Intervention – "Vernacular Values: Remembering Ivan Illich" by Andy Merrifield

by Andy Merrifield*

Andy MerrifieldI’ve been revisiting the great maverick radical Ivan Illich, who died in 2002, aged 76. Illich was an Austrian who had no real homeland, a Jew who became a Catholic, a Priest who denounced the Vatican, a global intellectual who toured continents on foot. He lived a rich life as an ascetic, studying crystallography in Florence, medieval history in Salzburg, and theology and philosophy in Rome. He spoke at least half a dozen languages though reputedly worked in ten. With a vast polemical oeuvre, Illich laid into Western institutions, into medicine and schooling, into law and labour, into transportation and energy policy; he was a Marxist who castigated Marxism, a socialist against welfarism. In the early 1950s, he was a parish pastor in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, then one of New York’s poorest neighbourhoods; populated by fresh-off-the-boat Puerto Ricans, it wasn’t so much a job of preaching as outreach practice, a learning rather than teaching experience. Illich later went against the immigration flow, moving to Puerto Rico himself, becoming vice-rector of its Catholic University in Ponce. He didn’t last long, though, getting kicked out for outspokenness on Papal abortion policy, together with its silences on the Bomb.

In 1961, Illich went to Mexico and founded his infamously brilliant Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC), a language and research centre, really a free university in an old hacienda at Cuernavaca, the Aztec’s former summer residence, a half-hour’s drive south of Mexico City. Illich taught and dialogued there with everybody and anybody: with do-good missionaries and hippie misfits, with drop-outs and emissaries, with Peace Corp volunteers and Kennedy envoys; soon enough he’d have them all denouncing US imperialism and capitalist industrial development, questioning technocracy and actually-existing democracy, Western cultural values and Third World military dictatorship. CIDOC’s radicalism and independent thinkery attracted streams of converts, nourished all the while by Illich’s boundless energy, by his spirit of conviviality and charisma—tall and thin, cosmopolitan and elegant, he enjoyed nothing more than a glass of wine and serious conversation. (André Gorz, for one, came to pay homage and took much from the man about post-work and political ecology.[1])

Illich had it in for professional institutions of every kind, for what he called “disabling professions”; this is what interests me most in his work, this is what I’ve been trying to revisit, trying to recalibrate and reload, in our own professionalised times. I’ve been trying to affirm the nemesis of professionalism: amateurs. Illich said professionals incapacitate ordinary peoples’ ability to fend for themselves, to invent things, to lead innovative lives beyond the thrall of corporations and institutions. Yet Illich’s war against professionalism isn’t so much a celebration of self-survival (letting free market ideology rip) as genuine self-empowerment, a weaning people off their market-dependence. We’ve lost our ability to develop “convivial tools”, he says, been deprived of our use-value capacities, of values systems outside the production and consumption of commodities. We’ve gotten accustomed to living in a supermarket.

Illich, and Gorz and Dorine

Illich’s thinking about professionalisation was partly inspired by Karl Polanyi’s magisterial analysis on the “political and economic origins of our time”, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 1944). Since the Stone Age, Polanyi says, markets followed society, developed organically as social relations developed organically, from barter and truck systems, to simple economies in which money was a means of exchange, a mere token of equivalent worth. Markets were always “embedded” (a key Polanyi word) in social relations, always located somewhere within the very fabric of society, whose institutional and political structure “regulated” what markets could and couldn’t do. Regulation and markets thus grew up together, came of age together. So “the emergence of the idea of self-regulation”, says Polanyi, “was a complete reversal of this trend of development … the change from regulated to self-regulated markets at the end of the 18th century represented a complete transformation in the structure of society.”

We’re still coming to terms with this complete transformation, a transformation that, towards the end of the 20th century, has made the “disembedded” economy seem perfectly natural, perfectly normal, something transhistorical, something that always was, right? It’s also a perfectly functioning economy, as economic pundits now like to insist. Entering the 1990s, this disembedded market system bore a new tagline, one that persists: “neoliberalism”. Polanyi’s logic is impeccable: a “market economy can exist only in a market society.”

Inherent vices nonetheless embed themselves in this disembedded economy. Land, labour and money become vital parts of our economic system, of our speculative hunger games. But, says Polanyi, land, labour and money “are obviously not commodities” (his emphasis). “Land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man”, he says; “labour is only another name for human activity which goes with life itself”; “actual money … is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance”. Thus “the commodity description of labour, land and money is entirely fictitious”, a commodity fiction, the fiction of commodities.

Still, we live in fictitious times (as filmmaker Michael Moore was wont to say): land, labour and money as commodities provide us with the vital organising principle of our whole society. So fiction remains the truth, and fictitious truth needs defending, needs perpetuating; the postulate must be forcibly yet legitimately kept in place. But kept in place how, and by whom? By, we might say, a whole professional administration, by a whole professional cadre, by a whole professional apparatus that both props up and prospers from these fictitious times. Professionalism is the new regulation of deregulation, the new management of mismanagement, an induced and imputed incapacitation.

And so a vast array of professional and specialist bodies, Illich says in Disabling Professions (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1977), “now dominate the creation, adjudication and implementation of needs”. “They are more deeply entrenched than a Byzantine bureaucracy”, he says, “more international than a world church, more stable than any labour union, endowed with wider competencies than any shaman, and equipped with a tighter hold over those they claim as victims than any mafia”. Expert managers and specialist middle-managers step up to the plate to bat at all levels of government; ditto health systems; ditto educational policy; ditto the business of science, its R&D, its scientific patents and intellectual property rights.

Unaccountable agents head up the upper-echelons the Ministry of Finance and its regime of Accountancy Governance; elite technocrats and cabinet plutocrats, economists and accountants, consultants and advisors, think-tanks and for-profit public agencies now offer not-so-laissez-faire encouragement to self-regulating market intensity; it is these actors who try to maintain the functioning credibility and sustained viability of this fictitious commodity system, a reality of lies wherein economic crises are terribly truthful. Here the rule of experts might constitute a government for the people; but it ain’t ever going to constitute a government of the people. That’s why, insists Illich, our democratic prospects hinge on our ability to disable these disabling professions.

Illich’s hope against hope is for a “post-professional ethos” in which people recognise the professional emperor’s new clothes, that we’ve all been had, are still being had, that those guys are starkers and we should know it. Professionals need to be challenged by people power, by mass amateurism asserting its popular will, a will that also needs to be a collective political force. Out of this post-professional vision we might create new tools of conviviality, another kind of human sociability, a collective commons beyond monetary speculation, beyond professional mismanagement. And we might do it now. What might get affirmed aren’t only “use-values” but “vernacular values”, embedded economic activities, a new social imaginary.

Vernacular values are intuitive knowledges and practical know-how that structure everyday culture; they pivot not so much—as Gramsci says—on common sense as on “good sense”. They’re reasonable intuitions and intuitive reason: words, habits and understandings that inform real social life—the real social life of a non-expert population. Illich reminds us that “vernacular” stems from the Latin vernaculam, meaning “homebred” or “homegrown”, something “homemade”. (We’re not far from the notion of amateur here.) Vernacular is a mode of life and language below the radar of exchange-value; vernacular language is language acquired without a paid teacher; loose, unruly language, heard as opposed to written down. (“Eartalk”, Joyce called it in Finnegans Wake, a language for the “earsighted”.) To assert vernacular values is, accordingly, to assert democratic values, to assert its means through popular participation.

illich and gorz

Illich harks a paean to citizenly action, to a shadow citizenry trying to outflank a shadow ruling class, even trying to outflank Shadow Work (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1981), as he calls it, recognising how much of what we see as “informal” and “unproductive” labour (revolving around reproduction) could underwrite a more radicalised ideal of subsistence; a “style of life”, Illich says, in which people have reduced their market dependence. They’ve done so “by protecting—by political means—a social infrastructure in which tools are used primarily to generate use-values that are unmeasured and unmeasurable by professional need-makers”. Excessive wealth and prolonged formal employment form part and parcel of the same problem; they must be overcome, negated. We work longer and longer merely to pay off our debts, to afford more and more commodities we’re told we need, can’t live without. Such is “impoverished wealth”, Illich says, a wealth too rare to be shared and too destructive of the liberty of those who have none; a double whammy of poverty on each flank.

One of Illich’s most militant battle cries is something he called The Right to Useful Unemployment (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1978). It was a counterfactual plea, going against the flow of a Left in the 1970s who was still championing full employment. André Gorz, for one, was convinced by this plea, becoming its ablest and most vocal disciple. In the 1980s, bidding Farewell to the Working Class (Pluto Press, 1982), he said it was “no longer a question of winning power as a worker, but of winning the power no longer to function as a worker”. It’s not that the working class is an entirely dead species, says Gorz, reiterating Illich’s ideas; it’s more that it has been displaced, acquiring “a more radical form in a new social arena”.

What Gorz calls a “non-class” has an “added advantage over Marx’s working class”, because, he says, it’s “immediately conscious of itself”: “This non-class encompasses all those who have been expelled from production by the abolition of work, or whose capacities are under-employed as a result of industrialisation … It includes all the supernumeraries of present-day social production, who are potentially or actually unemployed, whether permanently or temporarily, partially or completely. It results from the decomposition of the old society based upon the dignity, value, social utility and desirability of work.”

Illich chips in to add how professionals peddle the privileges and status of the job: they adjudicate its worthiness and rank, while forever tut-tutting those without work. Unemployment “means sad idleness, rather than the freedom to do things that are useful for oneself or for one’s neighbour”. “What counts”, Illich says, “isn’t the effort to please or the pleasure that flows from that effort but the coupling of the labour force with capital. What counts isn’t the achievement of satisfaction that flows from action but the status of the social relationship that commands production—that is, the job, situation, post, or appointment”.

Effort isn’t productive unless it’s done at the behest of some boss; economists can’t deal with a usefulness of people outside of the corporation, outside of stock value, of shareholder dividend, of cost-benefit. Work is only ever productive when its process is controlled, when it is planned and monitored by professional agents, by managers and the managers of managers. Can we ever imagine unemployment as useful, as the basis for autonomous activity, as meaningful social or even political activity?

The utopian element is unashamed. It’s a wish-image of the future that rarely gets a look in anymore. Can we envisage a world in which time isn’t squandered as mindless working time? Work for most people usually means time spent doing something that has absolutely no meaning for the doer: an alienated activity, with an alienated product (if there is a product), controlled by an alienating organisation, all conspiring to shape an alienated self. Many 20- and 30-somethings are now learning how to reevaluate their “career” choices, as well as the whole notion of career itself, because they’re smart enough to know that they might not have anything deemed “a career” anymore. In fact, there’s a whole generation of college educated 20-somethings who know they’ll never work a “proper” salaried job. Neither are they turned on by temping or interning. They know they can never count on a pension or any “right to work”.

Can we envisage a world in which time isn’t squandered as mindless working time? Work for most people usually means time spent doing something that has absolutely no meaning for the doer: an alienated activity, with an alienated product (if there is a product), controlled by an alienating organisation, all conspiring to shape an alienated self…

Perhaps, during crises, we can hatch alternative programmes for survival, other methods through which we can not so much “earn a living” as live a living. Perhaps we can self-downsize, as Illich suggests, and address the paradox of work that goes back at least to Max Weber: work is revered in our culture, yet at the same time workers are becoming superfluous; you hate your job, your boss, hate the servility of what you do, and how you do it, the pettiness of the tasks involved, yet want to keep your job at all costs. You see no other way of defining yourself other than through work, other than what you do for a living. Perhaps there’s a point at which we can all be pushed over the edge, voluntarily take the jump ourselves, only to discover other aspects of ourselves, other ways to fill in the hole, to make a little money, to maintain our dignity and pride, and to survive off what Gorz calls a “frugal abundance”.

Perhaps it’s time to get politicised around non-work and undercut the professionalisation of work and life. In opting out, or at least contesting from within, perhaps we can create a bit of havoc, refuse to work as we’re told, and turn confrontation into a more positive device, a will to struggle for another kind of work, where use-value outbids exchange-value, where amateurs prevail over professionals. If, in times of austerity, capitalists can do without workers, then it’s high time workers (and ex-workers) realise that we can do without capitalists, without their professional hacks, and their professional institutions, that we can devise work without them, a work for ourselves. Illich throws down the gauntlet here, challenges us to conceive another de-professionalised, vernacular non-working future. He certainly gets you thinking, has had me thinking, and rethinking, more than a decade after I’ve had any kind of job.


[1] Gorz and Illich bonded personally as well as politically: born in the same region of the world, in the same era, without neither identity nor nationality, they hailed from nowhere and everywhere. Gorz first met Illich in Paris in 1973, after being impressed by Illich’s manuscript, “Retooling Society” (appearing in print as Tools for Conviviality [Marion Boyars Publishers, 1973]). Gorz and his love supreme, Dorine, the longstanding English wife he immortalised in Letter to D., went to Cuernavaca the following year. The visit coincided with the publication of Illich’s book, Medical Nemesis (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1974), and with Dorine herself being diagnosed as having arachnoiditis, an incurable degenerative disease. As Gorz wrote in Letter to D., “we had no inkling that the critique of techno-medicine was soon to coincide with our personal concerns”. They revisited Illich a second time in 1976, coinciding with a trip to California to see Herbert Marcuse. In September 2007, the 84-year-old Gorz and terminally ill Dorine ended their days together in a joint-suicide pact.

*Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar, author of numerous books, most recently The New Urban Question (Pluto, 2014) and The Politics of the Encounter (University of Georgia Press, 2013). He’s currently writing a book about professionals and amateur shadow citizens. You can soon visit Andy at his website (under construction!):