It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Letters from the Desert

The following is the foreword that Ivan Illich wrote in 1972 for the English edition of a small but highly popular book called Letters from the Desert, originally published in 1964, in Italian, by Carlo Carretto.


My friend Carlo Carretto has asked me to introduce him to the American and English readers of these pages, which were written originally for his European friends. I find it as embarrassing to speak about a friendship which matured in the desert as I find it presumptuous to comment on meditations as personal as these. Allow me therefore to acquit my duty of friendship by telling you how I myself met Carlo.

It was October, 1959, shortly after General Massu had taken command of Algeria. Towards noon I finally reached the market place of Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara. I was looking for the house of the Little Brothers, the religious community established here fifty years before by Charles de Foucauld. I was unable to speak a word of Arabic, and no French word I tried elicited a reaction: not “La Fraternité” nor “Le Père de Foucauld” nor “Eglise.” So I tried again: “Le Pere Charles de Foucauld?” Immediately a bunch of youngsters began to shout, “Frére Carlo, Frére Carlo” They grabbed my bag, charged across the road and led me to the shoemaker’s shop.

It took some time to realize who it was that earned his living by cutting up old tires and making indestructible sandals. It was Carretto. It was the same Carretto whom I had last known when he held a key post in Italian “Catholic Action,” at a time when this church organization played a frequently sinister role in anti-communist politics under Pius XII.

For years I had tried not to think about Carretto, since I feared that by now he would be even more powerful as one of those lay or clerical churchmen who dominate Christian Democratic politics in Italy.

Indeed, it was Carretto, who had now become Brother Carlo to children and cripples and pilgrims at the tomb of de Foucauld.

Carlo hobbled out of his shop to lead me to the chapel in the adobe fort in which de Foucauld had been murdered: Foucauld the gourmet turned ascetic, the officer turned monk, the monk turned priest and hermit. The French nobleman had wanted to live here as poor and powerless as the least of the natives; he had died here because he had been asked to guard sixteen French rifles. On the way to the chapel Carlo stopped in front of a tombstone put up by the French Army:

Le Vicomte de Foucauld

Frére Charles de Jesus

More pour la France

The words haunted me while I crouched beside Carlo in the deep sand and peace of the chapel. In Algeria, France meant empire, even at the cost of torture. In Algeria, to be a priest meant (with very few exceptions) to be chaplain to French colonials and soldiers. In Algeria, to be a Christian meant either to make the ideology of “peace” a reason for withdrawal or -- for a very, very few -- a reason for joining the underground. And here, in Algeria, I had to read, “He died for France.” Carlo must have noticed what went on in me. When we left the chapel he pointed to the tombstone and simply said, “If you want to live like Jesus you must accept being misunderstood like him.. He too dies for the people -- and it was the High Priest of the Jews who said so.”

I came to know Carlo: this man who was dying to the world of power, the world of good causes, the world of big words and world of political parties. I came to experience the naked simplicity in the statements of his love for the Lord. I came to marvel at his lack of embarrassment at being judged childish when he said something true: his concern when he was judged escapist because he refused to be militant.

I first lived as his guest in Tamanrasset. Later, he installed me in a cave below the peak of Asekrem, two days, as the donkey trots, from his shop. He had furnished the cave with a bed of stone and protected it from the icy winds which blow without cease at several thousand feet in the Ahaggar mountains.

We became friends. When he came to visit me he told me stories. Remembering them I always felt that outside the desert they would sound out of place. The immensity of the desert overwhelms both the power and weakness of men. The Muslim shepherd’s song envelops the Franciscan tenderness of Italian in the austerity of unambiguous faith. The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness. I fear that outside this context and not knowing Carlo in person, many readers will have to make a great effort to learn from Carlo what he taught me.

But I do hope that at least some readers of these pages in English will do so on a day of complete silence -- to which they rarely treat themselves -- or, more often, to which they are condemned. I hope they will open this book in an Anglo-American desert: a lonely flat in Watts or Kensington, the ward of a hospital, in an asylum or prison cell, or on a commuter train.

Ivan Illich
Cuernavaca, Mexico

Born in Italy in 1910, Carretto earned his degree in philosophy, but he was confined to Sardinia during the Fascist era. After the war, he served as National President of Catholic Youth in Italy. At the age of 44, he was summoned by a voice: "Leave everything, come with me into the desert. I don't want your action any longer. I want your prayer, your love." Though he did not fully understand this call, he left Italy for North Africa, where he joined the Little Brothers, a religious congregation in the Catholic church that is inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld. Carretto died in 1988.

Here is an 11-minute video of "l'Ascension de l'Ahaggar" that gives some idea of the remarkable terrain that Illich must have encountered:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

LA Times story

The LA Times has just published a piece about Jerry Brown's attendance at the recent Illich event in Oakland, his hometown. Accompanying the piece is this photo, which we've not seen before:

La me pc jerry brown ivan illich political the 001

(credit: LA Times)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ivan Illich and the night watchmen

In 1973, Ivan Illich spoke at the Newman Center on UC Berkeley's campus. His theme was limits to growth and the counter-productivity that tools inevitably display when their usage crosses a certain threshold of intensity. (Much of his talk, of which a recording exists, was close to the text of Tools for Conviviality.) In one passage, he told an amusing story as a way to slow down and help his audience understand a key point:

… Ninety-percent of all medical care provided to patients with terminal illness cannot be scientifically sustained or supported. Furthermore, the net effects of such treatment is usually in the direction of increased pain and suffering and disabilities without resulting in a demonstrable lengthening of time.

There are upper limits to the possibility of investing in medical care. At a certain level, medical bills measure the health of a patient in the same manner in which GNP measures the wealth of a nation. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and add to them the defensive expenditures which have become necessary to offset the unwanted side-effects of their production.

When I was writing this sentence, it was 4 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't been able to boil it down better. And Decino (sp?) came along, one of our night watchmen, about who somebody else had told me he was so dumb that they didn't know if they could keep him as a night watchman.

And he said, "Don Ivan, what are you doing there? I can't quite understand. I see you all night long with your lamp on the balcony putting a paper into the typewriter, type something, read it, take the paper, tear it to pieces, and throw it away. What are you writing about?"

I told him, "About waste."

(Audience laughs.)

Then, "What is it what is so difficult?"

So, I read him this sentence: "Both GNP and medical bills measure wealth, or well-being, in the same way. Both add on the same scale the market value of benefits and then, add to these benefits, the defensive expenditures which have become necessary in society to offset the unwanted side-effects of production."

He didn't understand right away. But finally, we took a cup of coffee together. Half an hour later, after great silence, he says to me, "Don Ivan, do I get you right? Economists are people who add onto the same side of the scale -- he said a special word in Spanish which means the scale on which you put animals -- all what the people eat and all what the people shit?"

And this man, they tell me, was stupid!

Another night watchman shows up in Deschooling Society, in the first section, titled "Phenomenology of School":

Since most people today live outside industrial cities, most people today do not experience childhood. In the Andes you till the soil once you have become "useful." Before that, you watch the sheep. If you are well nourished, you should be useful by eleven, and otherwise by twelve. Recently, I was talking to my night watchman, Marcos, about his eleven-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a "ni–o.” Marcos, surprised, answered with a guileless smile: "Don Ivan, I guess you're right." Realizing that until my remark the father had thought of Marcos primarily as his "son," I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons. Of course if I were to tell the New York slum-dweller that his working son is still a "child," he would show no surprise. He knows quite well that his eleven-year-old son should be allowed childhood, and resents the fact that he is not. The son of Marcos has yet to be afflicted with the yearning for childhood; the New Yorker's son feels deprived.

'The Convivial City'

Silvia Grünig informs us that her PhD. thesis, titled "Ivan Illich (1926-2002): la ville conviviale," is now available for reading on the Web. It's posted at the website of the CNRS-Conseil national de la recherche scientifique. It's written in French, but the English abstract describes it thus:
Ivan Illich (1926-2002) : The Convivial City

In his work, Ivan Illich (1926-2002) makes a radical critique of "institutions" (the Church, schools, hospitals, transport, machines, etc.), alleging that at some stage in their development they become all counterproductive. Can these analyses be transposed to the urban domain? If so, how can they help to make what "shapes " cities intelligible in the age of global urbanisation? This research proposes an Illichian reading of "the business-city" and suggests ways to leave the productivist impasse it is now experiencing. It is structured around two axes: Firstly, in the context of the economic model of scarcity and of the cybernetic model of systems, the City has been replaced by a counterproductive urban business: an anti-city, in which Urbanism becomes iatrogenic. It is " the vast enclosure ". Secondly, Ivan Illich's ideas transposed to the habitable space significantly contribute towards nurturing a new model for leaving industrialism and reconstructing the territory through processes of reduction and reconduction. This is the convivial city.

Monday, August 12, 2013

More on Illich and Jerry Brown

Hakim Bey is described on Wikipedia as "an American anarchist political and cultural writer, essayist, and poet, known for first proposing the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), based, in part, on a historical review of pirate utopias." Born Peter Lamborn Wilson in 1945, Bey traveled extensively in Central Asia in the 1960s and '70s.

In an article called "Media Creed For The Fin De Siecle," which is available at a site called, Bey describes an encounter with Ivan Illich long ago:

… In 1974, I was seated at a dinner table in Tehran, Iran, at the house of the very hip Canadian ambassador, James George, with Ivan Illich, when a telegram arrived from Governor Brown of California, inviting Illich to fly there at Brown's expense to appear with him on TV and accept a post in the administration. Illich, who is a fairly saintly individual, lost his temper for the first and only time during his stay in Iran, and began cursing Brown. When the Ambassador and I expressed puzzlement at this reaction to a cordial offer of money, fame, and influence, Illich explained that Brown was trying to destroy him. He said he never appeared on television because his entire task was to offer a critique of institutions, not a magic pill to cure humanity's ills. TV was capable of offering only simple answers, not complex questions. He refused to become a guru or media-star, when his real purpose was to inspire people to question authority and think for themselves. Brown wanted the display of Illich's image (charismatic, articulate, unusual-looking, probably very televisual) but not the task of thinking about Illich's critiques of consumer society and political power. Furthermore, said "Don Ivan", he hated to fly, and had only accepted our invitation to Iran because our letter was so full of typing errors!

In fact, for the rest of his life Illich continued to be friends with Brown. Bey continues:

Illich's answer to the question, "Why do you not appear in the media?", was that he refused to disappear in the media. One cannot appear in "the media" in one's true subjectivity (and the political is the personal just as much as the personal is the political); therefore one should refuse the Media any vampiric energy it might derive from the manipulation (or simply the possession) of one's image. I cannot "seize the media" even if I buy it, and to accept publicity from, say, the New York Times, Time magazine, or network TV, would simply amount to the commodification of my subjectivity, whether aesthetic ("feelings", art) or critical ("opinions", agitprop). ...

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

David Bollier on Illich and the commons

David Bollier has posted to the Web the talk he gave at the recent Illich conference in Oakland. It's here, at, and it's called "The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich's Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement." It begins:

I come here today as an ambassador of the commons movement – a growing international movement of activists, thinkers, project leaders and academics who are attempting to build a new world from the ground up. It’s not just about politics and policy. It’s about social practices and the design of societal institutions that help us live as caring, intelligent human beings in spiritually satisfying ways.

Many Americans have not heard of the commons except in connection with the word “tragedy.” We’ve all heard the famous tragedy of the commons parable. It holds that any shared resource invariably gets over-exploited and ruined. Since the “tragedy meme” appeared in a famous 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin, it has been drummed into the minds of undergraduates in economics, sociology and political science classes. It serves as a secular catechism to propagandize the virtues of private property and so-called free markets.

Thanks to the tragedy smear, most people don’t realize that the commons is in fact a success story – that it is a durable artifact of human history, that it is a way to effectively manage shared resources, and that it lies at the heart of a growing political and cultural movement.

I have been a part of this movement for the past fifteen years, writing books, blogging, organizing conferences, giving talks, writing strategy papers, working with partners and trying to raise money. On this journey, I have discovered that the commons contains vast worlds within worlds, most of which are invisible to the Harvard-trained policy wonks who dominate Washington and the neoliberal economists from the great universities. […]

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Friends of Illich meet in Oakland

Some photos we made at the Oakland, Calif., event celebrating Illich last week.


Sajay Samuel


Gustavo Esteva


Trent Schroyer and Jerry Brown, governor of California

Marina Cayley

Marina Illich, Ivan Illich's niece, talking with David Cayley


Kirsten Vogeler, Lee Swenson, and Jean Robert at lunch in Berkeley


Jean Robert listens to Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who spoke about Illich and René Girard

Bollier Trent Gustavo

David Bollier, Trent Schroyer, Gustavo Esteva, and Jean Robert

Wolfgang Palaver

Wolfgang Palaver making a point


Richard Westheimer


Dan Grego

Carl Mitcham

Carl Mitcham

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.