The Inversion of Means and Ends

The trouble about valuing means above ends—which, as confirmed by Keynes, is the attitude of modem economics—is that it destroys man’s freedom and power to choose the ends he really favours; the development of means, as it were, dictates the choice of ends. Obvious examples are the pursuit of supersonic transport speeds and the immense efforts made to land men on the moon. The conception of these aims was not the result of any insight into real human needs and aspirations, which technology is meant to serve, but solely of the fact that the necessary technical means appeared to be available.

small-is-beautifulp. 36

Illich's little theory about the inversion of means and ends in technocratic society (and its roots in the categorical imperative of $$$)

A methodology, by which to recognize the public perversion of tools into purposes, encounters resistance on the part of people who are used to measuring what is good in terms of dollars. Plato knew that the bad statesman is he who believes that the art of measurement is universal, and who jumbles together what is greater or smaller and what is more fit to the purpose. Our present attitudes towards production have been formed over the centuries. Increasingly, institutions have not only shaped our demands but also in the most literal sense our logic, or sense of proportion. Having come to demand what institutions can produce, we soon believe that we cannot do without them.

tools-for-convivialityp. 31

But Howard and others, it seems to me, miss the most important abstraction of experimental work in scientific agriculture. How can we define how useful this research is until we know the ends to which cultivators will put it? Useful for what? It is at the level of human agency where scientific agriculture constructs its greatest abstraction: the creation of a stock character, the Everyman cultivator, who is interested only in realizing the greatest yields at the least cost.

seeing-like-a-statech. 8

(emphasis mine)

Semantics no longer matter when the only thing that counts is $$$.

"Late-capitalistic semantic drain" sounds like its own uniquely hellish bullshit neologism. But I swear it does mean something: the lack of meaning spreading through English, driven by a corporate monoculture devoted solely to profit.

I have a hypothesis that this semantic drain is tied to the meaninglessness of modern work: These companies are co-opting words with tangible meanings and draining them of such to obscure the fact that they rarely produce anything of value to society, and that their employees are spending most of their waking hours performing labor with no meaning.


Technique ("innovation") itself becomes the end goal when the profit motive has become the unquestioned universal assumption.

"Finding new shit to sell"

And of course, from the OG capitalist critique:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.

Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

communist-manifestoch. 1


communist-manifesto Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. ↩︎ 1

semantic-drain Schwindt, Oriana. 2019. “Semantic Drain and the Meaninglessness of Modern Work”. Schwindterwonderland. [link] ↩︎ 1

seeing-like-a-state Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ↩︎ 1

tools-for-conviviality Illich, Ivan. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Fontana. ↩︎ 1

small-is-beautiful Schumacher, Ernst Friedrich. 2001. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered. Random House. ↩︎ 1