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Deinstitutionalising Society: Individual and Institution

It is important to raise the general question of the mutual definition of human nature and the nature of institutions which characterizes our world view and language.  Here Umberto Eco’s anthropological analysis suggests that if the term ‘culture’ is accepted in its correct anthropological sense, then we are immediately confronted with four elementary cultural phenomena.  Not only are they the consistent phenomena of every culture but they have been singled out as the objects of various semi-anthropological studies in order to show that the whole of culture is signification and communication.

Humanity and society exist only when communicative and significative relationships are established. In semiotics, a sign is “something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity”.  It may be understood as a discrete unit of meaning, and includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be communicated as a message by any sentient, reasoning mind to another.


One of these four elementary cultural phenomena which Umberto Eco delineates is ‘Kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations’. This is the bearing which I shall be taking on what an institution is…

To examine the interrelationship between the individual and the institution, I have chosen education as my primary focus and deal indirectly with other bureaucratic agencies of the corporate state; however this will be foremost an examination of the institution in context to the individual, whatever form that takes. Ivan Illich’s analysis of the curriculums in schools sets up his commentary of what the ‘deschooling of a schooled society means’.  Not only education but social reality itself has become schooled.  It costs the same for a person to be schooled, whether you are rich or poor; human being beings have similar needs and rights.

Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals.  These are vocations which guide our lives, help form our world view, and often attempt to define for people what is legitimate and what is not.  On the stereotypic whole, both view ‘doctoring’ oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and view community organization with suspicion, sometimes with a feeling that it is an aggressive, subversive or incompetent act.

For both institutions, the treatment of these ‘unregulated, messy associations of people’ with the lens of formalism renders independent accomplishment suspect.  The progressive underdevelopment of self- and community- reliance is even more typical in Westchester than it is in the north-east of Brazil.  Everywhere – not only education – but society as a whole needs ‘deschooling’ for the responsible autonomous thinkers desired for a civil society. Possibly our attitudes need to be deschooled and deinstitutionalised as the first place to start.

Welfare bureaucracies claim a professional, political and financial monopoly over the social imagination setting standards and gatekeepers on what is valuable and what is feasible.  Could this be possibly dated back to the contention between that of Plato and that of Aristotle and their contrasting teleologies ? That is to say that Plato argued for power to be held by the few and Aristotle argued for power being distributed amongst the many. This hints at the antiquity of the problems involved in deciding autonomy/governance/power structures.

The monopoly and bottle necking of culture is at the root of a modern type of poverty.  Every fundamental human need to which an institutionalized rote answer is made in provision permits a new class of poor, a new definition of poverty, an apartheid, a loss of agency and a loss of responsibility.  At one point it was a normal thing to be born and die in your own home, and be buried by your family and friends.  Only the souls needs were looked after by the institution of the church, and in some cultures, not even that.  Even the choices around birth and death have come under compulsory institutional management.

When basic needs have been translated by a society by exclusively a reductive and scientific focus which produces commodities, poverty is then defined by standards which technocrats can change at will through homogenized decision making processes which are operated from a cultural vacuum. Poverty then becomes something which is imposed by the mores of social engineering – tacit or conscious.  The poor have always been socially powerless.  The increasing institutionalization of care, informal and human areas of society adds a new dimension to their helplessness through lack of agency, psychological impotence and the inability to fend for themselves.

Cultural appropriation has been an active force in industry and superstructures like institutions.  This is a hugely debilitating activity especially in modern times and in institutional contexts this strips whole populations of their ability to act and participate in economy and civic society.  The impoverished, it could be argued, have been appropriated to create and prop up institutions. Professor Niall Ferguson gave a series of Reith Lectures on how the rule of law is no longer respected as it once was, and how it is because an excess of state-inspired petty rules and regulations has led to its replacement by the rule of lawyers. (Available for download  This is a sensitive subject but one which deserves deep scrutiny and attention.

Hernando de Soto Polar discusses these types of problem in his book The Mystery of Capital; in it he contends that people need to have access to the law and feel they are represented by the law for an economy to be effective. This is a complex debate and should be steered away from binaries and political rhetorics. We can validly extend this concept into the terrain Ivan Illich carved out if we remember how many babies have been thrown out instead of bath water.

Peasants on the high plateau of the Andes are exploited by the landlord and the merchant – once they settle in Lima they are, in addition, dependent on political bosses and enforcers, and disabled through lack of schooling and thus demarcation of livelihood.  Modernized poverty combines the lack of power over circumstances a loss of personal potency, with a decoupling of the individual and the information they need to function.  This modernization of poverty is a world wide phenomenon and lies at the root of contemporary underdevelopment. It appears under different guises in rich and poor countries.

Ivan Illich suggested that this was most intensely felt in the United States.  Nowhere else is poverty treated at greater cost.  Nowhere else does the ‘treatment of poverty’ produce so much dependence, anger, frustration, and further demands.  It might be worth thinking about President Dwight D Eisenhower’s farewell speech in which he coined the problems of the ‘industrial-military complex’ and an expression of economic dependencies.

We can extend this idea of dependency into other areas of life: the industrial-medical complex; the industrial-legal complex; the industrial-educational complex; the industrial-social complex; the industrial-banking complex; the industrial-insurance complex…

We should be aware that where there is poverty, there is also generally an apex of concentrated profit and gain.  Co-dependencies can be built upon needs and when these needs are borne in contract form, money markets turn into price-makers domains and can fossilize into industrialized/institutionalized schemes. Kevin Kelly founder of Wired magazine coined the “Shirky Principle” as “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” suggesting the phrasing reminded him of the clarity of the Peter Principle.  These kinds of dynamics are important to be aware of.

Nowhere else should it be so evident that poverty, once becomes modernized, becomes resistant to treatment with money and requires a limit to the extent which institutions and superstructures dictate the terms of individual’s lives and cultures. Ivan Illich contends that institutions make the poor dependent on more treatment thus rendering them increasingly incapable of organizing their own lives around their own experiences and resources within their own communities.  This is an important partial !

The poor are in a unique position to speak about the predicament which threatens all the disenfranchised people in a modernizing world.  They are discovering that no amount of money alone applied to culture can remove the inherent destructiveness and restrictiveness of institutionalization once the professional hierarchies of these institutions have convinced society that their ministrations are morally and functionally complete. The poor in the inner cities can demonstrate from their own experience the fallacy on which social legislation in a ‘schooled’ society is built.  The professionalization of care giving, super charities and fundraising might be exemplars of the institutional drift which happens to pillars of society.

Horst Rittel gave us a useful term – A ‘wicked problem’  is an issue in which each attempt to develop a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved with a traditional linear approach, as the definition of the problem evolves as new solutions are considered and implemented. Wicked problems always occur in social contexts and reflect the diversity of the stakeholders invested in the problem. It is the social complexity of these problems and not their technical complexity, which defeats most traditional problem solving and project management approaches.

The over-institutionalization of kinship relations or the disconnection of institutions with kinship relations is a real and genuine problem which must be recognized as it is eroding fundamental qualities in society. We are in need of sophisticated thought where holding in mind it is an over-simplification to create binarys in a complex world.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas observed that ‘the only way to establish an institution is to finance it’.  Money is required to facilitate organizations which provide, support and foster essential services in culture. Ivan Illich asks if the corollary is true in that only by channeling dollars away from the institutions which now treat health, education and welfare can further impoverishment resulting from their disabling side effects be stopped.


Maybe there is a significant truth in that if vocational areas of life are not areas of opportunity driven by profits and outcome driven bonuses then the temptation of affectations will not entice the creation of a culture of dependency. What is needed is holistic and humanistic thinking which is more akin to managing an ecosystem then a machine or algorithm.

There are certain dominant forms which need limited and controlled, such as Rhododendrons which poison the ground and block out the light so nothing else can grow, and certain forms akin to orchids which are sensitive to environmental change and not so virulent that thus need tending.

Complexity must be kept in mind when we evaluate aid programs. James Ferguson’s book ‘The Antipolitics Machine’ is a critique of the idea of “development”. He explores the numerous ‘development agencies’ that work in the ‘Third world’ pointing out the consistent failure of these agencies to bring about any sort of economic stability. Ferguson calls the development discourse ‘fantasy’ and suggest it arises from insufficient logic. As an emotive area this is less questioned than others; Ferguson’s book is another example of the need to assess current schemes for problems.

In Deschooling Society Illich looks at different studies in context with the discussion particularly examining failed institutional spending.  The failure to improve the education of the poor despite the amount of money put into projects can be explained in at least three ways:

  • The amount of money invested was insufficient to improve the performance of the number of children/people by a measurable amount ($3 million for 6 million children)
  • The money was incompetently spent: different curricula, better administration, further concentration of the funds on the poor children/people, and more research are needed and would make a positive difference
  • Educational disadvantage cannot be cured by relying on education within the school

These will be further explored in the next part of the digest of Illich’s work of which this is the second part…

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