Frustrating Affluence

Modernized poverty appears when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold. Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating affluence that occurs in persons mutilated by their reliance on the riches of industrial productivity. 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. For example, we are the witnesses of a barely perceptible transformation in ordinary language: verbs which formerly expressed satisfying actions have been replaced by nouns which name packages designed for passive consumption only — ‘to learn’ becomes ‘to accumulate credits’.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 expressing what he experiences. The professional economist is unable to recognize the poverty that his conventional instruments fail to uncover. Nevertheless, the new mutant of impoverishment continues to spread. The peculiarly modern inability to use personal endowments, community wealth, 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 example, when the use-value of my feet is lost because I live in Los Angeles or work on the thirty-fifth floor of a sky-scraper. (8-9)

Ivan Illich | The Right to Useful Unemployment