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The People’s Priest

Ivan Illich understood the dangers of trying to save the world.

Next time you’re invited to a ’70s party and find your Travoltan eveningwear shrunken, bring a book by Ivan Illich. Better yet, find a quiet corner and sit down and read it. No, not the late-Tolstoy novella about that guy who dies, but a book by Ivan double-“l” Illich, the maverick social critic whose fans and followers thundered across multiple continents throughout the late ’60s and ’70s. The radical priest (and later, radical ex-priest) hasn’t been heard much since. Even before his death at age 76 in 2002, his work had fallen out of fashion. New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard snarked in 1989 that in purging his overcrowded shelves, he deep-sixed Illich’s oeuvres with especial vigor.

But the work of Ivan Illich deserves a happier afterlife, for he was a remarkably penetrating social critic, a secular heresiarch whose marrow-deep analyses of contemporary institutions—healthcare, education, transport, and economic development—remain pertinent. In the swinging “development decade” of the ’70s, Illich captivated a global audience with his counterintuitive theses: institutionalized education is the enemy of learning; cars are immobilizing; modern medicine makes people sick; and the creeping medicalization of life is deeply unhealthy. Behind all of these book-length polemics was the insight that expenditure on various institutions and services becomes, after a certain point, not just counterproductive but toxic. Heady stuff, but readers hoping to find some totally wild rants in his books are usually disappointed; Illich carefully supports his assertions with social-science literature from several languages.

Illich was a quasi-mythical being, and from the bare facts of his biography it’s easy to see why. The child of a German-Jewish mother and a Croatian father, he grew up speaking German, Italian, and French, picked up Serbo-Croatian, studied Greek and Latin, and became fluent in Spanish and English. Young Illich survived the Axis’s racial policies and after studies in Florence, Rome, and Salzburg earned graduate degrees in history, philosophy, and theology. He was ordained as a priest and seemed set to become the next young polyglot polymath at the Vatican.

Instead, in 1951, he signed up to become a parish priest in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods—Washington Heights, on the northern tip of Manhattan, then a barrio of fresh-off-the-airplane Puerto Rican immigrants. The classically educated bookworm turned out to be an effective and popular priest. The experience of tending to immigrant parishioners as they got flash-fried in urban modernity left a lasting impression of the grotesque inadequacy of large-scale, rationally administrated institutions in dealing with basic human needs.

Having mesmerized Cardinal Spellman, Illich was appointed to run a language school for priests in Puerto Rico, and for a man who would later condemn institutionalized education as oppressive babysitting, he was by all accounts a skillful pedagogue. “The program was rigorous, six or seven hours a day of drills. And if a priest complained, he’d just tell him to pack his bags and leave,” remembers Msgr. John Powis, a retired priest who has spent five decades in Brooklyn’s working-class neighborhoods. “He’d tell us that if you don’t want to learn the people’s culture, you’ll never learn their language, so don’t even bother.”

In 1956, the young priest was made vice rector of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico at age 30, a position he managed to keep for several years before getting thrown out—Illich was just a little too loud in his criticism of the Vatican’s pronouncements on birth control and comparatively demure silence about the bomb.

But this was the age of Vatican II, and there were plenty of opportunities for a dynamic priest with lots of ideas and good connections. His next stop was Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he founded CIDOC, the Center for Intercultural Documentation. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, CIDOC was part language school and part free university for intellectual hippies from all over the Americas. “Some people thought it was funded by big revolutionary money, others thought it was a CIA front,” remembers Rabbi Everett Gendler, who spent a season at CIDOC in 1968-69. CIDOC was not loved by the local Opus Dei chapter, which accused Illich of all sorts of offenses, and in 1968, he was summoned to Rome to account for himself. He quit the priesthood, but stayed in charge of CIDOC until he dissolved the institute in 1977.

In Cuernavaca, Illich was able to develop his potent and highly influential critique of Third World development schemes and their fresh-faced agents: Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and countless other missionary efforts bankrolled and organized by wealthy nations, foundations, and religious groups. His 1968 address to the Conference on Interamerican Student Projects, a Catholic youth-service program, is worth quoting at sulfurous length:

I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans. I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class ‘American Way of Life,’ since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it—the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants ‘develop’ by spending a few months in their villages …

You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately—consciously or unconsciously—‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up exacerbating the damage done by money and weapons, or ‘seducing’ the ‘underdeveloped’ to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement.

llich’s polemics were not properly “nuanced,” and his rosy view of the peasant Gemeinschaft was more than a little romantic. But the worldview he railed against was far more delusional and had vast quantities of money and napalm backing it up. In the age of Robert McNamara and Walt Rostow, Third World economic development projects were frequently intermingled with brute force. (McNamara, after serving as Kennedy and Johnson’s secretary of defense, became head of the World Bank; Rostow, a development economist and Johnson’s national security adviser, regarded the Vietnam War as an aid project until the end of his days.) Intellectuals the world over saw what was happening in Southeast Asia, remembered the imperialist platitudes of Europe, and began to discern in the peddlers of “development” some rather violent, neocolonial tendencies. (Strategic hamlets, anyone?) Their doubts found a forceful and erudite mouthpiece in Illich, whose critiques jolted many people awake.

The key concepts of Illich’s thought on development and its discontents are found in one of his earliest books,Tools for Conviviality (1973). Elite professional groups, wrote Illich, have come to exert a “radical monopoly” on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a “war on subsistence” that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but “modernized poverty,” dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts. With his writings, Illich tried to envision the “disestablishment” of systems of education (Deschooling Society, 1971), transport (Energy and Equity, 1974), medicine (Medical Nemesis, 1975), and the very concept of humankind as a primarily economic being (Shadow Work, 1981). In all these studies, the horizon is utopian, but the analysis is always rooted in concrete experience. This is perhaps the lasting appeal of Illich’s work: while colossally learned, it is subversively attuned to everyday needs.

A common, spluttering response to Illich’s polemics was “Just what does he propose we do instead?” Good question. Teasing policy implications out of Illich’s thoroughgoing critiques is not a science, and it is possible to chart radically different paths out of the desolation that he mapped. (It is fitting that the only major politician influenced by Illich’s thought is the chameleon-like Jerry Brown, still protean at 71.) Coming up with a positive policy alternative to, say, No Child Left Behind is one thing, but taking apart the whole modern education system down to its DNA does not lead to any clear-cut, bullet-point solutions. Even so, Illich’s mischievous acts of creative destruction did spur a rethinking of fundamental methods, goals, and motivations. And for a time he was very popular, even trendy. His books were bestsellers, his lectures jammed auditoriums, his essays appeared in the New York Review of Books (back when it was radical, fun, and widely read) and even the square-john Saturday Review.

Illich’s celebrity faded by the late 1970s, when it was no longer so easy to be a left-wing critic of economic and social development and all its ambiguous blessings. In the heyday of Illich’s screeds, the welfare state was still steadily expanding; we were (almost) all Keynesians then, and professionals reliant on government monies could easily afford to nip the hand that funded them with some radical visions. But oil shocks, stagflation, the Third World debt crisis, and the ebbing of the welfare state since its high-water mark left many professionals scrambling for survival, leaving few resources and even less will for institutional rethinking. In France, Illich had commanded a huge following among the non-Communist Left, but the electoral victory of Mitterand and the Socialist-Communist bloc in 1981 lulled that nation’s radical insurgency into a sleep from which it has still not fully woken up. All over the world, many Illichian critics of institutional power became institutionalized themselves.

Having shuttered CIDOC in 1977, Illich became a peripatetic professor, moving from non-radical, non-chic Penn State to the ugly modernist campus in the old Hanseatic free city of Bremen. He continued to publish provocative books, which earned enemies and allies on all sides. (Especially unpopular was his 1982 studyGender, which argued that the eradication of traditional gender roles in the sphere of labor had eroded women’s prestige and power throughout the global south.) He wrote two fine studies of the 12th-century Renaissance, his favorite intellectual era. Even defrocked, Illich maintained, to the bafflement of his many free-thinking readers, an untroubled religious worldview. He continued to analyze society and politics with concepts and Latin terms taken from the patristic writings and the early Church, in whose gradual extension of pastoral powers over the faithful he saw the tainted origins of the modern administrative state.

Nudum Christum nudum sequere was a beloved Latin phrase—naked I follow the naked Christ—and he said it often in what he knew to be the last years of his life. He had noticed a growth on the side of his head 20 years before his death, but refused to have it excised as treatment risked some impairment of his brain function. Instead, he decided to accept the growing tumor as a visible sign of his inevitable end, and when the tumor metastasized and the pain set in, he took to smoking raw opium, which he found a far more effective remedy than the pills his doctors gave him. Though most of the obituaries were patronizing, Illich died with an honor denied most writers: his books are still in print, thanks to the small but mighty Marion Boyars Press. (Many of his works have also been posted on the web—not surprisingly, Illich is very popular with the let’s-put-everything-on-the-Internet-for-free crowd.)

Famous or forgotten, Ivan Illich remains relevant, for the Age of McNamara and Rostow is hardly over. Not long ago, Paul Wolfowitz was rewarded for his reckless, idealistic war-making with the leadership of the World Bank. If Illich opposed the ’60s gold rush of rich-country reformers to Latin America, what would he make of today’s militarized onslaught of reform and development? He would have had plenty to say about our benevolent conquest of Afghanistan, which many fervently believe to be a kind of Peace Corps/feminist/human-rights NGO empowerment zone, one that will soon just happen to have 110,000 soldiers in it—and that’s not counting the mercenaries. The unaccountable power of aid groups in the sociopolitical fabric of Uganda, Bangladesh, and elsewhere would also have taxed Illich’s rich gifts for diatribe. Back in the industrialized world, the professions of education, healthcare, and law are being ruthlessly integrated into the corporate-service sector in which the bottom line is frequently the only line. One highly doubts that Illich would applaud any of these events—but are there opportunities amid the wreckage? 

Chase Madar is a civil-rights lawyer in New York.

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