Back to Utopia


by Ivan Illich
Pantheon, 192 pp., $11.95

Ivan Illich
Ivan Illich; drawing by David Levine

Ivan Illich is the leading contemporary exponent of the romantic anarchist tradition. Like Rousseau, Godwin, or Tolstoy, he inveighs against the coarseness of modern materialism, deplores economic growth, and preaches a return to simplicity and authenticity. As a Catholic priest in the 1950s, he strongly opposed the papacy’s plan to export American-trained missionaries to Latin America. As vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico from 1956 to 1960, he resisted the extension of compulsory schooling to the third world. At Cuernavaca in Mexico in 1962 he founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation, an institution designed to achieve the “de-Yankification” of Latin America. During the last twelve years or so he has issued a relentless series of little books designed to expose what he sees as the most insidious features of contemporary society.1 Currently, he is teaching medieval history in Germany, an activity more closely related to his political objectives than might at first be apparent.

The central theme of Illich’s writings has been that the true history of economic growth is the history of evergrowing scarcity. Beyond a certain point, he argues, technological progress is counterproductive. It leads to environmental degradation and it defeats its own ends: the faster the means of travel, the greater the congestion and the longer the delays. Moreover, growth seriously disadvantages those who are excluded from it. The more automobiles and motorways there are in Los Angeles, the more impossible becomes the life of the pedestrian. Illich even puts it forward as a law that diminishing returns are bound to set in when people try to travel at more than 15 m.p.h. He urges that third world countries should not waste their money on motorways; instead they should develop a three-wheeled mechanical donkey designed to move along narrow paths at cycling speed.

In the creation of modern scarcity it is the professions that, for Illich, play the central role. In his eyes they are self-seeking elites who artificially generate a demand for “services” which they alone are permitted to dispense. The professions create what he calls “radical monopolies” which beget new kinds of dependence and new forms of scarcity. Not only do they often fail to deliver the services they promise; they also disable people from providing them for themselves. Deschooling Society (1971), Illich’s best-known work, is an attack on the teaching profession. It argues that formal schooling is essentially a device to reproduce the established order by conditioning pupils to accept the world of commodity dependence and consumer credit. Schools put at a disadvantage those who do not progress very far up the educational ladder; and they make it impossible, sometimes illegal, for people to teach one another without the mediation of service professionals. When children were first required to be formally taught their mother tongue, instead of just picking it up as they went along, one of the earliest “commodities” was created…

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