Ivan Illich

I have finally found a website hosting a number of the writings of Ivan Illich — the Roman Catholic priest who died in 2004 — and have just about finished reading Illich’s Deschooling Society. I have wanted to read Illich ever since a lewrockwell.com piece profiled his work and ideas and since I read (and re-read) John Taylor Gatto.

(I don’t know what to make of the Preservation Institute, which hosts the online Ivan Illich archive.)

Deschooling isn’t as good a read as Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, but Illich does a better job of presenting his ideas than Gatto does. The problem of mass industrial society, for Illich, is that we human beings have created systems (school is the example he uses because it is upon school that all other institutions and systems of mass society rest) that are fundamentally anti-human. That is, the logic of the system triumphs over the logic of the individual human being. For Illich (if I understand him correctly), the mass society, brought about by industrialism, needs to manage individual human wants, to ensure that there is enough demand for the goods and services produced by industries and mass government. The health of the economy, and continued economic growth, as well the position and power of the state, all depend on the management of demand. That management takes the form of both coerscion (law) and persuasion (advertising as one example), but the goal is to make sure that human beings are incapable of managing themselves (either as individuals or as voluntary collectives) and must rely on professionals to manage their needs and wants. School fits in becuase it creates demand for “instruction” and substitutes teaching for actual education, and is also the template by which human beings are made a part of the “system” of mass society and taught to learn their place and function — mainly as consumers of services and products — within it.

I have a lot of problems with Illich’s recommendations for how to solve this problem (aside from dismantling school, which is a good idea) — he uses words like “must” and “new” too much, forgetting that human beings have thousands of years of experience learning to do things without the benefit of public education. In short, his webs and networks are a description not of what must be done, but of what men and women actually do when the social democratic corporate-state is now busy compelling them to work in factories and study in factory schools. The book is also a clear product of 1960s thinking. Not only does he give far too much credit to the 1960s “counterculture,” but also spends too much effort “immanentizing the eschaton” (to borrow from Eric Voegelin) and thinking that his age is the moment most pregnant for revolution.

But my biggest problem with his recommendations is that they appear to have actually gotten traction among reformers and communitarians, people who did these things on top of school, not instead of school. That’s not Illich’s fault, of course. But I’m having a hard time finishing the book because it has stopped reading like a revolutionary tome and has become just another piece of silly futurism gone awry. (Think Toffler’s — or was it Naisbitt’s? — much heralded and very silly paperless office.)

All that said, Illich (and Gatto’s) understandings of mass society and the systems that have been created to oversee the management of demand in this society have helped me considerbly. The economy Illich describes is essentially the one Aldous Huxley imagines in Brave New World, one in which consumption and production are carefully managed by the state, down to the creation of busy work, to make sure that the economy continues to both “prosper” and “grow.”

Even though I write (occasionally) for lewrockwell.com, an anarcho-capitalist website that spends much of its time reveling in the untrammeled consumer economy, I’ve long felt a little unsettled with that very economy. Ever since my stint covering energy firms on Wall Street, I’ve had a sense that the expectation of continued economic growth — as expressed in government-mandated quarertly earnings, which is as false an environment as a putting green — isn’t the way a natural economy would work if we had one. There’s something, well, not right, not natural, about the expectation that a business enterprise will always (or should always) sell more or earn more in set period after set period. That people should always earn more. There’s something very artificial about the whole modern, mass-consumption economy. In this, Illich helped me, and I can see I will have to go back to the earlier portions of Deschooling to re-examine those statements about engineering and managing production and demand. (Also, his statements on the manufacturing of poverty, and the state’s role in doing just that, are impressive.)

For me, mass industrial society is a fundamentally unhuman and inhuman creation. The management of human beings as resources is fundamentally unhuman and inhuman. And there is no solution to either of the problems from the standpoint of reform — there is no reforming mass industrial or mass consumption society, no making social democracy (the chosen form of governing mass consumer societies) anything more than the simple oligarchical collectivism that Emmanual Goldstein allegedly wrote about in George Orwell’s 1984. At the same time, there can be no revolution to topple mass consumer society, because revolution still thinks in terms of managing human beings, of abstracting resources to the benefit of those who rule a society. (This project of managing the world has long been an aspiration of rulers and ruling elites, as James Scott writes in Seeing Like a State.)

I’ve long considered what it means to be free, because we live with a lot of definitions of freedom in the world, most of which maintain some tie or are rooted in notions of political liberty, particularly the ability to participate in social democratic politics. (The choosing of leaders, for example, is long offered as the main example of political example.) This vision of political freedom spans right and left worldwide.

But I find that unsatisfying, in part because politics is such a zero-sum game, and gives no freedom to the losers to say “no” to the schemes and machinations of the winners. Politics is, therefore, the right to manage others against their will. The only kind of freedom I find that satsifies the idea of being free is the freedom from professional management. Here’s the three things I believe a human being needs to say, believe and live in order to be free (I have spent some time thinking of these three things but have not worked this out yet to my satisfactio):

  1. “I am not a human resource.” I do not exist for the benefit of others. The meaning and purpose of my life is my own, I write them myself. My goals are my own. I am neither input nor output in a supply-demand graph. I am not an abstraction to be dealt with or handled. I am a human being made in the image of God. When I think of the term “human resource,” the image that appears in my mind is that of a lump of coal, something that can be ground into poweder and burned away.
  2. “I am not a citizen.” I do not belong to the state nor do I have any obligations to the state, which chooses to rule me against my will, to conscript my labor (through taxes) and my life for purposes that are not my own. Again, the citizen is merely an abstract resource to be commanded at will by the managers, a thing to be ground to powder and used up.
  3. “I am not a consumer.” I do not exist to have my every wish and whim met, to have desires created against my will. I do not exist merely to buy things and use things up made by others. While consumers are not so obviously ground to powder, I dislike the fact that whole legions of people exist to try and stimulate whims and desires that I didn’t know I had and would not have otherwise.

There is no way to change the world in which we live — no revolution, no reform, nothing will alter mass industrial consumer society. Only collapse, if it comes, will change it, and that collapse may never come (that thought saddens me greatly, even though the collapse of mass industrial society would cause such suffering and misery as the world has never seen), since this society has managed to prop itself up for the better part of 150 years. It has traction, as has the logic of the system over the human. But I believe, and I place my hope in, the ability of the individual to say “no,” to actively un-participate in that society, to mentally and spiritually secceed from mass civilization. To become the human beings that God created us to be, I believe, requires it.