08 February 2011

The Age of Professions

The Age of Professions will be remembered as the time when politics withered, when voters, guided by professors, entrusted to technocrats the power to legislate needs, renounced the authority to decide who needs what and suffered monopolistic oligarchies to determine the means by which these needs shall be met. It will be remembered as the age of schooling, when people for one-third of their lives had their learning needs prescribed and were trained how to accumulate further needs, and for the other two-thirds became clients of prestigious pushers who managed their habits. It will be remembered as the age when recreational travel meant a packaged gawk at strangers, and intimacy meant following the sexual rules laid down by Masters and Johnson and their kin; when formed opinion was a reply of last night's TV talk show, and voting the approval of persuaders and salesmen for more of the same. 
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It would be pretentious to predict if this age, when needs were shaped by professional design, will be remembered with a smile or with a curse. I do, of course, hope that it will be remembered as the night when father went on a binge, dissipated the family fortune, and obligated the children to start anew. Sadly, and much more probably, it will be remembered as the age when a whole generation's frenzied pursuit of impoverishing wealth rendered all freedoms alienable and, after first turning politics into the gripes of welfare recipients, extinguished itself in a benign totalitarianism. I consider such a descent into technofascism as unavoidable unless the major thrust of social criticism begins to change from the support of a new or radical professionalism into the endorsement of a patronizing and sceptical attitude attitude towards the experts - especially when they presume to diagnose and to prescribe. As technology is blamed for environmental degradation, the complaint may be turned into a demand that engineers ought to study biology. As long as hospital catastrophes are blamed on the rapacious doctor or negligent nurse, the question of whether the patient can in principle benefit from hospitalisation is never raised. If mere capitalist gain is blamed for an economics of inequality, industrial standardisation and concentration - causing an unequal power structure - will be left uncriticised and unchanged.
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The return to an era that fosters participatory politics in which needs are defined by general consent is hampered by an obstacle that is both brittle and unexamined: the role that a new kind of professional elite plays in validating the worldwide religion that promotes impoverishing greed. It is therefore necessary that we clearly understand:
  1. The nature of professional dominance
  2. the effects of professional establishment
  3. the characteristics of imputed needs and
  4. the illusions which have enslaved us to professional management 
Ivan Illich, The Disabling Professions. Page 12-15

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