Alan Roberts Prize: What if Ivan Illich Were Elected Mayor?

A ‘miraculous epilogue’ to the industrial city

The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability…the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.

―Hannah Arendt

During the next several years I intend to work on an epilogue to the industrial age.

―Ivan Illich

Prometheus burning 

According to Greek myth, Prometheus once tricked Zeus, the supreme god, into accepting the bones and fat of a sacrifice instead of the meat. As punishment, Zeus hid fire from humanity, but Prometheus, driven by radical greed, stole it back and returned it to Earth. Through this defiant act, Prometheus shaped humanity, providing mortals with a generative technology from which it is said civilisation emerged. 

Today we find advanced technological society—globalised capitalism—celebrating itself with the same measureless presumption as Prometheus, with consequences that are manifesting more harshly day by day. Crisis is not of the future but of the present, with the global pandemic simply being the latest retelling of a humanitarian and ecological tragedy that is unfolding in new ways at every twist in the human story. We should hail, not dread, the imminent end of the Promethean usurper. But we must also acknowledge the falling idol as our own failed creation, not an infliction of the gods. The fire in the heavens that sears us now is all our own work, but promisingly that implies we have the power to redirect its course to better ends. 

Whether it is coal-powered electricity, the internal combustion engine, or social media under surveillance capitalism, the ambivalent technologies that were intended to serve humanity under modernity’s Enlightenment conception of progress too often enslave us and threaten to destroy us. This is playing out severely in industrialised cities, in this urban age, most intimately through the shaping and debasing of the human condition. As a consequence of our misguided worship of Prometheus, Homo urbanis burns with new afflictions. What phoenix might yet emerge from these ashes? 

All radical critiques accept in some form the argument that industrial urbanism is depleting for nature, society and self. Empowered by fossil-fuelled machines and guided by capitalist logics of accumulation, it is now clear that growth-oriented technological societies are violently degrading the ecosystems that sustain the entire community of life. Global warming is only one of these storm clouds, but this alone has the potential to lay waste all species. In the wake of global capitalist development, enormous socio-cultural injuries and injustices inflicted by the burning industrial landscapes are also manifest, both in the Global North and in the Global South. The moral imperative to lift the poorest out of material destitution and social marginalisation is beyond question. However, the prospect of a ‘fully developed’ world under the industrial paradigm ought to make thinking people shudder with horror. 

We will not rehearse such heavy lamentations here. We see ourselves as part of, not outside, that radical critique, but we seek herein to give the story a fuller and deeper account. The relentless pessimism of these prognoses, while underpinned by critical realism, can foreclose more productive debates about alternative futures and their creation. Rather than focusing on the morbid symptoms that appear as the old world dies while the new cannot yet be born, we set out to orient ourselves beyond the carnage towards a horizon of possibility guided by what Terry Eagleton calls ‘hope without optimism’. Opposing reactionary fatalism, Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘the new…always appears in the guise of a miracle’. In shaping this essay we thus challenged ourselves to fracture the linear conception of urban development and open up space to explore new and more tolerable urban imaginaries beyond the industrial city.

Our present contribution sees us imagining a near future—a miraculous future—in which maverick priest and radical philosopher Ivan Illich becomes lord mayor of our home city, Melbourne. More on his life and ideas below. Given that Illich passed away in 2002, this is of course a ‘thought experiment’, but one, we propose, with potential to expand the imagination in subversive and genuinely progressive ways. Much celebrated in the 1970s as the radical’s radical, Illich was a severe (albeit qualified) critic of industrial technology, offering early warnings on how the globalised growth economy was in the process of colliding with ecological and social limits. He prophesied the looming demise of Promethean capitalism, inviting us to ‘imagine the children who will soon play in the ruins of high schools, Hiltons, and hospitals’. This was not the Dark Age Ahead, to borrow a phrase from urbanist Jane Jacobs, but the opening scenes of a ‘convivial modernity’, of children celebrating through play the downfall of the modern pretender, Prometheus. In the urban wastes to come Illich saw the ambiguous and undetermined seeds of something new. 

Incisive and prescient though his critiques of technology and industrialism were, Illich made only passing comments about the implications of his ideas for urban landscapes. Extending his work to these central realms promises insight—perhaps even some hope in these troubled and turbulent times. After providing a brief sketch of this now neglected thinker, we undertake a speculative reimagination of him as a progressive urban leader and consider what follows from his surprising election as lord mayor of the City of Melbourne. 

Illich intended to write an epilogue to the industrial age, a work begun but never completed. With humility and respect, our short story honours this intention by imagining the beginnings of the end of the industrial urban age.

The life and ideas of Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. He went to university in Florence and in 1950 he was ordained a Catholic priest. Soon thereafter he was appointed vice rector at the University of Puerto Rico, but it wasn’t long before he became an outspoken critic of the Church. He would compare the Vatican with the ‘General Motors Company and the Chase Manhattan Bank’, and elsewhere describe it as ‘the world’s largest non-governmental bureaucracy’. Illich was eventually asked to leave his position in Puerto Rico for disobeying the orders of a bishop, and thus a free-thinking rebel was born. In 1968 he was called to the Vatican for questioning, partly driven by a CIA investigation of his activities. Although no disciplinary action was taken, it was then that Illich suspended his active priesthood, without ever renouncing it. He continued to identify as a priest and would occasionally hold private masses, even as he dedicated most of his efforts to spreading the gospel of degrowth and conviviality.

What were the central testaments of our unwitting mayor-to-be? In the late 1960s and early ’70s Illich emerged as a prominent and charismatic countercultural theorist and speaker, offering early warnings about the mounting failures of industrialism. Provocatively contradicting the dominant values of the emerging consumer economy, Illich called for a ‘joyful austerity’ that could be achieved through a ‘courageous, disciplined, self-critical renunciation accomplished in community’. His vision was one of social abundance achieved, paradoxically, through enlightened restraint in the use of resources, and technologies. In a world that was (and still is) glorifying material excess and the energy surpluses of fossil fuels, Illich proposed that the true path to sustainable prosperity lay in mindful moderation, collective sufficiency and participatory democracy. 

Illich was, of course, a contemporary of Donella Meadows and her colleagues in the Club of Rome, which published the landmark Limits to Growth study in 1972. Like the advice of the Club of Rome, Illich’s warnings went largely unheeded by mainstream audiences, dismissed then (as today) by myopic commentators who assumed that markets and technology would resolve environmental problems through ‘green growth’. As globalising capitalism continues to degrade Earth year on year, Illich’s subversive call for ‘degrowth’ in energy and resource demands is looking evermore like an idea whose time has come, even if his message remains blanketed by the still dominant ideology of relentless economic expansion.  

Beyond environmental concerns, Illich also foretold of the pernicious social effects that emerge when high-energy industrial technologies begin to master rather than serve human society. He contrasted ‘industrial tools’ (like cars) with ‘convivial tools’ (like bicycles), the latter being of human scale and often human-powered, decentralised in operation, capable of remaining within the control of local communities, and more conducive, he argued, to promoting human flourishing within ecological limits. Even in the ’70s Illich saw that humans were being ‘degraded to the status of mere consumers’, as if progress lay merely in the mass production and consumption of goods and services. 

Illich was no Luddite and called for the thoughtful embrace of appropriate technologies (‘convivial tools’) that served genuine human and environmental interests, not merely the interests of capital expansion. He recognised that there were no prescribed criteria for distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate technologies. In his view that meant that the line ought to be democratically determined rather than left to the indiscriminate filter of the market. He implored that together, as citizens, we must decide ‘the roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy’, which is to acknowledge that ‘only within limits can machines take the place of slaves’. Beyond those limits, technologies ‘lead to a new kind of serfdom’. Accordingly, he envisioned a society of ‘responsibly limited tools’.

Between 1970 and 1975 Illich published a range of books that advanced his radical thinking, including Deschooling Society, Energy and Equity, Tools for Conviviality and Toward a History of Needs. A central argument was that technologies and institutions had a threshold point in their development, beyond which their growth would become ‘paradoxically counter-productive’. Technologies and institutions, as they became more complex and pervasive, would eventually get in their own way, defeating their original purpose. 

In this vein Illich would famously argue that the fetish for speed and hypermobility in industrial societies had resulted in more congestion and longer commuting, dislocating people from their local communities and creating new forms of ‘modernised poverty’ and alienation. Similarly, he argued that the industrialisation of centralised, compulsory schooling had resulted in mere anti-intellectual learning for certificates, fostering ignorance with little true education. He saw a ‘hidden curriculum’ in Westernised education that served to indoctrinate the youth into accepting industrial society without question, churning out obedient consumers with little capacity for critical thinking. He perceived how the abundance of energy served up to humanity through fossil fuels had begun to cause many of the problems that access to energy was supposed to solve, with little consideration given to the impacts on people and planet. In advanced industrial economies the marginal returns on energy use had turned negative, such that genuine progress now involved embracing an energy descent future. 

Illich’s self-limitation prescription was not a call for hardship or deprivation. He did not see ‘limits’ as a curtailment of freedom or happiness but a condition for these things. While the tone of his writings was often dire, offering prophetic warnings, he nevertheless retained a grounded sense of hope in human capacity. He saw the over-production of goods and services as a systemic problem, but one that could be resolved through degrowth, appropriate technology, and the restoration of localised and participatory democratic politics. At this time he was a critic as much of the Left as of the Right—observing how socialist societies had largely remained within the industrial growth paradigm, including pursuit of the centralisation of state power. 

Just as the worsening social and environmental crises of modernity might suggest it is time to speed up the ‘techno solution cycle’, Illich would argue that, as a matter of urgency, we must slow down and take a historical moment to recalibrate our goals, values and praxis. He insisted: ‘Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle’.

In the guise of a miracle: Ivan Illich is elected lord mayor! 

Now comes our dream story about the City of Melbourne. First the reality to now, then our miraculous fable. 

Elections to council were held in 2020 and the next poll is over three years away. Lord Mayor Sally Capp was reelected last year and continues to lead the renewal of a previously troubled council, plagued by scandals we needn’t go into. When first elected in 2018, she inherited a throne wounded by hubris and hurt. Lord Mayor Capp promised to make things better and she has succeeded. She and other councillors led the city bravely and with compassion during the darkest days of the pandemic.

One of Lord Mayor Capp’s early acts was to scrap the chauffeured mayoral car. At the time, a delighted Bicycle Network newsroom reported ‘Instead of being driven around town to appointments and meetings, Cr Capp will ride, walk or take public transport’. Ivan Illich would have heartily approved.

Now the dreaming…

Ivan Illich did approve because he was alive and living in Melbourne! He had long endured a grave illness (that finally took him to his grave) and was for all his good work owed a miracle. It happened. The malady left him in the late 1990s and shortly afterwards he responded to an invitation to visit Melbourne by the late radical scholar and Catholic Paul Mees. He’d visited the city once previously, in 1972, and stirred up dust in public and private conversations. We invite you to imagine that he returned in 2000 and never left, accepting the hospitality of admirers who became friends. Inspired by Sally Capp’s strivings (lord mayor on a bicycle!) and encouraged by new friends and networks, Illich offered himself to a council election in late 2021 (we are warping time for the story). At the age of ninety-five, born in the same year as David Attenborough, he was elected lord mayor of Melbourne. Here’s what followed this miracle. 

Lord Mayor Illich arrived at his first council meeting in red vestments, not a dark suit. This raised eyebrows. Some councillors were sceptical, even wary, of their new leader. Old news, some murmured impolitely. He heard some of this but let it pass gracefully. The ‘Lord’s Mayor’ (as some simpered) had delivered an inaugural speech that outlined his program, which proposed to effect radical changes within the City of Melbourne and, with luck and guile, across the wider metropolitan area. 

He knew from the first the necessity of self-limitation on a finite planet—a reality that needed urban recognition and application. As mayor of a small central municipality, he directly represented only 4 per cent of the city’s five million souls. Of course, many more journeyed to this heartland daily for many reasons before the pandemic. There were thirty other mayors across the metropolis. It was a small, but pivotal, throne to occupy. The chains of office hung lightly on him. He would use the role’s symbolic authority to gently cajole and inspire changes that would address the city’s mounting ills and injuries. There were the lingering afflictions of the pandemic to deal with, but also the longer, deeper seams of damage caused by the city’s addiction to fossil fuels and material growth. At ninety-five and with a term of four years, he and his supporters knew that this program must be selective: carefully homed in on the most pressing challenges, with an eye to lasting effect. His speech was structured around five ‘testaments’—decolonise, decelerate, degrow, deschool and decommodify. We summarise below these testaments, which over time initiated a series of bold policy enactments. 

Decolonise: Thelord mayor’s first words to council were a slow, soulful acknowledgement of country and the crime of its dispossession. As a European relocated to Australia, he was well aware of the cultural legacy of colonisation, having been a powerful critic of Western imperialism during his time in Central America. Illich expressed his solemn commitment to the process of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians in which the Victorian government and the city council were already participating. As an outsider, he held no assumptions regarding how to ‘fix’ the many historical and contemporary injustices that flow from dispossession. While he had an instinct for bold ideas and radical change, and wanted to throw his influence behind the necessary project of decolonisation, he knew he had a great deal to learn first, so he decided that his most appropriate opening move would be to support a new culture of deep listening. Sometimes, he declared, listening is the most radical thing one can do. We won’t hear stifled voices without first being quiet ourselves and giving time, slow time, to this act of respect in all change processes, official and otherwise. He told fellow councillors that new policies of reconciliation and restitution were urgently needed and that they might come faster if leaders became quieter. Rushed, noisy policy dialogue was a hazardous road to change. Its rule was over. 

Decelerate: With a federal government whose environmental policy was paralytic, and a state government that could do much more, Lord Mayor Illich committed to cooling and soothing the burning Promethean city through a range of progressive measures. There were golden leaves of learning to take from the city’s terrible lockdowns. Green spaces were expanded to assist with climate proofing, helping mitigate heat-island effects and fostering social resilience by creating sanctuaries where urbanites could relax and converse with each other among trees and wildlife. These new sanctuaries were an offering to the human condition more than anything else, and they were well received by the constituency. Illich also announced an ‘urban philosophy of deceleration’. He formally withdrew council support for the monster infrastructure projects (especially tollways and tunnels) that feed Melbourne’s addiction to motorised travel and injure its human and ecological fabrics. A 25-kilometre-per-hour zone was declared across the municipality—a first step towards slowing the urban growth machine and creating a city of ‘responsibly limited tools’ that moved at the speed of a bicycle. 

Degrow: The council would withdraw from any association with ‘liveable city’ rankings, a metric Mayor Illich saw as obscuring the fact that Melbourne remained carbon-intensive, with many socio-cultural injuries simmering beneath the surface of its shiny public profile among travelling elites. The much-vaunted and recently lost ‘world’s most liveable city’ crown would go to the newly established Museum for Bad Ideas. In its place a Convivial Cities Index would be cast and promoted to mayors across the world. Illich also initiated a gathering of the thirty-one mayors of Melbourne to reinvigorate urban politics in that fertile space between (the stagnant) federal and state politics and (the nascent) community activism, in the hope of inspiring both. Lord Mayor Illich established a series of public lectures initiating new conversations on radical topics such as degrowth, energy descent, participatory democracy and convivial technology. The Right cast him as a loony on the radical fringe, but over time the public began to engage with growing interest and sympathy. 

Deschool: Cooperating with other mayors, Illich helped establish neighbourhood ‘Reschools’ around the city, in which Indigenous knowledge, community reskilling, fix-it cafes and DIY culture took pride of place. He helped fund the Melbourne Free University, which thrived under the council’s patronage. Some 100 parking spaces around the inner city were reclaimed and turned into small Free University classrooms, where citizens could practise the democratisation of knowledge through self-organised learning. Through this cultural renaissance, wisdom traditions began to be restored that had been lost to consumerist cultures for too long. 

Decommodify: Illich had long scorned ‘myths of market scarcity’. Thus he set out to demythologise Melbourne’s housing crisis, which experts, especially economists, said could only be solved through more sprawl, vertical and outwards. And what, he asked, of the 70,000 (and growing) vacant and hoarded dwellings in Melbourne that could house hundreds of thousands? The state’s lethargic vacancy tax was not working. Recognising the limits of his power to change things as a single mayor, he called on the state and other councils to find ways to open this vast estate to social need. Laws needed enforcing, but a new list of ‘social crimes’ was needed and the citizenry educated about them. Hoarding and speculation would be foremost. 

An epilogue to an industrial city

At the time of writing (December 2023), the lord mayor’s program was making headway and sparking conversations around the globe. Most of his fellow Melbourne mayors soon accepted that the red-vested ‘retired cardinal’ had brought new truths to power, calling out the city’s wickedest problems, especially its brutalising addiction to growth, speed and fossil fuels. There were pushbacks and critiques, some of them bitter, especially from some outer-suburban mayors close to urban development interests. Yet, over time Lord Mayor Illich’s message settled into Melbourne’s urban imaginary and laid the foundation for an ongoing progressive shift in urban politics. The opening lines of an epilogue to the industrial city had been written. 

About the authors

Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander is Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne. His recent books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019) and Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017).

More articles by Samuel Alexander

Brendan Gleeson

Brendan Gleeson is Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. His recent books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019) and Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City (2020), co-authored with Samuel Alexander.

More articles by Brendan Gleeson

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply