The life of Ivan Illich (1926-2002) is a bundle of contradictions. Born in Austria of a Croatian father and a Jewish mother, he pursued studies in histology and philosophy, theology and history. After completing a doctoral dissertation in Salzburg, he served as a Catholic priest in one of the poorest Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York City. At age 30, he became the vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, but he lost that job a few years later for his support of Luis Marin’s Popular Democratic Party. In Mexico, he founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC), which simultaneously functioned as a language school for missionaries and a mecca for progressive intellectuals. Having attained the rank of monsignor, he resigned from the priestly ministry, although he still considered himself a priest. He completed his life as an itinerant professor in the United States and Europe. A missionary who distrusted missionaries, a cleric at odds with the clergy, an educator who despised educators, an intellectual who heaped scorn on ‘experts’, Illich would have been fun to have around the DDC. As it is, we must be content with reading his books, which are thankfully still in print.
The Right to Useful Unemployment is a short book (95 pages), which Illich composed as a postscript to one of his major works, Tools for Conviviality (1973). It reprises his thesis that industrial society has ‘disabled’ nearly all social classes by making them dependent on goods and services that they do not need or could make for themselves. Borrowing Marx’s distinction between exchange-value and use-value, he multiplies examples of commodities, such as automobiles and processed food, that have not only replaced, but virtually criminalized the unrestricted use and enjoyment of the human body, the soil, and community. The loss of these values is what Illich calls ‘modernized poverty’, and its negative ‘internalities’ strike much deeper and broader than the unequal distribution of wealth. While the super-rich and the desperately poor can unplug from consumerism, most of us are jerked like marionettes in the constant pursuit of imputed and artificial ‘needs’.
Illich saves most of his ammunition for the people who pull the strings. The villains of this piece are not the plump capitalists of classic leftist cartoons, but a vast array of ‘disabling professionals’, including educators, health-care providers, social workers, and scientists. Together with the apparatchiks of government and industry, our new patrons have acquired the power not only to package and distribute needless goods and services, but to proscribe and even ration them to their admiring and gullible clients. In the political sphere, the imputation of ‘needs’ leads to the creation of ‘rights’, such as the right to public transportation, which arises only when it is no longer possible to walk to the market or ride a bicycle to work. As such ‘rights’ proliferate, personal freedom and democratic control are reduced, since we must rely on technocrats to secure and regulate these new entitlements. Eventually, the professions themselves are absorbed into bureaucratic systems, which determine from a remote and mathematical perspective precisely what we ‘need’ and how much of it we can get. The evolution of health care is a perfect example of this dynamic.
Eventually, people are bound to notice that they are neither happier nor healthier in a world where rest, exercise, and a good diet require so much supervision. The disabling professions must therefore rely on a set of cultural controls to maintain their dominant position. One of these is the manipulation of language. Illich recalls a time when ‘problems’ was a word found mainly in textbooks of mathematics. Now it denotes any aspect of life that requires a technical ‘solution’, from production quotas to strained relationships. Readers will be able to add their own examples; I myself have witnessed the shift from ‘erudition’ to ‘productivity’ as the standard measure of scholarship. Manipulated language can be used to build a mansion of illusions, such as the ‘technological imperative’ (we *can* do x, therefore we *must* do x, in just this way) and the cult of academic credentials (which has descended to the absurdity of granting credit hours for ‘equivalent’ work experience). Last, but not least, there is the increasing identification of useful employment with holding a job or, worse yet, with pursuing a career. Employment no longer includes things like growing your own food, raising your own children, or building your own house. We have ‘people’ for that.
Illich’s style is rhetorical and pedagogical rather than organized and systematic. He often makes the same point in different ways, and so readers should be prepared to go with the flow and enjoy his memorable anecdotes and striking metaphors. Who better to illustrate our reliance on professionals than the obstetric nurse who pushed an emerging baby back in the womb because ‘Dr. Levy has not yet arrived’? As an example of Illich’s language, let the following quotation suffice: ‘People are told they need their jobs, not so much for the money as for the services they get. The commons are extinguished and replaced by a new placenta built of funnels that deliver professional services. Life is paralyzed in permanent intensive care.’
Illich’s analysis will resonate with members of the American Solidarity Party, particularly those who have been involved in the recent battles over leadership and branding. We have our own version of ‘credentialism’, which goes hand in hand—not coincidentally, from Illich’s perspective—with a preference for centralized and bureaucratic policies. When a JD or Master’s degree (or ‘equivalent’ professional experience) is required for a seat on the National Committee, we will know that our party has joined the others on the royal road to a dystopian future.
If we wish to embark on a different road, however, what are the alternatives? In this respect, the present book is less helpful, since it merely directs the reader to Illich’s earlier study, Tools for Conviviality. In general, he foresees ‘a post-industrial economy in which people have succeeded in reducing their market dependence and have done so by protecting—by political means—a social infrastructure in which techniques and tools are used primarily to generate use-values that are unmeasured and unmeasurable by professional need-makers’. In other words, we would create a social space in which we could determine our own needs and satisfy them with tools and resources equally available to all.
The creation (or re-creation) of such an infrastructure will require time and experimentation.
In the short term, it is not easy to see how much we can or should opt out of the industrialized and professionalized world in which we live. It is true, for example, that the health care ‘system’ has subjected us to an increasingly invasive regime of medical supervision. But for all that, should we take a pass on the next scheduled colonoscopy? This points to another problem with Illich’s analysis: to what extent are we ourselves implicated in the technocratic ‘march of progress’, not only as dependent consumers, but as specialized providers? There is plenty of blame to go around.
Nevertheless, the march has accelerated so much in recent years that nearly all of us can all remember life before the invention of this gadget or that procedure. If we cannot stop the train, we can at least slow it down by relearning old habits and skills and teaching them to our children. We should also hold the ‘experts’ in our orbit accountable for the results of their prescriptions—medical, legal, and political. The proof is in the pudding; if it doesn’t taste better, let’s make our own.