Five years ago, on Monday the 24th of September 2007, an AFP wire announced, late that afternoon, that philosopher André Gorz had committed suicide with his wife. The news almost went unnoticed, in spite of a couple’s suicide hardly constituting a banality. Even less banal was the fact that André Gorz had tactfully suggested this dénouement to his readers a year before.
“We would each prefer not to survive the other’s death,” Gorz wrote in the autumn of 2006 in Lettre à D. (Galilée Editions), a long and poignant love letter in which Gorz wrote about his appreciation for the woman who had lived by his side for close to sixty years. The public expression of a man’s gratitude for his wife is rare enough to highlight once more. One cannot read the text without being moved by their unusual lives and journey together. They were two torn and rootless souls, whose “inherent wounds” drove them to unite in death. Without her, he said, he would not have been able to bear his own existence. Without her, the philosopher and theoretician of social criticism that he was, he would never have finished his masterpiece.
Symptoms of a system’s exhaustion
Yet, reflecting on André Gorz’s work today is, more than ever, essential. His acute thinking and perspicacious analyses are particularly useful now that an unprecedented crisis faces society. This crisis prevents us from having a clear-sighted connection with the future. Spring’s electoral campaigns were eloquent in this regard, as we seem to miserably wait for the future to restore the past. “Return our borders! … Return our money! …” clamoured public opinion. “Give us back industrial capitalism!” which had so far allowed, come rain or shine, the ‘proletariat’ to achieve social gains in its power struggle with capital. “Give us back our wage-labour society!” in which the middle classes could expand, etc.
For Gorz, one must dare to break with this dying society that will never be reborn. The issue isn’t the end of the crisis. For him, it’s the end of capitalism itself, which is now at stake. The current financial, labour, and ecological crises constitute a whole. They represent symptoms of the dominant economic system’s exhaustion. Separating or ranking them is impossible. Capital seems to have achieved its dream: creating money with money. But, the threat of an imploding system is such that now anything seems possible, for the better or for the worse. There is potentially, for André Gorz, a ‘barbarian’ or a ‘civilised’ exit out of capitalism.
A crisis foretold
Only our collective choices will determine the form and rhythm in which the exit will take place. “Blame speculation, tax havens, lack of supervision and control over the financial industry if it pleases. However, the impending depression or total collapse of the global economy is not due to lack of controls but to capitalism’s inability to reproduce itself. Capitalism can only perpetuate itself and function on ever more precarious and fictitious bases. Taxing the fictitious value-added from speculative bubbles, for the sake of redistribution, would only precipitate what the financial crisis seeks to avoid: devaluating masses of financial assets and bankrupting the banking system” (Journal EcoRev, Autumn 2007).
Delivered in his last piece of work, more than a year before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, these words become even more striking when taken against the backdrop of Gorz’s position during an interview in the early 1980’s: “With regard to the global economic crisis, we are at the beginning of long processes that will last decades. The worst is still ahead of us. In other words, the financial collapse of large banks and most likely of states is still to come. Collapse, or the means used to avoid it, will only deepen our dominant moral and social crisis”. Who could have imagined such scenarios thirty years ago? “Cassandra!” some may say. Not at all. André Gorz would never have used such a register as evidenced in the following lines of the interview: “To avoid all misunderstanding: I do not wish the crisis to worsen and financial collapse to fall upon us in order to improve the odds of society mutating. To the contrary: it’s because things cannot not continue as they are and that we are heading toward challenging obstacles that we need to seriously consider radical alternatives to what currently exists”.
In terms of the ecological crisis he anticipated early in the 1970s, he could have found satisfaction in seeing his predictions corroborated. However, ecology, for Gorz, was inseparable from the idea that society’s social fabric would have to undergo transformations aimed at abolishing the social organisation pursuing growth for its own sake.
At the time he wrote the lines quoted above, André Gorz came over as excessively critical. In contrast, today’s current affairs invite us to reconsider his thinking more carefully.
An exit from the crisis
The left has struggled to offer direction to a disoriented society. The task isn’t easy and the obstacles it faces defy imagination. The ‘barbarian’ exit? One can already imagine how the exit has prevailed in certain regions of Africa, dominated by warlords, massacres, and human trafficking. To forecast the future, said André Gorz, all one needs to do is revisit George Miller’s movie Mad Max. The movie’s first appearance in 1979 was, according to Gorz, a narrative anticipating what was to come.
To avoid falling into Mad Max’s dystopia, we need to elaborate a vision of the future desired and supported by the majority. This patience-demanding endeavour consists above all in rebuilding what Gorz called ‘day to day culture’, that is to say, social ties and environments in which common goods are respected and maintained. Over the past decades, however, there has been a marked tendency for citizens to feel uprooted and disenfranchised. They don’t feel at home in their workplace (if they are lucky enough to have one) due to its permanent threats and pressures. They don’t feel at home in their neighbourhoods, which often do not correspond to either workplace or entertainment locations. They do not feel at home or in tune with surrounding institutions, which have become ever more complex and technocratic, imposing social constraints whose meaning citizens struggle to comprehend. Incidentally, the litany could easily be extended to a global scale, for Earth appears more and more, less and less habitable.
In sum, as Patrick Viveret or Alain Caillé’s comments regarding ‘conviviality’ highlight so pertinently, the exit to the societal crisis we have been undergoing these past decades must be sought simultaneously in less market, less government, and more non profit-oriented exchanges – not on the basis of money or administrative directives, but as a result of mutual help networks and initiatives from organised civil society.
The problem with aging
In one of his pieces from 2005, recently discovered in Imec’s (Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine) archives, Gorz questioned the aging process of societies and individuals. “Aging,” he wrote, “overtakes societies in the same way it overtakes social individuals: bogging them down in the practico-inertia, growing increasingly cumbersome. New beginnings, changes in directions, radical restructuring, however, are prohibited in aged societies due to the heavy complexity of their machinery and the nature of their knowledge. Aged societies are incapable of thinking in the name of their members or of projecting themselves into a future common to all”. Then he added a little further, “We know the moment is nearing in which the last quintal of combustible fossil fuel will be consumed. Our lifestyle is neither generalisable nor sustainable. We will have to invent a radically new global civilisation. Wittingly or not, we have broken from the past. We are less old than we would have been forty years ago and even younger still for our conviction that another world is possible”.
Early on in 1983, in Les Chemins du Paradis (Publisher: Galilée), while youth movements had succeeded in bringing the left to power, André Gorz was already challenging further our imagination: “There are periods of history in which order is dislocated, leaving behind nothing but constraints bereft of meaning. Realism no longer consists in managing what exists but in imagining, anticipating, and initiating fundamental transformation, whose possibilities already lie in existing transformations”.
Arguably, envisioning an alternative economy, alternative social structures, alternative modes of production, and alternative ways of life, passes for utopianism when a society based on consumerism, wage-labour, and money is conceived to be unsurpassable. “In reality,” he said, “a number of converging signs suggest that the process of surpassing this society has already begun”. Gorz wasn’t saying that these transformations were destined to occur. Instead, he was asserting, for the first time, that their realisation was desirable. For this reason, he started endorsing initiatives from the solidarity economy long ago. For the same reason, he also followed hacking and open source technology developments, capable, according to him, of threatening monopolies and undermining capitalism. In fact, Gorz conceived that “the struggle between open source and proprietary software has been at the crux of the key conflict defining our times. The conflict extends and prolongs itself into the struggle against the commercialisation of our primary assets and resources”.
Before leaving us five years ago with his wife Dorine, at the age of eighty-four, André Gorz stated that the exit out of capitalism had already commenced. In the same breath, he was also inviting us to become activists for the ‘civilised exit out of capitalism’. Something we might call ‘the Gorzian scenario’…
This article was originally published on Mediapart.
(1) Christophe Fourel is the editor of André Gorz, un penseur pour le XXIème siècle, La Découverte, 2012 (2eme edition). Olivier Corpet is the director of l’Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine (IMEC).
(2) This interview is transcribed in André Gorz, un penseur pour le XXIème siècle, Éditions La Découverte, 2012.