The Beautiful Iconoclast: Remembering Andre Gorz

The bodies of Dorine and Andre Gorz were discovered on 24 September, 2007 in their 19th century home in the village of Vosnon near Troyes in France. The two had committed suicide two days earlier. Dorine, Gorz’s beloved wife of 58 years had suffered excruciating pain for many years, but in the previous autumn, she was overwhelmed with ill health. During the last year of their life together, Gorz wrote a 75 page Letter to D.:  Story of a Love. It became a best seller immediately upon publication.

“It is now 58 years that we lived together and I love you more than ever,” he wrote. “I carry in myself a devouring emptiness within the hollow of my chest, which can only be filled by the warmth of your body against mine.” These poignant and moving words pierce our hearts. “Sometimes at night, I see the silhouette of a man walking behind a hearse along an empty road in a deserted landscape,” wrote Gorz. “I am that man. I don’t want to attend your cremating. I don’t want to receive your ashes in a bowl.” Unable to face the unbearable, Andre and Dorine put their arms around each other and passed into the loving night.

I actually attended a workshop Gorz led at a Telos-sponsored conference in Buffalo, New York in November, 1971. It was rainy and miserable. The Viet Nam war was raging and everybody on the SUNY campus seemed to be wearing khaki-green. Revolution was in the air. Marcuse was a head-line speaker on a rainy and cold evening; revolutionaries from the Italian Lotta Continua movement were present as well as numerous radical intellectuals like the famed professor of African American studies Harold Cruse and crusty anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin. The themes of the day included grassroots organizing, party structure and post-revolutionary problems. The entire atmosphere was surreal and menacing. The American New Left talked revolution by day and smoked dope by night.

All that I can recall was that Gorz looked gaunt and pallid. But when I started to read his writings, soon enough I discovered that there was nothing pallid about his thinking or his background.

Elements of the mysterious and enigmatic hovered around Gorz. An Austrian by birth in 1927, Gerhart Hirsch (he adopted the pen names of Michel Bosquet and Gerard Horst) changed his name to Andre Gorz and remade himself into a Frenchman. He knew Sartre and the existentialists and played a key role in the journal, Le Temps Moderne. He also offered humanity creative and wild ideas about what socialism meant in a world of dashed hopes and wrong roads traveled. His wide range of works is a repository of lost treasures of the left.

Gorz’s most influential works of the 1960s, Strategy for Labor (1967) and Socialism and Revolution (1973), read now, carry us into a world we have lost, perhaps forever. A prescient and acute reader of the foreboding “signs of the times,” Gorz sensed in the 1960s that the workers movement was utterly unprepared for the coming catastrophe of Neo-liberalism. It was fragmented, complacent and not educated sufficiently to grasp the revolutionary changes to the way work was designed and organized. It also had failed to prepare itself to wage a fight in ideological, social and political realms.

In Socialism and Revolution (1973) Gorz warned the social democratic parties that buying into corporatist partnerships was a doomed and dangerous strategy. One could not depend on the tenderness of the bourgeoisie to maintain decent wages and working conditions. The bourgeoisie would never relinquish its power. Parties of the left could not simply drift along merrily. Gorz’s most luminous nugget of wisdom in this text was his call to left humanists to begin immediately to build a qualitatively new society. They had to start creating centres of social management and direct democracy in major industries and corporations. These reforms, Gorz imagined, had to be incompatible with capitalism’s brutal logic.

They had to introduce “revolutionary reforms” that were building blocks for the new socialist society. In the process of imagining how this might work, workers and citizens would educate themselves to understand what they were up against. The old inevitabilism of the German Social Democrats could not be sustained. One couldn’t just nibble away its economic and political power. But Gorz looked around the dispiriting economic and political scene and lamented that the collective will of the working class was scarcely evident. Its’ political power was barely visible. He didn’t think the socialist movement was alert to the process of transition to the new socialist society. This meant that the “forces of opposition” to the Neo-liberal juggernaut were incapable of resolving the unfolding crises of capitalism (from the mid-1970s to the present).

Socialism (a qualitatively different life beyond capitalism) had to be lived out in everyday life. Workers and citizens had to taste the new flavours of life in the mutual acts of managing their own affairs wherever they could. Gorz well knew that capitalism’s micro-electronics revolution and drastic changes in the organization of production had rendered the old Marxian dream of non-alienated, emancipatory work impossible and inconceivable.

The new social movements created some autonomous space (Gorz welcomed the new discourse of civil society, but he also knew that that one could not abandon deep thinking about what the left imagined work ought to be or the crucial role trade unions needed to play). How could a movement for a new, qualitatively different global order actually emerge? This question posed by Gorz remains unanswered. We are all sitting in rubble heaps and ruined dreams weeping.

Gorz desired profoundly that work and society be organized to permit the free development of human creative faculties. But this anguished thinker thought that a “terrible silence” had fallen upon working class life and experience. Class consciousness appeared to be vanishing; workers and citizens were bereft of voice and educated capacity to critique the terror descending upon their lives. Like many contemporary commentators, Gorz thought that democratic life had been gutted of any substance. However, this bitter reality only drove him to reach beyond classic Marxian verities for some answers.

In the early 1980s Gorz published two books with shocking titles (Farewell to the working class: an essay on post-industrial socialism [1982] and Paths to Paradise: on the liberation from work [1985). If the left humanist movement had any future at all, Gorz warned his readers, it had to figure out what we ought to hope for at work. Advocates of the essentiality of good, purposeful work as integral to human life and expression were certainly shaken up when Gorz provided us with a disconcerting and devastating provocation. Capitalist work design had so radically changed that only around ¼ of all workers could find fulfilment and creative possibilities in work itself. For most of us work robs time for autonomous self-expression and active participation in life’s plentiful domains.

For Gorz, the new revolutionary struggle was for “liberation from work.” We needed to free ourselves from the subjugation and oppression of work as a predetermined activity imposed upon us. We needed to roll back time given to unfree human activity and expand autonomous time where we can decide how to live out our lives with others. We had to work less and live more.

Hearing this, quite a few socialists must have raised their eyebrows mighty high. What is this crazy guy Gorz talking about? Are these ideas sheer lunacy? For Gorz, then, the central political question facing us was precisely how the abolition of work could be socially implemented. Underlying some objections to Gorz’s audacious proposal, Gorz thinks, is the left’s clinging to the treasured idea of workers’ control. If only we could wrest work from the nasty capitalists and re-configure it.

Alas! Gorz shatters this longing with devastating logic. Under existing conditions of capitalist production, workers would only have limited power to define tasks within a framework imposed from above. He states that one cannot refigure a pre-existing, intensely specialized, intricate technological division of labour to provide workers with commanding decision-making power. So the idea of work as developing human capacity is a severely curtailed option for most of us. That’s one problem facing us: the other is that the classic Marxian idea of a collective working class as revolutionary agent has collapsed like a hot air balloon. It cannot offer us salvation and the promised new kingdom.

One of the lost treasures of the left is the principled commitment to ensuring that exchange relations are severely restricted and autonomous space expanded. Perhaps even the prophetic insight of Gorz could not have foreseen that by 2016 Neo-liberal oligarchs and camp-followers would succeed in extricating themselves from moral, spiritual and legal regulation. Gorz would turn over in his grave! How has this human catastrophe occurred? The Neo-liberal imaginary has worked day and night to ensure that worker capacity for self-emancipation and self-management is undermined and worker power severely restricted to skilled, poly-technical workers. Gone are the days, Gorz cries out, when a unified, collective worker could be imagined to seize power and build a new world. So we had better get our acts together and get busy extending self-motivated activity within and outside the family. And band together round the world to figure out the new forms of thought and action steps to build a qualitatively new and peaceful world.

In two fine texts of the late 1980s and early 1990s (Critique of Economic Reason [1989] and Capitalism, Socialism and Ecology [1994] Gorz plunges in and offers us speculative thoughts on how we might uncouple income from the quantity of labour performed. Although this topic has gained sporadic attention, Gorz seems to be one of the few to have conceptualized the historical and economic context of how this project might be achieved; he also demonstrated why his project flows within the historic socialist stream.

In Critique of Economic Reason [1989], Gorz argues that to reduce working time (and not just provide some form of social income), Gorz asserts that this project requires three basic prerequisites of justice. Savings in labour which technological developments have created must benefit everyone. Everyone must be able to work less so that everyone can work more. And decrease in working hours must not entail a decrease in real income, since more wealth is being created by less labour. Whatever we might think of these proposals in our utterly bewildered and smashed up times, Gorz at least affirms the dire necessity of not permitting the Neo-liberal oligarchic elites and their flunkies to twist and deform our beloved earth and suffering humanity into hideous pretzels. He wants to press us to consider what we can derive from the technological revolution.

In Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology [1994] reiterates his core themes of reduction of working time and the commitment to curtain the penetration of economic rationality into spheres of the lifeworld where this instrumentality ought not to prevail. Announcing that socialism as a system is dead, Gorz wants freely chosen work hours (not the mad rush to find any old job), expanded possibilities of self-directed activity (not the consumption of endless distractions) and democratization of economic decision-making (this would primarily mean decisions pertaining to the social responsibility of business). If we analyze global work conditions from the vantage-point of societal integration, we might—as Axel Honneth has argued in The I in We: studies in the theory of recognition (2013)—be able to argue (as Durkheim and Hegel did in an earlier day) that we can anchor the moral conditions of capitalist production within the division of labour itself. In other words, market relations must be organized in a fair and just manner. An orderly and fair society requires this for life to continue. Alas!

Gorz has many skeptical interlocutors, queries ranging from how Gorz’s project could make any headway in a Europe of unimpeded market mechanisms to claims that reskilling of work punctures open space for genuine craft. But Neo-liberalism is morally and spiritually nihilistic and, while enormously productive for the relatively few, requires the mighty utopian spirit of Andre Gorz, the beautiful maverick.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.