The Progressive Post

Change work to change society


This article is based in the book from this author with the same name edited by FEPS and Fondation Jean Jaurès

The crisis which currently affects western countries forms part of a metamorphosis that continues to upset the capitalist system with truly tragic consequences for the most deprived social groups and society as a whole. In recent years it has been broadly agreed that this crisis includes a combination of economic, social, cultural and environmental issues that are inextricably linked. This observation is progress as traditional analysis presupposed that the key components behind the crisis were economic and triggered by events overseas, such as international competition and economic openness. However, academic commentary rarely addresses the crisis from the point of view of work (or the workers) and such analysis remains in the shadows as the approach is deemed controversial. Yet, the approach cannot be ignored, at its very foundation this crisis is a crisis about work; the same concept occurred previously during the Industrial Revolution.

There are several indicators which evidence this point. The youth of today suffer ever-increasing periods of job insecurity due to employers’ reluctance to commit themselves long term (as a result of the crisis), but there are also increasing signs of dissatisfaction amongst those who have academic backgrounds or financial support as they willingly reject jobs and positions offered to them. Similarly, the new-found appreciation for entrepreneurship – itself one of the more welcome developments of recent years – signifies their general reluctance to integrate themselves within conventional large or medium sized enterprises. On the other hand, there are a growing number of employees who completely re-orientate their careers after forty years of work to provide themselves with a sense of meaning and social utility. This phenomenon can also be witnessed at the end of their professional career when their plans for early retirement often give rise to many vocations.

The above examples relate principally to the most privileged employees, those who can wait for long-term employment opportunities and those who can decide to leave their job for another which better reflects their desires or beliefs, or alternatively to retire thanks to a beneficial retirement package. For the vast majority of employees, this choice does not exist. The majority of people who remain in employment are becoming increasingly disengaged which is part of a larger trend that has continued for the last four or five years. Whilst the proliferation of employee burnout cases, which have always existed provides further evidence of a genuine fatigue within society.

To end the crisis we must analyse and address the causes that continue to undermine work, particularly in France, where the gap between the reality of the job for professionals and the expectations arising from the existential aspect of work is the greatest in Europe.

However, it appears no one has conducted any analysis or assessment into the causes which might explain the worsening situation domestically: by ignoring any analysis conducted on professional activities themselves or those that sacrifice everything in the struggle for employment; by ignoring how the nature and structure of work evolves to meet the demands of the workforce, challenges of both digitisation and the environment; by neglecting the debate concerning quality of work (“job well-done” concept) and the important role this plays in social utility, poor quality-work, which serves to increase the suffering felt by the workers and disengages even the most motivated employees, seriously compromising the quality of our manufacturing and weakening our ability to compete, which is now based on cooperation, skill and innovation.

Industry and work in general appears sick of this metamorphosis, the transformations introduced by Fordism that modernised the sector and work processes are part of the issue. Whilst it has always been and remains the main place for individuals to socialise, work equally isolates individuals in increasingly fragmented positions and activities.

Ineffective-work is not one of the consequences of the global crisis. It is one of the key components, the component that fuelled the democratic crisis in three different ways: professional activities too often lost their function as a means of collective emancipation (liberation), which had previously enabled everyone to openly discuss issues that go beyond the local area or neighborhood; increased the tendency to negate the positive values of solidarity and equality which often benefited insurance schemes and meritocracy in the workplace which was founded upon competition amongst employees; led to the collapse of ethics as management decisions often defended their own interests instead of the general interest and sometimes immoral behaviour.

This analysis is founded on the assumption that the concomitance of the democratic crisis and the labour crisis is not a mere coincidence. A causal link does exist between the two and the resolution of the political crisis will in part arise from a transformation within the professional sphere, which at present does not adequately appreciate cooperative behaviour and limits the assumption of responsibility. The crisis which has impacted the value of work has spread to society as a whole, within collective organisations themselves – trade unions, political parties and even associations – all have been affected by disengagement, an inability to debate and individualism which accompanies the rejection of the elite by the majority of the citizens. To ensure we can end the political crisis in a sustainable way and change society it is essential that we change work.

This change is both urgent and complex because it has become the blind spot amongst opinion leaders and decision-makers alike, who seem unwilling to focus on the day-to-day business issues. Instead they focus on employment issues, without great efficiency and fail to ensure they make any concrete progress on the key issues. As Marcel Gauchet and Alain Supiot have stressed the culture is predominantly one of numbers, averages and administration. Our elite are misleading the people because they remain unaware of the work that is yet to do on the accounting issues and financial language they have adopted1. The real work has given way to a seemingly black box operation: hypothetical (intangible) work, an exchange in terms of value where the salary forms the basis of the “price” and the workforce are thought of as a commodity. The resultant products are the number of jobs, amount of profit, power relationships and social inequality.

Bruno Trentin (author of The City of Labour, Fayard, 2012) has outlined that the organisation of Fordist production for business enterprises has shaped society as a whole, including the broader organisational culture within political and trade union forces (leaders, activists, sympathisers) and has created relative stalemate in terms of emancipation, democracy and human development. Like large corporate entities, these organisations are marked by disengagement, ill-feeling and individualism.

In order to explain the labour crisis, according to their political orientation, those responsible typically invoke, external causes, such as globalisation, financialisation and international competition; whilst others rely on internal causes: loss of traditional values, resistance to change, laziness and individualism etc. Digitisation and the introduction of new technologies are also often mentioned by those in political roles. However, the key aspects of day-to-day tasks, the changes to organisational structures and the relationship between employees and management have not been sufficiently analysed to allow any proposals to be implemented or prepared that may introduce transformation of the workplace, experimentation on building sites, or new teaching methods that would provide the people with a credible democratic promise in the face of this social and political crisis.

The extremist parties propose to return to the golden age of the post-war boom (Trente Glorieuses). The National Front (FN) support this position with reactionary rhetoric as they propose to close national borders.

They denounce any attempts to implement such an idealised view of historic labour organisations, which offered protection throughout an individual’s working life and communicated with the working classes in the event that the work and trade of the past disappeared. This position relies on the existing conflict between the elite and the people and the inherent belief that said conflict will rally workers who consider themselves isolated – prevented from acting and innovating as they wish by meddlesome administrative procedures and sometimes even by their managers who are unaware of what their role is, their knowledge or how it may be applied to their work. The absence of an alternative proposal gives the National Front (FN) the appearance that they are a visionary.

Yet, an alternative political offering is possible, provided that one utilises professional activities as a strategic lever to transform society. A political offering based upon such professional activities naturally includes a factor of self-fulfillment and personal development, which in turn makes it possible to mobilise employees; an overwhelming majority of whom wish to put more weight on the organisation, the quality and usefulness of their work. From this point of view, the current upheavals (digitisation, emergence of new consumer habits, sustainable development) represent a considerable opportunity to reinvent conventional work, an opportunity to provide a matrix for the reconstruction of new democratic practices; in essence a new way of approaching politics and to implement change in society.

In the first chapter, we briefly review the way in which fundamental work, ‘real’ work has become obscured and constrained by the permanence of a Fordist culture of mass production whereby the procedures and modes of governance have progressively structured the company and the wider society.

The notion of “real work” integrates with the discussion regarding the organisation of the activity in question, as well as the issues relating to work colleague and management relationships, direct or indirect relationships with the end-users and/or customers, which can often represent important opportunities for development and enhancement, but also an opportunity for risks, dysfunction and ill-feeling in the workforce to develop. These different aspects of work require the employee to mobilise, seize on the opportunity or initiative, achieve some form of recognition from their peers, understand the concept of social utility and the true meaning of their contribution. It is important to note that maintenance of the old Fordist operational procedures, which separate those who perform tasks from those who organise and control said activity is at the heart of the current difficulties we are facing. As a result one could argue it is necessary to find other means to control production and allow for innovation.

To this end, the second chapter proposes the cornerstones of a new structure and language for women and men at work. In a world that is slow to transform, people are still considered as a resource, a factor within the production process, a single element within a collection of individuals classified according to their academic degrees, qualifications and ultimately their working relationships. This concept has underpinned the individualisation of jobs, remuneration and career paths to the detriment of work overall and interpersonal relationships within the workplace. The original concept inherited from the enlightenment period – a belief that the individual is an autonomous subject constructed by an effort on itself has been pushed to the limit by present day commentators.

As a result, the social sciences emphasise that man is also a social being that is capable of developing relationships with one another. For me, I develop myself as an employee first – through the eyes of my work colleagues, members of the management and the end customer. Even if this view may exasperate me, it helps me to define myself as well as further myself. Therefore, the individual is no longer considered to be solely a resource, but can be invested in through potential initiatives with the ultimate aim of developing their skills to enhance their work environment and work with others.

This new vision of the individual leads us to revisit the traditional concept of work, including developments since ancient times; particularly those arising from the interdependency of humanity and the need to trade with each other. Beyond the manufacturing and service sectors, the purpose of work is often seen to transform and develop the individual. The “end of labour-work” that some commentators announced more than forty years ago, does not lead to the sphere of leisure as predicted, but to “creative works / life projects” through the interaction and exchanges between different people.

We are in a crisis that touches the very foundation of the world with the transformation of labour and the development of the individual. The regulations which once governed society have been removed and a void has been left in their place which has led to an increasing number of deviations from acceptable behaviour as well as other larger scale atrocities. From terrorism and nationalist confrontations to xenophobic movements – the changes that have taken place are profound evidence of such a void and cannot be overlooked.

Digitisation has become synonymous with this crisis; digitisation continues to accelerate the transformation of old organisational structures. For some, this process represents a threat as the change increases job insecurity but for others this change represents the dawn of a new golden age as the obsolete hierarchies are questioned and scrutinised. Against all of this phantasmagorical discourse, the third chapter considers digitisation to be a key point which allows for bifurcation along the different routes mentioned above. By multiplying the opportunities for trade and open dialogue but also increasing the control measures in place these new digital tools can bring us together and move us further away from a concept of work which includes humanisation and collective work.

The fourth chapter examines many different well-known routes to minimise the risks associated with such changes: new organisational work structures, labour forums / discussion boards, managerial innovation etc. They represent new informal regulations, behavioural norms based on cultures that may become the future of society including the professional ethics of tomorrow. In general terms, these regulations will no longer be issued through traditional channels or by any recognised authority or institution.

The last two chapters are devoted to operational responses relating to skills and competencies management, vocational training schemes, collective social protection statutes and new forms of corporate governance. The issues related to organisational changes are also discussed.

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