Ivan Illich

On development




This text is the first section of a speech given at the 16th General Assembly of the Society for International Development, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 15th August 1979.

I have also added some passages (in italic) taken from a revised version presented by the author in a book titled Shadow Work, 1981.



Where the war against subsistence has led can best be seen in the mirror of so-called development. During the 1960's, ‘development’ acquired a status that ranked with ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. Other peoples' development became the rich man's duty and burden. Development was described as a building program - people of all colors spoke of ‘nation-building’ and did so without blushing. The immediate goal of this social engineering was the installation of a balanced set of equipment in a society not yet so instrumented: the building of more schools, more modern hospitals, more extensive highways, new factories, power grids, together with the creation of a population trained to staff and need them.

The nemesis of development

Today, the moral imperative of ten years ago appears naive; today, few critical thinkers would take such an instrumentalist view of the desirable society. Two reasons have changed many minds: first, undesired externalities exceed benefits - the tax burden of schools and hospitals is more than any economy can support; the ghost towns produced by highways impoverish the urban and rural landscape. Plastic buckets from São Paulo are lighter and cheaper than those made of scrap by the local tin-smith in Western Brazil. But first cheap plastic puts the tin-smith out of existence, and then the fumes of plastic leave a special trace on the environment - a new kind of ghost. The destruction of age-old competence as well as these poisons are inevitable byproducts and will resist all exorcisms for a long time. Cemeteries for industrial waste simple cost too much, more than the buckets are worth. In economic jargon, the 'external costs' exceed not only the profit made from plastic bucket production, but also the very salaries paid in the manufacturing process.

These rising externalities, however, are only one side of the bill which development has exacted. Counterproductivity is its reverse side. Externalities represent costs that are ‘outside’ the price paid by the consumer for what he wants - costs that he, others or future generations will at some point be charged. Counterproductivity, however, is a new kind of disappointment which arises ‘within’ the very use of the good purchased. This internal counterproductivity, an inevitable component of modern institutions, has become the constant frustration of the poorer majority of each institution's clients: intensely experienced but rarely defined. Each major sector of the economy produces its own unique and paradoxical contradictions. Each necessarily effects the opposite of that for which it was structured. Economists, who are increasingly competent to put price-tags on externalities, are unable to deal with negative internalities, and cannot measure the inherent frustration of captive clients, which is something other than a cost. For most people, schooling twists genetic differences into certified degradation; the medicalization of health increases demand for services far beyond the possible and useful, and undermines that organic coping ability which common sense calls health; transportation, for the great majority bound to the rush hour, increases the time spent in the servitude to traffic, reducing both freely chosen mobility and mutual access. The development of educational, medical and other welfare agencies has actually removed most clients from the obvious purpose for which these projects were designed and financed. This institutionalized frustration, resulting from compulsory consumption, combines with the new externalities. It demands an increase in the production of scavenging and repair services to impoverish and even destroy individuals and communities, affecting them in a class-specific manner. The peculiarly modern forms of frustration and paralysis and destruction totally discredit the description of the desirable society in terms of installed production capacity.

As a result, slowly, the full impact of industralization on the environment becomes visible: while only some forms of growth threaten the biosphere, all economic growth threatens the ‘commons’. All economic growth inevitably degrades the utilization value of the environment.

Defense against the damages inflicted by development, rather than giving access to some new '’satisfaction’, has become the most sought-after privilege. You have arrived if you can commute outside the rush hour; have probably attended an elite school ifyou can give birth at home; are privy to rare and special knowledge if you can bypass the physician when you are ill; are rich and lucky if you can breathe fresh air; not really poor if you can build your own shack. The underclasses are now made up of those who must consume the counterproductive packages and ministrations of their self-appointed tutors; the privileged are those who are free to refuse them. A new attitude, then, has taken shape during these last years: the awareness that we cannot ecologically afford equitable development leads many to understand that, even if development in equity were possible, we would neither want more of it for ourselves, nor want to suggest it for others.

Dimensions of redress

Ten years ago, we tended to distinguish social options exercised within the political sphere from technical options assigned to the expert. The former were meant to focus on goals, the latter more on means. Roughly, options about the desirable society were ranged on a spectrum that ran from right to left: here, capitalist, over there, social ‘development’. The how was left to the experts. This one-dimensional model of politics is now passé. Today, in addition to ‘who gets what’, two new areas of choice have become lay issues: the very legitimacy of lay judgment on the apt means for production, and the trade­offs between growth and freedom. As a result, three independent classes of options appear as three mutually perpendicular axes of public choice. On the x-axis I place the issues related to social hierarchy, political authority, ownership of the means of production and allocation of resources that are usually designated by the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’. On the y-axis, I place the technical choices between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, extending these terms far beyond a pro and con atomic power: not only goods, but also services are affected by the hard and soft alternatives.

A third choice falls on the z-axis. Neither privilege nor technique, but rather the nature of human satisfaction is at issue. To characterize the two extremes, I shall use terms defined by Erich From. At the bottom, I place a social organization that fits the seeking of satisfaction in having; at the top, in doing. At the bottom, therefore, I place a commodity-intensive society where needs are increasingly defined in terms of packaged goods and services designed and prescribed by professionals, and produced under their control. This social ideal corresponds to the image of a humanity composed of individuals, each driven by considerations of marginal utility, the image that has developed from Mandeville via Smith and Marx to Keynes, and that Louis Dumont calls homo economicus. At the opposite end, at the top of the z-axis, I place - in a fan-shaped array - a great variety of societies where existence is organized around subsistence activities, each community choosing its unique life style tempered by skepticism about the claims of growth.

In such new societies where contemporary tools ease the creation of use-values, commodities and industrial production in general are deemed valuable mainly insofar as they are either resources or instrument for subsistence. Hence the social ideal corresponds to homo abilis, an image which includes numerous individuals who are differently competent at coping with reality, the opposite of homo economicus who is dependent on standardized ‘needs’. Here, people who choose their independence and their own horizon derive more satisfaction from doing and making things for immediate use than from the products of slaves and machines. Therefore, every cultural project is necessarily modest. Here, people go as far as they can toward self-subsistence, producing themselves what they can, exchanging their surplus with neighbors, avoiding – insofar as possible - the products of wage-labor.

On this z-axis of choice I do not oppose growth-oriented societies to others in which traditional subsistence is structured by immemorial cultural transmission of patterns. Such a choice does not exist. Aspirations of this kind would be sentimental and destructive. I oppose to the societies in the service of economic growth which I place at the bottom of the z-axis those which put high value on the replacement of both production and consumption by the subsistence-oriented utilization of common environments. I thus oppose societies organized in view of homo economicus societies which have recovered the traditional assumptions about homo artifix, subsistens.

The shape of a contemporary society is in fact the result of ongoing choices along these three independent axes. And a polity's credibility today depends on the degree of public participation in each of the three option sets. But due to the current one-dimensional conception of politics, most of these choices are the result of a synergy of unrelated decisions, which all tend to organize the environment as a cage for homo economicus. This trend is experienced by ever more people with deep anxiety. Thus a polity's credibility begins to depend on the degree of public participation in each of the three option sets. The beauty of a unique, socially articulated image of each society will, hopefully, become the determining factor of its international impact. Esthetic and ethical example may replace the competition of economic indicators. Actually, no other route is open. A mode of life characterized by austerity, modesty,constructed by hard work and built on a small scale does not lend itself to propagation through marketing. For the first time in history, poor and rich societies would be effectively placed on equal terms. But for this to become true, the present perception of international North-South relations in terms of development must first be superseded.

The rise and fall of wage-labor

A related high status goal of our age, full employment, must also be reviewed. Ten years ago, attitudes toward development and politics were simpler than what is possible today; attitudes toward work were sexist and naive. Work was identified with employment, and prestigious employment confined to males.

The analysis of shadow work done off the job was taboo. The left referred to it as a remnant of primitive reproduction, the right, as organized consumption - all agreed that, with develop­ ment, such labor would wither away. The struggle for more jobs, for equal pay for equal jobs, and more pay for every job pushed all work done off the job into a shadowed corner hidden from politics and economics. Recently, feminists, together with some economists and sociologists, looking at so-called intermediary structures, have begun to examine the unpaid con­ tribution made to an industrial economy, a contribution for which women are principally responsible. These persons discuss 'reproduction' as the complement to production. But the stage is mostly filled with self-styled radicals who discuss new ways of creating conventional jobs, new forms of sharing available jobs and how to transform housework, education, childbearing and commuting into paid jobs. Under the pressure of such demands, the full employment goal appears as dubious as development.

New actors, who question the very nature of work, advance to­ ward the limelight. They distinguish industrially structured work, paid or unpaid, from the creation of a livelihood beyond the confines of employment and professional tutors. Their dis­ cussions raise the key issues on the vertical axis. The choice for or against the notion of man as a growth addict decides whether unemployment, that is, the effective liberty to work free from wages and/or salary, shall be viewed as sad and a curse, or as useful and a right.

In a commodity-intensive society, basic needs are met through the products of wage labor - housing no less than education, traffic no less than the delivery of infants. The work ethic which drives such a society legitimates employment for salary or . wages and degrades independent coping. But the spread of wage labor accomplishes more - it divides unpaid work into two opposite types of activities. While the loss of unpaid work through the encroachment of wage labor has often been described, the creation of a new kind of work has been consistently ignored: the unpaid complement of industrial labor and services. A kind of forced labor or industrial serfdom in the service of commodity-intensive economies must be carefully distinguished from subsistence-oriented work lying outside the industrial system. Unless this distinction is clarified and used when choosing options on the z-axis, unpaid work guided by professionals could spread through a repressive, ecological welfare society. Women's serfdom in the domestic sphere is the most obvious example today. Housework is not salaried. Nor is it a subsistence activity in the sense that most of the work done by women was such as when, with their menfolk, they used the entire household as the setting and the means for the creation of most of the inhabitants' livelihood. Modern housework is standardized by industrial commodities oriented toward the support of production, and exacted from women in a sex­ specific way to press them into reproduction, regeneration and a motivating force for the wage-laborer. Well publicized by feminists, housework is only one expression of that extensive shadow economy which has developed everywhere in industrial societies as a necessary complement to expanding wage-labor. This shadow complement, together with the formal economy, is a constitutive element of the industrial mode of production. It has escaped economic analysis, as did the wave nature of elementary particles before the Quantum Theory. And when concepts developed for the formal economic sector are applied to it, they distort what they do not simply miss. The real difference between two kinds of unpaid activity - shadow work which complements wage labor, and subsistence work which competes with and opposes both - is consistently missed. Then, as subsistence activities become more rare, all unpaid activities assume a structure analogous to housework. Growth-oriented work inevitably leads to the standardization and management of activities, be they paid or unpaid.

A contrary view of work prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline since their product, goods or services, is valued primarily as a means for ever-inventive activities, rather than as an end, that is, dutiful consumption. There, the guitar is valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the backyard garden over the supermarket selection. There, the personal control of each worker over his means of production determines the small horizon of each enterprise, a horizon which is a necessary condition for social production and the unfolding of each worker's individuality. This mode of production also exists in slavery, serfdom and other forms of dependence. But it flourishes, releases its energy, acquires its adequate and classical form only where the worker is the free owner of his tools and resources; only then can the artisan perform like a virtuoso. This mode of production can be maintained only within the limits that nature dictates to both production and society. There, useful unemployment is valued while wage labor, within limits, is merely tolerated.

Commodity dependence

The development paradigm is more easily repudiated by those who were adults on January 10; 1949· That day, most of us met the term in its present meaning for the first time when President Truman announced his Point Four Program. Until then, we used 'development' to refer to species, real estate and moves in chess - only thereafter to people, countries and economic strategies. Since then, we have been flooded by development theories whose concepts are now curiosities for collectors - 'growth', 'catching up', 'modernization', 'imperialism', 'dualism', 'dependency', 'basic needs', 'transfer of technology', 'world system', 'autochthonous industrialization' and 'temporary unlinking'. Each onrush came in two waves. One carried the pragmatist who highlighted free enterprise and world markets; the other, the politicians who stressed ideology and revolution. Theorists produced mountains of prescriptions and mutual caricatures. Beneath these, the common assumptions of all were buried. Now is the time to dig out the axioms hidden in the idea of development itself.

Fundamentally, the concept implies the replacement of wide­spread competence and satisfying subsistence activites by the use and consumption or commodities; the monopoly of wage-labor over all other kinds of work; redefinition of needs in terms of goods and services mass-produced according to expert design; finally, the rearrangement of the environment in such fashion that space, time, materials and design favor production and consumption while they degrade or paralyze use-value oriented activities that satisfy needs directly. And all such worldwide homogeneous changes and processes are valued as inevitable and good. The great Mexican muralists dramatically portrayed the typical figures before the theorists outlined the stages. On their walls, one sees the ideal type of human being as the male in overalls behind a machine or in a white coat over a microscope. He tunnels mountains, guides tractors, fuels smoking chimneys. Women give him birth, nurse and teach him. In striking contrast to Aztec subsistence, Rivera and Orozco visualize industrial work as the sole source of all the goods needed for life and its possible pleasures.

But this ideal of industrial man now dims. The taboos that protected it weaken. Slogans about the dignity and joy of wage-labor sound tinny. Unemployment, a term first introduced in 1898 to designate people without a fixed income, is now recognized as the condition in which most of the world's people live anyway- even at the height of industrial booms. In Eastern Europe especially, but also in China, people now see that, since 1950, the term 'working class' has been used mainly as a cover to claim and obtain privileges for a new bourgeoisie and its children. The 'need' to create employment and stimulate growth, by which the self-appointed paladins of the poorest have so far squashed any consideration of alternatives to development, clearly appears suspect.

Bonded to ‘needs’

The challenges to development take multiple forms. In Germany alone, France or Italy, thousands of groups experiment, each differently, with alternatives to an industrial existence. Increasingly, more of these people come from blue-collar homes. For most of them, there is no dignity left in earning one's livelihood by a wage.

They try to "unplug themselves from consumption", in the phrase of some South Chicago slum­dwellers. In the USA, at least four million people live in the core of tiny and highly differentiated communities of this kind, with at least seven times as many individually sharing their values - women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet; neighborhoods alternatives to commuting; people alternatives to the shopping center. In Trivandrum, South India, I have seen one of the most successful alternatives to a special kind of commodity dependence - to instruction and certification as the privileged forms of learning. One thousand seven hundred villages have installed libraries, each containing at least a thousand titles. This is the minimum equipment they need to be full members of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, and they may retain their membership only as long as they loan at least three thousand volumes per year. I was immensely encouraged to see that, at least in South India, village-based and village-financed libraries have turned schools into adjuncts to libraries, while elsewhere libraries during these last ten years have become mere deposits for teaching materials used under the instruction of professional teachers. Also in Bihar, India, Medico International represents a grassroots-based attempt to demedicalize health care, without falling into the trap of the Chinese bare­footed doctor. The latter has been relegated to the lowest level lackey in a national hierarchy of bio-control.

Besides taking such experiential forms, the challenge to development also uses legal and political means. In an Austrian referendum an absolute majority refused permission to Chancellor Kreisky, politically in control of the electorate, to inaugurate a finished atomic generator. Citizens increasingly use the ballot and the courts, in addition to more traditional interest group pressures, to set negative design criteria for the technology of production. In Europe, 'green' candidates now influence elections. In America, citizen legal efforts begin to stop highways and dams. Such behavior was not predictable ten years ago - and many men in power still do not recognize it as legitimate. All these grassroots-organized lives and actions in the Metropolis challenge not only the recent concept of over­ seas development, but also the more fundamental and root concept of progress and of 'needs' at home.


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