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Back to Utopia


by Ivan Illich
Pantheon, 192 pp., $11.95

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 and the model of subsequent, supposedly basic, “needs” established.

In Medical Nemesis (1975)2 Illich turned his attention to doctors, whom he denounced as “a major threat to health.” Although doctors claim to be indispensable, he maintains, their influence is frequently malign; their inept ministrations create new diseases; their diagnoses induce dependence and anxiety in previously healthy patients; their monopoly of therapy makes it impossible for people to treat themselves, and almost impossible for them to choose to be born or to die without their intrusive and expensive presence.

In later works Illich has attacked architects, social workers, undertakers, gynecologists, and all other professionals “who are trained to degrade others into consumers of their services through their scientific diagnoses.” (Curiously, lawyers appear to have escaped his lash.) It is very likely that the roots of this hatred of the professional lie in Illich’s quarrel with the Catholic Church. For in the claim of the early medieval clergy to control the route to salvation by means of their monopoly of the sacrament of penance, he sees the archetypal vendor of a supposedly indispensable service for which others must pay.

Illich thus portrays the modern world as one of ever-increasing bondage. The inhabitants of the West live in “a commodity-intensive society whose needs are increasingly designed and prescribed by professionals and produced under their control.” This growing dependence on professional services and mass-produced goods presents a major threat to the conditions necessary for civilized human life. People are losing the power to act autonomously and live creatively. Their native capacity for healing, consoling, learning, and creating is eroded by the radical monopolies of the professions. This spreading cancer now threatens the third world: “The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.” Like all influential prophets, Illich is a master of hyperbole.

In place of modern commodity dependence, Illich urges a return to a simpler form of life, where there would (he believes) be more scope for human autonomy, self-realization, and “conviviality” (by which he means “autonomous and creative intercourse”). As he pedals his mechanical donkey along the winding trail, the Latin American will have a wider choice of ways to live and a more fulfilling existence than will those who travel by Concorde. For he will remain a participant in what Illich calls “vernacular” society. By this he means the life of traditional peoples, where work is mainly for subsistence, where language is acquired without teaching, and where birth and death are achieved without medical intervention. The life of the West, by contrast, is doomed, for its inhabitants are already coming to see the force of the prophet’s teaching: “I expect that by the end of this century what we now call school will be a historical relic.” Instead, Illich invites his readers to contemplate the prospect of “the children who will soon play in the ruins of high schools, Hiltons, and hospitals.”

Illich’s anatomy of the modern world is frequently acute; and there are more shrewd thrusts in his dissection of the professionals than this necessarily simplified summary might suggest. But his criticisms are frequently marred by shrill exaggeration, while his attempt to reverse the onward march of the division of labor sounds the authentic note of the nostalgic utopian. In particular, he ignores the extent to which modern developments have come about because the victims themselves wanted them. He is right to suggest that people in the poorer countries have often been seduced or coerced into using products from more advanced societies that they could usefully do without. Nevertheless, the growth of dependence on commodities has not just been a story of consumer manipulation; it has also been a response to what men and women have themselves deemed to be “needs.” As Adam Smith observed long ago, the progress of the division of labor depends upon the extent of the market. The process can only be reversed by interference with consumer choice.

There is, therefore, an underlying authoritarianism about Illich’s utopia, for he thinks that people have chosen the wrong course and that they may have to be forced to be free. Speed over 15 m.p.h. will have to be “restrained,” probably by “strict legislation.” Inquiries into a man’s educational record must be prohibited. There is nothing wrong with laws against speeding or against discrimination as such, but the degree of coercion involved in attaining Illich’s goal may be greater than he suggests.

Moreover, his attitude to technological progress appears to be ambivalent. It is perhaps unfair to comment that a man who lives in Mexico but teaches in West Germany would find some inconvenience in being confined to the use of a three-wheeled mechanical donkey. But it is not unfair to ask what Illich envisages as the source of all the books, telephones, microfilms, and even computers with which the inhabitants of his deschooled society are invited to educate themselves.

Most incongruous of all is Illich’s habit of looking to traditional societies for the realization of his ideals of autonomy and authenticity. He is not the first romantic thinker to search for human fulfilment in that direction. But there has always been something deeply anachronistic about such a quest. For the concept of self-realization is essentially modern. It was developed in recent centuries by such highly educated theorists as Rousseau, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill, who reacted against what they saw as the drab uniformity of the world in which they lived, but whose own belief in the profound importance of individuality would have been inconceivable in earlier times, when social roles were strictly prescribed and when the freedom of human action was infinitely more limited.

Yet it is this inappropriate invocation of an older, more traditional world which reappears, in a new form, in Illich’s latest manifesto. Gender is intellectually more ambitious than most of his earlier writings, though no less polemical. Beginning with a diagnosis of the position of women in contemporary society, it proceeds to develop a new scheme for looking at the whole of human history.

It has long been customary for sociologists to categorize social change in terms of a simple polarity, a binary set of categories, whereby history is portrayed as the movement from one state to the other. This movement has been variously defined as the transition from status to contract, from feudalism to capitalism, from traditional to modern, from preindustrial to industrial, from mechanical to organic solidarity, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Illich retains this binary mode of thought, but proposes a new terminology: history is the transition from “Gender” to “Sex.” This transition, however, coincides exactly with the one he has earlier described, that from subsistence (“vernacular”) society to commodity dependence.

For Illich, the modern world is the age of sex, that is to say, it envisages men and women, distinguished only by genital differences, competing for the same goods, services, and jobs. In this competition women always lose. Illich rehearses some striking statistics to show that, for all the rhetoric of unisex, women have, by all measurable criteria, always come second. Although women are now a vastly increased part of the American labor force, the average employed woman’s earnings are still only 60 percent of those of the average man, almost the same ratio as obtained a hundred years ago, when only 5 percent of women were employed.

Moreover, industrialism has brought into being a new category of labor which Illich names “shadow work,” that is the unpaid effort necessary to make possible the consumption of commodities. “Shadow work” can embrace anything from commuting to the office to preparing for an examination, but its archetype is housework; and housework is a wholly new form of female bondage. “Vernacular” household management was something quite different, because it involved production as well as consumption, whereas modern housework does nothing to secure independence from the market.

So whether in the official labor market or in the unrecorded sphere of prostitution and the black market, or in the new sector of shadow work, women are invariably discriminated against. This gives Illich yet another argument against economic growth: not only does it enslave people to commodities; it is fundamentally sexist. Sexism can only be reduced by economic contraction. The fight against it “converges with efforts to reduce environmental destruction and endeavors to challenge the radical monopoly of goods and services over needs.” To bring growth to the third world is to introduce sexual discrimination.

In his book, Illich does not concern himself with the reasons why women have, so far, been unsuccessful in all the spheres where they have competed with men; and he does not attempt to refute, save by counterassertion, the belief of optimists that this economic discrimination will gradually disappear as more men do their share of the housework and a new generation of liberated women pours into the job market. Instead he prefers to look back to the earlier age of gender, when men and women did not compete, but coexisted in a state of symbolic complementarity. In such a world men and women performed different tasks. The allocation of male and female tasks varied from one society to another, but the principle was constant: if men did one form of work, then women did another; when men wielded the scythe, women used the sickle.

Each gender was excluded from the other’s domain by a variety of popular sanctions, notably gossip and ridicule. But essentially, in Illich’s view, the division was a grammatical one: competition and overlapping of activities between the sexes were mentally inconceivable and the risk of trespass was slight. Each gender inhabited a distinct epistemological world, with its own form of speech and its own sense of time and space. There was no mutual envy between men and women; each gender was content with its own domain and never dreamed of encroachment. In some societies, indeed, men and women barely spoke to each other.

Illich briefly traces the stages by which he thinks this world of gender gave way to the modern condition of theoretical unisex and practical discrimination against women. Modern economic man is neuter. There are not two separate gender domains, but a homogeneous hierarchy of power. The world has been standardized, though on an essentially masculine model. Women are the second sex. Illich’s account of the transition to this state of affairs is somewhat sketchy. The change appears to have taken place between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, but it is not always clear to what parts of the world his analysis is meant to apply. No doubt, his present studies in medieval history will deepen his analysis. But the purpose of his book is not to provide a history. Rather, its aim is to elaborate the essential distinction between gender and sex and to relate that distinction to the history of growing scarcity.

Gender is not a very well-arranged book. The argument is set out in a rather unconsecutive way and is punctuated on 125 occasions by long, discursive, bibliographical footnotes, many of them occupying several pages and some of them only very tangentially related to the text. These footnotes reveal the breadth of Illich’s eclectic reading. They also show that, like many other autodidacts (Illich is unlikely to find the term offensive), he is very censorious about the efforts of previous academic writers. He laments the “turgid scenarios of political science” and finds economic historians “blind” to the essential movements in history. Physical science is both “sexist” and “a gusty and faddish intellectual enterprise.” Economists are “crippled by the terminological impotence of their discipline,” while social anthropologists “have missed the point.”

For all the minor irritations of his expository method, Illich establishes his model with some success. He also claims that the whole of past history will now have to be rewritten to take account of the former existence of separate gender domains. Drawing heavily on the insights of the anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener,3 he inveighs convincingly against the usual practice of retelling the past from a single, central (i.e., masculine) perspective, when the object described is a gendered reality. Women have had their own perceptions of the world, sometimes different from those of men. To that extent, the history of women can on occasion be a different subject from the history of men, though one can only be understood as the complement of the other.

This suggestion, though not wholly original, is genuinely persuasive; and so is the associated advice to study the history of past relations between the sexes according to gendered social “domains” rather than applying retrospectively a model of unisex competition. In fact, of course, there have been many distinct domains, or “muted groups,” as the Ardeners and their associates call them, and many are quite unconnected with gender. Not only women, but children, slaves, gypsies, and many other such distinct groups have inhabited their own cognitive worlds and need to have their separate histories written.

Nevertheless, if we consider the transition from gender to sex as the model of historical change, we find very quickly that it is only a model. It is not much easier to find unsullied examples of pure gender societies in the past, ones in which men’s and women’s tasks never overlapped, than it is to discover modern societies from which all trace of gendered domains has disappeared. More often, reality appears as a blurred confusion of both gender and sex. And when Illich goes on to claim that the breaking of gender is the crucial precondition for the rise of capitalism, it is hard not to feel that he is mistaking the effect for the cause. The change in the economic roles of the sexes was surely the consequence of other economic developments, not their explanation.

Suggestive though Illich’s scheme remains as a historical model, it is much more contentious as a program for the future. Illich’s argument is that the pursuit of equality between the sexes has been a snare and a delusion. In modern times, he says, women have been “yanked out of their proper gender context.” By implication, the only solution is to put them back into it, so that they can regain their lost happiness and fulfilment.

This is an argument that has some superficial attraction. Past societies in which the gendered domains did not overlap were often ones in which women exerted much power, particularly over such vital matters as fertility, healing, and the preparation of food. Clearly defined, unambiguous rules of social behavior must have given security and reassurance. Few historians would agree with Illich’s assumption that women were never discontented in gendered societies, but his thesis is a useful corrective to those feminists who think that woman’s lot has always been one of exploitation and subordination.

Nevertheless, its underlying assumptions are deeply reactionary. For the proposition that women were happier when they did not have to compete with men is one that could be adapted to fit slaves, the working class, the peasantry, or any other subordinate class or group to whom the prospect of emancipation has never been held out, and who are happy because they know no better. For all Illich’s talk of self-realization, it is not hard to detect in his writings the social conservatism of a very traditional Catholic theologian.

In his earlier works, Illich showed a contempt for material goods, a belief that birth and death should not be eased by modern technology, and a conviction that pain is valuable for the development of personality. In Gender he argues that women should not compete with men; and it is a likely bet that he does not think that women should be priests. He sentimentalizes vernacular society with all its arbitrary restrictions in a way that Aquinas might well have found sympathetic. And he laments “the pain of impoverishment due to the abolition of gender.”

But why, we should ask, must women (or, for that matter, men) be assigned in advance to a single, gender-determined domain? Why should they not be permitted to engage in whatever activities they find interesting and satisfying? Ivan Illich purports to be the prophet of conviviality and autonomy. But he appears indifferent to one essential condition for all human fulfilment—the right to choose.


Self-Realization September 29, 1983

  1. 1

    His chief works are Celebration of Awareness (Doubleday, 1971); Deschooling Society (Harper and Row, 1971); Tools for Conviviality (Harper and Row, 1973); Energy and Equity (Harper and Row, 1974); Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (Pantheon, 1976); Shadow Work (Marion Boyars, 1981).

  2. 2

    David F. Horrabin, Medical Hubris: A Reply to Ivan Illich (Montreal: Eden Press, 1977), offers a lucid assessment of this book, sympathetic to Illich’s insights into the deficiencies of the medical profession, yet strongly critical of his exaggerations.

  3. 3

    Perceiving Women, edited by Shirley Ardener (Halsted Press, 1975).

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