Ivan Illich, the late philosopher-economist, was in my opinion one of the truly prescient thinkers of our era. The cogency of his unique worldview ranks right up there with that of the English economist E. F. Schumacher, in my considered estimation. Although this very brief set of remarks hardly does justice to his intuitive brilliance, it may at least prompt you to read some of his many books. The illumination obtainable there from is all but a foregone conclusion.
IVAN ILLICH DIED FOR YOUR SINS!
"The compulsion to do good is an innate American trait. Only North Americans seem to believe that they always should, may, and actually can choose somebody with whom to share their 'blessings'. Ultimately, this attitude leads to bombing people into the acceptance of 'gifts'..."
Ivan Illich, 9/1926 - 12/2002
In obituary remarks on the life of Ivan Illich (1926-2002), The Guardian's Andrew Todd and Franco La Cecia described this brilliantly eclectic individual as 'an archeologist of ideas, rather than an ideologue '. Illich was certainly all that and far more, as one of the contemporary world's greatest thinkers, social philosophers, and yes...even a noteworthy cultural anarchist, perhaps even an "anarcheologist of ideas"....
My first glimmer of awareness of the importance of Illich's views on the modern world came to me in the form of a book handed out to us for study in the Berkeley graduate Health Services Administration program I was enrolled in, back in 1977. The book, titled 'Medical Nemesis', was a seminal assessment of the deleterious impact modern medicine (read: medical science and technology) was having on the very patients it was set up to care for. The term 'iatrogenic', roughly meaning 'doctor induced ill health', was first popularised in Illich's book and soon became very familiar to me as I began to search out the down-side effects of high-cost institutionalised health care in the American economy. I rapidly progressed beyond my initial limited awareness of who exactly Illich was as I read more of his books, articles, and commentary on contemporary society, and began to understand that here was a contemporary of E.F. Schumacher who, like Schumacher, had powerfully astute intuitive insights into the workings of the modern western world that sorely needed to gain wider circulation. Regrettably, as Guardian authors Todd and La Cecia pointed out, Illich's polemical writings, critical as they invariably were of western institutionalised thought, were easy to caricature and thereby marginalise (in much the same manner that Noam Chomsky has today been put aside by mainstream America as 'quirky, troublesome, and noisomely radical') by the sociopolitical right of centre.
Born in Vienna (1926) to parents with Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Dalmation religious roots, Illich was forced to leave Vienna in 1941 due to the Nazi oppression of the Jews, after receiving much of his early academic instruction there. He then studied histology and crystallography in Florence University (as well as wider interests in psychology and art), before deciding to enter studies at the Vatican's Gregorian University, leading to ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. After completion of these courses (from 1943 through 1946), he was sent to America where he began work as a priest in an Irish and Puerto Rican parish in New York City. Prior to coming to the US, Illich additionally obtained a PhD in history from the University of Salzburg.
In New York, Illich became passionately committed to the Puerto Ricans he worked with and the broader aspects of Hispanic culture. In 1956 Illich took the vice-rectorship at Puerto Rico's Catholic University, where he developed an active antipathy to the American model of religion applied to Hispanic society. From this developed a concurrent argument with the Roman Catholic hierarchy (Illich had profound scorn for the Jesuits, predictably). One especially notable flashpoint involved a Catholic bishop who had issued an interdict against voting for a pro-birth control candidate for governor. As a result, Illich was recalled to New York in 1960 (at that time he was one of the youngest Monsignors of the entire, world-wide Roman Catholic Church, at the age of 33).
Shortly after this return to New York, he set off on a 3000 miles journey across South America on horseback and by foot, during which time he actively searched for a new and meaningful venue within which to work. Finally in 1961 he established the Intercultural Centre for Documentation in Mexico City. Its purpose was to serve as a center to gather information that could be used by both ordinary people and leaders alike; courses were also offered to missionaries in what was termed 'de-Yankification' who were on their way to establish church missions in the Central and South American regions. Over a period of time the center naturally developed into an outlet for radical thought on Latin-American issues and on principal Western socio-cultural problems. One of its aims was to purge cultural imperialist attitudes in its students and Illich's teaching style was very down-to-earth, including (as Time Magazine noted in an article on him) "...yelling at his students, playing and praying with the, insulting them, and drinking with them." Such as the direct, forcefully palpable nature of his interaction with his followers, despite the highly refined intellectualisations that defined the Center's precepts and awarenesses.
Many of Illich's students were Catholic priests and laymen and it was not long before further difficulties arose with the Roman Catholic Church, as he rejected many of the applicants for study at the centre as being 'unfit for an anti-American overhaul'. Right wing Catholic groups soon viewed him as a severe antagonist to Catholicism and a dangerous religious provocateur. In 1968 he was recalled to Rome on heresy charges related to his views and beliefs. Although he was not formally convicted of these charges by the Vatican, the Catholic Church thereafter banned the attendance of priests at the Intercultural Centre for Documentation. Details of his Vatican censure were released to the media (by Illich) and shortly after this he left the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Chief among the concerns of the Centre was the subject of education. His most famous and well-known book (Deschooling Society) came out in 1971, introducing his name to a wider global audience. Illich's thesis was that the educational system prevalent in Western nations was collapsing through bureaucracy, sheer numbers of students, and what he termed 'the cult of professionalism'. Among his opinions was the conviction that certification of learning worked against the ability of individuals to maximalise the educational experience and that "...inquiries into a man's learning history should be taboo." Accordingly, he was against diplomas, certifications, and the institutionalisation of all highly structured learning processes.
Perceptively, Illich argued that computer networks would be far more effective as links between 'givers' and 'receivers' of knowledge and act as ready outlets for those who wished to attack received ideas within the educational nexus. Illich felt that one of the chief failures of conventional educational systems was the horrific inefficiency implicit therein; furthermore, it was his opinion that the entire core contents of twelve years of conventional schooling could be absorbed in one or two years.
Following the release of 'Deschooling Society' in 1971, a number of further studies of human socio-cultural structure were produced. These included 'Tools for Conviviality' in 1973, which focused on technological targets such as communication (especially television, which he accused of 'numbing conversation') and automobiles (...that served to 'clog and choke cities') . In 1974 'Energy and Equity' was written to set out a case for use of alternate means of transportation (particularly the human powered bicycle) in opposition to individual, engine-powered personal-use vehicles (cars). Thus, Illich was much sought after in the early to mid 70s as a lecturer and speaker at seminars, due to the inherent environmentally friendly nature of his philosophy. 0ne of his most effective dynamics in this role was to use coruscating Socratic technique to shake apart and unsettle formerly steadfast and dogmatic assumptions of nominal convention.
In 1975, 'Medical Nemesis: The Appropriation of Health' was released, which argued that health care professionals had ironically become an active menace to health-care seekers and that the medical establishment had become so highly structured and technologised that 'modern' medical treatment actually served to induce certain forms of 'ill-health' in patients (hence his term 'Iatrogenic', a word he popularised that means 'doctor induced disease'). Illich proposed that medicine should empower patients, with products and tools made available by medical practitioners, to treat and heal themselves--based upon their own knowledge of their needs. 1975 also saw the release of 'The Right of Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies', which was a scathing attack against specialist professionals in other occupations and their institutional structures (Illich later successfully applied this model to industrial designers and salesmen). In these books, Illich analysed the corruption of structures and institutions which, he said, ended up performing the opposite of their intended purpose, and found the roots of this process in the institutionalisation of charity in the 13th century church.
According to at least one chronicler of Illich's life, at this time his focus became so highly intellectualised that he became progressively less alert to practical issues (a forte prior to that time), in his probing popular ideas and attitudes over a course of time, at the very time that his intellectual penetration to the core of insight was flowering at its fullest. Writings released in this period included 'H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness' (1985), 'ABC: The Alphabetisation of the Popular Mind' (1988), and 'In the Vineyard of the Text' (1993), the latter of which which dealt with a reinterpretation of medieval literature.
Owing to increased political controversy and somewhat lessened acceptance of the radical leftist 'thinkery' that the Centre had become, the Centre for Intercultural Documentation closed in 1976 by mutual consent of its founders (somewhat ironically, a victim of its own success in politically right-winged Mexican politics) , but the essential core of his philosophical ideology migrated to other sites in certain German universities, where Illich's views and outlooks remained highly popular (principally the universities at Kassel, Oldenburg, and Marburg).
Illich was noted for his brilliant attacks on Western 'professionalism', institutions, highly structured bureaucracies, corporate monopolies and business organisations; his outlooks were and are highly respected for their inherent distrust of the structured 'Deux in machina' impact of modern science and technology on humanity. Although he lived frugally, his door was always open to anyone who wished to interact with him in furtherance of ideas. The last 10 years of his life were spent coping with a very painful cancerous condition, from which he managed to distill a treatise on the 'history of pain' (published last year in France) before his death. Many of his lesser writings (if they may indeed be termed such) dealt with an amazingly diverse range of subjects, such as the 'history of the gaze', friendship, hospitality, bioethics, body history, and space.
Criticisms of Illich's work state that his attacks on professions and institutions often failed to make direct contact at the grass root level of mass society, which is a valid point. His failings in this sense may be attributed at least in part to the classic chasm of deficit awareness that invariably yawns between the thinkers and the doers in civilisation. Had Illich's rich insights into and studied criticisms of institutional structures and hierarchies been absorbed into the greater mass mainstream, ours would undoubtedly be a very different world--perhaps even a world in which the United States of America were not looked upon as a newly emerged imperialistic threat with frightening potential for suppressing human spiritual freedom, but as a model of social organisation to be revered and emulated. Regrettably, Illich was one of the last truly great alternate intellectual observers of civilisation's structures and his ability to apply his intellectual ideals to practical reality suffered somewhat in his later years, perhaps as a result of gradual withdrawal into that formidable tower of ideal contemplations that was his mind.
Ivan Illich died in December of 2002, aged 76 (born September 1926), as a result of severely advanced CA. Most of his last years were spent living a simple, austere life in an adobe cottage on the outskirts of Mexico City, although he did continue to actively teach at Penn State University and at a university in Bremen (Germany) until his death. Sadly, I did not learn of his demise until recently, despite the fact that I consider myself a reasonably well-informed and moderately circulating member of intellectual society. This suggests to me that the invaluable substance of Illich's brilliant conceptual contributions to our earthly understanding have been submerged and nearly drowned in the cheap miasma of American pop-culture fantasy that today threatens to edge conventional realities entirely off the page of our thought. In my opinion, Ivan Illich's lifework ranks right up there next to that of E.F. Schumaker's, in terms of providing important keys to understanding of a world that today's multinational corporate capitalism threatens to remorselessly grind into an increasingly exhausted source of expendable raw material for feeding mindless materialism's insatiable hunger.
I would highly suggest that you look into Ivan Illich's writings, read his books, and draw your own conclusions about the 'health' and sanity of today's voracious American economy, that we are told (by the global rapists who are the chief share-holders and executives of today's multinational corporations) is a positive model for the entire planet . Although the wisest assessment of modern humanity and its institutions lies somewhere between Illich's extreme leftist views and a far more moderate dissection of extant realities, it is safe to say that Illich is one of those rare individuals whose works should be well known to every literate person. A basic list of books and writings by Illich is found in the above text, but a quick scan of the internet via a search engine such as GOOGLE will quickly produce more detail on this important man and his works.
Aside from my own particular interest in Illich's theories on medicine and economics, one of his ideas that most captured my attention was his focus on energy concerns (and in particular human-powered alternate transportation devices such as the bicycle). As a life-long proponent not just of bicycles in general, but as a committed daily user of bicycles to commute to my office work-site, I was inspired to read more in depth about this aspect of his deliberations on the philosophical vehicular considerations of appropriate, effective 'individual energy use'. At a time in the United States when Americans are confronting an issue of wide-spread gross obesity that verges on near epidemic proportions, the humble bicycle offers one truly positive, simple, and relatively inexpensive mode of fighting off the obesity trend. In fact, it stuns me to think that there isn't massive support for the idea that the State Capitol of California (Sacramento, with its large population of state civil servants living close-in to the inner city core) could provide an exemplary model of bicycle-friendly efficiency for the rest of the nation's states by strongly promoting and forcefully encouraging greater use of the bicycle for commuting; this would go a great way towards helping relieve vehicular congestion and the many frustrations produced thereby, all conditions brought about by ever greater reliance on the automobile as society's principal means of transportation. [When realisation of this basic truth finally dawns and takes actual root in fertile civic planning soil, I fully expect to see massed formations of pigs flying overhead in staggered echelons.]