Today’s Solutions: October 27, 2021

Thirty years ago, Ivan Illich raised questions on the promise of progress. The blind faith in modern development and technology was a threat to human’s freedom, he argued. That critical analysis was one of the pillars for the Ode founders. In 2001, a year before Illich died at the age of 76, Jurriaan Kamp and H?l

Jurriaan Kamp and Helene de Puy| June 2007 issue
The books that brought him international fame were written more than a quarter-century ago. One of those books, Medical Nemesis, has stood prominently on our bookshelf for years – the kind of book you never forget. Yet Illich’s name is known to few these days. Indeed, he may be the most important forgotten thinker of our time. He challenges the idea that the primacy of the modern economy is the all-important matter in life. On occasion, the how of economic globalization comes up for discussion in political debates today, but the process itself – and the underlying supremacy of technology and the free market – seems impossible to challenge. Yet there is another side to this story. His story.
Our quest to uncover the other side of the story took us to the German city of Bremen. “I never take a taxi myself,” Illich had said, adding that he thought the trip from the rail station would cost around 8 marks. A very accurate estimate. It was pouring when we turned onto a street with quaint front gardens and late 19th-century facades. In the row of houses, one stood out: his house – a more recent construction due to a stray allied bomb.
A young man around the age of 20 opened the door. Later we learned this was Bjšrn, a philosophy student who had moved into the house along with a fellow student, Bine, because the couple had nowhere to live and was shortly expecting a baby. In the kitchen we met Rita, the visiting 12-year-old niece of one of the students. And then there was Brenda, a student from Kenya who wore earrings shaped like the African continent. Brenda was learning German but responded to our questioning gaze with “He is coming” in pure Oxford English. He was the 75-year-old Ivan Illich. He grew up in Vienna, Austria, with a Jewish mother and a father from the Dalmatian region of what is now Croatia. The young Ivan failed intelligence tests and was written off in school as a “slow learner.” As a result, he didn’t get much education in his youth. Yet he didn’t lack intellectual challenges. Rudolf Steiner and Sigmund Freud were friends of his parents and when he wasn’t in school, Ivan passed the time in his grandfather’s library of French books.
When Ivan was 12, Hitler invaded Austria, prompting his decision never to bring children into this world. At the age of 16, before fleeing Vienna, he bribed the secretary of Nazi leader Hermann Gšring – who had claimed Illich’s family home – to free his grandfather. Ultimately, Illich did do well in school, studying philosophy and theology at the elite Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican, later earning a Ph.D. at the University of Salzburg. He travelled to India and soaked up Eastern philosophy during long discussions with the Indian Hindu and Catholic priest Ramon Panikkar in Varanasi (Benares), along the Ganges river. He was later ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in New York City. He became a professor at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico and moved to Mexico, where he founded an educational centre that challenged the Church’s embrace of modern development. He resigned from priesthood in the late 1960s because he no longer felt at home with the dogmas of the Catholic Church – “I have enough Jewish blood to be able to get angry with God” – and began his life as a philosopher and author.
Illich greeted us at his home in Bremen with a bottle of wine for the occasion. An amiable figure with brilliant eyes and arms extended, he seemed unaffected by the cancer that had increasingly dominated his life for 20 years. More on that later. We soon were enjoying a multicultural meal by candlelight, and discussing babies – it was a warm meeting with strangers. Later, after dinner, we sat cross-legged around the desk in his study. The bookshelves around us were filled with scholarly volumes.
This was not to be considered an interview (“That’s an unpleasant, impolite way of prying into someone’s personality,” he had explained), but a discussion. A wide-ranging discussion about development. About people, about co-existing and about organizing. About the quality of life – the kind of discussion that is essential but that so often gets pushed aside by pressures of everyday living. The master set the tone. Ivan Illich chose his words carefully, allowing silent spaces for reflection and consideration.
After one such silence he suddenly jumped up and said, “La condition humaine is the art of suffering, enjoying oneself and dying.” This familiar unavoidable truth is central in any discussion of his resistance to the worship of technological and institutional development. “La condition technologique et institutionelle, however, continually suggests that we can change or do away with the core of human nature.” After all, development is sacred in our modern way of thinking.
Our discussion took place just as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – which has been measuring global wealth since 1970 – proudly announced that for the first time there were more developed than developing countries. The message was clear: We are moving forward, things are improving; the greater the level of development the less the suffering. In his life, Ivan Illich was devoted to proving the opposite. Development is ultimately counterproductive, he believed. And the number of arguments he offered to show this since the 1960s was staggering. But while the forces of development and a certain vision of progress race forward every day, Illich showed no bitterness the day we spoke. “I’m not stupid enough to think I can really change anything, but I can poke fun at the system.”
He admitted, though, that he does feel “heartache” for people who should know better, yet choose to stick to the beaten path. He recounted a discussion he once had with the former head of the World Bank, Robert McNamara. “I explained how technology is not always the solution to poverty and injustice. That equality and freedom continue to be an illusion in a world with cars.” McNamara replied: “If there weren’t any airplanes, I couldn’t have gone to Bangladesh last week to discuss emergency aid for a flood disaster. I asked him whether his talks were a success. ‘No,’ he said, ‘procedural problems stood in the way.’ Shortly thereafter he broke off the discussion and left to fly his private jet to his vacation home.”
Sixty years ago, “development” was a term that referred to species, property and a movement in music. Then in 1949, according to Illich, U.S. President Harry Truman came along with his “four-point program.” Suddenly, development was placed alongside freedom and equality as a humanitarian ideal. Now, the term “development” is also applied to people, countries and economies. The world has been divided into developed and developing countries, and new concepts have arisen, such as “growth,” “knowledge transfer,” “catching up,” “modernization” and “basic needs.”
In the space of 20 years, 2 billion people in the world have been classified as “underdeveloped,” according to Illich. “I still remember that “development” was the theme of the winning samba at the 1963 Mardi Gras in Rio. “Development!” was the slogan the dancers cried as they moved to the rhythm of the drums.” The objective of every society on Earth became building more schools, more hospitals, more highways, more factories. And millions of people were being trained to service those institutions.
Illich’s eyes danced as he told us how he set up a foundation years ago to stimulate people living in Latin American slums to manage their own excrement. Industrial development had enticed many people to move from rural areas to the cities, but authorities often evacuated the slums for hygienic reasons. The lack of water in these areas was seen as a health threat because sewer lines could not be dug, thus increasing the threat of infection. “But in fact, water brings infection,” Illich pointed out. “Plus, it is exorbitantly expensive to use water to remove human waste. Why not let people build their own huts and take care of their own wast – just as they did in the countryside – instead of imposing strange “norms” on them?”
Every step toward development has undesirable side effects, according to Illich. Plastic buckets from a factory in S‹o Paulo are cheaper and lighter than the buckets tin welders make from waste materials in western Brazil. But the plastic buckets put the tin welders out of business and lead to further industrial pollution in S‹o Paulo. Development is a two-pronged poison that threatens the society. In addition, the toxic dumps for industrial waste cost so much that the advantage of the cheaper bucket is cancelled out. “In economic jargon,” Illich explained, “the external costs are not only higher than the profits from the production of plastic buckets, but also outstrip the salaries paid to factory workers.”
In addition to the external costs, which are not paid by the consumer but must be settled somehow by others or by future generations, there is the matter of counterproductivity: new goods or services that fall short of fulfilling the promises made for them. Examples abound: a technology-driven health-care system that is rapidly becoming unaffordable and, even worse, undermines the body’s own inner-healing system, which is the essence of health. Or high-speed modern transportation systems, which lead to paralyzing traffic jams. More and more people are becoming slaves to traffic, which has decreased both mobility and accessibility.
The effect of industrialization on society is becoming clear, Illich noted. “A few types of economic growth are threatening the environment; all economic growth is threatening our common heritage, which also includes social structures.” The tragedy of development is painfully illustrated by the fact that the new global underclass is comprised of people who are forced to consume counterproductive goods and services. The privileged can refuse: They can travel outside rush hour, live in neighbourhoods away from polluted air, go directly to medical specialists without consulting with their primary physicians when they’re ill. In other words: Development is at odds with the pursuit of equality. Robert McNamara’s private jet is a striking example.
In his books and in our discussion, Illich aimed his arguments like arrows. Yet he was not a dogmatist, but a philosopher. His objective was not to prove himself right, but to observe the truth. His criticism of development was directed both at the modern Western society and the emerging social structures in developing countries. It was about a way of thinking.
Illich gained notoriety with his 1976 book Medical Nemesis, in which he argues that the medical establishment poses a threat to our health. The interesting thing is that his original intention was to analyze the American postal service. He wanted to demonstrate the counterproductivity of mass systems. He chose the postal system to show that the bigger and more complex an organization – in that case, one designed to deliver mail – the less happy the outcomes, which would mean in this instance that fewer letters would arrive on time. A friend convinced him it would be difficult to collect the necessary reference material, so Illich decided to focus on health care. He wrote Medical Nemesis after six months of research – a tremendous achievement given the footnotes alone, which take up nearly half the book.
Illich didn’t dismiss the achievements of modern medicine. “I won’t tell you that surgery is bad. In China, cataract operations were performed as far back as 2,500 years ago and during that time, kidney stones were removed in Lahore [Pakistan]. An army doctor once gave me penicillin, which helped heal my leg wound within days. I’m not interested in what technological, institutional development does to people. What interests me is what that development says to people. That development has transformed people’s way of thinking. When I wrote Medical Nemesis, twice as many appendix operations were carried out in Germany compared to Great Britain. There is no objective explanation for it. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
To Illich’s thinking, freedom, autonomy and equality are paramount. If cars are meant to expand the freedom of individuals, and those individuals end up sitting in traffic, then the original objective has failed. And if those cars can only be manufactured using large-scale systems that create large concentrations of economic power – thus inequality – it is an unwelcome development. In the convivial, equitable society envisioned by Ivan Illich (see also page XX), the guitar is more valuable than the CD player, the library more valuable than the classroom, the vegetable garden more valuable than the supermarket and creative work more valuable than working for a wage. Achievements for the common good, not the production of consumer goods, are most important.
This may sound like a romantic retreat from society, but in reality, it is a bold and not-yet-tried experiment in the pursuit of autonomy as the essence of life. Illich in his books argued that freedom should only be curtailed when someone else’s freedom was under threat. Technology must never stand in the way of individual freedom. Even though technological and economic development has been widely praised as the path to advancement, in practise, progress has usually been stifled by the counterproductivity created by these things.
Most people are pawns in their own lives and allow themselves to be constantly led astray by the paradoxical belief that more money means more freedom. Illich saw simplicity as the true path to freedom. To him, letting go meant liberation. This message was similar to Gandhi’s. The ideal of freedom has been cloaked in the battle cry of many political movements over the past 250 years. A lot of different things have been tried and many efforts have failed, but not one country – or political movement – has had the courage to pursue the ideals of Gandhi and Illich. It could well be the one great untested-but-promising future for humans and the planet.
“What we need is hope,” Illich told us. “Our sense of hope has been defeated by rising expectations. Hope means trust in the goodness of nature. It is the desire to receive a gift from someone. Expectation is about claiming rights, results that are made and controlled by people. People have demands because they are no longer able to imagine something in their life that an institution cannot create for them. We need to rediscover hope as a socially connecting and creative force.”
“It surprises me how difficult it is to let go,” he added after a silence. A few years ago, he presented an alternative transportation plan at a conference of an international alliance of bicyclists. According to the plan, the only cars on the roads would be taxis. Illich had calculated that for every job lost in the automobile industry, three to four times as many jobs would be created for taxi drivers. Every citizen would be given a credit card. We would simply be able to jump into a taxi anywhere and would get the bill at the end of the month. Wouldn’t that be a better transportation system? Yet the plan was never discussed critically. It was labelled absurd, even the magazine of the biking organization he was addressing. “Even though it would be in their interest” Illich said.
He picked up the issue of Ode we had brought, which included our proposals for what ultimately became the Treaty of Noordwijk aan Zee, an appeal for new economic laws and trade agreements toward a more humane world economy. “With respect,” he said, “this is the crucial point in our conversation: Letting go means more than changing a couple of rules of the game. You and I can make a couple of agreements. It is possible to carve out a little life in Absurdsville. But it’s not a strategy that serves freedom and equality for all. Moreover, the optimism of such an approach” – he pointed to the magazine – “conflicts with the condition humaine. Letting go also means suffering. Most people don’t want to face that. After I had written Tools for Conviviality [in which he describes the fundamentals of a free, equal society], I fell into a deep depression. It’s no longer common for people to use their senses to discern the truth.”
The next morning’s discussion began with the sight of sun streaming onto the balcony, the taste of tea and fresh bread. And the smell of opium. “It helps me to laugh at the pain,” he explained “The opium puts distance between me and the pain.” Which appeared to be intense. Illich repeatedly sank deep into himself, then his mind suddenly resurfaced and the discussion continued.
In 1982, he gave a lecture drawn from his book Medical Nemesis at the annual conference of American oncologists. His message was, as always: Surgery and medication – technology – ultimately present a threat to human autonomy. The doctors noticed a lump on his cheek and he allowed himself to be examined by his hosts “out of respect for them,” he later said. You have cancer, the doctors told him. The lump on his cheek appeared to be aggressively malignant. “If you don’t do anything,” they said, “we’ll give you five years at most.”
When we met with him, nearly 20 years later, Illich carefully corrected the doctors. “I have a cancer diagnosis. I’ve had such diagnoses before. In April 1938, two weeks after Hitler invaded Austria, I was led by the school principal through all the classrooms to show my Jewish nose to the students. That’s why I’m sensitive to diagnoses. In both cases, I escaped the treatment that was considered appropriate: discrimination or an operation.”
Illich did listen to the Pakistani doctor who told him to do nothing and use opium if the pain became too severe. “It was a cheap medication. The price of the opium I used last night is the equivalent of two six packs of beer.”
The escape from the surgical knife came at a price: The growth discovered in 1982 grew into a fist-sized tumour on his right cheek. It made Ivan Ilich a kind of Elephant Man at whom people would stare on the street. Yet he didn’t avoid going out in public. He walked at a powerful pace with his head held high. “I listened to the Pakistani because he told me what I wanted to hear. ‘This is what God gave you as your path,’ he said. And that’s the way it is. This is the path I have chosen.”
The tumour and the pain, ironically, strengthened his message. Illich was living his vision. But the consequences of that were difficult for those around him. It felt nearly impossible not to raise the obvious objection: Why didn’t you have an operation when you said you weren’t necessarily against operations?
Illich replied, “Nowadays, everyone is more or less infected with the idea that you are the manager of your own life. But more possibilities mean less freedom. You aren’t free if you’re concerned with what you could have done. I don’t want to be ruled by the concept of risk. There are organizations that continually report the risks a woman runs of getting breast cancer. Those are statistics. For you and me, the chance is fifty-fifty. This is it for me. I want to experience life as it is here and now.”
Rita, the niece of one of the students living with Illich, came in to say good-bye. Illich hugged her and thanked her for coming. “She is in my heart,” he said, as the door closes behind her. That’s life here and now.
But what about the pain? “Experiencing pain,” Illich wrote in Medical Nemesis, “has to do with the actual life experience of suffering. If you make pain a technical problem, you rob the suffering of its own personal meaning.” Twenty-five years later in Bremen, he had become his own message with the help of opium. “Ten minutes ago, the pain was insufferable. If you had asked me, I would have said I was choosing death over life. Now it has diminished. Or my strength has increased because I’m enjoying your company. I’m here once again.”
Sun rays filtered through the plants on the balcony, falling over his face. “I have my biases. And I enjoy those as well. This is what I’ve become.”

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