The right to useful unemployment

By David Parkinson

The past? the present? the future?

The title of this week’s post is an homage to Ivan Illich, about whom Ran Prieur writes, “Ivan Illich was so smart, and wrote so clearly, that I can barely stand to read him — it’s like looking at the sun.” That’s an accurate description of the effect of reading Illich: I find myself having to stop after every few paragraphs because the writing is so dense; unlike a lot of intellectually rich material, though, it is written in language as clear and simple as the thoughts allow. It’s the depth of thinking under the surface that makes it a joy to read. And Illich’s amazing prescience: he diagnoses our situation from his vantage point more than thirty years ago and points towards solutions which seem more apt now than they might have done at that time.

The theme which runs through his work is that of the counterproductivity of social and industrial systems: how any system which addresses some aspect of human need eventually acquires its own internal logic and, if not resisted, begins to work against human interests. Illich investigated this trend in education (Deschooling Society), medicine (Medical Nemesis), transportation (Energy and Equity), and in very general terms in Tools for Conviviality and its sequel, The Right to Useful Unemployment (And its Professional Enemies). It’s a superficially simple concept with very profound consequences for the way I see the world.

At the Kale Force meeting this week, Carol Battaglio was present to talk about her evolving plan to create a therapeutic farm on the 31.6-acre lot she bought from PRSC Limited Partnership (known locally as ‘the joint venture’). I am personally thrilled to see this project happening, as I was deeply involved in the 2006–07 campaign to stop the City of Powell River from excluding this and other parcels of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve. The conversation around the table was a freewheeling one, and we made some solid connections among existing projects and concepts that Carol might use to realize her vision. The most tangible outcome is that Carol found someone to help her clear the land, which is overrun with stumps and brambles. (But sometimes those seemingly small steps forward are really crucial ones.)

We had one of those huddles near the door that are the sign of a satisfying conversation: people know they need to get going, but stall on the way out because the ideas are flowing. Someone suggested that this region is at a tipping point because there are now so many little projects brewing, underground, semi-underground, just starting to connect to each other and create an alternative economy, barely visible now but growing fast. Another person suggested that this alternative culture is on the rise because the prevailing culture really only has one big idea, whereas the ‘new guard’ comes equipped with any number of schemes all along the continuum from crackpot to surefire; so many of them that they are sure to overwhelm the monocultural approach just as weeds of all types will overrun a field of all one crop.

I think there is something in this. The prevailing mindset of our local economic leaders is to focus on a few large big-ticket projects, among them the quixotic rescue of the Catalyst paper mill. At the same time, citizens watch the City take on heavy debt to pull off what are essentially gambles that the global economy will continue to grow, sustaining the consumerist lifestyle that will see people retiring wealthy, traveling, and shopping as far as the eye can see. I sense a growing unease at what this is going to do to people’s tax burden, especially when the other expensive projects are added to the tally.

Meanwhile, there is a mass movement, disorganized and provisional but gathering speed, to opt out of this worldview and instead focus on the essentials: food, shelter, transportation, health in the holistic sense, and more. If the economy continues to destroy jobs and wealth as measured in money, people will inevitably shift their allegiance to those things which are the real foundation of wealth. And here our economic leaders are (so far) of very little use to us. If anything, the social systems we have created during the past century or so are actively inimical to people’s efforts to build a vernacular culture: for a good example, look no further than the insane amount of highly-paid make-work it took to overcome the provincial Meat Inspection Regulation, which proposed to deprive people of their ability to buy locally-produced and -slaughtered meat as they have been doing for thousands of years. This is just one example, although a particularly egregious one, of trends which have become almost universal: the creation of classes of phony professionals to intervene in the simple exchange of goods and services between people, making them onerous and needlessly expensive; or the outright criminalization of these exchanges, making them dangerous (and needlessly expensive).

Which brings us back to Illich. His life’s work was to argue for a convivial culture, one in which people’s right to create their own culture, tools, language, and social systems is paramount. I like to think we are perched on the edge, maybe even sliding down the slope towards the time for Illich’s deeply humanistic vision to be realized. And it won’t happen because suddenly we’re all attending seminars in ‘sustainability’, or being told how to grow our own food by self-appointed experts — if it happens (when it happens) it will be because the elaborate and meaningless barriers to imagination and creativity are unsustainable. People will start to act as though they are no longer there, and an exhausted tradition of phony professionalism and bureaucratic pantomime activity will be revealed as laughable.

The depth and breadth of the creativity bubbling under the surface of every town and region is an unstoppable force compared to the decreasing returns of the business-as-usual projects we’re supposed to look to for future economic development. The culture we build here will be made up out of semi-employment, improvised solutions, the invention of work, civil disobedience in the face of outworn and unenforceable regulations, and mutual aid in place of phony professionalized ‘services’. This collection of (maybe) unappealing characteristics won’t come out on top for any reason other than pure necessity: the failure of our experts and leaders to have any ideas worth pursuing. Better to have useful unemployment than all of the useless economic development schemes in the world.


7 Responses to “The right to useful unemployment”

  1. 1 Julie November 13, 2010 at 08:34

    Read this aloud to my partner this morning. Well said David!
    (with thanks to Ivan)

  2. 2 David Parkinson November 13, 2010 at 10:24

    Thanks for reading (out loud)!

  3. 3 strike2012 November 13, 2010 at 19:20

    In the sense of this post’s apt observations and its point of view, the present economic slow-down, and its likely permanent effects upon (un)employment–for more about this, see the recent March 2010 article in the Atlantic, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America”–may present as much an opportunity as it does a cluster of setbacks for a significant segment of the consumer economy. Creative people among the numbers of the presently “unemployed” are free to try alternative models and methods for finding meaningful work in the context of the place where they live. The only thing to hold them back from this are those very “elaborate and meaningless barriers to imagination and creativity” noted in by the author.

    Of course, the success or failure to make the transition depends a great deal upon where a newly “unemployed” person lives–the size of their town or city, the mindset of the people living there (particularly the presence or absence of communities with alternative views), the presence, absence or access to any sort of local commons, local sources of revenue and mainstream employment, and the bio-geographic setting, among other factors.

  4. 4 David Parkinson November 14, 2010 at 09:11

    Thanks for your comments, strike2012. I agree that success in any particular area depends on countless factors, many hard to recognize or quantify. That’s why it’s everyone’s duty to work as hard as they can at building up the strength of the ‘counter-network’ where they are; and not just talking about projects, but doing what it takes to get them started. When we need these bits of structure, a nebulous half-beginning will be many times more useful than nothing at all.

    But it’s definitely a crap-shoot when it comes to predicting how any single region or town is going to fare in the coming years. There are surprises on their way…

  5. 5 mettalaw November 14, 2010 at 14:23

    Before the amazing and much vilified Ilich, there was the equally vilified Kropotkin and his *Mutual Aid*.

    My first-year geography prof, a Trinidadian, introduced me to Kropotkin the same year he shoved the famous article “The Judaeo-Christian Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” under my nose, totally destroying my cultural sense of balance in under thirty minutes.

    Had my later education profs known I was seriously reading Ilich, they might not have found a way to flunk me? No, those were hippy days when rebellion was in fashion to a certain degree, but Ilich was not suitable material for academic study in anybody’s book. Which doubtless made Ilich laugh.

    What amazes me now, as yet un-re-balanced as I am, is that forty years ago people had all that knowledge and insight within their grasp; yet did so little with it. Passed it on to a few, select students, in the hope, perhaps, that they would do more?

    Years later, I wrote this with my geography prof in mind:

    The Balancer
    He teeters on the ledge
    like a wind-crazy bird,
    his office behind him
    a-whirr with paper
    He unsheathes his arms
    and flings off his jacket,
    watches it settle
    slow as the cloak of a ghost.
    Was it enough? the hopping and stancing,
    the hunching of shoulders
    unpractised with wings?
    Behind him a roomful
    of check-bounce, imbalance–
    no secret sin but
    a wild-willed lover.
    Was it enough? this academic study
    of man taking flight?
    or will he find,
    for apes, as for the faithful,
    the air is less forgiving than the ground?

    Wonderful article, David. We live too short, tire too easily, and get too wound up in private life to deal with human “development” effectively.

  6. 6 mettalaw November 14, 2010 at 14:25

    No, they didn’t flunk me–au contraire. Should have read, “might they not have found a way….”

  7. 7 David Parkinson November 14, 2010 at 15:01

    Thanks, Eva, for the memoir and minor correction. I wish I knew where people were drawing their inspiration from these days… if they’re getting it from anywhere, that is. I’m always bowled over by the amount of rich knowledge and wisdom out there, waiting to be picked up and made new and relevant again. John Michael Greer is a big one for recycling the valuable cultural leftovers of times past, but too many of us cling to the idea that only what is of the moment can have something to say in the moment.

    I must go dig up some Kropotkin now. Haven’t looked at him since the early 80s, and I’m sure I will get way more out of him than I did then.

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