But what happened to the dignity of work?
This article was initially published in French. Click here to read the original version.
How does the history of labour change in the United States shed light on current developments?
Laëtitia Vitaud: The history of labour and corporations in the United States has not been binary. The pre-industrial era corresponded both to a strong protection of the trades with barriers to entry and exit and good working conditions, but also to a great closure. This protective system was only available to white men. A shift occurred with the massive arrival of workers at the end of the 19th century. The craftsmen were confronted with a new kind of worker, from industrialists to unskilled workers. In the end, the unskilled workers prevailed, imposing a new model of work that was both more alienating and without pride. We have thus moved from a model organised around a trade and know-how, with dignity at work, to interchangeable individuals, the new bolts of a dehumanising industrial organisation.
Work has changed for the worse... and for the better?
L. V.: In the 20th century, the changes in work were not only negative. The movement towards the opening up and universalisation of work, although male, led to real progress in terms of social protection. The first examples of pensions in Detroit in the 1950s bear witness to this. If the story ended there, we could say: industry certainly won, but with a model that benefited the greatest number. A blessing in disguise, then!
"Today, we are progressively knocking down all the social achievements without returning to a form of dignity of work."
Except that history has continued and today we are progressively knocking down all the social achievements without having preserved the trades of the pre-industrial era. We are naked: without know-how that brings value and dignity to work and without social protection.
What has been the role of trade unions in the face of these changes in work and its protections?
L. V.: Unfortunately, trade unionism has not changed. It has not opened up; it is still the 'insiders' of the system who are represented, those whose careers follow the male/industrial codes. For the self-employed and the independent - from the Uber driver to people like me - there is no convergence of interests and struggles. The "new professions" are fragmented and unable to find a community of interest. Any collective action is nipped in the bud because we say to ourselves "what's the point of protection, I'm not going to get it anyway". And we are right. However, rather than abandoning these struggles, we would be better off resolving this fragmentation by creating a union that would represent these new categories of workers and that would be legitimate to do so, i.e. aware of the realities of modern work.
Who are these "modern workers" who are bearing the brunt of the changes in work?
L. V.: The first victims are those who live outside the "opportunity zones". These people have few professional horizons, either because opportunities are invisible to them because of their modest network, or because they are not mobile enough to take advantage of them. With soaring property prices, the 'opportunity zones' are completely inaccessible to a whole section of the population. Conversely, their home is likely to be in a "loss-making" area. According to studies by Xavier Timbeau of the OFCE carried out in the Ile de France region, while property prices have exploded in some areas, in others they have not moved or have even declined.
"When some areas are becoming denser and more economically attractive, where it is possible to earn €1,000 per day, in others it is the opposite."
You only need to cross-reference income distribution figures with mobility and property prices to know if you live in a "ghetto". It seems to me that it is essential to take political control of the subject of property rents in order to promote access to opportunities: to avoid the flight of the rich (often white) to new territories and to limit the impoverishment of the areas they leave.
What is the place of women in these changes in work?
L. V.: Those who have a so-called "female" job are also in a precarious situation. This is the paradox of the value of women's work, which is both infinite and zero. Giving love, raising a child, caring for others - whether in a family circle or professionally - is something so strong, unique and singular that you cannot monetise it because it has an infinite and unattainable value. If you did, then you would be entering a form of alienating prostitution.
"In addition to being violent, the purely financial definition of the value of work promotes the division between men and women"
Except that this discourse has led to the exclusion of these women workers from the economy and to giving their work the economic value of zero. Which is not the same thing as infinity! The value of zero is synonymous with extreme poverty and precariousness for the people who make this sacrifice. The question is therefore how to reintegrate this work into the economy in an organic way, without taking anything away from its value.
How can we get out of these social determinisms?
L. V.: Today, it is imperative to re-interrogate the value of work. To do this, we can turn to authors who reflect on the foundations of work and ask how our economy could be built on a purely financial definition of value, a definition that is deleterious and destructive, which impoverishes us as workers, as consumers, and as people. And it is not only violent, but it also promotes division between men and women and, in general, between different categories of people.
In this respect, I would evoke Frederici with Caliban and the Witch, which I touch on in my book From Labour to Work. I would also recommend Supiot and the Spirit of Philadelphia, which talks about dignity and craftsmanship, even if that word is never used, and Mazzucato. Although we have some very good French authors, the Anglo-Saxon references seem to me to be indispensable. For it is above all in Great Britain and then in the United States that the centre of gravity of our modern industrial history has been positioned.
How can we re-read these works without becoming locked into a one-sided reading of the past?
L. V. : The writing of history in France is very egocentric and still suffers today from the absence of women, as well as other minorities, in the readings it proposes. In historiography, there is always a point of view: it is often trade unionists, and men, who write.
"A book is neither a catalogue nor a wikipedia page, it is an intertextuality, an encounter between other books and humans."
When I write, I often think of André Gide's phrase: "Everything has already been said, but since no one is listening, we must start again and again." As well as being a real liberation, this sentence reminds us that writing is the result of an individuality coupled with choices and paths that the writer takes. A book is neither a catalogue nor a wikipedia page, it is an intertextuality, an encounter between other books and humans. This is why writing from different points of view is important. Without it, we run the risk of being confronted with the same discourses and of being locked into shackles. And to be honest, I think a lot of things could be rewritten.
Laëtitia Vitaud is an author and lecturer specialising in the future of work. She is a qualified English teacher and editor of the Welcome to the Jungle corporate media. In 2019, she published Du Labeur à l'ouvrage, a precise and detailed history of the changes in work and trade unionism since the 20th century. Follow Laëtitia Vitaud's latest news here.
On the same subject:
> "Mutation du travail, vers un conflit de générations ?" (Shift in work towards a generational conflict)
A special thank you to Samuel Chabre for his involvment in the interview and Solène Manouvrier for editing the article.