The COVID-19 pandemic led millions of people to question their meaningless jobs. French socialist thinker André Gorz anticipated this shift, sketching out a vision of a new civilization that would free us from the constraints of work.

A young André Gorz.

Throughout his career as a writer, André Gorz was engaged in critical reflection on the nature of work and the capitalist economy, which only came to an end with his death at the age of eighty-four in 2007. He highlighted the ways in which work was being transformed by neoliberalism with the end of stable employment and the postindustrial stratagems of financialized capitalism.

His groundbreaking work Farewell to the Working Class, which argued that work was becoming less significant as a focus for political mobilization in the leading capitalist societies, was poorly received by left-wing writers at the time of its publication in 1980. Yet more than four decades later, its relevance and topicality appear striking.

This may seem like a strange argument to make, since the current economic climate has resulted in a marked fall in unemployment, with stock markets demonstrating a certain resilience in Europe and the United States alike. But we have to consider the wider impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many young people experienced the lockdown as a period without work, which made them reflect on the meaning of their lives and the meaningless of the jobs they have had to do so far. “Bullshit jobs,” as David Graeber called them, came under scrutiny. The “Exodus” predicted by Gorz — more recently dubbed the “Great Resignation” by Anthony Klotz — has started to become a reality.

Many young people experienced the lockdown as a period without work, which made them reflect on the meaning of their lives.

In the United States, a total of forty-seven million workers quit their jobs in 2021. Turnover is common in times of economic recovery. The difference now is that people are not just using a change of job as a way to improve their pay and working conditions. For many, it is an opportunity to rethink their goals in life.

The Opacity of Production

In Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz questioned the traditional Marxist view that capitalist development was creating the material preconditions of socialism, with a working class that could take over the existing means of production from the capitalists:

The productive forces called into being by capitalist development are so profoundly tainted by their origins that they are incapable of accommodation to a socialist rationality. Should a socialist society be established, they will have to be entirely remoulded.

For Gorz, it had been a particular layer of skilled workers who were able to think of gaining control over the capitalist factory:

The idea of a subject-class of united producers capable of seizing power has been specific to these skilled workers proud of their trade. To them, power was not something abstract but a matter of daily experience: on the factory floor, power was theirs, they ruled over production. Their irreplaceable skills and practical know-how placed them at the top of a factory hierarchy that was the inverse of the social hierarchy. The boss, the chief engineer and the inspectors alike depended upon the know-how of the skilled worker, which was complementary and often superior to theirs. They had to rely on the workers’ cooperation and advice, to win their respect and loyalty, whereas the skilled workers themselves needed neither the boss nor the “officers of production” to perform work.

However, Taylorism and automation had gradually reduced the size and influence of this layer of workers. Gorz noted the advent of what we now call neoliberalism, which liquidated the Fordist-style large factory and broke the back of the trade unions, weakening the working class in both political and sociological terms. The years that followed saw relentless waves of automation, subcontracting, offshoring, and privatization, combined with the rollback of the welfare state, the growth of services, and the financialization of the economy.

This showed workers that they had no control over production or the goals that capitalism was pursuing on a global scale. The idea of workers’ control and self-management had been a cherished objective for the Western labor movement during the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of its power. It was now no more than a chimera, according to Gorz:

It is no longer possible to regard the factory as an economic unit. It has become a productive unit integrated with other productive units often long distances away, dependent upon a centralised management coordinating dozens of productive units for its supplies, outlets, product lines etc. In other words, the sites of production are no longer the sites of decision-making and economic power. The social process of production has become opaque, and this opacity has come to affect the work process in every technical unit. The final destination and even the very nature of what is produced remains unknown. Apart from management, nobody knows exactly what the things being produced are for — and in any event nobody gives a toss.

Heteronomy

Gorz described the alienation of contemporary work, produced by an uncontrollable economic megamachine, as a functional “heteronomy” of the worker, who now belonged to “the non-class of post-industrial proletarians.” Work itself could no longer be the focus of their social identity:

The neo-proletariat is generally over-qualified for the jobs it finds. It is generally condemned to under-use of its capacities when it is in work, and to unemployment itself in the longer term. Any employment seems to be accidental and provisional, every type of work purely contingent. It cannot feel any involvement with “its” work or identification with “its” job. Work no longer signifies an activity or even a major occupation; it is merely a blank interval on the margins of life, to be endured in order to earn a little money.

For three decades after the neoliberal era began, this new social configuration generated high structural unemployment. The so-called precariat has become the typical face of employment, and expectations of work have collapsed.

‘Autonomy’ can involve bogus self-employment with no rights or benefits while remaining subject to the tyranny of the company’s deadlines.

At the same time, what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello dubbed “the new spirit of capitalism” was put into effect, notably with the introduction of a new, more individualized approach to labor relations, supposedly geared toward greater involvement and autonomy for workers. We now know that these managerial practices, far from liberating workers, have enslaved them even more.

They find themselves exposed to the stress of individualized performance appraisal and burnout. “Autonomy” can involve bogus self-employment with no rights or benefits while remaining subject to the tyranny of the company’s deadlines, or even to algorithmic management surveillance.

Gorz anticipated such trends in Farewell to the Working Class:

For workers, it is no longer a question of freeing themselves within work, putting themselves in control of work, or seizing power within the framework of their work. The point now is to free oneself from work by rejecting its nature, content, necessity, and modalities. But to reject work is also to reject the traditional strategy and organizational forms of the working-class movement. It is no longer a question of winning power as a worker, but of winning the power to no longer function as a worker.

Cognitive Capitalism

Gorz argued that the general intellect, as Marx called it, was becoming the main productive force of contemporary capitalism — he used the term “cognitive capitalism” to analyze this development. As he wrote in 1998:

Human capital — i.e. inventiveness, creativity, the capacity to learn — is today more important than material capital in the process of valorization, because from now on immediate labor, as Marx called it, represents only a small fraction of the time used by labor power to produce and reproduce itself.

This subordinate and heavily supervised form of “autonomy” has an extraordinary — and potentially revolutionary — side to it, because it stimulates a countertendency by encouraging the aspiration of individuals for autonomy from the economy itself. Gorz was no longer betting on emancipation through work, but rather on emancipation from work itself. “The question of the meaning of life, of final ends, of rationality is posed in a new way,” he asserted in 1985.

Gorz argued that the general intellect, as Marx called it, was becoming the main productive force of contemporary capitalism.

As an inveterate existentialist, Gorz was convinced that this question could not find an answer outside the individual subject, who always retained an innate capacity for rebellion against the social order, despite the functional socialization that he or she underwent through work. Contrary to the arguments of Gorz’s friend, the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the task of reducing individuals to the status of docile workers or consumers was never complete.

In a system where, as Gorz puts it, “we produce nothing of what we consume, and consume nothing of what we produce,” it is up to each and every one of us, connecting with others as a collective mass, to regain control over the meaning of work and over the determination of the needs that legitimize it. This is also the way for us to question the disastrous impact that the economy is having on the environment through its blind logic of profit and growth.

Firstly, we have to get rid of the productivist ideology of work, which is promoted by employers but also by an important part of the Left, leading us to believe that work is a natural thing with its own inherent value, regardless of its economic purpose and environmental impact. Secondly, we have to move away from the injunction, promoted through advertising, to consume anything and everything, regardless of our needs or the ecological quality of the product.

In Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz criticized the usual benchmarks deployed for calculating economic success:

They present any growth in output and purchasing as a rise in national wealth, even if it includes the growing quantity of throw-away packaging, gadgets and metal thrown on the refuse-tips, paper burnt along with rubbish, non-repairable household goods; it even includes artificial limbs and medical care required by victims of industrial or road accidents. Destruction officially appears as a source of wealth since the replacement of everything broken, thrown out or lost gives rise to new production, sales, monetary flows, and profits. The more quickly things are broken, worn out, made obsolete or thrown away, the larger the GNP will be and the wealthier the national statistics will say we are. Even illness and physical injury are presented as sources of wealth, for they swell the consumption of drugs and health-care facilities.

An Ecological Civilization

Gorz outlined his vision of an ecological civilization that will emancipate us from the constraints of work in writings that can be found in two posthumous collections, Ecologica (2008) and Leur écologie et la nôtre (Their ecology and ours [2020]). He identified three pillars of the transition to this state of affairs:

1) A drastic reduction in working hours, with the possibility of choosing part-time work. This would be the first step toward freeing up time for those currently in work, while at the same time giving others access to employment, and making thankless yet socially necessary work more bearable.

2) The introduction of a universal basic income, which would give people an amount sufficient for them to live in dignity. This would mean they no longer had to work in order to receive an income.

3) The time freed up in this manner would pave the way for what Gorz calls “muti-activity.” This is not work in the capitalist sense of the term, geared toward the production of surplus value and GDP growth.

In 1985, Gorz drew up a striking picture of such “multi-activity,” based on ties of self-managed cooperation:

These activities must merge with the very movement of life itself, be the time of life, have as their end not the production of external things but the self-fulfillment of each individual. They are essentially relational activities, creating, beyond and through their material object, rich human relationships, experiences, and exchanges . . . salaried professional work will increasingly tend to become secondary, while self-determined activities must be able to transcend the family and private sphere to create an ever-denser web of social relations.

A socialist policy can only exist in the future if it sets itself this objective, which is above all cultural. If we do not want people to become primarily consumers of industrialized, computerized entertainment and leisure, autonomous educational, artistic, craft, micro-industrial and cooperative activities must become the stuff of life. Mutual aid, emotional exchanges, raising children, taking care of one’s own health, managing the commune and maintaining, equipping, and shaping one’s own space, self-production — including of food — and repair, using equipment that doesn’t always have to be individual . . . all this is part of the non-economic, non-market activities of liberated time.

The “Big Quit,” “career refusal,” and the “desire to change one’s life” are now the stuff of front-page newspaper headlines in the wake of the pandemic. Could these limited but gratifying signs be part of a battle waged by young people to go beyond a system that is slowly but relentlessly destroying our humanity and making life on Earth unbearable?

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