Survival in Justice


Reading Ivan Illich is an intellectually and morally challenging business. Below are two excerpts from Tools for Conviviality. I offer them to you for your consideration. I cannot say that I would endorse them without reservation. Nonetheless, they confront us with the uncomfortable possibility that the cure of our technological malaise will be more radical than most of us have wanted to believe and will require more than most of us are prepared to sacrifice.

These passages also remind us that the prospect of subjecting technology to serious moral critique amounts to a great deal more than intellectual parlor games or mere tinkering with the design of our digital tools. They remind us as well that when we finally come to the roots of our most serious problems, we will find wildly different conceptions of the good life and human flourishing in conflict with one another.

First, against the ideology of growth at all costs.

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. We have almost lost the ability to frame in fancy a world in which sound and shared reasoning sets limits to everybody’s power to interfere with anybody’s equal power to shape the world […] Men with industrially distorted minds cannot grasp the rich texture of personal accomplishments within the range of modern though limited tools. There is no room in their imaginations for the qualitative change that the acceptance of a stable-state industry would mean; a society in which members are free from most of the multiple restraints of schedules and therapies now imposed for the sake of growing tools. Much less do most of our contemporaries experience the sober joy of life in this voluntary though relative poverty which lies within our grasp.

Second, what Illich considers will be the sacrifices required to move toward a more just society.

I argue that survival in justice is possible only at the cost of those sacrifices implicit in the adoption of a convivial mode of production and the universal renunciation of unlimited progeny, affluence, and power on the part of both individuals and groups. This price cannot be extorted by some despotic Leviathan, nor elicited by social engineering. People will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

As I’ve suggested before, it is often the case that “we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”



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