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Book Review – Tools for Conviviality: Ivan Illich

July 9, 2019

Tools for ConvivialityTools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of prophetic insights into our current malaise from a book written back in 1973 when most, if not confident in aspects of the political elite, certainly most still had faith in technological progress and the unqualified goodness of welfare and social state measures. This book explodes the whole faith in technological progress as an unqualified virtue. Showing how this is just the last phase of dependence on an industrial, depersonalised mode of being, of a consumer society that has reached a dead end of economic progress and knows no other way to run its societies, other than with notions of more state, more education, more health services, more everything and the issue of a quality service never gets a look in, and the issue of independence and self care gets lost as we become more and more passive, consumers with no independent self worth and no community spirit.

Here is one quote on progress, and how it becomes used purely as a way to perpetuate professional elites who must find ever more subtle ways to manipulate us:

“…first, new knowledge is applied to the solution of a clearly stated problem and scientific measuring sticks are applied to account for the new efficiency. But at a second point, the progress previously demonstrated is used as a rationale for the exploitation of society as a whole in the service of a value which is determined and constantly revised by an element of society, by its selfcertifying professional elites.”

Regarding this dystopian situation this creates, Illich states:

“…People would be confined from birth to death in a world-wide schoolhouse, treated in a world-wide hospital, surrounded by television screens, and the man-made environment would be distinguishable in name only from a worldwide prison. “

The not so good side of the book is in his positive predictions. Where he talks of an oppressed group inverting this social order. This just seems like a typical marxist dialectical analysis that deals in fantasies and not realities. The oppressed people right now have been made way too dependent and unable to be self sufficient in any area of their lives that they would be simply too scared to ever rise up against the system they depend on. A more realistic uprising might come from a group somewhere in the middle of society, feeling under threat of becoming totally dependent, but still currently independent enough to do something about it. Or it might come from other parts of the world taking over from the West on the world wide stage, such as China.

But he only flirts with this kind of Marxist analysis every now and then, and for the most part his suggestion of tools for a convivial society makes for very good guidelines for how we should aim to run our societies. He even brought up the notion of austerity, something the conservatives have lately talked of in the UK as a policy for fighting against aspects of the state leviathan dependency situation. But of course it often gets caught up as being just to help the rich corporations avoid taxes and exploit workers more. But then on the other side we only create more state dependence, that will ultimately bring down civil society completely. Devolution is another policy that has been implemented much and is also a suggestion of Illich. But on the other side the dangers of the technological elite controlling us all is still there. With their professionals extorting money from us all under fears of global catastrophe where they are the “experts” and we are expected to trust all our ideas and all our resources to them to save us from disaster. Such a situation is clearly dangerous and I think a sober appreciation of some tools for a convivial society, and of the implications of our dependence on a non-convivial state bureacracy can be a good basis for a reasonable political discussion not tied up in the outdated paradigm of the simplistic more state, or less state dichotomy.

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