How did a priest manage to captivate me (and others) for the best part of a decade in the 1970s? I was, after all, a politician – if a reforming one – with increasing responsible positions as, first, a Chairman of a (newly-established) municipal social work committee and then as Secretary of the ruling group of Scotland’s (and Europe’s) largest Region and its strategist for its central policy relating to multiple deprivation – or social justice as it would be called these days. What, you might well ask, was I doing with a dangerous anarchist who challenged the claims of health and educational professionals?
I had, admittedly, been open to community action since first encountering the likes of Saul Alinsky and Paulo Freire as I fought the local housing bureaucracy with local residents in the late 1960s – as you can see in the long 1977 article Community Development – its political and administrative challenge Alinsky was more of a tactical street-fighter; Freire the deep and inspirational thinker about self-help. But it was Illich who supplied the hard weaponry
The seeds were probably sown a decade earlier – at university – when I was exposed to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and its demolition of those who claimed universal truths. The article given by the link is a critical reassessment of the 2 volume work after 50 years but can’t detract from the powerful impact it had on this reader in the early 1960s. Even at school, I had learned to be a “freethinker” and to be suspicious of what JK Galbraith called “the conventional wisdom”.
Illich’s critique in the 1970s of the monstrous arrogance of health and educational professionals in claiming to know best was, therefore, pushing at an open door for the likes of us….In all the talk of the dominant narrative of Neoliberalism, this element in my generation’s formation tends to be forgotten.
Social Democracy was undermined to a large extent because my generation stopped believing in the big battalions – not least because of the power of such writers as Illich. In so doing, we committed the first but unnoticed unilateral disarmament! It was the Trade Unions and the working class who had given democracy its teeth. But – as individualists and members of identity tribes - we came to scorn organisational power and have allowed Big Money to subvert democracy with its lobbying, Think Tanks and Corporate Media.
I am not, of course, doing Illich justice when I paint his contribution as one largely of criticism. There was also a deep caring and compassion for the ordinary person – and their capabilities. But, somehow, we western readers tended to take that for granted – such was the power of his dismantling of the claims of the powerful.
Some Reading on Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich
The Prophet of Cuernavaca – Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West by Todd Hartch (2015) is a recent testimony to the man.
The Challenges of Ivan Illich – a collective reflection; by L Hainacki (2002)
We Make the Road by Walking – conversations on education and social change; Myles Horton and Paulo Freire (1990) Myles Horton was a great American practitioner of working class education who teamed up with Freire for this book
Tools for Conviviality; is a short book by Ivan Illich (1975) which gives a sense of his style.