“I’m happiest in small lines” – Andy Tudhope
We’ve wandered together through why we need to deschool society, and how we might do so in a great degree of detail. Now, it’s time to return to Illich’s stated goal: “break the spell of this economy and shape a new one.” In order to assist us in this grand endeavour, we will turn to E. F. Schumacher and his heart-opening book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Really Mattered. First, let’s sum up where we are:
“A society committed to the institutionalisation of values identifies the production of goods and services with the demand for such. Education which makes you need the product is included in the price of the product. School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need society as it is.”
This advertising agency sells the idea that we cannot fulfil our own, native needs and thereby rise higher in terms of our ability to understand independently (that is, based on our own, lived experience) the patterns within both self and the world. If we believe the lie that we are born not able to fulfil our own needs, then inevitably this pollutes the environment, polarises our relationships, and renders us psychologically impotent, because these are not different things. We are each other’s environment: physically, culturally, spiritually. So it is that a study of economics which centres people begins with an appreciation of the impact we have on our shared environment:
“The largest institutions compete most fiercely for resources which are not listed in any inventory: the air, the ocean, silence, sunlight, and health. They bring scarcity of these resources to public attention only when they are almost irremediably degraded. Everywhere nature becomes poisonous, society inhumane, and the inner life is invaded and personal vocation smothered.”
Such are the results of a schooled society: this collective paradigm within which we live. Now we intend to take one step further, for our current paradigm is not only schooled, it is schooled at scale. We are globally domesticated. However, evolution reminds us that domestication has two effects: it decreases natural resilience, but it also breeds diversity (think of the number of different dogs living on your street alone). If we can honour our diversity, and use plurality as a means of fostering resilience and independent creativity, we can perhaps overturn some of the myths currently causing large-scale cultural myopia.The Promethean Fallacy¶
Illich recalls the old Greek myth of Prometheus–so often referenced in high technology circles as the hero who stole fire from the gods–but focuses instead on the part about his brother Epimetheus, who falls in love with Pandora, staying with her even once evil is released into the world, and therefore staying in loving relationship with the hope that remains in her amphora.
“The exhaustion and pollution of the earth’s resources is, above all, the result of a corruption in human’s self-image, of a regression in our consciousness [brought about by the] institutionalisation of substantive values, this belief that a planned process of treatment ultimately gives results desired by the recipient, this consumer ethos, which is at the heart of the Promethean fallacy [...] Hopeful trust and classical irony must conspire to expose it.”
“We now need a name for those who value hope over expectations. We need a name for those who love people over products [...] We need a name for those who love the earth on which each can meet the other [...] We need a name for those who collaborate with their Promethean brother in the lighting of the fire and the shaping of iron, but who do so to enhance their ability to tend and care and wait upon the other.”
Illich recommends we call such people “Epimethean”. E. F. Schumacher will describe them as “home-comers”. Whichever word you prefer–or feel free to make one that recasts your own self-image in more loving relationship with the environment you inhabit, which habituates you–it’s time to turn to economics (literally meaning ‘home management’) and think it through again based on all we’ve learnt together, in dialogue, over the years in which we have run this program.Productive Problems¶
Schumacher begins with what he considers one of our most fateful modern errors: the belief that the problem of production has been solved. He claims that this belief stems from a philosophical and religious change in our perception of humanity’s relationship to nature.
“The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most [...] namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.”
Schumacher’s book is a masterpiece because it uses the language of economics, while simultaneously illuminating the metaphysical assumptions inherent in how we model and perceive the world. The distinction between capital and income is immediately relatable to any economist, but his simple insight that we treat as income the irreplaceable capital provided by Earth reveals in one stroke the means by which the spell of modern economics (which we are trying to break) is cast.
Using language relevant to the nature of the problem goes to the heart of what it means to place education once more in proper relationship to meaningful environments. Schumacher begins his work with a quantified argument–based on the use of fossil fuels and the growing population–to make a qualitative point that indicates the very crux of the matter, much like Illich:
“The changes of the last twenty-five years [he wrote the book in 1973], both in quantity and in the quality of man’s industrial processes, have produced an entirely new situation–a situation resulting not from our failures but from what we thought were our greatest successes [such that] we have hardly noticed the fact that we are very rapidly using up a certain kind of irreplaceable capital asset, namely the tolerance margins which benign nature always provides.”
Schumacher specifies three categories of natural asset which we mistakenly treat as income, as if it were not irreplaceable: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of the planet, and ‘human substance’, another point at which he and Illich agree fundamentally. He advocates that we each take personal responsibility for new methods of production and new patterns of consumption:
“In agriculture, we can interest ourselves in the perfection of production methods which are biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty, and permanence [...] In industry, we can interest ourselves in the evolution of small-scale technology, relatively non-violent technology, ‘technology with a human face’, so that people have a chance to enjoy themselves while they are working [... and] we can interest ourselves in new forms of partnership between management and men, even common forms of ownership.”
The phrase “interest ourselves” provides a neat way to avoid putting blame on individuals instead of where it rightly belongs (largely, multinational corporations), while not denying the agency each one of us has to participate in the kind of society which cares for people and the ways in which we form each other’s environment.
“We often hear it said that we are entering the era of ‘the Learning Society’. Let us hope this is true. We still have to learn how to live peacefully, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us; for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves.”Prosperous Lies¶
Much like Illich outlines the four myths of school, Schumacher–having described the mistaken belief that we have solved the problem of production–takes on the “dominant modern belief that the soundest foundation of peace would be universal prosperity [...] This has an almost irresistible attraction as it suggests that the faster you get one desirable thing the more securely do you attain another. It is doubly attractive because it completely by-passes the whole question of ethics: there is no need for renunciation or sacrifice.”
In particular, he quotes Keynes, who wrote the somewhat unbelievable words, “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”
We know already from Illich that the school (advertising agency) is responsible for instilling this sense of necessity which we do not have the inborn capacity to solve ourselves. Schumacher is here showing how some of the ‘greatest’ thinkers trained in such schools report that ethics is not merely irrelevant, but actually a hindrance. In order to untangle this, he breaks up the belief we have about the link between prosperity and peace into three fallacies:
- Universal prosperity is possible
- That its attainment is possible on the basis of the materialist philosophy of ‘enrich yourselves’
- This is the road to peace
The first claim leads us to the question, “Is there enough to go round?” which begs the deeper question, “What is enough?” Who can tell us? “Certainly not the economist,” writes Schumacher, “who pursues ‘economic growth’ as the highest of all values, and therefore has no concept of enough.” Lacking any appropriately modern ethical source, Schumacher demonstrates how the growth in demand which results from everyone having ‘more’ raises questions around two key factors: the availability of natural resources and the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied (which disproves the second point above). Looking once more at the the ill-conceived essay of Keynes, Schumacher suggests that:
“The foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense, because such prosperity, if available at all, is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy, which destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby peacefulness.”
We are taught to believe we need teaching, and we are bought into believing that we can buy peace.
“In short, we can say today that man is far too clever to be able to survive without wisdom. No-one is really working for peace unless he is working primarily for the restoration of wisdom [...] The exclusion of wisdom from economics, science, and technology was something we could get away with for a little while, as long as we were relatively unsuccessful; but now that we have become very successful, the problem of spiritual and moral truth moves into the central position.”
Here is the small seed we each need to sow in the manure of our own experience. It is not a universal question of manipulating others (or our shared environment) for their own salvation. It is the particular, simple, and straightforward question: “What is enough?” Schumacher reminds us that:
“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s own dependence on outside forces which one cannot control, and therefore increases existential fear [...] The economics of permanence implies a profound reorientation of science and technology, which have to open their doors to wisdom and, in fact, have to incorporate wisdom into their very structure.”
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful. Peace, as has often been said, is indivisible–how then could peace be built on a foundation of reckless science and violent technology?”
Again, Schumacher is careful not to remain only in the metaphysical, but to discipline his language with practical suggestions legible to scientists and economists working in his day and age. In particular, he suggests a need for methods and equipment which are:
Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone
Suitable for small-scale application
Compatible with man’s need for creativity
In other words, we need convivial tools for spontaneous use within opportunity webs. The link here to Illich’s thinking goes deep, for Schumacher will later write (as he examines Buddhist philosophy):
“From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.”
Nor are Illich and Schumacher alone in this. Gandhi pointed out that machines which work with us and lighten the load of certain strenuous and repetitive tasks are acceptable, but there is a great ethical danger in larger, more expensive machines which “concentrate power in a few hands and turn the masses into mere machine minders.” This same wisdom may be found in all the great traditions of humankind, and we know of no more succinct statement of this urgent ethical idea than Chapter 80 of the Tao te Ching, appropriately entitled “Freedom”:
Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
“Above anything else,” Schumacher writes, “there is the need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of body and soul.”
“But what is wisdom? Where can it be found? Here we come to the crux of the matter: it can be read about in numerous publications but it can be found only inside oneself. To be able to find it, one has first to liberate oneself from such masters as greed and envy. The stillness following liberation–even if only momentary–produces the insights of wisdom which are attainable in no other way.”
This is all wonderful on the individual level, but how are we to create an economics of permanence which are the foundations for peace? Permanence can only be dogmatic in a world entangled with time and its many changes. There can be no permanent foundation to anything–just ask Ozymandias–unless what we are speaking of exists outside time. How are we to find the strength for this seemingly impossible and timeless journey? Gandhi described it well, pointing out that only the soul has a timeless nature, and is therefore permanent, which attracts and founds eternal wisdom. Even more importantly,
“This recognition must amount to a living faith; in the last resort, non-violence does not avail those who do not possess a living faith in the God of Love.”