Reclaiming work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society

Reclaiming work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society

Cumbers, Andy

Gorz, A.

Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society

Cambridge: Polity, 1999, pp. 185

ISBN 0-7456-2127-9 (hbk) L50.00 $62.95. ISBN 0-7456-2128-7 (pbk) L14.99 $28.95

Andre Gorz has always been one of the most original socialist theorists. In his ground-breaking essay, Farewell to the Working Class, published in 1980, he courted controversy by attacking the existing Marxist pre-occupation with the industrial proletariat. For him, changes in advanced capitalism meant that the terrain for radical politics had itself to move on, creating new coalitions with both the Green and Women’s Movements. Twenty years on, the relentless technological dynamic of capitalism and its effects upon both the world of work and the environment have proved Gorz to be more prescient than most of his critics. Additionally, unlike many of his Marxist contemporaries from the 1970s, Gorz still believes in an alternative to capitalism and remains committed to exploring the prospects for socialism. His new book Reclaiming Work picks up where Farewell… left off. This time, as the subtitle suggests, Gorz’s thesis is concerned with the end of work as opposed to the end of the mass production worker: `Wage-base society has less to offer humanity and the world than the social model of Kerala’ (p.26). Gorz is more interested in arguing for the principle of a basic income linked to a debate about the redistribution of working time. At the same time, for him, the social relations of consumption– who decides what is produced (guns versus butter, say) and under what conditions-needs to be addressed as much as the social relations of production.

Starting with a critique of neo-liberal style globalisation, Gorz’s concern is to fashion an alternative vision. Globalisation, in his view, has not eliminated the state as an effective actor, but has simply provided the alibi for a shift in the balance of power and resources from labour to capital. The relentless drive to fashion a low-road model of international capitalism, based upon low wage competition, is given the lie by the continued success and prosperity of countries such as Denmark where a state welfarist model continues to survive and indeed compete effectively with free market Anglo-American capitalism. Whilst supporting the principle of the welfare state and traditional socialdemocratic forms of redistribution, however, Gorz’s thesis entails a far more radical attack upon the current capitalist mode of regulation. His project, in the best Marxist traditions, remains both revolutionary and emancipatory, concerned as it is with understanding the new forms of work and their implications in terms of control of the labour process.

Technological trends and corporate restructuring are viewed as helping to destroy the link between work and social identities, through the shrinking number of core jobs that can provide decent incomes. At the same time, a Fordist system of production, whereby job control was exercised overtly through direct forms of supervision is in Gorz’s eyes being replaced, or perhaps extended, by more subtle psychological forms of control aimed at engendering self– policing among the workforce. Flexible Specialisation and Japanisation are rightly derided as labour strategies that seek to forge a false consensus in employment relations concealing deeper and more fundamental antagonisms. To his credit, Gorz does not buy into the Flex. Spec. `social partnership’ project that has been greeted with euphoria by some on the Left as an alternative to neoliberalism. Rather, he highlights its limitations in involving employees in decisions about how to produce without control over what is produced. He suggests that new forms of social control in the Post-Fordist world are geared towards encouraging greater worker identification with the corporation and its objectives, thereby undermining a wider class consciousness.

Gorz’s view is perhaps an oversimplification of a more complex reality in which the labour process continues to be a highly contested domain and important arena for resistance to capital (a criticism that I will return to later). It is also perhaps too western-centric, given the growing number of struggles for worker rights and union recognition in the Third World. Yet, an important implication of his analysis is that we need to move beyond a politics of the workplace, faced with a situation in which `working time will cease to be the dominant social time’ (p. 73).This in turn means that a Left political strategy needs to `move beyond wage-based society’ to quote both the book’s subtitle and the heading for his fourth chapter. Recent processes of capital restructuring are leading to the erosion of regular paid work and the increasing separation of the link between income distribution and social labour time. Thus, a focus upon a narrow politics of production may no longer be appropriate when, for an increasing number of people, access to an income and indeed a large part of their identity is no longer bound up in workplace relations. In tandem with a number of others (e.g. Aaronowitz and Cutler 1998), Gorz supports the principle of a guaranteed minimum income that is independent of productive labour, a position that would be at odds with many on the Left. However, Gorz’s position is consistent with his theoretical argument in which he wants to recover human subjectivity from the demands of capital by creating new emancipatory spaces from the reduction in necessary labour time. He sees LETS schemes and other third sector initiatives as important experiments in developing alternative non-capitalistic spheres of social relations.

At the root of the book is the desire to free human subjectivity from the demands of capital-a task made more urgent by the way that capitalist social relations are inexorably percolating into every avenue of social life. As Gorz puts it: `the fault lines run through every sphere in which the right of persons over themselves, over their lives, over their capacity to produce themselves and understand themselves as subjects is in question’ (p.115). In an earlier passage, he calls for `new rights, new freedoms, new collective guarantees… A society which shifts the production of the social bond towards relations of cooperation, regulated not by the market and money, but by reciprocity and mutuality’ (p.65). At the end of the book, his concerns about human subjectivity lead him into a series of illuminating philosophical digressions that culminate in a discussion of the nature of late capitalism/modernity. He identifies in particular with Touraine’s recent critique (Touraine 1995), which charts the emergence of a ‘programmed’ society where managerial power is increasingly shifting from the `administration of things to the government of men’ (p. 135). However, it should be recognised that there are some dangers in what is essentially a teleological vision that seems to deny the very realities of human agency, of resistance, at both individual and collective levels, which it seeks to defend.

Reclaiming Work is an important contribution to a renewed Left project, challenging entrenched assumptions and attitudes and helping to forge an alternative vision which takes account of the rapid pace of technological changes in capitalist societies over the last three decades. For me, however, some of the political implications are flawed. Gorz, with many on the ‘new’ New Left, seems to set great store by third sector initiatives: the new social economy of LETS, credit unions, farmers’ markets, etc. Certainly, these developments are of interest in charting emergent spaces of resistance and offering hope during adverse times. But, they remain limited in scope, with little evidence that they can, on their own, become the bases for broader mass social change. The vast majority of people are still ultimately defined by the material conditions of the formal sector, its production/consumption relations and the labour process. The latter must remain a critical site for struggle, resistance and hope. As Gorz himself says:

`What is at stake politically is, in the last analysis, the power to decide the destination and social use of production-that is to say, the mode of consumption for which it is intended and the social relations determined by that mode of consumption’ (P.34-5).


Aaronowitz, S. and Cutler, J.(eds) (1998) Post-Work: the Wages of Cybernation. Routledge, London and NewYork

Touraine, A. (1995) Critique of Modernity, Blackwell, Oxford.

Reviewed by Andy Cumbers

Andy Cumbers teaches economic and political geography at the University of Glasgow.

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Autumn 2002

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