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20th Anniversary Rendezvous - Ivan Illich

I would like to talk about the blessings which we still enjoy in spite of economic growth; the rediscovery of the present as it moves out of the future's shadow; the non-economic boon which surprises us when hope in development fades.

I purposely speak of blessings and boons, referring to the rediscovery of dwelling in self-generated space in lieu of claims to housing, of meeting in bars that exclude TV, of suffering without therapies, of preferring the intransitive activity of dying to monitored medicide. I do not use the word value, an economic term recently replacing "the good." But there is a danger in trying to recover a notion of the good. Today, "good" all too often denotes management, the professional "for your own good" in the mouth of teachers, physicians and ideologues. Therefore, I try to resurrect the old ideas of blessing and boon to speak about the rediscovery of joys, but also sorrows, that I observe in both rich and poor countries when the expectation of marketable pleasures and securities comes crashing down. And this discourse can have theoretical consistency and practical relevance only in a language devoid of economics, of references to productivity, resources, decisions, systems and, above all, development.

I am not an economist; rather, something akin to a historian. I study history as an antidote to obsessive speculations about the future. For the historian, the present appears as the future which surprises the past. History heightens my sensitivity to the time vector hidden in discussions of public goods. I become aware that most of the clear certainties by which I act, think and even perceive were neither suspected nor imaginable for the authors whose writings are my sources. I become sensitive to those modern assumptions which, by going unexamined, turn into epoch-specific, a priori forms of perception. I neither use history, nor do I try to escape into history. And when I come out of the past and enter the present I find that most of the axioms generating my mental space are tinged with economics.

But any serious critic of conventional economics is inevitably trapped: In order to formulate the unavoidable consequences of economic growth, he has to measure the resulting cultural destruction in monetary terms. And this can only lead to a language of ads for band-aids or of religious exhortation.

This age of economics coincides with the progressive discovery of human needs, something which economists define as finite, few, classifiable and universal. We must deconstruct the naturalness of this concept, a recent social creation, something unknown in past epochs.

Therefore, I speak about the sociogenesis of needs, a delicate task, since we need needs, our own and those of strangers, to keep our integrity intact. I must speak without fear, anger or nostalgia. Contrasting, for example, the death of an old man in the familiar corner of his hovel with that of one whose "needs" for intensive technological care have been fully met, I do not compare the desirability of one situation over theother. I only illustrate the impossibility of using the same words to speak about both men. And I seek no moral; rather the clearsightedness which history, properly practiced, gives me about the condition of Needy Man, the current form of Homo Economicus.

The sixties added terms like "needs test," "needs analysis," "need pattern," neologisms indicating lacks operationally verified and managed by the many specialized experts in needs recognition. And since 1960, needing has become a social learning goal. Physicians, for example, no longer confine themselves to defining needs. The patient must learn to recognize as his own the needs which are diagnosed for him. Thus the service professions lead the way into a Skinnered Eden.

During the. 1970s, the term "basic needs" came into both economics and ordinary discourse, and is increasingly used in the definition of persons. Similar definitions-by-the-negative recently slipped into the language: the illiterate, the undiagnosed, the untreated and the uninsured possess, we are told, professionally definable needs and claims. Defining the human condition through needs is now axiomatic.
The needs-defined discourse also characterizes our alienation from one another. We live among strangers who are no less strangers because we feel responsibility for financing their care. Needs, translated into demands for care, mediate our responsibility for the other, exempting us from responsibility to him.

The transformation of a culture into an economy is oftendiscussed in terms of increasing monetarization. But for two decades I have pleaded for research examining the shadow which spreading economic structures throw over the non-economic cultural context. Under the lengthening shadows of growth, cultural boons are disvalued. Cooking for Grandmother when she awakens is redefined as work in the employ of the household, behavior whose contribution to the economy can be measured. Or this family tradition is treated as an undesirable remnant to be eliminated through development. In each perspective, simply giving Granny her due is turned into a disvalue once the activity being home to cook a late breakfast is construed as a value produced to satisfy a need. Disvalue necessarily accompanies an economy.

I choose this term for the same reasons I choose "blessings." I want to designate loss and boon of a kind that cannot be grasped by economic terms. The economist can calculate external costs. But with concepts formalizing choices under the assumption of scarcity he has no way to get at the experience of a person who loses the use of his feet because vehicles have established a radical monopoly over locomotion. And since most people are now "economized" a condition similar to being anesthetized they are blind to the loss resulting from disvalue. The belief arises that in comparison to a world accessible to feet this new environment of vehicles is a greater good.

We must rigorously discipline ourselves that the assumptions of scarcity do not surreptitiously corrupt our conversations when we speak about public goods after the crash of development. We may discover that the recovery of blessings, the good life, comes only through renouncing values and the language which imposes them.