Labour and the death of work

Reclaiming Work

September 29, 2000

It is fun to read a passionately engaged book, that is such a contrast to so much contemporary bland management-speak on the future of work. André Gorz argues that the work that provides us with a fundamental sense of self-realisation is disappearing rapidly into "the virtualised realities of the intangible economy". Real work is no longer what we do when we go to work: this latter form of work is a social construction. Real work is more likely to be done outside employment in reproducing the next generation and ourselves.

Where once the ideological message was "never mind what work you do, so long as you get paid at the end of the week", the message has now become "Never mind what you're paid, so long as you have a job". In other words, argues Gorz, "be prepared to make any and every concession, to suffer humiliation or subjugation, to face competition and betrayal to get or keep a job", since "those who lose their jobs lose everything".

In sparkling third-way Europe, there has been a "wonderful inversion". Instead of more in employment making themselves useful to others, it is society that makes itself useful by "enabling" you to work and by "'giving' you that 'precious commodity' of work, in order as much as possible to avoid your 'going without' it". This same society then appears righteously indignant and astonished if some members debate or even reject the "privilege" of accepting poor working conditions or inadequate wage rates.

A work-based society based on people gaining security and a sense of personal and social usefulness is, Gorz claims, simply dead. Work remains a "phantom centrality" (a particularly nice phrase that). We are earnestly entreated to desire something that no longer exists and will never return, namely, paid work in a permanent job.

We have been encouraged to value employment, not so much for the satisfaction that work brings, but rather "for the rights and entitlements attaching to the 'employment' form and to that form alone". This is what I have previously dubbed the "New Labour-Marketism", which is what, I suspect, will prove to be the downfall of the "New Labour" project.

Gorz's polemic is, of course, utopian but not necessarily the worse for that. Since he has been roaring in the intellectual wilderness for more than 30 years, he has suffered from being an idol of the Marxist new left, coming quite close to those such as the liberal management guru Charles Handy, who has persuaded the Royal Society of Arts to think uncharacteristically radically about the future of work. Gorz may be more influential than he expected.

The novel aspect of this book is that while Gorz can sternly urge us to "make no mistake about this: wage-labour has to disappear and, with it, capitalism", he wisely does not expect the proletariat to be the engine of change. Perhaps surprisingly, Gorz recognises that the problem and its solution are primarily political. In order to create a new society of "chosen time", based on "multi-activity", piecemeal social engineering must be the way forward.

To move beyond the wage-based society there will have to be a guaranteed adequate income for all, work will have to be redistributed and new forms of cooperation and exchange encouraged to create social bonds and social cohesion independent of wage relations. No problem: sorted. Of course, "prices will necessarily be political prices and the price system will reflect society's choice of a model of consumption and civilisation, its choice of a way of life". That may provoke a spot of bother, but what is so charming about Gorz's work is that one is so easily carried along by his rhetorical flow. Of course, we want to deal with the elimination of work by encouraging alternative forms of personal activity, and this must surely become our main political goal. The fact that present political parties do not engage with these issues simply shows how far behind emerging social attitudes the political world remains.

Do not sneer, gentle reader. You may not be noticing the straws in the wind. Lets (Local Exchange Trading Schemes) flourish in all kinds of places, such as Totnes in Devon, and the humanising of discontinuous work is much advanced in Denmark. There can be an alternative to New Labour-marketism. Well, let us hope so.

Ray Pahl is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Kent at Canterbury, and visiting professor, University of Essex.

Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society

Author - André Gorz
ISBN - 0 7456 21 9 and 2128 7
Publisher - Polity
Price - £49.50 and £13.99
Pages - 185
Translator - Chris Turner

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