Toward a History of Needs

Ivan Illich

(excerpt from Ivan Illich's volume of the same title: pp. vii­ix)

Modernized poverty appears when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold. Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating affluence which occurs in persons mutilated by their overwhelming reliance on the riches of industrial productivity. Simply, it deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively; it confines them to survival through being plugged into market relations. And precisely because this new impotence is so deeply experienced, it is with difficulty expressed. We are the witnesses of a barely perceptible transformation in ordinary language by which verbs that formerly designated satisfying actions are replaced by nouns that denote packages designed for passive consumption only: for example, "to learn" becomes "acquisition of credits." A profound change in individual and social self-images is here reflected. And the layman is not the only one who has difficulty in accurately describing what he experiences. The professional economist is unable to recognize the poverty his conventional instruments fail to uncover. Nevertheless, the new mutant of impoverishment continues to spread. The peculiarly modern inability to use personal endowments, communal life, and environmental resources in an autonomous way infects every aspect of life where a professionally engineered commodity has succeeded in replacing a culturally shaped use-value. The opportunity to experience personal and social satisfaction outside the market is thus destroyed. I am poor, for instance, when the use-value of my feet is lost because I live in Los Angeles on the thirty-fifth floor. 

This new impotence-producing poverty must not be confused with the widening gap between the consumption of rich and poor in a world where basic needs are increasingly shaped by industrial commodities. That gap is the form traditional poverty assumes in an industrial society, and the conventional terms of class struggle appropriately reveal and reduce it. I further distinguish modernized poverty from the burdensome price exacted by the externalities which increased levels of production spew into the environment. It is clear that these kinds of pollution, stress, and taxation are unequally imposed. Correspondingly, defenses against such depredations are unequally distributed. But like the new gaps in access, such inequities in social costs are aspects of industrialized poverty for which economic indicators and objective verification can be found. Such is not true for the industrialized impotence which affects both rich and poor. Where this kind of poverty reigns, life without addictive access to commodities is rendered either impossible or criminal. Making do without consumption becomes impossible, not just for the average consumer but even for the poor. All forms of welfare, from affirmative action to environmental action, are of no help. The liberty to design and craft one's own distinctive dwelling is abolished in favor of the bureaucratic provision of standardized housing, as in the United States, Cuba or Sweden. The organization of employment, skills, building resources, rules, and credit favor shelter as a commodity rather than as an activity. Whether the product is provided by an entrepreneur or an apparatchik, the effective result is the same: citizen impotence, our specifically modern experience of poverty.
Wherever the shadow of economic growth touches us, we are left useless unless employed on a job or engaged in consumption; the attempt to build a house or set a bone outside the control of certified specialists appears as anarchic conceit. We lose sight of our resources, lose control over the environmental conditions which make these resources applicable, lose taste for self-reliant coping with challenges from without and anxiety from within. Take childbirth in Mexico today: delivery without professional care has become unthinkable for those women whose husbands are regularly employed and therefore have access to social services, no matter how marginal or tenuous. They move in circles where the production of babies faithfully reflects the patterns of industrial outputs. Yet their sisters in the slums of the poor or the villages of the isolated still feel quite competent to give birth on their own mats, unaware that they face a modern indictment of criminal neglect toward their infants. But as professionally engineered delivery models reach these independent women, the desire, competence, and conditions for autonomous behavior are being destroyed.

For advanced industrial society, the modernization of poverty means that people are helpless to recognize evidence unless it has been certified by a professional, be he a television weather commentator or an educator; that organic discomfort becomes intolerably threatening unless it has been medicalized into dependence on a therapist; that neighbors and friends are lost unless vehicles bridge the separating distance (created by the vehicles in the first place). In short, most of the time we find ourselves out of touch with our world, out of sight of those for whom we work, out of tune with what we feel.