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Development Theory: Ivan Illich

by Aram Ziai and Cord Jakobeit Tuesday, Sep. 08, 2009 at 4:52 AM

Education is the great transformer (J.K. Galbraith). Ivan Illich was a life-giving iconoclast and philosopher who criticized modern industrial society as a threat to autonomy. Through resistance and solidarity, we can begin again.


Ivan Illich (1926-2002): Modernization as the Enemy of Humane Development

By Aram Ziai and Cord Jakobeit

[This commemorative article published in: E+Z, Zeitschrift fur Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit 2/2007 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

In the 1970s, Ivan Illich formulated his critique of industrial society and the modern age, which is also relevant for developing countries. He underscored the impossibility of generalizing the western model of development and urged an alternative way of satisfying needs. He is welcomed today in post-development approaches whose advocates are radically different from conventional thinking about development.


Ivan Illich was born on September 4, 1926 in Vienna. His father, a landowner and engineer, was a catholic Croatian and his mother was a Lutheran-baptized German Jewess with Spanish American ancestors. On account of the NS race laws, he had to leave Austria. He graduated high school in 1942 in Florence and subsequently studied first natural sciences and then theology and philosophy in Rome. He graduated summa cum laude and was ordained a priest in 1950. After his 1951 promotion in Salzberg with a study on Arnold Toynbee, he began his spiritual career as a priest of the poor in New York. After several years when he came to know directly the misery of Puerto Ricans in Manhattan’s upper west side, he became vice-chancellor of the Catholic university Santa Maria in Puerto Rico. He gained American citizenship, trained Catholic development workers (Cent3er for Intercultural Formation, New York) and founded his own “think tank” in Mexican Cuernavasca from which the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) later arose.

After long arguments with the Vatican, he abandoned all priestly functions in 1969. In the 1970s, Illich was one of the most respected critics of modern civilization, technology, education and medicine. His numerous books were widely received. He taught as university lecturer in New York, Kassel, Berkeley and Marburg and was appointed professor at the State University of Pennsylvania in 1986. From the beginning of the 1990s, he taught as a lecturer at the University of Bremen. Every year he spent several months at Penn State and in Mexico. In his last years marked by serious illness, he largely withdrew from public life. Ivan Illich died in Bremen on November 2, 2002.


Criticism of the Thoughtlessness of the Modern Age

Illich’s works show him to be a universal scholar occupied with questions of medieval church history, modern transportation systems, the genesis of writing and changes in gender relations. Illich was best known through his criticism of the institution of the school, which can be understood as part of his fundamental criticism of modern industrial society – like his studies on energy, transportation and the public health system. His work consisted of polemical writings whose provocative theses could bring about changes, not a systematically worked out theory.

The basic theme of Illich’s criticism is that the institutions and technologies of modern industrial society (its “tools”) become independent over against people so that their constant growth has only negative effects (brainwashing education, sickening medicine, time-consuming acceleration) and increasingly harms the autonomy of individuals. In the 1973 book “Tools for Conviviality,” Illich shows how a person is formed into a consumer of industrially produced goods and services. A radical monopoly exists when thirst can no longer be quenched by water but only by cola, when the longing for education is reduced to a desire for schooling and people’s capacities for healing, moving, building houses and burying the dead are lost in the history of all societies because they are monopolized by guilds of experts (1970). “The monopoly of experts defines deviation and necessary relief from deviation” (1978).

Industrial production keeps people dependent on industrial products and leads more and more to the standardization and powerlessness of people. This is especially true when the instruments become counter-productive. The transportation system oriented in ever-faster individual transportation produces congestion, deaths from accidents and the dying of the forests while hindering the movement of bicyclists and pedestrians. In his best-known book “De-schooling Society” (1971), he explains how a school system characterized by obligatory schooling monopolizes education in that only test scores count, not knowledge gained outside school. Independent learning is increasingly replaced by the forced consumption of knowledge. The doctor-system monopolizes the public health system so that simple curative methods are reserved to classes of specialists, even though sicknesses are increasingly caused by professional medical treatment (“iatrogenic epidemic” 1974). Thus industrial society creates an “impoverishing” prosperity that is too scarce to be shared by everyone and destroys the freedom and rights of the weaker (1978).

Illich did not propagate renunciation on modern technology. Modern technology should only be “convivial.” It must be utilized without expert licenses, coercion or violating the freedom rights of others. For example, the telephone, bicycle and postal service are modern convivial instruments. Illich envisioned a post-industrial society where several complementary modes of production co-exist. He did not offer any detached fiction of a future society, only a guideline for conduct that helps prevent the freedom-reducing independence of human instruments.


Both his biography and the beginning of his publishing activity (1970) reveal Illich as a development theoretician. His diagnosis has worldwide authority. His theses have special relevance for developing countries since they “have the chance of avoiding the passage through the industrial age” (1974). In them, the desire for maximum prosperity and maximum productivity produces deficiency through the beginning modernization and by means of non-convivial instruments. For every car that Brazil puts on the road, fifty people lose a good bus network. Every sold refrigerator lessens the prospect for public refrigeration. Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred human lives. If that dollar had been spent for the provision of clean drinking water, a hundred human lives could have been saved. Every dollar for the school system means more privileges for the few at the expense of the many (1970) since these schools are only accessible to a small fraction of the people.

Illich criticizes that all political camps are captive to the orthodox understanding. “Both providers of development assistance and the preachers of revolution promise more of the same. They understand more education as longer schooldays, more health as more doctors and greater mobility as more fast cars… the goals of development policy are always measured according to standard consumer values packaged around the North Atlantic and always represent more privileges for a few” (1974). In his opinion, this development only leads to modernization of poverty, to the well-meaning production of under-development. On one hand, functioning subsistence structures are destroyed. On the other hand, a worldwide expansion of the “American way of life” is said to be possible. A demand for industrial goods and services is thereby created that can never be fulfilled. Illich interprets “under-development” as a mental state. “Under-development is a mental state when the needs of the masses are changed into the demand for new packaged brands that are unattainable for the majority” (1970). The generalization of the western model of development is an impossibility according to Illich since its instruments imply unequal access and there is not enough money in the world to make development successful this way” (1970).

His proposal is an alternative kind of need satisfaction with a different long-term capital structure. He sketches many alternatives designed for conditions in the third world: busses instead of private cars, clean water instead of expensive medicines, assistants instead of doctors and nurses, communal storerooms instead of costly personal cooking equipment, walking instead of mechanical movement in the city, standardized hygienic huts instead of slums and rights to an average share of educational resources with free choice of time and subjects instead of the school system. “We must try to survive in a third world where human imagination can peacefully master the power of machines. There is only one way to reverse the sinister tendency to increasing under-development: laughing about today’s solutions to remove the demand that makes them necessary” (1970)


Many Initiatives

Showing Illich’s direct influence on development theory and policy is not easy. Only very rarely did someone refer directly to him. His ideas and proposals were too radical and too unconventional. Nevertheless elements and suggestions from Illich’s “offensive” ideas have been elaborated in many concepts since the early 1970s.

Illich’s concept of basic need satisfaction, turning from fixation on industrial and infra-structural mega-projects to guaranteeing the basic provisions of the poor can be named first. . That a highly modern costly modern technology susceptible to interference can often be counter-productive under the special conditions of regions in the South and that locally controllable and adapted technology provide better results can be referred back to Illich (and Schumacher). Illich had a marked influence on the ecology movement with his demands for limits on growth and turning away from the industrial society that preceded the report of the Club of Rome. Even the elite-friendly form of ecological reorganization in the form of “sustainable development” can appeal to Illich. He vehemently criticized the new expertocracy dictating people’s needs… Choosing sufficiency as a model for reorganizing industrial societies, not only efficiency in the book “Future-Friendly Germany” (BUND and Misereor 1996) is also an echo to Illich’s concepts of “convivial moderation,” conscious self-restraint and deliberate renunciation.

Illich’s influence on development theory is clearest in “Post-Development Initiatives” (Rahnema and Bawtree 1997) that adapts and redevelops his ideas. The core of these initiatives is rejection of all “development” according to the model of industrial countries and also of all alternative “development” involving destruction of autonomy, subsistent structures, and the cultural diversity of local communities.


Several points propounded by Illich can certainly be criticized. First of all, there is the idealization of rural subsistence communities. A tension exists between these communities that is not adequately treated by Illich. Whether just energy consumption can be realized through coercive institutions and whether political consensus is only a basic utopian goal are also open.

Another problematic point is Illich’s distinction between natural and “false” needs induced by industrial society. He explains its origin very logically, for example through the manipulative instruments and mechanisms of modern industrial society. That many of these needs cannot be generalized and destroy the autonomous capacity of need satisfaction may also be disputed. What if the large majority of people (whether in Africa or Western Europe) joyfully forego the possibility of autonomous satisfaction of needs in favor of industrially produced goods and services? If a false consciousness is ascribed to them across the board, does that means their desires and needs are not taken seriously but rather a knowledge privilege that reflects the expertocracy so criticized by Illich? In this point, the normative foundation of Illich’s concept is clear. His theses on the convivial society rest on the postulate that a society is desirable that guarantees all people a survival in justice and autonomy – even with renunciation on a bulk of the products of the modern industrial society – and are regarded by many as achievements.

The transformation to the convivial society requires nothing less than a “Copernican turn” in the human value system. Paradoxically, such turns only occur slowly as all experience teaches.


· 1970 – Celebration of Awareness. Call for institutional revolution

· 1971 – De-Schooling Society

· 1973 – Tools for Conviviality

· 1973 – Energy and Equity

· 1974 – Medical Nemesis. The Expropriation of Health

· 1978 – Toward a History of Needs. Incapacitation by Experts. Criticism of Service Vocations

· 1978 – The Right to Useful Unemployment. Myths of progress, creative unemployment

· 1982 – Gender. An Historical Criticism of Equality

· 1988 – The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. Thinking learns to write. Reading culture and identity


“Eduardo Galeano on Grit TV”

“FDR’s Inauguration Speech in 1933”

“Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith,” 52 minutes

“2009 Preliminary Report of the UN Stiglitz Commission”

“The Right to Development” by Brigitte Hamm

“Ivan Illich on Wikipedia”

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