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Ivan Illich's Right to Useful Unemployment
Those two words give pause to the typical American mind: what could even be meant by useful unemployment? We know what self-employment is - that American dream. But what would useful unemployment look like?
We need to begin by understanding what employment is, especially in this economy. And with that, I shall let Ivan Illich speak:
The Market Society
In only a few decades, the world has become an amalgam. Human responses to everyday occurrences have been standardized. Though languages and gods still appear to be different, people daily join the stupendous majority who march to the very same megamachine. The light switch by the door has replaced the dozens of ways in which fires, candles and lanterns were formerly kindled.
But it is not merely that the typical mode of existing has converged, but:
Light that does not flow from high-voltage networks and hygiene without tissue paper spell poverty for ever more people.
Not that more people use non-electrified light - but that we see non-electrified light as a sign of poverty. The things of self-dependence, the signs of life, are now looked down upon by the industrial machine.
True, more babies get cow's milk, but the breasts of both rich and poor dry up. The addicted consumer is born when the baby cries for the bottle: the the organism is trained to reach for milk from the grocer and to turn away from the breast that thus defaults.
What does this difference between the mother's breast and the grocer entail? At its core is a trade: sacrifice relationship for security. The mother's breast is not always there or ready. But the grocer is, or aims to be. However the quality suffers - as we know breast milk in particular has certain nutrients and other qualities that make it better suited for nursing. The cow cannot compete on quality - especially when the industrial apparatus required to maintain the cow entails killing off the probiotics in the milk - literally killing the culture.
This obsession with outsourcing is a strange new movement.
All through history, the best measure for bad times was the percentage of food eaten that had to be purchased. In good times, most families got most of their nutrition from what they grew or acquired in a network of gift relationships.
By such historic standards, we are in the worst of times.
And the rich seem to agree - as we see an increasing desire among some with money to homestead and life off-grid. I don't mean that their desire is wrong, but only to exemplify Illich's words:
The toil and pleasure of the human condition become a faddish privilege restricted to some of the rich.
Why? Why is it more expensive now than ever to be a peasant? Why is it so difficult now to engage in traditional modes of being?
On the day Venezuela legislated the right of each citizen to 'housing', conceived of as a commodity, three-quarters of all families found that their self-build dwellings were thereby degraded to the status of hovels. Furthermore - and this is the rub - self-building was now prejudiced. No house could be legally started without the submission of an approved architect's plan. The useful refuse and junk of Caracas, up until then re-employed as excellent building materials, now created a problem of solid-waste disposal. The man who produces his own 'housing' is looked down upon as a deviant who refuses to cooperate with the local pressure group for the delivery of mass-produced housing units.
The war on poverty, instead of lifting people up economic rungs, has succeeded only in cutting off the lower rungs and leaving them as polluting rubbish, outlawed to be welded back onto the ladder.
The bottom rungs are instead replaced by gatekeeping professions.
The credibility of the professional expert, be he scientist, therapist, or executive, is the Achilles' heel of the industrial system. Therefore, only those citizen initiatives and radical technologies that directly challenge the insinuating dominance of disabling professions open the way to freedom for non-hierarchical, community-based competence.
Here, Illich has a strong anarchist streak - one which I track with for a while, but only to a point. He makes the comparison to clergy, in a critical way. I think this comparison is apt, but Illich seems to be unable to distinguish between the clergy operating normally and properly and the clergy as they were accused (and often were) leading up to the Protestant reformation. Illich would be well to walk the line better here - and I hope to write about this in more depth soon.
The critique he offers of professionals as we have come to know them is damning - worse than the 'oldest profession':
Merchants sell you the goods they stock. Guildsmen guaruntee quality. Some craftspeople tailor their product to your measure or fancy. Professionals however, tell you what you need. They claim the power to prescribe. They not only advertise what is good, but ordain what is right.
The modern professional not only ostracises us from domains we would normally be competent in, but then tells us to what degree we need their products - utterly removing us from their domain of so-called competence. We lose even the ability to develop and identify our own needs.
As time goes on, our understanding of the professions condenses and procedures get simplified. Rather than giving this revelation to the people, the professional even gets condensed down into the clipboard warrior:
As pharmacological technique - tests and drugs - became so predictable and cheap that one could have dispensed with the physician, society enacted laws and police regulations to restrict the free use of those procedures had simplified, and placed them on the prescription list.
Just twenty years ago, it was a sign of normal health - which was assumed to be good - to get along without a doctor... To be plugged into a professional system as a life-long client is no longer a stigma that sets apart the disabled person from citizens at large.
The first enslaving illusion is the idea that people are born to be consumers and that they can attain any of their goals by purchasing goods and services.
The illusion that economic models can ignore use-values springs from the assumption that those activities which we designate by intransitive verbs can be indefinitely replaced by institutionally defined staples referred to as nouns: 'education' substituted for 'I learn'; 'health care' for 'I heal'; transportation for 'I move'; 'television' for 'I play'.
Change begins with us - we need to use the right language. I don't need "healthcare" per se, I need to heal - something that I must do; no mechanistic apparatus can possibly eliminate the work that I put in. I don't need food, I need to eat - I must ultimately put fork in mouth. We can begin by acknowledging the ultimate use-values of things and putting them as primary, working back from there - rather than implicitly advocating for the technocratic apparatus.
The second sort of illusion is that all tools are basically of the same sort.
Throughout history... most work was done to create use-values not destined for exchange. But technological progress has been consistently applied to develop a very different kind of tool: it has pressed the tool primarily into the production of marketable staples... Now women or men, who have come to depend almost entirely on deliveries of standardized fragments produced by tools operated by anonymous others, have ceased to find the same direct satisfaction in the use of tools that stimulated the evolution of man and his cultures.
Tools are formative on their users - and so different tools produce different people. Rapidly evolving tools alienate us even from the culture we inherit. Hammers, sickles, plows, squares - these had a meaning that was understood through direct experience with their usage. Now, we know their meaning only through secondhand accounts. The effects that this has on us as a culture are difficult to comprehend; they require levels of meta-cognition spanning across generations.
The central planning of output-optimal decentralization has become the most prestigious job of the late seventies. But what is not yet recognized is that this new illusory salvation by professionally decreed limits confuses liberties and rights.
What's a liberty, and what's a right? Per Illich:
Liberties protect use-values as rights protect the access to commodities.
One may have a liberty to milk the family cow - but the logic of state welfare would say you have a right to milk. The right to clean, safe milk can get twisted against your liberty to milk a cow and sell the excess to your neighbor.
In a section wonderfully titled "The self-critical hooker", Illich sees through the attempts at self-regulation that large corporations have taken.
Professional self-policing is useful principally in catching the grossly incompetent - the butcher or the outright charlatan. But as has been shown again and again, it only protects the inept and cements the dependence of the public on their services.
The regulatory bodies thus formed seem to legitimize the reign of hegemonic entities. And Illich points out an unspoken and illegitimate right that has emerged:
The idea that professionals have a right to serve the public is thus of very recent origin. Their struggle to establish and legitimate this corporate right becomes one of our most oppressive social threats.
Illich, though, for all his great structural critique still ends in a strange, tacked-on egalitarian stance:
A society dedicated to the protection of equally distributed, modern and effective tools for the exercise of productive liberties cannot come into existence unless the commodities and resources on which the exercise of these liberties is based are equally distributed to all.
What is the way out? Note modernity and walk right by it:
A retooling of contemporary society with convivial rather than industrial tools implies a shift of emphasis in our struggle for social justice; it implies a new kind of subordination of distributive to participatory justice. In an industrial society, individuals are trained for extreme specialization. They are rendered impotent to shape or to satisfy their own needs.
We need to recognize over-professionalization as a problem in itself that needs addressing. This can be done not by committees placed on top that lessen the byproducts and harms, but by each individual person making a conscious effort to engage with reality: to utilize our rights to useful unemployment where we have them, and to expand their horizon.
And this is an exciting and satisfying work - an adventure, even:
[reducing dependence on commodities] entails the adventure of imagining and constructing new frameworks in which individuals and communities can develop a new kind of modern toolkit. This would be organized so as to permit people to shape and satisfy an expanding proportion of their needs directly and personally.