Gorz: “The Right to an Income and the Right to Work,” part one

Gorz: “The Right to an Income and the Right to Work,” part one

From “Orientations and Proposals — The Reduction of Working Time: Issues and Policies” of Andre Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason (1989) translated by Gillian Handyside and Chris Turner. I am posting the section on “The Right to an Income and the Right to Work” in two parts. This is part one:

The Right to an Income and The Right to Work 

When the production process demands less work and distributes less and less wages, it gradually becomes obvious that the right to an income can no longer be reserved for those who have a job; nor, most importantly, can the level of incomes be made to depend on the quantity of work furnished by each person. Hence the idea of guaranteeing an income to every citizen which is not linked to work, or the quantity of work done.

This idea haunts all the industrialized capitalist world of today. It has as many supporters on the Right as on the Left. To look only at recent history, it was (re)launched in the USA at the end of the 1950s by left Democrats and libertarians on the one hand and by neo-liberals (principally Milton Friedman) on the other. Since the end of the 1960s, several local experiments with a local basic income guarantee have been conducted in the USA. Richard Nixon tabled a bill to introduce a measure of this kind in 1972 and it was narrowly defeated. In the same year, George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate, included the guaranteed income in his programme. The object was to find a cure for poverty, which showed up more in the USA than elsewhere on account of the absence of a nationwide statutory social insurance system. The guaranteed income was meant as a substitute for such a scheme. European neo-liberals now dream of substituting such a basic income guarantee for the existing welfare-state institutions.

In Europe, discussion of an income dissociated from work revived in the early eighties. The Netherlands, Denmark and Great Britain had already implemented the idea. It was in the Federal Republic of Germany that the most sophisticated debate developed, after 1982, at the instigation of the Greens, who were soon joined in the debate by conservatives and social democrats. Everyone was agreed on the principle, formulated in these terms by Claus Offe: ‘We must break with a development which has led the majority of the population to depend for their subsistence on the labour market.’ The labour market, quite obviously, could no longer guarantee to everyone the possibility of earning their living. In other words, the right to an income could no longer be equated with the right to a wage. It was to be decided, however, whether the right to an income was also to be dissociated from the right to work (in the economic sense).

It was on this latter question that the Right/Left dichotomy gradually reappeared, at least in Germany. In France, where the guaranteed basic income was still being rejected, even in 1983, as utopian (in the pejorative sense of the term), the greater part of the Left, Right and centre suddenly found themselves in agreement on the necessity for it (if not on the form it should take): Aide a  Toute Detresse, the abbe Pierre, the ‘Restaurants du Creur’ and the increasing spread of begging and poverty had made their mark. There were men and women who had never worked, and others at 45 who would never work again; there were the handicapped, the sick, the unstable, single-parent families of varying sizes, and so on. They could not simply all be allowed to sink; something would therefore ‘have to be done’ and, since it was an emergency, one would have to attack the effects without trying to locate the causes.

The emergency thus served as an alibi for avoiding any debate on the societal implications’ that are involved here: will the guaranteed minimum be a temporary palliative whilst we wait to see the policies of redistributing work come to fruition? Is it to begin the transition towards a society where work (in the economic sense) will become intermittent for all and where the second cheque will ensure a normal standard of living during the periods when one is not working? Or will it be the ‘opium of the people which allows a third of the population to be reduced to inactivity and silence so that the other two thirds can between them enjoy society’s wealth in peace’? Will it serve to render an extension of unemployment and marginality socially tolerable, these things being considered inevitable consequences (if not indeed conditions) of economic rationalization?

The question is as old as the industrial revolution itself or, in other words, as the disintegration of society by capitalism. For the first forms of guaranteed minima reach back as far as the beginnings of industrialization: to the Speenhamland decision in 1795 followed by the Poor Laws which took a great variety of forms over the years and the traces of which are still discernible in British social legislation today. These Poor Laws, introduced from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, were supposed to ensure each inhabitant of the rural parish received a minimum subsistence income indexed to the price of bread. Just like certain forms of social minimum envisaged by today’s neo-liberals, the Speenhamland decision was accompanied by the suppression of the forms of social protection which the landless workers in the rural areas had enjoyed up to that point. They had in the past always had the right to grow a little grain and some vegetables on the common land and to graze a few sheep here. This right was taken away from them when common property was abolished and lands were enclosed and allotted to landowners. This measure had a dual objective: to develop commercial farming at the expense of the growing of foodstuffs for one’s own consumption and to force the landless countryfolk to sell their labour to the landowners.

These latter had no need, however, to employ a permanent additional labour force. The Poor Laws would relieve them of the need to do this and, by ensuring the survival of the unemployed, spare them any bad conscience. There was an even worse side to it: whereas in the past the landowners had maintained a labour force that was large enough so that they would not be short of hands during ploughing or harvesting, the Poor Laws would allow them to replace their permanent workers with journeymen whom they packed off back home once the harvest was in to live on the subsistence minimum which the parish was required to pay to the poverty-stricken. We can see the parallel with the present situation. Today, too, the reduction of the proportion of permanent waged workers and the increase in the number of casual or temporary workers, consigned to unemployment for part of the year, presuppose that a subsistence minimum be paid to those men and women who cannot find work for long enough periods to qualify for unemployment benefit.

This is why the debate on the amount of the guaranteed minimum, however important it may be in the short term for the victims of ‘rationalization’, masks the deep significance of the very principle of this form of guarantee. It is not, in fact, paid out of solidarity, but as an act of institutional charity. And like every charitable institution, it is conservative in intention: instead of combating the segmentation and South Africanisation of society, it tends to make these things more acceptable. The guaranteed minimum functions as the wages of marginality and social exclusion. Unless it is explicitly presented as a transitional measure (and the end situation to which the transition was directed would have to be clearly specified), the guaranteed minimum is a Right-wing idea.
From this we may discern what the Left’s alternative must consist of. It will not accept the growth of unemployment as something inevitable and will not accept that its goal must be to make this unemployment and the forms of marginalization it entails tolerable. It must be based on the rejection of a splitting of society into one section who are by rights permanent workers and another which is excluded. It is not therefore the guarantee of an income independent of work that will be at the centre of a Left project, but the indissoluble bond between the right to an income and the right to work. Each citizen must have the right to a normal standard of living; but every man and woman must also be granted the possibility (the right and the duty) to perform for society the labour-equivalent of what she or he consumes: the right, in short, to ‘earn their living’; the right not to be dependent for their subsistence on the goodwill of the economic decision-makers. This indissoluble unity of the right to an income and the right to work is the basis of citizenship for every man and woman.

In effect, as I have shown in relation to work in the economic sense as emancipation, one belongs to society (more exactly to modern democratic and not slave-owning society) and one has rights in that society or is partially excluded from it according to whether or not one participates in the process of production organized on the scale of the whole society. The work one exchanges not with society as a whole but with the members of a particular community (one’s family, habitat, village, district) remains particular work, subject to particular rules, which are themselves the result of a particular relation of forces, interests or particular bonds. Conversely, work in an economic sense, socially determined and remunerated, is governed by universal rules and relations which liberate the individual from particular bonds of dependence and define her or him as a universal individual, that is, as a citizen: her or his paid activity is socially recognized as work in general having a general social utility. I can sell this work to an indefinite number of enterprises without having to form any personal and private relationship with those who are paying me. They pay me for the general social utility of my skills and not for a personal service I am rendering. They are, in a sense, merely the intermediaries between an impersonal demand on the part of society as a whole (whether it be expressed through the market, the plan or an order from a public body) and the work by which I can contribute to satisfying that demand.

The emancipatory character of work in the economic sense derives from this: it confers upon me the impersonal reality of an abstract social individual, as capable as any other of occupying a function within the social process of production. And precisely because what is involved is a function which is impersonal in its essence, which I occupy as an interchangeable person among others, work does not, as is generally claimed, confer a ‘personal identity’ upon me, but the very opposite: I do not have to engage the whole of my person, the whole of my life in it; my obligations are circumscribed by the nature of my occupation, by my work contract and by social legislation. I know what l owe to society and what it owes me in return. I belong to it by virtue of social capacities which are not personal, during a limited number of hours specified by contract and, once I have satisfied my contractual obligations, I belong only to myself, to my own family, to my grassroots community.

We should never lose sight of the dialectical unity of these two factors: work in the economic sense, by its very impersonal abstractness, liberates me from particular bonds of dependence and reciprocal belonging that govern relations in the micro-social and private sphere. And this sphere can only exist as a sphere of sovereignty ‘and voluntary reciprocity because it is the obverse of a clearly circumscribed sphere of clearly defined social obligations. If I am relieved of any social obligation and more precisely of the obligation to ‘earn my living’ by working, be it only for a few hours, I cease to exist as an ‘interchangeable social individual as capable as any other’: my only remaining existence is private and micro-social. And I cease to experience this private existence as my personal sovereignty because it is no longer the obverse of compelling social obligations. The customary balance of living in a macro-socially organized society is upset: I no longer negate myself as private individual by my ‘work in general’ nor do I negate myself as an individual in general by my private activity. My existence collapses into the private sphere where, being subject to no general social obligation, to no socially recognized necessity, I can only be or do or not do what I have decided myself, without anyone asking anything of me: ‘Excluded from every group and every enterprise, a pure consumer of air, water and other people’s labour, reduced to the boredom of living, an acute consciousness of my contingency’, I am a ‘supernumerary of the human species’.

This is the condition of those who are involuntarily unemployed; and the guarantee of a social minimum will do nothing to change that (nor indeed will giving him or her an unreal job, a job which is not needed by society, but which has deliberately been created to occupy people for whom there are no real jobs and to justify the allowance allocated to them). Whatever the size of the guaranteed minimum, it can do nothing to alter the fact that society expects nothing of me, thus denies me a reality as a social individual in general. It pays me an allowance without asking anything of me, thus without conferring any social rights upon me. By this payment, it holds me in its power: what it grants me today, it can take away bit by bit, or altogether, tomorrow, since it has no need of me, but I have need of it.

It is for all these reasons that the right to an income and the right to macro-social work must not be dissociated or — which amounts to the same thing — that the right to an income must be linked to the duty to work, however little, to produce that income. I do not propose this in order to save ‘work-based society’, the work ethic or biblical morality, but to maintain the indispensable dialectical unity between rights and duties. There can be no rights without corresponding obligations. My duty is the basis of my rights and to relieve me of all duties is to deny me the status of a person having rights. Rights and duties are always two sides of the same coin: my rights are the duties of others towards me; they imply my duty towards these others. In so far as I am one of them (one among others), I have fights over them; in so far as I am one of them, they have rights over me. It is through these rights — and therefore through the duties they give me — that they recognize me as one of them. In so far as I belong to society, it has the right to ask me to do my appropriate share of social labour. It is through the duties it gives me that it recognizes me as belonging to it. If it asks nothing of me, it rejects me.

The right to work, the duty to work and one’s rights as a citizen are inextricably linked. 

Comments (1) | |