The religious underpinnings of Ivan Illich’s thought
by Jean-Pierre Dupuy (École Polytechnique, Paris, and Stanford University)
I won’t talk about the role Christianity played in the formation of Illich’s thought as David Cayley will certainly tackle this complex subject matter, as he has already done in the wonderful book he wrote with Ivan, The Rivers North of the Future. I will broach a more elusive issue, namely the connections between the Illichian critique and the anthropology of religion in general – I will say “the sacred”, since I’d like to bring together René Girard’s and Illich’s thoughts.
1. As we all know here, Illich has given us a powerfully original critique of the industrial mode of production. What defines the latter, according to him, are not the relations of production, as the Marxist characterization of capitalism would have it. Instead, the fundamental trait in his view is the logic of the detour of production. This logic, in turn, is rooted in religion.
Max Weber famously showed that there are close affinities between the spirit of capitalism and the Calvinist ethics grounded in the belief in predestination. In a similar way, Illich brought out the close affinities between capitalism and the philosophical system of Leibniz. The author of the Theodicy is famous for having formulated the thesis that human beings are characterized by their capacity to make detours as a means to better attain their ends. They are able to take a roundabout path if it will allow them to reach their destination faster. They can refrain temporarily from consuming and invest so as to increase their overall consumption. They may refuse a good opportunity in order to take advantage of a better opportunity later. And so on. For ethologists, this capacity defines intelligence; it seems intimately tied to what Max Weber called instrumental rationality.
Economic theory is consistent with this thesis since it holds that acting rationally means maximizing a given value. This principle of maximization must be understood as entailing a global maximization rather than a merely local one. Suppose that we find ourselves atop a peak. A loftier peak is visible in the distance ahead of us. If we are not content with local maximization, then we must be willing to descend before climbing higher. The opposite attitude would amount to committing the "first-step fallacy." If, hoping to go to the moon, you succeed only in reaching the top of a tree, you must resign yourself to coming down to earth before resorting to a more effective technique.
By seeing man as that singular being able to "step back in order to leap forward" ("reculer pour mieux sauter") Leibniz makes him out to be the faithful image of his Creator. In order to realize the best of all possible worlds, God had to allow a dose of evil to subsist, for otherwise the actual world would have been even worse overall. Everything that appears evil from the finite vantage point of the individual monad is, from the vantage point of the totality, a sacrifice necessary for the greater good of the latter. Evil is always sacrificial in this sense, and sacrifice is a detour.
Justification of evil, instrumental rationality, economics: these three forms appear to be closely linked and to constitute the matrix of modern Reason. Economic rationality is in the first place a moral economy: it entails the rational management of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a “production cost”: it is the detour indispensable to the attainment of the maximum of net good.
2. The Illichian critique of industrial society has made it clear that modern Reason in so far as it is rooted in the capacity to make detours can go berserk and become counterproductive to the highest degree. This transmogrification of rationality into folly has itself religious origins.
Anyone who is driven by the spirit of the detour runs the risk of falling into its trap and losing sight of the fact that the detour is, precisely, only a detour. When you step back in order to leap forward, you must keep your eyes fixed on the obstacle to be surmounted. If you step back while looking in the opposite direction, you run the risk of forgetting your objective and, seeing your regression as progress, of taking the means for ends. In that case, rationality turns into counter-productivity; it takes the form of the torture of Tantalus.
Every use value can be produced in two ways or modes of production, the one autonomous and the other heteronomous. Learning, for example, may take place spontaneously in a setting that stimulates the imagination; one may also choose to receive instruction from a teacher who is paid for this purpose. One can keep oneself in good health by leading an active, wholesome style of life; one may also choose to be treated in case of illness by a trained physician. One may have a relationship to the space one inhabits that grows out of the use of low-speed forms of locomotion such as walking or bicycling; one may also choose to have an instrumental relationship to this space, with the aim of passing through it--of being done with it--as quickly as possible, by using motorized transport. One may render service to someone who asks you for assistance; one may also say to this person, there are services that will give you the assistance you seek.
Unlike the products of the heteronomous mode of production, what the autonomous mode produces cannot in general be measured, evaluated, compared with, or added to other values. The contributions of the autonomous mode of production therefore elude the grasp of the economist, which is why they do not figure in reckonings of gross national product. This, of course, is not to say that the heteronomous mode is intrinsically harmful--far from it. But the great question that Illich had the merit of posing has to do with the manner in which the two modes are related to each other. No one denies that heteronomous production can dramatically enhance autonomous capacities for producing use values: schools are indispensable for education, medicine for health, etc. But heteronomy is only a detour, a turning away from autonomy in order to better enhance autonomy. The “positive synergy” between the two modes of production is possible only under a set of very precise conditions. Beyond certain critical thresholds, heteronomous production leads to a complete reorganization of the physical, institutional, and symbolic environment of a society, with the result that autonomous capacities are stymied. This in turn sets in motion a vicious circle, which Illich called counterproductivity. With the paralysis of human autonomy, there arises a powerful demand for heteronomous substitutes that make it possible to endure life in an increasingly alienating world while at the same time reinforcing the conditions that make them necessary. This in turn yields the paradoxical result that, beyond certain critical thresholds, the more widespread heteronomous production becomes, the more it becomes an obstacle to the realization of the very purposes that it is supposed to serve. Thus medicine ruins health, education makes us stupid, transport immobilizes, communication makes us deaf and dumb, information destroys meaning, and fossil fuels, which reactualize the dynamism of a vanished world, threaten to extinguish the possibility of life in the future.
Illich believed, or pretended to believe, that this runaway phenomenon of self- deregulation, this uncontrollable chain reaction, could be apprehended only in religious terms borrowed from Greek mythology — the jealousy of the Gods leading them to punish the humans guilty of hubris by sending them the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. Did Illich really believe that? Of course not. But he believed that traditional myths set limits to the human condition. The desacralization of society – which Weber called the disenchantment of the world (die Entzauberung der Welt) – inevitably leads to hubris and its punishment, counterproductivity.
As a case in point, let us consider work – I mean the kind of work that corresponds to the heteronomous of production: it constitutes the detour of production par excellence. In principle, work (labor, travail) is a production cost. As such economic calculus aims at minimizing it. However, the spirit of the detour of production has been so thoroughly perverted by industrial society and the extreme division of labor that characterizes it, that it is the detour, its length, the energy spent traversing it, which comes to be sought after as an end in itself. Is work an input, or is it the supreme output? Forms of production that are commonly judged superfluous or even harmful are legitimized by the work that they furnish the population. Planned obsolescence of objects, squandering of non-renewable natural resources, needless energy consumption, and heedless environmental pollution—no one dares do anything about them because they guarantee work. Everything occurs as if the ultimate end sought by industrial society was indeed the production of a detour of production, namely, work in the form of jobs.
According to Illich, then, the heteronomous mode of production and the work that corresponds to it are, like the Greek pharmakon, at the same time poison and remedy.
3. This leads me naturally to bring together Illich and Girard.
At the heart of the Girardian "hypothesis" is the proposition that the sacred is nothing other than the violence of men, expelled, exteriorized, in the form of rituals, myths, and prohibitions. The sacred is fundamentally ambivalent: it uses violence to hold back violence. The sacred is like the Greek pharmakon, at the same time remedy and poison. As Girard puts it, citing the Bible, only “Satan can cast out Satan.” It is a case of what is known in philosophy as self- transcendence(1). The sacred contains violence, in both senses of the word. This is clear in the case of the sacrificial ritual that restores order. It is never other than one more murder, even if it is meant to be the last one. That is equally true of the system of prohibitions and obligations. The social structures that unify the community in normal times are the very same ones that tear it apart in times of crisis. When a prohibition is transgressed, the obligations of solidarity, leaping over the barriers of time and space (as in the mechanism of the vendetta), draw into an ever wider conflict people who were in no way concerned by the original confrontation.
According to Girard, the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ have undermined forever this delicate structure, by revealing the violence inherent in all human institutions. Such is the modern world, described as a "low-gear mimetic crisis," "without catastrophic escalation or resolution of any kind." The question that Dumouchel and I tackled in this framework (2) is the one the "Girardian system" raises, but to which it offers no answer; namely, what gives modern societies the capacity, not only to resist, but even to feed on the growing undifferentiation of the world and the exacerbation of the resulting mimetic phenomena?
We answered: the economy. Not that we claimed that the economy was in any sense another incarnation of the sacred, despite what facile metaphors suggest (the "Almighty dollar," etc.). But, like the sacred before it, the economy is ambivalent in its relationship to violence: it "contains" it, in both senses of the word—thus reconciling Marx (the economy entails exploitation and alienation) and Montesquieu (“le doux commerce”).
Like the sacred before it, the economy today is losing its capacity to produce itself the rules that limit it, in other words its capacity for self-transcendence. Such is the profound meaning of the crisis. If economic rationality, i.e. the moderate management of resources, has turned into the boundlessness of economic growth, it is in the final instance because the economy is no longer able to play the role that the sacred played in traditional societies: keep human violence in check.
An illustration: transportation. Following up on an idea of Illich's in the early 70’s, I undertook with my research team a series of bizarre but rigorous calculations that led to the following results. The French devoted an average of more than four hours a day to their car, whether entrenched in its cockpit on their way from one point to another, or buffing its chrome with their own hands, or, above all, working in factories or offices in order to obtain the resources necessary to its acquisition, use, and maintenance.
If one divides the average number of miles traveled on all types of trips by the "generalized time" devoted to the car, one obtains something like a "generalized" speed. This speed turns out to be a little more than four miles an hour, somewhat faster than a person walking at an ordinary pace, but considerably slower than a bicycle.
From a purely arithmetical point of view, the meaning of the result obtained is as follows. On average, if the French were deprived of their cars and thus presumably freed of the need to work long hours to pay for them, they would devote less "generalized time" to transportation if they made all of their current trips on a bicycle—and I mean all of their trips, not only their daily commute between home and work, but also the weekend outings to a distant country house and the holiday expedition to the golden shores of a far-off riviera. Now, anybody would judge such an "alternative" scenario intolerable or absurd. And yet, it would economize time, energy, and scarce resources while going easier on the environment. What, then, is the difference that makes the absurdity of the situation patent in one case while allowing it to remain hidden in the other? For, after all, is it any less comical to spend a good part of one's time working to pay for the means of getting to work?
The foregoing calculation assumes an hour of transportation to be the equivalent of an hour of work, each being counted as a mere means in the service of an external end. One may contest it, but it should first be noted that it does no more than take seriously the logic of the detour of production. Neither work nor transportation is an end in itself. The mission of economic calculus is to tally up rigorously human pains and toil so that the sum total may be reduced to a minimum through efficient management. And, as their etymology reveals, both "travel" and travail — the French word for "work" — are sources of pain and torment: the two terms are doublets, each deriving from tripalium — a medieval instrument of torture.
In truth, if the absurdity of a way of life and a structuring of social space-time that leads so many people to devote so much generalized time to getting from place to place with so little average efficiency is hidden, that is because they substitute work time for travel time. Their work is, in principle, that principle we call the detour of production, only a means to obtain faster and more efficient transportation, which, in turn, is only a means to something else again—for example, "bringing nearer those who are close to our heart," to quote from an old automobile advertisement. Faithful to the logic of the detour (the better to reveal its ideological character), our calculation shows that the time spent designing and manufacturing powerful engines meant to help us "save time" more than cancels out the time they actually economize. The hare labors feverishly in the office suites and on the assembly lines, but, as in the fable, it is the tortoise who comes in first. Alas! The tortoise is an endangered species. Economics ought to mean economizing people's pains and toil? What naivety! Who cannot see that everything happens as if the objective were, on the contrary, to occupy them without respite, even at the cost of making them run faster and faster in place?
(1) - Or, in contemporary American English, a bootstrap.
(2) - Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, L’Enfer des choses. René Girard et la logique de l’économie, Paris, Seuil, 1979. See also Jean-Pierre Dupuy, L’Avenir de l’économie, Paris, Flammarion, 2012; soon to be published by Michigan State University Press under the title Economics and the Crisis of the Future.