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Synthesis/Regeneration 59   (Fall 2012)

Thinking Politically

Ghosts of Gorz

review by R. Burke

The Immaterial, by Andre Gorz, Seagull Books, 2010, 209 pages, ISBN 9781906497613, $19.95
Ecologica, by Andre Gorz, Seagull Books, 2010, 185 pages, ISBN 9781906497415, $19.95

Andre Gorz is a towering figure for socialist ecological politics. Since his death in 2007 each passing year brings startling reminders of just how far ahead he was in his thinking. Gorz managed to be both visionary and practical in his politics, a thinker who foresaw both the dangers and the opportunities of the 21st century. Two posthumously translated books of his have just been published: The Immaterial, in which advances in digital technology, a triumph of the capitalist system, undermine the capitalist order; and Ecologica, a collection of essays outlining Gorz’s proposals for an ecological socialism.

The Immaterial deals with the problems forced on the capitalist world-system as a result of technological changes. Living intelligence has become the main productive force, yet it always threatens to slip from the control of the capitalist enterprise. Formalized knowledge can be translated into software, and is reproducible in unlimited quantities at negligible cost. Over time there is a tendency for it to slip into the public domain. Wealth increasingly takes an immaterial form which is harder to measure in monetary terms. In order to exploit knowledge, the capitalist enterprise has to privatize it and restrict access through private licenses and copyrights. Increasingly profit becomes indistinguishable from the extraction of rent.

In order to exploit knowledge, the capitalist enterprise has to privatize it.

Gorz relates this development to the prediction Marx made in the Grundrisse regarding the development of automation leading to a situation where technology becomes able to create an abundance out of all proportion to the labor time which went into its production. We are now entering a period in which wealth is harder to measure in purely monetary terms. The collective knowledge of humanity now plays an ever greater role in its creation. For capitalists the problem becomes how to appropriate that wealth for their own purposes.

“Control of access is, as we shall see, a preferential form for the conversion of immaterial wealth into capital.” Thus the increasing emphasis on trademarks, copyrights, intellectual property, franchising, and image. “The whole of the mother company’s profits will come from the rental charges it collects from the franchisees. These charges are, in fact, monopoly rents and may represent a multiple of the cost of the ‘cognitive capital’ held by the mother firm.”

Coupled with this is yet another problem: “the creation of an effective demand for what is produced with decreasing quantities of labor.” As less and less labor is required for production, there are fewer workers to buy the actual product as better paying manufacturing jobs are replaced with lower paying service employment. Capitalism, a system in which the surplus must be re-invested in order to further grow, produces an immense surplus which increasingly cannot be invested on profitable terms. This is the reason for the increasing financialization of the economy over the last 30 years—a desperate attempt to maintain the profit system, one which relies heavily on debt and financial speculation rather than on actual productive investment. “Cognitive capital” is the crisis of capitalism, and Gorz is here prescient of the economic crisis which, at the time of this writing, is entering its fourth year.

It is here that the importance of the project of Self-Limitation of Needs—the rejection of an economy of productivism and growth—becomes highlighted as a principle of political organization. In Ecologica, Gorz reminds us that this did not come about as a merely utilitarian adjustment to the crisis of global warming, but rather the other way around.

Capitalism produces an immense surplus which increasingly cannot be invested on profitable terms.

In the essay “Political Ecology, Between Expertocracy and Self-Limitation” he tells us that “The ecological movement formed long before environmental degradation and the impairment of the quality of life came to pose a threat to humanity’s survival. It arose originally out of a spontaneous protest against the destruction of the culture of daily life by the economic and administrative apparatuses of power.” This is the defense of nature as the defense of a lifeworld against its subjugation by the megamachine. That the failure to defend nature will mean the possible, if not probable, extinction of the human race only underscores the rationality of such a project. Through the collective practice of Self-Limitation, we refuse the bargain monopoly capital has offered up to us of being cogs in its perpetual motion machine of expanding profit in exchange for owning ever more things.

The highly artificial nature of such an arrangement is obvious in the large industry which exists to market and advertise the goods, essentially provoking and molding desires which otherwise would not exist. Such a system will either wreck its natural environment, or undermine the conditions of its own existence, if not both. Here Gorz reminds one of his erstwhile political opponents the Situationist International, and there are echoes of Raoul Vaneigem’s declaration, in The Revolution of Everyday Life, of a coming society of “Masters without Slaves.”

Through the collective practice of Self-Limitation, we refuse the bargain monopoly capital has offered us.

Gorz shows little fear of contemplating the possibilities of new technologies, something that many on the environmental left seem reluctant to do. He specifically makes reference to what he calls “fabbers,” small productive units which can make all kinds of models, along the lines of the 3-dimensional printers which are now being developed. Eschewing primitivism, Gorz sees this as presenting the opportunity of “high tech self-providing,” whereby communities can provide for their own needs locally without reliance on larger scale economic units.

Calling for the elimination of the automobile, especially from cities, he foresees a time when automated taxis provide part of an urban transportation network. His openness to new technologies is not unqualified, and he is quite critical of those advocates of artificial intelligence who call for a “post-human society,” pointing out that the fact that such proposals can even be considered reveals the impending crisis of capitalism. While some might object that renewable power could never provide for the kind of high tech society Gorz contemplates, such criticisms overlook the very real possibility of such innovations as solar power satellites. (That Gorz may have been aware of such proposals is indicated by his review of Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave in Paths to Paradise; On the Liberation from Work. Toffler briefly mentions solar power satellites in that book.) Scientists such as Michio Kaku inform us these are not only technically feasible, but that the obstacles are primarily economic. Such technologies could be potentially available by the second half of the 21st century. Too late for capitalism, but available to a socialist world-system?

Gorz continues to haunt because, though dead, he still remains our contemporary. Much that has happened in the years since his death only demonstrates the perceptiveness of his analysis. To see ghosts, one must be a visionary; failing that, one can at least read a visionary’s books. Gorz was an authentic visionary of the ecological, socialist left. Ecologica and The Immaterial are a fitting tribute to his life’s work.

Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and teacher living in St. Louis.

[26 aug 12]

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