Equity in Useful Employment

by Ivan Illich

from Toward a History of Needs

At present, every new need that is professionally certified translates sooner or later into a right. The political pressure for the enactment of each right generates new jobs and commodities. Each new commodity degrades an activity by which people so far have been able to cope on their own; each new job takes away legitimacy from work so far done by the unemployed. The power of professions to measure what shall be good, right, and done warps the desire, willingness, and ability of the "common" man to live within his means.

When the right of a citizen to a lawyer has been established, settling the dispute in the pub will be branded unenlightened or antisocial, as home births are now. Already the right of each citizen of Detroit to live in a home that has been professionally wired turns the auto-electrician who installs his own plugs into a lawbreaker. The loss of one liberty after another to be useful when out of a job or outside professional control is the unnamed but also the most resented experience that comes with modernized poverty. By now the most significant privilege of high social status might well be some vestige of freedom for useful unemployment that is increasingly denied to the great majority.

The insistence on the right to be taken care of and supplied has almost turned into the right of industries and professions to conquer clients, to supply them with their product, and by their deliveries to obliterate the environmental conditions that make unemployed activities useful. Thus, for the time being, the struggle for an equitable distribution of the time and the power to be useful to self and others outside employment or the draft has been effectively paralyzed. Work done off the paid job is looked down upon if not ignored. Autonomous activity threatens the employment level, generates deviance, and detracts from the GNP: therefore it is only improperly called "work." Labor no longer means effort or toil but the mysterious mate wedded to productive investments. Work no longer means the creation of a value perceived by the worker but mainly a job, which is a social relationship. Unemployment means sad idleness, rather than the freedom to do things that are useful for oneself or for one's neighbor. An active woman who runs a house and brings up children and takes in those of others is distinguished from a woman who works, no matter how useless or damaging the product of this work might be. Activity, effort, achievement, or service outside a hierarchical relationship and unmeasured by professional standards threatens a commodity-intensive society. The generation fo use-values that escape effective measurement limits not only the need for more commodities but also the jobs that create them and the paychecks needed to buy them.

In the Middle Ages there was no salvation outside the Church, and theologians had a hard time explaining what God did with those pagans who were visibly virtuous or saintly. Similarly, in contemporary society effort is not productive unless it is done at the behest of a boss, and economists have a hard time dealing with the obvious usefulness of people when they are outside the control of a corporation, volunteer agency, or labor camp. Work is productive, respectable, worthy of the citizen only when the work process is planned, monitored, and controlled by a professional agent, who ensures that the work meets a certified need in a standardized fashion. In an advanced industrial society it becomes almost impossible to seek, or even to imagine, unemployment as a condition for autonomous, useful work. The infrastructure of society is so arranged that only the job gives access to the tools of production, and this monopoly of commodity production over the generation of use-values turns even more stringent as the state takes over. Only with a licence may you teach a child; only at a clinic may you set a broken bone. Housework, handicrafts, subsistence agriculture, radical technology, learning exchanges, and the like are degraded into activities for the idle, the unproductive, the very poor, or the very rich.