Illich’s work “Tools for Conviviality” is a good starting point. Illich argues that the scientific revolution has brought in its wake an excessively technocratic society that is marginalizing us from one another. His critique of medicine in Medical Nemesis and education in Deschooling Society articulates how the institutionalization of these bodies has spiralled beyond control and that fundamental re-ordering of society is necessary to redress it.
He argues that the tools necessary for social ordering need to be brought closer to the people, the community, the individual as opposed to ever enlarging, out of control bureaucracies far beyond the reach of local people.
The issue is not technology per se but instead democratizing those technological tools. This requires placing limits on tools. Illich explains: To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call "convivial."
The kind of society Illich describes requires ongoing analysis and vigilance. Thomas Jefferson said that the price of liberty was eternal vigilance and in this, he was eerily prescient. It is far too easy to squander our freedom on “bread and circus”. This requires of the population a certain asceticism or austerity. Having a Catholic background Illich draws on Thomas Aquinas (echoing Aristotle) to explain the concept of austerity (although I prefer the term asceticism as it carries with it a richer spiritual tradition). Illich writes that Thomas “in his third response defines "austerity" as a virtue that does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness. For Thomas "austerity" is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness. It is the fruit of an apprehension that things or tools could destroy rather than enhance eutrapelia (or graceful playfulness) in personal relations.”
So, a concentration on the tools that bring us together as a community, and ensuring that each individual can use them for themselves is an essential aspect of where Illich argues we need to return. I will argue that we can no longer live and work effectively without public controls over tools and institutions that curtail or negate any person's right to the creative use of his or her energy. For this purpose, we need procedures to ensure that controls over the tools of society are established and governed by political process rather than by decisions by experts.
This brings us to the major political question of how we are organized and in this he may sound a bit anarchic - and against the backdrop of over 300 years or more of gradual technocratic dominance and its dramatic acceleration in the last 70 plus years, it does. Anarchy conjures up fearful images of riots in streets, burning buildings, and lawlessness. But this is not the kind of anarchy that is intended. The issue is not whether we as people will be governed but HOW we wish to be governed. And this is an important question. But through a deadening of political discourse, through an acceleration of distractions on mass media (latter-day bread and circus), we have not had the space to critically analyze the question of how our tools (and by tools he means not only actual implements but knowledge such as medicine, schools, the press, housing, etc.) need to be used. Illich writes: If tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools.
This is precisely what has occurred and people, like those in Plato’s cave, are beginning to see the darkness of our current cave. In response, inchoate political responses are emerging and in this, there are striking similarities between the anti-establishment of Trump and Sanders and the vox populi of their respective movements. Still, there is a need for a coherent political philosophy to explain this phenomenon and guide us in a methodological, programmatic manner. Elizabeth Warren is a good leader in this regard. She has a sharp mind and a clear vision of how to ensure this can happen politically. Her campaign slogan “She has a plan for that” is on point and could be prophetic.
I do my part in the wilderness but we do live in interesting times!