Ivan Illich

Excerpts from Deschooling Society, Energy and Equity, and Silence Is a Commons

from Deschooling Society (1971)

Phenomenology of School (chapter 2)

Some words become so flexible that they cease to be useful. "School" and "teaching" are such terms. Like an amoeba they fit into almost any interstice of the language. ABM will teach the Russians, IBM will teach Negro children, and the army can become the school of a nation.

The search for alternatives in education must therefore start with an agreement on what it is we mean by "school." This might be done in several ways. vVe could begin by listing the latent functions performed by modern school systems, such as custodial care, selection, indoctrination, and learning. We could make a client analysis and verify which of these latent functions render a service or a disservice to teachers, employers, children, parents, or the professions. We could survey the history of Western culture and the information gathered by anthropology in order to find institutions which played a role like that now performed by schooling. We could, finally, recall the many normative statements which have been made since the time of Comenius, or even since Quintilian, and discover which of these the modern school system most closely approaches. But any of these approaches would oblige us to start with certain assumptions about a relationship between school and education. To develop a language in which we can speak about school without such constant recourse to education, I have chosen to begin with something that might be called a phenomenology of public school. For this purpose I shall define "school" as the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.

1. Age

School groups people according to age. This grouping rests on three unquestioned premises. Children belong in school. Children learn in school. Children can be taught only in school. I think these unexamined premises deserve serious questioning.

We have grown accustomed to children. We have decided that they should go to school, do as they are told, and have neither income nor families of their own. We expect them to know their place and behave like children. We remember, whether nostalgically or bitterly, a time when we were children, too. We are expected to tolerate the childish behavior of children. Mankind, for us, is a species both afflicted and blessed with the task of caring for children. We forget, however, that our present concept of "childhood" developed only recently in Western Europe and more recently still in the Americas

Childhood as distinct from infancy, adolescence, or youth was unknown to most historical periods. Some Christian centuries did not even have an eye for its bodily proportions. Artists depicted the infant as a miniature adult seated on his mother's arm. Children appeared in Europe along with the pocket watch and the Christian moneylenders of the Renaissance. Before our century neither the poor nor the rich knew of children's dress, children's games, or the child's immunity from the law. Childhood belonged to the bourgeoisie. The worker's child, the peasant's child, and the nobleman's child all dressed the way their fathers dressed, played the way their fathers played, and were hanged by the neck as were their fathers. After the discovery of "childhood" by the bourgeoisie all this changed. Only some churches continued to respect for some time the dignity and maturity of the young. Until the Second Vatican Council, each child was instructed that a Christian reaches moral discernment and freedom at the age of seven, and from then on is capable of committing sins for which he may be punished by an eternity in Hell. Toward the middle of this century, middle-class parents began to try to spare their children the impact of this doctrine, and their thinking about children now prevails in the practice of the Church.

Until the last century, "children" of middle-class parents were made at home with the help of preceptors and private schools. Only with the advent of industrial society did the mass production of "childhood" become feasible and come within the reach of the masses. The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces.

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 "niño." 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.

Most people around the world, then, either do not want or cannot get modern childhood for their offspring. But it also seems that childhood is a burden to a good number of those few who are allowed it. Many of them are simply forced to go through it and are not at all happy playing the child's role. Growing up through childhood means being condemned to a process of inhuman conflict between self-awareness and the role imposed by a society going through its own school age. Neither Stephen Dedalus nor Alexander Portnoy enjoyed childhood, and neither, I suspect, did many of us like to be treated as children.

If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institution, "childhood" would go out of production. The youth of rich nations would be liberated from its destructiveness, and poor nations would cease attempting to rival the childishness of the rich. If society were to outgrow its age of childhood, it would have to become livable for the young. The present disjunction between an adult society which pretends to be humane and a school environment which mocks reality could no longer be maintained.

The disestablishment of schools could also end the present discrimination against infants, adults, and the old in favor of children throughout their adolescence and youth. The social decision to allocate educational resources preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre.

Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.

2. Teachers and Pupils

By definition, children are pupils. The demand for the milieu of childhood creates an unlimited market for accredited teachers. School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

We have all learned most of what we know outside school. Pupils do most of their learning without, and often despite, their teachers. Most tragically, the majority of men are taught their lesson by schools, even though they never go to school.

Everyone learns how to live outside school. We learn to speak, to think, to love, to feel, to play, to curse, to politick, and to work without interference from a teacher. Even children who are under a teacher's care day and night are no exception to the rule. Orphans, idiots, and schoolteachers' sons learn most of what they learn outside the "educational" process planned for them. Teachers have made a poor showing in their attempts at increasing learning among the poor. Poor parents who want their children to go to school are less concerned about what they will learn than about the certificate and money they will earn. And middle-class parents commit their children to a teacher's care to keep them from learning what the poor learn on the streets. Increasingly educational research demonstrates that children learn most of what teachers pretend to teach them from peer groups, from comics, from chance observations, and above all from mere participation in the ritual of school. Teachers, more often than not, obstruct such learning of subject matters as goes on in school.

Half of the people in our world never set foot in school. They have no contact with teachers, and they are deprived of the privilege of becoming dropouts. Yet they learn quite effectively the message which school teaches: that they should have school, and more and more of it. School instructs them in their own inferiority through the tax collector who makes them pay for it, or through the demagogue who raises their expectations of it, or through their children once the latter are hooked on it. So the poor are robbed of their self-respect by subscribing to a creed that grants salvation only through the school. At least the Church gave them a chance to repent at the hour of death. School leaves them with the expectation (a counterfeit hope) that their grandchildren will make it. That expectation is of course still more learning which comes from school but not from teachers.

Pupils have never credited teachers for most of their learning. Bright and dull alike have always relied on rote, reading, and wit to pass their exams, motivated by the stick or by the carrot of a desired career.

Adults tend to romanticize their schooling. In retrospect, they attribute their learning to the teacher whose patience they learned to admire. But the same adults would worry about the mental health of a child who rushed home to tell them what he learned from his every teacher.

Schools create jobs for schoolteachers, no matter what their pupils learn from them.

3. Full-Time Attendance

Every month I see another list of proposals made by some U.S. industry to AID, suggesting the replacement of Latin-American "classroom practitioners" either by disciplined systems administrators or just by TV. In the United States teaching as a team enterprise of educational researchers, designers, and technicians is gaining acceptance. But, no matter whether the teacher is a schoolmarm or a team of men in white coats, and no matter whether they succeed in teaching the subject matter listed in the catalogue or whether they fail, the professional teacher creates a sacred milieu.

Uncertainty about the future of professional teaching puts the classroom into jeopardy. Were educational professionals to specialize in promoting learning, they would have to abandon a system which calls for between 750 and 1,000 gatherings a year. But of course teachers do a lot more. The institutional wisdom of schools tells parents, pupils, and educators that the teacher, if he is to teach, must exercise his authority in a sacred precinct. This is true even for teachers whose pupils spend most of their school time in a classroom without walls.

School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist.

In each of these three roles the teacher bases his authority on a different claim. The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines.

The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state.

The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.

The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil. When the schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, ideologue, and doctor, the fundamental style of society is perverted by the very process which should prepare for life. A teacher who combines these three powers contributes to the warping of the child much more than the laws which establish his legal or economic minority, or restrict his right to free assembly or abode.

Teachers are by no means the only professionals who offer therapy. Psychiatrists, guidance counselors, and job counselors, even lawyers, help their clients to decide, to develop their personalities, and to learn. Yet common sense tells the client that such professionals should abstain from imposing their opinion of what is right or wrong, or from forcing anyone to follow their advice. Schoolteachers and ministers are the only professionals who feel entitled to pry into the private affairs of their clients at the same time as they preach to a captive audience.

Children are protected by neither the First nor the Fifth Amendment when they stand before that secular priest, the teacher. The child must confront a man who wears an invisible triple crown, like the papal tiara, the symbol of triple authority combined in one person. For the child, the teacher pontificates as pastor, prophet, and priest-he is at once guide, teacher, and administrator of a sacred ritual. He combines the claims of medieval popes in a society constituted under the guarantee that these claims shall never be exercised together by one established and obligatory institution-church or state.

Defining children as full-time pupils permits the teacher to exercise a kind of power over their persons which is much less limited by constitutional and consuetudinal restrictions than the power wielded by the guardians of other social enclaves. Their chronological age disqualifies children from safeguards which are routine for adults in a modern asylum-madhouse, monastery, or jail.

Under the authoritative eye of the teacher, several orders of value collapse into one. The distinctions between morality, legality, and personal worth are blurred and eventually eliminated. Each transgression is made to be felt as a multiple offense. The offender is expected to feel that he has broken a rule, that he has behaved immorally, and that he has let himself down. A pupil who adroitly obtains assistance on an exam is told that he is an outlaw, morally corrupt, and personally worthless.

Classroom attendance removes children from the everyday world of Western culture and plunges them into an environment far more primitive, magical, and deadly serious. School could not create such an enclave within which the rules of ordinary reality are suspended, unless it physically incarcerated the young during many successive years on sacred territory. The attendance rule makes it possible for the schoolroom to serve as a magic womb, from which the child is delivered periodically at the schoolday's and school year's completion until he is finally expelled into adult life. Neither universal extended childhood nor the smothering atmosphere of the classroom could exist without schools. Yet schools, as compulsory channels for learning, could exist without either and be more repressive and destructive than anything we have come to know. To understand what it means to deschool society, and not just to reform the educational establishment, we must now focus on the hidden curriculum of schooling. We are not concerned here, directly, with the hidden curriculum of the ghetto streets which brands the poor or with the hidden curriculum of the drawing room which benefits the rich. We are rather concerned to call attention to the fact that the ceremonial or ritual of schooling itself constitutes such a hidden curriculum. Even the best of teachers cannot entirely protect his pupils from it. Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practices against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new title to condescend to the majority. Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike.

Ritualization of Progress (chapter 3)

School is not only the New World Religion. It is also the world's fastest-growing labor market. The engineering of consumers has become the economy's principal growth sector. As production costs decrease in rich nations, there is an increasing concentration of both capital and labor in the vast enterprise of equipping man for disciplined consumption. During the past decade capital investments directly related to the school system rose even faster than expenditures for defense. Disarmament would only accelerate the process by which the learning industry moves to the center of the national economy. School gives unlimited opportunity for legitimated waste, so long as its destructiveness goes unrecognized and the cost of palliatives goes up.

If we add those engaged in full-time teaching to those in fulltime attendance, we realize that this so-called superstructure has become society's major employer. In the United States sixty-two million people are in school and eighty million at work elsewhere. This is often forgotten by neo-Marxist analysts who say that the process of deschooling must be postponed or bracketed until other disorders, traditionally understood as more fundamental, are corrected by an economic and political revolution. Only if school is understood as an industry can revolutionary strategy be planned realistically. For Marx, the cost of producing demands for commodities was barely significant. Today most human labor is engaged in the production of demands that can be satisfied by industry which makes intensive use of capital. Most of this is done in school.

Alienation, in the traditional scheme, was a direct consequence of work's becoming wage-labor which deprived man of the opportunity to create and be recreated. Now young people are pre-alienated by schools that isolate them while they pretend to be both producers and consumers of their own knowledge, which is conceived of as a commodity put on the market in school. School makes alienation preparatory to life, thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. And school directly or indirectly employs a major portion of the population. School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution.

The New World Church is the knowledge industry, both purveyor of opium and the workbench during an increasing number of the years of an individual's life. Deschooling is, therefore, at the root of any movement for human liberation.

Institutional Spectrum (chapter 4)

The choice is between two radically opposed institutional types, both of which are exemplified in certain existing institutions, although one type so characterizes the contemporary period as to almost define it. This dominant type I would propose to call the manipulative institution. The other type also exists, but only precariously. The institutions which fit it are humbler and less noticeable; yet I take them as models for a more desirable future. I call them "convivial" and suggest placing them at the left of an institutional spectrum, both to show that there are institutions which fall between the extremes and to illustrate how historical institutions can change color as they shift from facilitating activity to organizing production. ...

The most influential modern institutions crowd up at the right of the spectrum. Law enforcement has moved there ... Modern warfare has become a highly professional enterprise whose business is killing. ... Its peace-keeping potential depends on its ability to convince friend and foe of the nation's unlimited death-dealing power. ...

At this same extreme on the spectrum we also find social agencies which specialize in the manipulating of their clients. Like the military, they tend to develop effects contrary to their aims as the scope of their operations increases. These social institutions are equally counterproductive, but less obviously so. Many assume a therapeutic and compassionate image to mask this paradoxical effect. ... Membership in the institutions found at this extreme of the spectrum is achieved in two ways, both coercive: by forced commitment or by selective service.

At the opposite extreme of the spectrum lie institutions distinguished by spontaneous use — the "convivial" institutions. Telephone link-ups, subway lines, mail routes, public markets and exchanges do not require hard or soft sells to induce their clients to use them. Sewage systems, drinking water, parks, and sidewalks are institutions men use without having to be institutionally convince that it is to their advantage to do so. ... The regulation of convivial institutions sets limits to their use; as one moves from the convivial to the manipulative end of the spectrum, the rules progressively call for unwilling consumption of participation. The different cost of acquiring clients is just one of the characteristics which distinguish convivial from manipulative institutions.

At both extremes of the spectrum we find service institutions, but on the right the service is imposed manipulation, and the client is made the victim of advertising, aggression, indoctrination, imprisonment, or electroshock. On the left the service is amplified opportunity within formally defined limits, while the client remains a free agent. Right-wing institutions tend to be highly complex and costly production processes in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product of the treatment offered by the institution. Left-wing institutions tend to be networks which facilitate client-initiated communication of cooperation.

The manipulative institutions of the right are either socially or psychologically "addictive." Social addiction, or escalation, consists in the tendency to prescribe increased treatment if smaller quantities have not yielded the desired results. Psychological addiction, or habituation, results when consumers become hooked on the need for more and more of the process or product. The self-activated institutions of the left tend to be self-limiting. Unlike production processes which identify satisfaction with the mere act of consumption, these networks serve a purpose beyond their own repeated use. An individual picks up the telephone when he wants to say something to someone else, and hangs up when the desired communication is over. ... If the telephone is not the best way to get in touch, people will write a letter or take a trip. Right-wing institutions, as we can see clearly in the case of schools, both invite compulsively repetitive use and frustrate alternative ways of achieving similar results. ...

False Public Utilities

... The telephone and postal networks exist to serve those who wish to use them, while the highway system mainly serves as an accessory to the private automobile. The former are true public utilities, whereas the latter is a public service to the owners of cars, trucks, and buses. Public utilities exist for the sake of communication among men; highways, like other institutions of the right, exist for the sake of a product. Auto manufacturers, we have already observed, produce simultaneously both cars and the demand for cars. They also produce the demand for multilane highways, bridges, and oilfields. The private car is the focus of a cluster of right-wing institutions. The high cost of each element is dictated by elaboration of the basic product, and the sell the basic product is to "hook" society on the entire package. ...

Schools as False Public Utilities

Like highways, schools, at first glance, give the impression of being equally open to all comers. They are, in fact, open only to those who consistently renew their credentials. Just as highways create the impression that their present level of cost per year is necessary if people are to move, so schools are presumed essential for attaining the competence required by a society which uses modern technology. ... Schools are based upon the ... spurious hypothesis that learning is the result of curricular teaching.

Highways result from a perversion of the desire and need for mobility into the demand for a private car. Schools themselves pervert the natural inclination to grow and learn into the demand for instruction. Demand for manufactured maturity is a far greater abnegation of self-initiated activity than the demand for manufactured goods. ... By making men abdicate the responsibility for their own growth, school leads many to a kind of spiritual suicide. ...

The man who does not own a car in Los Angeles may be almost immobilized, but if he can somehow manage to reach a work place, he can get and hold a job. The school dropout has no alternative route. ... The law compels no one to drive, whereas it obliges everyone to go to school. ...

Today all schools are obligatory, open-ended, and competitive. The same convergence in institutional style affects health care, merchandising, personnel administration, and political life. All these institutional processes tend to pile up at the manipulative end of the spectrum. A merger of world bureaucracies results from this convergence of institutions. ...

Everywhere these bureaucracies seem to focus on the same task: promoting the growth of institutions of the right. They are concerned with the making of things, the making off ritual rules, and the making — and reshaping — of "executive truth," the ideology or fiat which establishes the current value which should be attributed to their product. Technology provides these bureaucracies with increasing power on the right hand of society. The left hand of society seems to wither, not because technology is less capable of increasing the range of human action, and providing time for the play of individual imagination and personal creativity, but because such use of technology does not increase the power of an elite which administers it. ...

At stake in the choice between the institutional right and left is the very nature of human life. Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them. He must choose between alternate styles of life and related production schedules. ...

Further excerpts from Deschooling Society

The contemporary ideal is a pan-hygienic world: a world in which all contacts between men, and between men and their world, are the result of foresight and manipulation. School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world, the principal tool to trap man in man's trap. It is supposed to shape each man to an adequate level for playing a part in this world game. Inexorably we cultivate, treat, produce, and school the world out of existence.

· · · · ·

A society committed to the institutionalization of values identifies the production of goods and services with the demand for such. Education which makes you need the product is included in the price of the product. School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is. In such a society marginal value has become constantly self-transcendent. It forces the few largest consumers to compete for the power to deplete the earth, to fill their own swelling bellies, to discipline smaller consumers, and to deactivate those who still find satisfaction in making do with what they have. The ethos of nonsatiety is thus at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity.

Classroom attendance removes children from the everyday world of Western culture and plunges them into an environment far more primitive, magical, and deadly serious. School could not create such an enclave within which the rules of ordinary reality are suspended, unless it physically incarcerated the young during many successive years on sacred territory. The attendance rule makes it possible for the schoolroom to serve as a magic womb, from which the child is delivered periodically at the schoolday's and school year's completion until he is finally expelled into adult life.

· · · · · ·

School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. ... The New World Church is the knowledge industry, both purveyor of opium and the workbench during an increasing number of the years of an individual's life. Deschooling is, therefore, at the root of any movement for human liberation.

· · · · · ·

At stake in the choice between the institutional right and left is the very nature of human life. Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them.

· · · · · ·

School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world, the principal tool to trap man in man's trap.

· · · · · ·

School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.

Energy and Equity

El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta. (Socialism can arrive only by bicycle)

—José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende

A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of life-styles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist.


The possibility of a third option is barely noticed. While people have begun to accept ecological limits on maximum per capita energy use as a condition for physical survival, they do not yet think about the use of minimum feasible power as the foundation of any of various social orders that would be both modern and desirable. Yet only a ceiling on energy use can lead to social relations that are characterized by high levels of equity.


What is generally overlooked is that equity and energy can grow concurrently only to a point. Below a threshold of per capita wattage, motors improve the conditions for social progress. Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity. Further energy affluence then means decreased distribution of control over that energy.


Even if nonpolluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving. A community can choose between Methadone and “cold turkey”—between maintaining its addiction to alien energy and kicking it in painful cramps—but no society can have a population that is hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves and whose members are also autonomously active.


By exporting their crisis and by preaching the new gospel of puritan energy worship, the rich do even more damage to the poor than they did by selling them the products of now outdated factories. As soon as a poor country accepts the doctrine that more energy more carefully managed will always yield more goods for more people, that country locks itself into the cage of enslavement to maximum industrial outputs. Inevitably the poor lose the option for rational technology when they choose to modernize their poverty by increasing their dependence on energy. Inevitably the poor deny themselves the possibility of liberating technology and participatory politics when, together with maximum feasible energy use, they accept maximum feasible social control.


Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.


Enforced dependence on auto-mobile machines then denies a community of self-propelled people just those values supposedly procured by improved transportation.


Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement.


The habitual passenger ... believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it.


Beyond a critical speed, no one can save time without forcing another to lose it.


At each new level, the concentration of power must produce its own kind of rationale. So, for example, the reason that is usually given for spending public money to make a man travel more miles in less time each year is the still greater investment that was made to keep him more years in school.


Acceleration inevitably concentrates horsepower under the seats of a few and compounds the increasing time lack of most commuters with the further sense that they are lagging behind.


The need for unequal privilege in an industrial society is generally advocated by means of an argument with two sides. The hypocrisy of this argument is clearly betrayed by acceleration. Privilege is accepted as the necessary precondition for improving the lot of a growing total population, or it is advertised as the instrument for raising the standards of a deprived minority. In the long run, accelerating transportation does neither. It only creates a universal demand for motorized conveyance and puts previously unimaginable distances between the various layers of privilege. Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity.


Social classification by levels of speed enforces a net transfer of power: the poor work and pay to get left behind. But if the middle classes of a speed society may be tempted to ignore discrimination, they should not neglect the rising marginal disutilities of transportation and their own loss of leisure. High speeds for all mean that everybody has less time for himself as the whole society spends a growing slice of its time budget on moving people. Vehicles running over the critical speed not only tend to impose inequality, they also inevitably establish a self-serving industry that hides an inefficient system of locomotion under apparent technological sophistication.


But as long as any system of vehicles imposes itself on the public by top speeds that are not under political control, the public is left to choose between spending more time to pay for more people to be carried from station to station, and paying less taxes so that even fewer people can travel in much less time much farther than others.


A branch of industry does not impose a radical monopoly on a whole society by the simple fact that it produces scarce products, or by driving competing industries off the market, but rather by virtue of its acquired ability to create and shape the need which it alone can satisfy.


The proposal of a limit to speed within this order of magnitude engenders stubborn opposition. It exposes the addiction of industrialized men to ever higher doses of energy, while it asks those who are still sober to abstain from something they have yet to taste.


People are born almost equally mobile. Their natural ability speaks for the personal liberty of each one to go wherever he or she wants to go. Citizens of a society founded on the notion of equity will demand the protection of this right against any abridgment. It should be irrelevant to them by what means the exercise of personal mobility is denied, whether by imprisonment, bondage to an estate, revocation of a passport, or enclosure within an environment that encroaches on a person’s native ability to move in order to make him a consumer of transport. This inalienable right of free movement does not lapse just because most of our contemporaries have strapped themselves into ideological seat belts.


Transportation can abridge traffic in three ways: by breaking its flow, by creating isolated sets of destinations, and by increasing the loss of time due to traffic. I have already argued that the key to the relation between transport and traffic is the speed of vehicles. I have described how, past a certain threshold of speed, transport has gone on to obstruct traffic in these three ways. It blocks mobility by cluttering up the environment with vehicles and roads. It transforms geography into a pyramid of circuits sealed off from one another according to levels of acceleration. It expropriates life-time at the behest of speed.


At unlimited top speed neither public ownership of the means of transportation nor technical improvements in their control can ever eliminate growing and unequal exploitation.


A country can be classified as overindustrialized when its social life is dominated by the transportation industry, which has come to determine its class privileges, to accentuate its time scarcity, and to tie its people more tightly to the tracks it has laid out for them.


Underequipment keeps people frustrated by inefficient labor and invites the enslavement of man by man. Overindustrialization enslaves people to the tools they worship, fattens professional hierarchs on bits and on watts, and invites the translation of unequal power into huge income differentials. It imposes the same net transfers of power on the productive relations of every society, no matter what creed the managers profess, no matter what rain-dance, what penitential ritual they conduct.


The reconquest of power starts with the recognition that expert knowledge blinds the secretive bureaucrat to the obvious ...


There are two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the center of the world is where he stands, walks, and lives.


Such a process amounts to public guardianship over a means of production to keep this means from turning into a fetish for the majority and an end for the few. ... A society that tolerates the transgression of this threshold inevitably diverts its resources from the production of means that can be shared equitably and transforms them into fuel for a sacrificial flame that victimizes the majority.

Silence Is a Commons

From remarks by Ivan Illich at the "Asahi Symposium Science and Man - The Computer-Managed Society," Tokyo, Japan, March 21, 1982:

On the same boat on which I arrived in 1926, the first loudspeaker was landed on the island. Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication. As enclosure by the lords increased national productivity by denying the individual peasant to keep a few sheep, so the encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.

Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modem means of communication.

The issue which I propose for discussion should therefore be clear: how to counter the encroachment of new, electronic devices and systems upon commons that are more subtle and more intimate to our being than either grassland or roads - commons that are at least as valuable as silence. Silence, according to western and eastern tradition alike, is necessary for the emergence of persons. It is taken from us by machines that ape people. We could easily be made increasingly dependent on machines for speaking and for thinking, as we are already dependent on machines for moving.

Such a transformation of the environment from a commons to a productive resource constitutes the most fundamental form of environmental degradation. This degradation has a long history, which coincides with the history of capitalism but can in no way just be reduced to it. Unfortunately the importance of this transformation has been overlooked or belittled by political ecology so far. It needs to be recognized if we are to organize defense movements of what remains of the commons. This defense constitutes the crucial public task for political action during the eighties. The task must be undertaken urgently because commons can exist without police, but resources cannot. Just as traffic does, computers call for police, and for ever more of them, and in ever more subtle forms.

By definition, resources call for defense by police. Once they are defended, their recovery as commons becomes increasingly difficult. This is a special reason for urgency.