Tag Archives: social movements

Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)

Crossroads

From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)

Conclusions

All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]

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Poor People’s Movements: Piven and Cloward

Poor People's Movements: Piven and ClowardPoor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1978) by Piven and Cloward has become a classic of social movement theory, and one I find quite fascinating even though I disagree with almost all of it.

I read this years ago as an organiser and remember being both impressed, and a little struck by their lack of generosity to people in the movement.

What I love is that these are engaged scholars, part of the struggle for change — to the extent that they became known as communists and radical figures to the national press. They are also firm in where they stand — with the poor and the vulnerable and the dispossessed. They try and write from a position of respect and understanding for people’s daily lives, and in some ways they have tried to create a radical theoretical framework that is responsive to how things have actually played out.

Yet in other ways, their framework is astoundingly rigid, and I would argue brittle. It ignores how histories and traditions of struggle are preserved and passed down, particularly among the oppressed.

Where we agree? Organizers do not create the conditions for mass movements. Piven and Cloward go on to argue that when these conditions are right, possibilities for change may be limited but the impetus of mass movement needs to be pushed forward as quickly and as far as possible to obtain what gains are possible.

I agree with that, and also that social movement organizations can sometimes act as an unwelcome break on people’s demands. But that this obliterates the need for organization at all? That such mass movements spring up from nothing and take their direction only from the objective circumstances of that particular capitalist moment?

No. I think Aldon Morris’s detailed work on the Civil Rights Movement shows just how important organization can be, particularly those that facilitate critical thinking and preserve historical memory that can be respectfully passed along to new leaders without dampening their creativity or innovation. Freire and Horton, as well as my own experience, point to how the practice of working collectively, direct democracy, research and strategy are all learned skills, and without them things fall apart pretty fast. But I’ll come back to them in later posts.

Developing Formal Organization:

So. The model they are critiquing:

But whatever their overarching ideology, activists have concentrated their efforts on developing formally structured organizations with a mass membership drawn from the lower classes. What underlies such efforts is the conviction that formal organization is a vehicle of power.

This is based on three assumptions:

1. formal organization allows coordination of economic & political resources of lots of poorly resourced people

2. these resources can be used strategically

3. allows the continuity of political mobilization over time (xx)

They think that they have proved the opposite — I think if you go through their case studies they certainly fail to do this, they are littered with the appearance of, and leadership from, organizations of different kinds. Still they argue:

The model has not succeeded in practice, as the studies in this book reveal…The flaw is, quite simply, that it is not possible to compel concessions from elites that can be used as resources to sustain oppositional organizations over time. (xxi)

This, of course, has always been an issue, but organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Highlander (and a host of other grassroots organisations) prove otherwise I think.  Organizers are of course attracted to the possibilities of organizing through extraordinary times of upheaval, but it is partly true that:

Organizers do not create such moments… Insurgency is always short-lived. Once it subsides and people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up and which elites helped to nurture simply fade away…

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizations endure …by abandoning their oppositional politics. (xxi)

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize. (xxii)

The question is how to ensure that this blunting of force, weakening of demands, and calcification or bureaucratization of organisations does not happen — and I think here that this is also where key figures play a role, who do not necessarily remain with one group but remain involved in the movement. People can be wise and giving rather than autocratic and smothering, and key people reappear over and over again, though generally in the background.

So, key arguments:

On power

Their opening sentence is:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society. crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not… Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs. (1)

Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of  means of production. However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence. (2)

The role of structural limits

I am the last person to discount the importance of structural limits, but I think there is a more complex relationship than this:

…the forces which structure mass insurgency also define the boundaries within which organizers and leaders act…It is our belief that many past organizing efforts foundered because they failed to take account of the profound ways in which the social structure restricts the forms of political action in which the lower classes can engage, and having failed to recognize these limitation, organizers and leaders also failed to exploit the opportunities afforded by lower-class mobilizations when they did occur. (xxiii)

The occasions when protest is possible among the poor, the forms that it must take, and the impact it can have are all delimited by the social structure in ways which usually diminish its extent and diminish its force. (3)

I utterly disagree with the bit about ‘the forms it must take’, just as I would about demands and organisation. These are what emerge from local culture and histories of oppression and resistance, from the beliefs and practices of key organisations, from the supporting infrastructures in place to help grow movement or whose absence ensures it remains fragmented. The militant nonviolence of the civil rights movement was nothing natural or spontaneous, as Morris and Cobb show so convincingly.

The definition of mass movement

Lofland spends a lot of time on definitions, and chooses to focus on social movement organizations, whereas Piven and Cloward spend their time separating movement entirely from organization, and define the two quite separately. They argue for a broader notion of mass movement:

Prevailing definitions by stressing articulated social change goals as the defining feature of social movements, have had the effect of denying political meaning to many forms of protest. (4)

In some ways works for me. Yet there are many forms of protest that I think could be seen as social movement, but not mass movement. I think mass movement is quite rare. But back to them resolutely separating movement from organization:

The stress on conscious intentions in these usages reflects a confusion in the literature between the mass movement on the one hand, and the formalized organizations which tend to emerge on the crest of the movement on the other hand — two intertwined but distinct phenomena. (5)

Whatever the intellectual sources of error, the effect of equating movements with movement organizations — and thus requiring that protests have a leader, a constitution, a legislative program, or at least a banner before they are recognized as such–is to divert attention from many forms of political unrest and to consign them by definition to the more shadowy realms of social problems and deviant behavior. (5)

I think attention was diverted this way, but for ideological reasons and not really as a result of definitions. I like thinking about the complexity of protest, but that’s not what they’re doing here.

The rise of protest

So, this I think is true:

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation both of consciousness and behavior.

They argue it has 3 distinct aspects, which are interesting to think about, though Morris challenges these as well.

  1. The system loses legitimacy

  2. people normally fatalistic begin to assert ‘rights’

  3. new sense of efficacy, people believe they can change something

The change in behavior that occurs during a mass movement is twofold:

  1. masses of people become defiant

  2. defiance acted out collectively

I agree that these are indeed exceptional periods, and I like the respect they show in laying out just what poor people face when they begin to stand up and fight:

masses of the poor were somehow able, if only briefly, to overcome the shame bred by a culture which blames them for their plight; somehow they were able to break the bonds of conformity enforced by work, by family, but community, by every strand of institutional life; somehow they were able to overcome the fears induced by police, by militia, by company guards.

As they argue it,

The emergence of popular uprisings reflects profound changes in the larger society.

…only under exceptional conditions will the lower classes become defiant–and thus, in our terms, only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined opportunity to press for their own class interests. (7)

I really hate the use of the term ‘socially determined opportunity’. It’s like they jettisoned some of the Leninist dogma but kept some of the bits of Marxism I hate most, while losing the more flexible dialectic that I love. What do they argue are characteristic of these times of opportunity? Economic and structural change is not enough to explain it, because that’s a usual rather than extraordinary state of affairs under capitalism (I do like that point), nor is it just when social institutions break down, but when both happen together.

…when the structures of daily life weaken, the regulatory capacities of these structures, too, are weakened. ‘A revolution takes place,” says Lefebvre, “when and only when, in such a society, people can no longer lead their everyday lives; so long as they can live their ordinary lives relations are constantly reestablished.” (11)

And I do like the point that people have to believe their actions can achieve something, and the times when apathy can reasonably become hope are also rare.

For a protest movement to arise out of these traumas of daily life, people have to perceive the deprivation and disorganization they experience as both wrong, and subject to redress (12)

extraordinary disturbances in society are required to move poor ‘from apathy to hope’, these are rare, so too are rare the poor’s chances to effect real change. (14)

They do a lot of work to lay out the circumstances under which these conditions arise, but very little on the form insurgency then takes — nor do they actually address concretely why it doesn’t happen all the damn time. Piven and Cloward argue it is when:

— deprivation experienced in concrete setting — this shapes specific grievances and targets

— ‘institutional patterns shape mass movements by shaping the collectivity out of which protest can arise.’

— institutional roles determine the strategic opportunities for defiance, for it is typically by rebelling against the rules and authorities associated with everyday activities that people protest. (21)

Concrete conditions determine the time and shape of movement. Not intellectuals or practitioners.

Opportunities for defiance are not created by analyses of power structures… It is our second general point…that the opportunities for defiance are structured by features of institutional life. Simply put, people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contributions. (23)

This is basic to organising, right? You start where people are…but you sure don’t have to stay there. You collectively ask some questions, find some answers, craft strategy. Defiance can choose a number of targets, strategies, conditions, goals.

The kinds of response you get — and this assumes that government is the target, which I suppose in mass movement terms it usually is.

When government is unable to ignore the insurgents, and is unwilling to risk the uncertain repercussions of the use of force, it will make efforts to conciliate and disarm the protestors. (29)

  1. offer concessions.

  2. try to channel energies and angers into ‘more legitimate and less disruptive forms of political behavior.’

  3. undermine sympathy group able to command from wider public (31)

  4. employ repressive measures after above have worked (32)

Off course, much depends then on the political moment — who is in power, who their main constituency is, and yes, often the point in the electoral cycle is important, but always?

The main point, however, is simply that the political impact of institutional disruptions depends upon electoral conditions. (31)

Organizers and leaders cannot prevent the ebbing of protest, nor the erosion of whatever influence protest yielded the lower class. they can only try to win whatever can be won while it can be won.

In these major ways protest movements are shaped by institutional conditions, and not by the purposive efforts of leaders and organizers. The limitations are large and unyielding. Yet within the boundaries created by these limitations, some latitude for purposive effort remains. (37)

So win what you can before it all slips away and you just have to sit around waiting for the next wave?

Curious.

On to the case studies in the next post because this is already stupidly long.

Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality

Tools for ConvivialityTools for Conviviality (1973) took a lot of work, it looked so inviting, so thin. But the text was dense and the words strangely denser. It repays effort though, and writing this post has helped immensely. Why I write them I suppose.

Illich argues that there have been two watersheds in modern times. The first is crisp, 1913. We reached the point in Western medicine where a patient had a better than 50-50 chance that trained doctors would provide better treatment than anyone else. Medicine and our expanding knowledge grew in leaps and bounds, and improvements resulted in corresponding improvements in health. The second watershed? More amorphous, that point at which we shifted to keeping people alive longer, without worrying about quality. The point at which everything became considered an issue for doctor’s prescriptions and environment, society and all else were pushed to the side as irrelevant. The point at which as treatment has become further and further professionalised, removed from the control of patients and their families and removed from ideas of community and environmental connectedness. The point at which it actually becomes increasingly less effective. multiple studies in health argue this exact point — that medical knowledge can solve only a portion of health issues, the others are interconnected with society, environment, employment, housing, inequality, isolation and etc. This rather than acknowledging all that can be gained through improving our environment and creating a just society, eradicating poverty, encouraging a sense of worth and connectedness to others.  The Marmot Review is only my favourite of these to date.

These watersheds exist for many professions. I think this is a key point: science and technology with their panoply of elite controlled knowledge and procedures have brought us so far, but cannot take us much further. They are, in fact, damaging as we approach crisis.  As tools they suppress other ideas and systems of knowledge and concentrate control over knowledge and its power in the hands of a few. Partly for this very reason, partly due to their internal logics, they can only provide a limited and very unsatisfactory set of answers to questions of how we can live full meaningful lives, and how we can save our planet. They have, in fact, managed to alienate human beings and bring us to the brink of destruction, while shutting down our ability to work towards or even imagine a better world.

The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation. (9)

Escalation is never good, except for business. Perhaps that’s why we see it in the wars and profiteering all across our world.

All of these things created that we are told make us happy, all of these processes and knowledges and machines are actually created to encourage us to consume and be forever unsatisfied. This is what needs to shift:

The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.

The crisis can be solved only if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.

We need to be able to control these tools and processes, the means of production, so that they can used in harmony with our environment to give us a genuine sense of fulfillment.

I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. (10)

This is what he means by conviviality:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. (11)

And this is how we achieve real socialism:

The transition to socialism cannot be effected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. (12)

The focus on the tools, and the values of conviviality are what protects us:

The illusion is common that planners with socialist ideals might somehow create a socialist society in which industrial workers constitute a majority. The proponents of this idea overlook the fact that anticonvivial and manipulative tools can fit into a socialist society in only a very limited measure. (57)

I like that Illich actually also deals to some extent with how we get there — a world where we all consume less:

People with rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

In this volume I want to offer a methodology by which to recognize means which have turned into ends. My subject is tools and not intentions. (14)

He notes the monotony of our current system, here in the built environment of our cities:

The use of industrial tools stamps in an identical way the landscape of cities each having its own history and culture. Highways, hospital wards, classrooms, office buildings, apartments, and stores look everywhere the same. (15)

He is not prescriptive in the forms of governance a better future takes — only that it be convivial.

In a society in which power–both political and physical–is bounded and spread by political decision there is place not only for a new flowering of products and characters, but also for a variety in forms of governance. Certainly, new tools would provide new options. Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike. But the adoption of a convivial mode of production does not of itself mean that one specific form of government would be more fitting than another… (16-17)

What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization. (24)

The issue at hand, therefore, is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. Only secondarily does the question arise whether private control of a potentially useful tool is in the public interest. (26)

This is an important point about widespread ideas of progress, they continue so powerful forty years later, even after the massive rise in awareness of environmental issues:

It has become difficult for contemporary man to imagine development and modernization in terms of lower rather than higher energy use… The illusion that a high culture is one that uses the highest possible quantities of energy must be overcome. (26)

Another similar point on the need of capitalism to always expand:

The human equilibrium is open. It is capable of shifting within flexible by finite parameters. People can change, but only within bounds. In contrast, the present industrial system is dynamically unstable. It is organized for infinite expansion and the concurrent unlimited creation of new needs… (46)

I quite enjoyed how he ties this back to medieval times, the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold changing into breathing a kind of life into dead matter to control labour:

The alchemist’s dream of making a homunculus in the test tube slowly took the shape of creating robots to work for man, and to educate men to work alongside them. The ideology of an industrial organization of tools and a capitalist organization of the economy preceded by many centuries what is usually called the Industrial Revolution. (30)

I also thought this point about speed was key, the differences in cost between high speed and regular trains, trains and buses, buses and bicycles, bicycles and walking.

Speed is one of the means by which an efficiency-oriented society is stratified.

Fostered addiction to speed is also a means of social control. (38)

It also converses once again with Le Corbusier — I read these almost together, but I don’t think that is the only reason they seemed to be in a war to the death. He writes:

The knowledge-capitalism of professional imperialism subjugates people more imperceptibly than and as effectively as international finance or weaponry. (43)

The final chapters look more deeply at the environmental crisis that looms (and how much worse has it become).

Political debate must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life. (47)

He argues there are 6 ways in which we are threatened by industrial development:

  1. Overgrowth threatens the right to the fundamental physical structure of the environment…

  2. Industrialization threatens the right to convivial work.

  3. The overprogramming of man for the new environment deadens his creative imagination.

  4. New levels of productivity threaten the right to participatory politics.

  5. Enforced obsolescence threatens the right to tradition…

  6. Pervasive frustration by means of compulsory though engineered satsifaction… (47-48)

I so loved this, the basis for conviviality:

The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. (50)

This too, is a key insight, subject of much debate on the left. I think it highlights the need for a complete transformation to be free of racism, sexism and all isms.

It does not matter for what specific purpose minorities now organize if they seek an equal share in consumption, an equal place on the pyramid of production, or equal nominal power in the government of ungovernable tools. As long as a minority acts to increase its share within a growth-oriented society, the final result will be a keener sense of inferiority for most of its members.

Movements that seek control over existing institutions give them a new legitimacy, and also render their contradictions more acute. Changes in management are not revolutions.  (71-72)

This is pretty vital — and he doesn’t really do it here, or doesn’t do it enough, but ultimately this is where we have to get:

The alternative to managerial fascism is a political process by which people decide how much of any scarce resource is the most any member of society can claim; a process in which they agree to keep limits relatively stationary over a long time, and by which they set a premium on the constant search for new ways to have and ever larger percentage of the population join in doing ever more with ever less. (101)

Except to be clear — most of the world does ever more with ever less, so it is residents of Europe and America that are the problem, they will have to transform their consumption the most, and they’re still deeply class stratified. I wanted more postcolonial analysis, but I suppose that is for us to bring to the table. In the meantime,  some words of reason in how to think about creating this kind of majority:

There can be no such thing as a majority oppose to an issue that has not arisen. A majority agitating for limits to growth is as ludicrous as one demanding growth at all cost. Majorities are not created by shared ideologies. They develop out of enlightened self-interest. The most that even the best ideologies can do is interpret this interest. (102)

Ideologies might be a bit more complicated, I think about them a lot. As part of the lack of analysis around race and empire and larger global patterns of exploitation and consumption responsible for environmental disaster, I also really hated some of the rhetoric on population control. But I will end on a final quote I did like:

People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few: that the organization of the entire economy toward the “better” life has become the major enemy of the good life. (103)