Ivan Illich

Commodities vs. Use Values




The industrial society has dispossessed the individual of his capacity to make while stressing enormously the ability to consume. An healthy person within a functional society requires a new balance in which the individuals become masters of their production and consumption activities.

Source: Ivan Illich, Limits to Medicine, 1975



The industrial distortion of our shared perception of reality has rendered us blind to the counter-purposive level of our enterprise. We live in an epoch in which learning is planned, residence standardized, traffic motorized, and communication programmed, and in which, for the first time, a large·part·of·our foodstuff consumed by humanity passes through·interregional markets. In such an intensely industrialized society, people are conditioned to get things rather than to do them; they are trained to value what can be purchased rather than what they themselves can create. They want to be taught, moved, treated or guided rather than to learn, to heal and to find their own way. Impersonal institutions are assigned personal functions. Healing ceases to be considered the task for the sick. It first become the duty of the individual body repairmen, and then soon changes from a personal service into the output of an anonymous agency. In the process, society is rearranged for the sake of the health-care system, and it become increasingly difficult to care for one’s own health. Goods and services litter the domains of freedom.

Schools produce education, motor vehicles produce locomotion, and medicine produces health care. These outputs are staples that have all the characteristics of commodities. Their production costs can be added to or subtracted from the GNP, their scarcity can be measured in terms of marginal value, and their costs can be established in currency equivalents. By their very nature these staples create a market. Like school education and motor transportation, clinical care is the result of a capital-intensive commodity production; the services produced are designed for others, not with others nor for the producer.

Owing to the industrialization of our world-view, it is often overlooked that each of these commodities still competes with a non-marketable use-value that people freely produce, each on his own. People learn by seeing and doing, they move on their feet, they heal, they take care of their health, and they contribute to the health of others. These activities have use-values that resist marketing. Most valuable learning, body movement, and healing do not show up on the GNP. People learn their mother tongue, move around, produce their children and bring them up, recover the use of broken bones, and prepare the local diet, and do these things with more or less competence and enjoyment. These are all valuable activities which most of the time will not and cannot be undertaken for money, but which can be devalued if too much money is around.

The achievement of a concrete social goal cannot be measured in terms of industrial outputs, neither in their amount nor in the curve that represents their distribution and their social costs. The effectiveness of each industrial sector is determined by the correlation between the production of commodities by society and the autonomous production of corresponding use­values. How effective a society is in producing high levels of mobility, housing, or nutrition depends on the meshing of marketed staples with inalienable, spontaneous action.

When most needs of most people are satisfied in a domestic or community mode of production, the gap between expectation and gratification tends to be narrow and stable. Learning, locomotion, or sick-care are the results of highly decentralized initiatives, of autonomous inputs and self-limiting total outputs. Under the conditions of a subsistence economy, the tools used in production determine the needs that the application of these same tools can fulfil. For instance, people know what they can expect when they get sick. Somebody in the village or the nearby town will know all the remedies that have worked in the past, and beyond this lies the unpredictable realm of the miracle. Until late in the nineteenth century, most families, even in Western countries, provided most of the therapy that was known. Most learning, locomotion, or healing was performed by each man on his own, and the tools needed were produced in his family or village setting.

Autonomous production can, of course, be supplemented by industrial outputs that will have to be designed and often manufactured beyond direct community control. Autonomous activity can be rendered both more effective and more decentralized by using such industrially made tools as bicycles, printing presses, recorders, or X-ray equipment. But it can also be hampered, devalued, and blocked by an arrangement of society that is totally in favour of industry. The synergy between the autonomous and the heteronomous modes of production then takes on a negative cast. The arrangement of society in favour of managed commodity production has two ultimately destructive aspects: people are trained for consumption rather than for action, and at the same time their range of action is narrowed. The tool separates the workman from his labour. Habitual bicycle commuters are pushed off the road by intolerable levels of traffic, and patients accustomed to taking care of their own ailments find yesterday's remedies available only on prescription and hence largely unobtainable. Wage labour and client relationships expand while autonomous production and gift relationships wither.

Effectively achieving social objectives depends on the degree to which the two fundamental modes of production supplement or hamper each other. Effectively coming to know and to control a given physical and social environment depends on people's formal education and on their opportunity and motivation to learn in a non-programmed way. Effective traffic depends on the ability of people to get where they must go quickly and conveniently. Effective sick-care depends on the degree to which pain and dysfunction are made tolerable and recovery is enhanced. The effective satisfaction of these needs must be clearly distinguished from the efficiency with which industrial products are made and marketed, from the number of certificates, passenger-miles, housing units, or medical interventions performed. Beyond a certain threshold, these outputs will all be needed only as remedies; they will substitute for personal activities that previous industrial outputs have paralysed. The social criteria by which effective need-satisfaction can be evaluated do not match the measurements used to evaluate the production and marketing of industrial goods.

Since measurements disregard the contributions made by the autonomous mode towards the total effectiveness with which any major social goal may be achieved, they cannot indicate if this total effectiveness is increasing or decreasing. The number of graduates, for instance, might be inversely related to general competence. Much less can technical measurements indicate who are the beneficiaries and who are the losers from industrial growth, who are the few that get more and can do more, and who fall into the majority whose marginal access to industrial products is compounded by their loss of autonomous effectiveness. Only political judgement can assess the balance.


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