The Bikecast Episode #33: Ivan Illich, Sustainability, and the War on Subsistence

Any realistic analysis of our economic, environmental, financial or resource situation[1] must conclude that our current social trajectory cannot be sustained. Our way of life in the united states is premised on uninterrupted economic growth, increased resource consumption, ever increasing productivity, non-stop population growth, and other parallel preconditions that are obviously physically impossible. What cannot continue, will not continue and thus this system must be altered one way or another–yet there is no recognition of this in public policy (nor should we expect there to be). The continuance of the wealth and privilege of the ruling class requires a continuance of the socio-economic system as it is today, and thus we can expect the system to right itself only after it’s been driven off a cliff.


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Our unsustainable track makes simpler modes of living more difficult, what Ivan Illich terms a “war on subsistence.” City design is premised on automobile ownership. This, despite the strong possibility that the petroleum economy is unsustainable. With centers of residence, recreation, and commerce miles away from one another, individuals must withdraw resources from food, medical care and recreation–things that make life comfortable–and allocate them to an automobile (and insurance, and gas, and licensing and registration fees, etc.). Thus is a simpler, car free life rendered impossible even as it seems somewhat likely that a car-having existence will, in the future, be impossible.

Ivan Illich proposes the case of “official” language as another attack on subsistence. In 1492, while Columbus is sailing west, a scholar named Elio Antonio de Nebrija is proposing to compile the “queen’s tongue,” her language, into a book of grammer and a dictionary.

Prior to this time, on the Iberian peninsula, countless languages and dialects are spoken. Business can be conducted any time and place where two people can make themselves understood to one another. There was, for most people, no need to learn a language other than those one grew up speaking.

After the empire had compiled and desiminated an official language, however, this changed. Now, in order to conduct business with the state, one must leave the vernacular, native dialects behind and study the official dialect. To become proficient, it was likely necessary to hire a tutor or attend a center of learning. Over time this radiated from the bureaucracy to businesses close to the state and then to businesses removed from the state.

As this process continued, relying on the communication that one “learned for free” disallowed access to many avenues of social life. Comfortably subsisting became that much more difficult as resources had to be stripped away from other uses and put into teaching the state language to one’s children. Without making this sacrifice, one’s family was relegated to the fringes of business and society.

Kevin Carson had a great article a couple months back in which he references Ivan Illich’s notion of a war on subsistence. He’s talking about medicine, but the pattern is the same.

By protecting the patents on easily replicated technology, easily replicated chemical combinations and processes, and monopoly privileges for license holding medical doctors[2], the state has made rudimentary, routine medical services astronomically more expensive. This makes medical care a huge burden that requires massive sacrifice or a job with medical benefits (or both). A commodity that should be within everyone’s price range in a society as affluent as ours is, instead, outside anyone’s ability to pay without assistance from the state insurance racket.

Additionally, medical tasks that could be performed by a trained technician are scoped for licensed, college educated medical professionals. This places a whole set of career tracks further from attainability for a large swath of capable people.

In medicine, transportation, and a whole host of other aspects of society, the ruling class has engineered systems that serve the wealthy very well, the well-off adequately, and the poor not at all. Going forward, as the unsustainable nature of the systems become manifest, an increasingly number of people will become increasingly incumbered by the systemic requirements of subsistence.

In summary, not only are the managers of the state not moving us toward sustainability, they are in fact making sustainability less possible and more painful and fraught with peril.

  1. [1] Understanding that these overlap in complex and significant ways
  2. [2] If you have programmed responses about the cost of R & D or the danger of deregulating medical scopes of practice, I highly recommend (again) the Kevin Carson article.
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