Farewell, working class – Praise freedom! Ruthless Criticism

[Translated from MSZ 4-81]

Andre Gorz, Farewell to the working class

Farewell, working class – Praise freedom!

Andre Gorz, the “Parisian theorist” who “was an architect of the Paris May with his typewriter” (Spiegel), discovered in those days that he had an affection for the working class, on the grounds that his “literary protest” had to be “supported by a class that is revolutionary”: “If such a class does not exist or ... has lost its revolutionary vocation,” he would have had “no choice but to remain silent.” Since then, he has changed his mind and given eloquent expression to his “farewell to the working class” in the form of a book which, according to the blurb, is supposed to represent a “political intervention in the true sense of the word.” And he certainly doesn’t disappoint expectations, even without the working class having been given a hearing: the book has “attained cult status among students.” (Spiegel) With that, the abandonment of the proletariat's supporting role for his “literary protest” falls completely into place; the loss for the working class caused by his farewell, too.

Capitalism refutes “traditional hopes for the future”

“The development of the productive forces is functional exclusively to the logic and the needs of capital. Their development will not only fail to establish the material preconditions of socialism, but are an obstacle to its realization.” (14) “The logic of capital has brought us to the threshold of liberation.” (74)

That the “logic of capital” can’t take everything on its back – its evidently enough that Gorz, even in his funeral oration for Marxism, doesn’t want to do without its participation. Although one can indeed twist and turn this logic in any way one wants under the questioning that Gorz puts to Marxism: what is ultimately at issue is not what it is now, but the hopes that Gorz wants to put on it, or no longer puts on it: where is capitalism leading? Does it prevent its abolition or make it possible? Gorz wants to come down hard on Marxism as a “hope for the future” and, seen in this way, all the favorite corny jokes from leftist thinking which he cannibalizes ad nauseum have two useful sides in principle: 1. since capitalism continues to exist, it refutes the “traditional hopes for the future.” 2. Since a capitalism that does not justify the most beautiful hopes is all the more unbearable for a modern leftist like Gorz, it justifies his own perspective.

Keeping to this logic, the book has two parts: In the first, the author says farewell to the proletariat as the “traditional” meaning of the “historical subject”; in the second, he welcomes it as the carrier of his own expectations – as a “neo-proletariat,” of course. In doing so, each aspect of Gorz’s status report on contemporary capitalism appears twice: on the one hand, as proof of the impossibility of its abolition and, on the other hand, as proof of an undeniably incipient “liberation.” So it can be immanently concluded from this sorry effort that the intellectual excitement it has stirred has very little to do with the soundness of the arguments put forward by Gorz – anyone who shakes his head at every idiocy in this regard would soon tire of it. What has made the book popular can therefore only be what it says in the headline: a “New Left” classic has retracted the type of intellectual attachment to the class struggle that it once had.

“The Proletariat according to St. Marx”: Demigod in Blue

”The crisis (of the proletariat) is much more a crisis of a myth and an ideology than of a really existing working class. For over a century, the idea of the proletariat has succeeded in masking its own unreality.” (67)

It’s certainly true that Gorz’s obituary for the working class has nothing whatsoever to do with the issues facing it, that it will hardly learn anything at all from its “crisis.” But it does not at all follow that the working class should therefore be “unreal”; this seems to be rather due to Gorz’s desire to hype his public self-criticism into a veritable conversion. As if he had calculated that precisely these types of events are favorably received, Gorz renders an account of his former interest in the working class as idolatry, whereby he does his utmost to make the working class into the myth that he wants to bury it as. What Marx is said to have promised himself from the revolution was a “promethean self-affirmation of the collective worker as creator, through the universal cooperation of all, of both the world and itself” (19). The proposition that a revolution is necessary is thus attributable to nothing more than the Marxist wish that the proletariat, through its apotheosis, gratify its own prolet-cult:

”Proletarianization would (!) replace particular producers and their ‘limited interests’ by a class of producers in general who would be immediately aware of their power over the world and conscious of the capacity to produce and recreate that world and humanity itself. With the advent of the proletariat, the supreme poverty of indeterminate power would be the seed of virtual omnipotence.” (24)

Converts like Gorz make it particularly clear what Marxism has always been for such people. In his extensive Marx studies, Gorz has apparently never been able to discover a reason for the working class to abolish the capital relation, let alone one for himself. For this, he is all the more fond of the working class: As a “universal subject” that was supposed to bring to light the “meaning of history” and its completion by helping a “universal power” break through: the power of labor! From Marx’s statement that “universal labor” represents nothing but ruthlessness against the laborer, Gorz draws enthusiasm for “universal labor” – the “negation” of the worker should “turn to the positive”! Where Marx points out that the worker has nothing to lose but the need to give himself up for it, Gorz sees in his “power to produce” his “power over the world”! All of this, of course, only “virtually”: after all, the proles do not show any of their beautiful power – except that they work.

Gorz, who indeed wants to refute Marxism, does so by taking the absurd idea that the working class has the possibility of transcending itself and turning it into the opposite: In reality, the working class is only the opposite of its opposite possibility – that is, by pointing out that the proles are not their ideal, he stages his realism. Here, too, Marx comes in handy for him. In reversal of a method popular in the heyday of Gorz and his associates, winning Marxism over to themselves by putting the “early” Marx in the right philosophical light against the author of Capital, Marx is now implicated in his own refutation so that the “economic” is turned against the “philosophical”:

“at the time it was developed, there was no factual evidence to support the initial idea... And in Capital Marx himself described work in manufactures and in so-called automatic factories as a mutilation of the physical and mental faculties of the workers. ... In short, factories produced the opposite of the ideal proletarian able to master a ‘totality of productive forces’...” (27)

All the fine hopes which Gorz had derived from the fact that the work of the proletariat is the means of capital are now giving way to the disappointed realization that it is the means of capital. And the type of realism produced by such disappointed idealism is documented by Gorz with the perverse conclusion that because this is so, the proletarians cannot do anything about it:

“The class that collectively is responsible for developing and operating the totality of the productive forces is unable to appropriate or subordinate this totality to its own ends by recognising it as the totality of its own means... This has happened because the collective worker, structured by the capitalist division of labour and adapted to the inert requirements of the machinery it serves, has come to function like a machine, just as armies do.” (29)

“Death and resurrection of the historical subject”

Since the proletariat has had the misfortune of being prevented for 150 years by its occupational obligations from inspiring the Gorzian dream image of acting like an unchained character mask of capital in order to give “labor” the “historical opportunity” of “corresponding to itself” – since it does not want to “identify” with the collective worker role meant for it, it must allow Gorz to tell it that there is nothing wrong with it at all. What motive could there be for a worker to do something other than longing for even more fulfilling, even more collective, and even more total work?! At least, Gorz, for his part, is consistent enough to openly say that a proletarian who does not find enough fulfillment in his determination to work, in order to mount the barricades for this, is in his eyes really no longer a subject at all, but rather a “machine,” a “copy of capital,” and all kinds of other soulless beings.

His moving complaint about “passivity” and lack of work ethic (“ All that matters is the wage-packet at the end of the week or month,” “all those who stop work as soon as the siren goes, no matter how much waste and damage is caused,” 38) finally reduces him to claiming that the workers not only do nothing, but they do not even do what they are there for – their work:

“This is the situation: work now exists outside the worker, reified to the extent of becoming inorganic process. Workers are there and fall in line with the work that is done. They do not do it themselves.” (38)
“Work is no longer the worker’s own activity.” (67)

Lo and behold: it’s that easy when capital incorporates labor! So the elaborate invocation of the Moloch of production, according to which the proletariat is nothing but a will-less cog in the productive forces, leads to the idyllic result that labor nowadays is done quite casually. And this quid pro quo is not merely a minor shot in the foot, but the starting point for the pleasing perspective that Gorz finally wants to win with his swan song to the “Marxist hope for the future”: Just as it is completely impossible, on the one hand, for the proletariat to oppose the rule of capital, so, on the other hand, liberation from the rule of capital arises entirely by itself, in that capital itself increasingly frees working people from its power! Gorz claims to have discovered – in the style of the heralds of a “leisure society” – a progressive “marginalization of socially necessary labor,” in the course of which takes place an increasing “exclusion of the social producers.”

He takes from the unemployment statistics, of all things, a progressive liberation from the constraints of work and goes into raptures about a colorful army of happily free casual job-sharers who “envisage society’s development as something external, akin to a spectacle or a show” (73) and “go on to work in the post office during the summer, to pick grapes in the autumn, to join a department-store staff for Christmas, and to work as a labourer in the spring ...” (70), and otherwise – presumably between autumn and winter – “without objective social importance, excluded from society,” devotes itself to a “unobstructed realisation of individual development” (73). “Neo-proletarians,” what more do you want?! There it is already, the “realm of freedom” which Marx prophesied, but was so grumpy that he presumed that it had to be achieved against capital. Alongside the constraints of the work world, in all the small “autonomous niches,” communism is already flourishing: “In this dimension, communism is conceived as the extinction of political economy, and as the measurement of wealth by freely determined possibilities for happiness rather than quantities of exchange-value.” (88). Which means that everything that is not directly hard labor becomes nothing more than “founding acts of freedom”: “a back garden, a do-it-yourself workshop, a boat, a country cottage, a collection of antiques, music, gastronomy, sport, love etc.” up to the “ever more frequent permutation of tasks and roles within the extended or nuclear family.” But that’s not all – also the hard work itself, taken lightly and enjoyed in moderation in its “banal” character, contributes the most beautiful variety to all this: by “allowing (!) everyone to step out of the narrow space of the community,” it is the best medicine against “impoverishment through entropy and suffocation.” Finally:

“No one (except Gorz) can be creative for 12 hours a day, 365 days a years.” (103)

“Heteronomous work in the service of autonomous activity.” For the sake of freedom – Yes to rule!

Viewed through the peephole of the autonomous suites in which Gorz’s illustrious “non-society” is busy with “founding acts of freedom” (the success of which, by the way, depends on the “supply (?) of convivial tools that allow individuals to do or make anything”!), the world of constraints is already much more forgiving. Indeed, is it not the case that the “realm of autonomy” simply requires a “realm of heteronomy” as its complement?

“Freedom cannot be based upon abolition of socially determined (!) labour … Freedom consists in recognising that the sphere of necessity imposes certain heteronomous tasks” (103)

Well, of course: The highest form of freedom has always been to shoulder one’s duties! The proclaimers of such sayings have found in Gorz an intellectually stupid parrot who also imagines that he has found the “concept of a new society.” In fact, it is a mature intellectual achievement to use the words “realm of necessity” to talk about capital and state as if one had just invented them to bring into existence a “realm of freedom”:

”A disjuncture between the sphere of necessity and the area of autonomy, an objectification of the operational necessities of communal life in the form of laws, prohibitions and obligations, the existence of a system of law distinct form mere usage and of a state distinct from society – these are the very preconditions of a sphere in which autonomous individuals may freely cooperate for their own ends.”(111)

And all the stupidity of this autonomous smartass hits you when he proudly trumpets pious absurdities from social studies class to illustrate his discovery:

“As the site at which the law is formulated and the material imperatives of the social system are translated into universally applicable objective rules known to everyone, the state serves to free civil society and its individual members from tasks which they could only undertake at the price of impairing both individual and social relations. Thus the existence of money and prices makes it possible to avoid the haggling (!!!) and mutual suspicion … the existence of a police (whose functions need not be carried out as a full-time career) makes it unnecessary for each individual to internalize a whole system of law and order. The existence of a highway code makes it unnecessary to negotiate with other road users at every intersection.” (112-3)

There must be rules, because 1. after all, one is not alone in the world but lives in a society, and 2. if there were no rules, one would not know which rules one must follow. So it is very fortunate that there is someone who takes the trouble to make the rules for you, because otherwise you would have to make them yourself – and that would never result in rules. And then anyone could come along and make rules:

”The objectification of a set of obligations external to each individual yet common to them all is the only means of protecting the members of the community from the personal power of a leader, with all its associated emotional blackmail and arbitrary behaviour.”(112)

One is used to sycophants of the modern state system immediately turning to fascism in order to propagate the ruling power as the wholesome solution. But in order to come up with the idea of rejecting fascism as a love affair gone bad, Gorz must exert all his psycho-philosophical imagination. In his painting of the irrational state, which he wants fascism to look like in contrast to the existing state power, as a “permanent communion” between the people and the “beloved Fübrer,” the available psychological ideologies are not enough for him. He likes to see a “longing” for a “supreme saviour” whom he himself gives every sign of admiring –

“Fascism is a virile cultural revolution... power of the strongest and most able ...The Ftihrer exercises by proxy the power that belongs to anyone.” (60)

at work, of all places, where someone confronts the ruler with his own demands:

“the dominated masses tend implicitly to call for a sovereign whom they could hold responsible and to whom they could present their demands or appeals. Think of the slogans of mass demonstrations and the litany of chants directed at named individuals: de Gaulle or Giscard, Wilson or Thatcher (e.g. ‘the milk-snatcher’).”(59)

You see the trap. ... “When an oppressed mass finds itself without the practical or theoretical means to fight an illegitimate system of domination, recourse to the personal power of a prestigious leader may seem a desirable course to follow. By the mere fact of announcing: ‘This is my decision; this is my will; these are my orders’, the leader may deliver the people from the glue of serial impotence.” (59)

Gorz certainly has the “theoretical means” to express his partisanship for state power: namely the politological opposition between “personal and functional power.” While the former – fascism, of all things, which is said to “abolish” the state! – binds the subordinates to the powers that be through nothing more than their “personal authority,” the existing “ruling apparatus” is distinguished as a monstrous “functional means of technical imperatives” in which no one has power! His disassembling between those in power and the means of power into two alternative forms of rule is the alternative he opens up to society. For his part, Gorz has already made his decision: for the state as it is. Why actually, when the “personal power” of fascism, according to his own description, has a much more human touch?

“any society or micro-society that abolishes the state thereby loses all capacity to challenge the material necessities of its own functioning. Such societies find themselves inexorably bound to the ‘duty to love.’ “(110)

Oh, ok: he doesn’t want to just be obligated to love the state power!

Quotes from: Gorz, André. Farewell to the working class: an essay on post-industrial socialism. London: Pluto Press, 1982.