Beyond Economics and Ecology

The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich

An introduction I wrote to the book.

After Illich: an Introduction

The ecological and economic crises have passed. The word ‘crisis’ derives from the Greek krisis, which referred to that moment in the course of an illness when it decisively turns towards either health, as when a fever breaks into a sweat, or death, as when the pulse fatally weakens. Crisis marks the moment beyond the fork in the road, when the road not taken fades into the distance.


The economic crisis is behind us because ‘full employment’ is no longer thought to be achievable, whether in advanced or emerging economies. Billions worldwide are unemployed. Millions more are underemployed or belong to the class of the “working poor” whose wages do little to lift them from misery. The ecological crisis is in the past as well in that the physical environment surrounding humans has turned inhospitable to many. Disappeared forests, privatized lands, paved streets, and foul airs are but some of the features of the degraded land on which few can subsist.


Even as they dimly recognize it, many react to this state of affairs with a mix of resistance, anger, and fear. From Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Zuccotti Park in New York City, young and old have agitated for work. Hundreds of thousands eagerly seek low wages jobs available only to a tiny fraction. Desperate to obtain employment, many students borrow money to pay for the privilege of working as interns. On Earth Day 2012, although millions of people assembled from Melbourne to Maui to protest intensifying environmental degradation, research funds now pile up for geo-engineering on a planetary scale. Proposed schemes include stirring the oceans to absorb more carbon, as if seawater were simply tea in a giant cup. In towns and counties across central Pennsylvania, citizens accept poisoned aquifers and waterways as necessary consequences of ‘clean’ natural gas.


Forty years ago, Ivan Illich (1926-2002) foresaw the coming crises. He argued that the industrialized societies of the mid-twentieth century, including communist Russia and capitalist USA, were already burdened by too much employment and too much energy. Explaining that habituation to employment frustrates and destroys self-reliance, and that the increasing power of machines deepens dependence on them, Illich warned against those whose misunderstanding of ‘crisis’ would perversely bring on what they sought to avoid. Even though this is precisely what they have wrought, politicians and scientists continue to stubbornly insist that the ‘economic crisis’ is simply a matter of not enough jobs and that the ‘ecological crisis’ is a matter of not enough clean energy. ‘Not enough jobs’ channels attention to creating more employment by expanding the economy, just as ‘not enough clean energy’ confines debate to getting more of it through techniques that reduce carbon emissions. This persistent fixation on more employment and more energy has now found expression in dreams of a so-called ‘green economy,’ which in one stroke will somehow wipe out unemployment and renew the environment. It’s a fixation that blinds us, Illich noted decades ago, to recognizing the thresholds beyond which useless humans will be forced to occupy uninhabitable environments.


Doubtless, the fear and anxiety of a jobless life is palpable to the intern who must pay to work in a job. So are the incomprehension and anger of the family become homeless because displaced by a hurricane. But millions of others, who may be luckier, feel trapped between the pincers of shrinking paychecks and the rising costs of gas, heating oil, and food. For the many who must bear it, however, this feeling of vulnerability and precariousness need not lead to paralyzing despair. Instead, forced by their circumstances to acknowledge that widespread unemployment and a ravaged environment are likely here to stay, they may, with a wisdom and humor, rediscover way of living well. Precisely because good jobs and clean energy are now thought scarce, it is more than ever possible to begin the task of rethinking our attachments to ‘employment’ and ‘energy.’


Selected from Illich’s many essays, pamphlets, and drafts, the four items reprinted here remain vitally important to that task. Though written between 1973 and 1983, they retain an urgent relevance to those who must inhabit a world without secure employment or supportive environments. ‘Employment is good’, ‘economic growth is necessary’, ‘technical innovations liberate,’ –these were unquestioned assumptions when Illich was writing these essays. They continue to maintain their grip on the collective imagination, although less tightly. Critical reconsideration becomes all the more difficult when an assumption has been left unquestioned long enough to be taken for a certainty and to even congeal into perception. Unlike many of his time and later, Illich’s thought is radical in the sense of going to the roots of modern perceptions. These unsettling and disturbing pages are therefore likely to be useful now to those who seek to find a way, for whatever reason, beyond economics and ecology.


But the reader must exercise forbearance. First, these essays carry the mark of the confrontations Illich engaged in at the time. During the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Illich spoke to packed houses from San Francisco to Sri Lanka, was feted by politicians such as Indira Gandhi and Pierre Trudeau, engaged intellectually with the likes of Michel Foucault and Erich Fromm, and became a fierce and outspoken, if still obedient critic of the Roman Catholic Church which had once viewed him as a favorite son. Second, his thinking cannot be filtered through the political categories of left/right or progressive/conservative. They are unhelpful to fully appreciate a thinker who critiques both the market economy and the welfare state; who takes issue with the economic presuppositions held by both capitalist and socialist regimes; and who questions the supposed virtues of both ‘family values’ and working women. Third, and perhaps most important, his texts seem easy to read because he wore his considerable learning lightly. Their smooth surfaces belie finely wrought conceptual distinctions that support densely packed arguments. If they are to fully enjoy these sometimes polemical, sometimes humorous, but always sparingly crafted pieces of prose, readers who think they have read a text on skimming it will have to slow down and savor Illich’s words.


Each of the four essays reprinted here was written for a specific occasion and together comprise only the smallest selection from a larger corpus questioning commodity and energy-intensive economies. The essays are presented thematically instead of chronologically to offer a better view of the sweep of Illich’s argument. In the first two, “War against Subsistence” and “Shadow Work,” Illich reveals both the ruins on which the economy is built and the blindness of economics which cannot but fail to see it. The second two essays, “Energy and Equity” and “The Social Construction of Energy,” unearth the nineteenth century invention and subsequent consequences of ‘energy’ thought of as the unseen cause of all ‘work’ whether done by steam engines, humans, or trees. The science of ecology relies on this assumption and, as Illich explained, unwittingly fuels the addiction to energy. The close dance of energy consumption and economic growth is characteristic of not just industrially geared societies. After all, energy consumption steadily increases even in so-called post-industrial societies, fueling the fortunes of Google and Apple no less than Wal-Mart.


Historians have marked the transition from agrarian to industrial society by that phenomenon called the enclosure of the commons, seen vividly in Great Britain but elsewhere as well. The commons referred to the fields, fens, wastelands, and woods to which access was free to all for pasturing livestock, planting crops, foraging for fuel wood, and gleaning leftover grain. Well into the eighteenth century, commoners comprised a substantial proportion of the British population and derived the greater portion of their sustenance from the commons instead of the market. From the mid-seventeenth century, but particularly over the hundred years until 1850, thousands of Enclosure Acts legalized enclosures that forced commoners to become landless peasants with no independent means of subsistence. Now fully dependent on paid work, they became the working class.


Privatizing the commons meant transforming land that was open to general use into an economic resource. Since scarce resources require legal and police protections, Illich insisted on not confusing the commons with public property. The latter no less than private property, is protected by the police, as for example are public parks and ‘free speech zones.’ In contrast, mutual aid, custom, and customary rights among kin and interdependent households characterized use of the commons. The life in common was not devoid of market relations, as for example when working occasionally or purchasing salt. But as Illich noted in his essay on “Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies” “all through history, the best measure for bad times was the percentage of food eaten that had to be purchased.” Commoning gave those who relied on it a floor against destitution. It is the vital importance given to provisioning over profiteering that accounts for such common customs as limits to the hoarding of grains during times of dearth. As the historians E.P Thompson and J.M. Neeson have explained at length, a moral economy encases and fetters the market economy when dependence on the market is balanced by the independence of self-subsistence.


However, Illich argued, the enclosure of the commons was but one chapter in a longer history of the war against subsistence. Indeed, it may not even be industrial products that best exemplify the separation of people from their ability to subsist. Instead, he suggested, ‘the service economy’ offers a more prototypical example for the separation of what economists call ‘production’ from ‘consumption.’ As Illich argued in “Vernacular Values,” in the same year that Columbus accidentally discovered the New World, Elio Antonio de Nebrija petitioned Queen Isabella of Spain to adopt “a tool to colonize the language spoken by her own subjects….” From Catalonia to Andalusia, the Iberian peninsula of the fifteenth century was home to a profusion of vernaculars forged in the kiln of everyday trade, prayer, and love. Columbus, who spoke several languages and wrote in a couple more that he could not speak, is a perfect example of how adept people can be without taught language skills. But Nebrija intended his Castilian grammar book and accompanying dictionary as tools to separate people from their untutored ability to speak. He intended for taught standardized language to discipline peoples’ tongues in the interest of imperial power.


What was for Nebrija a stratagem of empire has by now become a need. In contemporary India, everyday speech is taught speech, whether it is the Hindi spoken at the store, the Tamil chattered at home, or the Boston English used to answer 1-800 help lines on behalf of Citibank. Speech is no longer uttered in the course of daily life but results from the consumption of a scarce commodity acquired from language instructors. For Illich, it is the modern professions that function as the most potent propagandists of human needs, whether for schools or for hospitals. Indeed, in his essay on the “Disabling Professions,” he argued that the construction of humans as needy beings was one of the most pernicious consequences of economic society. In the guise of experts, professionals discriminate against people by imputing a lack, an inability, or a need. They then mask such discrimination by justifying it as doing a service, prompted by their care. This expertly managed belief that humans are beings in need of services from certified professionals has deep roots beginning in the eighth century. As Illich elaborated in “Taught Mother Tongue,” it was then that priests became pastors by defining their “own services as needs of human nature” and by linking salvation to the obligatory consumption of those services.


Illich proposed to resuscitate the word “vernacular” in its historical reference to what is “homemade, homegrown and homebred,” as a more fitting term than “subsistence,” “human economies,” or “informal sectors,” to refer to what people do for themselves, whether that is singing, cultivating crops, building homes, or playing. In the sense he gives the word, the vernacular denotes non-market activities, those not captured by the logic of exchange, without thereby implying a “privatized activity…a hobby or an irrational and primitive procedure.”  


The separation of people from vernacular practices delivers them to a regime of scarcity. A dependence on scarce goods and services can be maintained by force, as with zoning laws prohibiting backyard or rooftop chicken coops. Compulsory schooling, like most other expert and professionally defined services, commands dependence by imputing legally sanctioned needs. But institutionalizing envy can also propel dependence on commodities. As Illich argued in Gender, traditional cultures recognized invidious comparison as destructive of social relations and devised symbolic forms such as the ‘evil eye’ to suppress it. But modern economies are organized to mask envy as a way to better disseminate it. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ or ‘bettering one’s condition’ are slogans that rhetorically blunt what the pastor Bernard Mandeville in 1714 baldly stated as the formula for economic growth: private vices, public benefits.


Despite the contrary assertion of standard economics textbooks, Illich thus argues that modern economies do not solve the problem of scarcity. Instead, the economy is better understood as a machine for the production of scarcity, whether through force, need, or envy. The destruction of the vernacular is both cause and consequence of the economy, and, the resulting subject of the economy is possessive, invidious, and needy. Economic ideologists of all stripes, including socialists and capitalists, are convinced of a human need for education and electricity. Their shared conviction reveals them as agents united in the ongoing war against the vernacular, advertised as the virtuous and uplifting cycle of work and consumption.  


Throughout the Middle Ages, wage labor was considered a mark of the miserable and thought to be a fate worse than beggary. By the sixteenth century, labor was ennobled and dignified as work by the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin. By the seventeenth century, those who stood to profit from it argued that work was a natural cure for poverty, which was seen as being caused by laziness or indolence. Conveniently, the assumption-turned-perception of work as natural overlooks that it is the very dependence on wages that modernizes poverty. As Illich pointed out, the modernized poor are those who are prevented from living outside the economy and yet are forced to occupy its bottom rungs.


But, argued Illich, the thoroughgoing dependence on cash is only the visible tip of an even deeper injustice. A society organized around putting people to work will necessarily create “shadow work,” which Illich defined as the unpaid toil needed to make commodities and services fully useful. If one has to buy eggs because one cannot keep chickens, then the effort of going to the market, finding a parking spot, and returning home comprises frustrating shadow work. One is engaged in shadow work when doing one’s homework because one is compelled to attend school, or when surfing the Internet to get information on one’s medical options. The hours lost in commuting to make oneself useful to an employer is shadow work necessary to ‘make a living.’


Illich found the paradigm of shadow work in housework. Unlike commoners, workers in the modern economy typically do not consume directly the fruits of their labor. Until the early nineteenth century this forced separation of production from consumption fueled protracted protests, many led by women. Illich argued that these protests were quelled, in part, by glorifying the confinement of women to their houses. ‘The fairer sex’ rhetorically ennobled the enclosure of women as housewives whose unpaid toil exemplifies the historically new sphere of shadow work. The house as the site of unpaid reproduction is the necessary shadow cast by the workplace as the space of paid production. The creation of unpaid work as a requirement that other work be paid, suggested to Illich that the subject of economics was also genderless. The economy is fundamentally sexist, he argued, because it recognizes the human only in its capacity to produce and reproduce. Even if women are drawn into the workforce and men are encouraged to help with childrearing, most of the unpaid toil is overwhelmingly borne by women. More generally, he speculated that the economy would collapse if all the shadow work required for its functioning were to be paid for. How much would Facebook be worth if its users were paid for their efforts to produce content and consume advertisements?


Shadow work remains hidden partly because it is sentimentalized. The defense of ‘family values’ sentimentalizes sexist oppression by maintaining the fantasy that the modern house continues immemorial tradition, whereas the demand that housework be paid only exposes the paradoxical freedom sought in dependence on wage-work. Shadow work does not foster vernacular modes of living nor does it nourish the realm of autonomous being-together. Instead, it supports and deepens the dependence on a life given to employment, even when there are fewer jobs available. Parents devote countless hours to their children’s homework to ‘upgrade the human capital’ that schooling delivers to the workplace. Illich noted that sentimentalizing such shadow work as ‘quality time’ is the kind of dishonesty needed to live with the iniquities inherent in commodity-intensive markets.


Forty years ago, Illich suggested self-service would be the species of shadow work that would likely expand faster than wage labor. That may have come to pass, when computer- prompted busywork such as online banking and deleting spam is added to the time spent on home improvement projects, life-long learning, and unpaid internships. He also argued, in “Energy and Equity” that the continued growth of energy-intensive social arrangements would destroy more than just the physical habitat of men and women. In hindsight, his tightly argued warning and plea point to the road not taken as the crises gathered. It may however still offer hope to those now caught in the vise of endemic underemployment and a ravaged environment.


The widespread belief that economic growth comes at the cost of ecological despoliation overlooks the more decisive and prior destruction of the socio-cultural milieu of a people; the vernacular. For this reason Illich wrote in “Silence is a Commons” that the most virulent kind of ecological degradation occurs with “the transformation of the environment from a commons to a productive resource.” It is not just that land then becomes real estate, viewed from a distance rather than trodden underfoot. Rather, economic values proliferate by engulfing the variegated ways of living in common, a kind of destruction reflected sharply in the steady vanishing of languages. While waste and pollution caused by economic growth describe environmental degradation, Illich recommended the term “disvalue” to name the denigration and destruction of the social environments necessary to propel that growth.


Not so long ago, services and commodities swirled only around the margins of everyday life. Today they are everywhere. For most of human history, tools were shaped to the natural abilities of their users. Today people function as appendages of their tools, which set the rhythm and pace of their lives. Whether they are cars or high-tech hospitals, when the quantity of commodities and services exceed a certain threshold of intensity, they exclude non-market alternatives and therefore impose what Illich called a radical monopoly. Paved streets for cars and rails for trains demand the Earth be reshaped to fit.


But to this environment degradation must be added three kinds of frustration that results from the radical monopoly of energy-intensive commodities. Too many cars on the road spark ‘road rage,’ as does too much education produces incurious teens. Both are examples of a frustrating subversion that Illich named technical counterproductivity. Speedy cars push bicycles and pedestrians off the streets just as too many emails and television shows overwhelm face-to-face conversations. This displacement of vernacular activity by economic artifacts he called structural counterproductivity. Just as consumers of too many passenger-miles believe they can move only when they are sitting on a moving seat, so the buyers of too many student credits believe they can learn only what they are taught. The self-perception of both expresses the cultural counterproductivity that result from the repeated use of packaged goods, just as myths are engendered by ritualized behaviors. That the ecological and economic problems are still understood in terms of scarcity, whether of clean energy or well-paid jobs, reveals how deeply self-perception has been shaped by the overuse and suffocating presence of commodity intensive markets and energy intensive technologies.


Economics and ecology cannot comprehend the vernacular, Illich argues in the “Social Construction of Energy,” because they mystify a social construction as a natural phenomenon. From its very beginnings, the science of ecology imbibed the assumption of scarcity and imputed it to the whole of nature. Bees and trees, whales and bacteria –all species are seen as locked in a battle over scarce nutrients, for instance.  In documenting the twists and turns that scientists took during the nineteenth century to construct ‘energy’ as the invisible and indestructible source of all ‘work,’ Illich shows how both work and energy, when used in everyday language, makes a scientific construction appear to be a natural phenomena. Whether aggregated as population or proletariat, individuals are understood en masse as a source of labor power to be worked. In the same timeframe, the universe or Nature itself came to be understood economically as an energy generator with the potential for work. Illich suggests the entwined assumptions that nature works and that work is natural masquerade as certainties that now keep propped up a world built for energy-intensive employment.


To Illich, the differences between economics and ecology were less significant than the presumptions they shared.  The economist wants to replace people with cheaper, more efficient machines. The ecologist wants to get rid of cars and replace them with energy saving bicycles. However, neither suspects that machines and people are incomparable, except as objects of science. For the scientist, ‘work’ is done and ‘energy’ is consumed by a steam engine, a rat, a data center, and a pedestrian. And as ecologists and economists now form an alliance to tout the so-called ‘green economy,’ they subject the economy of commodities to the greater economy of energy. They tighten the noose of scarce resources without contributing to freedom from dependence on jobs and joules. As Illich noted many years ago, “radical monopoly would accompany high-speed traffic even if motors were powered by sunshine and vehicles spun of air.”


The radical monopolization of vernacular life has now made it almost impossible to live without high-energy inputs, outside the cycle of work and consumption, beyond the grip of scarcity. Yet by the force of circumstance, this is the situation that many must now contend with as wage work dries up and shadow work grows. To protect the means of provisioning for themselves, commoners once agitated not for minimum wages but for a ceiling on the profits derived from enclosing the commons. They did not want a handout but instead insisted on the liberty to fend for themselves. Similarly, Illich argues that the speed of motor-powered vehicles on common streets be limited so as not to hinder the natural mobility of people on foot or bicycle. Such proposals are unlikely to make much of an impression on energy addicts and workaholics.


But they may intrigue others wanting to kick bad habits. However, if, above all, the task of living differently entails the task of thinking differently, then one must first escape the illusions fostered by such pop-scientific terms as ‘work’ and ‘energy.’ To help with this, Illich favored thinking with concepts rooted in bodily experience. In contrast, transportation scientists have no concepts to distinguish biking under one’s own power from being freighted in a bus. For them, both are comparable methods of locomotion. Social scientists define ‘poverty’ by the quantity of income. So understood, ‘poverty’ does not contrast the misery of those who are dependent on cash with the self-sufficiency of those who do not need it. Illich insisted on conceptual clarity rooted in felt perception as an antidote to the indiscriminating constructs of scientific thought.


These remarks do not summarize the four essays by Illich. Instead, they are invitations to rediscover a thinker who saw deeply into fundamental questions. Illich’s texts demand and reward close attention. In that effort, three misunderstandings should be avoided. First, only the inattentive reader will conclude that Illich was against technology per se. Such a reader must have misunderstood an argument built on defending, for example, bicycles, libraries, aspirin, and books, all of which may use high-tech materials and industrial methods of production. A second and related confusion is to believe that Illich argued for the complete abolition of scarce commodities and services, whether computers or medicine: he simply insisted on discerning the quanta of commodities needed to expand the range of autarkic action, the proportion of power tools that would not destroy the use of one’s hands. Third, one should guard against the idea that because he diagnosed the present from the vantage point of history, Illich was also calling for a return to the past. Instead, as he stated in “The Three Dimensions of Public Choice,” “such a choice does not exist,” and such “aspirations …would be sentimental and destructive.” If he cautioned there is no way back, Illich also refused the seductions of futurists. These visionaries of freedom now promise redemption through a ‘low carbon full employment’ future. Forty years ago, Illich saw into that future and recognized there the tightening shackles of wages geared to watts.


Readers who share that recognition may be now prompted to laugh at the ardor of their attachment to false promises. That laughter may also liberate, in those who desire it, new efforts to invent and imagine ways of living that are truly free. To them, debates still tethered by expanding markets and powerful machines are irrelevant. They realize that the noisy discussions between proponents of ‘regulated’ instead of ‘free’ markets leave unquestioned the rule of scarce resources. They also see the confining grip of techno-science in claims that ‘sustainable technologies’ will cure technologically caused damages. Moreover, those searching and inventing styles of living relatively free from the rule of economic value and techno-science are not doctrinaire. They know that the vernacular stubbornly persists in the interstices of contemporary life and lies orthogonally to commodity-intensive markets and energy-intensive machines. They stitch together, as in a patchwork quilt, modes of life oriented by the homemade, homegrown, and homebred. They adroitly sidestep the charge of hypocrisy when leveled by those who disparage and repress vernacular ways. They leave purity of intent to the priests, definitional exactness to the academics, and despair to the intellectuals. Now freed of illusory attachments, they are too engaged in figuring out the shape of a sweeter, more beautiful life amidst the ruins bequeathed to them.


Valentina Borremans graciously gave me the permission to republish these essays. Catheryn Kilgarriff of Marion Boyars not only keeps all of Illich’s books in print but also has been generous in her accommodation of missed deadlines. I am pleased to acknowledge John Verity’s editorial suggestions that spurred me to rewrite this text. Carl Mitcham’s suggestions helped polish it to the finish it now possesses. I remain grateful for the nourishing patience of Samar Farage. None of them is responsible for the remaining errors and infelicities.  


Sajay Samuel

May 2013



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