Ivan Illich and conviviality

Conviviality is a term used by the social critic, Ivan Illich (1926 – 2002) to describe what is essentially the opposite of industrialism. Illich studied societies various ‘tools’, including physical devices, mindsets, social forms and institutions. He argued for the creation of convivial, rather than manipulative tools.

For Illich, conviviality involves the voluntary and creative dealings between people, and also with their environment. He wrote:

“I intend [‘conviviality’] 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. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.”

– Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

In contrast the industrial system makes tools that are alienating and tend to become counter-productive. 

Whatever productive and convivial purpose institutions started with tends to get corrupted. Illich argued that institutions like schools, hospitals, the church and businesses are necessary and functional until they reach a certain threshold when their conviviality is lost and they become bureaucratic and technocratic; mired in complexity and the perverse need to develop self-sustaining, but otherwise counter-productive, expert knowledge.

When institutionalisation goes too far people themselves become commodities and tools for the institution to manipulate. 

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”

– Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society