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Ivan Illich



IVAN ILLICH was born in Vienna in 1926. As his father was a civil engineer, the family traveled about Europe a great deal – a pattern he continued for much of his life, over ever greater distances. Settling in Vienna when he was 10, the young Illich began to study in the Piaristengymnasium. His father was Roman Catholic, but his mother was of Jewish heritage – when the Nazis arrived in 1941 Illich was expelled from the school.

Traveling again, he removed to Florence, where he continued his formal education, studying histology & crystallography at the university. At this point he began to consider a career in the church, and moved first to Rome where he attended the Gregorian University, studying theology and philosophy, and then to Salzburg, where he completed his PhD.

He began to develop the seeds of his later intellectual assault on institutionalization when studying the development of the Thirteenth-Century church.

By the early fifties, Illich was working as a priest in New York. He worked with Irish, and then Puerto Rican immigrants. He found these people were very different from immigrants of European descent, yet they were treated according to the same stereotypes. Illich felt that the Puerto Ricans' non-European culture, although Catholic, meant that they could not meaningfully be reduced to the traditional stereotype of the new immigrant. To Illich, this "cultural ignorance" was an institutionalizing imposition of the dominant culture, and supplied another major element of his philosophical development.

In 1956 Illich moved again, this time to Puerto Rica. Here he worked as vice rector at the Catholic University in Ponce. By 1960, however, his outspokenness had led to him being expelled.

He now founded the Center for Intercultural Formation [later renamed the Centro Intercultural de Documentación / Center for Intercultural Documentation – CIDOC], training American missionaries to integrate into the Latin American culture with humility and respect – a goal in direct opposition to the Pope's wish to "modernize" the Latin American Church.

"Upon the opening of our center I stated two of the purposes of our undertaking. The first was to help diminish the damage threatened by the papal order. Through our educational program for missionaries we intended to challenge them to face reality and themselves, and either refuse their assignments or – if they accepted – to be a little bit less unprepared. Secondly, we wanted to gather sufficient influence among the decision-making bodies of mission sponsoring agencies to dissuade them from implementing [the then Pope, John XIII's] plan." – Illich, Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, 1973.

Although leaving the priesthood in 1969, Illich continued with the CIDOC [now based in Mexico], widening its remit. He now directed research seminars on "Institutional Alternatives in a Technological Society", with special emphasis on his adoptive home, Latin America. The center became internationally renown as a focus for intellectual free-form discussion.

The 1970s saw Illich produce his most widely read works, Celebration of Awareness, Energy & Equity, Deschooling Society, Tools For Conviviality, and Medical Nemesis.

Each of these was a firework of a book – short, polemical, incendiary. They explored the function and impact of institutionalization in the industrial capitalist and state capitalist worlds, alienating the hide-bound on both the Left and the Right. The institutions considered in these books were exposed as corrupt by Illich's laser-sharp analysis. The corruption came, in Illich's view, through the reversal of their original purposes as they grew beyond the human-scale [the socialist welfare state had a tendency to grow beyond this as a matter of ideology, and free market states were so obsessed with financial profit and reward that any expected community-oriented intention behind any given institution was, at best, secondary from the off].

Although his most famous work was Deschooling Society, his ideas may be argued to be at their clearest and most universal in the essay collection Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution.

"I choose the term "conviviality" to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands of others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members."Celebration of Awareness

Here his work covers a broad area of concern , and is clearly crucial for anarchists, libertarians, and for all others who wish to reach an ecological understanding of the world about them, through a critique of modernization, "expert" power, commodification, and the corrupting impact of institutions. In so far as he is concerned to offer some ideas towards solutions to these problems, Illich surely ranks with E.F. Schumacher, Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin. Indeed, his work on scarcity in Toward a History of Needs and Shadow Work, ranks with Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism in defining the ground upon which a fruitful future may be forged.

From the 1980s, Illich divided his time between Mexico, the USA, and Germany. He held an appointment as Visiting Professor of Philosophy and of Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State and taught at the University of Bremen. Though still writing – on gender, literacy and pain – he slowly became invisible against the rightist background of Generation X, Reagan and Thatcher. However, his legacy is far from irrelevant or outmoded – it is the present that is out of step with the development of human thought and evolution, not Illich.

In the early nineties, he was diagnosed with cancer. True to his belief that "the medical establishment has become a major threat to health" [Medical Nemesis, 1975], he stayed steadfastly in charge of all aspects of his own medication. Naturally, the establishment medical profession had recommended a sedative regime that would have undoubtedly led Illich quickly into an institutionalized quiescent zombie state. As it is, he held to his own, and continued to be active until the end, successfully completing his final work [on pain], to be published in 2003. He passed away on December 2nd, 2002.

Here is a brief review of some of his most important ideas:

The corrupting impact of institutions:

Ivan Illich's critique of institutionalization is concerned at the tendency of modern institutions to become oversized, dehumanizing and alienating. They undermine confidence and stifle creativity, yet are often set up in the first place to fulfill positive goals and to realize humanly creative ends. Beyond a certain scale, however, they lose the capability to reach these goals, indeed often increasing pressure away from them.

The factors that make this inevitable include schooling, the "expert" culture, commodification and counterproductivity, all of which are intertwined:

Schooling / Education

The education establishment of the seventies was increasingly centralized, with nationalized curricula, government interference and a "bureaucratization of accreditation". Little has changed, and the requirement in our culture for paper proof of formal education has if anything worsened. The rise of institutionalized education, obscuring as it does everyday / vernacular / apprenticed forms of learning, is a part of the devaluing commodification of knowledge.

Illich's ideas for deinstitutionalizing education – "deschooling" – and for, instead, creating humanizing, or "convivial", forms of education were part of a radical tradition of alternative schooling ideals.

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value."Deschooling Society

Illich's failure to be taken up by the establishment in no way reduces his relevance and importance, and indeed was a predictable consequence of the other factors that Illich critiqued.

"Expert" power / culture

The bureaucratization of accreditation does not merely affect the youth in education. It becomes enshrined in academia as a method of keeping one up on the [Professor] Joneses. More PhD's, more citations, more publications. This quantative valuing of expertise is an inextricable part of the reversal of the education establishments nominal purpose.

In creating this culture of "expertise", power becomes expropriated from ordinary individuals, whose empowerment to shape their own lives and environment is negated. The only opinion on a given subject to be granted any credence by the state and other institutions is the opinion that comes from the recognized "expert". However, this "expert" has to daily prove his expertise through time-consuming rituals, such as rehashing the last decent work he/she did another twenty times, in different guises, to ensure maximum citations, and to work towards yet another post-graduate qualification.

The "expert" must create increasingly baroque obstacles to the next generation of wannabe "experts" in order to maintain tenure. They become the gatekeepers, controlling the production of knowledge, controlling how knowledge is "legitimately" acquired, and creating a cartel. This is obvious in all spheres of the knowledge economy. Those who have been active in environmental campaigns, for example, will be familiar with the "argument" that you don't know what you are talking about because you don't have letters after your name / a piece of paper saying you have a ratified quantity of pre-packaged knowledge. And you will know this for the crock that it is, as you will often be better read than half [at least!] of the company lackeys that are devaluing your contribution. Illich is as concerned as we are to demythologize science.

"This new mythology of governance by the manipulation of knowledge-stock inevitably erodes reliance on government by people."Celebration of Awareness

Despite his early formal education being to a high level, and in a variety of subject areas, Illich himself fell foul of this "expert" establishment. All of us can, if sufficiently astute, become, say, "citizen scientists". But with no paper ratification of the fact [and with all the formalizing and straitjacketing the institution we'd need to suck up to would impose if we chose the established route to this paper ratification], we are all prone to attack on the same grounds Illich was: we will be accused of being intellectual mavericks; of not being "properly" read with regard to related works; of relying on "intuition"; and of working in a theoretical vacuum.

Indeed, in so far as the institutions concerned "must" be the ones to define what is appropriate in an argument, all these things may be true. But granted a modicum of rationality and self-critique, there is truly no reason why the informed citizen should not have an opinion just as valid as that of the "expert", and indeed he/she may have fresh perspectives to bring to the feast, as a result of not having been institutionalized into the same specialized rut as those whose opinions are nominally more worthwhile.


In creating a society where the institution can control what is perceived as "needs", and thus control what is considered the "satisfaction" of those needs, institutions can more fully control the factors they need to in order to achieve their goals. However, in so doing they not only dehumanize and disempower real individuals by positing a more "useful" conception [the theoretical "average citizen"], they also thereby create a warped view of the very reality they seek to control.

In making everything and everyone cohere to their theoretical construct, they make everything and everyone into a static unit to be moved around their intellectual chess-board. That is to say, they create a mere commodity. In education this phenomenon mutates learning from a healthful and voluntaristic activity into a measured and weighed object / thing. The acquisition of more of this object gives the individual greater social value than someone who has acquired less of it. Qualitative measurement falls by the wayside, as quantitative value [ie: commodification] becomes paramount.

At the same time, the "professionals" monopolize the production of the commodity, control [restrict] the distribution of the commodity and raise the market price of the commodity in order to keep their "club" exclusive. The self-taught individual will be discriminated against, and in order to be allowed into the club, he/she must gain a "recognized" quantity of learning via the consumption of services through the industrialized / planned / professional institution. That is, he/she must learn to approach learning as the acquisition of a form of capital, and, as Karl Marx or Erich Fromm would note, conspire in his own alienation / dehumanization.


All the above points lead inexorably to a position wherein a basically positive and beneficial process is turned into a negative and harmful process. It is clear that, beyond a certain scale, institutions are forced through their own internal logic, in combination with the external straitjacket of the market economy [whether free-market or state capitalist], to cross a threshold past which their action becomes frequently counterproductive. At this point the person, or consumer as he/she has now become, will feel the full force of their disempowerment.

"The growing impotence of people to decide for themselves affects the structure of their expectations. [...] No longer can each person make his or her own contribution to the constant renewal of society. Recourse to better knowledge produced by science not only voids personal decisions of the power to contribute to an ongoing historical and social process, it also destroys the rules of evidence by which experience is traditionally shared. The knowledge-consumer depends on getting packaged programs funneled into him. He finds security in the expectation that his neighbor and his boss have seen the same programs and read the same columns. The procedure by which personal certainties are exchanged is eroded by the increasing recourse to exceptionally qualified knowledge produced by a science, profession, or political party. Mothers poison their children on the adman's of the M.D.'s advice. Even in the courtroom and in parliament, scientific hearsay – well hidden under the veil of expert testimony – biases juridical and political decisions [eg: look at the way in which so-called DNA "evidence" and the laws of statistical probability are abused in the courtroom]. Judges, governments, and voters abdicate thier own evidence about the necessity of resolving conflicts in a situation of defined and permanent scarcity and opt for further growth on the basis of data which they admittedly cannot fully understand."Celebration of Awareness

Illich in no way embraces a nihilistic opposite to institutions existing at all. Rather, he sees it as necessary to seek human-scaled institutions; to learn where the thresholds of scale lie in order to avoid crossing over to counterproductive leviathan institutions such as both welfare states and corporatized states offer. To the extent that Capital is the driving force behind such growth, Illich's position is by definition "radical" and dangerous to both Left and Right.


As opposed to traditional establishment forms of learning, Illich has promoted a more free-form approach to learning, where it is seen as a positive virtue to be eclectic and knowledgeable across a wide and self-determined field of facts and ideas. This very approach leads to a disinclination to bequeath a monolithic set of "answers" behind. Viable alternatives must needs be flexible. This means that Illich's alternative is less a guidebook saying "and then you go out into the world with this material tool and do this material thing and then you'll find yourself in utopia", than a set of techniques to approach whatever material circumstances you choose with a rational but open, reflective, and creative mind-set, hopefully backed-up by an affinity group that suits your own free development.

"I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a set of criteria which will permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction, as well as the will to invest our technological resources preferentially in such institutions of growth."Deschooling Society

Thus Illich supports the creation of what he calls "convivial" institutions, rather than bureaucratic and manipulative ones. These will be used spontaneously and voluntarily by any and all members of society as required, and will be in service to the community, rather than seeking to make the community cohere to the controlling logic of the institution. Education, work and society should all evolve as a whole in line with human needs, starting with the "decommodification", "deinstitutionalization", and "deprofessionalization" of social relations.

Nonetheless, he does offer some tentative concrete ideas. In education, Illich suggests the development of what he calls "learning webs". These would give access to knowledge, and encourage the sharing of knowledge through forums for public presentation of ideas learnt. That these should not be required to work through a limited, controlling and monolithic nexus of institutions may be taken as read. Access would be through numerous small libraries, showrooms, agencies that are reserved for the purpose, and through freely shared facilities - the corner shop, local factory, farms, airports, perhaps even the chill-out room at the local nightclub [you'll always find them in the kitchen at parties]. Vernacular skills could be passed on at "skill exchanges", where there are appropriate facilities, and where those with specific areas of knowledge may leave a CV and a phone number / email address. Such loci might become communications networks that allow extensive "peer-matching". Learning would partake of the characteristics of distributed cognition.

In no way would Illich advocate such trends as a positive alternative in education, without altering the wider social context too. He saw it as possible that freeing educators from restraint in such a manner might make negative control and conditioning [locally] more, rather than less, effective. A full flowering of the ethical and political concepts in "conviviality" is, therefore, required in order to make changes in one area lead to positive outcomes in that area, let alone in others. De-commodification must also be sought in order to achieve positive change - a message that is too radical for the free-market politician or industrialist. Not only that, but a recognition of scarcity and the limits to growth is required in order for a convivial and human future to exist.

"To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call "convivial"."Celebration of Awareness

Ivan Illich's books include:
  • Deschooling Society, New York, 1971
  • Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, New York, 1971
  • Tools for Conviviality, New York, 1973
  • Energy & Equity, London, 1974
  • Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, London, 1975
  • Disabling Professions, London, 1977
  • The Right To Useful Employment & It's Professional Enemies, London, 1977
  • Towards A History of Needs, New York, 1978
  • ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, London, 1988

- Paul Illich [no relation]

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