Reclaiming Autonomy = Rejecting Bureaucracy

In the 20th century, several radical thinkers of considerable stature aimed to rethink, and possibly transcend, the premises of State-oriented, progressive-political ideology.  Pioneering sociologist Max Weber critiqued the massively-encroaching “bureaucratization” of all aspects of everyday life — the diminishment of the unique individual into a “calculable person” (to use Foucault’s phrase).  Like Weber, Michel Foucault valued the rational/scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, but deplored the “management” of “employees/citizens” that came in its wake.  Similarly, Lewis Mumford — another major, post-Marxist revisionist now (almost) entirely forgotten — offered a “libertarian” and de-centralized vision of vibrant social communities, as an alternative to the bureaucratized “total society” (which he termed “the Megamachine”).

In this essay, I’m turning to a brief re-examination of the unorthodox ideas of Ivan Illich, whose best writings — notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis — aimed to question the entire edifice of the “managed society.”  Certainly, we’re well aware that, with the imposition of colonialism, a vast and varied multitude of localized folk-knowledge and ways of living were destroyed. In the aftermath — and this historical process is still ongoing! — individuals were deprived of their land and modes of adapting, and forcibly transformed into subjects of State and Capital.  Reciprocal sharing and learning of traditional life-skills were replaced by “managers” and “experts,” who dictated new definitions of “needs” — now to be fulfilled primarily through market-based consumption of their goods-and-services.  Informal learning was replaced by “education,” subsistence techniques by mechanized/chemical “agriculture.”  Traditional practical knowledge, as well as folk-wisdom, were soon lost as was “the pleasure derived from personal autonomous action.”  Formerly self-regulating individuals became “consumers” of newly-imposed “commodities,” such as seeds, tractors, “infant formula,” and so forth.  Moreover, the expanded definition of “needs” — consumption of which now required imposed wage-labor and acquisition of debt — transformed formerly independent, adaptive persons into bondage to the State and its corporate masters.  In short, as Illich put it, people were “dis-abled” from their former competences, becoming “clients” of varied “experts” and “managers.”

Like Mumford, Illich condemned the crushing of individual creative adaptation, and with it the person’s “confidence in his own unaided capacities.”  Instead of enhancing the self-awareness and habits of good health, people — as we see all around us today! — were soon rushing to “the doctor” at the first sign of an ailment (usually self-correcting).  The burgeoning medical industry, imposing a monopoly on the definition of “health,” claimed the exclusive power to define “sickness” and its appropriate “treatment” (all at substantial cost, of course, to the hapless “patient”!).  (Parenthetically, one might insert a word of skepticism regarding proposed U.S. “Medicare-for-All” — given this well-documented study by James Leiber: Killer Care: How Medical Errors Have Become the Third Leading Cause of Death.)  As the individual felt increasingly unable to cope with the difficulties of family and social life, he increasingly turned to “family counselors,” “financial advisors,” “personal coaches” — even “sex therapists” (cf. Thomas Szasz, Sex by Prescription).

Thus, the inexorable historic shift, from prideful autonomy (and dignity) to what Illich termed “heteronomy” — i.e., total dependence on, and control by, “managerial-elites” and the commodities they now insist are “needs.”  Certainly, given the labyrinthine web of “services” in which most of us find ourselves enmeshed, Illich’s ideas today, if anything, constitute an increasingly urgent wake-up call.  Totally rejecting the dependence imposed in consumer-society, Illich to the end celebrated “the advantages of self-chosen joyful austerity!”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.