Ivan Illich on the Convivial & Industrial Society

Introduction

Since the introduction of industrialism in the early 20th century, life has taken on an unprecedented shape. In the wake of the changes, cultural critics have attempted to articulate the pros and cons of the changes. The 20th century historian of technology Jacques Ellul provides a historical account of technological development as a way of tracing the differences between current and previous technologies. His approach focuses on development in energy sources, by which he means “a rearrangement of the world” wherein “the change is not in the use of a natural force but in the application of technique to all spheres of life.”[1] Ivan Illich, also of the 20th century, picked up on Ellul’s work and offered a response in his own book Tools for Conviviality. Illich echoes Ellul’s concern about the “application of technique” and tied it into the implications of industrialism for our social fabric and habits. Instead of deferring to the technical trends and developments, Illich proposes a return to a convivial society wherein “individual freedom [is] realized in personal interdependence and, as such, [is] an intrinsic ethical value.”[2] Practically speaking, Illich believes that man possesses a “native capacity for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building their houses, and burying their dead.”[3] Instead of industrialism that outsources these needs and abilities to the machine or expert, Illich calls for a return to man’s natural capacities to meet these needs realized in the duty of neighborliness. The problem with machines is that they have become the primary source of provision in our society, and the provider which man merely operates.

In this paper I will explore, drawing on Illich’s notion of conviviality, some of contemporary society’s assumptions about industrialism, particularly how industrialism’s anthropology outsources human responsibilities and threatens flourishing communities. I argue that we can advance Illich’s optimism that “mankind still can avoid passing through the industrial age, by choosing right now a postindustrial balance in [our] mode of production.”[4] What Illich means by this is a path of discrimination rightly understood. Discrimination that holds to theologically sound anthropology as something to protect from contemporary trends—be that Marxism that infringes on work independent from the state, sweatshops that abuse work, or socialism that discourages work altogether and enables alienation from neighbor. This paper will compare and contrast three questions that convivial and industrial society must answer: what is man made for; what is man capable of; and, given the answers to these questions, how should men relate to each other? In the end, I hope that we will familiarize ourselves with the similarities and differences between industrialism and conviviality, recognize the stakes of industrialist anthropology, and increase our interest in conviviality.

Introduction to Tools for Conviviality

Ivan Illich was a native of Vienna who lived from 1926–2002. He became ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, primarily serving in South America where he founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion. During his lifetime, he witnessed the spike in technological development and offered critiques about four major spheres: education, transportation, medicine, and science. Illich proposes a new framework for thinking about tools that challenges the modern ways of thinking, thinking that alienates science from anthropology and anthropology from ethics. He formalized his responses in the book Tools for Conviviality, published in 1973. Note that Illich is not a Luddite. On the contrary, he believes that “tools are intrinsic to social relationships.”[5] But tools are a more general category under which industrialism falls, and it is the use of tools as expressed in industrialism that concerns Illich. His measured, nuanced analysis makes him of particular interest and important to conversations about ethics of technology.

In Tools for Conviviality Illich proposes a “criteria by which the manipulation of people for the sake of their tools can be immediately recognized.”[6] He presents a criterion that favors homeostasis and rejects the idea that all tools and their effects are beneficial. As Illich sees it, “it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits” of tools lest we become their slaves in the clamor for success, power, or possession.[7] Given Illich’s skepticism of industrialism’s effect, he proposes conviviality. He uses conviviality “as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools”[8] that affords “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.”[9] The convivial society is one that takes man’s relationship with himself, his neighbor, and nature as prime importance. But it is not enough to keep this prime importance on the intellectual level. There is a practical component that demands action. After all, man could assent to the idea but fail to live by it and accept industrial tools that thwart this end. Thus, Illich promotes the independence of man from the machine or system in favor of man’s immediacy to direct power over the machine and man’s interdependence with his fellow man.

Illich defines industrial tools as those that “deny this possibility” of responsible limits, “to those who use them and allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others.”[10] There is a problem when man is unable, if not also limited, from directly meeting his own basic needs—be that fixing a truck so as to garden, understanding his body and need for a sick day, or facing barriers to entry in the job market due to occupational licensing. The answer to the question “who decides the meaning and oversight of this tool?” tests whether the tool is convivial or not, and most tools of industrialism are overseen by a small number of individuals. Another way to understand Illich’s definition of industrialism is by analyzing its mediating effect. Simply consider the degrees of separation between man and his work, man and the subject of his care, and man and nature. In a convivial society, “the degree [to which man] masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.”[11] In other words, the mastery over, or submission to, a tool bares significance in man’s engagement with the world. Furthermore, this dynamic bares direct effects on a man’s sense of self, which in turn influences his sense of purpose. If the pregnancy of a man’s neighbor is exclusively overseen by an expert and the man is excluded from engaging with his neighbor’s laboring and birthing per medical protocol, then there’s a stripping of responsibility that deteriorates society.

History of Technology According to Illich

Illich traces the timeline of technological development relative to energy, starting with mankind’s brute strength and progressing towards hydropower, steam, coal, crude oil, and most recently electricity. While most of these energies provided the same effect, the scope of their potential is no less limited. Steam and coal moved boats and cars move and mills grind, but not much more. Now with the emergence of electric power there is a new precedent, namely tools of operation and automation.

Illich identifies two major developments, what he calls watersheds, that help us understand the new precedent of industrialism. The first watershed occurred around 1913 and was good. It marked the breakthrough of the “desirable effects of new scientific discoveries [as] easily measured and verified.”[12] But then came the second watershed, around 1955, when “the marginal utility of further professionalization declined, at least in so far as it can be expressed in terms of the physical wellbeing of the largest number of people.”[13] There were breakthroughs, like medical advancements that decreased mortality rates, but these improvements came at costs. Unfortunately, the costs have largely been of a qualitative nature, affecting how we relate to each other and the means to our livelihood, how we work. Instead of depending on social ties to aid in our birth and death, these basic needs have been outsourced to the strangers of a hospital and suffered the new standards of cesarean sections and cremation, all in the name of efficiency.

A society suffering from the effects of the second watershed as a watershed is not in and of itself a bad thing. Rather, the reaches of our desire for progression overshadowed our vision of genuine human flourishing. Illich described this obsession as a “growth mania,” an obsession with growth for growth’s sake and more for the sake of more, regardless of the thing being grown or the means of achieving the end.[14] And this growth mania is a natural consequence of a radical monopoly.[15] By this he means “the dominance of one brand . . . that exercises an exclusive control . . . and excludes nonindustrial activities from competition.”[16] The danger of such growth is that it becomes “addictive” precisely because “addicts of any kind are willing to pay increasing amounts for declining satisfaction,” which is exactly what we see in society today.[17] These monopolies exercise “dominance of one type of product rather than the dominance of one brand” and so “exercise an exclusive control over the satisfaction of a pressing need, and excludes nonindustrial activities from competition.”[18] This is not to be confused or reduced to the economic landscape of consumerism. Instead, Illich is describing a more ubiquitous social effect wherein “the threshold at which these projects absorb, conceptually and physically, the client into the tool . . . the threshold where technology is decisively transformed into Moloch, the system.”[19] Ellul adds that “the change is not in the use of a natural force but in the application of technique to all spheres of life.”[20] In other words, instead of living with nature, man is devising an artificial world wherein the natural order submits to artifice and algorithms—instead of healthy eating and exercising, man survives on medicine; instead of dinner conversations and dancing, man “socializes” on virtual platforms; instead of preparing food and dining with one’s neighbor, man orders food at the click of a button and eats alone. The alibi might be convenience, but Illich would find this to be a sorry response given the social stakes.

While infinite growth is conceptually possible, it is practically crippling. By eating, a man grows, but if he increases his consumption beyond a certain point, he gorges himself, and this is lethal. The fallacy with the theory of exponential growth assumes limitlessness. This is problematic because it is a lie—limitlessness denies man’s finite nature. Instead of this, Illich advocates for a lifestyle that is proportional to man and nature’s personal capacity and needs.[21] This demands cooperation with nature and reviving our imagination of the good life—a life that engages and nurtures our physical sensibilities. Such a life is one that recognizes and submits to embodiment as a primary mode of living in the world.

What Is Man Made for?

This leads to the first question: what is man made for? Conviviality’s anthropology complements the theology of neighborliness. A convivial society creates and adopts tools based on their aid in furthering the interdependence of and responsibility for human relationships. While Illich is not averse to expertise, he is cautious given the possibility of undermining and outsourcing social responsibilities not only to machines, but also to “experts.” As such, Illich tasks man to “rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity” so as to “relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves.”[22] This calls for enabling individuals to care for each other as it relates to their education, health, and economic endeavors. When tools tip over from being an aid to being the conductor that man works for, man compromises on this fundamental social responsibility by submitting to the industrial philosophy of dependence on the machine instead of man.

The industrial age challenges the traditional philosophy of the human telos, that man is made for communion with God, by marginalizing the importance of relationship, particularly embodied relationships. Illich draws from Herbert Marcuse, who described industrialism’s twisted telos as a “pacified existence . . . the repressed final cause behind the scientific enterprise.”[23] Marcuse warns that “if this final cause were to materialize and become effective, the Logos of technics would open a universe of qualitatively different relations between man and man, and man and nature.”[24] The difference would be a sterile existence wherein man’s body and its sensitivity to the world, especially one’s neighbor, is inconsequential to the good life. In this world, man is made for whatever will further technological innovation, at whatever costs. Man becomes a means and the end is the next innovation.

What Is Man Capable of?

The second question is what is man capable of? A convivial society is delineated by natural boundaries. While Illich promotes man’s “empowerment” in his capacity to control tools, the natural order tempers man’s power. In other words, power in the convivial society is only a means to an end, an end that Illich identifies as virtuous relationships. This calls for submission to finitude. This does not mean that humans should not use tools that aid in work beyond man’s natural capacity—be that transporting tons of raw materials, injecting anesthesia for a surgery, employing specialized surgical tools, etc. But, it does mean rejecting the temptation to transcend our bodies or become the machine or anything that rejects or undermines a theologically grounded anthropology. Outsourcing or mediating our senses is inhumane and antithetical to relationships. This way of life is therefore contrary to the convivial society Illich is promoting.

In contrast, an industrial society is discontent with natural limits; it demands exponential growth. This is the “growth mania” that Illich warns about and defined as a radical monopoly. We are asked to sacrifice ourselves to the machine, to incorporate ourselves so as to become part of the machine’s apparatus to the detriment of our own bodies. Without respect for natural limits, man is vulnerable to the ravenous appetite of growth for growth’s sake. In medicine, this is evidenced in cases like birth control and contraception. Synthetic solutions have become the norm, especially as it relates to women’s fertility. Not only do healthcare providers receive monetary benefits from endorsing birth control or contraception, these recommendations are also accepted as necessary to a normal and healthy lifestyle, as opposed to unnatural or intrusive. The fact that synthetic manipulation is normal should give us pause. Illich’s concern is about more than the financial deviance of Big Pharma. The problem is more insidious than that. Monetary incentives aside, Illich describes the heart of the problem as the concentration “on breeding a human stock that was fit only for domesticated life within an increasingly more costly, man-made, scientifically controlled environment.”[25] This microcosm of industrialism effectively leaves the human “breed [raised] at almost any cost [as] a generation even more [dependent] on medicine.”[26] In other words, our sense of and respect for natural order is now dictated by the expanding scope of technological innovation and experimentation.

How Should Men Relate to Each Other?

Finally, there is the question about how men should relate to each other given his telos. Conviviality favors tools and systems that encourage man’s need for relationships. Thus, conviviality is wary of the scope and degree of mediation that tools and systems build out. The concern is that man “finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension.” As a result, “one is prevented from touching and embracing reality.”[27] Illich opts instead for returning man’s engagement with the world and his neighbor by returning the responsibility to birth, live, and die together. Illich believes this is possible because “what people most need to learn, they cannot be taught or educated to do. . . . they must learn to do so by living active and responsible lives.”[28] The problem is not using tools; the problems arise when man starts to become part of the machine and neglects his social responsibilities.

Industrialism promotes a narrative that disregards relationships by deforming our imaginations and setting a precedent that trumps the wisdom of tradition. As Illich describes, “our imaginations have been industrially deformed to conceive only what can be molded into an engineered system of social habits that fit the logic of large-scale production.”[29] As a consequence, “the organization of the entire economy toward the ‘better’ life has become the major enemy of the good life . . . thus, one will have the potential of turning public imagination inside out.”[30] The merit of a possibility is measured according to degrees to which something is “better” relative to the scientific possibilities, not necessarily what is good. As Illich describes it, “the ‘better’ replaces the ‘good’ as the fundamental normative concept.”[31] Such a metric abandons virtue for experimental exploration.

Conclusion

Moving forward, Illich believes that conviviality is possible, but only if people “relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves.”[32] In the contemporary industrial society, man suffocates on smog and his body atrophies from technological “improvements” in the pursuit of potential power and progress. If the situation is so dire, one might think that there would be resistance. On the contrary, the fact is that “envy blinds people and makes them compete for addiction.”[33] If we are not careful, we will find ourselves dulled into a stupor and lead to live a life of apathy and complacency, both of which are irresponsible and vicious to ourselves and others. Illich’s philosophy is important because it challenges our assumptions by asking about the consequences of industrialism on human flourishing, whether it helps or hurts. He recommends that we “submit to the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools.”[34] This calls for a change of mind but more importantly a readiness of hand, to offer a hand to one’s neighbor and in our work.

References

 

[1] Jacque Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage Books: New York, 1964), 42.

[2] Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, (Marion Boyars: London, 1973), 11.

[3] Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (Marion Boyars: London, 1973), 54.

[4] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, ix.

[5] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 21.

[6] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 14.

[7] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, xii.

[8] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, xii.

[9] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 11.

[10] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 21.

[11] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 21.

[12] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 6.

[13] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 6–7.

[14] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 8.

[15] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 8.

[16] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 52.

[17] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 82.

[18] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 52.

[19] Ivan Illich, “To Honor Jacques Ellul,” November 13, 1993, 3: https://www.davidtinapple.com/illich/1993_honor_ellul.PDF.

[20] Ellul, The Technological Society, 42.

[21] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 83.

[22] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 14.

[23] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964), 235.

[24] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 235.

[25] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 4.

[26] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 4.

[27] Illich, “To Honor Jacques Ellul.”

[28] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 66.

[29] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 14–15.

[30] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 103.

[31] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 75.

[32] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 14.

[33] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 79.

[34] Illich, Tools for Conviviality, x.

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