1990s >> 1990 >> no-1034-october-1990

What About the Workers?

With his Goodbye to the Working Class André Gorz achieved a shock effect which probably owed more to the arresting title than to the content of the book. Not that it was without merit, for example his ruthless analysis of the relations of production in capitalism—that lines of control are from the top down, military style, which makes the idea of taking them over and converting them to production for use, with voluntary labour, completely ludicrous.

He went on to fall into traps he had dug himself. There will always be jobs needing some element of compulsion, he argued (old class-warriors will recognise this as the Who Will Do The Dirty Work question); these jobs will be shared out so that everybody gets some free time, while technological developments have made it possible for it to happen without a fall in production. But as we have pointed out (see “New Economics, Old Errors”, World Socialist No 6), it is difficult to imagine compelling anybody to work if they access to everything they need for free. So that Gorz’s proposal for extra monetary rewards as encouragement adds another bizarre contradiction.

But his main theme, which gave the title to the book, was that changes in the character of the market economy due to automation had rendered traditional Marxist thinking and practice totally irrelevant. The masses of workers who had trooped into the steelworks, the shipyards, the mines and the factories, were a vanishing race. Strikes had been broken, men sacked and a select few re-engaged and put to work with labour-saving equipment to do the jobs that had previously taken many. The remainder of the workforce, generally speaking the less skilled and qualified, had been hived off to do menial or casual or part-time work, and had been rendered marginal in their work and their social life.

Thus working class solidarity had been destroyed, loyalties replaced with a new ethos of competition to get on the gravy train of well-paid guaranteed jobs, and consumerism was providing the spectacle to keep those so privileged in a zombie-like trance of soap-opera following and gadget-buying.

Changing patterns of work

Gorz returns to this theme in a new book, Metamorphoses du travail (Paris, 1988), a translation of which is about to be made available over here. It is unfortunate that he spends a certain amount of time disposing of the Soviet system. The final collapse of state capitalism has rendered this excursion totally superfluous. This comes of keeping bad company. He had been in the group of Stalinist fellow-travellers around Sartre and Les Temps Modernes which had taken an unreasonably long time to discover the irrelevance of Russia after 1917 to libertarian socialist thinking. Eventually for him however:

    “The Soviet system represented a gross caricature of capitalism pursuing accumulation and growth as main objects.”

Once that matter is out of the way, his dissection of contemporary society is thorough and frequently illuminating. He draws freely on those 20th century thinkers who have attempted to bring Marxist analysis up to date—Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, the Frankfurt School, Habermas, Baudrillard, etc. There are many provocative images:

    “Social disintegration extends to politicians, who increasingly resemble salesmen.”


    “The Welfare State replaces services which people provided for themselves . . . this leads to a continual extension of public administration and state power while parliament becomes a shadow theatre presided over by a charismatic leader. This is the end but arrived at by different means, predicted in the nightmare of Orwell and the “führer mit maschine” of Weber.”

Gorz identifies stages in the evolution of production beginning with the simple division of labour as in Adam Smith, which he argues was introduced to facilitate control rather than production. He claims that the difficulty experienced by early factory owners in getting former peasants to work all day and every day led to the search for child labour, usually obtained in plentiful supply from the orphanages. The new proletariat had, virtually, to be bred.

Then at the turn of the century came Fordism and the assembly line. This was followed in the 1950s by what the French call Taylorism, i.e. time and motion study. But this created new problems: the extra compensation demanded by workers, accompanied by bad quality, bad timekeeping, absenteeism, even arson.

The new tack is to restore some independence, with small groups completing each process and determining the rhythm of their work. Work is “subbed out”, a privileged 25 percent are kept on. Line workers are replaced by robots supervised by a highly adaptable elite. The subcontractors absorb the business cycle. There is flexibility of function for the elite, and flexibility of numbers for the subcontracting workers.

This, says Gorz, has broken up the working class, who can no longer be looked to for liberation from capitalism. A new coalition is needed, based not on sectional interests but on ethical considerations. People are increasingly turning to alternative, marginal groupings as an answer to the disintegration of society and the spiritual emptiness of work. Increasing numbers are choosing quality of life before money and success at work: “The autonomy being born, unsure of itself, hesitant, menaced by industrial culture and the merchants of leisure, is where we must turn to survive”.

The answer, he argues, is the reduction of the working day, week, year. With increased leisure, people can and are replacing bought-in items with home-produced ones. There is a turning away from consumerism among a significant minority. People are turning from “more is better” to “enough is enough”.

As in Goodbye To The Working Class Gorz repeats his argument that replacing control-by-others (heteroregulation) by voluntary co-operation is impossible with all industrial activity; some compulsion will always be necessary, and for this, monetary rewards will have to remain. Clearly, money notions stick to these former Stalinists (and Keynesians) like shit to a blanket. Gorz gives no explanation why compulsion should be necessary.

If unpleasant and dangerous jobs were always avoided by the voluntary sector, then the argument might be plausible, but there never seems to be any lack of volunteers for the lifeboats, or cave and mountain rescue. And of the argument is that only spectacular activities call up such responses, how about the nurses who volunteer to care for AIDS victims, Legionnaires’ Disease, and similar horror? Are they all crazy, Jesus Christ characters, or Superwoman? Or are they just in it for the money?

Shift to money-shuffling

While there has been an acceleration of the shift from heavy industry and agriculture in particular, and from wealth-producing activities in general toward functions peculiar to a market economy-banking, insurance and money shuffling, the sales effort, advertising, public relations, security, defence of markets—the drift is not entirely new.

It was noted as far back as the 17th century by Sir William Petty (“Political Arithmetic”). In 18th century France, Quesnay in his “Tableau Economique” calculated that the burden of the non-producing aristocracy on the peasants could reach unsustainable levels. And, in England again, in the 19th century, the redoubtable William Cobbett carried on a campaign for decades against the reduction in the numbers of the wealth-producers and the multiplication of “stockjobbers”, bureaucrats, and the Civil List.

There is little evidence that those moving from productive work into “service” activities always move down the social or economic scale as Gorz argues. Some do, of course, but that is nothing new. He quotes Marx to the effect that in the middle of the 19th century, 14 percent of the labour force in England were skivvies of one kind or another. There is little evidence that the new servant class has reached that proportion.

But there has been a significant increase in banking and insurance activities. There appears to be 150,000 accountants in Britain—more than in all the other developed nations outside the US. It would be difficult to believe that these workers and bureaucrats are financially or otherwise worse off than those retained in industry, yet they outnumber and are increasing faster than the unemployed and part-time workers who are the object of Gorz’s concern.

Neither are they lacking in willingness to organise themselves for the defence of salaries and conditions. There have been bank strikes; one in Ireland in the 1960s lasted six months, and there was a strike of half a million local government workers in Britain in 1989. Professional associations like the Law Society and the British Medical Association are increasingly beginning to resemble and behave like trade unions. They are not affiliated to the TUC but who knows? The announcement of the death of the working class is, to borrow an expression of Mark Twain, an exaggeration.

Ken Smith