The Prophet or the Madman

A good education should prepare one to see many sides of an issue and to see the complex nature of problems. Solutions, should they exist, come from seeing the good in things and building upon that, along with balance, patience, and so on.

It seems to me that about 95% of problems or questions should get handled in this fashion.

But the remaining 5% probably require none of the aforementioned qualities, but instead call for a prophet.  Some problems have such deep and destructive roots in society that only radical solutions suffice, and coming to these conclusions require a complete change of perspective not unlike repentance.  In such cases balance and moderation hurt more than help.

The problem with prophets is that they usually sound crazy.  They are entirely “unreasonable” and see nothing among us to build on.  They abhor compromise.  No doubt this explains why most of Israel’s prophets were dismissed as lunatics or dangerous subversives.

The fact that not all prophets deserve the title of “Prophet” adds to the dilemma.  God mandated harsh punishments for false prophets, who unnecessarily rile up/provide false comfort in addition to the far worse consequence of giving us the wrong view of God and our place in the universe.

If we took the Industrial Revolution as an example, we might expect a “reasonable” historian to take a standard cost/benefit approach.  On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution eventually ushered in higher wages and higher standards of living.  Medical technology improved and helped us lead healthier lives.  Mass production led to greater social and political equality.  On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution also disconnected us from nature and allowed us to mass produce destructive things like weapons and pollutants.  The regimentation of the factory led to regimentation of other areas of life.  Modern conveniences also facilitated longer working hours, which helped erode the family.  Some good, some bad, and the trick lies in deciding how to weigh the importance of each category.

Enter Ivan Illich.

Illich (a one time Catholic priest turned social critic) wants nothing to do with the above paragraph.  The Industrial Revolution, or in his phrase, “hygenic progress” has led to continuing impoverishment of all who drink from its waters.

Perhaps you think he means impoverishment of the soul, and then we can still perhaps argue that certain economic benefits outweigh that at least in some circumstances.

But no — he means impoverishment of the soul and economic impoverishment. Industrial society has made us poorer in every sense, which on the surface seems demonstrably untrue.  But nevertheless, he wants to burn it all down, if not physically, then at least in our whole approach to what lies around us.

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

I will say that having read his book Toward a History of Needs I’m not quite sure myself. He fits one criteria for having a prophetic voice — neither the political right or left knew what to do with him in his day.  On the imgresone hand, Illich heavily criticized market-based solutions as essentially imperialistic projects that in the end only benefitted producers.  On the other hand, he spoke just as harshly against the industrialized “do-gooders” of the left and their projects like the Peace Corp and The Alliance for Progress.  He saw both sides as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum — the same person with a different face, sharing essentially the same destructive perspective.

Illich’s main idea is that the “hygenic progress” of the last two centuries has not solved any problem mankind faces so much as it has created needs that have become mandatory for civilization. These “mandatory needs” continue to increase and drain both soul and wallet.  This favors not only producers but also, “anyone in the driver seat” (government bureaucracy). He cites many examples to prove his point, and we can add to those examples today.

Some of his examples (with hardly an exhaustive list) . . .

Medicine has become vastly more expensive over the last few decades without necessarily making us healthier. Pregnant women, for example, now have seemingly dozens of “mandatory” checkups involving expensive lab work to check on her health.  But babies are not measurably more healthy than they were 20-30 years ago.  These checkups did not come in response to a severe crisis, but as part of the logic of the “producers of health.”  Ilich also argues that most of the vast costs involving medical care for the elderly go more towards prolonging suffering than actually making us healthier.  Of course, this suffering in turn drives us back to the health producers.

Simple things like driving also fall prey to this logic.  In days of yore, you acquired driving skills more or less by osmosis and guided practice from parents.  Now prospective drivers need a certification from driving schools to prove their merit.  The fact that many who take courses from “driving schools” spend their time doing errands for the producer of the certificates should call for us to abolish the criteria altogether.  Instead, because we are a society of “hygenic progress,” we call for reform, not abolition, of such institutions, which bring in government bureaucrats once again.  The system continually empowers “those in the driver’s seat” literally and figuratively.

This dynamic impoverishes us financially by forcing us to pay for the certification and government authentication of our lives, and it also steals away time and personal initiative.  Citizens of “hygenic progress” societies will get boxed in continually.  We realize that one “must” have a car to survive in modern society (with the rare exception of a few cities), and the logic of car ownership has followed suit. No layman can repair their car anymore, which drives us toward complete reliance on the producers of car health.  Writing in the early 1970’s, Illich did not foresee the rise of digital technology.  Now, we “need” not just computers and internet, but cell phones and the like to “survive” the modern world.  Failure to keep up brings nebulous social penalties, along with more realistic drawbacks.  Who communicates by phone anymore?**

Education has gone through the same process.  Public education once was conceived as a free gift.  Now this gift is mandatory, with a mandated curriculum.  Initially the system called for you to stay through 8th grade, now one must stay until 16.  Of course, society’s demands for more pieces of paper to certify one as “educated” has increased. Now everyone “must” graduate high school to have any chance in society, and to get a “real job” everyone must go to college — though we know that many high school and college educations hardly dignify the name.  Now Master’s Degrees have become “required” in many professions.  Some of this might be acceptable if the certificates proved that you actually had a good education, when what it really proves it that you jumped through the required hoops.  The role of government oversight and financial enrichment of the producers of certificates (think of the growth of private companies in the standardized testing industry) again go hand in hand.

Of course not all want this outcome, but that’s just “the way it goes.”  I have an autistic son, and from time to time speculate on why autism diagnoses have dramatically increased over the last 20-odd years.  With the caveat that the question is complex and mysterious, part of me wonders if the increased regimentation in education makes those who lack the social skills necessary to navigate that world stand out in much bolder relief than previously.

Illich uses many more examples which I will pass over.  He astutely references the classical concept of “nemesis” from Greek mythology.  Nemesis served justice and punished hubris.  In the modern sense, nemesis stood for the punishment of a rash abuse of privilege.  In heroic literature the truly elite of society experience “nemesis” by going too far beyond the lot of mortals.  Now, Illich comments that nemesis has been democratized and no longer is reserved for rash abuse of a privilege.  Rather, “Industrialized nemesis is retribution for dutiful participation in society.”

At this point we may want to push back a bit.  Maybe the benefits of industrial society have plateaued somewhat, but if we do a before/after look since the start of industrialization, we see that life expectancy has gone up, and more people have access to more conveniences of life.  Who would want to return to pre-industrial living?  And while we can’t repair our cars, they do last a lot longer than they used to, which puts us back to the +/- calculus of the “reasonable” historian.  Some products over time became ubiquitous, but also cheap.  A perfectly good land-line phone, for example, costs no more than $15.  DVD players began by costing a few hundred bucks and now come at 1/10 of that price.  These examples seem to go against the idea that producers will get continually enriched at consumer expense.

I’m not sure how Illich would respond to these arguments, but I would guess that he would say that producers will continue to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrow’s “needs.”  And — they will continue to partner with government to make the needs mandatory — hence, good bye rabbit ears, hello to required conversion to digital.  DVD players are cheap, but look out for Blue-Ray, which will likely supplant DVD’s soon enough and start the cycle over again.

Of course prophets don’t just critique, they also offer hope and a way forward.  For Illich that means more creative and especially, autonomous action on the part of individuals.  We must escape the professionalization, the certificates of approval, and the commodification that governs modern lives.  We no longer make decisions — we have algorithms or rubrics to that for us.

However, a question remains — do we wish to be free? Do we even know what that means?  Would it matter if we did?  I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses which captures the essence of the issue.  Are we a healthy body with a corrupt head, i.e. Rome at the time of the latter Tarquin kings? After the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus the Romans immediately had the ability to form a stable, successful, alternative government.  Or, has the whole body been infected, and cutting off the head will produce only more problems?  Much later in Rome’s history a new “Tarquin” arose in the form of Julius Caesar, but his death only made things worse for Rome — the whole body had become corrupt.

Illich also fails to discuss another question — is the situation he describes (if he correctly describes it — I am at least partially persuaded) a necessary or contingent consequence of industrialization?  If the latter, then we can work to change things.  If the former is true, then we need to pattern ourselves after the characters in many of Phillip K. Dick’s stories and go “through” the situation rather than running away from it, and find a spot of peace therein.

I suspect, however, that if Illich is correct, then we are living with contingent consequences of industrialization.  We can get pushed in certain directions but never off the road entirely.  While I would not call him a madman, nor would I yet call him a prophet.  He describes some of the technical reasons for our situation, but he fails to unmask the religious devotion that created this situation.  The key question, “What does industrial bureaucratic capitalism truly worship?” has yet to receive an answer.  Until we understand this, we will have no power to change our circumstances.  We need also to see that the situation Illich describes results not just from the confluence of bureaucrats and producers, but from everyone.  We “the people” cannot be part of whatever path forward may exist without acknowledging our own complicity.


*Hence his book Deschooling Society on the surface seems like a call to dismantle public education in favor of more market based approaches (the “Right” cheers).  But what Illich really calls for is that society “de-school” itself and fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between “school” and “society” (the Right and the Left look at each other quizzically).

**The confluence of the producers of society’s digital “needs” and government oversight continues with a vengeance with the rise of technology in education.  Now curricula get planned around the assumption that students have technology in the classroom.  Those who don’t will be given access.  The option to “drop out” — i.e., “I don’t want my child to have access to a tablet, phone, etc.” — doesn’t really exist.  Most teacher training now gets geared towards showing teachers how to better serve the god “Technology in the Classroom.”  All of this of course is “necessary” because we must “prepare students for the modern world.”  Meanwhile of course, we create the “modern world” via the use of technology in the classroom.  One hand washes the other.  This seems a similar argument to Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State.