The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Gorz on Work and Liberation

Gorz on Work and
Liberation
Sean Sayers
Work is and always has been a central human activity; but only in
the last decade has it become a major political issue. It has taken
the re-emergence of mass unemployment to make it so. Right up
until the war, the view that mass unemployment is intolerable in
a civilized society was confined mainly to the left. However, the
war required full economic mobilization; and the major industrial
societies emerged from it committed to policies of full employment. The idea that work is a basic human need and right became
a central part of the postwar political consensus. It was enshrined
even in the United Nations ‘Universal Declaration of Human
Rights’, Article 23.1 of which states that ‘everyone has the right
to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable
conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’ .

In recent years, however, these ideas have increasingly been
questioned – not only on the right, where they have always
aroused suspicion and mistrust, but also on the left. One of the
most important and interesting of these left critics is Andre Gorz.

In a series of lively and thought-provoking books, he has challenged
traditional socialist thinking in this area and helped to set a new
agenda for debate. 1 His latest book* continues this project, extending his position, as well as modifying it in some fundamental
respects. It is a work of major importance.

The Future of Work
The book is divided into two very different parts. Indeed, it can
almost be regarded as two short, and not always consistent, works
bound together in one volume. The first deals with the nature of
work and attitudes to work. Apart from some critical discussion
of the recent ‘post Fordist’ literature (Sabel and Piore, Kern and
Schumann), it largely repeats the ideas of Gorz’ s previous books.

These are by now well known even to those who have not read
anything by Gorz, for they have become part of the mainstream of
debate about the future of work in industrial society. The introduction of new technology, according to Gorz, is leading to a
situation in which the old goal of full-time employment for all is
no longer either possible or desirable. ‘The social process of
production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time
basis. The work ethic is no longer viable’ (p. 220).

The new technology has an enormous potentiality to reduce
hours of work; but present policies, still oriented to the goal of
full-time employment, are not having that effect. Rather, they are
leading to the polarization of society into a core of well paid
professionals in stable full-time work on the one side and, on the
* Andre Gorz, Critique o/Economic Reason, London, Verso, 1989,
250pp., £24.95 hb, £8.95 pb, 0 86091 253 1 hb, 0 86091 9684 pb

16

other, a growing number of people who are either in peripheral,
insecure, servile, part-time jobs, or who are unemployed,
marginalized and effectively excluded from social participation.

What is required is a fundamental rethinking of the place of work
in human life.

The full development of individuals can be achieved only
through a ‘liberation from work’. By ‘work’ here, Gorz means
quite specifically a job, employment, ‘work for economic ends’.

Such work, he insists, is a mere means to earning a living. In
modem industrial conditions, it cannot be a satisfying or selfrealizing activity: it cannot be humanized, it is necessarily and
ineliminably alienating. Such work must be reduced, and ‘free
time’ – ‘time for living’ -expanded, so that people can engage in
various forms of productive and creative activity outside the
economic sphere. In his previous books, Gorz puts particular
stress on the importance of ‘autonomous activities’: that is,
activities which are not primarily aimed to meet needs, but which
are ends in themselves, such as voluntary activities in the community, hobbies and artistic activities.

There are still many echoes of these views in the present book,
particularly in Part I. However, in important respects, Gorz seems
to be moving away from them and to be developing a line of
thought which conflicts with them. The most dramatic change has
been in his views about the place of employment in human life. In
the earlier books, employment was portrayed as an entirely
negative phenomenon. The suggestion almost seemed to be that
people should welcome unemployment as a ‘liberation from
work’ , particularly if no serious loss of income is involved. In line
with this, in Paths to Paradise, Gorz flirts with the idea of a
‘guaranteed basic income’.

With or without a ‘guaranteed income’ , however, there is an
overwhelming body of evidence to show that people do not
welcome unemployment. In the present book Gorz recognises
this. Indeed, he even defends the idea that people have a basic
‘right to ajob’. For paid work in the public sphere, he acknowledges, is the essntial basis of economic citizenship and social
inclusion. ‘It is by having paid work … that we belong to the public
sphere, [and] acquire a social existence and social identity’ (p.

13). Moreover, Gorz now firmly rejects the idea of a guaranteed
basic income as ‘essentially an unemployment allowance’ (p.238),
which amounts to ‘the wages of marginality and exclusion’ (p.

205).

Going along with this, there has also been a significant shift in
the direction of Gorz’ s political appeal. The previous books were
aimed primarily at marginalized and excluded groups: the unemployed, women, etc. – the ‘non-class of non-workers’ as he
terms them in Farewell to the Working Class. It is these groups
who are most oppressed by the dominance of the work ethic and

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

who were to be the new revolutionary subjects of the ‘post
industrial’ age. Common as it is, however, the idea that the most
oppressed in society will be the most revolutionary is a fallacy. ~t
any rate, Gorz has given up his hope that these ~roups wI!1
accomplish the revolution he wants to see (p. 92). HIS appeal IS
now directed mainly to the good will of the labour movement (p.

98).

Gorz’s philosophy still involves a sharp distinction bet.we~n
work in the economic sphere, and other forms of work outsIde It.

That much has remained constant. In the earlier books this
contrast was drawn in black and white terms; but this new
recognition of the human importance of employ~en~ seems t~ be
pointing in a different direction. It suggests a qUlt~ dIffe~e~t VIew
of the relations of paid work to other forms of creatIve aCtIvIty. For
it suggests that both sorts of activity have an essential role and
value in human life. This new perspective cannot easily be
formulated in terms ofthe oppositions of heteronomy/autonomy,
necessity/freedom, which dominate Gorz’s previous works, particularly when these oppositions are interpreted in terms of Gorz’ s
extreme individualism. New terms are needed.

Economic and Non-Economic Reason
These are developed in Part 11. Here, at last, we find the critique
of economic rationality promised in the book’s title. The familiar
dualism is still here, but now in the form of a distinction between
economic and non-economic rationality. Economic rationality is
the rationality of commodity production for the market. It is the
rationality governing work which takes the form of ajob, employment, work for wages. Work of this kind is purely a means to the
end of exchange, of earning a livelihood – it is not undertaken to
meet human needs directly, or as an end in itself.

Such work has become the predominant form of work in
industrial societies. It is often treated, either explicitl y or implicitly,
as the sole significant form of work. However, here as throughout,
Gorz stresses that its predominance is relatively recent. There are,
and always have been, other forms of productive activity, outside
the economic sphere.

As in his previous work, Gorz talks of ‘autonomous creative
activities’, butthese now play a much less prominent role in his
discussion of non-economic work. This is a welcome change.

Gorz’s ‘autonomous activities’ are not primarily aimed to meet
needs; they are not part of ‘the sphere of necessity’: they are free
and voluntary. For this reason, it is doubtful whether they should
be regarded as forms of work at all. At least, if they are, then the
distinction between work and leisure is abandoned, and work
becomes synonymous with virtually all conscious and deliberate
human activity whatever.

In the present book, Gorz’ s main focus has shifted to what he
terms ‘work-for-oneself’; that is, work that one does to meet
directly one’s own needs and those of one’s immediate household.

This was the normal form of work in earlier forms of society. Even
in the modem world it still constitutes a very substantial sphere,
not only in the third world, where peasant agriculture still prevails,
but also in the most advanced societies, particularly in housework
and child care in the domestic sphere. Such work does not involve
the production of commodities for exchange. I~ is n?t govern~d b.y
economic rationality but, Gorz argues, by qUIte dIfferent pnncIpIes based on personal relations, mutual concern, and cooperation.

Gorz is particularly eloquent about the human value and
importance of such work.

Work-for-oneself plays an essential role in the creation
and demarcation of a private sphere. The latter cannot exist
without the former. You can see this very clearly when all

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

the jobs in the domestic sphere are taken over by external
services: you cease to be ‘at home’ in your own house …

Work-for-oneself is, basically what we have to do to take
possession of ourselves and of that arrangeme~t of objects
which, as both extension of ourselves and mIrror of our
bodily existence, forms our niche within the sensory
world, our private sphere (p. 158).

This sphere is under threat of extinction. Wi~h the deve~op­
ment of capitalism and the growth of commodIty productIOn,
many tasks which were previously done by t~e hou~ehold for
itself have been professionalised and converted mto paId external
services. This process is still continuing. The few remaining areas
of creative and productive activity outside the market are being
eliminated as more and more areas of work and life are subjected
to economic rationalization and the logic of the market.

Traditional forms of work have inbuilt limits. They are governed, as Gorz puts it, by a principle of ‘sufficiency’. When one
is working for oneself, one produces only what is sufficient to
meet one’s needs and then one stops. The economic rationality of
the market, by contrast, contains no inherent principle oflimitation.

Quantitatively, its aim is simply to produce the most for the least;
unlimited growth becomes its end (p. 120ff.). As members of
various New Right Think Tanks keep reminding us, there are no
areas of work and life to which economic rationalization cannot
in principle be applied. Moreover, as Gorz notes, it is not only the
free market right which welcomes this prospect. Until r~centl~ at
least most established forms of economic thought, mcludmg
tradi~ional socialism and Marxism, portrayed the extension of the
market as a progressive development. 2
This must be resisted, Gorz argues. The market must be
regulated, controlled, limited. But how? This is the que~ti~n that
Gorz’s critique is designed to answer. The terms he uses m It have
their immediate source in Weberian sociology, particularly the
work of Habermas; but Gorz’ s project may also usefully be
located in relation to the moral and romantic critiques of the
‘commercial spirit’ of capitalism by such nineteenth-century
writers as Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. 3 However, like Habermas,
and unlike them, Gorz is not altogether opposed to the process of
economic rationalization. He does not argue for a return to precapitalist conditions. Rather he advocates the limitation of the
economic sphere, in order to preserve a sphere ?f ~e.rson~l
relations and individual autonomy. The purpose of hIS cntIque IS
to spell out the principles by which this should b~ d?ne:

According to Gorz, there is a clear and sharp dIstmctIOn to be
drawn between those areas in which the market is a satisfactory
and effective fOnTI of organization, and those where it is not. The
economic rationality of the market, he maintains, is the best and
most efficient form for the production of basic material necessities.

Indeed, market organization is necessary for the level of material
production required in modem society.

Domestic Labour
With capitalism, however, economic rationalization is extended
to areas where its impact is counterproductive and destructive. To
make this point, Gorz considers two main examples. The first is
domestic work: housework and child care. Such activity has been
increasingly rationalized during the last hundred years or so. A
great deal of the work that used to be done by wom~n in the ho~e
as private, ‘work -for-oneself’ , has been transferred mto the p~bhc
sphere. It has been converted into paid services and/or me~hanIZe?

At the same time, women have increasingly entered mto paId
employment in the public sphere.

.

.

Gorz’s attitude to these developments IS ambIvalent. On the

17

one hand, as he acknowledges, they have provided the major
avenue of women’s liberation. Nevertheless, a great deal of
domestic work is still done in the home, mostly by women, and
often on top of a full-time job. A part of the solution here must be
a more equal division of domestic labour between the sexes, as
Gorz argues. Many would also argue, however, that further
rationalization and socialization of housework is also needed; the
process is by no means complete.

Gorz opposes this. Domestic labour, he argues, cannot and
should not be further rationalized. Such labour, he insists, is quite
different from the instrumental activity of paid employment. It is
a form of work which has ‘no price, no exchange value .. no
“utility” and which consequently merges with the satisfaction its
performance procures, even if [it] demands effort and fatigue’ (p.

136). Domestic work should not therefore be regarded as a mere
imposition and chore. Rather it should be seen as ‘a need and
means of winning back a greater degree of personal sovereignty
in the form of a greater sense of self-belonging within the private
sphere’ (p. 157).

These views are surely untenable. In the first place, this rosy
view of domestic labour is not generally shared by women who,
in the main, have to do it: 70% of housewives according to one
recent study said that they disliked housework as such. 4 Moreover, Gorz’s arguments on the subject are so sweeping that they
offer no criteria for deciding where – if anywhere, the economic
rationalization of housework is appropriate, and where it is not. s
Instead, Gorz suggests that any furtherrationalization threatens to
eliminate the private sphere altogether. But that is not the issue for
most people. To be sure, a small number of wealthy people have
already accomplished this with the help of servants, boarding
schools, etc.; but for most others, a great deal of housework is
inescapable, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Reducing
its burdensome aspects, however, would mean that more time at
home could be devoted to the more worthwhile and fulfilling
aspects of home life. To oppose this on the basis that housework
is, or ought to be, a ‘labour of love’ , is reactionary and misguided.

The Caring Professions
The second area that Gorz discusses raises similar issues. It
concerns work which involves an essential element of personal
care or assistance, such as that of doctors, teachers, and the’ caring
professions’: nurses, social workers, therapists, and the like. For
such workers, Gorz argues, ‘the money they earn should be a
means of exercising their profession and not its end. Somehow
earning a living should not come into the bargain … These jobs are
only done well when they are performed out of a “sense of
vocation”, that is, an unconditional desire to help other people’ (p.

144).

In other words, such work cannot be economically rationalized: like housework and child care, it is governed by a quite
different rationality – a rationality of personal care and concern.

These two forms of rationality are absolutely opposed to and
exclusive of each other. ‘Commodity relations cannot exist between
members of a family or a community – or that community will be
dissolved; nor can affection, tenderness and sympathy be bought
or sold except when they are reduced to mere simulacra’ (pp. 14041). For this reason, Gorz argues, activities which involve personal
care and concern are best carried out by volunteers. These jobs, he
maintains, should be gradually de-professionalised: ‘We must
rethink all the activities which require us to give of ourselves with
a view to developing self-organized, voluntary services’ (p. 145).

Much as one may sympathize with the attempt to develop a
moral critique of the market, these arguments must be questioned.

18

For it is simply not possible to draw a sharp line between activities
which can and cannot be economically rationalized, as Gorz
proposes. Gorz’ s argument that the work of doctors, teachers, and
‘carers’ relies on personal relations of concern and care which
cannot be professionalised is surely false, as is his idea that such
work is best organized on a voluntary individual, family or
communal basis. These views involve a gross romanticization of
personal and community relations. In reality, such relations are
very variable: sometimes they are, as Gorz suggests, warm and
caring; but equally they can be bitter and hostile, weak, indifferent,
or even non-existent. Care and education provided on this basis,
just because it depends on such relations – on friendships and
family ties – is by its nature haphazard and variable. If these
activities are made into paid professional services, they can be
standardized and regularized. Provision of medical care, education and welfare can be ensured and made universal; minimum
standards in these areas can be specified and enforced.

None of this is possible while these activities remain on a
purely personal and voluntary basis. That was the traditional way,
the pre-capitalist way; but it has proved entirely incapable of
meeting the needs of advanced industrial society. Thus voluntary
and personal provision has gradually been replaced in education,
health care and other areas of welfare as well. Moreover, the pure
free market has proved equally incapable of meeting these needs.

Intervention and organization by the state is required if a satisfactory and universal provision is to be ensured. Thus welfare
activity by the state has developed in all advanced industrial
societies, not for ideological or political reasons, but because
voluntary effort and free market were both incapable of meeting
basic needs.

According to Gorz, the welfare state is an attempt to substitute
for ‘the decay of social bonds and solidarity’ which comes with
economic rationalization. However, it can never succeed in this,
he argues, ‘the welfare state has not been, and never will be, a
creator of society’ (p. 132). That may well be true, but it is beside
the point. For what the state can provide – which the household
or community cannot – is a satisfactory level of educational,
medical and welfare services.

No doubt, as Gorz says, there are tensions and conflicts
between the instrumental character of wage labour and the essential
purpose of work in these areas, with which anyone who has
worked in them will be familiar. These conflicts frequently
interfere with and frustrate the relationships which such work
requires; but they do not usually render care and concern impossible. However, with the professionalisation of these activities, the character of that care and concern is altered. It loses its
purely personal character, and becomes universal. As a doctor,
teacher or social worker one cannot attend only to those with
whom one happens to have a personal relation, one must attend to
all those in one’s care. Such a universal attitude of care is quite
different from the personal and family feelings which Gorz so
values. So, far from being incompatible with professionalisation,
it is the outcome of it. Ideally, perhaps, caring (in common with
other forms of work) would be undertaken voluntarily, and not
just because it is the requirement of one’s job; but it is an illusion
to believe that this was the way in a bygone age, in some previous
condition of ‘natural’ cooperation and mutual concern which
capitalism has destroyed. On the contrary, this is an ideal for the
future, and the way to it lies in and through professionalisation.

In the present political climate, moreover, the idea of replacing
professional with voluntary services is not merely mistaken, it is
positively dangerous. For exactly the same ideas are voiced by the
Thatcherite right in their attempt to dismantle the welfare state.

Gorz disclaims any such intention; but it is difficult to read his
philosophy in any other way.

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

Economically Rational Work
Now let me turn to the other pole of Gorz’ s dualism – the sphere
of work that can be economically rationalized, the sphere of
material production. Gorz’s account of this is equally questionable. For such work, Gorz maintains, is the absolute, polar
opposite of caring work – it excludes any element of personal
concern or involvement; it is merely a means to the end of earning
a livelihood.

Widespread as such views are, they are surely mistaken. A
measure of care and involvement is part of all but the most routine
and alienating sorts of work. Indeed, what is remarkable is the
extent to which people need involvement in and satisfaction from
their work, and the ways in which they manage to find it even in
the most dreary and repetitive of jobs. 6 This is not just the view of
starry-eyed idealists or old style Marxists; it is also the view of an
influential school of management thinking, which knows that
people can be involved in their work; that they work best when
they are; and which tries to ‘enrich’ jobs accordingly.? No doubt
conflicts and tensions inherent in the work situation often frustrate and nullify such schemes; but that should not be allowed to
obscure the essential philosophical point here. It is simply wrong
to believe that work for wages must necessarily be nothing but an
alien and purely instrumental activity.

In short, it is not possible to draw a sharp distinction between
activities which can and cannot be economically rationalized. It
is not therefore possible to preserve the private sphere by specifying limits to the market, as Gorz proposes. Gorz claims that his
is the socialist approach. For he defines socialism, in terms taken
from Polanyi, as ‘the subordination of the economy to society’ (p.

130). True, views like these are currently influential on the left;
nevertheless they are very different from socialism as traditionally understood. Indeed, the whole strategy of trying to defend a
personal and private sphere by restricting the public and economic sphere is characteristic of liberal individualism. Gorz’s
version, moreover, is conservative and even backward looking,
for its aim is to limit or reverse economic development.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that there is
nothing in Gorz’s position. Undoubtedly it reflects a common
experience. Alienation from work and the public sphere is a
familiar feature of modern life. There are many people who get
little from their jobs, who despair of finding any satisfaction in the
public sphere, and who decide their best hope lies in a retreat into
the private world of the home and family. However, this is a
despairing philosophy, and it is an illusion to believe that it offers
any real answers.

The home may sometimes serve as a refuge, as a ‘haven in a
heartless world’, but it can never adequately compensate or
substitute for the heartlessness and alienation of the public world.

For we are essentially social beings; and if we give up hope of a
satisfactory social sphere, we cut ourselves off from an essential
and vitally necessary sphere of activity and potential fulfilment.

Socialism is the very opposite of this. It is not opposed to
economic development. Rather it seeks to control and organize
such development in the interests of working people. Traditionally, it has been a progressive philosophy, which criticizes the
backward-looking romanticism of writers like Gorz. For, unlike
Gorz, it does not regard work and other activity in the public
sphere as inevitably alienating. It does not regard the split between the economic and the personal, between the public and
private spheres, as eternal and unchangeable. These divisions, it
believes, are historical and changeable; and the way beyond them
is forward.

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

Notes
Farewell to the Working Class, London, Pluto, 1982; and Paths
to Paradise: On the Liberationfrom Work, London, Pluto, 1985.

See also his Ecology as Politics, London, Pluto, 1983.

2

See S. Sayers, ‘The Human Impact of the Market’, in P. Heelas
and P. Morris, eds., The Values of the Enterprise Culture: the
Moral Debate, London, Unwin Hyman, in press.

3

For a brief survey of these writers and their enduring influence
see M. J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of Industrial
Spirit, 1850-1980, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985. A useful
anthology is E. Jay and R. Jay, eds., Critics of Capitalism,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

4

Reported in Ann Oakley, Subject Women, London, Fontana, 1982,
p.173.

Gorz does give an economic argument which bears on this, but
it is seriously flawed. ‘In the heroic age of capitalist or socialist
industrialisation,’ he writes, the aim of rationalizing domestic
work was to reduce the time devoted to it ‘in order to employ that
time, at a far higher rate of productivity, in industry and collective
undertakings’ (p. 154). Today, it no longer serves that purpose;
it is aimed only at ‘creating jobs’ by employing personal servants. For no apparent reason, Gorz here simply ignores the
possibilities of further socializing and mechanizing domestic
labour.

This is strikingly illustrated in the personal accounts of work is
S. Terkel, Working, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977.

See Work in America, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1973.

5

6
7

“.

ff.

~

I

.

–‘lA..,>., _~~’

~- ~–4~:’~:’:~_.

19

Download the PDFBuy the latest issue