André Gorz‘s Concrete Utopia of the Knowledge-Based Society

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* Essay: André Gorz‘s Concrete Utopia of the Knowledge-Based Society. by Andreas Poltermann.


Republished from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, April 2014. Version without notes and references.


Andreas Poltermann:

"In the early 2000s, André Gorz chose an approach to the issue of knowledge-based society which significantly differed in comparison with the mainstream. The generally shared standpoint at the time was that all industrial societies had passed through a process of formation change that seemed to know only one direction: the change from the industrial society to a knowledge-based society. In fact, ever since the 1970s there was a noticeable decline of the manufacturing industry in the creation of value along with the simultaneous growth of importance of services. However, there was more at stake. It was also a matter of the assumption that knowledge, besides capital, was becoming an increasingly important production factor of the modern economy. In connection to this stood the demand that education needs to play a more important role compared to the one in the industrial society. To put it more precisely: that higher education should be assigned a greater significance. Namely, the requirements towards the subjectivity of labor forces are growing, as well as their qualifications that are supposed to keep pace with the rising level of complexity of technological processes and the extra-functional competences of the subjects: their communication skills, cooperation skills, their skill to keep in view longer-term processes and to overcome backlashes.

Since the very beginning, Gorz has seriously perceived the ambivalences of this change. He saw quite clearly that this change could be put to good use but also for the prolongation of narrow-minded societal conditions directed at the exploitation and reduction of natural and cultural resources. Of course, he was interested in the emancipatory potential of this development. In his book “Work between Misery and Utopia“ (“Arbeit zwischen Misere und Utopie“[1]) he very insistently described the precarisation of labor, as well as the indications of a resistance against an increasingly comprehensive capitalization of everyday life. One of the groups in the late 1990s in Berlin, as described by Gorz, was named “Working Differently, or Not at All” (“Anders arbeiten oder gar nicht“). It is not worth it, Gorz argues, to further pursue work that does not fulfill a person. The heroes of the precarisation who, seeking more meaningful work, abandoned essential questions such as the one concerning alienated work, were the pioneers of the re-appropriation of time (86), re-appropriation of the everyday world where one puts forth questions about meaning (“What is this worth?“) rather than questions about the relative value, about the equivalence (“How much is this worth?“). They are pioneers of an emerging cultural society of production and communication of intrinsic values (142). This cultural society overcomes the capitalist society which is based on commodities – or it should, as far as normative demands are achieved. The material basis of this cultural society is the enormous rise of productivity with the consequence of exclusion of increasing amounts of labor and activity from the wage conditions – this, on the other hand, results with the saving of a vast amount of paid labor and decrease of the monetary exchange value of a growing number of products and services, Gorz argues.

He goes on to say that, historically speaking, this creates the possibility of a directional decision: if one wants to remain within the capitalist system, the value of wage labor would have to further drop through the increase of precarisation; on the other hand, what the heroes of precarisation aimed at was the liberation of the person from the context of commodity and wage relations on the basis of ensuring each and every individual through the unconditional and sufficient base income. As is well-known, the foundations were laid out differently in the late 1990s. From the background of the then very successful British model of developing a society based on knowledge and banking services, Tony Blair introduced the workfare program; it was followed by the reform of the labor market and social policy, by the Schröder/Fischer Government in Germany. The safeguarding of unemployment evaded the obligation to work on oneself during the periods without paid labor, to educate oneself further and raise one self’s employability. This policy’s goal was total mobilization of the whole person as working person – the person which, beyond the formal wage conditions, works on him/herself with regard to his/her usability. In the backdrop of these real-political developments, Gorz‘s advocacy for a cultural society of intrinsic values and the unconditional base income must have appeared as pure utopia, one in which well-founded legal claims to the protection of a dignified existence by the weak, unemployed and precarious on the margins of society may be articulated, but cannot be enforced.

However, Gorz then began to develop, in his essay “What Knowledge? What Society?” (“Welches Wissen? Welche Gesellschaft?“[2]), an interest about the strategic role of the so-called knowledge worker, the “symbol analyst“ (Robert Reich) and the looming overlapping of gratis and exchange economy in the free software movement. He developed the idea of knowledge-based communism that could represent the result of the crisis of capitalism – this time, however, not carried by the precarious on the margins of the capitalist utilization, but by persons in its strategic center. He then systematically developed these deliberations in his book “Knowledge, Worth and Capital. A Critique of the Knowledge Economy” (“Wissen, Wert und Kapital. Zur Kritik der Wissensökonomie“[3]). Here he finds a different answer to the question about the stakeholders of the societal change, and those of the negation of knowledge-based capitalism to the benefit of an emancipatory knowledge-based society: he describes the symbol analyst elite as the stakeholders of the negation of knowledge-based capitalism, as far as they join the anarcho-communist networks of the free software movement and are capable of joining the social movements with a critical attitude towards globalization. He is particularly interested in this group of people because they are not positioned on the margins of the capitalist utilization, but belong to its very center. Gorz estimates their contribution to the utilization process as indispensable. That is why their practice which reaches beyond the utilization context, is as significant and as dangerous to knowledge-based capitalism: “There will be no revolution that will violently topple the system from the outside and from above. The negation of the system is spread within itself, through alternative practices it itself invokes, by those who become the fiercest and most dangerous and cannot be disregarded.“ (Gorz 2004, p. 95)

This statement formulates a concrete utopia. Its argumentation follows a dialectic scheme. Gorz first shows in the phenomena of knowledge-based capitalism that they also always reach beyond capitalism, that they carry in them the seeds of the New and the Better. Or, as described by Gorz during a conversation with Sonia Montanjo: “A different economy is emerging in the heart of capitalism“.

In the first step of his argumentation, Gorz speaks about known phenomena which can be generally brought in connection with the transition from the industrial society to the knowledge-based society. To describe it using the example of the automotive industry: this industry transforms itself from the automobile producer into a service provider for mobility needs. Besides the production of a physical automobile, there is an increasingly significant capability of networking stakeholders and means of mobility, managing projects and cooperation, anticipating societal and cultural trends, recognizing, awaking and satisfying the customers‘ desires, as well as developing new business models which, similarly to car sharing, replace property with usage. Complex systemic solutions are replacing mass production of commodities. For those tasks of a post-Ford industry enterprises require, besides scientific know-how, a level of creativity, imagination and intelligence by their associates and the latter’s competence and preparedness to constantly further their knowledge. In his analyses, Gorz repeatedly refers to the 2000 collective agreement by Daimler Chrysler and IG Metall where for the first time the requirements for further education of the employees and the company are contractually regulated. This was a matter of a collective agreement on the promotion of establishing human capital for knowledge-based capitalism. This human capital, as opposed to Gorz’ argument, is quite valuable to the enterprises. However, it requires skills and motivations which can be promoted by means of financial incentives but cannot be bought: the skill of “producing oneself“ (Gorz 2004,23), the outgrowing of oneself, self-steering, self-organization, self-responsibility, self-integration and self-efficiency (31). The prefix “self“ becomes the most important postulate of the labor force of the capitalist knowledge-based society. The labor force entrepreneur turns the industry’s new production and service necessities into his/her own affair and thus subjectifies the capital-based relation. This subjectivization of labor can be described as delimitation of exploitation, as total mobilization. This is how it appears from the standpoint of the traditional wage-based relations which limit the employers‘ rights, envision general protection provisions and limit the commitments by the wage-dependent strata to execution of a particular task in a defined timeframe. (27) The area of private life left out from the system determined by ordinary wage relations in all modes of its communicative and cultural expression is developed in knowledge-based capitalism through the establishment of human capital, as part of the capital-based relation. Gorz views this as a new form of colonization, as exploitation of positive externalities or common goods that originate as collective results through individual interactions of private individuals, to the benefit of each one, rather than created, bought or otherwise appropriated by any enterprise. As opposed to what the national economy teaches, Gorz does not perceive positive externalities as products of entrepreneur actions which can be used by third parties without sufficient compensation. He counts “general living knowledge and everyday culture (….) among the positive externalities.“ (25) Colonization now takes place in a twofold manner: the subjects’ total mobilization contributes public domain resources to knowledge-based capitalism, which it cannot produce. At the same time, by controlling services provided by their employees, enterprises attempt to also seize control over their living knowledge which develops outside the enterprise and by means of their interaction. For this purpose, knowledge management systems are used that are supposed to create access to and control of contacts and communication channels, as well as licensing systems, i.e. company secrets, legal brand protection, design protection, copyrights, patent rights; for several years, there have also been experiments with the summary of these assets in so-called “intellectual capital statements“ which today have a role in the evaluation of an enterprise. However, they also have their drawbacks, for their most obvious problem is the fact that the firms’ greatest asset – the knowledge of their employees and the innovation strength of the enterprise stemming from their interaction – cannot be controlled as property. Namely, the enterprises are attempting to bind employees whose education they have invested in, by means of contracts and penalties. But they cannot tie their knowledge workers down like slaves. Gorz views the products of knowledge-based work as symbolic, artificial monopolies which attempt to ascribe an exchange value to a knowledge-based product that was not created by means of labor (more exact: through abstract work in a particular period of time).

However, Gorz does not dwell in his dialectic analysis only on the new colonization of the common good that is everyday culture. Namely, this appropriation of knowledge-based capitalism functions only through the subjects‘ free will – they can find the sought after solutions and services only by themselves in the everyday cultural interaction. Their means of production called “everyday culture“, as Gorz states using classic Marxist terminology, is a common good which they can appropriate and self-manage, i.e. exchange and multiply in free interaction. That is exactly what one can observe in anarcho-communist communities of the Free Software and Free Networks, to whom the free access and communitarization are both goal and practice. (Gorz 2004, 25/27). Or, formulated more generally (in an interview with Sonia Montanjo): “This is the contradiction that takes place today by a capitalism which recognizes ‘knowledge’ as the deciding production force in the development of human skills and can avail itself of this force only under the condition that it does not enslave that force.“ (Gorz 2009, 114)

Gorz believes that the utopian potential of the knowledge-based society that is being established on the lap of the knowledge-based capitalism is derived from the fact that modern products and services are incorporating increasing amounts of scientific knowledge and informal knowledge. Gorz deals with the formal, scientific knowledge, as well. However, since the latter is exchangeable by people and has proven itself to be in the form of machinery and technology as power over the living labor, he remains skeptical towards it. He is rather interested in the growing importance which the contemporary knowledge-based capitalism has to ascribe to the cultural practice for the solution of new, complex problems. And this practice of production and communication of informal knowledge is, as opposed to the formal knowledge, not exchangeable by humans – it remains living labor and could be organized beyond the capitalist system itself.

Debt Economy: From Consumption Money towards Existence Money?

Due to computerization and automatization, knowledge-based capitalism creates societal wealth with less work. Two fundamental questions arise from this: if the society is producing more wealth with less work, how can it then render every individual’s income dependent of the workload delivered by that individual? (Gorz 2009, 104) This question leads to the concept of existence money. The second question raises the economic problem, namely that, under the given circumstances, exclusion of labor leads to the decrease of the means of payment brought in circulation (salaries) and thus to the decrease of solvent demands. This question leads to the so-called consumption money and, thus, in a dialectic analysis, again to existence money. Gorz analyses the bursting of the so-called speculative bubble and the precursors of the US real-estate and banking crisis. In regard to the bubble he is interested in how the economic value of enterprises was determined at the stock exchange, whose assets – up to two thirds and often even almost exclusively – consisted of non-material capital; namely, they represented a wealth which could not have been expressed in exchange values or merely as symbolic monopolies. Thereby, he embarked on a prophetic analysis of the debt crisis which originated in the USA. It is here that two factors coincided: in a country such as the USA, which is underdeveloped from the welfare state aspect, self-help is regarded as the ultimate value. Accordingly, the means for self-help receive the highest constitutional valuation. In the USA, this means that the people who are denied health protection, unemployment protection and social welfare protection, subsidized rent, etc, by their enterprises or by the state, have the right to access credits in order to help themselves, at a freely-determined price. The second factor is the US National Bank which by means of low interest rates and increase of the money supply actively supported credit growth, primarily in order to put the funds in the hands of the American middle class through bank loans, which could simultaneously help both the American economy through consumption, and the middle class itself.

Gorz believes that this debt-financed consumption again led to a junction of the historical development. What the US National Bank allocates by means of bank loans, he calls “consumption money“ (Gorz 2004, 58). It is money that is supposed to enable access to societal wealth which by itself – based on the lack of solvent demand – cannot be profitably disposed of as commodity. A gap has been created between the socially produced wealth and the form of value which can be accessed only by the wealth in the form of private property of the commodity society. If the consumption money is used in the framework of the ruling system, it leads to greater indebtedness and eventually to debt bondage which can be avoided only by bankruptcy or periodical uprisings and radical debt relief. This is subject of many discussions today in Greece – not only since Occupy and David Gräber[5]. However, consumption money can also lead the way out of the commodity society and the knowledge-based capitalism, namely for reasons that are already suggested in the USA Constitution in an individualistic form of the right to self-help: that there is a right to access societal wealth, even when one has not participated in its production through paid labor. If the consumption money is not managed as individual solution for collective problems anymore, but as an expression of the conviction that the societal wealth today stems not only from the deployment of capital, but significantly also from the interactions in the everyday culture, namely a common good, which is contributed to by everyone – however, not in an unambiguously determinable worth – the consumption money transforms itself, in a conceptual sense, into unconditional existence money. To put it more precisely: it transforms itself into sufficient existence money, since every base income that is not sufficient could be immediately used by employees as subsidy and substitution of adequate wages. This existence money would blow up the current capitalist system. As a consequence, unemployment would no longer appear as inactivity and uselessness vis-a-vis the society, but “only as uselessness concerning the direct utilization of capital.“ (Gorz 2004, 99) The question is whether the unconditional existence money would assume other forms of usefulness, described by Gorz as contributions to an activity-based society. Or differently formulated: How does the transformation succeed from a consumer, who is given the freedom of choice of individual preference by the consumption money, to a citizen of an activity-based society? Will the activity-based society leave it up to the individual preference to be useful for others, or will it direct an expectation of reciprocity towards its citizens? Will the activity-based society render the duty towards common good obligatory?

Critical Remarks

What is one now to think of the thesis that the indispensable symbol analysts at the heart of knowledge-based capitalism could be the stakeholders of the revolution from the inside? Gorz has not delved into the free software movement. That is why he reaches idealizations no concrete utopia can manage without, but which should not be too far removed from reality if they are to represent a specific negation. Of course, Gorz is interested about the fact that in the free software movement particularly intrinsic motives that cause a direct satisfaction of needs play a major role in the willingness to contribute to the generation of commonly accessible wealth. However, he does not see or is not interested in the fact that extrinsic motives, too, always come into play through monetary stimuli. He relies to a great extent on idealistic self-descriptions, or perhaps self-affirmation of the Free Software Movement. But only through weighing of the external and the intrinsic motives can it be possible to clearly show how the actions by the stakeholders are socially embedded. When it comes to software development and distribution, one of the extrinsic motives, for example, is represented by the costs calculated by an individual concerning his/her contribution to the collective wealth (in this case, the public good in form of software). In this process, low costs facilitate such contributions, while high costs render them less probable. But low costs also do not banish the risk of free riding. Therefore, there is a need for rules which secure reciprocity. For this case, the movement has developed the copyleft licenses and reciprocity norms that penalize deviant behavior. The fact that free software focuses on reciprocity is here of the utmost importance. The software is ready for free usage. There are no underlying reciprocity norms here. But the ordinary consumer is also not interested – he/she is a mere bargain hunter who wants to consume for free, but without participating. That is why he/she does not belong to the network, to the new formats of socialization. Only the productive ones belong to it, the ones who are linked to the others’ developments and want to further them. It is for them that rules of reciprocity are valid – rules that are supposed to norm something such as a conditioned free productive usage. This means that no road leads from the society models the free software movement is based upon, to an unconditional consumption right, but rather to a conditioned right to participation based on expectations of reciprocity.[6] In addition, this society of participation and activity of the free software movement is also embedded in a market context.

Expectations of reciprocity are also added by the calculation of the opportunity costs which are being decisively influenced by state regulations. If politics, for example, renders proprietary software production beyond the ordinary copyright – for instance, by means of patenting at low costs – more attractive, the opportunity costs for contribution to free software will rise accordingly.[7] It is becoming more likely that the software will be developed commercially for the market and increasingly difficult to continue the path of the self-organized free software production. The contributors to free software are always oriented towards both: self-defined norms which make their contributions towards public good appear meaningful, as an intrinsic value without exchange value; but also towards their role as market participants who have to be convinced in the fact that it is worth it, namely that their opportunity costs, i.e. lost exchange value, is not too high.

The reference to reciprocity rules in the free software movement shows that Gorz is very much idealizing. Objections which can be raised against the existence money are even of greater fundamental significance. It is a major debate, one that cannot be carried out here. Here we need to satisfy with the suggestion that important stakeholders such as the unions have skeptical or negative attitudes towards existence money. What is the reason behind this?

One could argue that the concept of knowledge-based society and universalistic safeguarding of individuals against social risks represents a middle class concept which puts emphasis on individualization, academization and the consequential possibilities of self-help and self-organization. It is not by coincidence that Gorz describes symbol analysts as artists, highly individualized all-round specialists, whose work can by no means be put into perspective as performance of simple, in Marx’s terms – abstract work. And it is certainly no coincidence that the existence money is promoted, particularly by the arts, like in the tradition of Josef Beuys, or in Adrienne Goehler’s generalization of the artist as a modern human being of the post-socialist cultural society[8], as an appropriate form of social protection: namely as safeguarding from the risks of self-organized work which, through the possibility of recourse to existence money, aims to keep the opportunity costs of its work oriented towards meaning, rather than towards the market, as low as possible.

Especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, academization has contributed to the growth of individualistic, meritocratic middle classes who, being all-round specialists (professions), see their interests protected without welfare state redistribution; on the other hand, this corresponds with the devaluation of physical work up to the point of consequent de-skilling in the case of numerous precarious jobs in the industry and personal services (occupations). The precarious are in urgent need of welfare state security. However, they are denied it by the middle classes of the Anglo-Saxon countries. We will witness this trend in Europe, as well, including Germany. The concept of knowledge-based society which indeed also sends the message: “academize yourselves!“ strengthens this very individualization and social cohesion is wakened to the point seen as conducive to themselves by the middle classes. At any rate, the decisive point in Germany is the fact that here the system of vocational education still keeps this trend of academization within limits. This is also contributed to by the fact that the more demanding professional profiles elaborated by the state, unions and employers continue to enable the performance of the work (professions) of higher value and openness to cooperation in handicraft and industry. However, this takes place in the form of (predominantly) collectively bargained wage labor. The fact that the unions reject existence money must have reasons that are of an organizational and political nature, too. It would question their existence. Furthermore, they also represent a different model of a solidarity- and welfare state-profiled industrial society. And this does not necessarily have to be yesterday’s society. For, there are indeed indicators showing that the promoted trend of a service- and knowledge-based society has proven to be less sustainable. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe that the USA, in the midst of the greatest crisis of its labor markets, has discovered the German industrial and vocational training model[9] and that the European Commission wants to stop or steer into a more sustainable direction the trend towards a service- and knowledge-based society by means of a Third Industrial Revolution.[10] Capitalism 2.0 may as well become the Industrial Society 3.0 during the next decade. The next question then is whether this also becomes a welfare state- and solidarity-profiled society."