Any transformative programme that has ambitions to govern today has to come to terms with the fact that work alone can no longer deliver the “collective security the left has always seen as its basic mission.”
Although technologically-induced deskilling and redundancy is on everyone’s minds these days, we lack clear and persuasive policy alternatives for how we might distribute goods through means other than waged work. A few recent texts have tried to fill this gap by sketching the outlines of a postcapitalist economic programme. What is still missing, though, and what is crucial for turning popular discontents with crisis capitalism into a veritable populist counter-force, is an affirmative post-work vision capable of shifting the affective pendulum to the left. How should work be organized in the future? Who will take over which responsibilities? How will this change relations in society and the general quality of life? And how will this affect who controls the wealth or who governs?
One often forgotten classic of post-work politics who offers concrete and rousing answers to these questions is the French existentialist Marxist André Gorz. As a utopian sociologist with one eye to the core organizing principles of our present and the other on its repressed potential, Gorz often impressed with the vivid detail of his emancipatory programme, which also happens to provide a workerist and feminist corrective to more automation-centered post-work solutions.
As David Frayne writes in The Refusal of Work: “The forgotten struggle of the left, which Gorz represents, is for the right of workers to lead rich and interesting lives outside of work. As a writer and social critic, his main commitment was to the right of each person to his or her own autonomous self-development.” [sic]
1. The Marxist utopia of work is unrealizable in complex societies.
Although a tireless critic of wage-based society, and a modernist at heart, Gorz did not spend much time thinking about automation. In his Critique of Economic Reason, arguably his most complete work, he made an argument about the nature and function of work – not machines – in modern complex society.
By definition, he argued, heteronomous work — read: ‘other-determined’ work organized along external, abstract rules imposed by technical culture and the necessities of complex coordination, be it in industry, bureaucracy or the military — introduces an irreversible split between working and living.
It is a truism of systems theory that the larger an organism, the greater the division of labour and the level of specialization of its constitutive, mutually co-dependent parts. What Marxists pejoratively call ‘alienation’ represents a separation constitutive of modern existence. It is not simply a political consequence of an unjust system but a more or less unavoidable feature of complex organization.
Following from this, Gorz’s unorthodox conclusion was that the standard Marxist utopia of work, whereby functional work and personal activity – other-determined and self-determined work – could be made to coincide if only the means of production were collectivized, “is ontologically unrealizable on the scale of large systems.” Intimacy and immediacy are not to be found in large-scale structures, which many functions of production, distribution and coordination in globalized modernity inevitably are.
2. Machines do not represent a ticket to freedom.
Advanced technologies, Gorz was the first to observe, are splitting the workforce in two — a stable core of technical workers and a mass of lower-skilled casual labourers. The much-maligned phrase “farewell to the working class” becomes, later in his work, the more nuanced “dualization of the work society”: on the one side an “aristocracy of tenured workers”, on the other “a proletariat of temporary workers.” Advances in technology, automation included, pose the question of the meaning and content of free time but they do not solve it in any predictable fashion.
As much as we like to believe that many of our contemporary technologies can be repurposed for better ends, Gorz agreed with Karl Marx and Harry Braverman that production techniques are inevitably also tools of domination. Whether in mechanical industry or digital technologies, an expropriation takes place which will later confront the worker as something removed and alien to them, something they might be able to operate but not something that is fully intelligible or collectively governable.
‘The machinic’ inevitably therefore belongs to the sphere of heteronomy and, as such, it is not the terrain on which a congruence between working and living will be re-established. Automation and artificial intelligence may ease the burden of human labour and help solve problems of aggregate production and distribution, but they cannot be confused for the backbone of a more democratic and meaningful future.
3. The goal of post-work politics is to create a ‘multi-activity society’.
To better appreciate Gorz’s contribution, we must first understand what he set out to do. As an existentialist Marxist and a romantic modernist, closer to Jean-Paul Sartre than to the French Communist party, interested neither in a future worker-controlled state nor in a future without work, Gorz was interested in how to set up a ‘multi-activity society’ of convivial, sovereign and increasingly politicized living.
Troubled by the psychic attrition and cultural vacuity he saw in life under capitalism take, his ambition was to come up with a series of practical ideas (‘non-reformist reforms’) to democratize and enchant modern existence.
4. Skilled work ought to be shared, not eliminated.
To this end, Gorz urged the labour movements and social democratic parties of his time to fight for a reduced working week and a fairer redistribution of complex and creative tasks through measures such as job rotation, lifelong learning and discontinuous employment.
If machines are going to replace simple tasks, skilled labour ought to become a universal prerogative mainly because professional work, carried out in public, in the service of anonymous others, helps individuals transcend their own particularity and forge a connection with society in the abstract sense.
Post-work programmes that hope to eliminate work entirely ignore the significance abstract other-determined work bears for personal well-being and public trust. As naive as it is to assume all work can be automated, it is the mark of an adolescent anti-politics to think all work is drudgery and personal liberation begins only where collective responsibilities end.
5. Savings in labour time should expand the ‘autonomous sphere’.
At the same time, less time spent in heteronomous labour must result in a proportional expansion of autonomous activities, meaning:
“cultural and aesthetic activities whose aim is to give and create pleasure and enhance and ‘cultivate’ our immediate environment; assistance, caring and mutual-aid activities which create a network of social relations and forms of solidarity throughout the neighborhood or locality; the development of friendships and affective relationships.”
It is through working-for-oneself, outside the abstract rationality of economic ends, that “persons come to belong to themselves [and] to one another in their communities.” And it is in this sphere of action that the convivial and affective bases of anti-capitalist opposition are cultivated. The liberation of time has always carried in it the threat of popular democracy.
6. UBI should strengthen the position of labour – not erase it.
Gorz believed universal basic income (UBI) can help reduce the sting of economic pressure and strengthen workers’ ability to oppose and refuse questionable tasks, but it should not entirely replace paid work. ‘Money for nothing’ would only continue the labour movement’s obsession with monetary struggles and accomplish little of the multi-activity and multi-talented life Gorz hoped to encourage.
Gorz’s ‘society of liberated time’ shares more in common with Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy’s anarcha-feminist utopias of societies with shared reproductive tasks and rotating manual and mental responsibilities than with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s machine-powered leisure dreams. In Gorz’s romantic-modernist vision, the future and the ‘folk’ coexist as two sides of the same coin – increased automation acquiring meaning only when supplemented by heightened autonomy.
The future Gorz urged us to explore is less a Promethean overcoming of all that is given, and looks more like the unactualized potential socialism and the labour movement have lost sight of somewhere along the way. Gorz’s work may lack revolutionary ambition (or suffer from strategic naivety) but in terms of the proliferating genre of post-work futurism, he correctly assessed the relation between freedoms and obligations, human and machine, singularities and solidarities that could give widest expression to the creative agency and existential autonomy of the working class in an otherwise fractured, disenchanted and highly programmed world.