The Rise of the Precariat: An Expansion of Andres Gorz’s Theory of the “Non-class of the Non-proletariat”

Thanks to Doctress Nuetopia, I had the chance while down in Tucson to attend my first Occupy Tucson Teach-in and I found it rather stimulating intellectually. About 20 people came to the Occupy Tucson Teach-in learn more about Andres Gorz, a French mid-20th century social philosopher.  His description of “non-class of the non-proletariat” was used by the Occupy movement according to Greg Evans who discussed his work to a group of Occupy Tucson activists.

Andres Gorz was a post modern, post-Marxist thinker who was an associate and contemporary of Jean Paul Sartre. He published several books on ecology. Reflecting on the discussion, I saw Gorz as a transitional thinker who seemed to see himself as a bridge between Marxism and more contemporary social movements in the West.

According to Evans, Gorz’s main thesis and contribution to intellectual thought was his theory about the rise of a new “non-class of non-workers.” The development came about due to exponential rises in production fueled by “hyper-rationalization” that drove rapid gains in per unit worker productivity. Just to explain a bit Economic Rationalization is describing the process by which enterprises, institutions and industries become efficient and improve over past practices by innovating. That is just like the word implies they become more rational in how they operate. Hyper-rationalization is a post-modern or post-industrial term that relates to a phase change in the existing structure of production and organization of labor and resources that comes as a result of too much rationalization or when it reaches a certain tipping point in societal development.

The resulting productivity gains have radically altered the nature of workplace and overall economy by freeing up time and also on the downside reducing the need for workers to complete a particular job or at the larger level “man” a factory or even an entire industry. While much is made about the loss of jobs to Third World Countries, the reality is that the loss of jobs due to productivity appears to be greater than our ability to find new means and mechanisms of consumption. This trend is happening amidst the canonization of 40 hour workweek as something sacrosanct. To deprived of the 40 hour work week is tantamount to be stripped of one’s civil rights and dignity.

The early 20 century philosopher Bertrand Russell also raised important questions about the nature and state of work in a way that I think complements what Gorz was saying. He was known to be skeptical of the idea that work should be strictly defined as an absolute good in all situations. He also was concerned that people see work as some moral standard that people be judged. What inspires me about Russell is that writing in the book titled In Praise of Idleness, he seems to imply that work is something that is not easily defined. Many people work hard in systems of command and control that enslave themselves and others in a system of bondage. It is from such dismality that we may emerge working our butts off to gain affluence but ultimately squandering it because the work obsession having so completely taken us over leaves us little time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. So Russell is asking us what we are we working for and what it is giving us in our lives in terms of a better quality of life. For some the ability to consider life as conscious beings is much more important than working hard in what they deems as little more than “busywork.”

How appropriate that Greg Evans would present Gorz’s work in Tucson as I come to Tucson for the first time in years. My revisit of the city made me realize that it was a progressive place in which Andres Gorz’s notion of the non-class was really coming to form and in that way the Frenchman was securing his legacy as philosopher prophet.

Tucson’s evolution into a unique enclave and refuge for the Gorz’s “nonclass. nonworkers” is worth exploring further. While there are many middle class progressives here, a growing class of people elude conventional notions of career and profession and simply follow the prescriptions of another philosophical counter-cultural prophet” Duane Elgin in his book Voluntary Simplicity.

Elgin was also prophetic in seeing a trend of a group of people who while in some way fitting Paul Ray’s Culture Creative (CC) class seemed to defy conventional and traditional demographic and economic categorization. One key aspect of this split among the CCs is that one group is conventional class oriented and the other is not. We really see this in Sedona where there are really 3-4 classes of people:

  • Shop owners and new age healers that cater to the CC tourist and rich class (sometimes CC but also leaning towards a Bourgeoisie identity);
  • Worker class CCs;
  • Worker class Mexicans (more like the traditional proletariat but often with conservative social values);
  • Trust funders and/or  retirees who have marginal income (also CCs)
  • Rich 1% who like Sedona (could be CC but often for the wrong reasons).

As the discussion shifted away from theories and problems and towards solutions we discussed some ideas about reforming the current socio-economic system. One thing discussed was the issue of the flawed tax code that many agree is overwhelming and ineffective in creating a fair and easy as well as understandable way for people to pay their share of taxes. Someone suggested that taxing resources rather than income would ensure a more fair distribution of the planet’s resources.

All this though cannot come without major shift in consciousness. The higher level of consciousness needed to create networks among the grassroots so that financial and social insecurities of the conventional social structure are overcome can only be based and sustained through the development of a high level of trust. To build a compelling alternative to current economy and power structure there needs to be a larger level of trust.

As the Right uses the term “socialism” to refer to Obama that comes as an irritant to many on the Left. However others deeper to the Left question the too big to fail assumptions that seem to have been a carryover from the Bush Administration. Yet a  reference by one of the Occupy Tucson group called the system we have now “corporate socialism.” So here we might have an opportunity for some on the Left and Right to agree in referring to Obama and those in power now as part of a corporate socialist system. The question still on my mind though would be why would we see  Romney or Ryan  as any different? One could see both of them as raised on the tit of trust-fund  “Corporate Socialism.”

While many feel helpless about the larger monolithic scope of trends in a mega-scale corporate driven globalization reality, one participant refer eloquently to “everything coming together a cataclysmic way. In this way we may expect a leveling the playing field as a natural process of emerging trends that relate to the rise of this new non-class grouping that Gonz referred to.

The Proletariat within traditional Marxism was seen by Marx and then Lenin and his revolutionaries who would later expound and codify the orthodoxy of Communism was seen as the revolutionary substance of change. But the reality of communism never lived up to the mystique and romanticism of communist propaganda. One problem was the intelligencia in that it has typically in history seen itself as the superior class one in which has the intellectual capacity to understand the subtle nature of reality, consciousness and the sophistication to lead and govern. The Proletariat however was seen as unwashed worker who lacked the sophisticate to decide their own destiny. Where does the intelligencia stand today?

What we see is the emergence of a movement to now name the class or non-class that Gonz was talking about. Cultural Creatives was a term coined by the demographer Paul Ray to describe an emerging class of eco-conscious consumers.  This later led to a marketing and PR spin off group called Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) that was able to highlight the positive attributes of this growing group of people that Ray calls Cultural Creatives. However Ray seemed unable or reluctant to see the emerge cleavage between the CC demographic in which it formed its own sub-classes made of the have group of socially conscious professionals and have nots who had similar or superior levels of knowledge but somehow got left behind economically or became marginalized because they did not know how to use their knowledge.

At an article refers to the precariat as the new working class that for a variety of reasons has been pushed away from traditional career and work paths. If we look at the current confounding unemployment levels we see that the assumption in the mainstream media is that this is not part of a permanent long term trend. While they remain part of the CC class they are the one’s more likely to suffer under social strains similar to the traditional poor and working class groupings. And relevant to this discussion here this might make them take the intellectual route of embracing fringe groups that espouse conspiracy theories (see my A Critique of “Conventional” Conspiracy Theory for more).

We can see this group as “free lancers” with no loyalty to the corporation or to professional classes. The positive of this is that they are most probably the most independent thinking group of all the socioeconomic sub-groupings in contemporary American society (which the exception of course of the those who fall for the conspiracy fringe). The negative is that they political leverage despite their compelling intellectual capacity and this leads to high levels of social stress and feelings of inadequacy.

This it is a complex issue that relates to a movement of people, resources and knowledge that are not only tie to fundamental changes in how we see progress and the American Dream.

  1. Growth in productivity and resulting lay-offs,
  2. Loss of interest to consume (similar to what Duane Elgin talked about in Voluntary Simplicity),
  3. Inability to finance that consumption due to the collapse of Mortgage bubble and rise of Luxury economy
  4. A general societal lethargy among Western Civilization that is leading to the slow down of growth.

Because this premise of this new emerging class and the drivers behind is not accepted into the global mainstream discourse, we don’t have all the tools at our disposal to solve the problem and reformulate the global economy so that it can be put on a sustainable footing. The problem with government debt is attributed to assumptions that continued social spending was sustainable because people so long as economic growth covered population gains and the cost of a growing elderly population. Secondly is the assumption that stimulus spending to prevent a global depression would be quickly offset by a rise to historically normal growth rates.

During the discussion I put forward the idea of transitional Third Way. We could see this as populist movement to bridge the increasing polarization between Left and Right grassroots populations that serves to only reinforce a top down power structure out of touch with the common people. One person at the meeting suggested that a key element to this would be a movement forming and becoming strong enough as a coalition of change-makers to elect local people to govern at the local level who care about being accountable, honest and serving with integrity. The focus should be at the local levels and developing coordination between strategic nodes of convergence so that information and knowledge sharing can be more robust leading to rapid innovation towards building Transition Towns that can be seen as model sustainable communities and habitats.

However this does not preclude national action. We still that special breed of individual who can link people across the country and world to form coalitions between local nodes of convergence in places like Tucson. From this a larger national coalition cutting across typical and traditional party lines can emerge at the national level to reinvent and reformulate the state in an effort to unwind the “Corpotocracy” and reallocate its assets on local empowerment to increase local autonomy, governance and self-reliance.

In closing while I enjoyed the presentation I had a few critiques. It  is more interesting in my view to consider socioeconomic theories such as what Gorz is talking about in real time rather than considering complex historical theories and or jargon of past eras. This would be my major critique of Evans’ presentation was that I felt it was too intellectually over-burdened by complex words, phrases and sentences.

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