Beyond Economics and Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich

By Nunn, Sue | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond Economics and Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich


Nunn, Sue, Sociological Viewpoints


Book Review - Ivan Illich, & Sanjay Samuel (Editor). Beyond Economics and Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich. New York: Marion Boyars, 2013, 127 pages. $17.95 U.S./ $21.50 Canada, softcover (9780714531588). Reviewed by Sue Nunn, Ph.D. student in sociology, University of New Brunswick - Fredericton, Canada

Ivan Illich (1926-2002), a Catholic priest by training, lived an existence as a multilingual polymath, a social critic, an advocate for subsistence cultures, and, in his later years, professor of "Philosophy, Science, Technology and Society" at Penn State University. Ivan Illich leaves a legacy of penetrating commentary regarding economic and social institutions in post-industrial societies. A recently-published book, Beyond Economics and Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich, offers trenchant essays that serve as an introduction to Illich for the uninitiated.

The book opens with a preface by current governor of California, Jerry Brown, who shared a friendship with Illich. Brown notes that Illich "forces you to question your deepest assumptions." The book also includes a lengthy introductory essay by one of Illich 's Penn State previous colleagues, Sanjay Samuel. Samuel 's introduction draws in the contemporary reader by underscoring the relevancy of Illich's works to the present. Samuel's writing is fresh and lively, and he distills the pith of each of the book's four included Illich essays.

Current political discourse in the U.S. and many developed nations brims with concerns from commentators about issues like the employment rate, and securing adequate, affordable energy to fuel the modern economy. Economists and environmentalists alike have accepted and promoted the notion that the existing world is circumscribed by "scarcity" of resources. Samuel notes that ecologically-concerned individuals typically advocate a "green economy." Samuel reflects that these same environmentalists do not challenge the overarching philosophical paradigm that nature is like a ledger sheet in terms of energy resources and human extraction of such. Illich offers a critique of the imposition of the economic model upon nature.

Two of four Illich essays, "The War against Subsistence," and "Shadow Work," are from his 1981 book, Shadow Work. Illich questions the basic premise of both capitalism and socialism - the concept of "economic man." Illich contends that an economic growth imperative renders inhabitants of a society servile to an ideal with pernicious effects.

Illich maintains that the (pre-Industrial-Revolution) Enclosure of the Commons had profound impacts on ecological systems as well as on social organization. The proscription of use of the Commons required that humans sell their labor in a market system to survive. Illich sees this enforced wage labor not just as an indignity to humanity; he notes it has also been ecologically devastating. Human progress is often presented as conflicting with conservation of resources in various public debates. However, Illich contends that ultimately the fate of humans and nature are in harmony.

Illich is an advocate of "vernacular ways," local forms of social/economic organization that do not depend on high-tech inputs. Neither are vernacular lifestyles reliant on bureaucracy or professionals. Illich claims that the destruction of vernacular ways of life - parcel to the large scale industrialization of the Western world - has been profoundly uprooting. The reciprocity that was part of everyday life is fragmented. Human society is instead organized around a commodity-based, consumption-oriented economy. There are intense psychic ramifications. Illich advocates a return to a society oriented toward "use values" rather than "exchange values." A vernacular form of economic organization, in the words of Illich, "provides a berth for everyone who it recognizes as a member - its structural design excludes unemployment and destitution" (p. 54).

"Shadow work" is a product of what Illich refers to as "the fundamental bifurcation of work that is implicit in the industrial mode of production" (p. …

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