In my previous post, “Mothering in the Shadow,” I introduced some concepts from the book Shadow Work by Ivan Illich, published in 1981 and available in full online. Overall, the book is a mixed bag, but it introduces groundbreaking concepts that have serious potential for feminist, environmental, and anti-capitalist movements. So I’ll give a short introduction to Illich and his ideas, briefly touch on their flaws, and then move on to a discussion of how the ideas could be used.
About Ivan Illich
Among other things, Illich is a medieval historian. It gives him a unique perspective on modern life: much we take for granted about the world around us is socially constructed. Although he has a tendency to glamorize past societies, he can see economic systems in ways others don’t.
How he defines work
Most basically, what he’s saying is that wage labor created another kind of labor: unpaid activities that make wage labor possible in the first place, or shadow work. There is also a third kind of labor, subsistence work, which competes with wage labor.
Shadow work includes all kinds of unpaid labor: transportation to and from a job, the maintenance of automobiles, the work of purchasing commodities, the housework and other supporting activities a wife does to enable a husband to do wage labor, and childrearing, which supplies future wage labor.
Subsistence work would be playing a guitar instead of buying a record, growing a backyard garden instead of going to the supermarket, and feeding a baby at the breast instead of from a bottle.
How he defines economies
He sees economies as having three dimensions. The first is a continuum between left and right — communism and capitalism. To him, they’re flawed in the same way. Both do what he calls “welfare” – though meaning something different than our current welfare system. To him, “welfare” means distributing industrialized products that are ultimately inferior to their subsistence counterparts, but which then take the place of those counterparts.
The second is a continuum between hard and soft — that is, most technologically advanced to least. Again, he doesn’t necessarily see a difference in value between the two.
The third is from consumption to production — that is, from market economies to subsistence economies. This one is very important to him. Illich believes people are better off “when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline . . .” (p. 14)
The flaws in his ideas
Don’t take me as an expert on Illich, because I’ve only read one of his books, and only one time through. But as far as I can tell, he’s much too taken by subsistence economies. In his body of work, he disparages modern medicine and universal education in such a way as to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
He is also naively unaware of how power operates. Any attempt to convert a market-based economy to one based on subsistence is going to be opposed by the ruling class, which has military and propaganda on its side. Wage labor and shadow work won’t decline on their own.
Next up, although he says he doesn’t see much difference between capitalism and communism (“the capitalist and the commisar”), most of the book deals with the market economy and wage labor.
Finally, as much as I love his separation of shadow work and subsistence, there’s a relationship between them that he hasn’t parsed. If shadow work is everything that supports a wage laborer, subsistence work like backyard gardening would also support a wage laborer, by making the person cheaper to feed.
The takeaway for feminism
So yes, Illich’s analysis has flaws. At the same time, it was groundbreaking to observe that there is a whole category of work that our economy ignores.
Feminists have been talking about this for a long time but with a slightly different focus. Feminists have complained that men work for pay and women do housework and childcare without pay. But that leads to an easy mistake: the idea that making men and women equal will somehow make this unpaid labor go away. But we’ve found that it doesn’t. Women have entered the workforce and men have stayed at home, and the unpaid labor is still a problem. Because women bear children and are their first caregivers, no matter how much we work toward gender equality, we are still saddled with work without pay.
So what happens if we take a good, hard look at all the shadow work that gets done? Not only childrearing and housework but transportation, volunteer jobs — everything? People of every gender should be outraged at all the free labor we’ve been snookered into doing for the benefit of the one percent, without getting even our basic needs done in return.
The takeaway for anticapitalist work
I’ve spent a lot of time with people who want to abolish capitalism but don’t have the least idea how to go about it. They’ve put a lot of work toward that end, but they’ve still been stuck with myths about how our economy works. Without a clear understanding, how can they know whether what they’re doing is actual resistance, or just shadow work under a new guise?
Meanwhile, the unchecked growth of the economy is continuing to lead toward environmental devastation and the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the 1970s that sometime within the next hundred years we will suffer a collapse of our economy and our population. Capitalism might well abolish itself, in which case we need to be ready to replace it with a workable replacement. And subsistence has to be part of it.
Failures of capitalism to provide for the common good of countries are already happening, of course. What happens then? Does a subsistence economy step in? For example, in 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina and communities found new ways of coping–the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin, tells that story. Where else has the economy failed, and what have communities done to make ends meet? We can look at history all we like, but we won’t understand the answer until we know how subsistence work plays a part.
Worth the read
All in all, this book is well worth the read. Absorb it with a grain of salt, or maybe a teaspoon. And a glossary. (He makes up words, or takes words from contemporary thinkers, and uses them without properly defining them first. He also takes words with commonly accepted meanings and assigns them new meanings, also usually without defining them. )
In keeping with his opposition to the commodification of labor, he doesn’t appear to have copyrighted it, and it is available for free download here.