A recommendation: Critique of Economic Reason by André Gorz

I recently picked up a copy of this book more or less on a lark, my eye being drawn by the attractive French-style design of the new Verso “Radical Thinkers” series of which it is a part. In it, Gorz argues that the Marxian utopia of work is effectively impossible for two reasons. First, one of the primary goals of economic rationality is the progressive reduction in the amount of labor necessary for production. Second, the very nature of our present very complex mode of production means that even in the best case, economically productive work in the strict sense cannot provide the kind of holistic meaningfulness that Marx called for. That is to say, some degree of alienation from one’s work is inevitable, because even the most autonomous and cooperative working groups are working within a larger overarching enterprise whose goals they haven’t personally chosen.

In fact, Gorz believes that contemporary capitalism has effectively hijacked the Marxian utopia of work, creating a situation where an elite monopolizes all the full-time, dignified work, leaving everyone else in a precarious situation that often forces them to take on servile labor for that very elite. The decreasing need for labor power in economic production only ensures that this division will become more and more severe as time goes on. Meanwhile, trade unions primarily serve to preserve the labor of a full-time elite without being able to address the problem of precarious labor.

Gorz’s solution to this is that we need to find a way to actually benefit from this decrease in the need for productive labor, namely by embracing the increase in free time that is its correlative. Rather than regarding that free time as the meaningless stasis of unemployment, we need to use our free time for freely-chosen projects. The way to enable this is to spread out the reduced but still necessary productive working hours equitably among everyone, yet without reducing their income — if everyone is contributing to economic productivity, they should get a fair share of that product. He has a variety of more detailed proposals for how this might work in practice, for instance, how to make it possible for people to have flexible, self-chosen schedules on a very long time-frame (not just working 20 hours every week, but possibly working only six months out of every year or taking even longer breaks).

What I find so compelling about this is the sense that it represents humanity choosing to “cash out” the benefits of economic rationality rather than allowing economic rationality to make us its slaves. It may not seem to be a realistic proposal in terms of being politically achievable, but it is neither utopian nor arbitrary. It is not utopian because it does not ask for the impossible, as the Marxian utopia of work does. It is not arbitrary because it responds to what the economic rationality under which we live actually does — i.e., reduce the number of necessary productive labor hours.

Gorz’s proposal is still a dialectical one at bottom, a “negation of negation” that takes the decrease in necessary labor as a good thing rather than a terrible fate. Yet this is not an automatically triumphant dialectic — human beings must choose the goal of autonomous free time and fight to implement it. If they succeed, the history of economic rationality will have meant the increase of human freedom, but if they don’t take the necessary action, the history of economic rationality will have meant the increase in misery of the vast majority of humanity for the sake of the enjoyment of the few. That is to say, if we remain on auto-pilot, either out of despair or out of a misplaced faith in historical determinism, we will wind up with the same outcome human history has generally had.

In this sense, I think that Gorz’s theory lays out a theory of history that is very similar to Benjamin’s in the Theses and it might provide a concrete example of what a moment of historical stoppage might look like — instead of blindly going along with economic rationality, we mentally step back from it and allow us to make that small adjustment (from “unemployment” to “free time”) that changes everything.

Overall, this book has given me a lot to think about, and I recommend it highly.

34 thoughts on “A recommendation: Critique of Economic Reason by André Gorz

  1. I’m having a little trouble with this, because it seems that what Gorz is advocating is not only compatible, but down right identical with the progressive goals implied in Marx’s mature work. The reason capitalism can lead to something like communism is precisely because it so greatly increases productivity and decreases necessary labor – it is the manner in which these benefits are inequitably distributed that is the problem. I’ve never heard of the Marxist ‘utopia of work’, but it sounds like something pulled from Marx’s earliest writings, in which he advanced many positions he would later directly condemn in thinkers like Bakunin, Feuerbach, etc.

  2. Ditto what Reid said. Sounds like a great book (which has been on my list for a while), but Gorz’s critique seems already to be in Marx, in particular the somewhat esoteric Marx as understood by the Italian autonomists. There whole point, taken from Marx’s ‘Fragment on the Machines’ is that increased use of machinery simultaneously reveals the underlying structure of capital by abstracting it (the creation of the machine reveals the underlying conversion of living to dead labour that is capitalism as such) and allowing the worker a degree of cooperation that is, in theory at least, capable of becoming autonomous from capital – precisely “embracing the increase in free time that is its correlative”. Of course, this may just be that the Italians read Gorz and read this back into Marx as a defence and that I am still unsure whether this is empirically the case.

  3. Maybe I’m not presenting it as well as I could, but I’m confident that Gorz isn’t making an obvious error in the interpretation of Marx. He says that there are ways in which Marx’s concrete analysis of the dynamics of capitalism contradict what you could call his broader philosophy of history, which may account for the disconnect you perceive between Gorz’s argument and the later Marx.

  4. I agree with Reid, who took some of the words out of my mouth: beyond the early Marx of the 1844 writings, one would be hard pressed to find Gorz’s “Marx.” From Capital III:

    “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”

  5. Actually, this fits very well with the autonomist critique of a) contemporary Italian Leninist/Communist trade unions trying to get them to go back to work at actually a higher rate, ie to work them harder b) the whole strategy therefore of ‘the refusal of work’, and its goal ‘autonomous life’ apart from capital.

  6. I still maintain that Gorz is not misreading Marx as badly as you seem to think — read his book if you don’t believe me. That aside, it remains the case that concrete Marxist movements, including the Soviet Union and Maoist China, have been very workerist/productivist.

  7. I haven’t read the Gorz book, which sounds like a good read, or at the very least a nice book to add to the collection given those wonderful Verso redesigns, but his argument reminds me of Moishe Postone’s excellent book, “Time, Labor, and Social Domination,” which might also be worth checking out. Postone basically performs a “returns to Marx,” drawing on the famous “self-abolition/self-negation of the proletariat” line, in order to critique a certain strain in Marxist thought, particularly with Lukács’s History & Class Consciousness, wherein Labor is valorized as a liberating, transhistorical good. In contrast, and like Gorz it would seem, Postone argues that labor is much more ambiguous in Marx’s writing: on the one hand, yes, a standpoint from which it is necessary to see the “truth” of how capitalism functions and thereby work to overthrow it, but on the other hand, also a historically-conditioned “real abstraction,” which is why attempts to institute Communism on the basis of Labor have ended in a kind of universalized wage-slavery. So it would seem both Gorz and Postone explicitly endorse a “workless” vision or a vision of communism/post-capitalism that is based not on a workerist vision but one of leisure and free-time, the only difference being that Postone argues that this is what Marx is already saying.

  8. Though I like your description of Gorz’s theses, I wonder if he (and many of the other commentators here) aren’t running into the following problem. This may be highlighted by Chris’ Marx quote: all modern politics (and economics) is built upon a supposition that human desires are infinite. And these desires are theorized as base ones – desires for possessions, sex, fame and so on.

    What this means is that, in the archetypal demand-supply model, that the demand curve never ends. As prices decline, demand increases infinitely. Thus, humans will never be satisfied in modern politics.

    That’s why Marx has a problem within Chris’ quote: if desires (again, these desires are depicted as base ones) expand infinitely, then even humans in the communist utopia will always have an inclination to throw away that utopia so that they as individuals can collect more goods.

  9. Gorz actually argues that consumerism is a necessary correlate of productionism — to keep the cycle of production going, you need to stoke everyone’s desires infinitely. Once production becomes a subordinate aspect of life rather than its driving force, this would presumably break the cycle (and Gorz has concrete examples of where this has happened on a small scale).

  10. I think the anti-Gorz commenters here are really exaggerating the degree to which the stuff he critiques are isolated to the 1844 manuscripts. I’m pretty sure you could find Gorz’s Marx in, for instance, the Manifesto, or any number of other texts. As I say, Gorz says that Marx’s close analysis of capitalist dynamics wind up complicating the picture, but his “normative” stance is still pretty workerist/productivist up until the very end — as evidenced by the fact that you have to pull out posthumous and fragmentary writings to support your reading of Marx.

    Broadly speaking, I’m interested in this hermeneutical approach to Marx, though. Only where Marx ends up counts as “Marx” proper. Any idea that Marx once had but later changed isn’t properly “Marx.” It’s as though I were talking about Being and Time and everyone ganged up on me to say that that wasn’t really Heidegger — even though Being and Time is easily the Heidegger text that has had the greatest impact on other thinkers.

  11. Agreed on that Soviet Communism and Maoism were very productivist, and it is in part in response to this that the autonomists stake their claim, partly as an attempt to re-read Marx without the orthodox Soviet baggage – its a strategic reading if you will. Maybe we can just say there is a crisis of interpretation here and perhaps both readings are right with regard to a particular strand of Marxism since Marx.

  12. I sympathize with the desire to save Marx from the USSR and Maoism — but the strategy is kind of perverse, insofar as by “saving” the founding figure from the later people who got him all wrong, you’re also implicitly saying that his actual ideas have had virtually no impact. A similar strategy can be seen in Christianity, where the whole thing is supposed to be this massive mistake — and while that is a defensible view, it seems to me to entail the claim that Jesus and Paul were utter failures.

  13. Readings that are a result of a real ambiguity in Marx’s texts, I should add.

    It should be noted that Gorz’s critique is repeated by a large number of people outside of Marxism as well, a lot of less Marxist-inclined anarchists and syndicalists (particularly those against work), E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful, the Telos group and so on.

  14. Gorz’ critique is also echoed by the communist utopias within ancient Greek philosophy, which are designed to moderate necessary labor and maximize leisure (or increase the time available for contemplation of the good). The same is possibly true within Christian monasticism, which could be conceived of as a syndicalist enterprise (ok, that’s really pushing it, I admit).

  15. Oh and in response to Adam’s direct point, I think this is why Zizek and Badiou are so insistent on saying that there was something good about the Soviet experience, Lenin and Mao – in fact it is interesting that they both on affirm this and attack the ‘democractic materialist’ strands of the autonomists/Negri through Deleuze et al.

    I think the lesson is though, that as we have talked about many times on this blog, that there needs to be a discussion of the liberatory potential of technology is managed well. Localist, Wendell Berry, “back to the land” type tactics of “resistance” also fall into the trap Gorz examines but for different reasons – they forget that peasantry was backbreaking tiresome labour and wasn’t exactly holistically affirming in, say, medieval society when a crop failed. So in there own way, though opposed to capitalist technology, they are still productivist in a different way, despite their explicit claims to the contrary.

  16. I should clarify that Gorz isn’t “against” work — he thinks that everyone should have the right and duty to perform necessary productive labor. He just doesn’t think that it can or should be regarded as the whole of life.

  17. That is basically the autonomist position as I understand it: against ‘wage slavery’ (the refusal of alienating factory work and so on) and for ‘the power of labour’. I probably digress.

  18. I will certainly check out Gorz’s book when I have the time, although I’m highly skeptical. I just don’t think there are any real grounds for accusing Marx of ‘workerism’, certainly not in his mature texts. (I also think that the existence of such a tendency in the early texts is greatly exaggerated. While there are problems with the way Marx conceives humanity in those texts, his treatment of ‘labor’ as an essential part of being human is clearly broad enough to encompass any kind of intentional activity that is useful for other people. While this is easily misinterpreted if identified with labor under capitalism (or most other modes of production), such an identification is dubious, if not downright sloppy.

    I also don’t see what is perverse about denying the validity of certain practical interpretations of Marx. One doesn’t need to say that his ideas had ‘virtually no impact’, but only that their impact is mediated by bad interpretation. Interpretation was of course inevitable, because Marx simply didn’t write programmatic political texts. He wrote critical analyses of the existing social structure, which while occasionally laced with hints at positive proposals, certainly do not amount to something one can straightforwardly implement. That the Soviets and Maoists ultimately failed to properly implement Marxism in practice thus says little about Marx’s ideas, and more about the failure of those interpreters to make good practical inferences therefrom. That also isn’t to say that those practical interpretations are wholly without merit – rejecting them in a properly critical way should mean investigating precisely where they erred, and showing what positive interpretive consequences this has for present day Marxists.

    Back to the ‘workerism’ issue: I think readings that see this in Marx are guilty of a huge interpretive mistake of their own, which is to misunderstand the significance of the proletariat. For the proletariat, as for previous working classes, the human capacity to act intentionally upon the world is, for the vast majority, inhibited by the necessity of subordination of that activity to the intentions of others (paradigmatically, ‘ruling classes’). The proletariat is historically distinct from previous working classes, however, because they are the first confront this subordination as the result of a ‘free choice’ made on their part, namely, the choice to enter into a contract with an employer. If the proletariat can successfully – in theory and in practice – criticize this empty formal sense of freedom on the basis of the necessity of certain material conditions that must underly it (such as guaranteed access to subsistence), they can effectively pursue the institution of a mode of production in which collective intentional action is organized in an egalitarian, ‘democratic’ way, rather than a subordinating and oppressive way. ‘Labor’ as intentional action in general would thus no longer appear in the form of ‘work’ as subordinate, unfree action on behalf of externally-determined intentions.

    I have a bit more to say but have to run, I’ll post it later.

  19. I don’t think it is the same thing to say that only Marx’s latest word is “Marx” and to say that there are a lot of things in Marx that problematize workerism, which there are. Marx’s formulation of materialism beginning with The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach renders problematic the idea of dialectical reconciliation of alienation within the field of work, instead identifying singular individuals as both the basis and the “telos” (written under erasure for reasons it would be tiresome to elaborate) of economic life. Although this is made most explicit in the quote I gave from KIII, I do not think this quote is an outlier or a late revision.

  20. “Gorz actually argues that consumerism is a necessary correlate of productionism — to keep the cycle of production going, you need to stoke everyone’s desires infinitely. Once production becomes a subordinate aspect of life rather than its driving force, this would presumably break the cycle”

    The problem is you can’t do this if you accept a utilitarian framework. You can only create a necessary hierarchy of leisure over the accumulation of property if there’s something inherently good about leisure that makes it better than accumulating property. Otherwise, there’s always some sociopaths who will claim that their maximum utility is to collect property. If you can’t refute that claim, the sociopaths will be allowed (both in theory and in practice) to create large economic inequalities, which will probably return you to the current situation.

    So, leisure has be something that is inherent in all human beings’ eternal nature. In ancient philosophy, it’s claimed that it is the goal/end of human nature to contemplate the good, and that’s why we need leisure, and why Socrates is the happiest man. In the Abrahamic faiths, it’s claimed that it is the goal/end of human nature to contemplate God, and that’s why we need leisure.

    So, to argue for leisure as better than accumulation of property, we need to assert:

    1. there is an eternal, largely unchanging human nature
    2. this human nature has a fixed, unchanging goal or end or telos
    3. humans can know (and, in fact, do know) what this goal is

    These three assertions do militate heavily against all utilitarianisms, which include all modern economics (including Marxist and non-Marxist).

  21. Wouldn’t the historical memory of a previous era when acquisitiveness for its own sake was left to run rampant have any kind of effect here? I guess we have contemporaries calling for a return to feudalism, but they’re not taken very seriously.

  22. Also, there are well-known ways to prevent excessive accumulation, which a state that was willing to implement something like Gorz’s scheme would surely not hesitate to apply. It’s not like it would just be “do your work, then do whatever you feel like without any limits” — every society has laws and limitations. Furthermore, a society that valued creativity and collaboration and all the values that Gorz puts forward apart from economic reason would be one that would stigmatize someone who was obsessed with accumulation, not let him run everything. And as I say in my previous comment, people would have a historical memory of what happens when you let the accumulators take over — something that was not available the first time they actually did.

  23. Do any of you know Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation? It speaks to some of these issues, I think, especially as regards the role of (and proletarianization of parts of) the peasantry in the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, which she argues wasn’t a transition as usually conceived, but rather that the centuries of anti-feudal struggles (and wars) were ultimately defeated in what was a capitalist counter-revolution, alliance between the bourgeoisie, church, and aristocratic elites. Also the anti-elite religious component (some millenarian, some not) she compares to liberation theology.

  24. “Furthermore, a society that valued creativity and collaboration and all the values that Gorz puts forward apart from economic reason would be one that would stigmatize someone who was obsessed with accumulation, not let him run everything.”

    But you would need to defend Gorz’s ideal regime from those who would claim that their leisure activity is collecting property. And that claim is probably even completely true for quite a few of those claimants. You need to have an argument about why creativity or collaboration is inherently superior to accumulation. If you don’t have a reason why they are, you’ll end up with a strange situation wherein all people can pursue their leisure for any ends whatsoever except for those who enjoy accumulation who will be banned from maximizing what they take pleasure in. I.E. someone who spends all their leisure time watching reality TV is encouraged to do just that, but someone who likes to sell real estate is banned from doing so?

  25. I’ve recently come across Gorz’s work myself and find it compelling. The fact is that when people are asked if they would like to have more time or money of their own (other things being equal) they choose time.

    To the extent that I am able as a pastor of a church, I have tried to modify our office hours to allow our employees more free time. At first, there was resistance from our parish manager since we have always operated under the business idea that time is money, but, with no loss of competency, we now have a 32 hour working work and an extra vacation day every month.

    I must say that even though it works for us, our employees remain sceptical that it could on a larger scale.

  26. I think there is still plenty to learn from the Soviet experience and not just as a negative model of how things didn’t work. When in 1990s everyone was for democracy and capitalism, people believed that the Soviet working habits (lack of financial motivation, stealing, general awfulness of mindless factory work etc etc) will all suddenly disappear because now people will be “working for themselves” and be motivated to work harder and longer because then they will be better rewarded. Needless to say, in about 10 years everyone realized that there is very little difference between the drudgery of working for the State and working for the capitalists (aka “businessmen”).

    Also about so-called “Soviet Marxism” – its official version was never really a genuine philosophical school (except perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s before the Stalinization of everything and the appearance of diamat) and therefore should not be conceived as such (i.e. as serious philosophical interpretation of Marx). More interesting and volatile Marxisms existed throughout the period but especially in 1950s and 1960s after Stalin’s death: genuinely interesting authors like Ilyenkov appeared and the old semi-official interpretations were now discussed (ex. Mikhail Lifshitz, a friend of Lukács and others). I think Zizek’s talk of Lenin and others has not given this topic enough attention because (or so it seems to me) people thought he was just being Zizek (all that business with the portrait of Stalin and so on), but its day will ultimately come – David Bakhurst’s book from the 90s is an excellent (if lonely) exemplar (“Consciousness and revolution in Soviet philosophy”)…

  27. Burritoboy, A more direct and principled objection to your claim that a Gorzian order could not resist someone who said that capital accumulation was their sole good — Gorz recognizes the pretty widely accepted principle that the exercise of freedom must be constrained by the requirement not to harm others. Unlimited capital accumulation harms others, as the historical memory of pre-Gorzian capitalism would amply indicate. Hence it would be disallowed as a possible pursuit, as would serial murder, for example.

  28. Here’s a preparatory note that didn’t make it into the final version of the Theses:

    Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race travelling in the train applies the emergency brake.

  29. This sounds lovely; will check it out, thanks. Philippe van Parijs’ unfairly neglected “Real Freedom For All” comes to very similar conclusions, albeit through a critique of Rawls rather than Marx. It’s always interesting to see such convergences.

  30. Late to this thread – apologies – but I agree with Reid, Alex and Chris about the misinterpretation of Marx that seems to be in play here. The abolition of labour is one of the most consistent and central themes in Marx’s work. It’s there as early as the German Ideology (1848) [[T]he proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour.]. As Chris says, it’s still there in the later volumes of Capital. This is also what Marx means in Value Price and Profit (1865) when he criticises the conservative demand for “a fair day’s wage”. It’s a really consistent and important point.

    So yeah, Gorz’s political ideals align a lot more closely with Marx’s than Gorz seems to think: the productivity enabled by technology should be channeled into a) eliminating poverty, b) removing the incentives for exploitation, and c) giving everyone a lot more time off: these are basically Marx’s economic goals. Where Gorz seems to differ from Marx, though, is in his belief in a secular trend towards the reduction of work. There’s no decreasing need for labour power in economic production, under capitalism, in Marx’s opinion (even though there in some sense should be), because the defining feature of capitalism is its constant recreation of a proletarian class, despite the lack of objective economic need for such mass labour. As fast as labour is displaced from one industry by mechanisation, it’s recreated by new industries, which are required in order to provide investment capital with returns (i.e. they’re demanded by the structural drive to accumulation). A great example is the mid to late 20th century shift towards service industries in the developed core. Gorz’s theoretical perspective was formed during this structural shift, and he misdiagnosed it as a secular trend away from the need for labour, rather than a structural transformation of exactly the kind Marx analyses in Capital. An important aspect of Marx’s politics is the idea that we need to break the drive to accumulation if we’re going to eliminate the constant recreation of labour: so Gorz isn’t (as he thinks) opposing Marx at the level of ideals – he’s disagreeing at the level of empirical structural analysis (and perhaps therefore strategy).

    This also speaks to the issue that bothers burritoboy, about the apparent need to eliminate accumulation as a psychological desire if anti-capitalist politics is to succeed. The accumulation that drives capitalism is a structural one [basically, the whole system’s driven by debt and interest on debt – the system as a whole needs to keep growing to make enough profit to prevent systemic default (which is of course why crises are always a danger)]: an alternative economic system could perfectly well include lots of individuals who want to accumulate and do so, as long as there isn’t a structural need for the system as a whole to grow. It’s really important to differentiate the structural from the psychological when thinking about accumulation, and indeed capitalism generally. As not just Marx, but also Weber and Keynes have noted, it’s perfectly possible for the agents of capital accumulation to be personally ascetic (though obviously a lot of them are in fact greedy fuckers.)

    Anyway, with regard to the main point I think Gorz and this post are spot on – the idea of, as Adam puts it, humanity choosing to “cash out” the benefits of economic rationality is a really important one.

  31. “Gorz’s solution to this is that we need to find a way to actually benefit from this decrease in the need for productive labor, namely by embracing the increase in free time that is its correlative. Rather than regarding that free time as the meaningless stasis of unemployment, we need to use our free time for freely-chosen projects”

    In what way are freely-chosen projects, made possible by the space opened up by labor-saving technology and social organization, by economic rationality, different from productive-work? Would – say – organizing/operating a community tool-library count as a freely-chosen project or, because of the myriad practical up-shots of such a service, an unpaid extension of productive-work? You say Gorz distances himself from the “utopia of work,” but your summary of his position sounds like an argument for an immaterial kind of productivism.

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