I’ve been meaning to write about this very good piece, from Wolf’s Financial Times column as syndicated to the Irish Times. I finished André Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class recently, having read it in search of answer, or at least a perspective, on this very question.
Most interestingly, on the call for a basic income which even Wolf joins above and which is becoming increasingly common not only on the left, Gorz sounds a note of scepticism (I have my own, too):
"Socialised distribution of production, according to need rather than effective demand, was for a long time one of the central demands of the Left. This is now becoming ever less the case. In itself, it can only lead to the state taking greater charge of individual lives. The right to a ‘social income’ (or ‘social wage’) for life in part abolishes ‘forced wage labour’ only in favour of a wage system without work. It replaces or complements, as the case may be, exploitation with welfare, while perpetuating the dependence, impotence and subordination of individuals to centralised authority. This subordination will be overcome only if the autonomous production of use-values becomes a real possibility for everyone."
I don’t fully share Gorz’s aversion to the state, which makes his autonomism look a bit like a more polite version of anarchism; but if many people would be more than happy to accept a “wage system without work”, he makes it clearly that it is little different than being on the dole. Equally, he notes that “the abolition of work is neither acceptable nor desirable for people who identify with their work, define themselves through it and do or hope to realise themselves in their work” - it is in essence an issue of subjectivity. This is all in the introduction to the book, his Nine Theses for a Future Left, which introduces the idea of a ‘non-class of non-workers’ as a necessary improvement on the old Marxist notion of the proletarian class as the driver of socialism. Much of the book is in fact an interesting critique of Marxism, as suggested by the subtitle An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism; the post-industrial element is mostly about showing the effect of technological change on society such that it has become irrevocably complex. Thus he rules out one form of autonomy, which is a retreat to self-sufficiency, at least on the grand scale, and advocates a ‘dual society’ which combines personal autonomy and, kept to a minimum, ‘heteronomy’, that is, socially necessary labour. As he says:
"Freedom cannot be based on the abolition of socially determined labour, nor … upon elimination of external compulsion so as to have each individual perform what is objectively necessary as an internalised moral duty."
"the very same technological developments that make it possible to free time and reduce everyone’s work load also allow the Right, through the weapon of unemployment, to reinforce the old ideology of hard work and productivity just when it no longer has any further economic or technical basis."
The second quote is from an appended text, ‘Towards a Policy of Time’, which states the argument of the book in much more accessible manner and with fewer political-theoretical trappings. On the side of personal autonomy, it is this ‘free time’ from work, guaranteed by a social income, which enables people to realise their social and individual selves; but on the other, the mandatory contribution of a certain amount of part-time work to ensure the smooth running of society. Though he points to what he calls ‘the hidden costs of productivism’ where the demands for social and administrative services would in fact be lessened if adults were not forced to work full-time jobs, but instead were able to attend to their families and communities at leisure.
It’s utopian, but in a good way - and addresses at least some of the issues I have with a straightforward redistributive income guarantee, if with the result of highlighting the necessary transformative social change. For me, a big issue I still have with Basic Income is the inherent reliance of our society on wage exploitation - cheap (frequently immigrant) labour for menial tasks in the service industry - and then the extent to which we are addicted to resource exploitation on the global scale, both of which make the idea of a redistributive income guarantee amongst Western citizens (more than already exists, comparatively speaking) highly problematic without a clear further shift in moral and ethical attitudes.
André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism
"Essentially, the ‘freedom’ which the majority of the population of the overdeveloped nations seeks to protect from ‘collectivism’ and the ‘totalitarian’ threat, is the freedom to create a private niche protecting one’s personal life against all pressures and external social obligations. This niche may be represented by family life, a home of one’s own, a back garden, a do-it-yourself workshop, a boat, a country cottage, a collection of antiques, music, gastronomy, sport, love, etc. Its importance varies inversely with the degree of job satisfaction and in direct proportion with the intensity of social pressures […]
The industrialisation, through home computers, of physical and psychical care and hygiene, children’s education, cooking or sexual technique is precisely designed to generate capitalist profits from activities still left to individual fantasy.”
André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 6. A New Historical Subject: The Non-Class of Post-Industrial Proletarians
This chapter is great - it’s everything that’s I’ve seen about precarity or millenial disillusionment, but written in 1980. To be honest, nothing he says in it is therefore new, and I still have niggling doubts about his premise that work was ever meaningful (or perhaps rather that the Marxist conception of work imbued it with a meaning that was historically contingent and quickly obsolete, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately any more convincing), but I really need to read to the end of the book and digest some of the implications, particularly on autonomy, to make a judgement on that. Still, that last line can be applied to almost any aspect of neoliberal discourse surrounding employment currently (and also cf. Orwell’s tirade against the ‘good job’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying which I just re-read in full for the first time since my teens, and it hits a lot harder now).
Or as André Gorz happened to put it (in 1980 - bolding mine):
"Automation and computerisation have eliminated most skills and possibilities for initiative and are in the process of replacing what remains of the skilled labour force (whether blue or white collar) by a new type of unskilled worker. The age of the skilled workers, with their power in the factory and their anarcho-syndicalist projects, has now to be seen as but an interlude which taylorism, ‘scientific work organisation’, and, finally, computers and robots will have brought to a close.
More than anyone anticipated, capital has succeeded in reducing workers’ power in the productive process. It has been able to combine a gigantic increase in productive power with a destruction in workers’ autonomy. It has been able to entrust ever more complex and powerful mechanised processes to the care of workers with ever more limited capacities. It has succeeded to the extent that those who were once called upon to take command of the giant machinery of modern industry have been dominated by - and in - the work of domination which they were to accomplish. It has simultaneously increased the technical power and capacities of the proletariat as a whole and the impotence of proletarians themselves, whether as individuals, in teams or work groups.”
The Guardian/Observer piece is rather good, in that it touches on a lot of points in what is going to become (or rather, already is) a very important issue - including the concept I recently came across of ‘jobs polarization’ between the highly-skilled minority creating and controlling the money-making technology versus the low-skilled workforce used for necessary labour that can’t (or won’t) be automated. Initially I thought Groz was thus being too pessimistic or hyperbolic in talking about the replacement of all skilled labour - but maybe not in the long run, if you look at the part I’ve highlighted. I don’t really see why the creative/analytical powers of the human mind will forever be immune to automation (or more specifically, replacement by iterative, data-analytic processes that churn out quantifiably ‘optimal’ solutions) in which case the same dynamic will have been applied to the supposed ‘elite’ of the current information economy.
Given that the problem can be seen as essentially (a Marxist) one of control of the means of production, the supremacy of private capital, and so on, the ultimate solution has to be some kind of transformative change. But since - aside from the very transformation we are already concerned about - such transformation is blocked for a variety of (chiefly political) reasons the response turns more towards a reformist or ameliorative agenda - a sort of techno-Keynesianism. In reading Gorz however I’m more interested in what radical potential their might be for autonomy in the use of the internet which - despite the myriad influences of corporate power and neoliberal subjectivity - is perhaps still the best bet for a decentralised, individualised means of production. Either that, or a blinking cursor in front of a human face forever…
"Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.
The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.”
Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) Appendix: ‘The Problem of Atheism, 1: Marxist Humanism’
So arising out of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow*, a book I picked up just because it looked interesting and seemed to be discussing the moral and political dimensions of Zen (which rarely happens from within the movement), I’ve now discovered a movement in Japanese academic philosophy - the Kyoto School - which applied Buddhist and Zen ideas to Western existentialism (or, perhaps more importantly, its immediate precursors; and also vice versa). That is, I’ve always seen the connection or resemblance between Western postmodern thought and Buddhist non-dualism, and perhaps rather more in the cultural than rigidly philosophical sense; this is, however, a series of Japanese thinkers before and after the Second World War applying ‘Eastern’ thought to Nietzsche and Heidegger (and yes, there are obvious, doubly compounded political issues with that). So it’s both a little unexpected and well out of my depth.
Nishitani appears to be chiefly a writer on religion, from this kind of Buddhist-existential perspective (his main work is titled Religion and Nothingness) and the quote above is from a brief appendix to a work I’ve not been able to give more than a cursory look over, but which does intrigue me (I’ve read quite a bit about Nietzsche and nihilism in, of all places, a book called James Joyce’s Negations, but I haven’t read Nietzsche himself yet - although he is in an existentialism reader I have on my shelf; Nietzsche also features prominently at the start of Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement). I’m unsure as to how enthusiastically I would agree with the above: if put bluntly, it seems basically accurate; yet I’m wary of taking on too much the perspective that materialism does not deal sufficiently with human life, given that its non-material existence has no rational basis (hence my general distrust of spiritualism)**.
Yet at the same time it is essentially my position on the limitations of political thought as applied to individual psychology, and also of the seemingly necessary disjunct between the philosophy of Zen and the politics of socialism: not that they necessarily contradict each other, but that it is a category error to force them together. Suffering and oppression are not the same thing; it doubtless requires a certain privilege to be able to focus on the former, although oppression enhances suffering and is necessarily one of its (myriad) causes. To say, however, that there is an essential problem with the human condition is not to abandon socialism, unless it is of the very dogmatic Marxist kind that sees every aspect of social progress as flowing scientifically from the rearrangement of economic relationships. It may be more strongly heretical - perhaps from both perspectives, the rationalist socialist and the transcendent Zen - but more and more I wonder if better self-understanding is not an essential, or at least important, prerequisite for collective action? (And how do I distinguish that from a simple truism that I’m too introvert to have shared before?)
*if that seems an obvious echo, or complement, of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - a very good collection of stories and koans - it’s because it is: referring to the sequence of four transmissions passed on by Bodhidharma to his disciples, in decreasing order of superficiality from ‘skin’ to ‘marrow’ with ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ being the intermediate levels, although it is argued (naturally) that such a value judgement is not meant to be taken as an absolute.
** though thinking back on it, Marx - or ‘Young Marx’ at least - does address this issue quite directly in Theses on Feuerbach, arguing for a kind of materialism that is on the verge of non-dualism in folding together all aspects of human life, if still primarily concerned with removing the last vestiges of idealism from that as a philosophical project.
I enjoyed the Paxman interview, even found it inspiring - or at least refreshing to hear perfectly valid statements of radical dissatisfaction being expressed, however vaguely, in such a public forum - but the debate thereafter seemed to focus on the use of the term ‘revolution’, in a half-baked historical context. So it was interesting to read his original New Statesman piece where he elaborates (somewhat) on the ‘spiritual’ revolution referred to, in ways which to me echo Koestler’s writings from an earlier period (Koestler was worried about the existential threat to humanity from the atom bomb; Brand is rightly, although perhaps additionally, concerned with the environmental problem):
"Biomechanically we are individuals, clearly. On the most obvious frequency of our known sensorial reality we are independent anatomical units. So we must take care of ourselves. But with our individual survival ensured there is little satisfaction to be gained by enthroning and enshrining ourselves as individuals.
These problems that threaten to bring on global destruction are the result of legitimate human instincts gone awry, exploited by a dead ideology derived from dead desert myths. Fear and desire are the twin engines of human survival but with most of our basic needs met these instincts are being engaged to imprison us in an obsolete fragment of our consciousness. Our materialistic consumer culture relentlessly stimulates our desire. […]
For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political. This, too, is difficult terrain when the natural tribal leaders of the left are atheists, when Marxism is inveterately Godless. When the lumbering monotheistic faiths have given us millennia of grief for a handful of prayers and some sparkly rituals.”
The part I’ve bolded runs rather counter to the approach of our liberal (not even ‘neo-‘, just liberal) society which places individual self-fulfilment and freedom at the apex of our values - for good reasons in many cases, given the potential effects of social repression. Balanced against that however has to be the illusory nature of much freedom in the economic context, and the social aspect of our desires. In my recent reading on human rights, I’ve frequently seen the (heavily contested) concept of economic and social rights described as allowing for the basis of personal self-fulfilment - yet in our atomised society such a quality is perhaps seen as a means towards a mythical happiness (as a rational economic actor, a consumer, even as a professional or scholar) rather than self-fulfilment more correctly being the end towards which everyday contentment - and engagement - naturally leads.
Last night I went to a meeting in Galway of the ‘We’re Not Leaving’ campaign, a group opposing forced emigration in Ireland and seeking to highlight the myriad factors that have negative effects on students, the unemployed and young workers. I joined the discussion on mental health (frankly, because the other issues of unemployment and unpaid internships and so on only really impinge on my materially privileged existence by making me depressed about them) and it was really interesting. Obviously there were different emphases even within a small group but I think a common theme that emerged was a wish to broaden out the mental health conversation, whether that be in its site - from individual therapy to collective, informal conversations - or in its content - from simplistic celebrity stories of recovery to challenging the actual causes of mental suffering (as would be the position I share with this author).
It may seem faffy to talk about a spiritual revolution, yet if real material and political revolution is denied to us, and neoliberalism has colonised us right down to the level of our minds and inner selves, what alternative do we have? And would understanding how to be better people - collectively, openly, and transgressing against our circumstances - not only be a good first step anyway, but also a good way to get around the supposed inherent problem with revolution and revolutionary ideology, that old canard of ‘human nature’? The human condition ought to be a revolutionary state of spirit.
"Again, the Soviet power has been proclaimed both in England and in Ireland, both in the land of the oppressors and the land of the oppressed. Furthermore, the Irish workers will not trust the English workers, who belong to a country which oppressed Ireland for centuries. From the economic point of view, the separation will be harmful. What course should English communists pursue in these circumstances? Whatever happens, they must not use force, as the English bourgeoisie has done, to maintain the union with Ireland. They must grant the Irish absolute freedom to separate. Why must they do this?
First of all, because it is necessary to convince the Irish workers that the oppression of Ireland has been the work of the English bourgeoisie and not of the English proletariat. The English workers have to win the Irish workers’ confidence.
Secondly, because the Irish workers will have to learn by experience that it is disadvantageous for them to form a small independent State. They will have to learn by experience that production cannot be properly organized unless Ireland is in close political and economic union with proletarian England and other proletarian lands.”
Bukharin and Preobrazhenksy, The ABC of Communism (1920), ‘§58. The Equal Rights of the Nations and the Right to Self-Determination; Federation’
The proclamation of Soviet power in Ireland - whatever about England - was limited to this for less than two weeks in 1919. And the above account completely lacks any consideration of the Ulster question, particularly the (armed) opposition of Protestant workers in Ulster to any breaking of the union. Otherwise the economic argument against isolation is pretty familiar, with the “political and economic union” advocated bringing to mind the EU and current debates about its direction - it is not, however, ‘proletarian’ by any common definition.