on 25 December 2010
"Farewell to the working class" by André Gorz was fist published in 1980. The author was a French left-wing intellectual (he died some years ago), and the title was probably a deliberate provocation. At the time, Marxism was still in vogue among left-wingers. In France, the Communist Party was quite strong, and its labour union federation CGT was the strongest one among blue collar workers. Today, "Farewell to the working class" sounds somewhat anachronistic. Most of its ideas are pretty old hat, certainly among Greens, and the author's constant polemic against Marxism makes the whole book look weird. Apparently, however, there is still a certain demand for the work, since this Pluto Press edition was published quite recently.
Gorz argues that both Marxism and the traditional working class are in crisis. Ultimately, both have failed. The development of the productive forces hasn't laid the material basis for socialism. Rather, they simply reproduce capitalism. Nor is it possible for the working class to take over the productive forces, neither as individuals, nor as a collective. This kind of "workers' power" is an illusion. Large scale production and the international division of labour makes it impossible for the workers in one single plant or industry to organize "self-management". The entire industrial apparatus is one single whole. Its parts simply cannot be self-managed. Meanwhile, automation, computerization and piecework have made workers either completely redundant, or reduced their potential power over the work process to an absolute minimum. This too makes it impossible to take over the economy as it is, and turn it into "socialism". (Clearly, by "socialism" Gorz means some kind of ideal vision of the younger Marx, rather than what actually happened in the Soviet Union.)
Before the advent of automation, there was a layer of skilled workers who were indispensable to the production process. Employers, foremen and engineers had to negotiate with these skilled workers, and where to some extent dependent on them. The skilled workers could have managed "their" plant without the employers and the foremen. These were seen as parasites, and the skilled workers could therefore demand "The factories to the workers" in the same way as peasants demanded "Land to the peasants". However, all this changed with automation, taylorism, piecework and (later) the introduction of robots and computers. Today, only unskilled workers remain, disposable and replacable. Their only power is to unite in large labour unions and demand an institutionalized right to bargain, but this is not the same thing as "factories to the workers" or "self-management". There simply isn't anything to self-manage anymore. Gorz points out that organs of workers' self-management, for instance in Italy, quickly turn into new labour unions. They haggle over wages and lunch breaks, and may at best have a right to veto decisions made by management, thus a purely *negative* power. However, real decisions are made elsewhere. Indeed, in modern society, power is no longer personal but functional, institutional, anonymous and completely under the sway of the demands of capital. Even the capitalists themselves are simply the executive branch of this anonymous power.
But isn't state socialism a solution, then? Gorz thinks not. Rather, it tends to make the situation even worse! What he calls the monopolistic capitalist state has already become a powerful apparatus in its own right, controlled by nobody, and it has broken apart civil society. State socialism takes this process even further, and gives the state all effective power. The workers, helpless cogs of the capitalist machinery who can't self-manage "their" plants, demand of the state that *it* provides them with every need they can't satisfy themselves. The state must pay them wages, make sure they get fed and clothed, and so on. The state becomes the caretaker of the workers. To Gorz, this system really isn't socialist at all, but rather "state capitalism". He points out that Lenin wanted to introduce Taylorism in Soviet Russia and even called for "state capitalism", and that Trotsky wanted the militarization of labour. And while Marx and Engels may have believed in the emancipation of the workers, they too had an uncanny fascination with the quasi-military discipline of modern factory production. In one chapter, Gorz fears that the masses might turn to fascism rather than socialism, since fascism wants to replace the anonymous power of the institutions with the visible, personal power of a dictator and his aides. In reality, fascism will simply bureaucratize society, even everyday life, faster than the present system.
As is evident from the title, Gorz doesn't believe that the working class is the revolutionary class. It cannot emancipate anyone, let alone itself. The real revolutionary class is a "non-class of non-workers": the unemployed, the underemployed, people with temporary jobs, and perhaps lumpens as well. The traditional working class have become a privileged, protected elite. The majority of the population belongs to the non-proletarian non-class. This majority can liberate itself only by changing the system as a whole, the same system that has turned them into redundant "non-workers" in the first place.
Gorz believes that society should be "dualist". One sphere should be dominated by autonomous labour, a vast network of artisans, small shops or garden plots where work is strictly voluntary and perhaps even individual. The other sphere is still dominated by socially necessary (and boring!) work, for instance industrial production, large scale transportation, and the like. This is the "heteronomous" sphere. However, Gorz believes that the work necessary in this sphere can be made bearable by the introduction of new technology, which will make it possible to shorten the workdays, hence employing more people. Thus, in the dualist society, everyone will have an alienated, boring day job, complemented with a large amount of spare time and voluntary labour. The author further believes that even in alternative communes, one must distinguish between the autonomous and heteronomous spheres. Alternative communes often pretend that the heteronomous labour is really autonomous, even turning it into a joyful, almost religious duty. Such a conflation either doesn't work (people refuse to clean the toilets "voluntarily") or leads to the oppression of individual liberty.
What should we think of "Farewell to the working class"? In his own kind of way, Gorz is right on many points. Ironically, the most dogmatic Marxists reject self-management pretty much with the same arguments as Gorz: one cannot self-manage the various pieces of the modern industrial machine, and therefore the state (the Marxist state) must take over the entire operation. At the same time, the book also gives a utopian impression, especially since Gorz was Green. Curiously, his Green ideas aren't all that visible in this book. How can a society be Green if it still has large scale industrial production? Wouldn't this production tend to out-compete the "autonomous" sphere? After all, why produce something all by yourself, if you can buy it in a shopping mall! Besides, mass produced items tend to be cheaper than items made by artisans. In another text by Gorz, "Ecology and freedom", he even says that the heteronomous sphere should have central planning. But wouldn't the central plan tend to absorb the small scale, voluntary production also? It's not clear how the "dualist" society could really be made to work, unless it's simply a reformed version of the present society. Taiwan apparently combines a dirigiste state with a lot of small businesses, but something tells me Gorz wanted something more "radical" than that! It's also obvious that Gorz overestimates the "non-class of non-workers". Traditional workers had powerful labour unions (they still do). The non-class has...what? How are they going to make their presence felt? Through elections? Through riots and violence? Gorz rejects violence, but never says what the alternative might be. He also overlooks the fact that most "non-workers" don't want to become artisans, artists, independent farmers, or whatever. Most simply want a job, period. At election time, they might still vote for Social Democratic and Labour parties (or other parties, for that matter) which promises them employment, for instance by expanding the public sector, by stimulus packages, and so on. In other words, by state intervention!
Indeed, dogmatic Marxists actually demand "a massive program of public works", "nationalization of the banks", and so on - demands which, if fulfilled, would turn the non-class of non-workers into an ancillary of the class of workers, while giving the non-workers employment security. How is Gorz going to argue against that? His anti-Marxist sarcasm might be somewhat misplaced.
Marxism and its very traditional kind of "proletarian" politics may be dead, but many voters in a modern society will nevertheless demand a more dirigiste, interventionist economic policy from the government. Gorz would have been horrified by this, but personally I can only say: Everything is alright in the world. Farewell to André Gorz!
(Perhaps I should point out, that this review is based on the 1982 Swedish translation.)