Ivan Illich: A Contemporary Introduction

This article was first published in an edited form by internationalsocialist.org.uk on 15/10/2013. Please click on the link or see Publications & Contributions for the original text and other articles I have published elsewhere.

Not often do we find the character of a Roman Catholic Priest, radical social reformer, ascetic, philosopher, and all round rabble-rouser embodied in one person. Fortunately for those inclined towards such pursuits Austria provided us with the inimitable Ivan Illich in the year of 1926. Boasting an expansive bibliography concerning many topics of contemporary importance it is perhaps time we cast our eye over this enigmatic figure.

For those new to the works of Illich his writing variously covered the fields of education, medicine, sociology, technology, and ecology – yet rather noticeably not theology. He worked and taught in no fewer than twelve different countries in Europe and the Americas and at all times his focus was firmly on those at the sharp end of inequality. Like many polymaths before and after him there is a danger that his output loses significance because of its sheer scope, as such I will try to focus here on his two most important contributions, the way we work and the way we learn.

Illich wrote extensively on the function and role of the human being at work and interestingly also on their journey to work (he potentially leads the grumpy philosopher league table in terms of hatred of cars). His texts Shadow Work, Tools for Conviviality, and The Right to Useful Unemployment set out his benchmark philosophy of conviviality.

A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favour of another member’s equal freedom. [1]

Illich believed we should seek out tools, not machines. A tool by his definition is capable of a variety of functions and purposes whilst still being an extension of its user. All of the social structures and hegemonies we create are tools, they are however all too often malignant in nature – family, gender, environment – all tools to a perceived end, all tools which need not be as they are. In finding new tools for conviviality we can become a society of individuals within a purposeful efficient structure.

Illich’s most widely read text, which has received heightened exposure in recent years, is Deschooling Society. As a manifesto for educational change few philosophers have been so scathing in their pursuit of a new approach. It called for the unmasking of ritualised beliefs, the disintegration of formalised learning, and the prescient introduction of new technologies to hand power over to the agents of change – namely, us.

As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer- the economy’s major resource – we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one.[2]

Many have referred to Illich as an archivist of ideas rather than a philosopher or theorist and I think this is only to his credit. He is trying to show us what lies beneath the widely held beliefs that construct our supposedly benign institutions – schools, hospitals, churches – and at the same time pose the question ‘how can we seek change when we do not understand the nature of the machinery which nourishes us?’

Deschooling Society neatly encompasses the two bêtes noires of Illich’s work, modernisation and the illegitimate institution. For Illich language is very important and by speaking the language of the poor and allowing them to speak for themselves he hoped to find new modes of learning unfettered by structural imposition.

People can defend language as inherently theirs; they can find in their inalienable natures the confidence to use their unchanged formal structures to express contents entirely opposed to those for which they were taught to use them in their childhood.[3]

Words therefore become the soul of the people, the dormant means by which we can express discontent and truly reflect our own struggles. This kind of unshackled expression will simply not allow for the cosh of institutional arrangements. He was by no means alone in this pursuit, most notably echoing the work of the great Marxist educationalist Paolo Freire in Brazil, but Illich did lay down a manifesto for self education and voluntary arrangements that we can still see today in the emerging trends for lifelong learning and open universities.

Illich understood that systems – be they hierarchical, communitarian, despotic, or religious – are complex, and rarely can the fundamentals of a sound idea percolate from generation to generation without disharmony. It is with this in mind that he sought to question the assumptions of emerging ideas from the perspective of those who might fall under their auspices, namely the poor and disenfranchised. This mindset brought him to both Puerto Rico and Mexico where he taught new missionaries that every struggle is at its first point of fruition a local one. It must appeal to the common desires and shared language of the people swaddled in its injustices before it can hope to incubate change further afield. This was in stark contrast to the imposed doctrine of the Church he officially represented (though personally denounced) and flew in the face of the cultural western powers which sought to capitalise on the vast resources in the region by way of a religiously guided charm offensive.

So what can people in the UK draw from this revolutionary voice? If Scotland is to become a newly independent state it will be incumbent upon all living within its boundaries to question the long held tenets of centuries of UK social and economic policy. The answers to these questions are by no means simple but if we can learn anything from Illich it is this:

In a society caught up in the race for the better, limits on change are experienced as a threat. The commitment to the better at any cost makes the good impossible at all costs.[4]

Which begs the question, what do they mean when they say we are ‘better together’? For those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the possibility of a break from this kind of rhetoric is not as clear. What is clear however is that radical groups and seekers of socialism have a lot of work to do in every country, city, and community across these islands entirely independently of their supposedly mandated governments in order to realise these essential ideas.

The growth of green industries and worldwide communications has brought about entirely new kinds of industry and social formations, new tools (potentially) for conviviality. In an independent Scotland where possibility is plentiful it is up to us therefore to decide how we can contribute to that society, to one another, and to enrich ourselves.  In doing so we can set an example for our friends throughout Europe and beyond by abandoning an aggressive neo-liberal agenda, thereby creating the most powerful tools for conviviality possible – peace and solidarity.

Illich by no means has all of the answers, yet he does present an interesting case for rethinking how we live, work, and learn – and it is with this in mind that he can be an inspiration still to all who seek a radical alternative in increasingly unimaginative times.


[1] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.12, Marion Boyars, London

[2] Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. p.37, Marion Boyars, London

[3] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.97, Marion Boyars, London

[4] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.75, Marion Boyars, London

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