On not working

My hero Ivan Illich (the Cuernavaca leftist, not to be confused with some character in Tolstoy) wrote a lovely book in 1978 entitled, The Right to Useful Unemployment, with the stimulating subtitle, … and its professional enemies. It was one of his series of little bombshells aimed at technology, institutional liberalism, the education system, public medicine, power transmission, unions, certified professionalism, the legal trade, and so forth. He also shared my doubts about mass literacy and numeracy.

Very leftwing. All the smuglies used to adore him, because he spoke like one of theirs, but with a chic, whole-earth edge. I noticed, however, that what he said was opposed to everything they took for granted. He was not fighting to advance medicare, or judicare, or welfare, or any of the projects of what I call the Twisted Nanny State. Moreover, the “equality” he depicted turned out to be a radical endorsement of human freedom.

What would “useful unemployment” be? The perfect example is a housewife:

“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.”

Illich shamelessly employs the non-statistical concept of “use values,” against our world of commodities and paycheques. He mischievously applies words like “poverty,” for instance, not to low incomes and backward living conditions but to an environment in which human autonomy is sacrificed for mediocre material ends. This goes somewhat beyond the distinction between socialism and capitalism. No effort is considered productive in our world, unless done at the behest of a boss.

Sometimes he was rude. I particularly enjoyed his characterization of the socialized medical establishment in Canada as the new hookers trying to take the trade away from the old hookers. Or snippets of economic analysis designed to drive economists crazy. Example: by the mid-1970s automobile manufacturers were paying more per unit for worker health, than for the metal in their cars. But their death rate was increasing, owing to traffic accidents.

Indeed, it was Illich who alerted me to the most interesting traffic statistic I have seen. It was a calculation of all the hours spent not only in making and driving cars, building highways, &c, but down the whole column of vertical integration to the metal-mining and oil-extraction at its base. Divide these total hours worked into total miles travelled, and it is discovered that the average speed of cars is about the same as walking. In the name of efficiency, the opposite was achieved.

Most technology is counter-productive like this: the more advanced, the worse it gets. Yet this is not the principal complaint. Rather it is the kind of society, and nature of human interaction within, that is at issue. Everything now requires regulation, and all functions must be professionalized. A centralized political regime inevitably follows. It instinctively resists and condemns any attempt to undermine itself by doing simple human things.

It is also the fortieth anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, “A World Split Apart.” In retrospect, it went beyond the Cold War context in which it was delivered. Solzhenitsyn was identifying the “political correctness” that has been eating through our old civilizational values; starting with that of courage.

But more:

“Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during [recent] decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

From quite different angles, I think “leftwing” Illich and “rightwing” Solzhenitsyn identified a key modern “problemo.” It is that, progress doesn’t work.