Critique of Economic Reason

French social philospher Andre Gorz, 1989:

…The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact…

From the point where it takes only 1,000 hours per year or 20,000 to 30,000 hours per lifetime to create an amount of wealth equal to or greater than the amount we create at the present time in 1,600 hours per year or 40,000 to 50,000 hours in a working life, we must all be able to obtain a real income equal to or higher than our current salaries in exchange for a greatly reduced quantity of work…

Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. The present crisis has stimulated technological change of an unprecedented scale and speed: ‘the micro-chip revolution’. The object and indeed the effect of this revolution has been to make rapidly increasing savings in labour, in the industrial, administrative and service sectors. Increasing production is secured in these sectors by decreasing amounts of labour. As a result, the social process of production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time basis. The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation and work-based society is thrown into crisis…

It’s all here but it’s an imperfect scan. Some characters are missing, e.g., for “bour” read “labour”. It seems to me a worthwhile puzzle.

He ends up arguing for a Basic Income Guarantee (or a universal income transfer from the governnment). This idea has a long history in Canada and is currently advocated by the Green Party of Canada, but has never been implemented anywhere at scale.

Any idea how a guy can get paid as a “social philosopher” in North America?


  1. There are a lot of strange features to our economy, not least that it has become mostly detached from the material world, even though it's notionally all about materialism. Did anybody bother to check the mass of the Earth, available resources etc. between 2007 and 2008? I'll hazard that nothing changed, yet by strange tacit consent we all agreed to become poorer, even to throw people out of their jobs and homes. A powerful case of crowd hysteria if ever there was.

    Closer to the point that Gorz may have been addressing, what happens when we insist that people do "work" even when the jobs we give them are useless or even hazardous? Between a person thrown out of his home and job by our agreed-on poverty and a person dutifully cranking out toxic french fries at McDonald's, where's the more economic benefit to be found, in the large scheme of things? The homeless person (assuming not insane or a drunkard, etc.) will spend their receipts on a subsistence living, as will the fryer operator. The difference is that the fryer operator is preparing something that resembles food but is actually harmful to eat, leaving a path of damage that must later be remedied. How is it that we turn up our noses at the homeless person and consider the fry cook a more productive member of society?

  2. " yet by strange tacit consent we all agreed to become poorer, even to throw people out of their jobs and homes. A powerful case of crowd hysteria if ever there was."

    Indeed. Ever since the first time I heard about the Black Thursday in 1929 and succeeding events, I have thought exactly the same. I cannot think of how to view it any other way. But we are outliers in having this perspective, I think.

  3. Krugman agrees with your first point, FWIW. Re 1929, he frequently quotes (here in late 2007, pointing to resonances with comments from a contemporary economist) Herbert Hoover quoting the latter's Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, a very, very wealthy individual:

    "‘Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.’ He held that even panic was not altogether a bad thing. He said: ‘It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.’"

    This remains a very common attitude. Such people like the feeling of superiority to be had from observing the suffering of others.

    Re your second point, at this point the FIRE sector should be seen as largely a make-work program. I would add lawyering and accounting. Of course there's some real work to be done there, but I suspect it could be handled by no more than 20% of the present work force. And oh yes, almost forgot "defense."

  4. The benefits of capitalism become much more troublesome to obtain if there isn't a visible and suffering poverty class. You would actually have to pay considerably more to get certain jobs done such as housecleaning and waste disposal if people had options other than homelessness. Certainly abusive employers would face difficulties. Nobody would work coal mines or sugar cane for the wages cane workers currently get without the prompt of extreme poverty and destitution.

    It isn't actually that we don't have the resources. Obviously straw bale houses are easy to keep comfortably warm and/or cool, our farms produce so much food we can waste 40% of it and a few solar panels can provide sufficient lighting and electricity for a modest home, laptop and a few appliances. It's just that if we allocated basic resources to everybody certain luxuries would be harder to obtain for what is currently a privileged minority.

    Homelessness isn't about lack of resources; it's theatre with unwilling actors.

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