Tools for Conviviality (1973) took a lot of work, it looked so inviting, so thin. But the text was dense and the words strangely denser. It repays effort though, and writing this post has helped immensely. Why I write them I suppose.
Illich argues that there have been two watersheds in modern times. The first is crisp, 1913. We reached the point in Western medicine where a patient had a better than 50-50 chance that trained doctors would provide better treatment than anyone else. Medicine and our expanding knowledge grew in leaps and bounds, and improvements resulted in corresponding improvements in health. The second watershed? More amorphous, that point at which we shifted to keeping people alive longer, without worrying about quality. The point at which everything became considered an issue for doctor’s prescriptions and environment, society and all else were pushed to the side as irrelevant. The point at which as treatment has become further and further professionalised, removed from the control of patients and their families and removed from ideas of community and environmental connectedness. The point at which it actually becomes increasingly less effective. multiple studies in health argue this exact point — that medical knowledge can solve only a portion of health issues, the others are interconnected with society, environment, employment, housing, inequality, isolation and etc. This rather than acknowledging all that can be gained through improving our environment and creating a just society, eradicating poverty, encouraging a sense of worth and connectedness to others. The Marmot Review is only my favourite of these to date.
These watersheds exist for many professions. I think this is a key point: science and technology with their panoply of elite controlled knowledge and procedures have brought us so far, but cannot take us much further. They are, in fact, damaging as we approach crisis. As tools they suppress other ideas and systems of knowledge and concentrate control over knowledge and its power in the hands of a few. Partly for this very reason, partly due to their internal logics, they can only provide a limited and very unsatisfactory set of answers to questions of how we can live full meaningful lives, and how we can save our planet. They have, in fact, managed to alienate human beings and bring us to the brink of destruction, while shutting down our ability to work towards or even imagine a better world.
The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation. (9)
Escalation is never good, except for business. Perhaps that’s why we see it in the wars and profiteering all across our world.
All of these things created that we are told make us happy, all of these processes and knowledges and machines are actually created to encourage us to consume and be forever unsatisfied. This is what needs to shift:
The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.
The crisis can be solved only if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.
We need to be able to control these tools and processes, the means of production, so that they can used in harmony with our environment to give us a genuine sense of fulfillment.
I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. (10)
This is what he means by conviviality:
People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.
I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. (11)
And this is how we achieve real socialism:
The transition to socialism cannot be effected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. (12)
The focus on the tools, and the values of conviviality are what protects us:
The illusion is common that planners with socialist ideals might somehow create a socialist society in which industrial workers constitute a majority. The proponents of this idea overlook the fact that anticonvivial and manipulative tools can fit into a socialist society in only a very limited measure. (57)
I like that Illich actually also deals to some extent with how we get there — a world where we all consume less:
People with 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.
In this volume I want to offer a methodology by which to recognize means which have turned into ends. My subject is tools and not intentions. (14)
He notes the monotony of our current system, here in the built environment of our cities:
The use of industrial tools stamps in an identical way the landscape of cities each having its own history and culture. Highways, hospital wards, classrooms, office buildings, apartments, and stores look everywhere the same. (15)
He is not prescriptive in the forms of governance a better future takes — only that it be convivial.
In a society in which power–both political and physical–is bounded and spread by political decision there is place not only for a new flowering of products and characters, but also for a variety in forms of governance. Certainly, new tools would provide new options. Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike. But the adoption of a convivial mode of production does not of itself mean that one specific form of government would be more fitting than another… (16-17)
What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization. (24)
The issue at hand, therefore, is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. Only secondarily does the question arise whether private control of a potentially useful tool is in the public interest. (26)
This is an important point about widespread ideas of progress, they continue so powerful forty years later, even after the massive rise in awareness of environmental issues:
It has become difficult for contemporary man to imagine development and modernization in terms of lower rather than higher energy use… The illusion that a high culture is one that uses the highest possible quantities of energy must be overcome. (26)
Another similar point on the need of capitalism to always expand:
The human equilibrium is open. It is capable of shifting within flexible by finite parameters. People can change, but only within bounds. In contrast, the present industrial system is dynamically unstable. It is organized for infinite expansion and the concurrent unlimited creation of new needs… (46)
I quite enjoyed how he ties this back to medieval times, the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold changing into breathing a kind of life into dead matter to control labour:
The alchemist’s dream of making a homunculus in the test tube slowly took the shape of creating robots to work for man, and to educate men to work alongside them. The ideology of an industrial organization of tools and a capitalist organization of the economy preceded by many centuries what is usually called the Industrial Revolution. (30)
I also thought this point about speed was key, the differences in cost between high speed and regular trains, trains and buses, buses and bicycles, bicycles and walking.
Speed is one of the means by which an efficiency-oriented society is stratified.
Fostered addiction to speed is also a means of social control. (38)
It also converses once again with Le Corbusier — I read these almost together, but I don’t think that is the only reason they seemed to be in a war to the death. He writes:
The knowledge-capitalism of professional imperialism subjugates people more imperceptibly than and as effectively as international finance or weaponry. (43)
The final chapters look more deeply at the environmental crisis that looms (and how much worse has it become).
Political debate must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life. (47)
He argues there are 6 ways in which we are threatened by industrial development:
Overgrowth threatens the right to the fundamental physical structure of the environment…
Industrialization threatens the right to convivial work.
The overprogramming of man for the new environment deadens his creative imagination.
New levels of productivity threaten the right to participatory politics.
Enforced obsolescence threatens the right to tradition…
Pervasive frustration by means of compulsory though engineered satsifaction… (47-48)
I so loved this, the basis for conviviality:
The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. (50)
This too, is a key insight, subject of much debate on the left. I think it highlights the need for a complete transformation to be free of racism, sexism and all isms.
It does not matter for what specific purpose minorities now organize if they seek an equal share in consumption, an equal place on the pyramid of production, or equal nominal power in the government of ungovernable tools. As long as a minority acts to increase its share within a growth-oriented society, the final result will be a keener sense of inferiority for most of its members.
Movements that seek control over existing institutions give them a new legitimacy, and also render their contradictions more acute. Changes in management are not revolutions. (71-72)
This is pretty vital — and he doesn’t really do it here, or doesn’t do it enough, but ultimately this is where we have to get:
The alternative to managerial fascism is a political process by which people decide how much of any scarce resource is the most any member of society can claim; a process in which they agree to keep limits relatively stationary over a long time, and by which they set a premium on the constant search for new ways to have and ever larger percentage of the population join in doing ever more with ever less. (101)
Except to be clear — most of the world does ever more with ever less, so it is residents of Europe and America that are the problem, they will have to transform their consumption the most, and they’re still deeply class stratified. I wanted more postcolonial analysis, but I suppose that is for us to bring to the table. In the meantime, some words of reason in how to think about creating this kind of majority:
There can be no such thing as a majority oppose to an issue that has not arisen. A majority agitating for limits to growth is as ludicrous as one demanding growth at all cost. Majorities are not created by shared ideologies. They develop out of enlightened self-interest. The most that even the best ideologies can do is interpret this interest. (102)
Ideologies might be a bit more complicated, I think about them a lot. As part of the lack of analysis around race and empire and larger global patterns of exploitation and consumption responsible for environmental disaster, I also really hated some of the rhetoric on population control. But I will end on a final quote I did like:
People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few: that the organization of the entire economy toward the “better” life has become the major enemy of the good life. (103)