**This is an old revision of the document!**

Ivan Illich

On missions

  • Illich, Ivan. “Missionary Poverty.” Originally an address in Puerto Rico in 1956.
    • “the one common denominator of all missioners is that they are men who have left their own milieu to preach the Gospel in an area not their own from birth. The difference is one of the relation between the man and the field, not one in the man himself or the field.”
    • Incarnation as the prototype of the missionary's identity - “becoming one of them while continuing to remain what he is. Only great love can motivate a man to do this, a deep knowledge is required which love wishes to communicate.”
    • “he has to become indifferent to the cultural values of his home. This means that he has to become very poor in a very deep sense.”
    • “The acquiescence to foreign culture norms or behavior and taboos, besides being a necessary and utilitarian accommodation and a mark of delicacy and charitable toleration, can become an imitation of the Incarnation in a unique and typically missionary way.” - expect this to be “extremely painful”
    • “a more subtle trap in which the bright man might find himself is learning so much about his mission field as to become an anthropologist in order not to have to accept this one people as his by becoming a part of them”
  • Illich, Ivan. “The Seamy Side of Charity.” America. January 21, 1967.
    • Begins with the call for 10% of religious to go to Latin America. “The project relied on an impulse supported by uncritical imagination and sentimental judgment.” Notes the Cold War context, the fear of “Red danger.”
    • “Men and money sent with missionary motivation carry a foreign Christian image, a foreign pastoral approach and a foreign political message. They also bear the mark of North American capitalism of the 1950's. Why not, for once, consider the shady side of charity; weigh the inevitable burdens foreign help imposes on the South American Church; taste the bitterness of the damage done by our sacrifices?”
    • “This kind of foreign generosity has enticed the Latin American Church into becoming a satellite to North Atlantic cultural phenomena and policy.”
    • “By becoming an “official” agency of one kind of progress, the Church ceases to speak for the underdog who is outside all agencies but who is in an ever-growing majority.”
    • Quite a comparison: “Superficial emotional involvement obscures rational thinking about American international “assistance.” Healthy guilt feelings are repressed by a strangely motivated desire to “help” in Vietnam.”
    • “Exporting Church employees to Latin America masks a universal and unconscious fear of a new Church. North and South American authorities, differently motivated but equally fearful, become accomplices in maintaining a clerical and irrelevant Church.”
    • “The men who go to Latin America must humbly accept the possibility that they are useless or even harmful, although they give all they have. They must accept the fact that a limping ecclesiastical assistance program uses them as palliatives to ease the pain of a cancerous structure, the only hope that the prescription will give the organism enough time and rest to initiate a spontaneous healing.”
    • “We must acknowledge that missioners can be pawns in a world ideological struggle and that it is blasphemous to use the gospel to prop up any social or political system. When men and money are sent into a society within the framework of a program, they bring ideas that live after them.”
    • “Latin America can no longer tolerate being a haven for U. S. liberals who cannot make their point at home, an outlet for apostles too “apostolic” to find their vocation as competent professionals within their own community.”
    • “The American Church of the Vietnam generation finds it difficult to engage in foreign aid without exporting either its solutions or its problems. Both are prohibitive luxuries for developing nations.”
    • Admiringly quotes Dan Berrigan as an ally in this.
    • “Instead of believing in the Church, we frantically attempt to construct it according to our own cloudy cultural image. We want to build community, relying on techniques, and are blind to the latent desire for unity that is striving to express itself among men. In fear, we plan our Church with statistics, rather than trustingly search for it.”

"To Hell with Good Intentions"

  • The 1968 speech. Another version, annotated. It does not necessarily go by the above title.
    • Footnote: “This talk was delivered on the evening of Saturday April 20 at St. Maryrs Lake of the Woods Seminary in Niles (Chicago) Illinois. Monsignor Illich was invited to make a presentation to the American Midwest Regional Meeting of CIASP (The Conference on Interamerican Student Projects)”
    • Footnote: “Many of the members of CIASP were seminarians, but in many ways the organization was much more secular than it has been described by Illich.”
    • Begins by saying that he's impressed by their “openness to the idea that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers, as such, as hopefully beloved or adopted ones without any way of returning the gift.” But, “I was equally impressed by the hypocrisy of most of you: by the hypocrisy of the atmosphere prevailing here.” - “you are unwilling to go far enough in your reappraisal of your program. You close your eyes because you want to go ahead and could not do so if you looked at some facts.”
    • “Today, the existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. I wanted to make this statement in order to explain why I feel sick about it all and in order to make you aware that good intentions have not much to do with what we are discussing here. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement. You will not help anybody by your good intentions.”
    • “I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.”
    • “I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy, By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middleclass “American way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know.”
    • “You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers with its two party system, its universal schooling, and its Family car affluency. You are ultimately consciously or unconsciously salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideals of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven't the possibility of profiting from these.”
    • “Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theatre of the world: the teacher, the volunteer ,the missioner, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooder.”
    • All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder. At best, you can try to convince Mexican girls that they should marry a young: man who is self made, rich, a consumer and as disrespectful of tradition as one of you.“ - “How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture-shock of meeting you!”
    • “You can only dialogue with those like you - Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.” - “when you and your middle class Mexican counterparts meet you will be told that you are doing something valuable, that you are “sacrificing” to help others.”
    • “The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place.”
    • “If you have any sense of responsibility, at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections.” - “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”
    • “I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ≥good≤ which you intended to do.”
    • “Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”
  • Cooper, Ryan L. ”On 'To Hell With Good Intentions'.'“ The Orbital. May 23, 2011.

The commons

  • Illich, Ivan. ”Silence Is a Commons.“
    • “machines which ape people are tending to encroach on every aspect of people's lives, and that such machines force people to behave like machines”
    • “Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed.”
    • Proposes a “political ecology” in which “I shall distinguish the environment as commons from the environment as resource.”
    • “People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs. The law of the commons regulates the right of way, the right to fish and to hunt, to graze, and to collect wood or medicinal plants in the forest.”
    • “Enclosure marked a radical change in the attitudes of society towards the environment. Before, in any juridical system, most of the environment had been considered as commons from which most people could draw most of their sustenance without needing to take recourse to the market. After enclosure, the environment became primarily a resource at the service of “enterprises” which, by organizing wage-labor, transformed nature into the goods and services on which the satisfaction of basic needs by consumers depends. This transformation is in the blind spot of political economy.”
    • “What a difference there was between the new and the old parts of Mexico City only 20 years ago. In the old parts of the city the streets were true commons.”
    • “anticapitalist politics so far have bolstered the legitimacy of transforming commons into resources.”
    • The arrival of a loudspeaker in his grandfather's town as akin to the enclosure of the commons: “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.”
    • “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.”
    • A positive comment from Stewart Brand at the end.

The "vernacular"


  • Beta-Local, an arts organization in Puerto Rico with a school called La Ivan Illich.
  • Paul Mayer & Ned O'Gorman
  • Artist Sofía Olascoaga has been examining his legacy

On the commons discourse

On Lewis Hyde

  • Smith, Daniel B. ”What Is Art For?.“ The New York Times Magazine. November 14, 2008.
    • “Hyde’s passion for poetry was quickly being matched by a passion for cultural anthropology, particularly the writings of Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest-cum-social-critic who drew wide public attention for his book 'Deschooling Society' (1971) — a polemic against modern public education. Hyde traveled to Cuernavaca, where Illich ran a language center and salon for Western missionaries heading to Latin America. It was Illich who lent Hyde a book of anthropology that contained a chapter about Marcel Mauss’s essay on gift exchange. Hyde’s intellectual course for the next several years was set.”