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.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Slavoj Zizek - The most dangerous philosopher in the West.

It is currently the London Literature Festival and as part of this, the Southbank Centre is staging a series of lectures and readings by eminent, contemporary figures in literature. On the bill last night was a talk by Slavoj Zizek centered around his latest book Living in the End Times, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend.

Slavoj delighted an audience -that seemed to me to consist of more than the aging, socialist academics I had suspected- with the mix of pop-culture references and deep analytical thinking that has become his trade mark. I might even call him a philosopher come stand-up but I couldn’t say how he would respond to the title.

The session consisted of a brief lecture regarding the inevitability of communism, and an interview conducted by an equally well respected philosopher A.C Grayling. During his lecture Slavoj made use first of the song Climb Every Mountain, sung by the Mother Superior from The Sound of Music to encourage Maria to follow he heart and love Baron VonTrapp, and the audience cheered as he showed up the hypocrisy of the songs sentiments. The same audience then sat quietly as he explained our grim fascination with fascism by means of the scene from Cabaret where the Hitler Youth sing inspirationally with a crowd in a beer hall. He said that our applause was mis-directed and that we ought to more strongly agree with sentiments of the second song as it is not intrinsically fascist but simply appropriated by fascism because it is beautiful.

During the interview A.C Grayling asked of Zizek “How can communism succeed? Look at the Soviet Union.” and Zizek’s answer lasted at least 40 minutes and took a variety of forms. In short though, he seemed to be talking not so much about an economic communism but instead a sort of cultural communism that is born of capitalism and the irony of postmodernism and consumerism. He claimed that history is no longer on the side of the academic because it encourages a relativist point of view, and as such socialism as it has existed will not come to fruition, but that there may be space for something new.

I’ve read some Zizek and not understood a lot of it, and to be honest last-night’s lecture didn’t clear many things up. However it is exciting to here someone talk about the future and if I can say anything about the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek it would be that it is in the future that he has made his home.

Rob Humphries