliable and non-subversive functionary within a state bureaucracy. This is illich’s way of saying that school docilizes its members.

Illich draws parallels between the Church and the school. Both are adorned with rites and special symbolism. (Academics in gowns). Both are worshipped in an unquestioning way with religious fervour. Both consume large amounts of resources. It is expected of each that they will deliver salvation. In reality they are both hierarchical organisations with only an elite few at the top the actual beneficiaries. Illich takes the analogy further; as the Church elites compromised the Church by their ‘getting into bed with’ economic power elites and this gave rise to oppositional movements (presumably Illich has in mind the Reformation) so schools are perverted by their putting education at the service of the goal of economic productivity (and that based on a hierarchical model). As Church reformers sought to rescue religion from the prostituted Church so educational reformers are called upon to rescue education from the school system.

Illich argues in this piece, as he does in other Chapters in this book, that modern schooling systems in developing nations are a con. Only a tiny fraction of the population reach the apex of the school system; the Bachelor’s Degree. This entitles them to membership of local national elites – and partnership with Western organisations. (They might, for example, get a job in a Western NGO). However; the vast majority of people in the country do not achieve this level in the school system. For them the system serves as an allocator of their lower social status. Illich’s proposed correction to this injustice is that the total funds currently being spent on the school system in a hierarchical manner be re-distributed in an egalitarian manner. Everyone should receive an equal amount of formal education. Which means much less than a full-time school place for each person. Such a system would provide more education than they currently receive to the poor majority and considerably less to the privileged minority. Illich is not a Communist or Bolshevik. He envisages that the rich may choose to top-up their allocation with private schooling on the Western model. The attractiveness of Illich’s idea is that the poor would receive more education than they currently do. The focus would shift towards education as cultural enrichment for all (what schooling is claimed to be but never is) and away from being an institution in the service of the Westernisation (integration into the world economy dominated by US corporations) of the developing society. One obvious criticism of Illich’s idea, however, is that the risk would be that the existing elites would indeed build private schools to ensure that their children rose to the top. There would still be the same elites making the same privileged deals with the economic powers of the West/North – and now without even the moderate compensation of meritocracy; the possibility that a few members of even the poorest classes could join these elites. However; to have an equal distribution of resources but to prevent the privileged classes self-perpetuating there is only one way; violence against the privileged, along the lines of the Bolsheviks. Between these three choices then; Bolshevikism (enforced equality), a mass of the ‘poor’ living alongside an old style elite based on land ownership and self-perpetuating itself through any means available without hindrance (Illich’s paradigm), and modern liberal ‘democracy’ – which, entirely true, only raises a tiny proportion of the dispossessed to the level of the elites –  which is least undesirable? Illich does not seem to fully think through the consequences of trying to develop an egalitarian model of education alongside a system which permitted the old advantage-gaining system to continue.

Illich’s proposal for a society where education is separated off from the demands of hierarchical capital implicitly invokes the idea of a society which has simply turned its back on money and profit (in the sense in which these terms are understood by large concentrations of private capital, not necessarily as they are understood by independent traders). If Illich is not calling for a revolution he is at least calling for a mass walk-out. But; the danger is that his privately educated elites would dominate and the poor would have walked out on their only chance for integration – via meritocratic schooling. In technical terms this dilemma can only be resolved by envisaging a worldwide acceptance of ‘poverty of spirit’ (in Christian language); a world in which there was in fact no benefit to belonging to a material elite at all. Illich was probably far-sighted enough to realise that his ideas (like socialism) can only work if they are embraced in all corners of the world. In this essay however this point is not discussed.

10. Sexual Power and Political Potency

This piece was originally given as a speech at a conference “of population experts” in 1967. It concerns birth control in Latin America.

Illich asserts that existing (1967) promotion of birth control (contraception) is aimed at a small group of elite consumers. The advertising messages are not designed to appeal to the broad mass of the poor. He criticises the advertising messages as being negative; about avoiding the negative consequences of unwanted births. Illich contends that to reach the hearts and minds of the poor the messages should be positive. The messages should emphasise the freedom that contraception gives you. (Let’s avoid the question here as to whether being able to have sex without any risk of creating new life is indeed freedom. The Pope, whom Illich denounces for “lacking courage” and being “in bad taste” would be likely to say that freedom lies in self-control without technological aids).

Illich criticises official birth control programs for making unrealistic appeals. The bureaucratic considers the statistics and tries to get the population figure down. But you can hardly expect an individual to practice contraception so as to “do their bit” to help reduce the statistic. (Any more than you can reasonably expect an individual worker to reduce a wage demand so as to do their bit to reduce national inflation).

Illich considers that one of the obstacles to more realistic appeals to individuals to practice responsible birth control, in Latin America, is political. Appeals that would actually work would have to be made to rational human actors. Thus it is not possible to separate off birth control campaigns from a programme to emancipate the poor in educational terms and in terms of political awareness. And these are the programmes that the “military governments prevailing in Latin America” don’t want to support.

Illich argues, somewhat unpersuasively in this reviewer’s opinion, against the idea, prevalent at the time, that schooling creates people who value contraception. (Perhaps Illich wants to argue against this because he doesn’t want to allow calls for birth control to be used to promote calls for mass schooling – which he is already opposed to). Against this Illich argues that schools select people already inclined to use technological solutions. Without knowing the details of the schooling situation which Illich had in mind this does seem somewhat unlikely. Is this kind of technological savvy discernible at 11 or 12? In fact it seems pretty clear that increased schooling would make people more likely to use contraception. Illich seems to accept potentially that birth-control training in clinics which run training programmes for parents could help to promote use of contraception. On this argument though – could not the same process work in schools?  Illich argues that even if people do learn about birth-control in government clinics they are practising birth-control in a dull and mechanical way. He compares this to how they might use the literary skills taught to them at school which are taught without at the same time reaching them as human beings. That is they used these skills which are taught to them without love in order to read low fiction; rather than participate in cultural and political life. Nonetheless the fact remains that the kinds of discipline promoted at school probably are conducive to training (however dull) in birth-control.

Illich argues that arguments about birth-control appeal more to the middle-class (a tiny minority in Latin American countries). For these people having fewer children can indeed lead to economic benefits. For the poor though the opposite is the case.

Illich’s main point however, appears to be that while it may indeed make sense for the wealthy to have less children the same argument does not apply to the poor, who have no reasonable hope of becoming wealthy. And who, themselves, individually, are not going to become wealthy by having fewer children. A sound and obvious criticism of bureaucratic population control policies. Illich argues that these policies are colonial in nature and are in fact doomed to fail, because they do not reach either the hearts or the reason of the people to whom they are addressed. Illich contends that a programme which seriously got the masses of poor people to adopt birth control would have to be at the same time a programme which emancipated them intellectually and politically. Illich is, in effect, saying that if the rich tell the poor not to have so many babies they will smell a rat and carry on. Population control is only viable when everyone feels – and knows – that they have a stake in the society. Only then can you appeal to them to make rational and human decisions to practice birth control. This is both practically true and morally true.

This essay could do with being re-written by Illich. The arguments he makes will be familiar to socialist minded critics of population control programmes in developing nations; with some additional characteristically Illichian twists about the sacred value of each human life as a life capable of intellectual and cultural engagement. In this essay these ideas are presented in quite a terse and at times convoluted way. (To be fair to Illich, this was a speech rather than an essay).

11. Planned poverty

This piece was written in 1970 and is Illich’s critical response to the notions of development presented in the “Pearson report”. The report was commissioned by Robert McNamara then President of the World Bank. Lester Pearson was the ex-Prime Minister of Canada who led the commission which produced the report. The report itself is still available on the UNESCO web site.

Illich describes the lifestyles which are taken to be so desirable in the rich North in terms of trained consumption in packaged services. But consumption of packaged services disempowers people. The consumer of packaged services has less rather than more ability to shape his own environment. Illich gives the examples of the car and of modern healthcare. Convinced that a car is essential to life modern man is prepared to spend hours sitting in traffic jams. And the town hall is obliged to spend ever more on trying to manage the traffic. Healthcare is focussed on prolonging life – with ever more amazing surgical interventions, and the drugs needed to manage the ensuing pain. People are trained to consume such packages – during years spent in the ultimate packaged institution; school. This is classic Illich. Modern man is dociled (or conditioned) to become a passive consumer of goods and services provided to him by hierarchical systems. In his work in general Illich criticises these systems and controlling institutions at length. He has less to say about the kind of life which he believes is being destroyed by these practices. But that he believes in this other life is absolutely implicit in his criticism of what he calls, for example in “Deschooling Society“, “right-wing” institutions. In Deschooling Society Illich contrasts “right-wing” institutions, who deliver the “packaged services” he is discussing here with “left-wing” institutions. These latter are characterised by being convivial, non-hierarchical, non-addictive, allowing users to come and go as suits them.

Illich’s case that the packaged services which are taken to constitute a meaningful life in the wealthy North have an alienating effect on man is a relatively unchallenging one for many people to accept – even if only to a small degree. His next step (in this article) is more challenging; the “poor”, those who live in the developing world, should not be given these goods (modern schooling, modern healthcare, cars and highways). Illich’s argument, and we have already encountered this in Chapter 9, is that in the developing world these goods only benefit elites at the top. For example;

Latin American doctors get training at The Hospital for Special Surgery in New york, which they apply to only a few, while amoebic dysentery remains endemic in slums 90 percent of the population live.

or, again;

Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation.

The argument is that the transfer of elite goods and lifestyles to developing countries reaches only a small, privileged elite. The great mass of the poor do not benefit, except that they are conditioned to aspire to lifestyles which they cannot possibly attain to. Instead, Illich proposes development which is largely self-led, self-sustaining – and which necessarily uses a much lower level of (indigenously maintainable) technology. Such an approach would benefit the masses. The argument against Illich’s ideas is essentially that of the “trickle-down” theory of capitalism. This theory concedes that only a small minority of people at the top can benefit from the luxury goods produced by capitalism, but argues that the existence of such possibilities spurs on entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs, in developing enormous wealth for themselves, create such an abundance (of jobs, industrial capital, technological innovations etc.) that the poor are lifted up – to a level which they would not attain by their own devices. A proponent of the “trickle-down” theory of capitalism might argue that Illich’s model would, if implemented, lock the poor permanently into a level of consumption far below what they might be able to attain to if the capitalist model is followed. The “trickle-down” capitalist might accept that it might take generations for the poor in the developing world to be lifted up to, say the level of car ownership being the norm, but would argue that only his approach held that out as a possibility. He might accuse Illich of holding people back. In turn Illich could counter that even if this were true; such lifestyles, the consumption of “packaged services”, are not in fact desirable. He also argues that the overall level of consumption that is implied by everyone completing High School, driving a car, and receiving modern technological healthcare is simply not supportable by the planet. Since Illich was writing we have become more aware of the environmental costs of much of modern development. Greenhouse warming caused by fuel exhausts and coal burning; smog caused by fuel exhausts, are two examples. (In a game of strike and counterstrike the proponent of capitalist development now argues that there are technological fixes for all these problems).

Illich is, in many ways, a socialist. He is concerned for the welfare of the masses. He is not a state-centric socialist, on the model of the USSR. While egalitarian he also believes in peasant self-sufficiency. The rarely heard proposition that we hear in Illich is the truth (assuming it is such) that socialism implies a lower standard of living than is possible (at least which is held out as a possibility by) capitalism. This is the truth that most socialist movements in the North cannot admit. They have to claim (as they did in the Soviet Union) that socialism can create as much wealth as capitalism. In reality, this probably isn’t true. The capitalist argument about wealth creation has merit. The capitalist is right that capitalism, with its huge inequalities, is a better generator of wealth than socialism. There is a choice to be made. We can’t have both wealth and social peace.

Illich uses a Marxist term; reification. He discusses how a demand for a drink can be manipulated into a “need” for a coke. (A coke is then taken as natural, as a necessity of life). Illich coins a new term “underdevelopment”. This is an artificial lack which people can be conditioned to feel. They can be conditioned to feel that because they do not have the ability to consume the packaged services which are dangled in front of them they are underdeveloped. (In the rich North this conditioned sense of lack reaches the height of absurdity in, for example, advertising by Microsoft who need to persuade people that their Office Version 10 product – which only last year was billed as the latest thing, is now, no longer fit for purpose and everyone needs Office 11. Or – how every year Apple produce a new iPhone with some marginal feature improvements – which it is not possible to live without. In reality of course the iPhone 4 would suffice for most people for all of their lives). For Illich it is the modern system of schooling which is the defining institution of this training in consumption of packaged services. Modern schooling is the packaged service par excellence. The majority do not complete school. Since school is geared at its culmination; a University degree, for most; the “gift” of school is to remind them of their failure and to condition them to accept a lower place on the social pecking order. The fatal step for a society is the full and final identification of education with schooling – the idea that education can only be delivered in a school by trained “specialists”. When this happens the empowering nature of education is finally lost:

In this sense, the dynamic underdevelopment that is now taking place is the exact opposite of what I believe education to be: namely, the awakening awareness of new levels of human potential and the use of one’s creative powers to foster human life.

Illich ends this piece with  a call for research. The research he is proposing is on practical, lived, alternatives to the school, the hospital and the car. For example; educational initiatives which succeed in educating those who “will not pay for their learning with submission to custodial care, screening, and certification or with indoctrination in the values of the dominant elite”.  Illich criticises the revolutionary who proposes to seize power and expand the availability of schools, hospitals and cars on a wider basis. In reality they cannot do this. (Perhaps as  the Soviet Union found out). Illich is proposing a model of social revolution which is diffused and lived now. Turn away from the rat race and grow potatoes. Illich is almost certainly right that this is the route to a more fully human life for the vast majority of people. However; it is not clear if he fully appreciates that for this to be possible – on a mass scale – means that capitalism has to be broken. This is because capitalism will continually try to draw people into its orbit and will make it increasingly hard to live outside of the capitalist system. An example in the developing world might be the war that agri-business is waging on small producers. Because the model of seed (perhaps genetically modified) and a patent fertiliser which goes with it is potentially more profitable than the traditional seed those farmers who do not succumb to the package “offered” by the large US agri-business (in cahoots with local elites and development agencies and banks) will not survive. The large agri-businesses can manipulate market conditions to squeeze out those who resist. For example; they can offer loans and/or short-term discounts to those who switch to the new model. Even if, in the longer run, it would be a viable model to cultivate crops using traditional seeds the market can be manipulated to make it hard to do this. So; small farmers in the developing world can read Illich and agree with him but still they may have no choice but to buy the package provided to them by agribusiness. And this same dilemma is experienced by dissidents in the rich North. The demands of the capitalists and the state machinery are such (in terms of taxation, rent, transport costs, energy costs, etc.) that the dissident in the North too can read Illich and agree with him. But he too may have no choice but to join the system (in his case to take employment producing packaged services for others to consume) in order to survive. In the rich North, turning away and living a simple life which uses a lower level of technology is only, in practice, a possibility for the very rich, who can buy a farm-house in the country and start an organic farm. Or, conversely, for those who are prepared to live in a van – and endure a life well below the standard that socialism could provide. Capitalism monopolises everything. Despite their many mistakes, not least the sanctioning of political terror against their political opponents (including their fellow socialists), the Bolsheviks did understand this. There is a confrontation with capitalism. Capitalism cannot just be ignored in the hope that it will go away. It is not clear if Illich fully understood this. It seems as if Illich believed that it was a question of changing “hearts and minds”; that he did not recognise that the struggle is an economic one.

12. A constitution for a cultural revolution

This article was written in 1970 for Encyclopedia Britannica. Illich recaps some of the ideas we have discussed above, in our review of Chp. 11. The model of development which the corporate and government instituions in the North propose for the developing world is one in which Western “goods” – “packaged services” in Illich’s nomenclature – are imposed on them. The result, Illich argues, is that these measures only benefit a tiny privileged minority in these countries. While it is true that overall average incomes in these countries rise the gap between rich and poor rises faster. Developing countries do not need and in fact cannot afford to adopt the Western model of “packaged services”. The planet cannot sustain Western levels of consumption for everyone in the world. There aren’t enough resources and the environmental costs are too great even for what can be achieved.

At the same time revolutionaries in the “Third World” miss the point. They make undeliverable claims about delivering the same Western goods; schools, hospitals, cars to a greater share of the population. They too have fallen under the influence of the false dream of the development business. Illich proposes a new kind of revolutionary: the cultural revolutionary. The focus of the cultural revolutionary is education. Education as a tool for human emancipation. And thus very much education as distinct from schooling, which, itself is a “packaged service”.

Illich argues against the ideas of mass schooling as a catalyst for a meritocratic society; a society in which everyone can rise according to their merits. (In Chp. 11 Illich notes that the origins of these ideas about school and its role in modern societies originate from British 19th century liberals such as Jeremy Bentham). According to Illich a truly meritocratic society would be “hell”. Once again, Illich is in danger of appearing to promote a reactionary and backwards conservatism. The liberal promoter of mass schooling as a tool of development would certainly accuse Illich of wanting to hold back the poor. Illich’s counter might be that he is not for holding anyone back; he is calling out schooling for allocating people to roles in a hierarchical society. For the vast majority school is not a ticket to a life of wealth; it is a machine which certifies that they are only fit for menial roles. Schooling is education delivered by the rich on their terms and in their interests; masked in the seductive language of equality. Illich argues instead for a non-institutionalised form of education which meets the real needs of the people and which can help them develop sustainable communities on their own terms. Illich argues for the education budget to be more equally and widely distributed. This is a valid counter-argument concerning modern schooling; modern schooling is certainly a system devised in the interests of industry and not for the benefit of the individuals taking part. Illich accepts that modern schooling gives the poor a “chance” to rise to the top, but points out that the chance, for any one individual, is a very small one.

Weaknesses in Illich’s position remain in general; for example; he is not (in this Chapter he makes this explicit) arguing for a low or no-technology model of development. Illich still wants efficient, modern, combustion engines. He just wants a kind of such engine which is helpful to the masses and not about conditioning them to be individualised consumers (a race in which most will be losers anyway). Illich wants buses not cars. But he therefore still needs technological development and advanced research. Who will do this work? What system of education will make sure that the best talent is developed – regardless of their social background? Who will fund it? These questions are not answered by Illich. He could be accused of wanting to have his cake and eat it. He relies on the technological developments of modern industry while arguing against the schooling system which provides their recruits. Again; his model of distributed, community level development seems not fully realistic; what path would there be for a bright girl from the ghetto to a role as a technician in a modern firm if she is only granted two months schooling a year, while her wealthy peers are allowed to consume as much private education as required? Again, a model of state socialism does seem to provide some of the answers which are missing. In this model the state takes over the means of production and also responsibility for education and training. In this model the state ensures that development and education are carried out on a rational basis with the benefit of the whole of society in view. The poor are not at risk of losing out to their privately educated compatriots because there is no possibility of private schooling. The poor would not have to compete with private capital, on very unequal terms, because capital is owned by the state which is run in their interests. (That state socialism has its own problems is of course undeniable; here we are simply noting that a model of state socialism does seem to provide answers for some of the gaps in Illich’s model of ‘cultural revolution’ based on community education).

Illich’s practical proposals for an education led cultural revolution include: abolishing mass schooling, legislation to prevent discrimination against those without certificates (a test of competence is permitted), and a system of state-funded education vouchers which can be used by citizens as they choose. This last idea is often promoted in the West by extreme right-wing ideologues who see it as a way of creating a free-market in education.  As we have already discussed (Chp. 9): if Illich is not willing to also legislate to prevent the rich from funding extra, private schooling for their offspring, then his open market in education will, inevitably, simply create a back-door escalator for the rich. Once again; it is all very well to argue for undistorted non-hierarchical exchanges. But, as long as human selfishness remains a factor; then it is the case that unless equality is enforced the market will become rapidly distorted. The Bolsheviks grasped the mettle of this problem. In essence: capitalism says “Human selfishness is a given; let’s harness the power of this. Even though only a few will rise to the top everyone will benefit more than they would under any other system”.  State socialism says: “people have a two-fold nature. Most will work for the common good if given a chance. Those few who won’t need to be controlled by the state”. A model of community development says: “it is better to work for true individual benefit and not to serve the interests of those who are concerned to maintain the hierarchical systems which they are at the top of. Let’s evolve mechanisms at the community level to do this”. The weakness of this latter model (we are suggesting here) is that it does not adequately address the poison (of selfishness) in the apple tree. It appears to think that it can work alongside the capitalists; even diverting their technological efforts into directions more supportive of communities. The strength of the state socialist model is that it fully grasps that no compromise with capitalism is viable. State socialism fully recognizes that if allowed private capital will always actively undermine community initiatives.

Illich’s argument that hiring employees based on school certificates ensures that the person on whom the most has been spent in educational terms, rather than the one who can best do the job, is logically sound. But still; are there not some professions where a process of certification is essential – and not just a test of competence? For example; vet, doctor, airline pilot?

Illich’s strength is his vision of a world in which men and women produce and consume that which they need for fully human lives, and no more. And in his vision of education as having a role to play in helping people to become fully human. The weakness in his vision seems to be that the implementation of these ideas has not been fully thought out. For example; there is ambiguity about whether private schooling should be allowed. In Chapter 9 it explicitly is. In this piece (Chp. 12) he discusses “a guarantee of equal education resources” which suggests that it would not be. If the former; then his ideas of a egalitarian society are undermined from the beginning. But, if the latter, then he is moving towards a kind of social control which he associates with a failed Bolshevik model. In general; Illich does not address the problem of selfishness; or, we could say, evil. He does not address the potential for schemes of human development to be undermined from outside by economic forces – or indeed forces of crude violence. Is an egalitarian society possible without some degree of (Bolshevik style) suppression of selfish interest? In the kind of society implied by Illich’s vision how would advanced, resource intensive, technological production be organised? If young people only receive two months of formal education per year will this really permit the development of highly capable engineers – who are needed for technological production? If you argue that some could be identified as suitable to receive more education than the standard two months we are, once again, in the world of state socialism – and not a legally enforced ‘level market’.

Illich’s ideas are a valuable antidote to unthought out assumptions about development. The huge value of these ideas – and their essential veracity – can be seen in empirical evidence. Afghanistan today is an example which precisely illustrates everything that Illich has criticised the standard model of development for. Billions (more than 100 billion) of US taxpayers’ dollars have been poured into the country to build schools, hospitals, and all the other “packaged services” which the North sees as part and parcel of development. But the majority in Afghanistan have not benefited. Vast sums have gone adrift either into the coffers of the Western firms contracted to deliver the services; or into the pockets of local officials and businessmen. Schools have been built which are not used. Planes have been supplied which cannot be flown. Road have been built which go nowhere. [5] In contrast; a development programme which saw vastly less spent – but spent on distributed, local, community building could have made a real difference. And, at the same time, the money freed could have been used to tackle real deprivation in the United State. We can note: the “mistakes” which see such a profligate waste of public money are made time and time again. (See the Reuters report listed in [5] for an explicit example of mistakes being re-made despite a ‘lessons learned’ report dating from the 1980s). This is because this is the model of development which governments and corporations in the West are addicted to. A rational case pointing out their mistakes is not going to change anything. The USA Today example listed in [5] is particularly relevant to illich’s arguments; it details an ‘aid’ programme to build natural-gas filling stations for cars. But converting a car to run on natural gas is beyond the reach of most Afghans (if they even own a car in the first place). The VICE News report listed in [5] contains some comments from an academic and an NGO leader which support Illich’s arguments about the problems of “top-down” delivery of aid; that is aid delivered without consultation with the local people; aid whose real purpose is to condition them into a Western lifestyle, rather than support their own existing course of development.

Where Illich is perhaps on less strong ground is in his apparent idea that social change can be effected without tacking the question of economic ownership of capital. In general his ideas for effecting social change do not appear to be fully worked out. Illich was at pains to make it clear that he was not promoting a blueprint for social change. Indeed he points out that trying to change society according to a blueprint is a recipe for disaster. (Chp. 7)  This is a very valid position. Indeed one of the main reasons for the disaster that was the Bolsheviks is probably precisely that they believed that the right kind of society could be drawn up in a proclamation by a Committee and then imposed on a whole country – by force if necessary. Under the Bolsheviks this process was carried to its logical extreme; in the end what mattered was obedience to the dictates of the Central Committee – whatever they were and even if they contradicted previous proclamations, which it was also treason to disobey. Power became its own right. The state was right not because it embodied the will of the people but because it was the state. Nonetheless; capital exists as a concentration of power. It undermines, quite actively, alternatives to its own expansion. It is irrational and, as such, cannot be modified by reason and argument. No model of development can be convincing unless it addresses these problems.


Most of Illich’s words are prophetic. There are some elements in this book which pertain specifically to the sixties. Like others at that time Illich sometimes over-rated the likelihood of imminent social change. At times (rarely) words are included which sound like echoes of the ‘hipster’ sixties. (Yin and Yang, for example). But overall much of the criticism of currently accepted institutions in the West stands. Many of the essays in this book concern specifically Church matters. For those who have come to Illich from a secular point of view to see Illich’s obvious faith in Christian doctrine can seem something of a surprise. One can, however, skirt over those parts without losing Illich’s message, which is essentially one of humanism and concern for the poor.

Illich does not provide a full political programme. He is, after all, a Churchman. But his critical analysis of institutions on which the West is founded is deep and as relevant now (sadly) as it was then. Illih is not known for his easy writing style, and most of the essays in this book are terse and difficult to digest. But they are absolutely worth the effort.

Celebration of Awareness. Ivan Illich. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. 1976. (First published in the UK by Calder & Boyars Ltd 1971).

Notes and References


2. Institute of Fiscal Studies report. (See summary on page 1).

3. Institute of Fiscal Studies

4. Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society. Calder and Boyers Ltd. 1971


PRI. Story about aid money spent on non-flying cargo planes

Reuters. 2015. Report on SIGAR (Congress auditing organisation) of US aid budget in Afghanistan

USA Today. 2016 report on SIGAR reporting on Afghanistan

VICE News. 2014. report on SIGAR auditing of aid budget expenditure in Afghanistan.