André Gorz’s work has been described as ‘pop sociology’, ‘journalistic impressionism’, and ‘sociological punditry’. He has been accused of both ‘bourgeois individualism’ and ‘backward-looking romanticism’. Depending on the critic, Gorz is an erstwhile ‘quasi-Stalinist’ or a reformed ‘anti-Stalinist’, an advocate of ‘postmodern politics’ or simply an ‘intellectual charlatan’.
My intention here is to demonstrate that Gorz is widely misrepresented and significantly misunderstood. The poor reception of his ideas in Britain stands in stark contrast to the popularity of Gorz’s work on the Continent, where in many countries the issue of reduced working hours is firmly on the political agenda as a means for tackling unemployment. A dissident intellectual who has rarely allied himself with any academic school or political wing, Gorz is talked about far more than he is actually read. Too reformist for orthodox Marxists and too radical for the liberal Left, his independence from established doctrines has won him more critics than friends.
I have not attempted an exegesis of Gorz’s work, and assume the reader is familiar with Gorz’s best-known book, Farewell to the Working Class, and aware that Gorz advocates a redistribution of work and a staged reduction in working time. To briefly summarize, Gorz’s socialism is a ‘dual society’, divided between a sphere of heteronomy and a sphere of autonomy, with the former subordinated to the latter. Heteronomy implies functional rationality, the functional regulation of conduct and the functional integration of individuals. Hetero-regulated integration—what Habermas refers to as ‘a non-normative regulation of individual decisions that extends beyond the actors’ consciousnesses’footnote1—enables people to accomplish things that, as individuals, they can neither will nor often understand. It co-ordinates their behaviour by referring beyond their subjective preferences, norms and motivations to the imperatives of a pre-estab-lished organization. Autonomy, on the other hand, implies the social integration of individuals. Socially-integrated conduct is self-regulated by individuals who co-ordinate the attainment of common goals by consensus. The distinction between heteronomy and autonomy corresponds to Habermas’s theory of the ‘uncoupling’ of ‘system’—comprising economic and administrative subsystems—and ‘lifeworld.’
The most common misrepresentation of Gorz depicts his notion of heteronomous work as a sphere of total alienation that is inescapably dehumanizing and oppressive, precluding all possibility of enjoyment, interest, collaboration or initiative. For example, Berger and Kostede write that, ‘The image of the factory as a hell of self-alienation with no hope for change is part of Gorz’s depiction of a “dual society”.’ footnote2 Sayers offers a similar picture, stating that, in Farewell to the Working Class and Paths to Paradise, ‘employment was portrayed as an entirely negative phenomenon’. ‘In modern industrial conditions, it cannot be a satisfying or self-realizing activity: it cannot be humanized, it is necessarily and ineliminably alienating’.footnote3 The apparent depth of this alienation has provoked an ardent response. Gorz’s critics reply that his dual society ‘cannot be stabilized unless elements of autonomy and free activity are introduced into the “realm of necessity” ’,footnote4 that ‘capitalist control of the labour process conflicts with limited but necessary worker autonomy in production’,footnote5 that ‘subjectivity in production cannot be altogether eliminated’ and that, ‘It is on this that labour can ground its liberation strate-gies’.footnote6 In Byrne’s view ‘Gorz denies subjective autonomy and innovative capacity to the working class’, and ‘he ignores the nature and effects of struggles in reproduction and the contribution these have made to the contemporary crisis’.footnote7 Whitbread concurs: ‘Gorz’s view is that modern
What is most remarkable is that this interpretation can only be maintained by disregarding the preface to Farewell to the Working Class. This statement of intent explicitly contradicts the vulgar readings offered by Gorz’s critics:
It is certainly possible to ‘self-manage’ workshops or to self-determine working conditions or to co-determine the design of machines and the definition of tasks. Yet as a whole these remain no less determined in a heteronomous way by the social process of production or, in other words, by society insofar as it is itself a giant machine. Workers’ control (erroneously equated with workers’ self-management) amounts in reality to self-determining the modalities of what has already been heteronomously determined: the workers will share and define tasks within the framework of an already existing social division of labour.footnote9
Gorz is not arguing that pleasure, interest, discretion and co-operation are incompatible with heteronomous work: ‘Heteronomy does not mean that the workplace has to be a hell or a purgatory’.footnote10 What he is rejecting is the ambition to reconcile the differentiation of life and work, culture and technique, social integration and functional integration which capitalist modernity has engendered. Technical specialization and a spatial division of labour, often spanning different continents, means that, even if workers were able to abolish the technical and social (hierarchical) division of labour in the enterprise, the self-management of productive units could not be extended to incorporate control over the final product. This is because its design is ultimately determined by the specifications of other industrial sectors in the production chain, and more remotely by the heterogeneous demands of anonymous consumers. In this context, it is impossible for the social organization of production to be understood and experienced by all individuals as the universally intended result of their voluntary co-operation.