Work and Life Coaching: The Immaterial – Part 1

The Immaterial is a book by the late Andre Gorz (1923 – 2007) published in the English language in 2010 (translation by Chris Turner). Andre Gorz, who also published under his pen name of Michel Bosquet, was an Austrian and French social philosopher.

From the publisher’s introduction:

We live in a world where material products have increasingly become vehicles for intangible symbolic and aesthetic messages. A very sizeable marketing and advertising industry produces only images and symbols – the immaterial dimension that ‘sells’ material commodities. The economic boom that accelerated in the 1990s and crashed so spectacularly in 2008 was based largely on immaterial consumption, as capitalism tried to overcome the crisis of the Fordist regime [the system of production created by Henry Ford] by throwing itself into the new, so-called knowledge economy. In doing so, argues Andre Gorz in this, his last, full-length theoretical work, it created problems for itself that have no solution within the framework of the system. On the one hand, living intelligence, having become the main productive force, is always threatening to slip from the clutches of the capitalist enterprise. On the other, formalized knowledge, which can be translated into software, is reproducible in unlimited quantities at negligible cost. It is, as a result, a potentially abundant commodity, and its abundance causes its exchange-value to tend towards zero…To exploit knowledge and to turn it into capital, the capitalist enterprise has to privatize it and render it scarce by all manner of private licenses and copyrights. But because of its immaterial nature, the new form of wealth creation is almost impossible to measure in monetary terms and, as a consequence, the traditional foundations of economics have begun to crumble. In this sense, the knowledge economy is the crisis of capitalism.

One aspect of his thesis that I find resonates with my own experience and observations, is the extent to which the highly skilled people with who I have worked over the years (and especially those whose work is focused on analysis, writing, researching, convincing, assessing, organizing – in short the 99% of us involved in the so-called service or knowledge economy including administrators, project leaders, analysts, managers etc.) although they put forth a tremendous effort at work, that increasingly the fulfillment of their skills requires an outlet, an engagement in things, their company cannot seem to provide because the work at the office is often frustrated by politics, hampered by boundaries and ultimately seems to ring hollow to them. Here is a passage from the book:

However, all large companies know that it is impossible, within the framework of a wage-relation, to obtain total involvement from their employees or unconditional identification with the job. By the mere fact that it is contractual, the wage-relation recognizes the difference, if indeed separation, between the contracting parties and their respective interests. By limiting the rights of the employers and the duties of the employees to a determinate amount of work performed, it has an emancipatory character. In so doing, it marks a boundary between the sphere of work and the sphere of individual private life.

Big companies are, consequently, trying to transform the wage-relation into an associative one by offering essential employees stock options…But this solution is of only limited effectiveness. The more work calls on talent, virtuosity and the capacity for self-production that ‘defines the value’ of the employee in her own eyes, the more these capacities will tend to exceed their limited deployment in a given task…She will tend to convince herself that she is worth more than what she does as a career. She will invest her dignity in the unpaid exercise of her capacities outside work, which leads to journalists writing books, graphic artists creating works of high art, computer analysts demonstrating their virtuosity as hackers or as developers of free software — all ways of retaining one’s honour and ‘preserving’ one’s ‘soul’. In order to withdraw a part of their lives from this all-absorbing employment, the ‘workers in the immaterial economy’ [knowledge workers] accord an importance that ends up surpassing that of their work to sporting, leisure, cultural or voluntary activities, in which self-production [self-realization] its own end. Alain Lebaube sums up the situation perfectly: ‘However brilliant they may be, the young graduates refuse to commit themselves fully to the job. They give of themselves mechanically, but hold back their souls, with the reserve possessed by the highly gifted, who are capable of “faking it”‘. (Page 17-18)

What is remarkable about this idea, is that the most talented people, the ones most often engaged in roles such as performance improvement and change management professionals, the people who are the much-discussed ‘knowledge workers’, by the nature of their work, can find ways to express and develop their professional skills of writing, creating, assessing, influencing, and organizing as much or more outside of their place of employment (I purposefully avoid the term ‘work’) rather than at that job.

In the past, an assembly line worker needed the company and its assembly line to do his or her work, and could, also, ‘leave the work at the plant’ when they left the building. Now, the nature of Gorz’s immaterial work allows people to find engaging work that has nothing to do with the company and, as a company’s products and priorities become less meaningful to the person, creates the need to either ‘fake it’ and stifle one’s desire for more meaningful and fulfilling work, or to opt out of traditional ‘9 to 5’ job (which are, in fact, increasingly 24-7).

To be continued…


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