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‘Disvalue’? An Illichian Case For A Cultural Value Discourse by Simon Ravenscroft

The mission at the heart of this blog is to explore ways in which ‘value’ and particularly the value of the arts and culture to a democratic and fair society can be understood and articulated beyond the easy, predominant yet questionable equivalence of value with economic value. In his post, doctoral student Simon Ravenscroft invites us to consider the contribution of radical Catholic social thinker Ivan Illich (1926-2002) and particularly his notion of ‘disvalue’ as a means to express a cultural loss that cannot easily be expressed in monetary terms to the #culturalvalue Initiative and to an interdisciplinary exploration of the cultural value problematic.

The #culturalvalue Initiative has to do with differentiating between economic and other forms of value. This entails resisting the prevailing assumption that what is culturally or socially ‘valuable’ can, in the final analysis, be reduced down to a factor in an equation, or to that which can be straightforwardly measured, such as via a cost-benefit kind of analysis. The underlying idea here is that cultural goods are, in certain important ways, different from purely economic goods, and that to submit the former to a mode of analysis tailored to the latter is therefore to indulge in a grand exercise in missing the point. If, as Michael Sandel has recently argued, there are certain goods which by their nature cannot be measured in money, then to attempt to do this is to risk impoverishing those areas of life to which these goods relate.[i]

It is with regard to this question of an economically-induced cultural impoverishment that the late Austrian social critic, Ivan Illich, may be of relevance to The #culturalvalue Initiative. Illich, who died in 2002, is best known for a series of high-profile polemics on modern society authored in the early 1970s, where he proposed an alternative institutional framework for society according to the principle of ‘conviviality’. In the 1980s and 90s, however, he moved away from these proposals, embarking on series of more indirect and suggestive (and less well-known) works on dimensions of modern life, which combined history, philosophy, and theology.

It was during this later period that, building on Karl Polanyi’s thesis regarding the historical ‘disembedding’ of the modern economy, Illich developed the concept of ‘disvalue’. He coined the term to describe a cultural ‘loss’ of a kind “that cannot be gauged in economic terms”,[ii] but which arises as a result of the over-extension or misapplication of formal economic rationales in society.

The term refers to a loss which cannot be calculated or priced, because it pertains to a dimension of social life overlooked by that kind of analysis. He speaks, for example, of the transformation in the experience and perception of space which occurs when an urban environment is planned solely around the automobile. Formal economics, he notes, has “no means to gauge the experience of person who loses the effective use of his feet because vehicles have established a … monopoly over locomotion”, nor any way of appreciating the change in perception which occurs when “space [is] turned into an infrastructure for vehicles”.[iii] Economic analysis cannot account for such changes because they are qualitative in nature, and not reducible to abstract quantitative measurement. The shift, in other words, does not consist in something which can be counted.

‘Losses’ in this domain go unnoticed so long as public discourse remains under the sway of reductive economic logics which, while claiming an apparent neutrality, gradually subordinate culture to economy. Illich therefore identifies the pressing need to find a non-reductive way of speaking about this cultural dimension, of learning “to speak in a disciplined way about public issues” in a manner which is “careful not to reduce substantively non-economic experiences to economic terms”.[iv]

What relevance might this have for The #culturalvalue Initiative?

In the first place, Illich affirms the basic point that there exist certain kinds of cultural good or value which are not reducible to value as understood by economics. Put more bluntly, there are forms of value which cannot be adequately quantified, counted, measured, or expressed in monetary terms. This is an ontological and an epistemological claim, of a particular sort, but it gets at certain key experiences of human life –– of beauty, for example, or of belonging, or of the sacred. There are reasons why it might be considered improper to build a Sainsburys on a cemetery, and these extend beyond the possible bumpiness of the ground, or that it might be cheaper to do it elsewhere. Similarly, the value of preserving ancient monuments extends beyond a calculation as to whether they are profitable as tourist attractions. To ignore this dimension of life, or naively to overlook it, is to reduce the sphere of human meaning to its most crudely material elements.

Illich’s account of disvalue also helps to show that the issue of cultural value must extend beyond those spheres of public policy which relate to expressly cultural institutions (such as the Arts Council). This is insofar as, for Illich, cultural goods may be ‘disvalued’ by broader economic and social policies, if the rationale which guides the latter has, due to its guiding assumptions and methodology, no way of attending to the cultural dimension. Given this, a cultural value initiative should not only be concerned, negatively, with defending expressly cultural institutions from an ‘econocratic’ takeover, or from funding cuts, but also –– positively –– with bringing to light the cultural dimension of all aspects of public policymaking. ‘Culture’ and ‘the economy’, for example, are in the actual life of society not two distinct, rarefied spheres, each in isolation from the other. Members of society are simultaneously embedded in both cultural and economic institutions in their daily lives, and insofar as economic institutions (markets, workplaces, etc.) give rise to certain habits of behaviour and valuing, certain ways of seeing and experiencing life, they themselves bear on the ‘culture’ of society at large.

Put otherwise, Illich’s work here highlights the danger of allowing all areas of policy, even those not obviously related to ‘culture’, to be guided by rationales which implicitly bracket non-economic forms of value from their analysis; the danger of allowing purely quantitative economic logics to dictate the appropriate means and ends of public policy at large. The long-term cultural impact of this can only be detrimental, and any short-term benefits only accidental. In this light, the need to find an effective way of articulating ‘cultural value’ in public discourse, and to explain why existing accounts of value are unhelpfully reductive, remains a pressing one in today’s context. This is a pre-requisite for what Illich described as “the removal of the shadow thrown by economic structures onto the cultural domain”.[v]

[i] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

[ii] Ivan Illich, “Alternatives to Economics”, in In The Mirror of the Past: Lectures & Addresses 1978-1990 (London: Marion Boyars, 1992), 44.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid., 45.

[v] ibid.



Simon Ravenscroft is an AHRC-funded doctoral student at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He studies Philosophy of Religion in the Faculty of Divinity, where he is writing a dissertation on the social theory of Ivan Illich. His research is interdisciplinary, taking in theology, continental philosophy, political and social theory, economics, and social anthropology. He has previously had work published on Dante and scholastic economics, and the politics of American Evangelicalism.



  1. [...] thoughtful contribution to the #culturalvalue Initiative by Simon Ravenscroft (the first being a reflection on the relevance of Ivan Illich’s notion of ‘disvalue’ to the cultural value deba…), and it makes a new, rich and fruitful connection between philosophical scholarship and cultural [...]

  2. […] interesting debates around what cannot be quantified and valued in monetary terms. For example, Simon Ravenscroft has helpfully written about Illich’s concept of ‘disvalue’. “He coined […]

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