Home » Scholarly Reviews » Ivan Illich, The Right to Useful Unemployment

Ivan Illich, The Right to Useful Unemployment

Illich, Ivan. The Right to Useful Unemployment. London: Marion Boyars, 1978.

Review by Hayyim Rothman

Philosopher Ivan Illich presents a theory of non-work very distinct from that of Mario Tronti. In The Right to Useful Unemployment, Illich defines poverty as the inability to act autonomously. For example, Illich says a man is poor if the use-value of his feet is lost because he lives in a sprawling metropolis or works on the thirty-fifth floor of a skyscraper. Poverty is thus defined as a condition of modern economic growth, because it leaves people useless unless they are employed or engaged in consumption.

This is an extremely interesting way of looking at labor on the one hand and poverty on the other. Labor is the ability to act effectively. Poverty is a circumstance in which labor is no longer meaningful or useful. The specifically modern condition of both, according to Illich, is when the commodity relation renders basic human functions and skills antiquated, depriving them of their force and significance.

This conception of poverty as impotence also cuts across traditional classes. Both the rich and the poor are rendered impotent by the commodity relation; the difference is only that the rich have a greater ability to overcome this impotence by purchasing and consuming commodities at a rate and level which the poor cannot.

In The Right to Useful Employment, Illich explores the problems of market dependence. He begins with a discussion of market intensity, arguing that crisis becomes a mechanism for reshaping culture to constrict the rights and abilities of average people. Illich contends that the process of commodity proliferation destroys cultures and creates unprecedented levels of dependence. This makes for conflict: the have-nots must fight for their share of the goods because having these goods is the basic condition of life. The alternative, according to Illich, is to refuse the commodity relation and re-skill so as to be less dependent upon it.

Illich makes an argument against consumerism by attacking the myths of a consumer-based society. These include the idea that people are born to be consumers and the illusion that purchasing goods and services helps people attain their goals. To Illich, commodities and services disable independent functioning, making them counterproductive. Consumerism thus harms productivity and detracts from culture because the focus is on consuming rather than making.

Part of Illich’s argument rests on a critique of professionalized institutions. He argues that professional authorities plays a central role in advocating for consumerism. Not only do professionals promote the illusion that people are meant to be consumers, they also argue that only special operators can be trusted with modern tools and people should follow expert opinions about what they need to consume. Here, Illich places himself squarely in the debate over the value of experts. However, what does it really mean to question expertise? Can the layman really administer the lifesaving procedures that modern medicine has devised? Can he or she devise new ones without the knowledge and expertise required? While Illich prioritizes agency and autonomy, this fundamental distrust of expertise can lead in a terribly reactionary direction.

In this work, Illich develops a case for the notion of individual capacity and communal self-sufficiency. His ideas differ drastically from both capitalist and Marxist economic orthodoxy and comes far closer to historical anarchist trends of thought. Illich’s work is an original and intellectually engaging approach to the concept of poverty, unemployment, and consumerism.

Return to the reviews or the annotated bibliography

Hayyim Rothman has a PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and recently received a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship to work at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

  • 100%