|Archaeology of Ideas||Previous - Next
between Ivan Illich and Majid Rahnema
Majid Rahnema , once a Minister in the Iranian government in the late sixties, speaks with his friend Ivan Illich, in preparation for a book he is editing. In this intimate and tender exchange Ivan speaks of development, friendship and the dangers of social responsibility.
|MAJID. Ivan, I had thought earlier to include in this Reader
your essay on Epimethean Man which, in my view, was the spark which kindled the fire
of a real discussion of the nature of development. In those days, I was also amongst
the many who considered your attack on the new myth nothing more than a skilful provocation.
The text represents, nonetheless, a kind of classic which I thought had to be brought
to the attention of the present generation concerned with the history of ideas. But,
inasmuch as I was coming to see you, I felt it would be a more exceptional gift to
readers if I could offer them your present views on the matter, especially since
the Reader is intended to help them understand the Post Development Era. Finally,
when I arrived here, I thought that I could use this unique opportunity to question
you on some special issues of particular interest to me personally. Thus, the few
questions I am going to ask you are not just for the readers of the book. They are
also very much to satisfy the curiosity of a friend who has affectionately followed
the stream of your thoughts, and admired the "laser"-type quality which
has often allowed you to pierce through many of the opacities of our times. So, please
consider them part of the ongoing conversations that have not only woven together
our long and enduring friendship, but have also had a great influence on the helping
of my own perception of modern reality.
If I am correct, you have never been interested in the kind of actions in which missionaries, developmentalists or Marxist and other social intervenors generally take pride; namely, to extend care or assistance to those who are presumed to suffer or need help. Unlike them, you seem to consider this attitude as both un-loving and unrealistic, arrogant and counterproductive. On the other hand, you have always been concerned with the art of suffering and, in particular, in the history of different cultures as they lived with their sufferings. And you have deplored the fact that modernity has very negatively affected this art, while it has created new and perhaps more intolerable forms of suffering. This position has led some of your critics to argue that you are interested more in the history of the arts of suffering than in actions aimed at reducing or eventually eliminating different forms of suffering. Hence, the following questions: To what extent do you believe that human solidarity implies that one must somehow respond to suffering, eventually with a view either to reduce it, or to transform it into an elevating exercise, that is, the opposite of its dehumanising forms? And if so, could such be achieved in a meaningful and dignified manner?
|I began to question the goals of development more than the agencies, education more than schools, health more than hospitals.||ILLICH.Majid, there is something unsettling about your inquisition. Here we are,
seated on my futon with a steaming samovar in front of us, relaxing in my mansard
in the Bremen house of Barbara Duden, you soon to depart to celebrate the seventieth
anniversary of Baba-ji, I also to teach one more class on the history of iconoclasm
at the university.Just last night, with my students who are also your readers, we
celebrated your seventieth birthday. Thus I cannot very well reject your request.
Further, I speak with pleasure, for your questions are a poignant reminder of a conversation that has been a true enquiry. I know this is so because I remember it as controversial and polemical in character. Now we are both older; each of us had to advance along his own road to reach a level where we can find ourselves in agreement.
You are correct in your belief that I had qualms about the notion of economic development early on. From my very first encounter with it, when I became vice-chancellor in charge of "development" at a university in Ponce, Puerto Rico, I had doubts. That was exactly forty years ago, twelve years before you were made Minister of Education, seventeen years before each of us overcame his timidity and we met in Teheran, where we sucked on an ablambu, a huge pomegranate, at our first meeting. Intuition guided my initial rejection of development. I only learned to formulate true reasons gradually, principally over the stretch of time that coincides with our growing friendship.
During more than a decade, my criticisms focussed on the procedures used in the attempt to reach goals that I did not then question. I objected to compulsory schooling as an inappropriate means to pursue universal education which I then approved ( Deschooling Society ). I rejected speedy transportation as a method to increase egalitarian access (Energy and Equity).
In the next step, I became both more radical and more realistic. I began to question the goals of development more than the agencies, education more than schools, health more than hospitals. My eyes moved from the process toward its orientation, from the investment toward the vector's direction, toward the assumed purpose. In Medical Nemesis, my main concern was the destruction of the cultural matrix that supported an art of living characteristic of a time and place. Later, I increasingly questioned the pursuit of an abstract and ever more remote ideal called health.
Majid, it is only after those books to which you just referred, since the seventies, that my
main objection against development focusses on its rituals. These generate, not just specific goals like "education" or "transportation", but a non-ethical state of mind. Inevitably, this wild-goose chase transforms the good into a value; it frustrates present satis-faction (in Latin, enough-ness) so that one always longs for something better that lies in the "not yet".
|MAJID. This morning, I conveyed to you the message of a younger friend who asked
me to thank you for having left a deep mark on his life, since the first time he
learned from you the need to constantly question his certainties. Although the lesson
had enriched his friends's inner life in many ways, it has also, I guess, acted on
him as a destabilising factor, actually discouraging him from taking an active part
in social life, as he did before. Thinking of him, I sometimes wonder whether the
joy and indeed the inner clarity gained by this type of questioning does not sometimes
hinder one's capacity to relate with the outer world and to participate in a meaningful
To help you grasp the depth of my question, let me remind you of a beautiful answer you gave to David Cayley when he asked you, "Once one has laid bare these certainties and become aware of 'needs', 'care', 'development' whatever these cherished concepts are once one has investigated them, once one has seen how destructive they may be, what next? Is your counsel to live in the dark? You emphatically said "No" to him, and then added: "Carry a candle in the dark, be a candle in the dark, know that you're a flame in the dark" To me, this is a Buddhist answer, the kind of comment which makes me sometimes believe that, despite your resistance to the idea, you often come close to the Buddhists in some important areas of thinking and action. But, closing this parenthesis, I remembered you saying yesterday that Buddhists who use meditation or other "spiritual" exercises tend to focus more on their navels rather than realising the possible consequences of their belief in their oneness with the world. So, in the name of eliminating the causes of sorrow, you said, they actually sever themselves from other people's sufferings, rather than experiencing them.
Now, coming back to your advice to David, how do you think one could be a candle in the dark and still develop, at a social level, the type of compassion and love of the world which permeates all your thinking? I know that, for you, friendship is perceived as a way of reconciling the two, but is it possible to extend the grace of friendship to everyone?
|Friendship cannot be true unless it is open, inclusive convival - unless a third is fully welcome.||ILLICH. Majid, your queries are like challenges, more stimuli than questions. Now
you ask something which just fits the sense with which we concluded our first session.
Tell your friend the story of Saadi's Golestan, the story you related at the celebration
In the annals of Ardashir Babakan, it is told that he asked an Arabian physician how much food one should eat daily. He replied, "A hundred dirham's weight would suffice."The king pressed him further, "What strength will this quantity give?" The physician answered, "This quantity will carry you; and that which is in excess of it, you must carry."
"Enough" is like a magic carpet; I experience "more" as a burden, a burden that during the twentieth century has become so heavy that we cannot pack it on our shoulders. We must load it into lorries that we have to buy and maintain.
The story is true of things, be they food, or ideas, or books. But it does not apply to friends. Friendship cannot be true unless it is open, inclusive, convivial unless a third is fully welcome. The candle which burns in front of us also lights our pipe; a match would serve just as well. But a match would not let us see the continual reflection of a third one in both our pupils, would not remind us of this persistent presence.
Now, back to your questions. I worry about minds, hearts and social rituals being infected by development, not only because it obliterates the unique beauty and goodness of the now, but also because it weakens the "we." As you know better than I, most languages have several differently sounding words for the first person plural, for the we, the us. You use a different expression for saying, "You and I, we two," the Greek or Serbian dualis, and another for designating "those of us who sit around this table" to the exclusion of others; and yet another to refer to those with whom you and I live our daily lives together.
This refinement of the first person experience has been largely washed out wherever
development has set in. The multiple we was traditionally characteristic of the human condition; the "first person plural" is a flower born out of sharing in the good of convivial life. It is the opposite of a statistical "we," the sense of being jointly enumerated and represented in a graphic column. The new voluntaristic and empty we is the result of you and me, together with innumerable others, being made subject to the same technical management process "we driver", "we smokers,"we environmentalists". The I who experiences is replaced by an abstract point where many different statistical charts intersect.
Assure your friend that neither navel gazing nor flight from the city is appropriate; rather, only a risky presence to the Other, together with openness to an absent loved third, no matter how fleeting. And remember that there is no possibility of achieving this so long as the candle near our samovar stands for "everyone". The most destructive effect of development is its tendency to distract my eye from your face with the phantom, humanity, that I ought to love.
|The most destructive effect of development is its tendency to distract my eye from your face with the phantom, humanity that I ought to love.||MAJID. You were amongst the first to reject development as an irrelevant, unethical
dangerous form of intervention into other people's lives. I then believed, like most intellectuals of the so-called Third World, that development represented a justified claim of the victims of the colonial order. It seemed to us to be a prerequisite for the full achievement of their independence. Thus, your attitude appeared to us as an outright provocation. Many of us now believe that you were basically right, for development did ultimately serve purposes that have nothing to do with people's sufferings. It is actually used as a "cultural defoliant"and a rather powerful means for the destruction of the victim's defence immune systems. Worse, what appears to me as the new AIDS syndrome soon developed to such an extent that even the grassroots seem now to have been coopted in the process. Under these circumstances, a) Do you see any chance for the victims to realize a change of mind, or to find a meaningful alternative to their present state? And if so, what would be the conditions for such a change? b) Is your outright rejection of development still based on its unethical aspects, its irrelevance to people's suffering, its false claims to represent an act of solidarity or as a part of your wider philosophical stand that any institutionalisation of the Good Samaritan's gesture is doomed to become a disastrous failure?
Social responsibility, we now know, is but the soft underbelly of a weird sense of power through which we think ourselves capable of making the world better. We thus distract ourselves from becoming fully present to those close enough to touch.
|ILLICH. Majid, in Puerto Rico I resigned rather than expand the university at the
cost of less support for public elementary schools. Later, I faced serious injury
through my attempts to stop missionaries of development from invading Latin America.You
asked that we reflect together on the roads we have both travelled. Now let us go
one step farther. In a first stage, I took as my model the pamphleteers of the Enlightenment.
During the fifties, I called on people to recognize the surreptitious injustices
implicit in publicly financed professional organisations of teachers, social workers
and physicians. In my battles against invasion by volunteers, I appealed to reason.
Celebration of Awareness expresses this attempt. In
a second stage, my rhetoric was inspired by the stories of myth. I called attention to the engineering of new mentalities in which thirst demands, "I'll have a Coke", "good" means "more" and desire becomes mimetic. I would like to have been a dramatist like Sartre or Beckett. Then I could have put a necktie on Sisyphus, and placed Prometheus in front of a computer as I put the death-denying physician in a white coat. In my battle against delusional and therefore destructive goals, I tried to tell stories, like Energy and Equity or Shadow Work. In a third stage, I risked losing my audiences rather than write replays of dramas I had already offered to the public in the sixties. The performances of schooling, medicalization, human garaging and shipment by motorised transport were now produced on many stages.
You were then among those who urged me to do for law or social work what I had done for the institutions of education, transportation and health care. I refused.I refused to restrict my analysis to the unwanted technical and social consequences of education, health and productivity. I thought I should look at these fantasies as at a frightful Greek ogre, a fateful destiny in the pursuit of which all but some of the rich or protectively credentialled have a
high chance of being ground up by the rituals created to reach it.
Now you ask me how we can avoid blaming the victims of development. I do not think that we can, or that we should. The enterprise to transform la condition humaine has been crowned by success. And this 'human' condition is and remains bound up with development, despite the fact that the latter is a disastrous failure. Your task and mine can only be to explore how to trust and love and suffer in a milieu that drowns out our voices and makes our
sparks invisible. Given who we are, two very privileged people who have been far too slow in recognizing the truth, we now ought to witness to what we have come to know.
Now back to the "victims" of development. They are not all of one kind. So I must ask: Do you have in mind Charlie's father in Ghana? With his large chicken farm, he still went bankrupt to send his son through the missionaries' schools to learn techniques which, in the meantime, have become obsolete. Or do you think of my former colleague at the University
of Bremen? Too late, he tried to unhook himself from the tortures of chemotherapy in order to die a peaceful death, soothed by a few grains of opium. These and their like got what they asked for; their fate was not imposed on them. They were "victims" because, in some way, they were privileged: Charlie's father because he was close to the missionary; my colleague because he was well insured.
Or perhaps you are not thinking of the privileged, but of the "mass", of those processed into modernity, of those railroaded into dependence on antibiotic consumption or into the replacement of their traditional seed stocks by "improved" varieties. Or you may be thinking of those who are subject to compulsory school attendance laws, but have no chance to go, of all those countless persons who have been disembedded from their cultures, only to progress into the worldwide majority of underconsumers.
Majid, over the years we have known one another we have both learned a lesson in powerlessness. Once we felt powerless "to do" now we recognize that we are powerless even to recommend. We have both found out that the "social responsibility" that once motivated us was itself the result of a belief in the same progress that spawned the idea of development. Social responsibility, we now know, is but the soft underbelly of a weird sense of power through which we think ourselves capable of making the world better. We thus distract ourselves from becoming fully present to those close enough to touch. We had to pierce the illusion of responsibility which, in a non legal sense, has not been around for more than a century in order to accept the lesson of powerlessness.
We had to learn the lessons of our powerlessness in order truly to renounce development. This means that we recognize that we are no more powerful than our grandfathers: yours, a historically influential holy man of Islam in Iran, and mine, a Jew, financing a string of German-Lutheran schools with money made by destroying Bosnian forests.
|MAJID. Some four years ago in a declaration prepared by you and a group of friends
concerned with the environment, you defined virtue as "that shape, order and
direction of action informed by tradition, bounded by place, and qualified by choices
the habitual reach of the actor, and you noted that "such virtue is traditionally found in labour, craft, dwelling and suffering supported not by an abstract earth, environment, or system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces."
For me, that declaration expressed the essence of your objections to development, not only as a war against people's regenerative ties with that soil, but also as a foolish attempt to destroy their virtue and replace it by scientific methods of management and control over resources. Since your first essays on the dangers of the development project, even "virtuous" NGOs and grassroots-oriented organisations have finished by disvaluing virtue in the hope of finding more "resources" that the benefits of development might trickle down towards the excluded. In the meantime, in the North, virtue seems to have gone through some kind of emocratically processed mutation. It is replaced by a universally defined type of care or assistance cooked up by politicians and their selected teams of experts and professionals.
Under these circumstances (which you had already foreseen in the sixties), do you think that there are still some untapped spaces left, in both vernacular and industrialised societies, where traditional virtues have a chance to grow safely? And, if you answer in the affirmative, could you elaborate further on that? Please consider that I am not asking you this question in the context of some possible management of another planned future but, to use a Foucauldian
expression, thinking of you as a historian of the present.
|Your task and mine can only be to explore how to trust and love and suffer in a milieu that drowns out our voices and makes our sparks invisible.||ILLICH. Majid, the answer is simple. Yes, there are such spaces. Most of us, no matter
how poor our circumstances, can still claim or mark a threshold. We can also do this
with the memory of someone absent. For each other, we can be a source of clarity
and goodness; that, plus spaghetti, is all we have to share.
Majid, as I look at your face, I guess that you are thinking of the disappointment, or even disdain, on the faces of future readers.They are decent people who want to do good, and might allow that friendship could be a germ from which political action grows. I recognize that their political interpretation of friendship stands in a venerable tradition. This notion distinguishes Aristotle from his teacher, Plato. For two millennia, this political understanding of friendship has been strong enough to illumine the western practice of politics. But that time is past. The possibility of a city set up as the milieu that fosters a common search for the good has vanished. You have often spoken to me of the times when Islam could still shape an ethical city. However, in the East as well as the West, we now live "after ethos" or, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes, "after virtue".
Commitment to progress has extinguished the possibility of an agreed upon setting within which a search for the common good can arise.Techniques of information, communication and management now define the political process, political life has become an empty euphemism.Political friendship, that for Aristotle was the outcome of civic virtues practised in the household and on the forum is, therefore, inevitably corrupt, however lofty the intentions of those who promote it. In a world set on development, no matter the economic stage reached, the good can only come from the kind of personal complementarity which Plato, not Aristotle, had in mind. Dedication to each other is the generator of the only space that allows what you ask: a mini-space in which we can agree on the pursuit of the good.
Majid Rahnema, an ex-minister for education in Iran, left Iran and joined the United Nations UNDP. In 1997 he published the book The Post Development Reader, Zed Books, London, eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree, in which is contained this interview. Born in Vienna, Ivan Illich currently divides his time between Mexico, Germany, and the U.S. He is an ex-professional itinerant teacher and philosopher.
Previous - Next