Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Socialism through the looking glass, or wage-labour as liberation (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone on the left in France during the past two decades cannot help but be struck by the constant references to the need for the Labour Movement to defend, yes defend, wage-labour (le salariat.) The problem here is partly that of translation. For English speakers, a ‘salaried worker’ is an ’employee’, often someone who has a certain security of employment. Salaried staff were paid monthly by direct payments into a bank account. Le salariat retains something of this flavour. In Britain in the sixties, indeed, parents were happy if their offspring could get the qualifications needed to work in a bank, earning a salary; regular work, a permanent contract, good pay, and the chance of finding accommodation. Salaried work was what got you out of the uncertainties of hawking yourself around for factory work in return for low earnings paid in cash. Those old enough to recall the sensation caused by Clive Jenkins when he succeeded in recruiting white-collared salaried staff into the trade union movement know all about this. However, that was then. Nowadays, insecure and poor pay has made massive inroads into the world of white-collar employment.

Similar considerations hold for France of course. But in this case the increasingly frequent inroads into employment conditions undertaken by the capitalists have led some Communist Party intellectuals to openly defend le salariat notably against the promotion of the pseudo-independence of workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’. As a result, calls for ‘l’abolition du salariat’ have become inaudible, if not incomprehensible. The CGT trade union literature which once considered the elimination of le salariat as tantamount to the abolition of capitalism now call for the former’s consolidation. Take for example, the 2002 leaflet by Bernard Vasseur Vers l’après capitalisme (‘Towards post-capitalism’). Or the very popular writings of Bernard Friot, very much the leading expert of social security on the left. In these publications there is the idea that le salariat represents something of a power independent of capitalist relations of production, French workers having succeeded in imposing preconditions on the employment of labour which have not only improved the bargaining power of workers but largely conquered a bulwark against exploitation. They have done this collectively by partially socialising the wage itself through reforms based on the contributory welfare system, unemployment insurance, family allowances, municipal housing and so on. In all this, the building of the code du travail has been a major vector in this progressive tendency.

Doubtless, the popularity of the notion of le salariat is due to the massive entry of women into paid work and the expansion of the service sector. This has undermined traditional trade union practices largely centred on manual workers or their French equivalent, les ouvriers. In France (but not exclusively) ouvrièrisme tended to be heavily gendered even when practised by the so-called Marxist left and white-collar workers were seen as doubtful class allies. The notion of le salarié by contrast encompasses both white and blue-collar work irrespective of gender and is clearly a step towards the notion of a wage-earning class. Nonetheless it creates its own peculiar difficulties. For example, it implies that militants have to wrestle with the intricacies of social policy given that the state is necessarily more heavily involved in the social reproduction of this class than in the simple cash nexus of nineteenth-century exploitation. The remaining confusions probably derive from the difficulties involved in capturing the reality of an exploitation which was once exclusively identified with noisy factories in the private sector.

True, however, to their often eccentric reading of Marx, the French Communists of this tendency have signally failed to rise to this challenge, their confusions over the centrality of exchange value production leading them to badly fudge its relationship to wage-labour (see Alain BihrUniversaliser le salaire ou supprimer le salariat. A propos de “L’enjeu du salaire” de Bernard Friot). As a result, when wage-labour is identified with the separation of the worker from the means of production and subsistence, they are surprisingly silent. Perhaps this is a tribute to the all-encompassing nature of the French ‘welfare state’, now up for grabs. For whatever reason, students of le salariat on the French side of the Channel are more prompt to mask the reality of lack of property than English social historians. Hardly surprising then that the former civil servants enjoy an almost legendary status as exemplary salariés largely because they benefit from the security of lifetime employment. It’s surely not an accident that many of the policy recommendations outlined by Friot and his collaborators read like an extension of the terms and condition of public service employment into the private sector. With politicians tending increasingly to move the cursor in the opposite direction, it is surely important to devote some effort to understanding the link between capitalist growth and the reality of dispossession.

So what then is le salariat? 
Much of the conceptual groundwork for this thinking is to be found in Robert Castel’s Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat published in 1995. The American edition, which heroically translates ‘salariat’ as wage-labour, tends to over-determine the notion but is fairly uncontroversial. Castel usefully traced the development of wage-labour from its origins on the fringes of medieval society where (artisanal) work took place in organised guilds operating in parallel to peasant production. Such forms of labour were gradually supplanted by employment in its modern form as factory work although semi-artisanal forms of labour persisted and indeed still do. Marx, of course, concentrated his attention on the situation of those who begin their working lives as the sellers of labour-power on the open market. Similarly, in constructing his own particular genealogy, Castel (rightly) laid stress on the long transitional phase where a certain class of workers were pitchforked into vagrancy as a result of the dissolving of feudal relationships. Here propertyless workers emerged as vulnerable vagabonds and marginals; the despised scum of a traditional culture.

The singularity of Castel’s approach to this historical development is the emphasis he placed on the long period in France wherein semi-artisanal forms of labour co-existed with the continuation of small and medium-scale peasant holdings. Because the French economy was less subject to the large-scale enclosures typical of English agriculture, the mobility of the French working class tended to follow seasonal patterns of inter-sectional mobility. Much of the large-scale economic development took place in the rural hinterland where wannabe capitalists tended to rely upon sub-contractors and worker-peasants, classes which defy easy definition. The sharp cut-offs and sudden take-off into capitalist industrialism of the English case are not so evident in France.

In this context, employers were often sub-contracting entrepreneurs hiring members of peasant households. But there were also forms of labour involving skilled artisanal workers in the urban areas and a fluctuating group of nomadic semi-artisanal workers who dovetailed seasonal patterns of work in agriculture with occasional remunerative work in the urban areas. With the advent of industrialisation French workers managed to transform what could have been an unpromising situation of economic dependence by mobilising what civic advantages were available.

Following the French revolution, the existing code civil was extended to produce the famous code du travail. This was a movement towards a legal framework which clearly identified employers as the agents responsible for undertaking the tasks outlined in a work contract based on legal equality. (In England, of course, the relations between workers and their employers were governed by the class-biased Master and Servant Acts backed up by the severely repressive Poor Laws.) Although the emphasis placed upon legal égalité, took the form of an explicit recognition of the subordination of the wage-earner to the employer, this subordination was limited by co-managed industrial courts.

In the case of some workers, a very varied population of workers (ouvriers) recruited by sub-contractors into piece-work were increasingly paid time-wages and identified as salariés. The employers were obliged to accept their legal responsibilities towards their workers and could no longer rely upon management through intermediaries. Over time, the collective power of the working class has consolidated around trade unions which have skilfully used these legal structures to good effect. This has meant that in France permanent contracts still operate as the standard of employment in industrial tribunals and employers often have difficulty in opting out of their obligations in this respect. This is very much the reality that the notion of the salariat (or the société salariale) seeks to capture.

The current situation
This being said, Castel later traced the unremitting efforts of the French capitalist class to weaken the collective strength represented by le salariat with legislation aimed at creating a more precarious class of hired hands. (The list is long.) Against this the French Communists involved in promoting the salariat are really all involved in defending the way wage-labour has been constructed around integrative measures. This is a good way to avoid welfare-statism, or the patronising idea that wage earners as helpless workers need protection against poverty. After all, many of the measures identified with ‘welfare’ were constitutive of wage-labour and its reproduction. To a large extent, their elimination is often not at all on the agenda. On the other hand, de-naturalizing is more often than not the objective sought after.

Thus, for example, the existing pension schemes in France were better defended against budget cuts by arguing that they were in fact a continuation of the salary of the worker rather than depicting them as deferred savings granted to the elderly poor. In the same way, unemployment insurance can be seen as nothing more than a continuation of the salary during the inevitable downswings of economic activity and redeployment. Similar things can be said about family allowances which, for all their shortcomings, constitute a real salary capable of replacing the haphazard pseudo-equality of nominal wages. These are some of the more interesting points contained in the notion of the salariat, students of Titmuss would do well to note.

These points being made, does all this mean that wage-earners should be satisfied with their current position within global capitalism? Obviously not. Interestingly, Friot himself promotes measures aimed at the abolition of what he describes as ‘lucrative property’ presumably meaning private ownership of the means of production. But this is precisely the axis around which the relationship between capital and wage-labour turns, the workers being obliged by their slim grasp on the means of subsistence to sell their labour-power to employers bent on the expansion of capital. This is the point we already raised. At the moment, the impersonal forces operating within the sector of finance capital are imposing conditions of work which have more to do with profitability than with the preservation of le salariat, however defined. So to some extent the fraught relationship between capital and labour is being dragged backwards towards the conditions of the nineteenth century.

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