Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A Fine Piece of Mischief

There's a nice story in today's Guardian Society section about an unusual piece of corporate generosity. A dozen tiny grassroots campaign groups got a surprise earlier this year, when letters arrived from the cosmetics chain Lush, swiftly followed by cheques for £1000. Among them was the campaign against the widening of the M1 motorway run by my friend Julie White.

These are groups that generally run on a mixture of sweat and imagination, so the cash should come in handy. As impressive (to me) as the gifts is the logic which led Lush CEO Mark Constantine and campaigner Rebecca Lush (no relation!) to them:

"My son and one of the buyers went out to Thailand after the tsunami and it was pretty horrific," he explains. "They saw all the wasted money, all the schools bought for children that weren't alive, boats that will never sail, houses for people that don't exist, a general waste of all the money that everyone chucked in. And that's why we're so specific, that's why I asked Rebecca to get the activists on board. We could give a hundred grand to the Prince's Trust (who we like very much) or we could give that in one grand lots to people stopping climate change. Frankly, that sounds more fun."

The waste of money by large charities Constantine describes sounds very much like the phenomenon Ivan Illich called 'paradoxical counterproductivity' - the tendency of modern institutions to produce the opposite of their stated purpose, so that (for example) the education system becomes an obstacle to learning. He associated this with a tendency for activities which begin as a means to an end to end up being performed for their own sake.

For Illich, examples of such counterproductivity are not simply unfortunate accidents, but a consequence of the very structures by which we organise the institutional delivery of care. It is not that learning cannot take place within our education systems, but that it does so in spite of them - where people manage to open a space in which the hold of institutions is loosened, allowing the possibility of convivial relationships, based on invitation and free response.

What is startling about Illich is that, unlike most critics of contemporary capitalism, he doesn't focus on the obvious targets - multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex. His attacks on the caring professions, the institutions of the social democratic state, even the concept of "responsibility", have seemed blasphemous to many. (In fact, it is precisely the "sacredness" of his targets which he sees as making them so dangerous!) Others, on the left, portray him as an unworldly intellectual whose ideas were hijacked by Thatcherites - a well-meaning fool.

Part of the difficulty is (and I realise I may lose anyone who's still following this here!) that, while his mode of expression was largely secular, Illich's thought is at bottom deeply theological - it is 'foolishness to the Greeks'! It is an invitation to turn your view of the world upside down, which is a frightening prospect. Later texts such as 'Health as one's own responsibility - no, thank you!' make stark reading - and, even among his admirers, there are those who see him as descending into backward-looking pessimism. This is a convenient misreading, which allows the reader to sidestep the full implications of his work. But to face its force, it may help to notice the playful smile with which it was delivered, the joyful foolishness which is the other side of Illich's invitation.

There is a sense of that, too, in Mark Constantine's explanation of why he chooses to donate to such small, grassroots groups:

"If you're going to give money away you might as well give it to someone who's going to do something stupid with it." His favourites among the groups are Sardine Man, who travels the country highlighting congestion problems, or the Guerilla Gardeners, who plant flowers on ugly traffic islands in the dead of the night. In that spirit he's also created the Charity Pot, a hand lotion from which all the proceeds, save the VAT, will be going to more of these small grassroots groups.

"I hate cars, I really hate them, but I'd been giving up the ghost, until Rebecca came along and we started all this up," says Constantine. "It's really rekindled my bloodymindedness. When you think about it, you think how much mischief you can do with a thousand here, a thousand there, it's great. If we get a million out of the Charity Pot, we could create absolute chaos."

His face lights up and he starts to laugh. "They won't be able to get a digger to move across the whole of Britain!"

Illich once calculated that - once you take into account all the hours spent working to pay for a car, petrol, insurance and taxes to build roads - drivers manage an average speed of around four miles per hour. I can't help feeling that, were he still around, he'd approve of Mark Constantine's mischief-making!

More Illich links:

A useful introduction to Illich's thought
A selection of online texts
Reflections from Illich's friends, following his death in December, 2002
Thinking after Illich - English version of a site created by some of his friends and collaborators

1 comment:

SimplyTim said...


I love the idea of donating locally. It rounds out the idea and hopefully growing practise of buying from local businesses and eating food grown in your region also.

Ivan Illich was a strong advocate of "the shoe leather express." His contention was that (at least for urban areas) you can often get where you are going just as fast by walking than driving and waiting in traffic.


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