Andre Gorz - Farewell to the Proletariat

hydrarchist writes "This interview was published in 1983, the year following publication of the book of the same name.

Farewell to the Proletariat

Andre Gorz

Q: In 1958, in your book The Traitor you said the ultimate objective for any intellectual was to join the Communist Party, and now you've issued your Farewell to the Proletariat. So who changed, you, the Communist Party or the proletariat?

Andre Gorz: Everything's changed: the structure of the economy, society, the working class, the means of production and therefore the future. And it's no surprise that the labor movement, formed by the historical past, is weakened rather than radicalized by this crisis. If we are searching for a noncapitalist outcome to this crisis, and even more crucially what potential it holds for the construction of a different kind of society, the labor movement, with its parties and its unions, has little to offer. Obviously nothing can happen without it, but it is no longer the inner sanctum for the elaboration of postcapitalist ideas, practice and values.

Q: Nevertheless there seems to have been an important rupture in your thinking.

AG: I think that it's less a rupture than a constant preoccupation in front of a changing reality. Concerning the proletariat, I haven't changed that much. Thirty years ago, when I first wondered why communist thought and the working class exercised such a guilty fascination for young intellectuals, myself included, I had to admit that it was a kind of religious temptation. Marxism, in its successive forms, always brought its own religion of the proletariat. Crucifixion, resurrection, salvation through faith, we had them all. The religious character of the faith in the working class is quite clear in the young Marx.

When you discover the religious character of a suppasedly scientific theory, you can no longer be a believer in "good faith"; you are bound to question it. In my first pieces, and especially in Foundations for a Morality, I objected that it didn't help much to learn that the proletariat bore within it the meaning of history if that meaning wasn't proven to be the best, the most valuable, and thus most deserving of adherence in short, that in the working class necessity coincided with freedom and morality wih history. But this demonstration is lacking.

Q: Unlike Sartre, who around 1960 transferred all his revolutionary aspirations to the Third World, you have remained committed to the problems of revolution within the in. dustrialized societies.

AG: I have never been interested in the Third World. I don't see how a revolution in the Third World could topple capitalism and incite revolutions in the Western metropolis. And since no one can make a revolution for us, I've asked myself, since 1960, why people in industrialized countries would want a revolution. What could be the motive for such a desire? At this point I attempted to discover the potentially revolutionary "radical needs" which neocapitalist developments had created but could not satisfy.

In my opinion, these radical needs essentially derived from the radical alienation of in. dividuals in their work as well as in consumption and relationships to others and to nature. Especially important was the increasing divergence between the stupidity of unskilled labor and the level of information and social competence and therefore aspirations for autonomy among the young. I thought that when an increasing mass of workers possessed abilities far beyond those required or allowed by their restrictive forms of employment, then sooner or later the whole system of domination would be called into question, followed by the very system of values upon which capitalist development is based. That's exactly what happened, except that this radical interrogation has yet to be translated into political terms.

Q: Your title, Farewell to the Proletariat, rings out as a provocation to the left, as if it were the working class itself that you dismiss from the historical scene ...

AG: One of the things I have tried to show is that the working class has become structurally Incapable of taking control of production and society. The astonishing thingis that it has taken so long to see this. The demonstration is already in Capital. Marx showed with a great wealth of detail, and by citing the first capitalist theoreticians (notably Ferguson and Ure's admirable Philosophy of Manufacturers), that techniques, besides being means of producing, are always means of dominating, of disciplining, and of militarizing the worker. It's always a military terminology that comes very naturally to Marx, as to Engels, when he describes the "productive worker collective" as an "army of workers" with its "officers and subordinates of production" on one side and its "soldiers" on the other, whom the owners prefer to be "half wits" easily marshalled with "the regularity of a huge automaton." At bottom nothing has changed, except that the"army of workers" have become technicians and the "half wittedness" demanded of the workers is no longer that of the beast of burden but that of the limited specialist (of the Fachidiot, as the Germans would say).

A structured and militarily hierarchic working class is no more capable of seizing power than the army; the superior officers always monopolize power while the foot. soldiers end up as oppressed as before. To ask the working class to appropriate and direct the means of production as they exist today is to ask them to appropriate and direct their own chains. It's no accident that the structure of power within production is precisely the same in Eastern bloc countries as in our own, that the power barons of the East have the same mentality and encounter the same worker resistance as their counterparts in the West. Power in the hands of producers presupposes a radical technical reorganization, a redefinition of the means, units, and ends of production. Though technically this redefinition could be greatly facilitated by the new microinformation processing, worker control of the great systems and of society as a whole strikes me as a utopian fantasy.

Q: Within the distinction that you propose between the sphere of heteronomy, or alienated labor, and the sphere of autonomy, or free activity, isn't there a possible justification for accepting the present productive machinery, a simple quietist appeal to "cultivate one's garden," one's "hobby"?

AG: That's not my idea at all. I claim that within any complex society, some part of social labor is necessarily heteronomous activity: that is, an activity of which neither the nature, nor the rules, nor the object is defined by the individual or his community. At present that sphere of hoteronomy embraces all forms of salaried employment. Laborers, bureaucrats and technicians do not pursue their own ends; instead they are employed to operate a complex machine which surpasses the understanding of any single individual, and in which they perform predetermined duties. The competence which these duties demand is generally useless for the pursuit of autonomous ends. This alienation, then, is not only inherent within the relations of capitalist production but also within the division of labor at all levels of society. It lies within Marx's socialization of the production processes.

Today it is technically and economically possible to reduce the sphere of heteronomy and the importance of heteronomous labor within the life of each person. But without returning to a village or domestic economy which entails other kinds of alienation, it is impossible to completely eliminate heteronomous labor and its social divisions. Moreover, heteronomous labor is not all bad, for it does allow each worker to employ an enormous amount of material knowhow through devices which draw on a variety of equipment of which each worker can understand but a traction. For example, a microprocessor cannot be built at the community level, but it allows that community to determine and manage a great variety of productive operations.

The banality and triviality of heteronomous labor is the ransom extorted for the socialization and gigantic productive profits it permits. Socialization is incompatible with autonomy, with integrated workermanagement. It prohibits the kind of craftmanship which allows to realize a task, from start to finish, with one's own hands. Integrated autonomy can exist only outside of socially determined, salaried labor. Socialist workermanagement is no panacea for it does not overcome the alienation inherent in salaried work. That alienation can only be overcome outside of heteronomous labor and its social divisions.

Q: Doesn't that mean leaving labor to capitalist control while reclaiming the relatively ineffectual control of leisure time?

AG: The error consist in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It's just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I
see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of the abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, an aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for fortyfive hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner. This means replacing heteronomous, salaried labor with the independent work of freely associated individuals in extended families and neighborhood cooperatives so that autonomous activity based on voluntary cooperation would prevail and market relationships, including the sale of labor time, would waste away.

It is ironic that socalled Marxists brand me a reactionary when I talk like this, since this double society in which the autonomous sphere develops at the expense of the heteronomous sphere is precisely the "communism" envisioned by Marx. Today "communism " is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy. Nonmarketbound production processes and the right to a social income independent of one's salaried occupation have become necessities that are avoided only through the economy of war, or through war itself.

Q: Then this "beyond socialism" will be realized not by the classical labor movement which continues to defend salaried workers but rather by those whom you call the "nonclass of nonworkers." Do you really believe that the margins can ever seize power?

AG: It's not a question of the margins nor of seizing power. By the "nonclass of nonworkers" I don't mean those excluded from production but those who can no longer identify themselves with their salaried labor and, instead of a better job, demand a life wherein selfdetermined activities displace heterodeterminate labor, regardless of its pay scale. These are realistic necessities.
I've already demonstrated the inanity of the problems of seizing power. The postindustrial neoproletariat is obviously incapable of seizing power and the same goes for the traditional working class. No strategy nor tactic for seizing power can resist the current repressive, counterrevolutionary capabilities of the modern State. That's why power cannot be directly grasped at the level of the State. The only possibility is to divert the power of the State, to exclude it from those growing areas of nonpower.

Q. And you think Statepower will tolerate the existence of such regions?

AG: It's not a question of tolerance but of its inability to do anything about them. The civil disobedience of American youths defeated the American Army long before the Vietnamese did. As a paralyzed West watched, a people amned only with roses defeated the
Shah's army and police. I think the "weapon," if it can be so called, of total noncompliance with the established powers will assume a capital importance with regard to the mounting barbarianism.

Translated by Michael Lazarin

Andre Gorz. writer, journalist and militant is best known in English for his Politics of Ecology."