Book of the week: It simply wouldn't work

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The Independent Online
Reclaiming Work

By Andre Gorz

(Polity, pounds 13.99)

THERE IS always a problem with theory: people don't always live up to its expectations. I well remember theorists telling me that capitalism was going to collapse beneath the weight of people power. It didn't quite come true, did it?

Or look at monetarism. It was supposed to deliver the everlasting cure for all our economic ills. True, there was no doubt that inflation was running out of control. But monetarism only made matters worse in the end. One third of manufacturing suffered at its hands.

So it puzzles me that people should still try to fit society into a neat little theory. Andre Gorz has had a go. And he wants to take us to a new world, a world in which there is a sufficient, unconditional, basic income for all, co-operative economic structures and, centrally, a future beyond the simple wage packet.

This book is billed as offering "a fundamental reassessment of the future of work ... from one of Europe's leading social and political thinkers". Pity then that it is not an easy read. Take the first sentence of this polemic: "We have to learn to discern the unrealised opportunities which lie dormant in the recesses of the present." Even allowing for the translation from the French original, the author of Farewell to the Working Class could have made a bit more effort to entice the reader into his latest work.

For those who do struggle through the prose style, the book is about embracing "the Exodus from `work-based' society" and the need to adopt a far broader definition of work, given today's global unemployment of 600 million to 800 million, the predominance of "insecure" new jobs, and what he calls the "lost magic of work".

His blueprint for "moving beyond a wage-based society" argues for shorter working hours and a sufficient, unconditional, social income to free us "from the constraints of the labour market" (though the author also admits that for years he argued against this latter proposal). He also backs the establishment of "co-operative circles" and the "collective appropriation of the new technologies".

But working hours are not getting shorter. As most people know, they are getting longer and longer. Britain is developing a long-hours culture. One third of managers and a fifth of professionals work more than 48 hours a week. That's why the TUC has put working hours at the top of its campaigning agenda. But it's a trend that is going to be difficult to reverse.

So why Gorz so optimistically highlights the examples of companies that are cutting hours is puzzling. Some companies may, but most do not. Nor will people vote for a basic social income. It sounds fine, but how to pay for it? And how would we tackle the whole question of disincentives to work?

Just look at the way welfare has discouraged some people from working. By giving people a basic social income, why would people bother to work? On the very real question that society will end up short of labour if there are no incentives to work, Gorz lamely admits: "The only appropriate reply is `We'll have to see to it that this problem does not arise'."

I'm not sure that Gorz's theory would do much good. He would, for instance, strip away the new Working Families Tax Credit, which will encourage those who are able to work, and gives them an opportunity hitherto denied. Such a programme is antithesis to his project.

But the main problem with Gorz's theory is that it simply won't meet ordinary people's ambitions. Like many theories, it doesn't reflect what working people really want. It sounds good, but it would never work in practice.

For starters, people like money. It may sound a strange thing to say, but that doesn't make it any less true. It would be asking a great deal of my members to ask them to move to an economy without wages. I think they would feel it was moving back, not moving on.

That's not to say I would disagree with Gorz's condemnation of a society where we see huge wealth in the hands of a few, while the masses endure increasing job insecurity and, in many cases, poverty. He is right. And it is clearly wrong. It's how we go about changing it that causes me to disagree.

Gorz appears to want trade unions to re-evaluate their aims, to reject the simple ambitions we have. But we live in the world as it is. We've learnt from experience that you can't build castles in the sky. We have to build a better life in the world as we find it.

Sir Ken Jackson is general secretary of the AEEU, the UK's biggest manufacturing union, and sits on the Government's Skills Taskforce