Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Andre Gorz: The End of the Working Class?

The French philosopher Andre Gorz is famous for his thesis that contemporary work practices herald the end of the 'working class' as traditionally conceived. In a number of texts - most famously in 'Farewell to the Working Class' - Gorz gives a historical overview of the meaning of 'work' and shows how its meaning has changed from one historical period to another. He shows that with the emergence of capitalism, work came to take on an increasingly 'abstract quality' as it became 'paid activity'.

However, this form of abstract, 'quantifiable', work - the work of the wage-labourer - is no longer a useful characterisiation of post-industrial labour in his view. What the current situation needs rather is a redefintion of 'work'. Gorz, like his contemporary Daniel Bell (Bell, 1976) sees the so-called 'computer revolution' has having very profound implications for the structure of modern societies and for the very meaning of work. In his view, computers will increasingly displace the unskilled and semi-skilled worker because these simple work functions are now easily automated. Gorz argues that the computerisation of production processes is leading us into a post-industrial society where 'work' will increasingly come to mean something other than its traditional defintion as as 'wage-labour'.

Gorz is fully aware of the dark side to all this. Unless we organise society according to different principles new information technologies will lead to mass redundancies and the emergence of an increasingly pauperised section of society. In order to counter these potentially disasterous developments, Gorz argues for what he calls a politics of time. Here, Gorz is arguing that contemporary radical thinkers should celebrate the labour-saving potential of new technologies and see these technologies as liberating individuals from the dull necessity of work. Individuals, so long as they are properly resourced (perhaps through an enhanced benefit system) can then use their time for the purpose of self-development.

This, Gorz believes, will lead to a healthier and happier society. Industrial society gave the worker affluence but no time. Post-industrial society gives the (now-ex) worker time but no affluence. This finally allows the working class to achieve its traditional political goal freedom from work. However, the challenge today is to make sure that indivduals put this freedom to some useful social purpose.

Gorz has been criticised for being a bit of a romantic. His idea that 'work' can now be replaced by 'self-development' seems to assume that we are all capable of becoming accomplished novelists, piano players or chefs in our leisure time. Not all of us may be able to 'self-actualise' in this way. Some may require institutions to help them forge a sense of self and work may be one such institution.

Neil Turnbull

Further reading

Gorz, A. (1982) 'A Farewell to the Working Class' London: Pluto
Gorz, A (1985) 'Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work' London: Pluto
Gorz, A (1989) 'A Critique of Economic Reason' London: Verso

Illich, I (1978) 'The Right to Useful Umemployment and It Professional Enemies' London: Boyars

Lodziak, C (1995) 'Manipulating Needs: Capitalism and Culture' London: Pluto.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to comment on myself, but I thought that it might be useful to add that according Gorz what he terms 'socialist consciousness' can no longer have its basis in the lived experience of work (which is now frequently part-time and often deskilled).

    Socialist consciousness, in his view, now has its basis in an awareness of the impefection of our existence as citizens and consumers (not workers).

    On this he is surely right in a way - but do either of these 'ways of being' imply 'political radicalism' of any kind? To date, we must answer the question in the negative....

    see Gorz, A. (1990) 'The New Agenda' in 'The New Left Review', 184, Nov/Dec 1990

    Neil Turnbull