Defending ‘living labour’ and the commonization of nature as a way to avoid global ecological disaster.

(published in french in issue n°29 of journal Les Mondes du Travail, March 2023 , pp.187-210)

Stephen Bouquin (Professor in sociology, Paris-Saclay)

“Marx said that revolutions are the engine of history. Perhaps things are different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which humanity travelling in the train pulls the emergency brakes” (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XVIII on the Concept of History, quoted by Michael Löwy (2016)[1] .

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all existing societies simultaneously taken together, are not owners of the land. They are merely beneficiaries of it, and must bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good fathers of families]” (Capital, vol. 1 ([1867]; London, 1976), p. 637.



The ecological crisis has increasingly become increasingly important to the point it incorporates almost all other issues, be they the mode of governance, social inequalities, everyday life or simply economic organisation and this from top to down. But the theoretical understanding of this surge has yet to be sufficiently developed. Our article aims to contribute to a certain clarification of how to deal with the ‘ecological question’ both scientific and practical terms.

What does the ‘ecological crisis’ is telling us about itself? This will be our introductory point. How should we think about the meaning of ‘nature’ and of the relationship to be established between nature and society? While dualistic approaches can be criticized for having been used to justify the domination of nature by mankind, should the alternative be a ‘monistic’ approach that merges nature and society, thereby treating them on equal levels? We do not think so, and in this second point we will stress the importance of an epistemological orientation based on critical naturalism that is both materialist and dialectical. In a third point, we will present a series of analyses that recognize the primary role of the capitalist system in the ecological crisis. This critique of the ‘Capitalocene’ gains from integrating that of patriarchy, which will be our fourth point that presents materialist ecofeminist approaches. In a fifth point, we will return to the category of ‘living labour’ as a both natural and social ‘corpo-real’ entity. Mobilizing living labour at the core of analysis is necessary to articulate the labour and the social question with the ecological question in view of formulating proposed actions aimed at moving towards an ‘economy of the commons’. In conclusion, we will briefly return to the urgency of the ecological crisis to emphasize the importance of a systemic shift and the construction of a common horizon.

1 – What is the ‘ecological crisis’ telling us about itself

One of the main difficulties in understanding the ecological crisis lies in the polysemy of the concepts used. Indeed, the notion of ecology – etymologically Oikos (habitat or house) and logos (science/discourse), i.e. the science of habitat – can mean many different and even opposing things. It was coined for the first time in the 19th century by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who gave the following definition in his book Die Generale Morphologie der Organismen (1866): ‘By ‘ecology’ we mean the science of the relationship of organisms with the external world, in which we can recognise in a broader sense the conditions of existence which may be favourable or unfavourable’ (quoted by Deléage, 2007: 63)[2]. For Haeckel, such definition, rather neutral at first glance, was entirely compatible with absolute reactionary views that favoured the cleansing of humanity in the name of a pseudo-scientific theory of the survival of the fittest[3]. Logically, Haeckel advocated eugenics with the mass killing of disabled or people or those declared psychological insane. He also advocated the cleansing of society through the infliction of a quick-acting, painless poison. Indeed, it is no surprise that Haeckel was very popular among the Nazi intelligentsia.

The American zoologist and anthropologist Madison Grant (1865-1937) is another figure whose ecological thinking was resolutely reactionary. Grant was inventor and promoter of the National Parks in the United States of America and believed that confiscating land from Native Americans and denying Afro-Americans any access to property was absolutely essential to the ‘preservation of the wild beauty of nature’…

These historical facts remind us that ecology is not spontaneously progressive (nor reactionary) but that it can also be expressed in the manner of eco-fascism, eco-liberalism or eco-socialism…[4] Of course, this ideological heterogeneity of ecologism (or even environmentalism) in no way prevents the ecological crisis from vociferously occupying reality. Thanks to the work of many scientists (climatologists, glaciologists, wildlife biologists), the very existence of a crisis is now widely acknowledged[5]. In the 1970s, attention was focused primarily on the problems of pollution and so-called overpopulation of the earth (Meadows, 1972), which charged the ecological discourses with a neo-malthusianist spirit – a tendency that has far from disappeared, incidentally. It was only after Rio’s Summit in 1992, when the effects of climate change became tangible, that carbon dioxide emissions became an important issue for environmentalists.

Nowadays, the ecological crisis is mainly seen as a climate crisis. Large sections of population are becoming aware of this following the succession of heat waves, multi-year droughts, wildfires that are striking entire regions at an accelerated pace , while other regions may face torrential rains, causing large-scale floods that sweep away entire villages in torrents of mud is bringing [6]. Less acknowledged is the fact that the ecological crisis has now reached such a scale that it triggers other disruptions that have their own dynamics. One of these is the slowing down of oceanic sea currents, which is disrupting the temperatures and rainfall in Western Europe and the east coast of North America. Another illustration is the ‘albedo’ effect of the melting ice cap, which reduces the reflection of sunlight and accelerates global warming; the acidification of the whole seas and the mortification of terrestrial ecosystems, which are increasing the fall in biodiversity and provoking the sixth mass extinction [7] .

It should be recalled that the pandemic and the climate crisis are not separate, parallel phenomena, but an aggregate with various internal temporalities. Coronaviruses will not directly affect the climate, but pathogens can develop in connection with climate change… For example, it is known that drought and deforestation in South East Asia has caused wildlife to migrate massively – not only insects (mosquitoes, grasshoppers) but also bats, whose primary food source are made of insects. This caused bat species to migrate from Indonesia to more northern area’s as far as China or from North Africa towards Germany and Poland… This kind of migrations may of course bring together living species that were not used to cohabit same ecosystems, humans as well as other animals, what will increase the spill-over of pathogens. In addition to these aspects, we should also recall that circuits of industrial farming of animals are both vectors of market dependence and of use diffusion of pathogens. Critical microbiologist Rob Wallace demonstrated how gigantic industrial livestock farms increased the frequency of mutations, zoonoses and large-scale infections. Every year, bird flu and swine flu wreak havoc in thousands of factory farms, leading to eradication of massive live-stocks of animals. The biological risk management of havoc include massive use of antibiotics which has led to increasing resistance towards bacterial infections, heralding the advent of new diseases and risks of contaminations that can affect both animal and human populations on global scale.

In answer to the question of what the ecological crisis is telling us about itself, we can answer that it exposes the human causes (the Anthropocene) and that it invites us to consider the underlying global and systemic dynamics as well as to recognize that the path upon which we are could be a ‘runaway’ that will lead to globalized disaster if nothing is done while there is still time.

2 – Nature and society: the limits of dualism and monism

Should one refer to ‘nature’, the ‘natural environment’ or to ‘eco-spheres’? Or simply the ‘Planet Earth’ as a habitat for to all kinds of life? These recurring questions require sounding answers because this will help us to deal in a more systematic way with the unravelling ecological crisis.

For post-structuralists, who recognize only (or mainly) the performative character of discourse and representations in the making of the world, nature should be understood as a symbolic construction, a view of the mind. For others, there will always be an ontological difference between physical environments, the organisms that may inhabit them, and conscious and reflexive human activity. According to such a dualistic conception, which separates nature and society, human activity is thought as external to nature, which then can be seen as a ‘natural environment’, that certainly surrounds us but also one that can be mastered or domesticated. For a very long time, this dualism has legitimated a certain indifference towards the consequences of human action upon it. Such a dualistic vision can certainly be found in the writings of René Descartes, for whom the universe is made up of physical substances, while the human being is made up, first and foremost, by a spiritual and immaterial reality. Sociology has for long time followed this path with someone like Emile Durkheim claiming that nature and culture are distinct, including among human beings. Indeed, following Durkheim, woman are ‘natural beings’ somewhat removed from reason, while the man (in the masculine) is a product of culture. According to his logic, women are responsible for reproduction and the preservation of Domos, the home, while men are in charge of production, creation and governance. While some recent French sociologists (Lallemant, 2022) see reasons to relativize critique of Durkheim’s naturalization of women, others (Gardey and Löwy, 2002; Gardey, 2005) support the need of a radical critical examination of sexist naturalism within social sciences [8] .

More generally, it should be recalled that the dualistic conception of the human/nature relationship has been and remains the subject of recurrent criticism by the ecologist movement. However, this criticism is very often based on a ‘monistic’ conception, which tends to deny any interrelationship between humans and nature, which could also have the consequence of relativizing human responsibility in the preservation of the natural environment or worse, considering that nature is ‘taking revenge’ upon its main destroying factor (Larrère, 2011). Indeed, these monistic conceptions tend to absorb all distinctions between nature and culture, between environment and society, and basically proclaim that we must naturalise ourselves again…

While eco-fascism claims to have a monistic conception in which humans are entirely naturalized as having to live in harmony with natural laws, in reality it seeks to take the subjugation of nature and humans by other humans to a level never achieved before (Dubeau, 2022; François, 2022). Still, we should avoid unfair accusations and refuse to claim that any monistic vision of the human/nature relationship is necessarily reactionary. This is, in any case, what anthropological studies of Amerindian, Oceania and Southern African living communities have demonstrated (Sahlins, 1962; 2008; Graeber and Wengrow, 2021). In these communities, where egalitarian relations prevailed at a certain distance from patriarchy, social relations were organised in close symbiosis with the natural environment. The accumulation of surplus was actively thwarted (cf. the Potlatch, nomadic agriculture, the refusal to accumulate and hoard, etc.) and religious spiritualities, whether they are shamanic or animistic, reflect this integration into a ‘natural environment’ in which life is organized in close interdependence. This also explains why, both materially and symbolically, why these communities tended to preserve a balance between the social activity of humans and what is referred to as a ‘natural environment’. Such a monistic naturalist position can also be found in the radical environmentalist movement that identifies itself with deep ecology, that presents certain alternative experiences and mobilisations as an expression of nature itself (‘we are not defending nature, but we are nature defending itself’ as the motto of the Extinction Rebellion action network).

Sometimes this monism translates itself into an open refusal to even speak about nature. From this perspective, which can be found in particular in the work of the anthropologist Philippe Descola, nature does not exist ‘in itself’ and is nothing more than a metaphysical device that European civilisations have invented in order to emphasise a separation between human activity and the world around it; a world that has become a reservoir of resources, a domain to be exploited, a space for predation [9]. Since human activity is an integral part of the Earth’s vast ecosystem, Descola believes that the most urgent task is to seek after ways of ‘inhabiting’ the world that are no longer destructive of the ecosystem. However, in addressing the issue of change, monistic readings of the relationship between society and nature also reveal that they have not fully resolved the issue on a theoretical level. The different ways of inhabiting planet earth are certainly based on social customs and norms, but also on a mode of social organisation and, incidentally, a mode of production. Both intellectually and practically, we are faced with the existence of a social world that is organized according to a systemic logic, which brings us back not to nature but to society and to the relations between these two inseparable and interdependent realities.

Bruno Latour is undoubtedly the intellectual who has expressed an ongoing ambition to rethink the world and the relationship that humans have with their environment, whether it be made of artefacts or more broadly encompassing the whole of the earth’s ecosystem. For Latour, nature is not a victim to be protected, but ‘the one which possesses us’ (Latour and Schultz, 2022, p. 43). It is therefore necessary to refuse to think that humans can act from the outside on a nature from which they would be separated. It is in Politiques de la nature (1999) that Latour clarifies his position, close to certain developments in post-structural anthropology, and in particular that of Philippe Descola. His main proposal is to install nature as the primary subject of politics, to make it a leading political actor and to definitively remove it from its status as an object. He thus extends his earlier work sur as Laboratory Life (1979) or We have never been modern (1993) in which he placed human action within a network and the action of objects on the same level. Men and environment are one and human beings must adapt as much as their environment changes, while having a direct and indirect action on the human.

As R.H. Lossin states in the radical journal Salvage [10], Latour may seem convincing in his more general formulations such as the rejection of the separation between nature and culture, the critique of the main analytical categories of modernity or the recognition of what technology does to us rather than what we do with it, his approach is far from unequivocable. Indeed, his theoretical framework raises several fundamental criticisms. One of these is the fact that Latour sees the asymmetry of human/non-human relations as a kind of primary misunderstanding of reality. However, the opposite is true since this asymmetry is very real and highly problematic in the way it exists. By considering all aspects of life as a network of interacting objects, his theorization has become a kind of textbook of reification or Verdinglichtung of nature and ultimately offers nothing but empty materialism (Lohsin, 2020).

In the twilight of his life, perhaps because he was recognizing the limits of his earlier positions, Latour eventually pulled the ‘new geo-social class struggle’ out of his hat (Latour 2021, Latour and Schultz, 2022). What is at stake is a struggle of ideas based on a ‘class’ that is based upon sharing the same ‘cause of habitability’ of the earth[11]. In his final work, Latour evoked the urgency of a ‘new climate regime’ in which the conditions of habitability would be the utmost priority. Still, we can ask ourselves if this the fundamentally answer to the problem that we are facing, i.e. capitalism. For Latour, this is not the issue, since anti-capitalism mean for him nothing more than a vague catchword that prevents us from thinking complexity, since the goal ‘is not to replace the capitalist system but to recover the Earth’[12]. As a matter of fact, Latour has constantly neglected a critique of capital and capitalism, and even when he did mention it, mainly in interviews, they become an umbrella notion designating big money and financialization.

Some may regret this avoidance of a critique of capitalism but maybe we should try to grasp also the reasons for these silences. If capital remained an analytical blind spot for Latour, it is not only for ideological reasons but above all for theoretical and conceptual ones. Since Latour understands reality as a collection of objects, he simply did not grasp the deep reality of capital, since the latter is not an object, nor a thing but a social relation or, to put it another way, a ‘real social abstraction’ that is not always visible as such nor observable[13].

To a certain extend we could say that the pandemic revealed in its own way the connection between nature and society. Andreas Malm made this point very clear: ‘Is the Covid 19 pandemic nature’s ‘revenge’? Latourians, posthumanists and other hybridists can be counted on to give the corona an anointing of agency. But the ontological difference between humans and non-humans remains: bats were not tired of the forest, pangolins did not choose to be sold, and the SARS-CoV-2 micro-organism did not develop a plan to infiltrate ventilation systems or aircrafts. Only humans think: there is oil in this swampy subsoil or if we raise more cattle, we can sell more…’ (Malm, 2020: 173)

These somewhat abrupt formulations are based on the assertion that nature and society must be thought of as interacting as well as interconnected with each other, as a contradictory unity composed of both relatively distinct and interdependent realities. This is also what French sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm proposed when he devoted a book to an in-depth examination of the principles of dialectics (Brohm, 2003), framing historical materialism both as critical naturalism and social constructivism: ‘[it is] a unitary science insofar as it studies, not society and nature in their respective autonomy, in their ontological separation, but in their reciprocal interaction (…) For Marx and Engels, there is only one science, the one that studies the movement of society in its contradictory relations with nature – which both carries it along by offering it resources but also destroys it by overwhelming it with various catastrophes.’ (2003 : 140).

Nevertheless, according to Brohm, it is necessary to recognize that this dialectical unity between nature and society is in the process of shattering: ‘(because) it is becoming a double destruction: first, the destruction of nature – of the environment, of the fauna and flora in their biodiversity – under the devastating expansionist effects of the capitalist mode of production; second, the gradual destruction of society as a result of the relentless exploitation of natural resources and the massive pollution that ensues’ (Brohm, 2003: 141). Thus, for humanity, there is no other solution than to ‘protect the earth’ and to rehabilitate its own naturality, for itself and for future generations, which Marx summed up very well when he wrote: ‘From the point of view of a higher organisation of society, the right of ownership of certain individuals over parts of the globe will appear as absurd as the right of ownership of an individual over his neighbor’ (Marx, 1974: 159).

3 – Some thoughts about the fertility of an eco-marxist critique of the ‘Capitalocene’

For a long time, Marx and Engels were perceived as thinkers that favoured the unparalleled growth of the productive forces with the plenitude of abundance as the main means to achieve communism. It is not difficult to find in their writing arguments in favour of this perception, especially in the chapters that ends third book of Capital. Of, course, such perception is also nourished by the harmful experience of a bureaucratic USSR that was entirely oriented towards productivism and was almost as deaf towards social needs and use value as capitalism is blind, since it only recognize exchange value and profit. At the same time, one should not forget that Marx (or Engels) defended the assertion that both labour and are the only sources of all wealth, as can be read in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. However, recognizing the contribution of nature in the creation of wealth does not directly imply making a careful use of it, which justifies, according to eco-socialist thinkers such as Daniel Tanuro and Michael Löwy, a critical assessment of the too many silences of Marx and Engels on this question[14].

Other authors are less circumspect in their recognition of an ‘ecological Marx’. The most well-known of them is of course John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, who challenged in his book Marx the Ecologist (2011) a number of failings falsely attributed to Marx in relation to ecology, such as his failure to recognize the exploitation of nature, the existence of natural limits, or the variable character of nature. Foster was among the first that initiated a re-reading of Marx’s work that has identified some key concepts to better understand the problematic interrelationship between nature and society that is specific to the capitalist mode of production.

Following J.B. Foster, the ‘ecological Marx’ relied his understanding of the destructive and transforming character of capitalism on the critical assessment of second agricultural revolution made by Justus von Liebig. The German chemist was scandalized by the intensive use of chemical fertilizers, since this would deplete soil fertility, which would trigger the use of additional fertilizers such as guano and bones from the battlefields of Europe (containing potassium, nitrogen and phosphor). This brought von Liebig to extend the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel), previously limited to intra-corporeal biological processes, to all kind of natural systems. As an avid reader of scientific literature, Marx realized that soil fertility is not a pure natural phenomenon but socially produced under changing conditions, since natural realities (soil composition, rainfall, erosion, etc.) constantly interact with social conditions such as agricultural techniques. This is why Marx adopted the concept of metabolism to understand how nature is functioning in larger perspective and extended it to social processes, relating it at the same time to their natural environment.

Foster main thesis is that Marx elaborated the lineaments of an understanding that allows for the identification of the ecological crisis inherent in the capitalist regime, which he refers to as the Metabolic Rift taking place in the interdependent process of social metabolism and a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The ‘universal metabolism of nature’, the ‘social metabolism’ and the ‘metabolic breakdown’ are of crucial importance in modeling the complex relationship between socio-productive systems, particularly that of capitalism, and the wider natural/ecological systems in which they are embedded: ‘This approach of the human-social relationship to nature, deeply interwoven with Marx’s critique of capitalist class-based society, provides historical materialism with a unique perspective on the contemporary ecological crisis and the challenge of transition.’ (Foster, Clark and York 2010: 207.)

While Foster was the first to put forward such a re-reading of a fully ecological Marx in an article published almost a quarter of a century ago in the American Sociological Review (1999), other authors, such as Jason W. Moore (2000, 2011), were quick to follow him, but differed on important points. For Jason W. Moore, the ‘metabolic rift’ did not take place at the beginning of the 19th century but much earlier, in the 17th century, when the crisis of feudal serfdom in England freed a component of the peasantry from the obligation to pay tribute or to perform work tasks for their lords. This was coupled with the privatisation of the commons (via enclosures) and the use of arable land as pasture necessary to sustain a massive production of wool that merchants exported to Europe in late Middle-Age. The colonisation of the New World and the development of sugar cane plantations provided a caloric-rich resource that compensated the scarcity of food provoked by the expansion of pastures. But such a ‘remedy’ created the need for disposable workforce which was responded into the development of the slave system in those colonies[15]. This explains, according to Jason W. Moore, why the ‘metabolic rift’ is connected to the imperial ambitions of the British crown, the colonisation and, more indirectly, of the massification of slave trade.

Geographer and economist David Harvey has not been silent on the ecological question (Harvey, 2015: 222-263) even if he tended to underestimate up till recently the irretrievable character of the ecological disaster. Harvey remains also quite vague about the nodal position of this metabolic rift. Instead of this, he propose to understand capitalism as an ecosystem in itself, involving both capital and nature that are produced and reproduced through systemic interrelated dynamics. Capital, as a specific (historical) form of human activity has not only exhausted nature but also (re)metabolizes it, with the logic of profit and the law of value as the principal organizing principles. Nature is thus not only exploited and exhausted but is also internalized in the circuit of accumulation (Harvey, 2015: 246.). This is quite obvious since we know that both seeds and plants can be genetically modified in order to expand the volume but also the corporate control over grain trade. Local self-sufficient agricultural production is replaced by a global trade that is integrated into the circuits of valorisation. What is common to John Bellamy Foster and David Harvey is that both are stating that capitalism ‘metabolises’ nature and is becoming itself a reality that is metabolised by nature, but in a contradictory way[16]. On a more strictly economic level, Harvey has linked global financialization of capital to the extractivist and predatory pressure of neoliberal capitalism, which he summarizes as ‘accumulation by dispossession’, analogous to the primitive accumulation of capital based on coercion and predation. Both the growth of fictious capital, speculative bubbles, the spiral of debt is pushing capital accumulation towards a headlong rush to find new and more sources of speculative assets, no matter if this means the frenetic and predatory acquisition of arable land, of minerals and, more broadly, of all kinds of potential natural resources buried in the subsoil or at the bottom of the oceans.

Critical understanding of the ‘Capitalocene’ shouldn’t remain superficial on his historical understanding of it. This is why the key role played by fossil fuels in the upcoming ecological disaster is also a crucial aspect. Swedish professor Andreas Malm of Lund University is a strong advocate of the concept of ‘fossil capitalism’. In Fossil Capital. Global Warming in the Age of Capital (2016), Malm presents a socio-economic historical analysis of the factors that led to the intensive and extensive use of fossil fuels. To him, the concept of the Anthropocene, while it has the merit of naming the problem, is entangled in a millennia-old narrative of humanity that is basically a mad pyromaniac arsonist. But if we want to understand global warming, it is not the archives of the human species that need to be investigated, but those of the British Empire, says Andreas Malm. He demonstrates that the steam engine was, in the second half of the 18th century, an essential tool for disciplining workers. Indeed, in the English textile industry, the machine developed by James Watt quickly supplanted the abundant and cheaper hydraulic power used by a vast dispersed number of small scaled manufacturing houses. Malm explains that in order to understand this paradoxical fact of mobilizing a much more expensive energy, one has to integrate the agency (the capacity to act) of ‘living labour’. With hydraulic power available in many places but of variable quantity, the location of the textile industry was necessarily decentralized and moderate in size, forcing entrepreneurs to bring to these rural areas cohorts of labour that were often recalcitrant in their commitment to work and demanding in terms of pay. The steam engine made it possible to expand textile factories and locate wherever specially in urban agglomerations, exactly where thousands of impoverished workers tried to make a living and a reserve army was ready to replace those that were reluctant. For Malm, ‘fossil capital’ allowed the limits of surplus extraction and profit to be pushed further, both on the side of living labour as on that of natural ecosystems (predation, coal mining). These insights have led him to elaborate a revised version of Marx’s cycle of capital accumulation, which he represented schematically as follows (see Figure 1).

After coal, it was the turn of oil and its by-products, extracted on an unprecedented scale and propelling hundreds of millions of thermal engines and mass consumption goods– cars, household appliances – which have led us on the track of a global ecological disaster.

In Corona, Climate and chronic emergency (2020) Andreas Malm revisited the links between the ecological crisis and the systemic logic of the Capitalocene. Malm explains that capital has no intention of destroying the complex cellular structures of wild nature and that it has no intentionality in its efforts to generate profits. No, capital ‘acts’ in this way because it simply has no other way to reproduce itself:

‘Fixation and absorption are in the DNA of capital. The moment these cease to accompany the process of accumulation, the reproduction of capital ceases to exist. Unlike other parasites, capital cannot simply vegetate in the fur or veins of other species for millions of years of co-evolutionary equilibrium. It can only subsist by expanding and, in this sense, it exhibits a kind of permanent pandemicity. Once capital escaped from its reservoir host, i.e. the British Isles, it began the enormous historical process of subsuming the wilderness of this planet, whether in the form of a palm oil plantation, a bauxite mine, a wet market or a chicken farm. All these entities and countless others represent the wilderness drawn into value chains. (Malm, 2020: 76)

Like a virus that multiplies and circulates, capital is a kind of meta-virus – ‘the godfather of all parasites’. Following David Harvey’s understanding of capitalism, Malm reminds us that the accumulation of capital is based on the permanent appropriation of space and time, which proceeds by a double compression, that of space and that of time. Indeed, capital constantly seeks to shorten the rotation cycle of its accumulation: the faster commodities will be sold, the faster an investment can be paid back and ultimately the greater the profits. Capital seeks also to cancel out space by linking territories and populations through trade, migration flows or technical devices in order to enlarge markets and to integrate them into a glow flow of commodities and accumulation. But that’s not all, the capitalism also requires the enlargement of wage labour and the reproduction of labour power, which remains an activity that is carried out almost exclusively by women in an unpaid way. This brings us examine in the following section patriarchy and the sexual division of labour.

4 – Domestication of nature and patriarchal domination: the Capitalocene through the prism of the ‘Patriarcocene’

Friedrich Engels, in his work on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, succeeded in elaborating the lineaments of a theorization of the women as ‘the first oppressed class’. While the second feminist wave of the 1960s-1970s produced much more systematic elaborations, the term ecofeminism was first enunciated by Françoise d’Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974) to signify that the domination of nature and women are historically linked [17]. In the Anglo-Saxon world, thanks in particular to Carolyn Merchant, author of The Death of Nature (1980, 2021), ecofeminism developed quite rapidly in social sciences. Merchant considers that women’s identification to nature dates back well before the Neolithic revolution and was based on fertility imagery associating the earth with a beneficent and nurturing mother [18] . The colonisation of the New World and the slave trade represented a qualitative change also because it coincides with another regime of truth that is based on scientific rational claims.

Ecofeminist theory shows us how the ideology of the forces of production originated in a hetero-patriarcal, racialist and speciesist model of rationality. Following Valerie Plumwood (2012), an Australian philosopher influenced by Critical Theory.  [19], human existence has been associated in Western culture with productive labour, sociability and culture while separating them from forms of labour considered as secondary from forms of collective property such as the commons. This is also demonstrated in the fact that classical political economy defines reproductive labour as non-labour, i.e. as value-free activity even if it responds to social need while commons are seen as resources of value that have yet to be realized (see also Barca 2010).

Maria Mies is certainly a central intellectual figure in late 20th century ecofeminism. Mies argues in her Magnus Opus  Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) that feminism must go beyond the critique of the sexual division of labour, incorporating into the framework of analysis the condition of the women in the periphery of the capitalist world-system in order to identify ‘the contradictory policies concerning women that have been, and still are, promoted by the brotherhood of militarists, capitalists, policy-makers, and scientists in their effort to maintain a model of growth’ (Mies, 1986: 3). Whereas classical political economy has conceptualized labour in opposition to nature and women, i.e. as a productive activity actively shaping the world by giving it value, Mies considers as labour any activity that participates in the production of life and which ‘must be called productive in the broad sense, the production of use values for the satisfaction of human needs’ (Mies, 1986: 47). Mies’ argument being that the production and reproduction of life, or subsistence labour, carried out mainly in unpaid ways by women, if not by slaves, peasants and colonized subjects, ‘constitutes the perennial basis on which capitalist productive labour can be built and exploited’ (Mies, 1986: 48). Since it was not remunerated, its capitalist appropriation could only be achieved in the last instance through violence or the intervention of coercive institutions. The sexual division of labour was based neither on biological nor economic determinants, but on the masculine monopolisation of (armed) violence which ‘constitutes the political power necessary for the establishment of lasting relations of exploitation between men and women, as well as between different classes and wage earners’ (ibid.: 4).

The foundations of capital accumulation in Europe were placed on a parallel process of conquest and exploitation of the colonies, slavery and the exploitation of women’s bodies and productive capacities. At the same time, European women of different social classes – including those involved in settlement colonialism – were subjected to a process of housewifization, limiting their existence to the function of a housewife. As a result, women were progressively excluded from political economy, which was linked to public space, and enclosed in “the ideal of the domesticated and privatised woman, preoccupied with love and consumption, dependent on a man who had become the male breadwinner’ (Mies, 1986: 103). However, this housewifization also mean that women represent the vast majority of the world’s reproductive and caring classes. Although the status of women is obviously divided by cleavages of class and racialization, it is also true that women can be seen as part of the global proletariat whose bodies and productive capacities have been appropriated by capital and the institutions that serve it.

As a matter of fact, the combination of ecofeminism with historical materialism makes it possible to articulate reproductive labour and any labour activity that consists of supporting life in its material and immaterial needs with a critique of the Capitalocene. The recognition of the nodal character of reproductive labour leads us towards a critique of capitalism that is instrumentalizing as well as commodifying life for ends other than life itself, whether it be the preservation of power relations or the imperative valorisation of capital. Today, it is clear that reproductive labour is increasingly submitted to commodification and rationalization, both processes by which it is incorporated into the circuits of capital accumulation. Capitalism thus mutilates the potential for improving life by transforming reproductive labour and care into instruments of accumulation and sources of profit. These processes exhaust both care-giving people (as workers or not) workers and the environment, extracting ever more surplus labour and energy and leaving workers exhausted in terms of their physical and mental resources. As Tithi Batthacharya (2019) aptly summarises: ‘The pursuit of profit is increasingly in conflict with the imperatives of life creation’.

5 – From the critique of real existing work to the defence of ‘living labour’

Following Roy Bashkar’s ‘critical realism’[20], we will take as the starting point for our reflections labour and work as they actually exist and not as we would like them to be, as a ‘fetish’ or an anthropological reality understood in transhistorical terms. Moreover, privileging an analysis of work/labour based on a generic or ideal-typical form, whether it be artisanal or creative work, is not very fruitful from a heuristic viewpoint. Certainly, some forms of work can give rise to self-realization, but these situations remain quite exceptional or are nowadays suffering social degradation (socio-economic insecurity, debt bondage, dependence towards the market). Public service work is not immune to these regressive trends; consider for example the effects of New Public Management, digitalisation or austerity policies. Moreover, basing the analysis on work and labour as it objectively exists and not as it ideally should be, allows us to revisit the issue from a conceptual point of view, which is necessary to clarify what ‘ecologization’ of work might mean on a practical level.

It should be recalled that an impressive number of factual analyses quite close to this ‘critical realistic approach’ are to be found in Engels’ and Marx’s writings. Friedrich Engels, in his Letters from Wuppertal (1839), gives an extensive account of the living and working conditions of the textile workers in Barmen, a small town in Rhineland-Westphalia which was also his birthplace:

‘Labour is carried out in low rooms where one breathes more coal fumes and dust instead of oxygen. Workers are starting to labour, in most cases, at the age of six, which can only deprive children of all strength and joy of life. (…) The weavers, who have their own loom in their house, work from dusk till dawn or even into the night, straining their backs and drying out their spinal cords in front of a hot stove. (…) If one can find robust people among the craftsmen, like the leather workers born in the region, three years of this life are enough to ruin them physically and mentally and three out of five died from alcohol abuse. All this would not have assumed such horrible proportions if the factories were not exploited so recklessly by the owners (…). Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, especially among the workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are present in almost every family. In Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age, 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories – simply so that the manufacturer does not have to pay adult workers, whose place they take, which would double the wages that are paid to a child.’

A few years later, Engels systematized his exercise of sociological investigation before publishing The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). Numerous detailed descriptions – based in particular on medical reports – mention the excess infant mortality, diseases and deformities linked to exposure to chlorine, arsenic or lead. Karl Marx, greatly impressed by the investigation of his companion Engels, adopted a similar approach, which explains why so many detailed descriptions of working and living conditions can be found in Capital:

‘All the sensory organs are injured by artificially high temperatures, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise, not to mention the dangers to life and limb posed by closely aligned machines; dangers which, with the regularity of the seasons, produce their list of dead and wounded on the battlefield of industry. The economic use of the means of production, ripened and forced as in a greenhouse by the factory system, is transformed in the hands of capital into a systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the worker while at work, that is, of space, light, air, and protection from the dangerous or unhealthy concomitants of the production process; not to speak of the robbery of resources indispensable to life itself’ (Capital, Vol 1, op cit., pp. 552-553).

Marx also examined in detail food issues by considering that capitalist entrepreneurs systematically imposed undernourishment on workers. The few concessions made to the subsistence needs of the workers had no moral basis but were solely motivated by the need to obtain a higher productivity and because the situation of the labour market pushed the entrepreneurs to do so…

Today, more than 170 years after Engels’ and Marx’s workers’ inquiries, living and working conditions are sometimes strikingly similar. Whether in Latin America, Africa or Asia, hundreds of millions of people live in shanty towns without access to drinking water or public facilities. Labouring in the Maquiladoras, in the Foxconn factories in China or the cobalt mines in Africa, also bears a resemblance to the condition of the working class in 19th century England. Today, nearly 150 million children are constrained to work, a number that has been steadily increasing over the past twenty years [21]. The pandemic has only made the situation worse, adding an estimated 25 million children to the cohorts already mobilized for picking, toiling, extracting rare metal s or waste sorting. Bond labour is also expanding on global level. According to minimalist estimates, more than 70 million people are engaged around the world in forced labour in agriculture, industry and construction, not including forced marriages [22]. Finally, it should be noted that bond labour is by no means limited to the Global South but is also developing in OECD countries, particularly in tourism, catering and agricultural sectors, and even in garment sweatshops that can be found in Northern Italy or around Leicester in the UK [23] .

In the industrialized countries of the North, people may not die anymore because a mine shaft collapse or explode, but rather from a stroke or a heart attack… Death from overwork, known as Karoshi, is a phenomenon that is growing alarmingly, and not only in Japan. According to the WHO and ILO (Pega and others, 2018), overwork is estimated to cause 745,000 deaths per year globally, an increase of 20-25% from estimations made in 2005. The 6,800 deaths related to appalling working conditions on construction sites for the World Cup in Qatar demonstrate that these estimates are far from being unreal.

Real existing labour is actually getting worse, according to a large survey in 41 countries [24]. Intensive, deadline-driven or fast-paced work affects 30% of workers in the EU and almost 50% in the US, Turkey or Latin America [25]. The emotional burden of workloads is increasing in recent years, as 35-40% of respondents say, and flexibility remains a non-negotiable constraint for 40-55%. Long working weeks of 48 hours or more are imposed on an average of 20% of the workforce in the European Union; upon a quarter in the United States, and vary between 50 and 65% in countries like Turkey and South Korea. This is no surprise, but it remains a major injustice, as much as the fact that women earn significantly less than men (25 to 30% less depending on the country) while they are working more hours overall, which is also a consequence of the precariousness and informality that affects women more frequently (35 to 45% on average in the 41 countries studied). Overall, 30 to 50% of jobs are of ‘low’ or ‘very low quality’ [26] .

Exposure to physical risks is also very common. More than half of the workers or employees in many regions and countries covered by the survey are exposed to repetitive hand and arm movements, which is the most reported physical hazard. One-fifth of the employees are frequently exposed to high temperatures in the workplace.

The survey also highlights the importance of unpaid reproductive work assumed mostly by women, including in Europe. This reproductive work, including care, demands a considerable amount of time, which can vary from 20 to 40 extra hours per week on top of paid work, when children are young or pre-adolescent. For men, on the other hand, their involvement in reproductive work varies between 9 and 15 hours per week, depending on age and the number of children (Eurofound, 2019: 41).

The methodology of these international surveys is not very homogenous which mean that the robustness of results is varying from country to another. Still, this should not distract us from the fact that real existing labour coincide with a degraded social life that very often rhymes with drudgery and suffering… [27]

What is empirically true also requires theoretical and conceptual clearness. In his early writings, such as the Manuscripts of 1844, Marx focuses on Homo Faber: the human being transforms nature and the world through work/labour and transforms himself through the execution of that process. However, in his later writings, such as the Grundrisse and especially in Capital, Marx clarifies his critical understanding of labour. A first clarification was done through the distinction between abstract and concrete labour. In its concrete form, labour refers to the production of goods (and services) understood from the point of view of their use value, whereas in its abstract form, this same labour produces exchange values by submitting the concrete labouring activity to the logic of quantification and to the injunction of performance and output. The main problem is not alienation or coercion as such the ‘domination of abstract labour over concrete labour’ (Vincent, 1986; Bouquin, 2006; Postone 2011). This domination of abstract labour over concrete labour is in fact what defines wage labour, even if its intensity can vary and even if there are particularly unbearable situations and others that can be accommodated to.

By mobilizing the concept of labour-power as specific value-form of labour that is sold to the capitalist, Marx recognizes the asymmetrical and antagonistic nature of the wage relation. This social relation mobilises the worker who possesses only his/her labour-power to obtain an income and the employer holding the means of production which gives a certain capacity in organizing and controlling the execution of labour. This asymmetrical relationship is also the basis for surplus value extraction, i.e. the private appropriation of a fraction of the wealth created by living labour by the owners of the means of production [28] . This ‘economic’ relationship of exploitation also implies a socio-political dimension of ‘subsumption’ that is at the origin of the sense of alienation, the loss of control over one’s life, and not only in the workplace. These aspects, which have been extensively studied by André Gorz and other critical thinkers, became visible again, whether through the extent of burn-out phenomena or the return of a social critique of work, which is reflected in the ‘Great Resignation’, quiet quitting and the quest for meaningful autonomous activities outside the sphere of heteronomous wage labour.

In his Grundrisse as well as in Capital, Marx also refers to ‘living labour’ in opposition to ‘dead labour’, the latter meaning the labour provided by machines and automated devices. The concept of ‘living labour’ is an analytical category that refers to workers, both in their labouring activity and as human being. Living labour is thus an individual and collective ‘corpo-real’ reality that recognizes its socio-biological nature. In the capitalist system, this ‘corpo-real’ dimension is expressed primarily in a negative way: through unhealthy housing, the imperative constraint of mobility or the mutilation of daily life, not to mention the tendency towards unhealthy food that occurs more at the bottom of the social ladder and the overexposure of toxicity and pollution of certain occupations, professions or social activities. In the metropolitan areas of capitalism, and certainly in countries with a welfare state, strong trade unions and public services have made it possible to mitigate the most deleterious effects of capitalism on living conditions. The concept of ‘living labour’ therefore refers not only to the living character of labour power but also to the ‘social fabric’ that makes workers capable of labouring day after day because they have been able to reproduce this capacity to some extent.

While the concept of ‘living labour seems to be gaining some ground in France (Cukier, 2017; Harribey, 2020), in other countries like Germany, it was mobilized since quite a long time within the framework of an explicit ecological analysis. This is illustrated in particular by Oskar Negt’s work on working time and the social organisation of time as an ecological issue in itself. Indeed, for Oskar Negt, heteronomous working time is seen as antagonistic to life [29] . Defending ‘lebentige arbeit’ or living labour means taking up the cause of time of life and acting towards a drastic reduction of working time; in other words, acting in favour of an extension of control over time both on individual and collective level. Logically, the pressure to work longer and harder is inherently mortifying, whereas the will to free oneself from the obligation to work may be driven by the vital impulse of living a real life, i.e. not subjugated to working and labouring. Following this approach, we can also say that the massive and obstinate mobilisations in France against the extension of the retirement age are driven by a relative unconscious ecological aspiration of living labour.

Collective mobilisations and workers resistance, and even manifestations of misbehaviour (Ackroyd and Thompson, 2022), demonstrate that this living labour is always endowed with agency. In other words, living labour is anything but an inert mass that can be manipulated at will, but represents an active and subjective reality, that will never be completely repressed and subsumed (Barrington Moore, 1986; Ackroyd and Thompson, 2022; Bouquin, 2007). This also makes it possible to understand why living labour always remain to a certain extend reluctant, why social conflict sometimes make an unexpected comeback and remains a social condition with a latent potential for collective action (strike but not only) which remains, let us not forget, the first source of leverage for social change.

The agency of living labour is not only the expression of tensions between abstract and concrete labour, between management and employees but is fed by a fundamental contradiction between life and capital, embodied by the logic of valorisation that is imposed upon living labour. The Covid pandemic was a moment when this contradiction came back on the front stage: either life had to be privileged by bringing the economy to a halt, or profits had to be prioritized by the pursuit of economic activity at the expense of a much higher death toll. The pandemic was also a moment of existential catharsis on a mass scale, which had the effect of nourishing critical reflexivity that questions the idea of pursuing a working life that doesn’t make much sense except the fact one can lose its life in order to gain an income to live it. This ‘existential’ experience may also explain why we have seen since 2021 a disruptive return of social conflicts and a comeback of critical views upon work and labour.

To a large extent, we can say that defending living labour and decent living conditions constitutes an ecological struggle ‘in itself’[30]. Of course, it would be futile to think that greening or the ‘ecologization’ of living labour is enough to solve the ecological crisis. Indeed, everyone can easily imagine ‘ecological labour’, i.e. with high job quality and healthy working conditions, that nevertheless corresponds to an activity that is harmful to the environment. Symmetrically, one can also identify ecological activities like waste sorting or recycling in combination with non-ecological (unhealthy) working conditions for the workers involved in it. By extending the equation, we may also identify configurations where both labour and the productive activities would be ecological, was well as the opposite, where neither labour nor the productive activity would be ecological or green.

To solve this equation in a way that it is not destructive for the environment nor for the workers, it is imperative to look beyond work delivered by living labour and to integrate into the analysis the ‘dead labour’ that Marx evoked to designate capital, since this leads to directly to questioning production and the purposes that govern it. This is precisely one of Franck Fischbach’s central propositions in Après la production. Travail, nature et capital (2019): ‘What capital manages to make productive is always the result of a certain form of ‘labour’ (travail), bringing into play natural forces that go far beyond the mere human force of labour (travail)’. Indeed, labour refers not only to human involvement in the production of goods or services but also to the ‘labour of capital’, which relies on the ‘labour of nature’. As Fischbach reminds us, ‘the first characteristic of capital is its capacity to make productive for itself the widest possible range of natural forces, whether human or non-human.’ (Fischbach, 2019: 33). The second characteristic is that it cannot do so without destroying these same natural forces because ‘it cannot make natural forces productive for it without turning production into destruction and it cannot make human labour power or the naturally fertile and fruitful force of a soil productive without exhausting them. (…)’ (ibidem). The reason for this is not only located on the side of the immanent pursuit of an accumulation without limits but also in the fact that ‘the capitalist process of production, as a process of valorisation of capital, is always actualised as a process of consumption: it makes natural and social forces productive only by appropriating them, and appropriates them only by consuming and destroying them in the more or less long term.’ (ibid.).

Therefore, unconditionally defending living labour necessarily results in surpassing an economy that is under the control of capital in ‘the advent of an economy of living labour and a reasonable and democratic organisation of the common good’ (Negt, 2007: 190).

This notion of the common good and more broadly of the commons represents, in my opinion, a sufficiently open and precise intellectual and programmatic resource that allows reflection and action to be steered in the right direction. For Jean-Marie Harribey (2020): ‘Put simply, the common is what humans do together, the commons is what they have together’ (p. 262). This proposal is based on a materialist vision according to which the decision to make a ‘common good’, whether material or immaterial, is a matter of choice. The status of ‘commons’ links the object (the real substrate) to the human being who shares its use and towards the institutions that manage and preserve it. That is why commons should be kept aside of the market and the rights to access them must be guaranteed (Harribey, 2020: 11). The resources that Harribey proposes to pool in common are first water, energy, education, health and housing. But the ecological crisis demands commons to be extended to include nature and the whole earth. In order for these commons to be truly accessible to all on an equal basis, they must be excluded from private ownership and the process of valorisation and marketized exchange. Kohei Saito’s argument for degrowth communism (Saito, 2020 and 2023) goes in the same direction by considering the commons as the basis for the idea of a ‘commonisation’ of social organisation: ‘My definition of communism is therefore very simple: communism is a society based on the commons. Capitalism has destroyed the commons with primitive accumulation, the commodification of land, water and everything else. It is a system dominated by the logic of commodification. My vision of communism is the negation of the negation of the commons: we can de-commodify public transport services, public housing, whatever you want, but we can also run them in a more democratic way – not in the way of a few bureaucrats regulating and controlling everything.’[31]

6 – Concluding remarks

Faced with approaching disasters, the temptation to formulate ideological responses is great. But discussions on how to name an overall systemic alternative tend to be endless. Moreover, they can only be concluded in a practical way, when mobilisations and struggles develop on a wider level and when the urgent measures to be taken begin to take shape. Pending such developments, we will limit our remarks here to recall the main elements already stated in the course of what has preceded:

(1). The ecological crisis is human-made, global, systemic and is close to reaching a limit beyond which our planet will become uninhabitable for large parts of humanity. According to the latest projections, the time remaining to avoid a global disaster with a runaway dynamic varies between 15 and 25 years at the most;

(2). Nature does exist in a contradictory interdependent relationship with society. The same applies to society in relation to the ‘natural environment’. Moreover, we can observe a combined movement of humanisation of nature and naturalisation of humans as living beings dependent on this natural environment (biosphere, ecosphere and ecosystems);

(3). The disasters that lie ahead are rooted in fossil capitalism and the systemic imperative of profitability, which are at the root of a destructive and regressive combined re-metabolization of nature and society.

(4) The extension of the logic of valorisation upon life and reproductive labour leads to its integration into the field of social activities dominated by the market and abstract labour.

(5) Even if living labour is dominated by dead labour, capital remains dependent on the availability of living labour in order to continue to extract surplus value and to pursue the process of valorisation and accumulation. Defending ‘living labour’ is therefore an ecological struggle in itself. By reasoning this way, we articulate social and ecological struggles and integrate production and its purposes into reflection and action. The production of goods and services and its related consumption are a matter of choice: either everything is done to support and enhance the cycle of accumulation and profitability or priority is given to the satisfaction of social needs and the preservation of a common good that is a habitable and liveable earth for all.

6). To avoid disaster, it is absolutely necessary to move into the direction of an ‘emergency exit’, a post-capitalist systemic bifurcation. To reach such a goal, we must not only identify urgent measures to be taken, but also draw up a critical assessment of certain remedies that are either illusory (a technical fix like carbon capture and storage), too limited or fragmented (the carbon market), or very difficult to generalize at the present stage (prefigurative experiments) or, last but not least simply dysfunctional (so called ‘sustainable consumption’ and greenwashing).

The threat of irreparable disaster and the risk of a loss of capacity for action are real, which also raises the question of the time left over. The fatalism of the ‘collapsologists’ [32] is not only dangerous – because it feeds nihilistic or reactionary reflexes like survivalism – but it ignores the fact that time can accelerate under the impetus of a massive and global civic and social ecological mobilisation, which also explains why what takes years to happen sometimes take place in a few weeks or even days. Of course, in order to set such an acceleration in motion, humanity must manifest itself as a collective subject (actor), fighting for its common life, as a subject that defends the perpetuation of its natural conditions of existence by transforming society and its relationship with nature as much as preserving the natural conditions of life.

As Theodor W. Adorno wrote a few decades ago: ‘[It remains to be seen] whether humanity is capable of preventing catastrophe. The forms of global societal constitutions of humanity threaten its own survival, if a self-conscious global subject does not develop and intervene. The possibility of progress, of avoiding the most extreme and total disaster, has migrated to this one global subject. Everything that implies progress must crystallize around it.’ (Adorno, 2005 : 144).


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Sahlins, Marshall (1962), Moala: Culture and Nature on a Fijian Island. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sahlins, Marshall (1972), Stone Age Economics, New York, de Gruyter Press, 1972.

Sahlins, Marshall (2008), The Western Illusion of Human Nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Sato, Kohei (2023), Marx in the Anthropocene, Cambrigde University press, 276p.

Servigne Pablo & Stevens Raphaël (2015), Comment tout peut s’effondrer, Petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes, Paris, 304p.

Tanuro, Daniel ((2014), Green capitalism. Why it can’t work (French L’Impossible capitalisme vert, 2010. La Découverte, 289p.

Tanuro, Daniel (2020), Trop tard pour être pessimistes. Eco-socialisme ou effondrement, éd. Textuel, Paris, 324p.

Thompson, Paul & Ackroyd, Stephen (2022), Organisational misbehaviour, London, 389p.

Vincent, Jean-Marie (1987 (2019), Critique du travail. Le faire et l’agir, éd. Critiques, 288p.

Wallace, Robert (2016), Big Farms Make Big Flu. Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, Monthly Review Press, 400p.

Walvin, James (2019), How Sugar Corrupted the World. From Slavery to Obesity, Robinson, 352p. [French: Histoire du sucre, histoire du monde., La Découverte, 2020, 322p.]



[1]. Michael Löwy, « Walter Benjamin, précurseur de l’éco-socialisme », Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’Histoire Critique, 130 | 2016, 33-39.

[2]. Haeckel goes on to explain that existence is determined by the inorganic nature to which each organism must submit, i.e. the physical and chemical characteristics of the habitat, the climate, the biochemical characteristics, the quality of the water, the nature of the soil, etc. Under the name of conditions of existence, we understand the whole of the relations of organisms with each other, either favourable or unfavourable.

[3]. The survival of the fittest as a biological principle applied to humans comes from Hubert Spencer, who extended Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the societal scale. Pierre Kropotkin strongly relativised the relevance of Darwin’s theory of evolution applied to humans and defended an approach of humans as social and collective beings whose survival depends on mutual help, which marked their evolution by favouring the development of communication and language.

[4]. See Antoine Dubiau (2022)

[5]. One can doubt the relevance of the notion of ‘crisis’ when it becomes structural, but it keeps all its meaning according to a pragmatic definition (‘sudden event or long evolution which reveals structural weaknesses, inherent to a system’) which is less the case according to a lexical definition (‘set of pathological phenomena manifesting themselves in a sudden and intense way during a limited period)

[6]. As a reminder, the massive disruptive rains of the summer of 2022 caused landslides and mud torrents in Pakistan, destroying the homes of 7 million people and killing over 50,000.

[7]. For a general overview published on a official EU platforms, see the statements made by prof. Georgina Mace, head of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research, London University,

[8]. The racialization of humanity refers to a biological division of human beings. Based on scientific claims, it considered certain human populations as inferior or incapable of accessing civilization. The essential thing is, of course, to continue to recognize that gender, race and class are above all social and political constructions.

[9]. See the interview with Philippe Descola,  From his in-depth study of the Jivaros of Amazonia, Descola deduces that there are several ways of inhabiting the earth and relating to the so-called natural environment. When the Jivaro Indians anthropize the Amazonian rain forest on a symbolic as well as a practical level, they do so by seeking to preserve a homeostatic balance (biodiversity, variety of fauna and flora) (Descola, 1986).

[10] R.H. Lossin (2020), ’Neoliberalism for polite company. Bruno Latours pseudo-materialist coup’, in Salvage n°7 Towards the proletarocene, Online

[11]. Latour believes that it has become imperative to oppose the economisation of the world and that it is necessary to draw on the experiences of the radical ecologist occupations like Notre Dame des Landes against a new airport or the way of life of the inhabitants of the Rain forest, which, far from being archaic, represent the only way to avoid disasters in the decades to come. Interview in French with Bruno Latour “Everyone feels betrayed, we understand that this model is no longer possible”.

[12]. See interview with Bruno Latour.

[13]. Capital is a monetary wealth that manifests itself in a specific way historically. It is a wealth that grows through the process of exchange and circulation, giving rise to a mark-up. The exchange process Commodity – Money – Commodity has been transformed into Money – Commodity – Money+ (marked up). Capital is therefore not a thing but a social relation, allowing its growth through the labour process and the realisation of profits through the sale of commodities. Capital changes its appearance throughout the cycle of accumulation but the measure of its value remains monetary.

[14]. In Green Capitalism. Why it can’t work (2010 for the French edition, English in 2014) Tanuro argues, for example, that Marx did not fully appreciate the importance of ‘the passage of a stock fuel like coal, a product of the fossilization of the solar flux and therefore exhaustible on a time scale’ (Tanuro, 2010: 272).

[15]. The triangular trade developed from the 17th century onwards around sugar from the sugar cane plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. In the British colonies of the northern United States, it was mainly tobacco that was the starting point for a plantation economy using forced labour. See James Walvin on the history of sugar (2019).

[16]. Not only should we evoke, as Marx did, the double movement of the humanisation of nature and the naturalisation of man, but we should also take into consideration an analogous process encompassing both capital and its relation to its environment. The Capitalocene transforms the environment into a big business (greenwashing is an active business, a source of profit) and ‘captures’ the dialectic of change (‘one only transforms the world by transforming oneself, and vice versa’) in order to use it for its own purposes. Green capitalism does exist and it is perfectly possible for capital to continue to circulate, making profits in the midst of catastrophes and disasters. To absorb these shocks (which are both endogenous and exogenous), capital accelerates its cycle of accumulation, and adopts strategies that will end up being problematic for capital itself (debt, inflation).

[17]. Françoise D’Eaubonne Le féminisme ou la mort, Paris, 1974, (p. 221). For a presentation of Françoise d’Eaubonne, in French see

[18]. This symbolism could also function as a binding ethical norm since personifying nature also limited its exploitation. But with the emergence of a class-divided society and the state, it becomes increasingly difficult to ethically limit the process of patriarchal colonization of women while religious monotheisms support socio-state systems based on patriarchy, slavery and tribute.

[19]. For a short présentation in french, see Pierre Ansay, “Valerie Plumwood, le crocodile, l’éco-féminisme et le care” in Politique, la revue

[20]. The elaborations of the philosopher of science Roy Bashkar in defence of critical realism invite us to rethink scientific reasoning without falling into positivism (science produces absolute truths) or post-modern relativism (where reality is primarily discursive and all discourses can claim to be true). Following Roy Baskar’s theory of critical realism (CRT), it is imperative to distinguish between the ‘real’ world and the ‘observable’ world. The ‘real’ cannot be fully observed and exists independently of perceptions and discourses. At the same time, the world as we know and understand it is constructed from our perspectives and experiences, through what is ‘observable’ and experienced. Reality contains also unobservable but no less real processes causing observable events. The social world can therefore only be understood by recognising the existence of structures, logics and contradictions that generate these events. In French, see Regis Meissonier (2022)

[21]. See joint report of ILO Unicef Global on Child Labour – 2020 Report (—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_800278.pdf Child labour is much more than a source of supplementary income. In Bangladesh, children as young as 6 years old work 60 to 100 hours a week in textile workshops.

[22]. See “Estimations mondiales de l’esclavage moderne : travail forcé et mariage forcé – Résumé analytique”, BIT Genève–fr/index.htm

[23]. On forced labour in textile sector in Leicester, see

[24]. The “Working conditions in global perspective” survey was conducted in 2017-2019 in 41 countries representing 1.2 billion people. The countries covered are the European Union (EU28), China and South Korea, Turkey, the United States, and a number of Latin American countries. See

[25]. The proportion of employees with two or more distinct workload or work pace constraints increases from 57% for those working 20-29 hours to 59% for those working 30-35 hours, then 67% (35-40 hours) to 76% for those working 45-50 hours.

[26]. The seven determinants of “job quality” are 1) the physical environment (noise, posture, temperatures, vibrations); 2). The social environment (management style, union presence, peer support); 3). Work intensity (quantitative demands, pace determinants and interdependence); 4). Skills and discretion (decision latitude, organizational participation, training); 5). Working time (duration; atypical working hours, working time arrangements, undergone versus chosen flexibility); 6). Future prospects (career and promotion, socio-professional security, occurrence of downsizing or dismissals); 7). The amount of salary and remuneration.

[27] It is exactly for this reason that we wrote in 2005 in the editorial project of the French journal Les Mondes du Travail  ( ) that ‘the centrality of work remains both indisputable and highly problematic.

[28]. Marx K., Capital. A Critique of Political Economy – Book One. The development of capitalist production. Section III: The production of absolute surplus-value. Chapter X: The working day.

[29]. See Alexander Neumann in French (2015 and 2020) as well as in German (2010).

[30]. This was also the meaning of a brief post about death toll and karoshi claiming that defending decent working conditions and living labour in general is an ecological struggle in itself (Bouquin, 2019)

[31]. See interview with Kohei Saito published on website of radical ecological zine

[32]. For a critique of collapsologists, see Daniel Tanuro (2020) and Jérémie Cravatte (2019), L’effondrement, parlons-en. Les limites de la collapsologie, 2019, 48p. Miméo.



Pour éviter le désastre : défendre le « travail vivant » et le bien commun

« Marx disait que les révolutions sont la locomotive de l’histoire. Peut-être que les choses se présentent autrement. Il se peut que les révolutions soient l’acte par lequel l’humanité qui voyage dans le train tire les freins d’urgence » (Walter Benjamin, Thèse XVIII sur le concept de l’histoire, cité par Michael Löwy (2016)

D’année en année, la question écologique prend de l’ampleur jusqu’au point d’envahir toutes les autres questions, que ce soit le mode de gouvernance, la pandémie, les inégalités sociales ou l’économie tout simplement. Mais la compréhension théorique de cette déferlante n’est pas toujours au rendez-vous, loin s’en faut. Notre article a pour objectif de contribuer à une clarification aussi urgente du point de vue scientifique que pratique. Qu’est-ce que la « crise écologique » nous dit d’elle-même ? Ce sera l’objet de notre premier point introductif. Comment penser ce que l’on désigne par « nature » et quel rapport établir entre celle-ci et la société ? Si les approches dualistes sont critiquables parce qu’elles ont servi de justification de la domination de la nature, faut-il pour autant privilégier une approche « moniste » qui fusionne nature et société ? Nous ne le pensons pas et soulignons dans ce second point l’importance d’une orientation épistémologique fondé sur un naturalisme critique à la fois matérialiste et dialectique. Nous présenterons dans un troisième point une série d’analyses qui reconnaissent le rôle premier du « capitalocène » dans la crise écologique. Mais cette critique du « capitalocène » gagne à intégrer celle du patriarcat, ce que nous ferons dans un quatrième point qui présente les approches écoféministes matérialistes. Nous reviendrons dans un cinquième point sur la catégorie du « travail vivant » comme une entité « corpo-réelle », à la fois naturelle et sociale, ce qui permet par la même occasion d’articuler la question laborieuse et sociale avec la question écologique et oriente tant le regard que l’action vers une économie du bien commun. En conclusion, nous reviendrons brièvement sur l’urgence de la crise écologique pour souligner l’importance d’une bifurcation systémique et la construction d’un horizon commun. (…)

Stéphen Bouquin, « Pour éviter le désastre: défendre le “travail vivant” et le bien commun » Publié in Les Mondes du Travail, n°29, mars 2023, pp. 187-210. 

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Dal malcontento estivo a un lungo inverno di rivolta sociale? Alcune note sul ritorno degli scioperi in Gran Bretagna

Stephen Bouquin*

[Versione aggiornata il 14 novembre]

Gran Bretagna [1] ha assistito a un’ondata di scioperi come non se ne vedevano da decenni. Gli scioperi delle ferrovie, della logistica, del terminal portuale di Felixstowe e della Royal Mail si svolgono in un contesto economico e sociale caratterizzato da profitti record, crisi politica, inflazione alle stelle e recessione imminente. L’ondata di scioperi spontanei in una dozzina di magazzini Amazon è stata forse il momento più inaspettato di questa “estate del malcontento”. [2] .

In questo articolo, vogliamo portare all’attenzione il ritorno dello sciopero come fatto sociale importante, e questo in un Paese che ha vissuto un lungo periodo di “pacificazione sociale forzata”. Dopo aver delineato brevemente gli elementi di contesto nella prima sezione, descriveremo i principali conflitti nella seconda sezione. Svilupperemo poi alcune riflessioni sul proseguimento delle mobilitazioni per lo sciopero nei prossimi mesi. Il quarto punto affronta la questione della fine di un lungo periodo di pacificazione del conflitto sociale, considerando la possibilità di cicli lunghi nell’attività di sciopero basati sul cambiamento delle coordinate strutturali e organizzative che ne determinano l’intensità. Infine, concludiamo tracciando una serie di osservazioni generali.

1 – Singolarità britanniche sotto stress

Nel Regno Unito, le relazioni industriali sono volontarie e scarsamente regolamentate, anche se, al contrario, gli scioperi sono altamente regolamentati. Non esistono organismi di rappresentanza dei lavoratori, per cui si parla di “canale unico”. [3] . Il legislatore ha riconosciuto il fatto sindacale all’interno dell’azienda molto presto (1872), concedendo allo stesso tempo il diritto di organizzare un picchetto pacifico (1875). Nel 1906, i sindacati hanno ottenuto il diritto di sciopero senza essere condannati per danni. Il Trade Unions Council (TUC) è un prodotto diretto del Cartismo, nato nel 1838. [4] . Inizialmente riuniva 180 sindacati di categoria o professionali. A differenza di altri Paesi in cui predominavano le tradizioni rivoluzionarie, il TUC assunse la guida dell’azione politica fondando nel 1900 il Labour Representation Committee, che a sua volta fondò il Labour Party. La rappresentanza politica era un complemento necessario all’azione sindacale essenzialmente “economica”. Nel periodo tra le due guerre si verificarono numerosi conflitti sociali, culminati in un unico sciopero generale nel 1926. Dopo la Seconda guerra mondiale, i sindacati e il Partito Laburista riuscirono a migliorare notevolmente le condizioni di vita della classe operaia. Oltre alla creazione di un sistema di sicurezza sociale universale sotto l’egida di William S. Beveridge, con servizi sanitari accessibili a tutti e finanziati dalla fiscalità, il Paese ha vissuto due decenni di relativa piena occupazione (per gli uomini) con un potente polo industriale pubblico e un’offerta ampliata di servizi sociali (in particolare in termini di alloggi).

In Gran Bretagna la formazione dei salari è altamente decentralizzata. Dal 1945 al 1986, è stata organizzata sulla base di trattative salariali all’interno dei Wages Councils, che coprivano mestieri e professioni su base territoriale con una rappresentanza nominata di datori di lavoro e lavoratori. I Wages Councils hanno elaborato una scala indicativa di tariffe orarie, soglie minime in base all’anzianità e alla qualifica (Dobb, 1952).

Dopo la loro abolizione nel 1986, la contrattazione salariale ha perso gran parte della sua importanza. Allo stesso tempo, in alcuni casi (trasporti, energia), è stata mantenuta a livello settoriale per evitare salari eccessivamente alti o di dumping. Nel periodo recente (2000-2020), nel settore privato, solo il 20% degli aumenti salariali è stato il prodotto della contrattazione collettiva, rispetto al 45% nel settore pubblico. La creazione di un salario minimo orario (1998) – del tutto eccezionale vista la tradizione britannica – è stata giustificata dall’entità dell’impoverimento dei lavoratori, con quasi il 25% dei dipendenti in condizioni di povertà.

Dal 2010 al 2020, gli aumenti salariali sono stati molto moderati, costantemente inferiori al tasso di crescita annuale del PIL. In questo decennio, la retribuzione settimanale mediana (in termini reali) è aumentata solo dello 0,6%, mentre la retribuzione settimanale media è diminuita del 2,4% in termini reali se si prende come riferimento l’ultimo decennio. L’importante aumento nel 2021 è principalmente il risultato della fine del sistema di licenziamento dopo diversi periodi di lockdown.

Fig 1 – Variazione annuale dei salari reali (adeguati all’inflazione)

Lo scorso 2022 aprile, il Times si chiedeva se il Paese avrebbe vissuto un’estate di malcontento. Questo segnalava che alcuni cenacoli del potere stavano già iniziando a prendere coscienza dell’esasperazione sociale. Il numero di conflitti sociali aveva iniziato ad aumentare dal 2020, durante la pandemia. Inizialmente segnati da questioni sanitarie, gli scioperi hanno rapidamente messo sul tavolo la questione dei salari. Lo scorso maggio si sono registrati almeno 300 conflitti industriali dall’inizio dell’anno; un numero sei volte superiore alla media annuale del periodo 2008-2018, che esprime una vera e propria rottura con il lungo periodo di atonia del conflitto sociale.

I salari sono al centro di questi scioperi per un motivo molto semplice. Nell’aprile del 2022, l’Istituto di Management Chartered [5] ha rivelato che la metà delle aziende non aveva previsto alcun aumento salariale, mentre nell’altra metà l’aumento non sarebbe stato superiore al 3%, meno della metà del tasso di inflazione di allora. Secondo la stessa indagine, nel settore pubblico – dove il tasso di sindacalizzazione è del 50% rispetto al 14% del settore privato – l’aumento salariale non supererà il 2% nel 2022.

La Gran Bretagna ha vissuto un lungo periodo di stagnazione salariale a partire dal 2008, durante la crisi finanziaria. Ma questo periodo è stato anche caratterizzato da una bassa inflazione, in media tra l’1,5% e il 2%, che è cambiata bruscamente alla fine del 2021. Inizialmente, nell’autunno del 2021, l’aumento dei prezzi è stato il risultato di una ripresa economica relativamente forte dai confini della pandemia. L’anno 2021 è stato anche caratterizzato da una forte perturbazione del trasporto stradale, in particolare a causa della carenza di autisti di camion, in parte legata alla Brexit. In questo contesto, i prezzi sono aumentati costantemente e l’inflazione ha raggiunto il 5-6% già alla fine del 2021. L’interruzione delle catene globali del valore, ulteriormente amplificata dal contesto insulare dell’economia britannica, ha fatto salire l’inflazione al 7-8%. Poi, nel giugno di quest’anno, in seguito all’aumento dei prezzi dell’elettricità e del gas legato alla guerra in Ucraina, l’inflazione ha superato la soglia del 10%.

L’impennata dei prezzi ha coinciso con ripetuti annunci di profitti straordinari per l’anno 2021. I margini di profitto delle società quotate in borsa (FTSE 350) hanno superato del 73% i livelli pre-pandemia nel 2019. I profitti di queste società sono aumentati dell’11,74% nei sei mesi da ottobre 2021 a marzo 2022. Nello stesso periodo, i redditi da lavoro sono aumentati solo del 2,61% e sono diminuiti dello 0,8% se si tiene conto dell’inflazione. Questa recente impennata dei profitti rappresenta il 58% dell’inflazione degli ultimi sei mesi, rispetto al solo 8,3% del costo del lavoro. Unite ritiene che si tratti di un eccesso di profitti generato dall’aumento dei prezzi e delle rendite di monopolio. [6] . Non si tratta quindi solo di compagnie petrolifere o di poche “mele marce”. Anche escludendo le compagnie energetiche, gli utili delle società del FTSE 350 sono aumentati del 42% tra il 2019 e il 2021.

La combinazione di queste tre realtà – moderazione salariale, profitti (in eccesso) e inflazione – è diventata un cocktail esplosivo. Di fronte alle critiche, anche da parte del suo stesso schieramento, Boris Johnson ha deciso di concedere a ogni famiglia un buono energetico di 400 sterline, finanziato da una tassa sui “profitti in eccesso” dei produttori di energia. [7] . La misura, piuttosto “radicale” per un conservatore neoliberista, ha risvegliato la coscienza sociale delle classi lavoratrici. Alla fine di luglio sono stati annunciati ulteriori aumenti dei prezzi, che hanno fatto lievitare la bolletta energetica annuale di 3.000-4.000 sterline. In un Paese in cui molti lavoratori possiedono case fatiscenti o affittano alloggi sociali, l’aumento dei prezzi dell’energia rappresenterebbe un disastro sociale. L’economista Jonathan Bradshaw dell’Università di York sostiene che un buono da 400 sterline non impedirà all’80% delle famiglie di cadere nella “fuel poverty”, definita come il 10% del reddito disponibile speso per l’energia. [8] .

Di fronte a questa realtà, diversi sindacati si sono impegnati in procedure di consultazione, che la legge britannica rendeva necessarie per indire azioni di sciopero.  Come sintomo dell’esasperazione sociale, i tassi di partecipazione a queste consultazioni superavano sistematicamente l’80%, mentre il voto a favore dello sciopero raggiungeva talvolta il 90% o il 95%, riflettendo una reale determinazione ad agire per ottenere aumenti salariali. Vale la pena notare che l’esistenza di un fondo per gli scioperi è certamente utile in caso di controversie. I dipendenti che guadagnano più di 30.000 sterline possono ottenere fino a 50 sterline al giorno, mentre per i lavoratori a basso reddito che guadagnano meno di 30.000 sterline lorde, l’importo può arrivare a 75 sterline al giorno. La densità sindacale nel settore privato è scesa sotto il 30% nell’ultimo decennio, ma nelle grandi aziende e nei servizi pubblici rimane al 50%.

  1. Gli scioperi sono tornati

Qui presentiamo i conflitti emblematici nei settori delle ferrovie, della logistica, dei servizi postali e dei portuali. Si sono svolti anche altri conflitti più locali. Ma questi conflitti, altrettanto partecipati di quelli nazionali, non contengono questioni nazionali che rendano il ritorno dello sciopero un tema a sé stante.

Quando lo sciopero delle ferrovie fa scattare l’allarme

I ferrovieri sono stati i primi a intraprendere uno sciopero nazionale che ha interessato l’intero settore ferroviario. Non avendo sperimentato scioperi dal 1989, il trasporto ferroviario aveva tutte le caratteristiche di un eden manageriale. Privatizzato nel 1990-1991 con una quindicina di operatori nazionali distinti, il settore è frammentato anche dall’esternalizzazione di un gran numero di servizi tecnici e commerciali. Ma questa realtà frammentata non ha impedito al sindacato RMT di battersi per una contrattazione centralizzata o nazionale sulle questioni salariali. Con 50.000 iscritti o aderenti, l’RMT rimane un sindacato piuttosto “militante” con una presenza sul territorio, compresi gli appaltatori esterni come i servizi di pulizia. Si è disaffiliato dal Labour quando quest’ultimo ha intrapreso un approccio di “terza via” simile al social-liberismo. Ad esso si affianca il sindacato ASLEF, che conta 22.000 iscritti.[9] , che organizza i macchinisti di treni e metropolitane, e il TSSA, un’associazione di categoria indipendente non affiliata al TUC, che organizza il personale di alcuni fornitori di servizi regionali e che si è aperto al settore del trasporto turistico[10] .

Alla fine di maggio 2022, ASLEF e RMT si sono rifiutati di accettare un aumento del 3%, che è molto inferiore a un tasso di inflazione del 9-10%. Per i sindacati, un aumento del 7% è la condizione necessaria per aprire le trattative. In risposta a questo rifiuto, Network Rail ha accettato un aumento salariale del 5%, ma a condizione di accettare una riorganizzazione dei servizi e un aumento dell’orario di lavoro. L’RMT e l’ASLEF hanno rifiutato questo “accordo di favore” e hanno iniziato i preparativi per un’azione di sciopero. Dopo un processo di consultazione molto partecipato, con un’affluenza molto alta del 78% e il 90% dei votanti a favore dell’azione di sciopero, la RMT e l’ASLEF hanno iniziato a preparare lo sciopero. [11] , più di 60.000 dipendenti del settore hanno interrotto il lavoro, prima il 21 giugno, seguita da una seconda giornata di sciopero il 27 luglio, una terza il 20 agosto e infine sabato 1° ottobre, in un primo sciopero congiunto con altri settori.

Gli scioperi ferroviari hanno ricevuto il sostegno di ampi settori dell’opinione pubblica. [12] . Un sondaggio condotto su 2.000 persone [13] alla fine di luglio ha rilevato che il 63% è contrario alla perdita di posti di lavoro e sostiene gli scioperi. La stessa percentuale ritiene che i lavoratori delle ferrovie debbano ricevere un aumento di stipendio “che tenga conto del costo della vita”, mentre il 59% ritiene che i lavoratori delle ferrovie abbiano il diritto di scioperare quando i negoziati falliscono. Più in generale, l’85% degli intervistati ritiene che i profitti dell’industria ferroviaria debbano essere investiti per proteggere i posti di lavoro e migliorare la qualità del servizio. L’opinione pubblica rimane ampiamente favorevole alle azioni di sciopero, in linea con il sostegno alla rinazionalizzazione del settore che è stato prevalente nell’ultimo decennio.

Ogni giorno di sciopero tutti i servizi sono stati paralizzati, anche a Londra. Nel tentativo di dividere il movimento, i datori di lavoro hanno dichiarato di essere disposti a concedere un aumento salariale dell’8%, ma solo per alcuni mestieri. Mick Lynch, intervistato da Skynews il 1° ottobre, ha dichiarato che è inaccettabile che alcuni mestieri vengano discriminati di fronte all’aumento dell’inflazione, che colpisce tutti e supera ormai il 10%. Quel giorno, dopo 15 giorni di lutto per la morte della Regina Elisabetta II, si è svolto un nuovo sciopero nazionale e da allora sono state annunciate altre azioni. Il movimento sociale è quindi ancora in corso e non sta perdendo slancio.

Gli scioperi ferroviari, altamente simbolici, illustrano il ritorno in primo piano dell’azione sindacale. Segnalano il ritorno dello sciopero come forma di lotta. La loro esemplarità simbolica è verificata dal fatto che i lavoratori di altre aziende hanno seguito l’esempio, anche in aziende senza presenza sindacale come Amazon.

Vento di rivolta su Amazon

All’inizio di agosto, il gigante della logistica ha registrato un’ondata di scioperi spontanei che hanno interessato una dozzina di siti, principalmente magazzini di smistamento e raccolta ordini (Fullfilment centres). Tutto è iniziato la mattina del 3 agosto nel deposito LCY2 di Tilbury, a sud di Londra. Dopo aver ricevuto l’informazione che la retribuzione oraria sarebbe stata aumentata solo di 35 penny [14] , circa 600 lavoratori sono usciti e si sono riuniti nel capannone. Nei giorni successivi si sono svolti scioperi a Rugeley, Coventry, Swindon, Rugby, Doncaster, Bristol, Dartford, Belvedere, Hemel Hempstead e Chesterfield.

Questi scioperi a gatto selvaggio si sono distinti per il loro carattere maggioritario e spontaneo e hanno rappresentato un evento sociale che non si vedeva dagli anni ’70 (Darlington& Lyddon, 2001). [15] . Sebbene le azioni fossero sostenute da Unite e dalla GMB, in pratica erano più che altro auto-organizzate da reti informali di colleghi. Le azioni hanno assunto un’ampia varietà di forme, che vanno dall’interruzione del lavoro rimanendo alla propria postazione al rallentamento del ritmo (sciopero del rallentamento) o all’occupazione delle baie di carico o della mensa (sciopero del sit-in).

Tutte queste azioni riguardano la questione dei salari. Amazon è un’azienda che si rifiuta di parlare con un rappresentante sindacale, lasciando che il dipartimento delle risorse umane agisca da solo su questo tema. Un scioperante testimonia che la rabbia covava da tempo:

Normalmente gli aumenti salariali vengono notificati ad aprile. A luglio non c’era ancora nessuna informazione, il che ha aumentato l’impazienza. L’annuncio di un aumento di 35 penny è stato visto come una doccia fredda, poiché tutti si aspettavano un vero aumento di stipendio. Prima molto basso, vicino al minimo legale di 8,50 sterline, lo stipendio iniziale era stato aumentato l’anno scorso a 10,50 sterline, se non a 11,45 sterline a seconda dell’area di impiego. Si badi bene, questa decisione non è stata ispirata da alcun senso di generosità; Amazon stava solo cercando di diventare più attraente nel mercato del lavoro. Di recente, dopo la pandemia, Amazon ha avuto le maggiori difficoltà a reclutare 25.000 lavoratori… Internamente, questo aumento del salario di assunzione alimentava la speranza che tutte le categorie avrebbero ottenuto un adeguamento al rialzo. In un contesto di inflazione ma anche di profitti record – 210 milioni di sterline, un aumento del 20% rispetto al 2020 – e al netto delle imposte, è ovvio che il rifiuto della direzione di concedere un aumento reale era destinato a suscitare il malcontento sociale. Il malcontento si è diffuso a macchia d’olio dal 3 al 12 agosto, con scioperi e scioperanti in quasi tutti i centri di distribuzione”.

Diversi scioperanti hanno sottolineato la loro indifferenza alle minacce della direzione. Il loro rifiuto di cedere alle intimidazioni, di rispondere alle ingiunzioni di tornare al lavoro, anche quando viene sventolata una trattenuta sul salario in caso di sciopero aperto, cioè per l’intera giornata lavorativa interrotta, sembra essere stata una reazione ampiamente condivisa:

Abbiamo deciso di andarcene solo quella mattina. La direzione era completamente all’oscuro di tutto. All’inizio hanno minacciato di trattenere i nostri salari, ma noi abbiamo resistito e siamo rimasti in mensa tutto il giorno. Abbiamo chiesto spiegazioni al rappresentante della direzione. Perché ci stanno dando un’elemosina quando hanno aumentato il nostro salario iniziale di 2 sterline? Perché non hanno potuto aumentare i nostri salari al livello dell’inflazione, quando i soldi scorrevano. Ma la direzione di Amazon nel Regno Unito è rimasta in silenzio e i dirigenti locali non sapevano che cosa fare… Erano completamente sconcertati. Alla fine, dopo diversi giorni di stallo, la direzione ha concesso un aumento di 50 pence l’ora, annunciando un adeguamento dei salari nei prossimi mesi; questo ha fatto ripartire il lavoro”.

Il sindacato GMB sta dando seguito a questi scioperi con una campagna per un salario iniziale di 15 sterline l’ora e un aumento salariale adeguato all’inflazione. Questa posizione offensiva riflette il desiderio del sindacato di utilizzare gli scioperi per ottenere lo status di interlocutore sociale che Amazon ha sempre rifiutato. [16] . Ma secondo Callum Cant, autore di Riding for Deliveroo. Resistance in the New Economy (2019) e uno dei maggiori esperti del settore logistico, Amazon cercherà certamente di ristabilire la sua presa manageriale e farà di tutto per tenere i sindacati fuori dai magazzini. Tuttavia, per lo specialista, è inevitabile che i lavoratori continuino a “prendere coscienza della loro forza”.

I portuali incrociano le braccia

Il 21 agosto è toccato ai portuali di Felixstowe entrare nella mischia. Situato vicino a Ipswich, Felixstowe è il più grande terminal portuale e rappresenta la metà dell’attività portuale annuale del Paese. Il primo sciopero è durato 8 giorni e ha mobilitato i 1.900 lavoratori portuali, tutti i mestieri messi insieme: operatori di ponte, gruisti, movimentatori, tecnici, ecc. Durante la consultazione che ha preceduto lo sciopero, 9 lavoratori su 10 si sono espressi a favore di un’interruzione del lavoro, paralizzando l’intera attività portuale.

Il proprietario del terminal di Felixstowe è CK Hutchison Holding, di Li Ka-Shin, l’uomo d’affari più ricco di Hong Kong e il 32° uomo più ricco del mondo, i cui conti sono domiciliati in paradisi fiscali. CK Hutchison è il principale operatore di terminal portuali al mondo, con 52 terminal in 26 Paesi e un fatturato di 30 miliardi di dollari. Ancora una volta, la questione dei salari è al centro del conflitto. Non essendo stati aumentati per un decennio, mentre la divisione britannica ha annunciato profitti record – 95 milioni di dollari nel 2021, rispetto ai 64 milioni del 2020 – i portuali hanno dato sfogo alla loro rabbia.

A seguito di questo sciopero, il primo dal 1989, la direzione della compagnia portuale propone un aumento di stipendio del 7% con un bonus una tantum di 500 sterline. Ma per il sindacato Unite, l’aumento dovrebbe essere almeno del 10% e in linea con l’inflazione, a differenza di quanto concesso nel periodo 2010-2020, un periodo di bassa inflazione, è vero. Secondo Sharon Graham, “il terminale di CK Hutchison sta realizzando profitti tali che sarebbe possibile aumentare i salari del 50% senza portare i conti in rosso. Non è irragionevole chiedere un aumento del 10%”.

All’inizio di settembre, di fronte al rifiuto del sindacato di accettare un aumento inferiore all’inflazione, il direttore del terminal portuale ha deciso di chiudere la porta ai negoziati. Da allora, la direzione ha condotto una campagna mediatica contro il sindacato Unite e i portuali, sottolineando l’alto salario di un portuale – circa 50.000 sterline all’anno – e spiegando che gli scioperi causeranno un aumento dei prezzi.

Per i rappresentanti di Unite, i salari sono stati congelati per un decennio, mentre gli aumenti dei prezzi sono il risultato di tariffe più elevate applicate dagli armatori che hanno visto triplicare i loro profitti entro il 2021. La disorganizzazione del trasporto marittimo colpisce in particolare le isole britanniche e dal 2021 solo una nave container su cinque è arrivata in orario. Per i sindacalisti di Unite, dare la colpa dell’aumento dei prezzi allo sciopero dei portuali è uno scherzo di cattivo gusto: “Siamo passati dal just in time al just in case, che non fa altro che rendere i prezzi più cari con ritardi qui e penali là”.

È forse il caso di ricordare che l’intero flusso globale di merci è interessato da una caotica disorganizzazione: o le fabbriche chiudono in Cina, o non ci sono più navi portacontainer disponibili, o vengono dirottate perché non ci sono fasce orarie per scaricare i container in meno di 48 ore. Felixstowe è spesso l’ultimo terminal prima di partire per l’Asia a vuoto. In caso di congestione, le navi scaricano i loro container ad Anversa o Rotterdam piuttosto che aspettare al largo. Questi container devono poi essere trasportati attraverso la Manica, allungando la catena di approvvigionamento e facendo lievitare il prezzo finale. Il settore della vendita al dettaglio ha aumentato la propria capacità di stoccaggio per evitare le scorte. Ma ordinando più merce, non ha fatto altro che aumentare il caos e far lievitare ulteriormente i prezzi.

Il rifiuto del sindacato di accettare un aumento inferiore all’inflazione trasforma lo sciopero dei portuali in un banco di prova. Alla fine di settembre, è stata la volta dei portuali di Liverpool a scioperare per una settimana. Il 29 settembre, i portuali di Felixstowe intrapresero una seconda settimana di sciopero, sostenuti dai portuali di Southampton che si rifiutarono di scaricare le merci dirottate da Liverpool o Felixstowe.

Per il ministro del Tesoro Kwasi Kwarteng, gli scioperi dei portuali sono una forma di terrorismo sociale “che deve essere impedita con ogni mezzo”. Sulla stessa linea, Liz Truss, il nuovo capo del governo recentemente entrato a Downing Street, ha dichiarato di ritenere che la legge del 1973 che vieta l’uso di lavoratori temporanei durante gli scioperi debba essere abrogata al più presto. Le sue recenti dichiarazioni esprimono la volontà di attaccare nuovamente il diritto di sciopero con una panoplia di misure restrittive come l’estensione del periodo di preavviso da 2 a 4 settimane, la limitazione nel tempo della validità di un voto a favore di uno sciopero o l’aumento delle soglie di validità delle consultazioni.

Poste e telecomunicazioni si uniscono agli scioperi

Infine, alla fine di agosto, è stata la volta dei servizi postali ad aderire allo sciopero. La direzione della Royal Mail, privatizzata nel 2013 e ora quotata in borsa, era disposta ad accettare un aumento salariale del 5%. Ma per Dave Ward del Communication Workers Union (CWU), questa proposta non è seria, soprattutto perché combina un aumento lineare del 2% con un assegno di 500 sterline. Per il CWU, è possibile solo un recupero dell’inflazione. Alla fine di luglio, la consultazione ha coinvolto il 77% dei lavoratori, il 96,7% dei quali ha votato a favore dello sciopero. Lo sciopero è stato annunciato in due fasi. Il primo giorno di sciopero, il 31 agosto, ha riguardato solo i 125.000 lavoratori della Royal Mail. A questo è seguito uno sciopero “settoriale” l’8 e il 9 settembre che ha coinvolto 40.000 dipendenti di British Telecom. Lo sciopero del 31 agosto è stato molto partecipato, con oltre 2.000 picchetti.

Secondo le opinioni dei sindacalisti che ho intervistato, lo sciopero è stato seguito anche da alcuni manager di prima linea. Va notato che gli uffici postali sono, per la maggior parte, gestiti come punti vendita al dettaglio o negozi di alimentari che hanno un franchising per le attività legate alla posta. Il grosso dell’attività – per di più redditizia, visto che la Royal Mail ha realizzato 170 milioni di sterline di profitti netti nel 2021 – si concentra nella raccolta, nello smistamento e nella distribuzione di lettere e pacchi. A questo proposito, è chiaro che la Royal Mail ha seguito la stessa traiettoria di molti altri servizi postali che combinano la razionalizzazione neo-tayloriana con una cronica carenza di personale e di attrezzature. Questo spiega anche perché sullo sfondo della questione salariale troviamo l’esperienza del deterioramento delle condizioni di lavoro:

Ci è stato tolto l’orario fisso, che aggiunge lavoro che non sarà mai pagato. Ora ci viene chiesto di venire la domenica, con le festività. [Ho iniziato a lavorare alla Royal Mail tre anni e mezzo fa e posso dire che il carico di lavoro è in continuo aumento. I nostri giri sono sempre più lunghi. Poiché alcuni finiscono prima, a livello di direzione distrettuale ci dicono che dobbiamo fare di più. Questo tipo di manager non è mai stato un “postino”. Non capiscono che viviamo a Luton, Bromley o Bedfordshire… molto lontano da Londra, con più di un’ora e mezza di viaggio. Inevitabilmente, saltiamo la pausa pranzo, che ci permette di finire prima e di arrivare a casa verso le 17-18, sapendo che ci alziamo anche alle 4 del mattino! I calcoli del percorso sono assurdi. In estate abbiamo sempre avuto meno pacchi rispetto a novembre e dicembre, ma a loro non interessa. Basano i giri invernali sui volumi estivi. Una vera e propria fregatura. Inoltre, le nostre attrezzature sono in pessimo stato: non ci sono abbastanza carrelli e dobbiamo arrangiarci. Ci si arrangia e si armeggia. Un collega riempie il furgone fino all’orlo e lascia che alcuni pacchi vengano consegnati in un negozio di alimentari affiliato alla rete. Da lì, un altro collega lo sostituisce e lo include nel suo giro. Il giorno dopo, ci si scambia il giro tra chi va a piedi e chi guida. È normale, non c’è motivo per cui alcune persone debbano avere più difficoltà di altre. La direzione lo sa bene e chiude un occhio. Infatti, molti di loro sono in sciopero con…”.

Come nel settore ferroviario, la direzione sta cercando di scambiare un aumento salariale con l’imposizione di una “modernizzazione delle operazioni”. Ma per la CWU, collegare le due cose è fuori questione “perché significherebbe riprendersi con una mano ciò che è stato concesso con l’altra”. Per Dave Ward, “un aumento del 10% sarebbe molto ragionevole se si considera che la Royal Mail ha realizzato oltre 650 milioni di sterline di profitti nel 2021 e quasi 500 milioni di sterline sono stati distribuiti agli azionisti e al top management”. [17] .

3 – Verso un inverno di rivolta sociale?

La morte della Regina ha certamente messo in pausa le tensioni sociali per qualche settimana. Tuttavia, l’ondata di scioperi non accenna a diminuire. Quindi, se l’estate è ormai alle spalle, c’è anche da chiedersi quale sarà l’esito dello sciopero. La dirigenza farà concessioni o arriverà alla resa dei conti?

È impossibile rispondere a questa domanda se non dicendo, con molta flemma, che non è stato deciso nulla… È vero che il settore pubblico è rimasto piuttosto ai margini fino ad ora. L’Unison, il principale sindacato del settore, sostiene l’orientamento di centro-sinistra del Labour guidato da Keir Starmer, che si dice pronto a governare “con ragione”. A livello di NHS, Unison ha messo ai voti la proposta manageriale di un aumento di solo il 4,5%. Ma questa proposta è stata respinta a stragrande maggioranza e il sindacato è stato costretto a consultare i lavoratori su un’azione di sciopero prima del 27 ottobre. Negli enti locali e nelle scuole pubbliche, le proposte di aumento salariale sembrano essere più significative e potrebbero comportare un importo forfettario di 2.000 sterline e un giorno di ferie in più, il che equivarrebbe a un aumento del 10% per i salari più bassi e del 6-8% per quelli medi e alti. Anche in questo caso, il sindacato ha messo ai voti la proposta di aumento senza prendere posizione.

Nel frattempo, il governo di Liz Truss ha annunciato una drastica riduzione del numero di dipendenti pubblici (90.000 su un totale di 600.000), facendo infuriare il PCS (Public Civil Servants Union), che ha immediatamente avviato le consultazioni per una serie di scioperi a novembre. Nel settore dell’istruzione, anche l’University and College Union (UCU) ha mobilitato i suoi membri, ottenendo già un preavviso di sciopero favorevole in 22 università e college per il mese di ottobre.

È vero che finora nessun conflitto importante ha portato a una vittoria del campo sindacale. Allo stesso tempo, alcune vertenze importanti ma più locali dimostrano che le vittorie sono tutt’altro che irraggiungibili. A Coventry, ad esempio, i netturbini della città hanno ottenuto un aumento salariale del 12,9% dopo sei mesi di sciopero. Lo stesso vale per Thurrock. Sono state vinte numerose vertenze emblematiche su questioni diverse dalla retribuzione. Tra gli esempi vi sono il personale ospedaliero londinese che lotta per essere integrato nella forza lavoro interna; gli autisti degli autobus di Manchester e i lavoratori della British Airways all’aeroporto di Heathrow che lottano contro il sistema “Fire and Rehire”; i lavoratori dell’azienda produttrice di una serie di prodotti e servizi. Ci sono anche i lavoratori del produttore di pallet CHEP, che dopo uno storico sciopero di 20 settimane hanno ottenuto un aumento salariale del 9%.

Recentemente, i portuali di Liverpool e Unite sono riusciti a ottenere un accordo con l’autorità portuale di Peel con un aumento salariale tra il 14,5 e il 18%. Questo dimostra che quando l’equilibrio delle forze cambia a favore dei lavoratori, i datori di lavoro sono pronti a scavare nelle loro tasche.

L’accumulo molecolare – nel senso che rimane “invisibile” finché non esprime il suo impatto dirompente – di vittorie parziali può anche portare i datori di lavoro a irrigidire la loro posizione. Dal loro punto di vista, ogni concessione è pericolosa perché può incoraggiare anche altri a scioperare. Ma non fare concessioni rafforzerà inevitabilmente la posizione della parte sindacale. Per Mick Lynch, segretario generale dell’RMT, i lavoratori hanno visto il loro potere d’acquisto dissolversi mentre i profitti hanno raggiunto nuove vette: Abbiamo visto i salari ristagnare e ora stiamo assistendo a un declino perché i salari non tengono il passo dell’inflazione. Se accettiamo questa situazione, ci ritroveremo con una miseria che ci farà sprofondare nella povertà. Non è possibile!  Per il leader dell’RMT, è ora che la classe operaia passi all’offensiva: “Siamo pronti, soprattutto perché il mercato del lavoro ci sta dando una spinta, dato che i datori di lavoro non trovano più nessuno che lavori in condizioni insopportabili per salari miserabili”. (discorso del 17 agosto all’incontro di lancio di Enough is enough).

Alla domanda se stiamo assistendo alla morte del progetto thatcheriano o semplicemente a un ritorno del conflitto sociale, Lynch ha risposto: “Beh, non so se il Thatcherismo finirà, perché per finirlo bisogna mettere in piedi qualcos’altro. (…) L’unico modo per porvi fine è mettere in atto un sistema, o una serie di riforme, ed è per questo che penso che la leadership laburista sotto Keir Starmer abbia un’opportunità. Allo stesso tempo, il Partito laburista non riflette le aspirazioni sociali al cambiamento. Penso che siano troppo cauti. Penso che siano stati educati in un modo che li rende timorosi del radicalismo”.[18]

In assenza di un adeguato sostegno politico, settori del movimento sindacale hanno deciso di lanciare una campagna unitaria Enough is enough che sta riscuotendo un crescente successo nel Paese. Enough is enough” è stata lanciata dai settori più combattivi del mondo sindacale, in alleanza con le associazioni edilizie, i giovani e la sinistra del Labour, con l’idea che “loro agiscono nel loro interesse di classe, è ora che lo facciamo anche noi”. Per Zarah Sultana, deputata laburista di Coventry, “la crisi attuale è una crisi del costo della vita, è una crisi sociale per il lavoro, non una crisi per il capitale che continua a raccogliere profitti e distribuire milioni di dividendi. [È una crisi non perché non c’è abbastanza ricchezza, ma perché la ricchezza è monopolizzata da una piccola minoranza” (intervento all’incontro del 17 agosto 2022).

Enough is Enough” si batte per la convergenza delle lotte salariali in azioni di sciopero intersettoriali e sociali, con un riferimento esplicito all’unico sciopero generale britannico del 1926. La piattaforma difende l’adozione di misure di emergenza per proteggere il potere d’acquisto di fronte alla spirale inflazionistica (congelamento dei prezzi, adeguamento dei salari all’inflazione) e sostiene una tassa sui profitti in eccesso nel settore energetico. Con la continua pressione sociale, la leadership del TUC ha recentemente adottato una posizione a favore di azioni di sciopero coordinate, un fatto eccezionale per questa confederazione sindacale.

Sabato 1er ottobre, il primo giorno di sciopero congiunto di ferrovieri, postini e portuali è stato un successo. Un evento raro nel Regno Unito, che ha dato luogo a numerose manifestazioni di piazza. Altre giornate di sciopero sono già state annunciate per ottobre e novembre. È molto probabile che il settore pubblico o la sanità si uniscano al movimento, il che potrebbe destabilizzare il nuovo governo appena insediato e portare a elezioni anticipate. La leadership laburista sta adottando una posizione moderata, che in alcuni ambienti ricorda l’era di Antony Blair, alias “Tory”, ma la sinistra laburista e quella sindacale si stanno mobilitando per spingere verso misure di emergenza, spingendo gli editoriali del Guardian di centro-sinistra, del Times e del Telegraph di destra a dire che i sindacati sono ancora una volta “la principale forza di opposizione” nel Paese.

Questa opposizione sociale potrebbe trarre vantaggio da un governo diviso e un po’ caotico. Di recente, la crisi del Partito Conservatore ha preso una piega drammatica quando Liz Truss, appena salita al potere, ha approvato un bilancio che riduce le tasse sui gruppi più ricchi di 45 miliardi di sterline. Tuttavia, lo stesso governo ha deciso di fissare un tetto massimo per le bollette energetiche a 2.500 sterline all’anno, una misura che si prevede costerà tra i 70 e i 140 miliardi di sterline a seconda dell’andamento dei prezzi di base. Anche per il FMI, una simile politica è del tutto incoerente. Anche i mercati finanziari hanno disapprovato il pacchetto, provocando immediatamente una caduta della valuta britannica, che ha messo in pericolo i fondi pensione che traggono una parte considerevole del loro reddito dagli investimenti finanziari. Di fronte al rischio di un crollo del mercato azionario – simile a quello causato dal fallimento di Lehman Brothers nel 2008 – il governo è stato costretto a fare marcia indietro. Da parte sua, la Banca d’Inghilterra persiste nella sua politica anti-inflazionistica aumentando i tassi di riferimento, seguendo l’esempio della FED e della BCE. Questo non può che rendere il credito più costoso e causare il fallimento di un gran numero di aziende. La crisi energetica è lungi dall’essere risolta, anche perché la guerra in Ucraina è in fase di stallo. Anche se la misura di emergenza del tetto alle bollette è riuscita a fermare temporaneamente l’aumento dell’inflazione, se questa rimarrà al 10% ancora a lungo, è chiaro che l’impoverimento di interi strati della forza lavoro non resterà senza conseguenze.

Tuttavia, sul fronte politico, al momento in cui scriviamo, permane il caos. A metà ottobre, il ministro delle Finanze Kwasi Kwarteng è stato licenziato e sostituito da Jeremy Hunt, che ha cercato di saltare successivamente a Downing Street, l’unico modo per evitare elezioni anticipate. Purtroppo per lui, i Tories hanno eletto Rishi Sunak, un multimiliardario, come leader per assumere questa scomoda posizione.

La combinazione di mobilitazioni sociali e scioperi da un lato e caos politico dall’altro forma un vero e proprio cocktail esplosivo, al punto che l’Economist ha titolato la sua edizione del 18 ottobre come Welcome in Britaly. Il disordine all’interno della classe dirigente sta guadagnando terreno, poiché diventa difficile combinare il populismo di destra con la ragione economica neoliberista. 

4 – Almeno la fine di un lungo inverno sociale

Lo sciopero dei minatori del 1984-85 si è tradotto in una sconfitta storica per il movimento sindacale britannico. Questa sconfitta non solo ha demoralizzato i settori più combattivi del movimento sindacale, ma ha anche cambiato l’equilibrio generale del potere, facilitato da una feroce restrizione del diritto di sciopero attraverso una lunga lista di procedure restrittive. [19]. Queste restrizioni sono state recentemente rafforzate quando il governo di David Cameron ha imposto una soglia minima del 50% dell’elettorato e del 70% dei voti a favore delle azioni di sciopero nel 2016.

Questo cambiamento epocale potrebbe essere sintetizzato dicendo che il neoliberismo è riuscito a imporre una “pacificazione sociale forzata” e questo si può vedere nel crollo del numero di giornate individuali non lavorate (IDNW) dovute agli scioperi. Infatti, dopo aver raggiunto un picco di 30 milioni di giornate alla fine degli anni ’70, l’attività di sciopero è scesa a 5 milioni nel 1985, per poi ridursi a 150.000-300.000 IDNW all’anno negli anni ’90 e 2000. Ritroviamo questa nozione di pacificazione coercitiva nell’analisi di Dave Lyddon (2007, 2015), per il quale il neoliberismo esprime il costante desiderio di reprimere l’azione sindacale.

Il numero di giorni di sciopero per 1.000 dipendenti, che è un indicatore della densità sociale dell’attività di sciopero, conferma questo dato. Nel Regno Unito, dall’inizio degli anni 2000, la soglia di 50 giorni lavorativi persi per 1.000 dipendenti è stata superata molto raramente. A titolo di confronto, in altri Paesi come Belgio, Francia e Spagna, in anni di scioperi intersettoriali, si registrano picchi di 300-500 giorni di lavoro persi per 1.000 dipendenti, mentre in anni di “calma sociale” l’attività di sciopero si mantiene intorno agli 80-100 giorni di lavoro persi. Non è quindi esagerato affermare che il modello di governance neoliberale è riuscito a rendere l’attività di sciopero residuale e marginale.

Tuttavia, va sottolineato che i dati statistici britannici contano solo gli scioperi di oltre 20 dipendenti che durano almeno un’intera giornata. Ciò lascia da parte le interruzioni del lavoro, che storicamente rappresentano una modalità di azione privilegiata, al punto che questi micro-scioperi sono stati considerati una singolarità delle relazioni industriali britanniche.

A questo punto, è difficile prevedere cosa accadrà in seguito. D’altra parte, è possibile misurare il cambiamento d’epoca e dire che i conflitti sociali sono usciti da un lungo periodo di letargo. Il numero di giornate individuali non lavorate ha già superato i 2 milioni, il che dimostra che gli scioperi non sono più un tabù per i sindacati e che sono pronti a impegnarsi in conflitti sociali come quelli che abbiamo visto in passato.

Resta da vedere se il lungo ciclo di sconfitte e battute d’arresto sociali lascerà il posto a un nuovo ciclo offensivo con un accumulo di conquiste sociali. Questo ci riporta al dibattito dei primi anni Ottanta sull’esistenza di onde lunghe nella lotta di classe e sulla loro relazione con le onde lunghe nell’accumulazione del capitale. Il concetto di onde lunghe è stato introdotto da Nikolaj Kondratieff negli anni ’30 e rielaborato dall’economista marxista Ernest Mandel (Mandel, 1980; Kleinkecht, Mandel & Wallerstein, 1992). Essa postula l’esistenza di sequenze di lunghi periodi di rialzo e ribasso nel ciclo di accumulazione. Alla fine degli anni Settanta, alcuni hanno iniziato a cercare collegamenti tra le onde lunghe e le tendenze della conflittualità che potrebbero avere una relazione indiretta ma reale.

Anche se questo approccio è stato criticato da alcuni per la sua impossibile validazione empirica (Beverly Silver, 1980; 1991), altri, come John Kelly (1998), si sono ispirati ad esso per evidenziare che la conflittualità non solo mantiene una sorta di “dipendenza dal percorso”, ma che esistono anche realtà più strutturali che facilitano o ostacolano l’attività scioperante e, più in generale, gli scioperi. Naturalmente, queste determinanti strutturali si trovano tanto nell’infrastruttura (i rapporti sociali di produzione, il mercato del lavoro) quanto nella sovrastruttura (le regole e le norme, l’egemonia ideologica o la vitalità del movimento sindacale). Tralascerò la controversia sull’onda lunga perché richiede un’indagine adeguata in campo economico e in particolare sull’evoluzione della redditività. D’altra parte, seguendo le intuizioni di John Kelly, è certo che alcune coordinate infra e sovrastrutturali influenzano l’ampiezza e l’intensità degli scioperi e dei conflitti.

Nel caso della Gran Bretagna, il calo della disoccupazione al 3,5% gioca certamente a favore del ritorno del conflitto sociale. Certo, non si tratta ancora di “piena occupazione” (con molta precarietà), ma la domanda di lavoro si sta avvicinando all’offerta di lavoro, il che cambia la situazione dal punto di vista dei lavoratori. Per il CIDP, un centro di ricerca sulle risorse umane [20], in un recente rapporto, le aziende stanno incontrando crescenti difficoltà di assunzione. Secondo l’ultimo barometro dei dipartimenti delle risorse umane della scorsa primavera, sei aziende su dieci stanno affrontando difficoltà prolungate e sarebbero disposte ad aumentare il salario di assunzione per facilitare il reclutamento e rendere il lavoro più attraente.

Va notato che il calo della disoccupazione non è tanto il risultato della creazione netta di posti di lavoro quanto di un doppio cambiamento strutturale, ovvero l’invecchiamento della popolazione e la Brexit. Il primo è comune ad altri Paesi OCSE. La generazione del baby boom, nata tra il 1946 e il 1968, ha iniziato ad andare in pensione, lasciando un numero crescente di posti di lavoro vacanti. Secondo uno studio realizzato nel 2018 dal CEDEFOP (il Centro europeo per lo studio delle competenze e delle qualifiche), 9 posti di lavoro vacanti su 10 in Europa sono ora legati al pensionamento. L’ultimo rapporto sul Regno Unito lancia l’allarme sul rapido aumento del fabbisogno di manodopera. Secondo i calcoli del demografo Ilias Leanos, nel prossimo decennio sarà necessario assumere oltre 15 milioni di persone entro il 2030 nel solo Regno Unito. Anche se questa cifra è una sovrastima del fabbisogno di assunzioni (data la recessione in arrivo), la portata del bisogno è enorme, così come non è lontano dall’evocare un rinnovamento di oltre la metà della popolazione attiva. [21] !  Va inoltre notato che in questo insieme di posti vacanti, la metà riguarda lavoratori semi- o non qualificati. Da un paio d’anni, la carenza di manodopera si fa sentire pesantemente a tutti i livelli di competenza, il che migliora l’equilibrio sociale complessivo a favore dei lavoratori.

Un recente studio dell’Università di Oxford ha rilevato che la Brexit sta giocando un ruolo significativo nell’aumento della carenza di manodopera. [22] . Secondo gli autori dello studio, il sistema di immigrazione post-Brexit ha introdotto l’obbligo di visto per i cittadini dell’UE che in precedenza potevano svolgere qualsiasi lavoro. Ad oggi, a questa offerta di lavoro non è corrisposto l’accesso al mercato del lavoro per i cittadini extracomunitari. Di conseguenza, i lavori a basso salario che si basavano in larga misura sui lavoratori dell’UE non sono più ammissibili ai visti di lavoro. [23] . Indirettamente, la Brexit ha contribuito all’inaridimento del bacino di reclutamento per una serie di lavori nella fascia bassa e media dello spettro di competenze.

Oltre a questi aspetti strutturali legati allo stato del mercato del lavoro, stiamo assistendo anche a un ritorno al “collettivismo”. Questo concetto farà sorridere alcuni – ma non ha nulla a che vedere con il modello sovietico – e porta solo a non limitare l’analisi a un aumento dell’individualismo. Anche se la nozione di collettivismo è assente dalla maggior parte dell’analisi sociologica francofona delle relazioni industriali [24], non è priva di rilevanza poiché ci permette di interrogarci sulla disponibilità a un impegno collettivo, sia esso l’iscrizione al sindacato o l’impegno allo sciopero. Per John Kelly (Rethinking Industrial relations, 1998), il “collettivismo” fa parte della teoria della mobilitazione e si basa su un sentimento di ingiustizia condiviso e sulla convinzione che sia possibile migliorare la propria condizione sociale su base collettiva. Non si tratta quindi di agire solo nell’interesse di se stessi, ma di esprimere anche la consapevolezza che agire insieme può dare risultati migliori rispetto all’essere un “free rider”, anche in modo olsoniano.

A questo proposito, diversi fatti indicano che il collettivismo si riferisce a un processo molecolare di solidarietà reciproca che precede il conflitto sociale. Gli scioperi spontanei di Amazon – che fanno parte di una vertenza non sindacalizzata – indicano che da tempo si stava accumulando un profondo risentimento. Il risentimento e la rabbia sono alimentati da un senso di ingiustizia che si diffonde e finisce per esprimersi in un’interruzione del lavoro.

Oltre a questa specificità dello sciopero selvaggio, è importante sottolineare come la composizione sociale molto eterogenea della classe operaia non abbia in alcun modo ostacolato la mobilitazione. Nel centro Amazon Fullfilment di Tilbury, la maggioranza dei lavoratori ha meno di quarant’anni, un terzo sono donne e più della metà sono “non bianchi” o di origine straniera. La ‘varietà di esperienze e condizioni soggettive’ non ha impedito il coagularsi della rabbia verso l’azione collettiva. Non è sempre così e quindi vale la pena di sottolinearlo. Anche altri settori in sciopero, come le poste o le ferrovie, sono caratterizzati da diversità in termini di genere e identità culturale. Tuttavia, gli scioperi dimostrano, con il loro carattere di maggioranza assoluta, che l’eterogeneità non è più un ostacolo.

Mick Lynch lo conferma a modo suo quando spiega che le questioni di identità, genere, razzializzazione o orientamento sessuale possono essere “articolate alla lotta di classe”. Quest’ultima rimane un fattore unificante, ma a condizione che si combattano anche il razzismo e il sessismo (intervista a Jacobin).  In altre parole, le identità strutturate intorno alle lotte contro specifiche oppressioni hanno un posto nel movimento sindacale. Questo accade da molto tempo, dato che i sindacati britannici hanno applicato il principio dell’auto-organizzazione per gruppi specifici come i neri e le persone di colore, gli asiatici, le donne e le persone LGBT sin dagli anni ’90. È comprensibile che un terzo dei membri della RMT nella metropolitana di Londra appartenga a minoranze razziali. Più in generale, secondo le statistiche governative, la percentuale di dipendenti sindacalizzati è più alta tra i lavoratori “neri e britannici di colore” (26,9%), seguiti dai lavoratori classificati come “misti” (24,1%) e “bianchi” (24%). Nel complesso, il TUC conta più donne che uomini.

Il collettivismo si esprime anche nelle “zone grigie” del mercato del lavoro, dalla parte dei lavoratori ambulanti, con l’emergere di azioni proto-sindacali da parte dei lavoratori delle piattaforme che hanno iniziato a formare una moltitudine di collettivi d’azione. A volte questi collettivi diventano parte di nuovi sindacati, come l’Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, fondata nel 2012 da un collettivo di lavoratori delle pulizie tutti di origine latinoamericana. Gli studi sociologici (Gandini, 2018; Cini, 2022) su queste mobilitazioni osservano una serie di caratteristiche comuni: il rifiuto del cottimo e dello status di lavoratore autonomo, il desiderio di beneficiare della protezione sociale e le dinamiche di mobilitazione basate sulla comunità. La maggior parte di queste strutture collettive combina la mobilitazione e l’azione legale o giudiziaria, ottenendo un’importante vittoria che comincia a costituire un precedente.

La decisione della Corte Suprema del Regno Unito del febbraio 2021 ritiene che gli autisti di Uber debbano essere trattati come lavoratori e non come contraenti indipendenti. Questa decisione unanime dovrebbe avere un impatto significativo sulle aziende della piattaforma, in quanto gli autisti hanno diritto a prestazioni quali il pagamento delle ferie, il salario minimo e una pensione integrativa. Il motivo è semplice: Uber impone tariffe e percorsi senza alcuna negoziazione e impone un regime disciplinare agli autisti in base alle loro valutazioni. Il tribunale, respingendo la prassi consolidata di Uber di trattare i suoi autisti come contraenti indipendenti, ha anche stabilito che gli oltre 70.000 autisti dell’azienda nel Regno Unito dovranno essere pagati per le ore in cui sono collegati all’app Uber, indipendentemente dalla domanda di trasporto.

Dopo questa sentenza, sono stati portati in tribunale diversi casi simili (idraulici di Pimlico, addetti alle consegne di CitySprint ed Excel Services, addetti alle consegne di Bolt) e tutti hanno portato alla conferma della sentenza nel caso degli autisti di Uber. [25] . In termini di status, è interessante notare che le mobilitazioni che combinano azione diretta e azione legale stanno facendo progressi verso il riconoscimento dello status ibrido di “lavoratori limb (b)”, che non sono né freelance né lavoratori autonomi né dipendenti e integrati nella forza lavoro nel senso classico del termine, ma lavoratori dipendenti a cui l’azienda deve pagare il salario orario minimo finché sono collegati dalla loro applicazione, oltre alla protezione sociale e ai giorni di riposo [26] .

In definitiva, è certamente ancora troppo presto per convalidare l’ipotesi di un nuovo ciclo di lotte offensive, ma gli esempi di mobilitazioni si moltiplicano e i varchi si aprono qua e là. Il calo della disoccupazione dovrebbe continuare per ragioni strutturali e la rinascita del collettivismo sta contribuendo a rivitalizzare l’azione sindacale.

5 – Riflessioni conclusive

In primo luogo, è chiaro che il potere d’acquisto, già dimezzato dopo la pandemia, è diventato una questione centrale per i lavoratori di tutti i settori. Il decennio 2009-2019 è stato caratterizzato da una stagnazione salariale, che non è più accettabile in un contesto inflazionistico. La razionalizzazione del processo lavorativo ha portato a un deterioramento delle condizioni di lavoro, che a sua volta ha alimentato la sensazione che lo sforzo debba continuare ad aumentare anche se è sempre meno ben pagato. Il forte calo del potere d’acquisto nella primavera del 2022 è solo un’altra goccia in un vaso che stava per traboccare. Quando il senso di ingiustizia latente è ampiamente condiviso, non ci vuole molto – come l’annuncio di profitti record – perché si trasformi in uno spirito di rivolta. La convinzione che lo sciopero sia necessario è diventata in breve tempo un’idea ampiamente condivisa.

La seconda constatazione è che gli ostacoli normativi all’azione di sciopero sono tutt’altro che insormontabili. Tuttavia, per riuscire a superare la soglia di approvazione, il sindacato deve necessariamente convincere la maggioranza dei lavoratori che l’azione di sciopero è giustificata e che può apportare miglioramenti sostanziali. Per riuscire in una campagna di questo tipo – comunemente chiamata “campagna di sciopero” – è necessario mobilitare l’intero apparato sindacale, i rappresentanti, pubblicare volantini, inviare e-mail e infine inviare sms a tutti i lavoratori. È significativo che sindacati combattivi come CWU, RMT, Unite o PCS lo stiano facendo tanto quanto i sindacati più moderati (Unison, GMB). Ciò indica che la “base” sindacale e, più in generale, i lavoratori sono esasperati dalla perdita di potere d’acquisto dopo un lungo periodo di moderazione salariale. I dirigenti sindacali sono in sintonia con questo sentimento e comprendono che una situazione del genere è insostenibile. Ma in quanto sindacalisti, sentono anche che il movimento sindacale può prendersi una rivincita dopo anni, se non decenni, di sconfitte e concessioni. Questo è ciò che dice Mick Lynch quando annuncia che la classe operaia è tornata.

In terzo luogo, i sindacati, anche se limitati nel loro raggio d’azione, rimangono istituzioni potenti. Negli anni ’70 i sindacati contavano quasi 13 milioni di iscritti. Dagli anni ’80 in poi, hanno perso costantemente iscritti fino a raggiungere i 6,5 milioni, ma dal 2015 almeno 100.000 lavoratori hanno deciso di iscriversi ogni anno. La maggior parte di questi nuovi iscritti sono donne, giovani, persone di recente immigrazione, neri, asiatici e di colore. Ciò riflette la consapevolezza collettiva che il sindacato è uno strumento indispensabile per difendere i propri diritti e interessi. Allo stesso tempo, questo processo riflette la ricomposizione sociale della classe operaia. Se il Labour ha molti problemi a mobilitare il suo elettorato tradizionale, i sindacati hanno mantenuto una base molto ampia, costituendo così l’istituzione centrale di una classe operaia che, in settori importanti, esprime nuovamente la propria esistenza “per se stessa”, in particolare attraverso questi conflitti.

In quarto luogo, il dialogo sociale non è molto istituzionalizzato, il che pone al centro del campo di gioco i sindacati stessi, o addirittura i lavoratori stessi (Amazon), piuttosto che gli organi istituzionali e la distribuzione dei mandati, come invece avviene in Francia. Come è stato sottolineato all’inizio di questo articolo, il modello britannico di contrattazione collettiva non favorisce in alcun modo il “dialogo sociale”. Dato che le relazioni tra datori di lavoro e sindacati si svolgono quasi su base volontaria, con il cosiddetto sistema del “canale unico”, non c’è molta produzione normativa o contrattuale. Di conseguenza, la copertura dei contratti collettivi è dolorosamente bassa, pari al 30%, tra i livelli più bassi dei Paesi occidentali. Anche quando un sindacato è riconosciuto e svolge il ruolo previsto altrove dalle istituzioni di rappresentanza dei lavoratori, il datore di lavoro può accettare o meno di negoziare. Questo “vuoto” istituzionale può anche alimentare il conflitto sociale, in quanto il rifiuto dei datori di lavoro di concedere miglioramenti, a sua volta, può rafforzare la sensazione di ingiustizia e rendere i lavoratori ricettivi all’idea di una vertenza aperta. L’informazione e la consultazione avvengono a discrezione del datore di lavoro. Questa situazione deleteria ha portato il movimento sindacale a riorganizzarsi, a condurre campagne di tesseramento ispirate al modello americano di “organizzazione”. [27] . A livello di sindacati membri del TUC, diversi sindacati si sono riuniti sotto la bandiera di Unite e del GMB. [28] (settore pubblico e privato), mentre diversi sindacati si sono fusi insieme nel settore pubblico (Unison). La leader di Unite, Sharon Graham, sta adottando un approccio molto più antagonista alle relazioni industriali, organizzando anche coalizioni intersettoriali a livello locale.

Il fatto che il conflitto sociale stia tornando in modo così massiccio e tumultuoso dopo quattro decenni di pacificazione forzata non spiega ancora questo fenomeno. Per progredire in questa direzione, dovremo anche tracciare un bilancio approfondito del neoliberismo britannico e mettere in discussione la persistenza di un antagonismo strutturale tra capitale e lavoro. Lo farò in due prossimi articoli: il primo sugli splendori e le miserie del neoliberismo; il secondo sulla profondità delle divisioni e degli antagonismi di classe.


Siti web con informazioni di base

Notes From Below (con molti resoconti di prima mano)

Tribune Magazine

Socialist Worker

Socialist Appeal


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[1] La Gran Bretagna comprende Inghilterra, Scozia e Galles; il Regno Unito include anche l’Irlanda del Nord. Poiché le azioni di sciopero in Irlanda del Nord sono state meno numerose, preferisco chiamarla Gran Bretagna. Allo stesso tempo, dal punto di vista politico, l’entità principale rimane il Regno Unito.

[2] Questa espressione riecheggia l’inverno del malcontento del 1978-1979, durante il quale un’ondata di scioperi aveva messo in difficoltà il governo laburista. Cfr. Marc Lenormand, L'” hiver du mécontentement ” de 1978-1979 : du mythe politique à la crise interne du mouvement travailliste, in Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXII- hors-série | 2017,

[3] In altri Paesi con un “sistema duale”, come la Germania, ci sono sia gli IORP, come il Betriebsrät (consiglio di fabbrica, simile al CE, ora CSE), sia i Vertrauwensleute (persone di fiducia), eletti su una lista sindacale. Questo è noto come “doppio canale di rappresentanza”.

[4]Il Chartismo è un’espressione politica del nascente movimento operaio sviluppatosi a metà del XIX secolo in seguito all’adozione della Carta del Popolo. L’imposizione di un sistema elettorale censitario aveva escluso la classe operaia dalla democrazia parlamentare. La Carta del Popolo fu adottata nel 1838 e chiedeva il suffragio universale maschile, la delimitazione equa dei collegi elettorali, l’abolizione della proprietà come condizione di eleggibilità, elezioni parlamentari annuali e il voto segreto. Il movimento rimase attivo fino al 1848 e diede vita a casse di mutuo soccorso, cooperative e al primo movimento sindacale. EP Thompson; Jacques Carré, La Grande-Bretagne au 19ème siècle, Parigi, 1997, 160 p.

[5] I datori di lavoro e i dipendenti si trovano di fronte a una “grande compressione dei costi” perché il sostegno del governo non riesce a sollevare una pressione sufficiente, dicono i dirigenti, 22 aprile, cfr.

[6] Unite Investiga: Il profitto delle imprese e la crisi del costo della vita. Rapporto commissionato da Sharon Graham, giugno 2022, mimeo, 28p.

[7] La nozione di profitti in eccesso si riferisce ai profitti che si aggiungono a quelli già realizzati, per cause esterne al mercato, come ad esempio una guerra. Ma non c’è consenso su questa definizione. Da parte mia, preferisco le nozioni di profitto e di rendita (rendita grazie a posizioni dominanti sul mercato o rendita speculativa).

[8] Jonathan Bradshaw, Università di York, “Fuel Poverty: Estimates for the UK”, disponibile qui; si veda anche


[10] Associazione del personale retribuito dei trasporti,

[11] Il 71% dei lavoratori ha partecipato al voto e di questi l’89% si è espresso a favore dello sciopero.

[12] Si veda in particolare

[13] La maggioranza dei giovani e degli utenti dei trasporti li sostiene, ma gli anziani (over 50) o i residenti delle aree rurali tendono ad opporsi. Sebbene quasi il 70% degli elettori laburisti si esprima a favore degli scioperi ferroviari, Keir Starmer, leader laburista di centro-sinistra succeduto a Jeremy Corbyn, ritiene che il Partito laburista debba rimanere neutrale prima di tutto, il che gli consente di invitare i parlamentari laburisti a non partecipare ai picchetti. Si veda Katherine Swindells, “Where does public opinion stand on the rail strikes?, Younger are far more likely than older people to support striking train workers”, in New Statesman

[14] Ci vogliono 100 penny per fare una sterlina.

[15] In inglese, questi scioperi spontanei sono chiamati wildcat strikes, in riferimento alle azioni di sciopero non annunciate dagli attivisti dell’Industrial Workers of the World, un’organizzazione sindacale rivoluzionaria degli Stati Uniti. Questi scioperi avevano lo scopo di interrompere la produzione per protestare contro le decisioni dei dirigenti. In questo caso, si tratta di scioperi che non seguono le normali procedure che portano allo sciopero (consultazione e preavviso).

[16] Nel 2001, Amazon ha deciso di contrastare una campagna per il riconoscimento del sindacato cacciando alcuni membri del sindacato e concedendo un aumento di stipendio del 10%. Di conseguenza, il sindacato ha ricevuto decine di lettere di dimissioni e ha subito una dolorosa battuta d’arresto, con l’80% dei lavoratori che ha votato contro il riconoscimento del sindacato.

[17] Per una panoramica dei risultati per il 2021, si veda

[18] Cfr. Jacobin, 10 giugno 2022, )

[19]. Mathilde Bertrand, Cornelius Crowley, Thierry Labica, C’est ici que notre défaite a commencé. La grève des mineurs britanniques(1984-1985), ed. Syllepse, 2016.


[21] Ilias Leanos, Cedefop, Skills forecast United Kingdom, cfr. Oltre all’analisi più globale del mercato del lavoro post-pandemia


[23] Madeleine Sumption, Chris Forde, Gabriella Alberti e Peter Walsh (2022), How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK? first report, 15 AUG 2022, The Migration Observatory COMPAS (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society), University of Oxford.

[24] – In Francia, questo “collettivismo” è dato per scontato, oppure è assente, sulla base di un’analisi che constata l’atomizzazione dei collettivi di lavoro, l’onnipresenza del consenso e della servitù, della docilità e della fedeltà. Esiste tuttavia la possibilità di pensare le cose in modo più dialettico, mobilitando, ad esempio, la nozione di resistenza sul lavoro o quella di “comunità rilevanti di azione collettiva” proposta da Denis Segrestin (1980). Si veda S. Bouquin (2020), Bellanger e Thuderoz (2012) o, sul tema dell’azione collettiva, D. Segrestin (1980).


[26] Ai sensi dell’articolo 230 dell’Employment Relations Act 1996, un lavoratore è definito come un individuo che ha stipulato o sta lavorando in base a (a) un contratto di lavoro o (b) qualsiasi altro contratto, esplicito o implicito, orale o scritto, con il quale l’individuo si impegna personalmente a svolgere o eseguire lavori o servizi per un’altra parte del contratto il cui status non è, in virtù del contratto, quello di un cliente di una professione o di un’attività commerciale svolta dall’individuo. Le persone che non sono dipendenti, ma che soddisfano i requisiti del paragrafo (b) di cui sopra, sono a volte indicate come lavoratori di categoria (b). Vedi anche

[27] L’organizing è una nuova pratica sindacale emersa negli Stati Uniti all’inizio degli anni Duemila, che mira a conquistare settori di lavoratori di un’azienda con un voto a maggioranza a favore del riconoscimento del ruolo di interlocutore. Oggi è criticato per il suo approccio molto istituzionalista, e alcuni lo contrappongono al modello del deep organizing, che si riferisce all’azione in profondità basata sulla costituzione di reti semiclandestine, ispirata in particolare all’IWW. Si veda Milkman R., Bloom J., Narro V. (2010), Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy.

[28] Unite the Union, nato dalla fusione di Amicus e TGWU, organizza un maggior numero di lavoratori nei settori dell’industria, della logistica e delle costruzioni. Ha 1,2 milioni di iscritti; il GMB, ex sindacato generale, municipale, dei calderai e degli alleati, ha 640.000 iscritti impiegati nell’industria, nella vendita al dettaglio, nella sicurezza, nelle scuole, nella distribuzione, nei servizi pubblici, nei servizi sociali, nel Servizio sanitario nazionale (NHS), nei servizi di ambulanza e nelle amministrazioni locali.


Strikes in France: Between strong social eruptions and a weak tradition of collective bargaining

In both international literature and in popular belief, France retains the image of a country in which a high level of social conflict1 has always existed. Can France be said to be the country of strikes and social conflict, or even class struggle par excellence? Many might be temped to answer in the affirmative. At the outset we need to underline that this representation is fed by a history of large-scale mobilizations of the population onto the streets to demonstrate against government measures in ‘social explosions’ which are all the more remarkable given the historically low level of unionization. This representation is at times nourished even in trade union circles, which bemoan the existence of a ‘culture of conflict and opposition’ and envy other European, in particular Scandinavian, countries for their ‘culture of social dialogue’. This vision strikes us, however, as a departure from reality. We will therefore begin by reminding our readers of certain aspects that are often neglected in the standard representations. This will enable us to better analyse the particularities of the French situation in terms both of trade union activity and of strikes. We will then look more closely at the evolution of strike activity and, beyond this, of social conflict. Finally we will conclude by examining the present situation and possible future trends.

The book chapter (pdf) can be downloaded here 

“Strikes around the World (1968-2005). Case-studies from 15 countries” was edited by Sjaak van der Velden, Heiner Dribbush, Dave Lyddon and Kurt Vandeaele, published in 2007 by Aksant (Amsterdam)

The summer of discontent or the tumultuous return of strikes in Great Britain

Great-Britain [1] has seen a wave of strikes the likes of which it has not seen for decades. Strikes at the railways, logistics, the Felixstowe port terminal and the Royal Mail are taking place against an economic and social backdrop of record profits, a political crisis, soaring inflation and an upcoming recession. The wave of spontaneous strikes in a dozen Amazon warehouses was perhaps the most unexpected moment of this ‘Summer of discontent’ [2] .

In this article, we want to bring to the attention to the return of the strike as a major social fact, and this in a country that has experienced a long period of “forced social pacification”. Having briefly outlined the contextual elements in the first section, we will describe the main conflicts in the second section. We will then develop some thoughts about the continuation of strike mobilisations in the coming months. The fourth point deals with the question of the end of a long period of pacification of social conflict, by considering the possibility of long cycles in strike activity based on the change in structural and organizational coordinates that determine its intensity. Finally, we will conclude by drawing up a series of general observations.

1 – British singularities under stress

In the United Kingdom, industrial relations are voluntary and poorly regulated, although, conversely, strikes are highly regulated. There are no employee representative bodies, which is why the term ’Single channel’ is used [3] . The legislator recognized the trade union fact within the company very early on (1872), while at the same time granting the right to organise a peaceful picket (1875). In 1906, trade unions were given the right to strike without being liable to a conviction for damages. The Trade Unions Council (TUC) is a direct product of Chartism, which was born in 1838 [4] . Initially, it brought together 180 trade or professional unions. Unlike other countries where revolutionary traditions predominated, the TUC took the lead in political action by founding the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which in turn founded the Labour Party. Political representation was a necessary complement to the essentially ‘economic’ trade union action. During the inter-war period there was a great deal of social conflict, culminating in a single general strike in 1926. After the Second World War, the trade unions and the Labour Party succeeded in making major improvements to the living conditions of the working class. In addition to the creation of a universal social security system under the aegis of William S. Beveridge, with health services accessible to all, financed from taxation, the country experienced two decades of relative full employment (for men) with a powerful public industrial pole and an expanded offer of social services (particularly in terms of housing).

Wage formation is highly decentralized in Great Britain. From 1945 to 1986, it was organized on the basis of wage negotiations within the Wages Councils, which covered trades and professions on a territorial basis with appointed representation of employers and employees. The Wages Councils drew up an indicative scale of hourly rates, minimum thresholds according to seniority and qualification (Dobb, 1952).

After their abolition in 1986, wage bargaining lost much of its importance. At the same time, in some cases (transport, energy), it has been maintained at sectoral level to avoid excessively high or dumping wages. Over the recent period (2000-2020), in the private sector, only 20% of wage increases were the product of collective bargaining, compared with 45% in the public sector. The creation of an hourly minimum wage (1998) – quite exceptional given the British tradition – was justified by the extent of the impoverishment of workers, with almost 25% of employees in poverty.

From 2010 to 2020, wage increases have been very moderate, consistently falling below the annual growth rate of GDP. Over this decade, median weekly earnings (in real terms) increased by only 0.6%, while average weekly earnings fell by 2.4% in real terms if the past decade is taken as a benchmark. The important increase in 2021 is mainly the result of furlough system ending after several periods of lockdown.

Annual change in real wages (adjusted for inflation) / source ONS UK

Last April, the Times asked whether the country would experience a summer of discontent. This signaled that some in the cenacles of power were already beginning to become aware of social exasperation. The number of social conflicts had begun to increase since 2020, during the pandemic. Initially marked by health issues, the strikes very quickly put the question of wages on the table. Last May, there were at least 300 industrial disputes since the beginning of the year; a number six times higher than the annual average for the period 2008-2018, which expresses a real break with the long period of atony in social conflict.

Wages are at the heart of these strikes for a very simple reason. In April 2022, the Chartered Management Institute [5] revealed that half of all companies had not planned any pay rises, while in the other half the increase would be no more than 3%, less than half the rate of inflation at that time. According to the same survey, in the public sector – where the unionization rate is 50% compared to 14% in the private sector – the wage increase would not exceed 2% in 2022.

Britain has had a long period of wage stagnation starting in 2008 during the financial crisis. But this period was also characterized by low inflation averaging between 1.5% and 2%, and this changed abruptly at the end of 2021. Initially, in the fall of 2021, the price increase was the result of a relatively sharp economic recovery from the confines of the pandemic. The year 2021 was also marked by a major disruption in road transport, notably due to a shortage of lorry drivers, partly linked to Brexit. In this context, prices were rising steadily and inflation was already reaching 5-6% by the end of 2021. The disruption of global value chains, further amplified by the insular context of the UK economy, pushed inflation up to 7-8%. Then, in June this year, following the rise in electricity and gas prices linked to the war in Ukraine, inflation crossed the 10% threshold.

The price surge coincided with repeated announcements of extraordinary profits for the year 2021. Profit margins for listed companies (FTSE 350) were 73% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Profits for these companies jumped by 11.74% in the six months from October 2021 to March 2022. Over the same period, labour incomes rose by only 2.61%; and fell by 0.8% after accounting for inflation. This recent surge in profits accounts for 58% of the inflation in the last six months, compared to only 8.3% for labour costs. Unite sees this as excess profits generated from higher prices and monopoly rents [6] . So it is not just about oil companies or a few ‘rotten apples’. Even excluding energy companies, the profits of FTSE 350 companies increased by 42% between 2019 and 2021.

The combination of the three realities – wage moderation, (excess) profits and inflation – has become an explosive cocktail. Faced with criticism, including from his own camp, Boris Johnson decided to grant each household an energy voucher of £400, financed by a tax on the ‘excess profits’ of energy producers [7] . The measure, quite ‘radical’ for a neoliberal conservative, awakened the social conscience of the working classes. At the end of July, further price increases were announced, raising the annual energy bill by £3,000 to £4,000. In a country where many working people either own run-down homes or rent social housing, higher energy prices would spell social disaster. Economist Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York says that a £400 voucher will not prevent 80% of households from falling into ‘fuel poverty’, defined as 10% of disposable income spent on energy [8] .

Faced with this reality, several unions engaged in consultation procedures, which British law made necessary in order to call for strike action.  As a symptom of social exasperation, participation rates in these consultations systematically exceeded 80%, while the vote in favor of strike action sometimes reached 90% or 95%, reflecting a real determination to take action to obtain wage increases. It is worth noting that the existence of a strike fund is certainly helpful when disputes arise. Employees earning more than £30,000 can get up to £50 a day, while for low earners earning less than £30,000 gross, the amount can be as much as £75 a day. Union density in the private sector has fallen below 30% over the past decade, but in large companies and public services it remains at 50%.

2. Strikes are back

Here we present the emblematic conflicts in rail, logistics, postal services and dockers. Other, more local conflicts also took place. But these conflicts, which are just as well attended as the national strike conflicts, do not contain national issues that make the return of the strike a separate issue.

When the rail strike sets the ball rolling

The railworkers were the first to embark on a nationwide strike affecting the entire rail sector. Having not experienced strikes since 1989, rail transport had all the characteristics of a managerial Eden. Privatized in 1990-1991 with some fifteen separate national operators, the sector is also fragmented by the outsourcing of a large number of technical and commercial services. But this fragmented reality has not prevented the RMT union from campaigning for centralized or national bargaining on pay issues. With 50,000 members or adherents, the RMT remains a rather ‘militant’ union with a presence on the ground, including external contractors such as cleaning services. It disaffiliated from Labour when the latter embarked on a ‘third way’ approach similar to social liberalism. Alongside it is the 22,000-strong ASLEF union[9] , which organises train and underground train drivers, and the TSSA, an independent trade association not affiliated to the TUC, which organises staff of some regional service providers and which has opened up to the tourist transport sector[10] .

At the end of May 2022, ASLEF and RMT refused to accept an increase of 3%, which is much lower than an inflation rate of 9-10%. For the unions, a 7% increase was the necessary condition for opening negotiations. In response to this refusal, Network Rail agreed to a 5% pay rise, but this was conditional on accepting a reorganization of services and an increase in working hours. RMT and ASLEF rejected this ‘sweetheart deal’ and began preparations for strike action. After a well-attended consultation process, with a very high turnout of 78% and 90% of voters in favor of strike action [11] , more than 60,000 employees in the sector stopped work, first on 21 June, followed by a second strike day on 27 July, a third on 20 August and finally on Saturday 1st of October, in a first joint strike with other sectors.

The rail strikes have received support from large sections of the public [12] . A poll of 2,000 people [13] at the end of July found that 63% are against job losses and do support strikes. The same percentage believe that rail workers should receive a pay rise ‘that takes into account the cost of living’, while 59% believe that rail workers have the right to strike when negotiations fail. More broadly, 85% of respondents believe that the profits of the rail industry should be invested in protecting jobs and improving service quality. Public opinion remains broadly supportive of strike action, which is consistent with the support for re-nationalization of the sector that has been prevalent for the past decade.

On each day of the strike, all services were paralyzed, including in London. In an attempt to divide the movement, employers said they were prepared to concede an 8% pay rise, but only for certain trades. Mick Lynch, interviewed on Skynews on the 1st of October, said it was unacceptable that some trades were being discriminated against in the face of rising inflation, which was affecting everyone and was now in excess of 10%. On that day, after 15 days of mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, a new national strike took place and other actions have been announced since then. The social movement is therefore still ongoing and far from losing momentum.

The highly symbolic rail strikes illustrate the return of trade union action to the forefront. They signal the return of the strike as a form of struggle. Their symbolic exemplarity is verified by the fact that workers in other companies have followed suit, even in companies without a union presence such as Amazon.

Wind of revolt at Amazon

At the beginning of August, the logistics giant experienced a wave of spontaneous strikes affecting a dozen sites, mainly sorting and order-picking warehouses (Fullfilment centres). It all started on the morning of 3 August at the LCY2 depot in Tilbury, south London. After receiving information that the hourly wage would only be increased by 35 pennies [14] , about 600 workers walked out and gathered in the hall. Over the next few days, walkouts took place in Rugeley, as well as Coventry, Swindon, Rugby, Doncaster, Bristol, Dartford, Belvedere, Hemel Hempstead and Chesterfield.

These wildcat strikes were distinctive in that they were both majoritarian and spontaneous, and represented a social event not seen since the 1970s (Darlington& Lyddon, 2001) [15] . Although the actions were supported by Unite and the GMB, in practice they were more self-organized by informal networks of colleagues. The actions took a wide variety of forms, ranging from stopping work while remaining at one’s workstation to slowing down the pace (slow down strike) or occupying loading bays or the canteen (sit-down strike).

All these actions are about the issue of wages. Amazon is a company that refuses to talk to a union representative, leaving the human resources department to act alone on this issue. A striker testifies that the anger has been brewing for some time:

‘Normally, salary increases are notified in April. In July, there was still no information, which added to the impatience. The announcement of a 35 penny increase was seen as a cold shower as everyone was expecting a real pay rise. Previously very low, close to the legal minimum of £8.50, the starting salary had been increased last year to £10.50, if not £11.45 depending on the employment area. Mind you, this decision was not inspired by any sense of generosity; Amazon was just trying to become more attractive in the job market. Recently, after the pandemic, Amazon had had the greatest difficulty in recruiting 25,000 workers… Internally, this increase in the hiring salary fed the hope that all categories would get an upward adjustment. In a context of inflation but also of record profits – £210 million, a 20% increase on 2020 – and net of tax, it is obvious that management’s refusal to grant a real increase was bound to provoke social discontent. This spread like wildfire from 3 to 12 August, with strikes and walkouts taking place in almost all fulfilment centres’.

Several strikers stressed their indifference to management’s threats. Their refusal to give in to intimidation, to respond to injunctions to return to work, even when he is waving a deduction from wages in case of an open strike, i.e. the entire interrupted working day, seems to have been a widely shared reaction:

‘We only decided that morning that we were going to walk out. The management was completely clueless. They first threatened to withhold our wages, but we held out and stayed in the canteen all day. We asked the management representative for an explanation. Why are they giving us a handout when they have increased our starting wages by £2? Why couldn’t they raise our wages to the level of inflation, when the money was flowing. But Amazon’s UK management remained silent and the local managers didn’t know what to do… They were completely baffled. In the end, after several days of stalling, management conceded a 50 pence per hour increase while announcing a wage adjustment in the coming months; this got the work going again.’

The GMB union is following up these strikes with a campaign for a starting wage of £15 an hour and an inflation adjusted pay rise. This offensive stance reflects the union’s desire to use the walkouts to gain the status of social interlocutor that Amazon has always refused [16] . But according to Callum Cant, author of Riding for Deliveroo. Resistance in the New Economy (2019) and a leading expert on the logistics sector, Amazon will certainly try to re-establish its managerial grip and do everything it can to keep the unions out of the warehouses. However, for the specialist, it is inevitable that workers will continue to ‘become aware of their strength’.

Dockers cross their arms

On 21st of August, it was the turn of the dockers at Felixstowe to enter the fray. Located near Ipswich, Felixstowe is the largest port terminal and accounts for half of the country’s annual port activity. The first strike lasted 8 days and mobilized the 1,900 dockworkers, all trades combined: bridge operators, crane operators, handlers, technicians, etc. During the consultation prior to the strike, 9 out of 10 workers were in favor of a work stoppage, paralyzing the entire port activity.

The owner of the Felixstowe terminal is CK Hutchison Holding, Li Ka-Shin, Hong Kong’s richest businessman and the 32nd richest man in the world, whose accounts are domiciled in tax havens. CK Hutchison is the world’s leading port terminal operator, owning 52 terminals in 26 countries with a turnover of $30 billion. Once again, the issue of wages is at the centre of the conflict. Having not been increased for a decade, while the British division has announced record profits – $95 million in 2021, compared to $64 million in 2020 – the dockers have given vent to their anger.

Following this strike, the first since 1989, the port company’s management is proposing a 7% pay rise with a one-off bonus of £500. But for the Unite union, the increase should be at least 10% and in line with inflation, in contrast to what was conceded during the 2010-2020 period, a period of low inflation it is true. According to Sharon Graham, ‘CK Hutchison’s terminal is making such a profit that it would be possible to increase wages by 50% without putting the accounts in the red. It is not unreasonable to demand a 10% increase.’

In early September, faced with the union’s refusal to accept a below-inflation increase, the port terminal manager decided to close the door on negotiations. Since then, the management has been waging a media campaign against the Unite union and the dockers, pointing to the high salary of a docker – around £50,000 a year – while explaining that strikes will cause prices to rise.

For Unite’s representatives, wages have been frozen for a decade while price increases are the result of higher rates charged by shipowners who have seen their profits triple by 2021. The disorganization of maritime transport particularly affects the British Isles and since 2021, only one in five container ships has arrived on time. For the Unite trade unionists, blaming the price increase on the dockers’ strike is a bad joke: ‘We’ve gone from just in time to just in case, which only makes prices more expensive with delays here and penalties there.’

It should perhaps be recalled here that the entire global flow of goods is affected by chaotic disorganization: either factories are shut down in China, or there are no more container ships available, or they are diverted because there are no time slots to unload containers in less than 48 hours. Felixstowe is often the last terminal before leaving for Asia empty. In case of congestion, ships unload their containers in Antwerp or Rotterdam rather than waiting offshore. These containers then have to be transported across the Channel, lengthening the supply chain and pushing up the final price. The retail sector has increased its storage capacity to avoid stock-outs. But by ordering more goods, it has only added to the chaos and pushed prices even higher.

The union’s refusal to accept a below-inflation increase turns the dockers’ strike into a test case. At the end of September, it was the turn of Liverpool dockers to strike for a week. On 29 September, the Felixstowe dockers embarked on a second week of strike action, supported by the Southampton dockers who refused to unload goods diverted from Liverpool or Felixstowe.

For Treasury Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the dockers’ strikes are a form of social terrorism ‘which must be prevented by all means’. In the same vein, Liz Truss, the new head of government who recently joined Downing Street, said she believed that the 1973 law banning the use of temporary workers during strikes should be repealed as soon as possible. Her recent statements express the will to attack again the right to strike with a panoply of restrictive measures such as the extension of the notice period from 2 to 4 weeks, the limitation in time of the validity of a vote in favor of a strike or the increase of the thresholds of validity of consultations.

Post and telecoms join the strikes

Finally, at the end of August, it was the turn of the postal services to join the strike. The management of the Royal Mail, privatized in 2013 and now listed on the stock exchange, was willing to accept a 5% pay rise. But for Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), this proposal is not serious, especially as it combines a 2% linear increase with a £500 cheque. For the CWU, only a catch-up with inflation was possible. At the end of July, the consultation involved 77% of the workforce, 96.7% of whom voted in favor of strike action. The strike was announced in two stages. The first day of strike action, on 31 August, concerned only the 125,000 Royal Mail workers. This was followed by a ‘sectoral’ strike on 8 and 9 September involving 40,000 British Telecom employees. The 31 August strike was very well attended, with over 2,000 pickets.

According to the views of trade unionists I interviewed, the strike was also followed by some frontline managers. It should be noted that post offices are, for the most part, run as retail outlets or grocery shops that have a franchise for mail-related activities. The bulk of the business – and a lucrative one at that, given that the Royal Mail has made £170 million in net profits in 2021 – is concentrated in the collection, sorting and distribution of letters and parcels. In this respect, it is clear that the Royal Mail has followed the same trajectory as many other postal services that combine neo-taylorian rationalisation with chronic understaffing and under-equipment. This also explains why we find in the background of the pay issue the experience of deteriorating working conditions:

‘We have been taken away from fixed hours, which adds work that will never be paid. Now we are being asked to come in on Sundays, with the festive season. [I started at the Royal Mail three and a half years ago and I can say that the workload is increasing all the time. Our tours are getting longer and longer. As some people finish early, at district management level they tell us we have to do more. These kinds of managers have never been a ‘postie’. They don’t understand that we live in Luton, Bromley or Bedfordshire… a long way from London with more than an hour and a half to travel. Inevitably, we skip the lunch break, which allows us to finish earlier and arrive home around 5-6pm, knowing that we also get up at 4am! The route calculations are absurd. We have always had fewer parcels in the summer than in November and December, but they don’t care about that. They base the winter rounds on the summer volumes. A real rip-off. What’s more, our equipment is in a terrible state: there aren’t enough trolleys and we have to make do. We make do and we tinker. A colleague will fill the van to the brim and leave some of the parcels to be delivered at a grocery store affiliated to the network. From there, another colleague takes over and includes it in his round. The next day, we swap rounds between the one who walks and the one who drives. It’s normal, there’s no reason why some people should have a harder time than others. The management knows this very well and they turn a blind eye. In fact, a lot of them are on strike with …’

As in the railway sector, the management is trying to exchange a wage increase for the imposition of a ‘modernisation of operations’. But for the CWU, linking the two is out of the question ‘as it would mean taking back with one hand what was conceded with the other’. For Dave Ward, ‘a 10% increase would be very reasonable given that the Royal Mail has made over £650 million in profits in 2021 and almost £500 million has been distributed to shareholders and top management’ [17] .

3 – Towards a hot winter?

 The death of the Queen has certainly put social tensions on hold for a few weeks. However, there is no sign that the strike wave will abate. So, if the summer is behind us, there is also the question of the outcome of strike action. Will management make concessions or engage in a showdown?

It is impossible to answer this question except to say, with a great deal of phlegm, that nothing has been decided… It is true that the public sector has remained rather on the sidelines until now. Unison, the main union in this sector, supports the centre-left orientation of Labour led by Keir Starmer, who says he is ready to govern ‘with reason’. At the level of the NHS, Unison put to the vote the managerial proposal of an increase of only 4.5%. But this was overwhelmingly rejected and the union was forced to consult workers on strike action before 27 October. In the local authority and public schools, the pay rise proposals appear to be more significant and could involve a flat rate of £2,000 and an extra day’s holiday, which would amount to a 10% rise for the lowest paid and 6-8% for middle and high earners. Again, the union put the proposed increase to the vote without taking a position.

Meanwhile, the Liz Truss government announced a drastic reduction in the number of civil servants (90,000 out of a total of 600,000), angering the PCS (Public Civil Servants Union), which immediately launched consultations for a series of strikes in November. In education, the University and College Union (UCU) has also mobilized its members, having already obtained a favorable strike notice in 22 universities and colleges for October.

It is true that no major conflict has so far resulted in a victory for the trade union camp. At the same time, some important but more local disputes show that victories are far from being out of reach. In Coventry, for example, the city’s refuse collectors won a 12.9% pay rise after six months of strike action. The same is true in Thurrock. A number of emblematic disputes on issues other than pay have been won. Examples include London hospital staff fighting to be integrated into the internal workforce; Manchester bus drivers and British Airways workers at Heathrow airport fighting against the ‘Fire and Rehire’ system; and workers at the manufacturer of a range of products and services. There are also the workers at pallet manufacturer CHEP, who after a historic 20-week strike won a 9% pay rise.

Very recently, Liverpool dockers and Unite succeeded to secure a deal with Peel Port authority with a pay increase between 14.5 and 18%. This demonstrates that where balance of forces change in favor of the workers, employers are ready to dig into their pockets.

The molecular accumulation – in the sense that this remains ‘invisible’ until it expresses its disruptive impact – of partial victories can also lead employers to harden their position. From their point of view, any concession is dangerous because it may encourage others to strike too. But not making concessions will inevitably strengthen the position of the trade union side. For Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, workers have seen their purchasing power melt away while profits have reached new heights: ‘We’ve seen wages stagnate and now we’re seeing a decline because wages are not keeping up with inflation. If we accept this, we will end up with a pittance that will plunge us into poverty. No way!  For the leader of the RMT, it is time for the working class to go on the offensive: ‘We are ready for it, especially since the job market is giving us a boost since employers can no longer find anyone to work in unbearable conditions for miserable wages. (speech 17 August launch meeting Enough is enough).

Asked whether we are witnessing the death of the Thatcherite project, or simply a return to social conflict, Lynch replied, ‘Well, I don’t know if Thatcherism will end, because to end it you have to put something else in place. (…) The only way to end it is to put in place a system, or a set of reforms, and that’s why I think Labour leadership under Keir Starmer has an opportunity. At the same time the Labour Party does not reflect the social aspirations for change. I think they are too cautious. I think they’ve been brought up in a way that makes them afraid of radicalism.[18]

In the absence of adequate political support, sectors of the trade union movement decided to launch a unitary campaign Enough  is  enough  that is meeting with a growing response in the country. ‘Enough is enough’ was initiated by the most combative sectors of the trade union world, in alliance with housing associations, youth and the left of Labour, with the idea that ‘they are acting in their class interests, it’s time we did too’. For Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry, ‘the current crisis is a cost of living crisis, it is a social crisis for labour, not a crisis for capital which continues to reap profits and distribute millions in dividends. [It is a crisis not because there is not enough wealth, but because wealth is being monopolized by a tiny minority’ (speech at the meeting on 17 August 2022).

‘Enough is Enough’ campaigns for the convergence of wage struggles into cross-industry and societal strike action, with explicit reference to Britain’s only general strike in 1926. The platform defends the adoption of emergency measures to protect purchasing power in the face of the inflationary spiral (price freeze, wage adjustment to inflation) and advocates a tax on excess profits in the energy sector. As social pressure continues to mount, the TUC leadership has recently adopted a position in favor of coordinated strike action, which is exceptional for this trade union confederation.

On Saturday 1er October, the first day of joint strikes by railway workers, postal workers and dockers was a success. A rare occurrence in the UK, it gave rise to numerous street demonstrations. Other strike days are already announced for October and November. It is very likely that the public sector or health care will join the movement, which could destabilize the new government just in place and lead to early elections. The Labour leadership is adopting a moderate stance, reminiscent in some quarters of the Antony aka ‘Tory’ Blair era, but the Labour left and the trade union left are mobilizing to push for emergency measures, prompting editorial writers in the centre-left Guardian, the Times and the right-wing Telegraph to say that the unions are once again ‘the leading opposition force’ in the country.

This social opposition may be able to take advantage of a divided and somewhat chaotic government. Very recently, the crisis in the Conservative Party took a dramatic turn for the worse when Liz Truss, having just come to power, approved a budget that would reduce taxes on the wealthiest groups by £45 billion. However, the same government decided to cap energy bills at £2,500 per year, a measure that is expected to cost between £70 and £140 billion depending on the evolution of basic prices. Even for the IMF, such a policy is completely inconsistent. The financial markets also disapproved of the package, immediately causing the British currency to fall, which endangered the pension funds that derive a considerable fraction of their income from financial investments. Faced with the risk of a stock market collapse – similar to that caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – the government was forced to back down. For its part, the Bank of England is persisting in its anti-inflationary policy by raising key rates, following the example of the FED and the ECB. This can only make credit more expensive and cause a large number of companies to go bankrupt. The energy crisis is far from being resolved, not least because the war in Ukraine has stalled. Even if the emergency measure of capping bills has succeeded in temporarily halting the rise in inflation, if it remains at 10% for much longer, it is clear that the impoverishment of entire layers of the workforce will not go unchallenged.

However, on the political front, at the time of writing, chaos remains. In mid-October, the finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked and replaced by Jeremy Hunt who tried to jump after that to Downing Street, the only way to avoid early elections. Unfortunately for him, the Tories have elected Rishi Sunak, a multibillionaire, as leader in order to take this uncomfortable position.

The combination of social mobilisations and strikes on the one hand and political chaos on the other forms a veritable explosive cocktail, to the point where The Economist headlined its 18 October edition as Welcome in Britaly. The disarray within the ruling class is gaining ground, as it is becoming difficult to combine right-wing populism with neoliberal economic reason.

4 – At least the end of a long social winter

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 resulted in a historic defeat for the British labour movement. This defeat not only demoralized the most combative sectors of the trade union movement but also changed the overall balance of power, facilitated by a fierce restriction on the right to strike through a long list of restrictive procedures [19] . These restrictions were recently reinforced when David Cameron’s government imposed a minimum threshold of 50% of the electorate and 70% of the vote in favor of strike action in 2016.

This epochal shift could be summarized by saying that neoliberalism has succeeded in imposing a ‘forced social pacification’ and this can be seen in the collapse of the number of individual days not worked (IDNW) due to strikes. Indeed, after peaking at 30 million days in the late 1970s, strike activity fell to 5 million in 1985 and then declined to between 150,000 and 300,000 IDNWs per year in the 1990s and 2000s. We find this notion of coercive pacification in the analysis of Dave Lyddon (2007, 2015) for whom neoliberalism expresses the constant desire to repress trade union action.

Data: Office of National Statistics – UK.

The number of strike days per 1,000 employees, which is an indicator of the social density of strike activity, confirms this finding. In the UK, since the early 2000s, the threshold of 50 working days lost per 1,000 employees has very rarely been exceeded. By way of comparison, in other countries such as Belgium, France and Spain, in years of cross-industry strikes, there are peaks of 300 to 500 days lost per 1,000 employees, while in years of ‘social calm’, strike activity remains at around 80 to 100 days lost. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the neoliberal governance model has succeeded in making strike activity residual and marginal.

Source: ETUI – Kurt Vandaele.

However, it should be pointed out that the British statistical data only count strikes of more than 20 employees lasting at least a whole day. This leaves aside work stoppages, which historically represent a privileged mode of action, to the point these micro-strikes were considered a singularity of British industrial relations.

At this point, it is difficult to prejudge what will happen next. On the other hand, it is possible to measure the change of era and to say that social conflicts emerged from a long period of hibernation. Already, the number of Individual Days Not Worked has exceeded 2 million, which shows that strikes are no longer a taboo for trade unions and that they are ready to engage in social conflicts such as we have seen in the past.

It remains to be seen whether the long cycle of defeats and social setbacks will give way to a new offensive cycle with an accumulation of social conquests. This brings us back to the debate of the early 1980s about the existence of long waves in the class struggle and their relation to long waves in capital accumulation. The notion of long waves was initiated by Nikolaj Kondratieff in the 1930’s and reframed by the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel (Mandel, 1980; Kleinkecht, Mandel & Wallerstein, 1992). It postulates the existence of sequences long periods of upswing and downswing in the cycle of accumulation. In the late 1970s, some started to seek after linkages between longs waves and trends in conflictuality that could have an indirect but real relationship.

Even if this approach has been criticized by some for its impossible empirical validation (Beverly Silver, 1980; 1991), others, such as John Kelly (1998), were inspired by it to highlight that conflictuality not only maintains a sort of ‘path dependency’ but that there are also more structural realities that facilitate or hinder striker activity and, more broadly, strikes. Of course, these structural determinants are located as much in the infrastructure (the social relations of production, the labour market) as in the superstructure (the rules and norms, the ideological hegemony or the vitality of the trade union movement). I will leave the long wave controversy aside because it requires a proper investigation in the economic field and in particular the evolution of profitability. On the other hand, following here the insights of John Kelly, it is certain that certain infra and super-structural coordinates influence the amplitude and the intensity of strikes and conflict.

In the case of Great Britain, the fall in unemployment to 3.5% certainly plays in favor of the return of social conflict. It is certainly not yet ‘full employment’ (with a lot of precariousness) but the demand for labour is approaching the supply of labour, which changes the situation from the workers’ point of view. For the CIDP, a HR research centre [20], in a recent report, companies are experiencing increasing difficulties recruitment . According to their latest barometer of HR departments last spring, six out of ten companies are facing prolonged difficulties and would be willing to increase the hiring salary to facilitate recruitment and make the job more attractive.

It should be noted that the fall in unemployment is less the result of net job creation than of a double structural change, namely the ageing of the population and Brexit. The first is common to other OECD countries. The baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1968, has started to retire, leaving a growing number of job vacancies. According to a study made in 2018 by CEDEFOP (the European Centre for the Study of Skills and Qualifications), 9 out of 10 job vacancies in Europe are now linked to retirement. The latest report on the UK sounds the alarm about the rapidly increasing need for labour. According to the calculations of demographer Ilias Leanos, in the coming decade will need to recruit over 15 million people by 2030 in the UK alone. Even if this figure is an overestimation of recruitment needs (given de coming recession), the scale of the need is enormous, as is not far from evoking a renewal of more than half of the working population [21] !  It should also be noted that in this set of vacancies, half of them concern semi- or unskilled workers. Since a couple of years, the labour shortages are severely felt at all skill levels, which improves the overall social balance of power in favor of the workers.

A recent study by Oxford University has found that the Brexit is playing a significant role in the surge in labour shortages [22] . According to the authors of the study, the post-Brexit immigration system has introduced visa requirements for EU citizens who could previously work in any job. To date, this labour supply has not been matched by access to the labour market for non-EU citizens. As a result, low-wage jobs that relied heavily on EU workers are no longer eligible for work visas [23] . Indirectly, the Brexit has contributed to the drying up of the recruitment pool for a number of jobs at the lower and middle end of the skills spectrum.

In addition to these structural aspects linked to the state of the labour market, we are also witnessing a return to ‘collectivism’. This concept will make some people smile – but it has nothing to do with the Soviet model – it only leads not to limit analysis to a rise in individualism. Even if the notion of collectivism is absent from most of French-speaking sociological analysis of industrial relations [24], it is not without relevance since it allows us to question the availability for a collective commitment, whether it be union membership or commitment to strike action. For John Kelly (Rethinking Industrial relations, 1998), ‘collectivism’ is part of mobilization theory and is based on a feeling of shared injustice and the conviction that it is possible to improve one’s social condition on a collective basis. So it is not only acting in the interest of oneself but express also the awareness that acting together can deliver more than being a ‘free rider’, even in the olsonian way.

In this respect, several facts indicate that collectivism refers to a molecular process of mutual solidarity that precedes social conflict. The spontaneous strikes at Amazon – which are part of a non-unionized dispute – indicate that deep resentment had been building up for some time. Resentment and anger are fueled by a sense of injustice that spreads and ends by expressing itself in a work stoppage.

In addition to this specificity of the wildcat strike, it is important to underline how the very heterogeneous social composition of the working class in no way hindered the mobilisation. In the Amazon Fullfilment centre in Tilbury, the majority of workers are under forty, a third are women and more than half are ‘non white’ or of foreign origin. The’ variety of subjective experiences and conditions did not prevent the coagulation of anger towards collective action. This is not always the case and it is therefore worth emphasizing. Other sectors on strike, such as the postal service or the railways, are also marked by diversity in terms of gender and cultural identity. However, the strikes demonstrate, by their absolute majority character, that heterogeneity is no longer an obstacle.

Mick Lynch confirms this in his own way when he explains that questions of identity, gender, racialization or sexual orientation can be ‘articulated to the class struggle’. The latter remains a unifying factor, but on condition that racism and sexism are also fought (Jacobin interview).  In other words, identities structured around struggles against specific oppressions have a place in the trade union movement. This has been the case for a long time, as British unions have been applying the principle of self-organisation for specific groups such as black and colored people, Asians, women and LGBT people since the 1990s. It is understandable that one third of the RMT’s members in the London Underground are from racialized minorities. More generally, according to government statistics, the proportion of unionized employees is highest among ‘black and black British’ workers (26.9 per cent), followed by workers classified as ‘mixed’ (24.1 per cent) and ‘white’ (24 per cent). Overall, there are more women than men in the TUC.

Collectivism is also expressed in the ‘grey areas’ of the labour market, on the side of gig workers, with the emergence of proto-union action by platform workers who have begun to form a multitude of action collectives. Sometimes these collectives become part of new unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, founded in 2012 by a collective of cleaning workers all of Latin American origin. Sociological studies (Gandini, 2018 ; Cini, 2022) on these mobilisations observe a number of common features: rejection of piecework and self-employed status, the desire to benefit from social protection and community-based mobilisation dynamics. Most of these collective structures combines mobilisation and legal or court action, resulting in an important victory that is beginning to set a precedent.

The UK Supreme Court’s February 2021 decision considers that Uber drivers should be treated as workers, not as independent contractors. This unanimous decision is expected to have a significant impact on platform businesses as drivers are entitled to benefits such as holiday pay, minimum wage and a supplementary pension. The reason is simple, Uber imposes fares and routes without any negotiation and imposes a disciplinary regime on drivers based on their ratings. The court, rejecting Uber’s long-standing practice of treating its drivers as independent contractors, also ruled that the company’s more than 70,000 UK drivers will have to be paid for the hours they are logged on to the Uber app, regardless of the demand for transport.

Since this judgement, a number of similar cases (Pimlico plumbers, CitySprint and Excel Services delivery workers, Bolt delivery workers) have been brought to court and have all resulted in a confirmation of the judgement in the Uber drivers’ case [25] . In terms of status, it is interesting to note that the mobilisations combining direct action and legal action are making progress towards the recognition of the hybrid status of ‘Limb (b) workers’, who are neither freelancers nor self-employed nor employed and integrated into the workforce in the classical sense of the term, but dependent workers to whom the company must pay the minimum hourly wage as long as they are connected by their application, as well as social protection and days off [26] .

In the end, it is certainly still too early to validate the hypothesis of a new cycle of offensive struggles, but the examples of mobilisations are multiplying and the gaps are opening up here and there. The decline in unemployment should continue for structural reasons and the revival of collectivism is helping to revitalise trade union action.

5 – Conclusive reflections

Firstly, it is clear that purchasing power, already at half mast since the pandemic, has become a central issue for workers in all sectors. The 2009-2019 decade was one of wage stagnation, and this is not accepted anymore in an inflationary context. The rationalization of the work process has led to a deterioration in working conditions, which in turn has nourished the feeling that effort must continue to increase even though it is less and less well paid. The sharp drop in purchasing power in the spring of 2022 is just one more drop in a pot that was about to overflow. When the latent sense of injustice is widely shared, it does not take much – such as the announcement of record profits – for it to turn into a spirit of revolt. The conviction that strike action is necessary has become a widely shared idea in a very short time.

The second finding is that the regulatory obstacles to strike action are far from insurmountable. But to succeed in crossing the threshold of approval, the union must necessarily convince a majority of workers that strike action is justified and that it can bring about substantial improvements. To succeed in such a campaign – commonly called a ‘strike ballot campaign’ – it is necessary to mobilise the whole union apparatus, the reps, publish leaflets, emails and ultimately text every worker. It is significant that combative unions such as the CWU, RMT, Unite or PCS are doing this as much as the more moderate unions (Unison, GMB). This indicates that the trade union ‘base’ and more broadly the workers are exasperated by the loss of purchasing power after a long period of wage moderation. The union leadership is in tune with this feeling and understands that such a situation is untenable. But as trade unionists, they also feel that the trade union movement can take revenge after years, if not decades, of losing and conceding much. This is what Mick Lynch says when he announces that the working class is back.

Thirdly, trade unions, even limited in their scope of action, remain powerful institutions. In the 1970s, unions had almost 13 million members. From the 1980s onwards, they have been steadily loosing membership to 6,5 million members but since 2015 around at least 100,000 workers have decided to join every year. The majority of these new members are women, young people, people with recent migrant background, black, asian and colored people. This reflects a collective awareness that the union is an indispensable tool for defending one’s rights and interests. At the same time, this process reflects the social recomposition of the working class. If Labour has a lot of trouble mobilizing its traditional electorate, the unions kept a very broad base and thus formed the central institution of a working class which, of which important sections do express again it’s existence ‘for itself’ again, particularly through these conflicts.

Fourthly, social dialogue is not much institutonalized, which puts the unions themselves, or even the workers themselves (Amazon), at the centre of the playfield, rather than the institutional bodies and the distribution of mandates, which is much more the case in France. As was pointed out at the very beginning of this article, the British model of collective bargaining in no way favors ‘social dialogue’. Since these relations between employers and trade unions operate almost on a voluntary basis, around what is known as the ‘single channel’ system, there is not much normative or contractual production. As a result, the coverage of collective agreements is painfully low at 30%, which is among the lowest levels in Western countries. Even when a trade union is recognized and plays the role provided elsewhere by employee representative institutions, the employer may or may not agree to negotiate. Such an institutional ‘vacuum’ can also fuel social conflict, as employers’ refusal to concede improvements, which in turn may reinforce the feeling of injustice and make workers receptive to the idea of an open dispute. Information and consultation is done at the whim of the employer. This deleterious situation has led the trade union movement to reorganize, to conduct membership campaigns, inspired by the American model of ‘organizing’ [27] . At the level of TUC member unions, several unions have come together under the banner of Unite and the GMB [28] (public and private sector) while several unions merged together  in the public sector (Unison). The leader of Unite, Sharon Graham, is taking a much more antagonistic approach to industrial relations also organizing cross-sectoral coalitions at local level.

The fact that social conflict is making such a massive and tumultuous return after four decades of enforced pacification does not yet explain this phenomenon. In order to make progress in this direction, we will also have to draw up an in-depth assessment of British neoliberalism and question the persistence of a structural antagonism between capital and labour. I will do this in two forthcoming articles: the first on the splendours and miseries of neoliberalism; the second on the depth of class divisions and antagonisms.



21st of October 2022 (updated 14th of November).

* I would to thank Michael Roberts, Erik Demeester and Nicola Cianferoni for their suggestions and comments.

Websites with background information

Notes From Below   (with a lot of first hand reports)

Tribune Magazine

Socialist Appeal

Socialist Worker


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[1] Great Britain includes England, Scotland and Wales; the UK also includes Northern Ireland. As there has been less strike action in Northern Ireland, I prefer to call it Great Britain. At the same time, politically, the primary entity remains the United Kingdom.

[2] This expression echoes the winter of discontent of 1978-1979, during which a wave of strikes had put the Labour government in difficulty. See Marc Lenormand, L’« hiver du mécontentement » de 1978-1979 : du mythe politique à la crise interne du mouvement travailliste, in Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXII- hors-série | 2017,

[3] In other countries with a ‘dual system’, such as Germany, there are both IORPs such as the Betriebsrät (works council, similar to the CE, now the CSE) and Vertrauwensleute (people of trust) who are elected on a trade union list. This is known as a ‘dual channel of representation’.

[4] Chartism is a political expression of the nascent labour movement that developed in the mid-19ème century following the adoption of the People’s Charter. The imposition of a censal electoral system had excluded the working class from parliamentary democracy. The People’s Charter was adopted in 1838 and called for universal male suffrage, fair constituency boundaries, the abolition of property ownership as a condition of eligibility, annual parliamentary elections and the secret ballot. The movement remained active until 1848 and gave rise to mutual aid funds, cooperatives and the first trade union movement. EP Thompson; Jacques Carré, La Grande-Bretagne au 19ème siècle, Paris, 1997, 160 p.

[5] Employers and employees face a “great cost squeeze” as government support fails to lift sufficient pressure say managers, 22 April, see

[6] Unite Investigates: Corporate profiteering and the cost of living crisis. Report commissioned by Sharon Graham, June 2022, mimeo, 28p.

[7] The notion of excess profits refers to profits that are added to those already made, due to causes external to the market, such as a war. But there is no consensus on this definition. For my part, I prefer the notions of profit and rent (rents thank to dominant positions on the market or speculative rent).

[8] Jonathan Bradshaw, University of York, “Fuel Poverty: Estimates for the UK”, available here; see also  


[10] Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association,  

[11] 71% of the workforce took part in the vote and of those, 89% were in favor of strike action.    

[12] See in particular   

[13]  A majority of young people and transport users support them, but older people (over 50) or residents of rural areas tend to be opposed. Although almost 70% of Labour voters express support for rail strikes, Keir Starmer, Labour’s centre-left leader who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn, believes that the Labour Party should remain neutral above all else, which allows him to call on Labour MPs to stay off the picket line. See Katherine Swindells, “Where does public opinion stand on the rail strikes?, Younger people are far more likely than older people to support striking train workers”, in New Statesman

[14] It takes 100 pennies to make a pound.

[15] In English, these spontaneous strikes are called wildcat strikes, referring to the unannounced strike action taken by activists of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary trade union organisation in the United States. These strikes were aimed at disrupting production in order to protest against management decisions. In this case, they are strikes that do not follow the normal procedures leading to a strike (consultation and notice).

[16] In 2001, Amazon decided to counter a campaign for union recognition by kicking out some union members while giving a 10% pay rise. As a result, the union received dozens of resignation letters and suffered a painful setback with 80% of workers voting against union recognition.

[17] For an overview of the results for 2021, see   

[18] See Jacobin, 10 June 2022, )

[19]. Mathilde Bertrand, Cornelius Crowley, Thierry Labica, C’est ici que notre défaite a commencé. La grève des mineurs britanniques(1984-1985), ed. Syllepse, 2016.


[21] Ilias Leanos, Cedefop, Skills forecast United Kingdom, see

As well as the more global analysis of the post-pandemic labour market


[23] Madeleine Sumption, Chris Forde, Gabriella Alberti & Peter Walsh (2022), How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK? first report, 15 AUG 2022, The Migration Observatory COMPAS (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society), University of Oxford.

[24] – In France, either this ‘collectivism’ is taken for granted, or its absence is, based on an analysis that notes the atomisation of work collectives, the omnipresence of consent and servitude, docility and loyalty. There is, however, a possibility of thinking about things in a more dialectical way, by mobilizing, for example, the notion of resistance at work or that of ‘relevant communities of collective action’ proposed by Denis Segrestin (1980). See S. Bouquin (2020), Bellanger and Thuderoz (2012) or, on the subject of collective action, D. Segrestin (1980).


[26] Under section 230 of the Employment Relations Act 1996, a worker is defined as an individual who has entered into or is working under (a) a contract of employment or (b) any other contract, whether express or implied, whether oral or written, by which the individual undertakes personally to do or perform work or services for another party to the contract whose status is not, by virtue of the contract, that of a client of a profession or business carried on by the individual. Persons who are not employees but who meet the requirements of paragraph (b) above are sometimes referred to as Limb (b) workers. See also  

[27] Organizing is a new trade union practice which emerged in the United States in the early 2000s and which aims to win over sectors of workers in a company to a majority vote in favor of recognition of the role of interlocutor. It is now criticized for its very institutionalist approach, and some people oppose it to the deep organizing model, which refers to in-depth action based on the constitution of semi-clandestine networks, inspired in particular by the IWW. See Milkman R., Bloom J., Narro V. (2010), Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy.

[28] Unite the Union, a merger of Amicus and TGWU, organises more workers in the industrial, logistics and construction sectors. It has 1.2 million members; the GMB, formerly the General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union, has 640,000 members employed in industry, retail, security, schools, distribution, public services, social services, the National Health Service (NHS), ambulance services and local government.



Conflict beyond law and regulation. From the Gilets Jaunes uprising to the spontaneous strike wave in Italy at the early stage of the pandemic

Paper presented at the 40th International labour Process Conference in Padua (Italy) 22-24th of April 2022

In recent years, we have observed the resurgence of unregulated and disruptive conflict, with a lot of uncertainty regarding usefulness of social regulation. Our paper will investigate two major cases. The first is the well known Gilets Jaunes revolt in France. This revolt was initiated in November 2018 against hiking prices and impoverishment but developed itself as a huge social uprising against Macron and his governance. This mobilisation, which lasted several months, was not supported by instituted and representative structures such as trade unions. Second, we will analyse the spontaneous strike movement in Italy that occurred at the early stage of the pandemic, in order to stop production and to hold back contaminations of Covid-19. The paper proposes to investigate this kind of conflict at three levels:

1 What are the commonalities, beyond the singularities of each mobilisation? Does the exteriority towards institutional and legal frameworks have common origins? Is it assumed or rather imposed, or both?

2 What are the class dynamics involved, formulating the hypothesis that there is a class-based community of destiny, in formation. This process is also marked by the main narratives held by the actors themselves as much as by the strength of the mobilisation and the opposition it encounters.

3 Is it possible to identify a common horizon and a level of agreement regarding the means to achieve this or should we first of all recognize the heterogeneity and fragmentation, both on the objective and subjective level?

My paper is based on qualitative field research among the Gilets Jaunes (January-March 2019), the analysis of a large scale survey with 4000 respondents as well as an ongoing survey among trade union activists  and workers in Italy.

To download the paper =>


No truce in sight. Labour in times of managerial hegemony

1 – Introduction

In the 1950s, French sociology of work and labour relations distinguished itself from North-American social psychology by recognising the conflicting dimension of work and the emancipatory stakes this could contain. From the 1980s onwards, sociological analyses focused more on social interactions, and above all on the internalisation by employees of the logic of performance and management standards. It is also during this last period, from 1990 to 2010, that the issue of domination emerged, favouring an analytical grid where employees have ceased to oppose management.

During my doctoral studies, and throughout my research activities of the last two decades, I favoured an approach that continued to integrates conflict and resistance into the analysis of work and labour. This is as much a theoretical choice as it was and remained an empirical observation. Such a conceptualisation of work and labour does not consider conflict as an ‘anomaly’ but recognises the antagonistic nature of labour relations at the very core of them. From there on, I took a position in some sociological controversies regarding work, labour and its ongoing transformations by asserting that these are at least partially determined by the need for management to increase or to maintain the level of surplus extraction as well as resistance and oppositional behaviour by labour.

Certainly, the wage relationship contains several types of conflicts. Competition between employees can be characterised as a kind of ‘horizontal’ conflict that can take on many faces, ranging from competition for favours, disassociation, harassment or some kind of inter-statutory and intergenerational conflicts. Still, there is always also, even in a minimal way, a ‘vertical’ conflict which opposes the workforce to the management and the employer. This conflict is not only fuelled by issues of power, as pointed out by Michel Crozier and Alain Touraine[2], but also by a conflict of interests concerning the partition of surplus value and the monetary and symbolic recognition of the effort made.

At the origin of my approach, a disagreement can be found with a conceptualisation of work that limits the definition of it to the exercise of a constraining activity, or an expenditure (skilled or not) of energy surrounded by exchanges of information. Such an approach limits the sociological analysis to the concrete way it’s being carried out, to gestures and postures and to symbolic interactions within the workplace. These aspects are important, but they tend to leave aside structuring dimensions such as inequalities of power, the division of labour as well as the impact of wage labour, both at the domestic level and at the level of the public space (labour market and normative regulations). The aspect of pay, or work-effort bargaining is an aspect that is quite often disregarded or even neglected by French sociology of work. Apart from the institutional separation of academic disciplines such as sociology and political economy, another more silent explanation can be found in the strong Proudhonist tradition – and the concomitant marginal Marxist traditions – that can be found among scholars as well as trade unionists. The fact that paid work or labour is not limited to the execution of tasks, that it does not exist in itself, but is carried out against the background of a social relationship of exploitation[3], under control of management is not quite often acknowledged. The fact that this reality will affect social behaviour as well as the relationship to work that people tend to adopt even less. A sound analysis of wage labour implies integrating the existence of the employer, the company, and management as well as recognising that the constrained act of working involves surplus extraction which will be embodied in a higher workload and / or a partial or false recognition of one’s contribution and commitment.

In other words, wage labour remains based on an antagonistic social relationship in which employers cannot fail to try to maximise profits by making people work more for the same wage, or by reducing the latter in relation to the work done (productivity increases). At the same time, wage workers cannot refrain themselves to try to be better paid for their efforts or ask to be better paid on the basis of increased efforts. Insisting on this aspect should not make us forget that this social relationship is also asymmetrical and that it therefore implies a ‘subsumption’– a term I prefer to that of ‘domination’ – whose faces can vary enormously, ranging from factory despotism based on coercion and repression to ‘controlled autonomy’ through targets, performance, strong work ethos, the occupational culture of corporate chauvinism.

To put it differently, when we understand wage labour as a social relationship, we have to do so from two opposite viewpoints, both that of the employees and that of the employers. From this double viewpoint, the observation that there is no ‘truce in sight’ is even truer. Almost all managerial reorganisations can be understood as acts promoting more effort on the part of ‘living labour’, more creativity and commitment, in view of stagnant or slightly increasing pay, in view of the efforts made.

This critique, which can be identified as Marxian, extends the analysis of André Gorz[4], from when he considered wage labour as a heteronymous reality, or elaborated by Jean-Marie Vincent[5] when he recalled the extent to which real subsumption always nourishes oppositions and a critique of work. The reality of ‘domination’, so often evoked in sociological literature, refers basically to the domination of abstract labour over concrete labour, which does not mean this domination is ever completed, definitive nor absolute. Firstly, because it is not insensitive to the balance of power between employers and trade unions (when the latter are present), neither to the legal-administrative frameworks of industrial relations (particularly the right to strike), as well as it involves both bodies and minds mobilised during working time. Faced with various intensities of psychological sufferingor or the resentment of not being sufficiently recognised for one’s contribution, sooner or later employees may lose their credulity towards management and slide into various kinds of opposition. We could also mention Oscar Negt [6], member of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, who remobilised Marx and the concept of ‘living labour’ (lebentige arbeit) to emphasise the extent to which this ‘living’ nature of the workforce, in opposition with the ‘death labour’ (tote arbeit, i.e. capital), implies also a permanent uncertainty towards the concrete course of the labour process. Other works, quite often ignored by French labour sociologists, such as those of Cornelius Castoriadis [7], could also be cited. Apart form his early writings as member of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie and political group, Castoriadis is characteristic for an analysis articulating social relations of production with state and the development of civil society institutions, considering the pacification of work and labour as harder to achieve than it is the case on the level of a political regime.

A whole series of research investigations confirm the approach of work situations as incessantly conflicting, even without necessarily adopting a Marxian conceptualisation. One example is the historian Alf Lüdtke [8], who studied work behaviour in the context of the Nazi regime in the nineteen thirties finding traces of ‘rebellious subjectivity’ through shopfloor reports from hierarchical superiors, sanction vouchers and testimonies of middle management. These traces revealed that a productive activity was accompanied by a permanence of oppositional behaviours, even after the elimination of trade union presence. Following Alf Lütdke, this kind of conduct can be identified as Eigensinn which he defined as a kind of silent but stubborn oppositional attitude – such as ‘I tend do only doing what I want to do’ – expressing also a kind of undisciplined individualism.

2 – The blind spot of French sociology of work

The publication of a collective reader Résistances au travail in 2008 [9] was an opportunity to reopen the discussion on how ‘atmosphere at work’ did evolve the last decade. The expression of ‘athmospère’ or ambiance was used by the labour historian Nicolas Hatzfeld when he referred to shopfloor situations marked by informal behaviour [10]. Being himself a former ‘établi’ –political activists choosing to work in factories as ordinary workers in order to be among ordinary working people – he tended to acknowledge variations of work commitment that were mots of the time intentional.  Others such as Jean-Pierre Durand [11] after having elaborated a typology of wage relationship configurations in the automotive industry focussed research upon consent and ‘voluntary servitude’ – a notion borrowed from Gustave de la Boëtie – considering the workplace as pacified since the unions lost all bargaining power, the workers fear to lose their jobs and most of them are subjugated by the hegemonic ideology of effectiveness. Danièle Linhart, in a quite same way, emphasised the disappearance of the ‘collective worker’ in the face of omnipotent management[12]. In addition to this, there was the idea, defended in particular by Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux, that workers wanted to be considered as technicians or operatives but certainly not as members of the working class. It should be noted that the mainstream definition of the ‘classe ouvrière’ is quite restrictive and limit the class boundaries to blue collar workers, to productive labour (in opposition to unproductive labour in services sector) which concern only a section of the labouring class if we apply a larger definition of the labouring class [13].

The new forms of work organisation imported from Japan in the 1990s, such as team work, Kaizen or Kanban, certainly succeeded to obtain greater involvement of work groups and to guarantee better quality[14]. These new forms of organisation aimed to obtain from workers a degree of implication in correspondence with demanding standards of lean management and the ongoing juts-in-time flow of production.  This had to be done through the mobilisation of informal resources and tacit knowledge in order to increase productivity. However, by the end of the 1990s, productivity gains were also obtained through intensification and other elements of degrading of working conditions (health and safety), which resulted in a minimalist and consequently worn-out workforce. In some cases, this translated itself into a return of open social conflict, while in others, opposition remained invisible. A detailed analysis of the emergence and spread of lean production in the automotive industry (such as Bouquin, 2006) shows how and why it has become a hegemonic model.

It is true that, like Taylorism, there are many variants of this new ‘one best way’, but the fundamentals can be identified quite easily: cutting costs at all levels, not only of labour but also regarding capital (investment), intensification of work and extension of the use of technical installations, recurrent evaluation of oneself and colleagues; versatility and reduction of stocks and immobilised capital; segmentation of workforce according to status and imposition of team (or project) work; fragmentation of the labour process through subcontracting and the introduction of business units acting like small firm supplying to each other[15]. In the end, while lean management certainly led to increases in productivity, it can also be said it acted as a source of wasting human energy, just as it can give way to quality losses, serial defects and ruptures in the labour process [16].

However, the main sociological analysis in France asserted that workers where defeated, collective workers was atomised and has chosen to reconcile themself with work and management. Contrary to this interpretation, I maintained the opposite: firstly, that there was no definitive pacification possible, secondly, that in some productive spaces, open conflicts (strikes) where still present even if the bargaining power of unions was losing ground; thirdly, that oppositional practices and behaviours at the shopfloor level demonstrate both the necessity for employees to cope with the situation as well as their unwillingness to consider this situation as ‘fair enough’ [17].

The sociological study of work settings, factories or shopfloors should not only look at (apparently) pacified situations but also integrate atypical cases which contradict the thesis of pacification, as I was able to do on the basis of case studies about the Renault Trucks assembly plant in Caen, the factories of Chausson (specialised in vans and camping cars) in Parisian suburbs and in Picardy or the Volkswagen-Audi assembly plant in Belgium (Brussels).

Following the hypothesis that the way employees realise their work tasks not necessarily match their opinions, I started to look after traces of critical reflexivity about work[18]. Even in the late nineties, one could already find such traces in surveys. Let us mention, for example, the survey done by Christian Baudelot and Michel Gollac[19] at the end of the 1990s showing that 74% of white-collar employees had ‘the feeling that they were being exploited’, much more than the 45% blue-collar workers thought. It should be noted that these beliefs appeared in combination with the feeling of being treated unfairly and basically express the expectation for professional recognition that management refuse to honour. Of course, these opinions do not necessarily question the social order of capitalism as such, but that is not really the point. Indeed, let us not forget that such a critique occurs most of the time during exceptional and relatively short periods, such as before or during social upheavals or general strikes such as the ones of 1936 and 1968 in France.

Given the fact that work settings and labour relations are much more heterogeneous than one might suppose, it is essential to analyse the labour process as far from pacified and normalised. In reality, the approaches centred upon domination do suffer from a double flaw. The first flaw is heuristic or empirical. Very often, they neglect social behaviour and opinions that do not consent to managerial domination, under the pretext of their great marginality. However, what exists now has not always been and will not necessarily be the case in the future. Unless we affirm that nothing has ever changed and will never change, sociology must also seek to integrate contradictory trends unfolding and recognize that any present situation contains a range of possible futures. The second flaw is both theoretical and ethical. Through publications, lectures at the university and debates in the public arena, sociology had always a public character, which means that sociologists should acknowledge that their narratives also structure representations of social reality. When sociological analysis is reducing actors to consent and ‘voluntary servitude’, this may end up in the reproduction of a discourse – wrapped or not in an academic format – that contribute to deprive actors of their capacity for action. Even if the performative effect of sociological narratives is reduced, in France, they find audience among trade union activists, who are looking after explanations for their lack of effectiveness. With some help of structural-functionalist sociology, the explanation is ready-made: collective action is doomed to be ineffective because the employees do not want it, since they have internalised the performance injunctions and adhere to management. Paradoxically, where the sociological reflexivity which was called by Pierre Bourdieu should allow for a better understanding of social reality, it ends up proclaiming the status quo as unsurpassable, which has never been the case anyway.

Broadening the field of analysis nevertheless requires precautions. Following Jean-Claude Passeron in Le Raisonnement sociologique[20], the first pitfall of an approach aimed at restoring some kind of heuristic justice is to substitute ‘populism’ for ‘miserabilism’. In other words, to project wishes and expectations onto the conduct of actors, where miserabilism expresses the disappointment of these expectations on the part of the researcher. It is therefore necessary to take all methodological precautions and to avoid hasty theorisations. But to me, the basic premise remains, namely not to ‘freeze’ a social situation by locking actors into behaviours not all of them had or will have, and by qualifying their opinions as manufactured and alienated. That is why I kept up to a certain amount of caution in the analysis of the social behaviours grouped together under ‘resistance au travail’ defined in the following way:

“Resistance is certainly ambivalent and coexists with practices that allow for adjustment, adaptation and (partial) reappropriation of work situations. However, they differ from the latter since they express latent and informal forms of dissent, opposition, of refusal to conform or to comply. Resistance at work refers to behaviour that is to a certain extent disruptive and intolerable for those who supervise, employ and put others to work”[21].

Other sociologists in France favour a very specific restrictive definition of ‘resistance’, which corresponds to intentional and open ‘sedition’ towards management and work. The limit of such a definition is that it has almost no heuristic value[22]. Searching after resistance as a ‘partisan sedition’ does not make much sense when we know how many employees – even well-off –are indebted and how many depend on their present job, especially in times of unemployment, precariousness and difficult labour market mobility. But, let us remember how much in periods of full employment in France, most firms faced a 30-50% turnover, while this did not prevent strikes at all, some of which took place without the support of trade unions[23]. Gradually, the economic crisis of the nineteen seventies and eighties led to the reconstitution of a ‘reserve army’ of labour, which forms a coercive and disciplinary social context, to which has been added a series of workfarist reforms regarding the welfare system, reducing both the amount and duration of unemployment benefits. In such a context, searching after resistance as ‘partisan sedition’ means expecting behaviour that in reality corresponds to social suicide. To put it bluntly, adopting such a definition makes of resistance a kind of strawman…

Despite all of this, the controversy is all but over. How should sociologists analyse social behaviour corresponding to ‘exit’? How many professionals, white collar employees around the age of 45 start to look after a way out of their job, in the form of a ‘second career’, a better work-life balance, notably through the choice to refuse promotion and the acceptance of a ‘dead-end’ job. How many young temp workers, even being confronted with precarity, do not really engage in the way that they are expected to do, i.e., engage in a harsh competition for some scarce positions? [24] Others are happy to be able to leave the company at 55 thanks to early retirement. We can identify all kinds of conduct corresponding to ‘high end’– exit such as becoming a farmer, a cooperative entrepreneur or a self-employed person. Such behaviour may be the contrary of (internal) opposition and resistance but there is still a link between them, namely the degree of dissatisfaction regarding tasks, targets, managerial standards or a general work climate.

A broader definition of resistance refers not only to the persistence of informal behaviours such as braking, loitering, wigging and sometimes sabotage, but also to the existence of oppositional or critical spirit regarding work and to integrate this into a broader set of conduct by which employees try to re-appropriate, even if only partially, their work situation; if not to loosen the stranglehold of the logic of performance. In fact, resistance to work is often blurred and mixed with adjustment or accommodation behaviours.

Why should this broader definition be prioritised? Because human work is a ‘living matter’ characterised by great plasticity and by its reflexive nature. Acting at work is therefore never a case of complete ‘domination’ and, even if it seems to be, we cannot exclude the hypothesis that employees mimic their servitude and pretend to fully ‘play the game’. Still, this game implies margins of freedom, as has been shown by a number of studies in the 1970s and 1980s on the difference between ‘prescribed work’ and ‘real work’[25]. It is true that information technologies and the injunction of new work ethics have changed the situation, but without moving beyond subsumption, quite the contrary…

For Michael Burawoy[26] who’s analysis on shopfloor behaviour carried him very close to Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical analysis about the ‘double nature of work’. Following Burawoy, production games represent a kind of alienated behaviour that leads the individual to deliberately participate to his own exploitation. Burawoy analysis of production games became quite popular among French sociologists after the publication of some large extracts in the journal Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales[27]. For many years, Buwavoy’s account was taken for granted in French sociology and served as demonstration on how uncontested management has become and how successful alienation could be. Still, Burawoy overlooked the importance of financial gains the production games could offer, sometimes even by 30%. This aspect was already highlighted by Donald Roy who conducted a similar survey twenty years earlier in exactly the same company. When production games integrate a wage-effort bargaining to such an extent, it can hardly be considered as being outside the productive relation between labour and capital, as was recalled by Paul Thompson and Pierre Desmarez in two classical works on the sociology of work [28].

In reality, those games do not express the will to collaborate actively to one’s own exploitation in the Marxian sense of the term, but an attempt to reduce the degree of exploitation by seeking to be paid as much as possible for a constant or reduced effort. Indeed, wage labour remains a relationship where the work performance is exchanged for a pay, which implies on the side of the employee the possibility of ‘pulling on the rope’ or ‘tugging at the heartstrings’… The production games are not reducible to ‘false consciousness’ since they also express a workshop culture based on cooperation between workers, which allowed the ‘collective worker’ to exist socially and to assert its social existence from a management viewpoint.

Our own sociological research included the study of collective action frameworks and trade unions practices on the shop-floor level. A comparative analysis helped me to take into account the various realities of labour relations in big and small firms, as well as the variations determined by the strength of trade unions sometimes renewed by counter-power practices at organisational level. While remaining cautious and recognising the existence of very different situations, depending on the size of the company and the profile of the trade union teams, the fact is that one can still encounter situations similar to what Jean-Daniel Reynaud has called ‘combined regulation’ which can be understood as collective bargaining with some concessions by employers[29].

Of course, when social conflict is less present and trade union action is no longer able to improve working conditions, it is certain that the ‘collective worker’ become more vulnerable which will push individuals to find other ways of coping with the situation. Informal groups can take over and different kinds of conflicts develop, more interpersonal, informal and most of the times confidential. Certainly, management has the power to counteract upon these, by mobilizing surveillance technologies, by repressing recalcitrant spirits ; by promoting docile employees, management gives itself the means to influence the conduct of workers. At the same time, the productive demand for quality cannot be obtained solely by coercion. It also requires loyalty and commitment, which opens up certain margins for negotiation. Managerial practices take this into account and combine intensive mobilisation of ‘human resources’ and high turnover. Core workers are given more and better working conditions, work is less hard while temp or peripheral employees are submitted to high pressure and a performance that is obtained by the promise of a better contract and recruitment among the stable employees. A high turnover makes it possible to externalize the social and human effects of this wear and tear at work. This is illustrated by the high turnover in fast-food restaurants, call centres and logistics. Similarly, the segmentation of the workforce – with a flexible section approaching 30% in many many situations in France – makes it possible to discipline behaviour at work and to reduce open conflicts such as strikes. For insiders, loyalty is obtained in exchange for a certain amount of job security and better work conditions; for peripheral employees, temp workers, commitment is obtained through the promise of future stabilisation, using the status of insider as a perspective for the outsider.

In the tradition of labour process theory, resistance and misbehaviour has been the subject of much interpretations[30]. Following Paul Thompson[31], one of the leading sociologists on this issue, organisational misbehaviour certainly has various origins such as the refusal of work intensification, being underpaid, resentment linked to non-promotion or unappreciated conduct of management. And indeed, if we reason in this way, resistance towards and at work cannot be dissociated from labour relations in a capitalist environment. The following diagram based upon Ackroyd and Thompson (1999) shows how resistance to work can be articulated to the relationship to work as well as other aspects of labour relationship.

Figure 1 – Dimensions of social behavior at work / regarding work

Appropriation of time Appropriation of work Appropriation of production Appropriation of identity
(Loyalty) self-acceleration Self-control of labour process Self-organisation Identification to targets
EngagmentMotivation Acceptance of the rate Normal execution of tasks Working on a fast lane Rituals of


Conditional Cooperation Putting the brake on the rate Negociate the rate (freinage) Output restriction Local work cultures in office and shopfloor.
(Voice) Mastering working time (refusing overtime) Revendications Workers control Games, recreational or sexual activities
Retrait Strolling and braking Minimalism service ‘Perruque’ (wigging) Indifference
Denial Wasting one’s time Retention of quality Larceny Playing the fool
Hostility Absence Destruction and sabotage Fraud Group or class solidarity
(Exit) Turnover   Looking after another job / position Theft Rejection of the company, or the brand

Published in Bouquin (2008) and based upon Ackroyd & Thompson (1999)

How should this diagram be read? First of all, it is important to recognise the vast variety of work conduct that can hardly be understood as stable and unequivocal. The relationship towards labour and work is never solely instrumental (financial) nor expressive (self-fulfilment and joy), but combines several aspects which may be mixed or under tension. This relation towards labour also evolves according to the concrete experience of the working day, of age and seniority. It will also be underpinned by expectations in terms of recognition, career development and better working conditions that may or may not be met. Employees are not insensitive tools and consequently, they can slide from consent to resistance. The fact that the latter category will be a minority does not change anything from a scientific point of view since informal autonomous and resistant behaviour remain present and pay fuel social space. In saying this, I am also questioning a sociological approach that limits itself to what is apparent and refuses to acknowledge that certain practices will remain quite invisible. Finally, this diagram highlights the fact that it is important to study dynamics that allow social groups to continue to exist in the face of management, as well as the reasons that may lead some individuals to opt for recalcitrant or the opposite, docile behaviour.

Before concluding this section, I would like to make some critical remarks about two approaches that differ from my own. The first, developed by Daniel Bachet [32], criticises the tendency to reduce social interactions in the firm to power games, which feeds into, following him, the illusion of a capacity to influence labour relations on the basis of micro-resistances.

“It seems that one of the problems of a certain sociology of work is that it has not always succeeded in reconstructing the mechanisms of interdependence which unite labour relations and the more strategic rules of action structuring the economic and social game within and outside the company. There is therefore a great risk of reducing the analysis of conduct at work to ‘power games’ and forms of opposition that are somewhat disconnected from the broader fields that guide the actions of agents.”

For Bachet, ‘transgressions’ or deviant conduct do not change anything and cannot replace a collective action that defends different criteria of management and accountancy such as a fair partition of added value (surplus value) through wage increases or reduction of working time. Of course, it is true oppositional behaviours ‘don’t change anything’ fundamentally at the level of the capitalist social order but at the same time, it is absolutely wrong to consider them as ‘functional’.

To demonstrate this, we can take a closer view upon ‘wigging’ or la perruque as it is analysed by Robert Kosmann who was a former skilled worker at Renault and militant CGT trade unionist during almost three decades. Far from being a sort of ‘safety valve’, they participate, following Robert Kosmann [33], in maintaining links between members of the ‘collective worker’ and to mobilise this quite vague social entity along lines of cleavage that converge with labour and capital antagonism. In his book, Kosmann collected many proofs of ‘wigging’ or la ‘pérruque’ with workers working for themselves. For sure, ‘wigging’ challenges the legitimacy of the employer’s power to have complete disposability of tools and working time. Its practice represents the refusal of alienation and the mobilisation of professional skills for the sole purpose of the operational result. Robert Kosmann considers also that ‘wigging’ is first of all the expression of professional skills that are inseparable from a professional aesthetic and the will not to sell them out to the employer[34].

Rather than considering all types of employee resistance as futile, or even functional, as did Bachet, it seems more judicious to us to understand its presence in relation to unions, their weakness, as a sort of consequence of a ‘deficit’ in collective bargaining power, which, without remedying to this problem, will lead to a ‘productivity deficit’. Following this path, we can also consider that empowerment of trade unions and rebuilding the capacity for collective action imply the recognition of critique of work as it is expressed among workers. Secondly, resistance should also be understood as expression of a shared culture and ethics about work, about the fact being employed as a worker and often misrecognised.

If management wants to make more sense of working, in order to obtain a reconciliation with constrained action and sufficient productivity, it will have to use the carrot as much as the stick. In other words, although resistance towards work does not open up a horizon for transforming the capitalist social order – which was never pretended to be the case – it may also contribute to maintain a collective spirit, a work-culture and even lead sometimes to the reorganisation of the wage relationship. By its mere existence, resistance as much as harsh and intelligent ways of coercion all testify the non-pacification of the wage labour.

A second approach, developed by Christian Thuderoz and Jacques Bellanger[35], has taken the decision to fully recognise micro-resistances at work by inserting them into a broader typology of oppositional behaviours. This figure n°3 shows how they articulate different dimensions of control and resistance.

Control by submission Control by accountability
opposition opposition
Weak Strong Weak Strong
Engagment Weak Withdrawal Recalcitrant Cynicism Rebellion
Strong Irreverence Militancy Distance Renouncement


The overview contains some real heuristic virtues, since it reveals a seesaw between weak and strong opposition figures, and is linked to a mode of control exercised by management which recalls the notion of factory regime developed by Michael Burawoy in Politics of Production[36]. By articulating modes of control with the forms of employee commitment, this figure makes it possible to question a variety of situations. Moreover, the structural dimension is not absent, since the authors consider the ‘employment relationship’ as asymmetrical. Still, the pay/effort equation, the state of the labour market, as well as the socio-professional trajectory and age, will influence the relationship to work and determine how much some a willing to resist or misbehave.

This leads us to some other observations. First of all, it should be noted that oppositional behaviour, and ‘rebellious subjectivity’ are not solely rooted in the experience of work. Let us recall Edward P. Thompson[37] on the origins of the formation of the working class when he highlighted how much the egalitarian desire for fairness have led the first generations of proletarian workers to organise themselves. Barrington Moore’s study on the social origins of obedience and revolt completes this picture, revealing in particular the presence of a ‘moral economy’ based on the values of justice, equity and reciprocity[38]. We could also recall the work of Charles Tilly, for whom the sentiment of injustice is the first driving force behind strike action and even to what may precede it, namely the refusal to submit oneself to management injunctions[39]. John Kelly, a British sociologist of industrial relations, extends this analysis by linking it to the lowering working conditions, caracterised by a constant demand for a very high level of involvement in the work activity[40]. For Kelly too, labour relations are structurally antagonistic, and therefore structurally unfair, which fuels hostility and opposition on the part of employees.

Moreover, these socio-historical interpretation around the moral economy have the merit of not closing the scope of analysis to the internal relations of the workshop or the firm, nor to the institutions and collective bargaining. Indeed, the study of work as a conflicting reality requires not only recognition of the asymmetrical nature of the ‘employment relationship’, as Thuderoz and Bellanger did, but also gains in legibility when class relations structured on the scale of society are included.

Certainly, the long post-war period was one of social progress based upon the extension of welfare, increasing real wages and recognition of social conflict and trade unions. But this happened thanks to geopolitical ‘cold war’ balance as well as the autonomous activity of the working class. The adoption of a middle-class standard norm of consumption may have nourished the belief that upward mobility was easy going. Still, the research about the ‘affluent worker’ done by John Goldthorpe and his team shows that a better living does not necessarily imply losing one’s class identity. However, over the last decades, this upward social mobility has become much more difficult, to that extent that self-employment or ‘using oneself against oneself’ to use French psychologist Yves Clot’s notion, does not help much [41]. Class barriers are difficult to break down, while the condition of the labouring class became more precarious at the corporate level as much as the professional career. The trend towards the degradation of work and labour, such as it was analysed by Harry Braverman [42] in 1975 continued during the 1990s. Since more than a decade, this socio-economic uncertainty also affects stable employment (especially in the public services, care and teaching) as well as skilled categories of the workforce such as engineers and technicians.

3 Between holding out and burning out

It is now established that the 2008 financial crisis had a negative effect on job quality in OECD countries[43]. Following Robert Castel, author of Les métamorphoses de la question sociale : une chronique du salariat (1995-2000)[44], a historical account of the salariat with a long durée analysis, one can observe a movement of casualisation of the ‘stabilised categories’ and the impoverishment of the unstable, precarious workers and thirdly, a growing group of ‘super-numeraries’ that are constrained to live in poverty without any perspective. Following Castel, these developments reflect the return of a ‘wage labour condition’ marked by severe or growing socio-economic insecurity. These evolutions were already underway during the last two decades of the 20th century through a rampant erosion of living standards facilitated by the disempowerment of trade unions. Harsher and degraded living conditions were not only caused by rising unemployment. In many European countries, employment policies followed the path of reduced social protection, lowering benefits and shortening the duration of receiving benefits as well as the increased conditionalities of entitlement. These policies mobilised the ‘reserve army’ in order to increase pressure to accept lower standards of employment[45]. For these reasons Bob Jessop wrote about a ‘Schumpeterian workfare state’[46] while French tandem Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval evoked an ‘ordo-liberal state’, referring to ‘ordo-liberalism’ as a kind state interventionism that supports the accumulation of capital[47].

In many sectors and companies, precarity coincides with substandard working conditions as we can notice in many European surveys. The surveys of the French department of the ministry of labour [48] allow us to observe that assembly line works increased a lot. From 1984 to 2016 the proportion of employees saying ‘their work pace is imposed by the automatic movement of a product or part’ rose from 2.6% to 18% of the total. This trend has now reached the service sector, where supermarkets, call centres and logistics have seen an increase in speed and mechanisation of the labour process. The proportion of employees who have to repeat the same tasks over and over again has increased from 27.5% in 2005 to 42.7% in 2016. Those who report having a work pace imposed by digital monitoring increased from 25% in 2005 up to 35% in 2016. The proportion that declare they frequently have to give up a task for ‘an unscheduled one’ increased from 48.1% in 1991 to 65.4% in 2016. At the same time, those reporting ‘a work pace imposed by an external demand requiring an immediate response’ increased from 28% in 1984 to 58% in 2016. Additionally, pressure is mounting thanks to interventions that are not necessarily consistent. The proportion of employees saying they receive conflicting orders rose from 41% in 2005 to 45% in 2016. As a result, solutions, often on an individual and informal basis need to be found. The number of employees who stated that a mistake or error could result in ‘sanctions’ has risen from 51.3% in 1991 to 63.1% in 2013. The increased responsibilities due to relational work with customers is putting even more pressure on their shoulders.

An equal trend of intensification can be observed, albeit to varying degrees, in several EU countries[49]. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a tendency to constantly increase the pressure on employees. The number who reported having continued to work, while being sick increased significantly during the last decade. In 2016, in France and the United Kingdom, almost six out of ten employees worked whilst being ill. This phenomenon, also known as presenteeism, affects less people in Germany (3/10) and Belgium (4/10), two countries with strong unions at the level of the shopfloor. In terms of work-life balance and working time flexibility, 60% to 70% of respondents (in countries such as Benelux, UK, Germany, France and Italy) declare they have worked at least one full weekend in the four weeks, whereas the proportion of employees was around 45% before the 2008 crisis. The working day is also getting longer: in France, 40% of respondents report having worked more than ten hours a day, at least twice in the past month[50].

Despite the introduction of new work organisations, ‘discretionary autonomy’ (the ability to personally decide how to carry out tasks) remains low. This can be seen as a consequence of lean management, which pursue rationalisation through demanding more effort in less time and with fewer resources. About one third of respondents in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK say they are unable to determine the pace of work. This is a huge minority. However, even more than a third say that they can never determine a break in their work by themselves. Monotonous tasks are still the daily fate for one quarter of the workforce. At the same time, the number of factors fixing the pace of work tends to increase. In France, quite close to the European average, 28% of respondents are confronted with two intensification factors, 24% with three and 18% with four or more. All of these figures have increased compared to the period between 2005 and 2010.

The intensification of work continues and that high pressure targets became unavoidable for almost 20% of the workforce. Beyond a group that is permanently exposed, another 30% to 40% of respondents admit being confronted with such a constrain for about a quarter to half of their working time. When we regroup both segments together, we can say that about 50% of the workforce is nowadays permanently or intermittently exposed to high work pressure. The table below shows how this phenomenon affects employees in different European countries.

Table 1 – Overview of work constraints and workload – European Working Conditions Survey (2017)

  France Belgium Germany United Kingdom
Are you subject to high work rates? • 24% almost all the time

• 30% between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 22% almost all the time

• 36%between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 20% almost all the time

• 43% between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 23% almost all the time

• 42% between ¼ and ¾of the working time

Does your job require you to work under very strict and tight deadlines? • 42% almost all the time

• 29%between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 41% almost all the time

• 34%between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 34% almost all the time

• 47% between ¼ and ¾of the working time

• 42% almost all the time

• 38% between ¼ and ¾of the working time

Source: European Working Conditions Survey, 2017 (survey was carried out in 2015)

How do employees behave given this tightening of constraints and demands on their work activity? Initially, most common attitude is to cope with it as best they can, to ‘put up with it’, so to speak. But for a significant proportion of the workforce, those exceptional situations tend to become an implicit standard and in the absence of actions improving working conditions, both bodies and minds are worn out and workers ends up exhausted.

It can be observed, in certain circumstances, from a high turnover rate, that the recurrent replacement of staff becomes a ‘functional’ social norm. Many young workers engage in low quality employment for a certain duration but will quit when they can’t bear the pressure anymore. For employers, this is not a problem as long as they can easily find other workers to engage into such intensified work. Such a regime of intensive labour mobilisation is characteristic for employment sectors that have been described as ‘low road’ in the Anglo-Saxon literature[51]. These ‘low road’ situations include call centres, cleaning, fast food (‘chain workers’) and handling activities in logistics. A survey about job satisfaction and well-being by Ambra Poggi and Claudia Villosio[52], observe quite evidently that jobs with poor autonomy, combining a sustained effort and low pay, high levels of working time flexibility without job security, is making employees much less satisfied regarding their jobs as well as less happy in life. It should also be noticed that most exposed to such working conditions are male unskilled workers, women in the service sector and elder workers.

Since some work situations also demand high quality performance, it will require stable teams with skilled employees and a guaranteed loyalty which is obtained on the basis of various transactions (salary amounts, bonuses and job security). In these circumstances, lean management cannot be so fussy. This is, at least, the interpretation of work situations described as ‘high road’, a metaphor for the way to sustainable, quality employment (Poggi & Villosio, 2015).

My hypothesis is that such a dualistic regime is now in crisis, as shown by the extent of the burn-out. Even if a common medical definition of this pathology is still lacking [53], the fact remains that a growing number of epidemiological studies are devoted to this issue. In Austria, a large survey carried out by general practitioners concluded that almost one in two employees is or has been affected by burn-out [54]. From the medical viewpoint, someone suffering a burn-out will go through different stages: at first, which seems non-pathological in itself, the employee’s conduct corresponds to over-commitment, with an attitude such as ‘I can handle everything’. However, the person neglects hobbies, personal needs, is sometimes irritable and may start to suffer from disordered sleep or lack of appetite. A second stage corresponds to denial – ‘I can still manage’ – but contains the seed of the awareness of problematic work behaviour. The person is trying to maintain this high involvement but will slip into social isolation and start to suffer from physical and psychological somatisation. The third stage is the one where the pathology of burn-out is openly declared, which corresponds to the emergence of phobias, anxieties and other symptoms of depression, to which is sometimes added complete social withdrawal, recurrent insomnia and above all the development of a feeling of exhaustion with an inability to continue working. The final stage occurs when a long sick leave has become inevitable.

According to this survey, out of 45% of people declared being affected by burnouts, the survey evaluates the proportion of people in stage 1 or 2 respectively at 18% and 15%, while 8% of people will slide into the third situation and 2% went as far as stop working for at least a couple of weeks. According to Marc Loriol[55], a French sociologist specialized in the study of health at work, burn-outs should be seen as a process embedded in social and professional contexts:

“Burn-outs results from the combination of a strong commitment to one’s activity and work situations where there are no a priori limits to the needs to be met. If the organisation demands more and more, or if work groups are unable to set these limits or to discuss the adequacy of means to an end, employees will burn out and end up by sick leave in order to keep a job that puts them under pressure at distance. Still, employees who are exhausted by pursuing an unattainable ideal end up, in order to protect themselves begin to develop cynical attitudes or to dehumanise others. As a result, they lose all professional self-esteem and undermine the meaning in their work. If this process is not interrupted by individual accommodation (transfer, retraining, search for forms of self-esteem outside of work, etc.) or collective accommodation (definition of less ambitious objectives, obtaining new room for manoeuvre), it can lead to forms of pathological depression.”[56]

In a 2016, a study by Mickael Rose based on a very large panel of more than 4000 respondents linked burn-outs to the lack of autonomy over workload[57]. Following their findings, it appears that several factors facilitate the onset of a burn-out: 1) the absence of a managerial policy that allows individuals to modulate their efforts, 2) a weak collegiality and solidarity within work teams, 3) the lack of professional training to better adjust to quantitative and qualitative demands. A particularly ‘pathogenic’ dimension seems to be the degree of depersonalisation of work combined with the impossibility to express one’s emotions at work.

Table 2 – Prevalence of burn out and degree of autonomy (Germany, 2015)

Degree of autonomy Men Women



Rather high



Rather weak






Source:Rose et al. (2016) p.36.

Overall, whether one adopts the point of view of an ‘epidemic disease’ or that of a ‘malaise’ specific to ‘fragilised’ people, the fact remains that the syndrome of exhaustion and is now at the forefront of the professional and academic literature.

The use of psychotropic substances is another phenomenon that tends to develop in the workplace. The second congress of French general practitioners about ‘Work, health and the use of psychotropic drugs’, held in 2017 discussed the question of the extent at which there is a causal link between the increased use of psychotropic drugs and the evolution of work[58]. Following the survey among the association’s member doctors, a vast majority of respondents consider that almost two out of three employees regularly use all kinds of drugs to ‘stay in the game’. These drugs range from ordinary painkillers to illegal substances (cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines) or legal drugs such as alcohol. More specifically, a majority also observed an increase in the abuse of opiate derivatives in recent years which seem to be linked with various forms of pain (elbow, back, etc.). “Today, our patients carry a mini-pharmacy with them and pass on tranquilizers among colleagues” explained a doctor who spoke at the congress.

According to their conclusions, this overconsumption is the result of the intensification of work in a context of social isolation, without mutual support and where the sense of community and sharing skills tend to diminish. This makes those exposed to high pressure even more vulnerable. While the consumption of psychoactive substances was primarily the result of professional situations such as stress and increased work demands, today professional rituals such as a shared lunch on Friday come into play in second place. The survey of doctors concludes that individuals seem increasingly helpless to cope with a high performance work culture and find no other way out than ‘doping for coping’. The main medical concern is that, in the absence of solutions, abusive over consumption use becomes a taboo, while the feeling of powerlessness will provoke a crisis in family environment and educational setting for children.

Can we conclude that ‘holding on’ or resilience is already a kind of resistance? Of course not, since the work activity continues to deliver the expected added value and contributes to the overall economic performance of the company. But when we take into account the subjectivity of employees, their relationship towards work, with many employees that continue to cope with targets and constraints, we also know that they tend to convince themselves that efforts will not be vain. But this type of acceptance is based upon denial and will feed a clinical situation that will end up being really pathological. In other words, ‘holding on’ is not so much making oneself resilient as it is the antechamber of an open crisis of one’s commitment to work hard.

4 – Governance of subjectivity and the return of critique upon labour

The non-pacification of work relations can also be analysed through the lens of management’s practices. Of course, management is far from an invariant since it may opt for putting more pressure upon employees as well as it concedes space for autonomy or accept some ‘constrained regulation’ through dialogue with trade union representatives. However, nowadays, certainly in France, the main trend in large firms in the manufacturing sector as well as in the services sector, including the public sector, is to rationalise activity following the recipe of lean management, with a constant search of increased work performances.

In the wake of permanent rationalisation, following Daniel Mercure, the regime of mobilisation of ‘passive agency’ with a workforce whose activity was governed by procedures and bureaucratic control was substituted by a regime conferring employees the role of performers. If the ‘executing agent’ was the typical figure of Taylorism, the post-Fordist regime of mobilisation is structured around the figure of the ‘assigned actor’, considered as responsible but endowed with versatility and reactivity[59]. During the last decade, we saw a new figure of a ‘self-regulated subject’ emerging which aim to mobilise, beyond the individual, the person at work. Oriented towards a strong sense of responsibility and commitment, based on empowerment, the individual ends up considering himself as an entrepreneur of himself and the author of his employability[60]. Subjectivity is represented as free of constraint, with an engagement in work through internalised high-performance requirements.

All these figures can be present in various ways, given that their functionality is strongly correlated with the content of work. Still, to me, the important question here is not to correlate these figures of ‘executing agent’, ‘assigned actor’ and ‘self-regulating subject’ according to job content, the type of organisation, but rather to question the degree of acceptance and internalisation of these figures. Our fundamental hypothesis remains unchanged, namely the fact that management and mobilisation regimes will give rise to critical reflexivity with regard to them. Let us recall, for example, that already at the end of the 1990s, surveys highlighted the mounting of critical views about work and its organisation, especially among skilled employees (clerks, technicians, engineers, supervisors even middle management).

More recent surveys reveal the permanence of such critical views. At a first level, we can observe that the employees may show lot of job satisfaction, even among employees under pressure[61]: 88% of respondents declared themselves satisfied with their work, of which 37% were ‘very satisfied’ and 51% ‘moderately satisfied’. The same survey also revealed that 20% were looking for a job elsewhere and, above all, there was a significant gap between the general opinion and the view on one’s own situation. Thus, 67% consider respectful treatment of staff to be important for job satisfaction, but only 31% consider themselves ‘satisfied’ in this respect. The same discrepancies can be observed regarding other fundamental dimensions of the working relationship:

  • 63% consider pay to be crucial, but only 23% consider themselves satisfied in this respect;
  • 58% consider job security to be an important issue for job satisfaction, but only 32% consider themselves satisfied in this respect.

Similar differences exist in terms of recognition of performance (48% versus 26%), about the content of the work (48% consider the work to be interesting, but only 27% consider theirs to be as such).

As was demonstrated before, in many cases, employees tend to rephrase their opinion in a positive way since this helps to ‘hold on better and longer’ because denial and recoding of bad feelings is needed to pursue full commitment because otherwise demotivation slides in.

Still something changed in the last decade since the governance of subjectivities transformed the issue of job satisfaction into an obligation of love where loving one’s work becomes a categorical moral imperative [62]. It is worthwhile to quote Steve Jobs explaining why: ‘(your) work will fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do your job. And the only way to do this is to love what you do’[63]. Therefore, we have moved from the slogan of ‘do what you love’ to ‘love what you do’…

Is this a surprise? Not really since both figures of ‘assigned actor’ as ‘self-regulated subject’ are calling upon powerful emotional and existential springs. Taylorism of subjectivity (in the sense of a prescription of the subjective relation to work) has gradually become a standard based on the sacredness of work that engages both soul and body. Therefore, we can speak about a bio-political dimension that goes beyond the search for recognition of one’s person, talents and contribution to the company. According to Kathi Weeks [64], this evolution is based on the mobilisation of values and resources borrowed from the traditional feminine role of ‘taking care with love’. As long as jobs are considered typically ‘feminine’, this emotional relation to the work effort remains invisible or naturalized. Care work is basically that, i.e; taking care which can only be done well ‘with love’, i.e. with a certain emotional commitment. However, the obligation to perform one’s work ‘with love’ has now spread to other sectors and activities. For Kathi Weeks, the trivialisation of loving your work has been accelerated by the increasing porosity between the spheres of work and non-work, facilitated by the use of nomadic objects and information and communication technologies[65]. Indeed, as long as the spheres of sentimental (romantic) love and the sphere of work were largely dissociated, with the exception of creative arts, they are now overlapping and sometimes merge, making it all the more difficult for individuals not to love too much what they do. In the end, it is not so much loving one’s work that counts as being able to continue to love it despite frustration and disappointment. The promises of love, joy or happiness at work are examples of what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’ because the object of desire overrides the goals that originally led you to it [66].

Are these people fooling themselves? Is this the über-example of voluntary servitude? Even if we can’t exclude this explanation, we should also retain the hypothesis of critical reflexivity, knowing that agency is always present to a certain extent. It is also important to integrate behaviour outside work and the relation towards career development. Both among younger workers as among those over forty, we can observe conduct of avoidance or rejection of jobs considered as meaningless [67]. In France, where student debt is not a massive phenomenon, many young people prefer, as long as the situation allows it (by staying with their parents or sharing the cost of living), a nomadic existence which reflects a refusal to commit to and pursue the effort of social promotion through work. Nowadays, life choices take into account aspects such as leisure, sports, art or travelling around the world, considering work in an instrumental way. The desire for autonomy may also lead individuals to favour non-submissive work settings, even if this means paying the price of a certain social marginality[68]. For those in their forties, some choose for a second career, mobilising vocational training if their status allows it. Sometimes, a refusal of promotion is accompanied by a commitment to activities with a strong ethical content, or even, in some cases, a quite late commitment to the trade unionism.

Some recent research among middle management, engineers and skilled technicians sheds new light on the question of the links between involvement and criticism of work [69]: those who adhere to the values of performance or the company culture are also the ones declaring that they limit their involvement to what is strictly necessary, while the ‘critical minds’ tend to correspond to those who want to appreciate their work for its content. They ‘keep the company going’, as long as the work situation is not too much in conflict with their critical mindset.

Other research shows the variety of tactics used in home care work, aiming both to preserve the care dimension and the relationship with the person being cared for, while at the same time seeking to make the best possible arrangements for working conditions and to secure the job [70]. In other cases, when work requires creativity and intelligence, we can observe levels of over-commitment that is difficult to maintain over time. The importance given to the value of work, by isolating it from the institution/organisation couple represented by the organisation or the employer, is then a source of involvement in itself, similar to the protestant work ethic. It is here that individuals find themselves trapped, especially when they have lost solidarity links with colleagues.

It is by having discovered these new emotional sources of productivity that management manufactured new ways of governance of subjectivities. However, by becoming an institutional narrative, this governance will reveal sooner or later its real nature, namely a sentimental manipulation, a trap, or even an emotional swindle. This is why it is important to continue search after contradictions inside the arrangements of subjectivity.

It is my certainty that those renewed regimes of mobilisation and governance, based on subjectivity and emotions will feed a renewed critique of heteronomy and alienation. The fact that this is not yet fully visible does not mean that it does not exist underneath. Each employee may, depending on his or her professional trajectory and experiences, made up of satisfactions and frustrations, evolve from adherence to misbehaviour and resistance, in relation to his or her position in the hierarchy, level of qualification, age, as well as collective group dynamics or the presence of collective action frameworks (unions, etc.).

Several recent surveys confirm the thesis of recurrent resistance to work as well as a continuous critical reflexivity towards work and management albeit both may vary, i.e. more or less contextual, radical or definitive. Specific research among industrial engineers shows how much the growth of managerial tasks, linked to project-based management, leads to a densification of work and reduces margins of autonomy regarding ‘noble’ technical tasks[71]. Of course, engineers complain about this trend and develop tactics to circumvent and distance themselves from managerialism (i.e. evaluation or performance measurement procedures). Other investigations among the cleaning industry demonstrate how low wage workers will mobilise sanitary standards, in addition to cunning and restraint, to challenge authority[72].

In the service sector, my own field research reveals the extent of mixed behaviour[73]. We identified several modes of action on the part of employees. In the hotel and catering sector, behaviour of waiters is based upon tacit alliances with customers: offering an extra drink or recording a less expensive order while serving a more substantial dish is prompting the customer to pay tips, which can accumulate to 20 or 30 euros per day. As pub-managers may ‘cut’ alcohol in cocktails for example, in order to increase their profits, waiters are doing the same, but regarding their employer. In supermarkets, similar forms of income capture can be found by turning a blind eye to theft. The French Employers’ Federation of Distribution and Trade does not like to publish about this, but training schemes for shopkeepers and middle level management pay a lot of attention to counteract losses from theft, which, according to training, can amount to a significant proportion of stocks. Damaging a package or marking a product as defective is a way of side-lining goods that can be used or resold.

Sometimes, resistance can also translate itself into deliberately unpleasant or repressive customer service. As some research has shown[74], the reception staff of public services may behave in a fussy manner, become overzealous or refuse to deliver the support a customer is asking. Train controllers may use all the latitude they have in applying the rules. Some will turn a blind eye to an infringement, even if it is difficult when they are under the gaze of colleagues, while others will mobilise the security forces. When a train is overcrowded, some may downgrade a business class carriage to an ordinary one, while others will systematically let people pile up each other into and repress with a certain disdain anyone who objects. This kind of behaviour comes close to ‘inverted resistance’ since it means the public service goals are deliberately not met. Still, from the viewpoint of the employees behaving that way, such an attitude is justified since resources for a fluent and good working public service are lacking. It is obvious that the relation to work, the ethos of service to the public and the existence of a professional culture introduce many variables, but the fact remains that the service relationship even in the era of rationalisation and highly formalised ‘customer relationship’ management, leaves room for different kinds of adjustments.

5 – By way of conclusion

Ten years ago, analysis according to which the collective worker is atomised while employees consent enthusiastically, even playfully, to the heteronomy of work, was a one-sided narrative. Even if it was true that the logic of lean management and high-performance work systems had become hegemonic, this does not mean that critical visions and behaviours existed and still do.

Ten years ago, as much as now, at least in France, it is still not easy to make this divergent analysis heard, also because sociology of consent and servitude is presented as compassionate, sometimes even very critical towards capitalism, especially when it develops a narrative that echoes ‘authentic’ speech on the part of employees, sometimes coupled with a trade union-oriented narrative complaining about the lack of awareness and consciousness of workers.

Ten years after the ‘Great recession’ and the financial crisis, the wage labour condition has not improved much in France nor in Europe. Restructuring, casualisation, unemployment, increased competition, blackmail and relocation, the application of digital control technologies, the logic of competence, and the development of managerial policies that make the love of work sacred, have certainly made life at work harder, more stressful and worrisome. These negative aspects may have been counterbalanced for a time by playful and creative dimensions, by a certain autonomy as well as the valorisation of one’s personal contribution and the patient expectations of (very selective) promotion. Of course, as long as employees continue to believe in this, it will be reflected in their behaviour. But what happens when disappointed hopes accumulate and a widespread sense of injustice gains ground?

More fundamentally, when many people need stimuli or psychotropic drugs, when they become sick because of their job, the first thing to recognise is that the social sphere around wage labour or paid work is by no means ‘pacified’. Intensifying work to an extent than people are not capable to sustain is indeed a form of aggression or violence, not only symbolically, since it physically hurts bodies and minds. Sooner or later, this kind of situations will not fail to give rise to reactions, both at the level of subjectivity, representations as regarding behaviour, .e. the way in which people work together and complete their work.

In view of the extent of the degradation of working conditions, we can formulate the hypothesis that critique of work now affects managers, whether they are executives or supervisors, as much as technicians or engineers, and even more so subordinate employees such as workers and employees. This critique does not imply that people no longer appreciate their work and its content; they can do so and still carry the value of work high. On the other hand, I am convinced that we are witnessing a return of critical and even ‘rebellious’ subjectivity that is directed as much towards management as at it targets the abstract logic of valorisation (like sacrificing everything for the purpose of a career) perceived as ‘cold’ and almost inhuman. This critique will be all the more vigorous as it is well understood that many misbehaviours and resistance practices are not able to change what has become unbearable ‘in the long run’. In such a situation, only ‘exit’ or moments of social revolt open up some perspective both on individual as collective level.

This collective dimension can emerge where it is not expected. When we understand the wage condition as a whole and observe how many workers and couples belonging to ‘lower France’ have difficulty finding housing, healthcare and healthy food and when we add to this the impoverishment of the ‘middle classes’ and their growing difficulties in becoming homeowners or sustaining their social status, the social revolt of the gilets jaunes becomes more easily understandable.[75] This social revolt of the invisible of peripheral France is a perfect example of how a vast accumulated anger ends up exploding brutally, far from the immediate work space. In that regard, the idea that a new kind of human being has emerged, manufactured by lean production, and that he/she will consent to work hard in order to consume as much as possible while keeping silent, sounds like a bizarre interpretation of contemporary reality[76]. As Yann Le Lann has shown, based on a sociological survey of the Gilets jaunes occupying the roundabouts[77], this tax revolt was at the origin of a spontaneous and unexpected plebeian mobilisation, fuelled by a lack of recognition of work, both at the level of wages (or social benefits), as well as the shrinking earnings of small entrepreneurs.

The question remains, which we have not addressed yet: how does resistance relate to more general social conflict, whether institutionalised or not. The most reasonable conclusion is that both sociological analyses as social actors have every interest in not turning its back on what happens at the level of concrete work and the subjectivities that are involved in it.

(achieved in Summer 2018, published spring 2020)

English translation by the author


Stephen BOUQUIN (°1968) is a historian by training, has a PhD in political sciences (University of Paris 8) and qualified as sociologist by the CNU (1999). From 2000 to 2010, he was a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Picardie-Jules-Verne followed by a position of professor at the University of Evry Paris-Saclay. He was director of Centre Pierre Naville between 2011-2018, and has been the editor of the biannual journal Les Mondes du Travail ( since it was launched in 2006. He has published several books, including Résistances au travail (2008) and participated in several European research programmes.


Footnotes & bibliography

[1]– The original French version was published in Daniel Mercure (coord.) (2020), Les transformations contemporaines du rapport au travail, University of Laval Press.

[2] – Crozier, Michel, De la bureaucratie comme système d’organisation, Archives européennes de sociologie, vol. 2 – pp. 18-52; Touraine, Alain, « Pouvoir et décision dans l’entreprise », in G. Friedmann, P. Naville, Traité de sociologie du travail, T. II, 1962, pp. 3-41; Touraine, Alain, L’évolution du travail ouvrier aux usines Renault, Paris, CNRS éditions, 1955.

[3]– By ‘exploitation’ I mean a relationship of surplus extraction by the company and its shareholders, via the non-remuneration of a segment of the working time. There has been a long debate in French sociology since Raymond Aron explained the impossibility to quantify and therefore to prove the real existence of tearing our wealth by a non-payment for it. (Aron

[4] – Gorz, André, (ed.), Critique de la division du travail, 1973; Gorz, André, Métamorphoses du travail, quête du sens, 1988.

[5] – Vincent, Jean-Marie, Le Travail. Entre le faire et l’agir, 1987, PUF, Paris; Vincent, Jean-Marie, ‘La domination du travail abstrait’, in Critiques de l’Economie Politique, n°1, October-December 1977. POSTONE

[6] – Negt, Oskar, Lebendige Arbeit, enteignete Zeit: Politische und kulturelle Dimensionen des Kampfes um die Arbeitszeit, 1987; Negt, Oskar, L’Espace public oppositionnel, 2007.

[7] – Castoriadis, Cornelius, Political Writings 1945-1997. The Questions of the Labour Movement (Volumes I and II), 2012.

[8] – Lütdke, Alf, Des ouvriers dans l’Allemagne du XXe siècle : le quotidien des dictatures, L’Harmattan, 2000; Alf Lüdtke, Eigen-Sinn : Fabrikalltag, ArbeitererfahrungenundPolitikvomKaiserreich bis in den Faschismus, 1993, 445p. For an introduction to Lütdke, see also Alexandra Oeser, ‘Penser les rapports de domination avec Alf Lüdtke’, in Sociétés Contemporaines, vol. 99-100, n° 3, 2015, pp. 5-16.

[9] – Bouquin, Stephen (ed.), Les Résistances au travail, Paris, Syllepse, 2008.Most of this work dates from the early 2000s and was not necessarily very visible, given the status of young researchers or doctoral students, or even students, who turned their summer jobs into a field of participant observation and collected information showing, even if the confidentiality of these practices was fiercely defended, that braking, loitering, stealing and even sabotage was still practiced.

[10] – Hatzfeld, Nicolas, Les gens d’usine. 50 ans d’histoire à Peugeot-Sochaux, 2001, see also Durand, Jean-Pierre and Hatzfeld Nicolas, La Chaîne et le Réseau, Peugeot-Sochaux, ambiances d’intérieur, éditions Page 2, Lausanne, 2002.

[11] – Durand, Jean-Pierre, La Chaîne invisible. Travailleur aujourd’hui: flux tendu et servitude volontaire, Paris, 2004.

[12] – Linhart, Danièle, Travailler sans les autres, Paris, 2009.

[13] – Beaud, Stéphane and Pialoux, Michel, Retour sur la condition ouvrière, Enquête aux usines Peugeot de Sochaux-Montbéliard, Paris, 1999.

[14] – Bouquin, Stephen, La Valse des écrous. Labour, Capital and Collective Action in the Automobile Industry, Syllepse, 2006. See in particular chapters 1 (L’Archipel perdu, pp. 21-34) and 2 (De la voie unique à la diversité des modèles? , pp. 34-46).

[15] – Smith, Tony, Technology and Capital in the Age of Lean Production: A Marxian Critique of the ‘New Economy’, New York, SUNT, 2000; Bouquin, Stephen, 2006, op.cit; Bouquin S. e.a., Temps durs et dur travail. Un retour critique sur les modèles productifs à l’ère néo-libérale », in Jacquot Lionel, Higelé, Jean-Paul, Lhotel Hervé, Nosbonne, Christophe, Formes et structures du salariat : crise, mutation, devenir, 2011, pp. 110-123.

[16] – Examples can be found in the pharmaceutical industry as well as in the automobile sector. See Muller Séverin, ‘Modes de production du médicament générique et conditions d’emplois’, La nouvelle revue du travail [Online], 12 | 2018, online 01 May 2018, accessed 31 October 2019. URL:; DOI: 10.4000/nrt.3501 See also, for the automotive sector, Bouquin S., La valse des écrous. Travail, capital et action collective dans le secteur automobile, Syllepse, 2006.

[17] – Bouquin S. (2006), ‘Visibilité et invisibilité des luttes sociales: question de quantité, de qualité ou de perspective?’, in Cours-Salies P., Lojkine J.,Vakaloulis M. (2006), Nouvelles Luttes de Classe, Actuel Marx, PUF, 2006, pp. 103-112.

[18] – Following the approach of James C. Scott, then still little known in France, who highlight the existence of a hidden narrative that is only expressed behind the back of power. See Scott, James C., Domination and the Arts of Resistance. The Hidden Transcript, 1990.

[19] – Baudelot, Christian and Gollac, Michel, Travailleur pour être heureux, Seuil, Paris, 2003. See in particular pp. 277-297.

[20] – Passeron, Jean-Claude, Le Raisonnement sociologique. L’espace de raisonnement naturel non popperien, Paris, Nathan, 1991.

[21] – Bouquin, Stephen, ‘Les résistances au travail entre domination et consentement’, in Bouquin, Stephen op.cit. 2008, p. 44; see also Bouquin, S., ‘Les résistances au travail. Il est temps de sortir de l’imprécision’, in Caldéron, José-Angel and Cohen, Valérie (eds.), Qu’est-ce que résister? Usages et enjeux d’une catégorie d’analyse sociologique, 2014, p. 111-123.

[22] – See in particular Flocco, Gaëtan, Les cadres, des dominants très dominés. Pourquoi les cadres acceptent leur servitude, Raisons d’agir, 2015.

[23] – Spitaels, Guy, Les conflits sociaux en Europe: grèves sauvages, contestations et rajeunissement des structures, Marabout, 1971. For a review, see Bachy Jean-Paul, Guy Spitaels, Les conflits sociaux en Europe, Marabout Service collection, 1971. In: Sociologie du travail, 14ᵉ année n°4, Octobre- décembre 1972. pp. 476-478.

[24] – Farcy Isabelle, Ajustement et oppositions masquées par mes intérimaires, in Bouquin S., op.cit.,  (2008), pp. 157-178; Letexier Jean-Yves, Autonomie et resistances chez les intérimaires, Mémoire Master, Université de Picardie Jules Verne, 2012.

[25] – Clot, Yves, Travail et pouvoir d’agir, Presses Universitaires de France, 2014.

[26] – Burawoy, Michael, Produire le consentement. [édit orig. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, 1979], Les Prairies ordinaires, 2015, 303p.

[27] – Fournier Pierre (1996), ‘Deux regards sur le travail ouvrier’. In: Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Vol. 115, décembre 1996. Les nouvelles formes de domination dans le travail (2), pp. 80-93. ;

[28] – Thompson Paul (1983), The Nature of Work: An Introduction to Debates on the Labour Process, 1983; in French, one can consult Desmarez Pierre, (1986), La sociologie industrielle au Etats-Unis.

[29] – see Reynaud Jean Daniel (1997), Les règles du jeu. L’action collective et la régulation sociale, Paris, A Colin, coll. « U », 1989, 314 p ; Reynaud Jean Daniel (1995), Le conflit, la négociation et la règle, Toulouse, Octarès, « Travail »,268 p.

This ‘joint regulation’ also has its roots in certain trade union traditions, inspired by the doctrine of ‘workers control’ (a counter-power with a right of veto) and a desire to make trade union incursions into management criteria and investment choices. A counter-project trade unionism that can sometimes go as far as co-management while still having social reserves for mobilisation. The fragmentation of the ‘collective worker’ is therefore not the only trend, even if it may seem to predominate in France. For my part, I would explain the weakness of a structured opposition between labour and capital by the fragmentation of the trade union field, their weak collective bargaining power and a relationship to the state on the other hand which translates itself in a tendency to transform any conflict into a legal case before courts.

[30] – Whitson, Kevin, ‘Workers Resistance and Taylorism in Britain’ in International Review of Social History, Amsterdam, 1986.  See also Ackroyd, Stephen and Thompson, Paul, Organisational Misbehaviour, 1999; Ackroyd Stephen and Thomspon Paul (2016), Unruly Subjects: misbehaviour in the workplace, in The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment, édité par Stephen Edgell, Heidi Gottfried et Edward Granter (2016), Londres : Sage Publications.

[31] – Thompson Paul, ‘Dissent at Work and the Resistance Debate: Departures, Directions and Dead-Ends’, mimeo ; Thompson Paul, ‘Dissent and Resistance in the Workplace in the Context of Neo-Liberalism’, McMaster University 3rd October 2014  

[32] – Bachet, Daniel, “Résistance, autonomie et implication des salariés. Quelle sociologie pour le travail”, in

Les Mondes du Travail n°12, November 2012, pp. 139-148.

[33] – Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usine. La perruque, un travail détourné, Paris, 2018; For a different approach considering ‘wigging’ as a possible source of extra-income, see Étienne de Banville, L’Usine en douce: le travail en « perruque », Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.

[34] – Kosmann, Robert, Sorti d’usine, op.cit., p. 23.

[35] – Bellanger, Jacques and Thuderoz, Christian, « Le répertoire de l’opposition au travail », in Revue Française de Sociologie, 51 (3), July-Sept. 2010, pp. 427-460.

[36] – Burawoy, Michael, The Politics of Production, Factory Regimes under Capitalism and Socialism, Verso, 1985.

[37]–  Thompson, Edward P., The Making of the English Working Class London, 1963; see also Thompson, Edward P. (1991). Customs in Common. New York: New Press.

[38] – Moore, Barrington, Injustice. The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, London, Palgrave, 1978, 540 pp.

[39] – Tilly, Charles and Tilly, Chris, Work Under Capitalism, London-NY, 1998, 336p.

[40] – John Kelly (1998), Rethinking industrial relations, Routlegde.

[41] – Clot, Yves, Le Travail sans l’homme? Pour une psychologie des milieux de travail et de vie, Paris, 1995.

[42] – Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital. The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, NY, 1974.

[43] – Watt, Andrew and Leschke Jane, Report on job quality in Europe, ETUI, 2015 (2012)

[44] – Castel Robert (1995), Les métamorphoses de la question sociale : une chronique du salariat, Fayard, Paris, 478 p.

[45] – Bellal, Selma and Bouquin, Stephen, ‘Towards a redefinition of collective rights embodied in work and its status: employment and social rights under the test of the active social state’, in Année Sociale 2000, ULB – Institut de sociologie, pp. 264-284.

[46] – Jessop, Bob, “Post-Fordism and the State”. In Greve, Brent (ed.), Comparative Welfare Systems, Basingstoke, 1996.

[47] – Dardot, Pierre and Christian Laval, La Nouvelle Raison du monde. Essai sur la société néolibérale, Paris, 2010, 498 p. published in English under the title ‘The New Way of the World. On Neoliberal Society’, Verso Books, 2014.

[48] – All the statistical data here are taken from the “Working Conditions” surveys conducted at regular intervals by DARES and the Ministry of Labour since 1978. Some questions were introduced later, hence the different dates in the comparisons presented. Data available online physical-and-intensity-of-work


[50] – Flexibility is not necessarily the same everywhere, as in Belgium 30% report having worked more than 10 hours, while in Germany this number drops to 22%.

[51] – Gallie, Duncan, Employment Regimes and the Quality of Work, Oxford University Press, 2009, 277 p.; Turner, Lowel, Wever, Kirsten S. and Fichter, Michael, “Perils of the high and low roads: Employment relations in the United States and Germany”, In K. S. Wever (Ed.), Labor, business, and change in Germany and the United States pp., 123-155; Holthgrewe, Ursula, Kirov, Vassil, Ramioul, Monique, Hard Work in New jobs, The Quality of Work and Life in European Growth Sectors, 2015, 305p; see also Duncan Gallie Skills, “Job Control and the Quality of Work: the Evidence from Britain’, The Economic and Social Review, 2012, 43, 3: 325-341; Gallie, Duncan, Felstead Alan and Green Francis, ‘Job preferences and the intrinsic quality of work: the changing attitudes of British employees 1992-2006’, Work Employment and Society, 2012, 26, 5: 806-821..

[52] – Poggi, Ambra and Villosio, Claudia, “Subjective well-being at the workplace”, in Holthgrew, Ursula, Kirov, Vassil, Ramioul, Monique, Hard Work in New Jobs. The Quality of Work and Life in European Growth Sectors, 2015, pp. 70-83.

[53] -With the exception of Italy, burnout is hardly recognised as an occupational disease in any EU country. In France, its recognition was rejected during parliamentary debates on the Labour Law. In Sweden, the ‘fatigue syndrome’ has been recognised as a pathology belonging to ‘stress related adaptation disorders’ in response to severe stress situations.

[54] – This is also confirmed by a YouGov survey in the UK, which found that half of respondents said they were suffering or had suffered from burnout or anxiety related to working conditions. With the exception of older workers, all occupational categories were more or less equally affected.

[55] – Loriol, Marc, « Reconnaitre le burn out. Une fausse bonne idée? », in La Revue Parlementaire, February 2018.

[56] – Loriol, Marc, « Comprendre les risques psychosociaux complexes, multiformes et multifactoriels », in

Psychiatric Care, Vol 39 – No 318, p. 20-23 – September 2018.

[57] – It should be noted in passing that their definition of burn-out is restrictive, limiting it to symptoms once the pathology has occurred. See Rose, U., Müller, G., Burr, H., Schulz, A. and Freude, G. (2016), Arbeit und Mentale Gesundheit. Ergebnisse aus einer Repräsentativitätserhebung der Erwerbstätigen in Deutschland, Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (BAuA), Dortmund, Berlin and Dresden. For a European overview, see Eurofound (2018), Burnout in the workplace: A review of data and policy responses in the EU, 57p.

[58] . About the congress, see; see also Crespin, Renaud, Lhuillier, Dominique, Lutz, Gladys, Se doper pour travailler, Eres, 352 p., 2017.

[59] – Mercure, Daniel (2017), “ Capitalisme contemporain et Régimes de Mobilisation Subjective au Travail”, in Mercure, Daniel and Bourdages-Sylvain Marie-Pierre (eds.), Travail et subjectivité. Perspectives Critiques, 2017, p. 53

[60] – Mercure, Daniel (2017), op. cit. p. 55-57.

[61] – Baudelot, Christian, Gollac, Michel (2003), Travailler pour être heureux, Fayard, Paris.

[62] – see Jaffe Sarah (2021), ‘Work won’t love you back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone’, New York, Bolt press.

[63] – Employee satisfaction and engagement. Revitalizing a changing workforce, Society for Human Resources Management, see surveys/Documents/2016-Employee-Job-Satisfaction-and-Engagement-Report.pdf

[64] – Jobs, Steve. 2005. ‘You’ve Got to Find What You Love, Jobs Says.’ Stanford News, June 14.

[65] – Weeks, Kathi, ‘Down with Love: Feminist Critique and the New Ideologies of Work’ in Women Studies Quarterly: Precarious Work, vol. 45, no. 3&4, Fall-Winter 2017.

[66] – Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011.

[67] – Cingolani, Patrick, Révolutions précaires: essai sur l’avenir de l’émancipation, Paris, La Découverte, 2014; Vakaloulis, Michel, Précaires, pas démotivés. les jeunes, le travail l’engagement, Paris, 2013, Bouquin, Stephen, op. cit, 2008. See also Cingolani, Patrick, ‘Travail précaire, précaires et résistances’, in Caldéron José-Angel and Cohen, Valérie, Qu’est ce que résister? Usages et enjeux d’une catégorie d’analyse sociologique, Lille, Septentrion, 2014, 27-38.

[68] – Cingolani, Patrick, 2014, op. cit.

[69] – Moulin, André, Social commitment in the economic field with regard to personal ethics: Diversity of expressed perceptions and social conduct of employees: a question of convictions and passions? Ph.D, University of Evry-Val d’Essonne Paris Saclay, under supervision of S. Bouquin, 2017.

[70] – Avril, Christelle, Les aides à domicile. Un autre monde populaire, Paris, La Dispute, coll. “Corps, santé, société”, 2014.

[71] – Petit, Sébastien, ‘Recomposition de la division du travail de conception : le travail en bureau d’études dans un cadre gestionnaires’, in Les Mondes du Travail n°11, nouvelle série, February 2012, pp. 13-26.

[72] – Reyssat, François, Dominations et résistances au travail. Investigation into the bodily experience of cleaning workers. Thesis directed by Numa Murard, defended at the University of Paris-Diderot Sorbonne (December 2015)

[73] – Bouquin, Stephen, Le Travail réel et ses ambivalences en temps de crise. Enquête dans le secteur des services, mimeo, 2019, 45p.

[74] – Leduc, Sacha, « Les résistances à la modernisation des techniciennes de l’Assurance maladie. Quand le contrôle des populations devient enjeu d’affirmation professionnelle », in Durand J-P., Dressen M. (coord.), Violence et Travail, Toulouse, Octarès, 2011; Leduc, Sacha, Le Respect de l’égalité et de la légalité. Les résistances à la modernisation, GTM, CPAM 58, mimeo, 2007.

[75]– Bouquin, Stephen, « La révolte en gilet jaunes ou Le retour en force de la question sociale », in Les Mondes du Travail n°22, winter-spring 2019, pp. 121-132.

[76] – As is put forward by Durand Jean-Pierre (2019), ‘Creating the New Worker: Work, Consumption and Subordination’, Palgrave London, original French publication in 2017.

[77]– Le Lann, Yann, « Ce sont les classes populaires, employés et ouvriers, qui sont sur les barrages », in Le Monde, published on the 24th of December 2018.


Pandémie et santé mentale. Quelques réflexions à propos du « corona-blues »

La pandémie représente un évènement exceptionnel qui bouscule chacun dans son rapport au monde et à l’existence. Les mesures de confinement visant à endiguer les contaminations rajoutent une dimension coercitive aux sentiments d’effroi et de peur que la plupart des personnes ont éprouvé  au cours de l’année écoulée.

Depuis l’automne 2020, les psychologues sonnent l’alerte à propos de la santé mentale. En novembre, la Fondation Jean Jaurès publie les résultats alarmistes d’un sondage réalisé par l’institut IFOP[1]. Fin janvier, Emmanuel Macron refusait un troisième confinement en évoquant comme raison parmi d’autres la nécessité de préserver la santé mentale de la population. Au mois de mars, le ministre de la santé Olivier Véran exprimait ses craintes à propos d’une « quatrième vague de dépressions ».

Le vécu de cette pandémie a transformé la santé mentale en question sociale à part entière. Auparavant, il n’y avait guère que la psycho-dynamique du travail pour appréhender le bien-être psychique dans ses dimensions collectives [2].

Dans cet article, je propose de faire le point sur l’ampleur de cette dégradation de la santé mentale, notamment à partir d’enquêtes menées aux États-Unis. J’examinerai ensuite les interprétations principales  de ce mal-être, notamment celles qu’on peut retrouver en psychologie.  Dans un troisième point, j’expose l’hypothèse que le numérique n’est pas en mesure de répondre aux attentes de sociabilité. Le quatrième point me permet d’exposer pourquoi on peut penser que les rapports sociaux traversent une crise qui se traduit par une dégradation de la santé mentale. Dans le cinquième point, j’expose les raisons qui invitent à penser que l’injonction à la résilience ne répond pas à la crise des rapports sociaux. Et enfin, dans le sixième point, je reviens sur la condition d’existence subjective de la jeunesse, en développant l’hypothèse que cette dernière est une « génération en devenir ».

La santé mentale en berne ?

Pour mesurer la santé mentale à l’échelle sociétale, les psychologues font généralement appel aux enquêtes de bien-être[3], sorte de questionnaire permettant d’évaluer le bien-être psychique des individus sur deux dimensions que sont le bien-être « hédoniste » et le bien-être « eudémoniste ». Le premier renvoie à l’état de bonheur et au degré de satisfaction de la vie  tandis que le second concerne le fonctionnement psychologique positif, le degré de satisfaction qu’apportent les relations sociales et le sentiment de réalisation de soi.

Les psychologues Nicolas Franck et Frédérick Haesebaert ont mené leur enquête[4]. Avant la pandémie, l’indicateur de bien-être moyen gravitait autour de 50 sur 70. En mai 2020, vers la fin du premier confinement, il était descendu à 40 sur 70, avec un recul de 10 points en dessous de la moyenne en temps normal. Au cours du second confinement, le taux de réponse à ce survey s’est effondré, passant de 30 000 réponses lors du premier confinement à seulement 1 300 réponses. Les psychologues se disaient désemparés car ils ne disposent plus de thermomètre pour mesurer l’ampleur du mal-être[5]… Le monde médical partage l’avis des psychologues : un grand nombre de patients évoquent des troubles de sommeil, des sentiments d’anxiété et des difficultés croissantes pour continuer à fonctionner, tant dans la sphère familiale qu’au niveau professionnel.

Depuis quelques mois, la santé mentale est devenue un sujet médiatique dans la plupart des pays frappé par la pandémie : en France, Belgique, Royaume-Uni, Allemagne, Italie, etc[6]. Les États-Unis semblent particulièrement touchés par le phénomène au point où le pays semble être devenu un véritable eldorado de la dépression[7], ce qui n’est pas entièrement nouveau ni surprenant. En effet, depuis le début des années 2000, la consommation abusive de médicaments à base d’opiacés est devenu un véritable fléau d’addiction qui englobe une population de 11 à 12 millions de personnes et qui frappe avant tout les white trash, les blancs et les blanches paupérisé.e.s des régions rurales et désindustrialisés. Depuis 2016, le nombre de décès annuel par overdose dépasse les 70 000 tandis que 1,6 millions de personnes (dont une majorité de femmes) sont catalogués comme sévèrement dépendants [8].

La pandémie n’a fait qu’amplifier un phénomène de malaise psychique déjà présent, et ce au point où désormais près d’une personne sur deux exprime subir une dégradation de sa santé mentale. Les premières enquêtes, menées au mois de juillet 2020, faisaient apparaître une incidence accrue de symptômes de stress : troubles de sommeil, troubles d’appétit, migraines et augmentation de consommation d’alcool ou de substances toxiques. Appartenir à la catégorie des travailleurs essentiels semblait dans un premier temps apporter un réconfort, puisque parmi les travailleurs « non essentiels » plus nombreux sont ceux qui déclaraient avoir des troubles du sommeil [9].












Quelques mois plus tard, en novembre 2020, le baromètre de santé mentale du KFF faisait apparaître une nette augmentation des symptômes de mal-être[10]. Désormais, un répondant sur deux éprouvait des moments d’anxiété ou se sentait déprimé au cours des 7 derniers jours. Ces chiffres étaient en nette augmentation depuis le mois de juin (+11%) et la proportion des répondants qui évoquaient une dégradation de leur santé mentale grimpait a 57% pour les femmes, à 63% pour les jeunes adultes (18-29) et oscillait entre 55 et 60% du côté des hispaniques et afro-américains.

Une enquête plus approfondie, menée en janvier 2021, apporte des précisions importantes[11] . Du côté des jeunes, on observe une surconsommation de substances toxiques nettement plus élevée que la moyenne : 25% déclare avoir augmenté leur consommation, contre 13% pour la population en général. Tout aussi alarmant est le fait que plus d’un quart des répondants disent avoir eu des idées suicidaires au cours des 30 derniers jours ; un taux qui grimpe à près de 35% du côté des jeunes adultes.

De façon attendue, les inégalités sociales sont bien au rendez-vous : plus on est riche, moins on est confronté à l’anxiété et à la dépression. Ainsi, 35% de celles et ceux qui gagnent moins de 40 000 dollars par an déclarent avoir ressentie une « dégradation majeure de leur santé mentale » contre seulement 17% parmi ceux qui gagnant plus de 90 000 dollars par an. Le graphique (Fig5) suivant montre combien cette différenciation ne se situe pas tant du côté de la présence ou de l’absence de signes d’anxiété mais avant tout au niveau de l’intensité ou de la fréquence de ceux-ci. Dans le sillage de la pandémie, le mal-être s’est amplifié d’autant plus que l’on descend l’échelle sociale …














L’enquête révèle également que les travailleurs des métiers « essentiels » sont davantage exposés au stress mental :  43% des « travailleurs essentiels » déclarent éprouver une dégradation de leur santé mentale, alors qu’ils représentent moins d’un tiers (30%) au niveau des métiers « non-essentiels ». La consommation abusive de substances toxiques est reconnue par 25% chez les travailleurs « essentiels », contre 11% chez les « non essentiels ». Si 8% des « non essentiels » déclarent avoir envisagé de se suicider les 30 derniers jours, ce taux grimpe à 22% du côté des « travailleurs essentiels ».

A l’évidence, le risque de devoir faire face à des dépenses de santé intervient comme source additionnelle de stress. Nulle surprise que ce sont d’abord les « travailleurs essentiels » qui redoutent ces dépenses inattendues : près de la moitié ne serait pas en mesure de débourser ne serait-ce que 500 dollars pour faire face aux besoins de soins.

L’interprétation de ce type de baromètre-sondage n’est pas chose aisée. Ce qui est déclaré par les personnes à leur propre sujet exprime surtout leur capacité à se percevoir en situation de détresse. Ces attitudes ne se distribuent pas de façon homogène au sein de la population mais se différencient suivant l’âge, le genre, l’appartenance ethnico-raciale et la position de classe. Dans certains milieux, l’habitus invite à refuser de « s’apitoyer sur soi-même », entre autres parce qu’on ne peut faire autrement quand on doit continuer à travailler. Les réponses ne disent pas grand-chose à propos de l’ampleur réelle de ce mal-être dans la vie quotidienne. Dire que l’on éprouve régulièrement des sentiments dépressifs ou de l’anxiété n’est pas la même chose que de traverser une vraie dépression nerveuse qui empêche la personne de poursuivre son travail voire tout simplement de fonctionner…

Même en prenant toutes les précautions dans l’analyse de ces enquêtes, je pense qu’on peut tenir pour acquis le fait que la santé mentale de la population s’est fortement dégradée depuis le début de la pandémie. Aux Etats-Unis, cette dégradation se manifeste surtout parmi les jeunes, les travailleurs essentiels, les femmes et minorités racialisées, avec une forte variation suivant le montant des revenus et le type de travail.











Ces résultats relativisent l’idée que la dépression est une pathologie qui touche avant tout les couches moyennes. En effet, la dégradation de la santé mentale est bien plus grande parmi les personnes qui subissent de façon prolongée un stress accru : travailleurs essentiels, catégories moins bien protégées au niveau des soins de santé ; membres des communautés hispaniques et afro-américaines ; mères célibataires, personnes à faible revenu ainsi que de larges secteurs de la jeunesse. La perte d’emploi apparaît comme le premier des facteurs discriminants puisque c’est autour de ce critère que s’exprime le plus grand écart dans les réponses : parmi celles et ceux qui ont perdu leur emploi, 53% affirment subir une dégradation de leur santé mentale contre « seulement » 31% du côté de ceux qui n’ont pas perdu leur job.












Le contexte a son importance. N’oublions pas qu’aux USA, la pandémie a continué à faire rage pendant l’été tandis que les mesures de lockdown étaient relativement limitées. L’accès aux soins de santé est minimaliste pour les pauvres et les travailleurs à bas salaire. A cela se rajoutent les effets de la crise économique qui a provoqué une flambée du chômage (avec une hausse de 6 à 7 millions chômeurs en quelques mois !). C’est dans une situation particulièrement dégradée que des larges secteurs de la population ont eu comme préoccupation première le fait de « tenir le coup », afin de ne pas sombrer dans la dépression. Cette préoccupation est également à mettre en rapport avec la vision globale sur la pandémie. Même en décembre dernier, une majorité des personnes avaient encore le sentiment que le pire est à venir.












Eléments d’analyse médicale et psychologique

En médecine, il est admis qu’un stress répété fragilise le corps et le système immunitaire jusqu’à devenir un facteur provoquant des réactions inflammatoires. Le stress chronique réduit les niveaux de sérotonine qui sont des régulateurs hormonaux des émotions. Quand les réserves de sérotonine sont constamment mobilisées par la peur et le stress, cela finit par générer une anxiété qui sera suivie d’un état de dépression ou de léthargie. Voilà en résumé la grille d’analyse biomédicale.

Celle-ci a été consolidé et étendu en psychologie depuis les recherches pionnières de Hans Selye dans les années 1970 [12] pour qui les facteurs de stress induisent un schéma de réponse récurrent appelé General Adaptation Syndrome ou GAS. Celui-ci commence par la séquence d’alarme, déclenchant une augmentation du rythme cardiaque, des sueurs et une respiration accélérée. Passé le moment d’hésitation (fight or flight – se battre ou fuir), il s’enclenche une phase de résistance, tant au niveau corporel que psychique, libérant des hormones (adrénaline, cortisol), du sucre et autres substances qui augmentent la tension musculaire et mettent la personne en état de faire face. Plus les facteurs de stress se maintiennent dans le temps, avec parfois des sources supplémentaires de stress, plus la personne épuise ses ressources hormonales pour finir par atteindre un état d’épuisement biochimique.

Selon Barbara Jacquelyn-Sahakian et Christelle Langley, chercheures respectivement en neuropsychologie clinique et en neuroscience cognitive[13], le stress chronique produit aussi un désordre psychique. Avec le stress, le cerveau est inondé de façon récurrente par le cortisol, appelé aussi « hormone du stress ». Ce cortisol conduit à l’inhibition du fonctionnement du cortex préfrontal ce qui va inhiber le sentiments de peur. Mais cet afflux régulier de cortisol crée ensuite une sorte de dépendance qui enclenche chez l’individu la recherche d’artefacts émotionnels compensateurs que peuvent procurer la surconsommation de nourriture, d’alcool, de tabac ou d’autres produits ayant un effet « rassurant » immédiat. Le modèle d’analyse GAS de Hans Selye a été critiqué à de nombreuses reprises mais demeure très influent. La plupart des critiques ne sont jamais au-delà de la démonstration qu’il existe des variations dans la résistance au stress, suivant les facteurs cognitifs et sociaux.

En Europe, les débats sur la dégradation de la santé mentale sont davantage marqués par les effets du confinement. Il faut dire qu’en psychologie sociale, la dépression et la dégradation de la santé mentale est avant tout expliquée à partir de l’étiolement des interactions sociales que l’on pourrait résumer par la formule « mais où sont passés mes amis ?!». Il est vrai que l’atrophie des interactions sociales représente un changement qualitatif, puisque le vécu intersubjectif change. Pour en mesurer la portée, il faut avant tout reconnaître l’importance des « liens faibles », un concept élaboré en sociologie économique par Marc Granovetter, socio-économiste de l’Université de Stanford. Dans une étude empirique qui a fait autorité, Granovetter montrait combien les « liens faibles » déterminent les trajectoires professionnelles[14]. A la suite de cette découverte, les études en psychologie clinique ont commencé à mesurer combien l’occurrence de « liens faibles » détermine le sentiment de bien-être. En effet, dans les réseaux de sociabilité, chacun noue des liens avec d’autres personnes. Les « liens forts » sont caractérisés par une affinité profonde, par exemple au sein de la famille, avec les amis proches ou les collègues de longue date. Les « liens faibles » correspondent à des personnes avec lesquelles on partage quelques affinités mais sans pour autant entrer dans une relation intime.

Désormais, en psychologie sociale, on considère pour acquis que la présence de « liens faibles » a une incidence positive sur le sentiment de bien-être. A partir de là, la dégradation de la santé mentale au cours de l’année écoulée s’explique aisément. A la disparition progressive des interactions sociales au niveau professionnel – du moins pour celles et ceux qui ont dû se replier sur le télétravail – s’ajoute l’isolement social provoqué par le confinement. Cette situation s’est prolongée avec la fermeture des lieux de sociabilité (cafés, restaurants, lieux culturels) où se développent les réseaux d’interconnaissance. Les gestes barrières et la peur aidant, le repli sur la sphère familiale s’est accélérée et chacun.e tend à se concentrer sur l’entretien des « liens forts » avec quelques ami.e.s intimes ou les membres de la famille.

Bien qu’il soit trop mécaniste – une tentation permanente chez les psychologues behavioristes – de mettre en rapport le niveau de bien-être avec le nombre de fois que les gens entendent et prononcent le « comment vas-tu  – ça va et toi ?», il n’en demeure pas moins que ce schéma interprétatif explique, par-delà le stress liée à la peur d’être contaminé (et de contaminer à son tour), comment l’isolement social provoque une dégradation de la santé mentale. Ceci est certainement le cas des adolescents et jeunes adultes pour qui une sociabilité intense est indispensable à la structuration d’une identité personnelle puisque chacun.e se construit aussi dans le miroir des interactions avec « les autres ».

L’amitié est très souvent une question de choix et d’accord mutuel, et la capacité générale de poursuivre et de naviguer dans les relations comme bon nous semble est un indicateur de notre capacité à nous autodéterminer dans un ensemble plus vaste d’échanges sociaux. Plus généralement, la possibilité de développer des liens interpersonnels est une sorte de mesure de la liberté réelle dont on dispose dans l’existence. Ce n’est pas par hasard que l’incarcération est une sanction pénale et que la cellule d’isolement est utilisé comme moyen de torture…

La solitude et l’isolement social tendent à être vécus comme les symptômes d’une inexistence et  l’omniprésence de cette expérience durant les périodes de confinement représente forcément un terreau fertile pour la dépression. C’est aussi pour ces raisons qu’un certain nombre de psychologues sont intervenus dans les débats publics pour demander un assouplissement des mesures sanitaires ou du rejet du confinement comme « un remède pire que le mal » [15].

L’interprétation psychanalyste de Paul Diel, auteur de La peur et l’angoisse (2004 [1966]), corrobore d’une certaine manière l’e diagnostic biomédical et psycho-social. Selon Paul Diel, chaque être éprouve de façon latente ce qu’il appelle « l’inquiétude fondamentale ». Celle-ci est déterminée par notre dépendance à l’égard du monde extérieur et par la conscience que nous en avons. De manière récurrente, ce « monde extérieur » met en péril nos besoins vitaux : que ce soient les violences dans la sphère intime, l’insécurité économique ou affective. Chaque être humain tente alors de surmonter ces obstacles grâce à l’imagination et l’intelligence qui lui permettent de comprendre ce qui se passe. Beaucoup de personnes vont répondre à l’exacerbation de cette inquiétude fondamentale par le déni, par la « fuite imaginative » et la sublimation. Quand l’angoisse s’installe durablement dans la vie quotidienne, il devient nécessaire de s’attaquer lucidement aux sources de celle-ci, autrement elle devient morbide et conduit à la paralysie du sujet. Cette réaction exprime la volonté de ne pas capituler, de préserver son élan vital, en mobilisant la clairvoyance de l’esprit et la prévoyance intellectuelle. Lorsque les stratagèmes de sublimation ou de réflexivité n’arrivent pas à changer la situation, l’anxiété tend à devenir pathologique, jusqu’à déclencher un état dépressif.

En résumant, suivant l’interprétation psychanalytique de Paul Diel, face à ce qui est perçu comme menaçant, on va soit chercher à fuir hors de la réalité, soit on sera tenté de sublimer les peurs et angoisses, ou encore tenter de les comprendre afin de réduire la présence de ces émotions sur le plan du fonctionnement quotidien. L’intérêt de cette approche réside dans le fait qu’elle nous invite aussi à comprendre le succès de thèses complotistes comme une manière rationnelle de réagir à la peur que provoque la pandémie, « qui n’existerait pas », qui ne serait « même pas une grippe », ou qui n’est rien d’autre qu’une opération de manipulation des vies de chacun…

Lorsque les angoisses (mort, maladie, pauvreté) persistent, cela nourrit aussi le besoin psychique de trouver des boucs émissaires et des victimes expiatoires.  N’oublions pas que chaque épidémie de peste en Europe a été suivie par une vague de pogroms et de persécutions des juifs accusés d’empoisonner l’eau des puits…

Le numérique n’empêche pas le sentiment d’isolement social

A la question de savoir si les échanges sociaux numérisés permettent de palier aux sentiment d’isolement, la réponse est loin d’être univoque. Du côté de la psychologie, des chercheurs comme Julianne Holt-Lungstad estiment que le numérique permet de « sauver les meubles », de ne pas totalement sombrer dans une dépression provoquée par un isolement prolongé[16]. Mais est-ce que le numérique fonctionne correctement comme succédané ou comme béquille pour des échanges sociaux réels  ? Pour l’instant, peu d’enquêtes permettent de tirer cette conclusion Dès lors, pourquoi ne pas émettre l’hypothèse que le numérique peut aussi exacerber le sentiment de manque d’interactions sociales réelles ?

Du côté des sciences de la communication, les échanges via les réseaux sociaux sont considérés comme une sorte d’antichambre ou de chambre d’écho des interactions sociales. Les réseaux sociaux forment une scène sociale où chacun.e peut se mettre en scène afin d’optimiser son capital social. Toutefois, même si le numérique permet de maintenir un contact avec des personnes, il ne peut remplacer les interactions sociales ce qui explique aussi pourquoi, après un certain temps, ce type d’échanges produisent un arrière-gout d’artificialité. Suscitant parfois plus de frustrations qu’autre chose, on comprend mieux pourquoi les soirées dansantes « en ligne » ou des apéros-zoom se sont rapidement raréfiés. En l’absence d’interactions directes, la communication numérique s’étiole, puisqu’elle perd son caractère double, à la fois réel et virtuel, pour ne plus être qu’un artefact. Souvent, cette artificialisation sera vécue comme une aliénation, ce qui renforce le sentiment de séparation ou de perte avec la vie « d’avant ».

Par ailleurs, avec le télétravail, les échanges digitalisés ou numérisés font que l’aliénation au travail (admise ou déniée) campe dans le salon et s’invite au petit déjeuner. Confronté à ce type d’expériences, chacun comprend très vite l’importance du droit à la déconnexion. Ce sont des situations qui amènent aussi les individus à questionner le sens de leur travail, puisque sans la sociabilité professionnelle, il risque avant tout d’être vécu comme activité contrainte et hétéronome. Ne faudrait-il pas émettre une hypothèse analogue à propos de la consommation « en ligne » ? Lorsque les magasins sont fermés, chacun.e peut toujours acheter en ligne mais il devient difficile de ne pas prendre conscience de la nature fausse et artificielle de la frénésie consommatrice qui n’apporte jamais la satisfaction attendue et ne comble jamais le vide existentiel que l’on voudrait ne plus ressentir. Au final, les satisfactions consommatrices sont peut-être vécues pour ce qu’elles sont : une compensation qui doit permettre de supporter l’aliénation dans le travail.

L’hypothèse d’une crise des fétichismes capitalistes

Rarement mobilisée dans les analyses sociologiques, le concept de fétichisme invite à penser la dégradation de la santé mentale en lien avec la crise des subjectivités et des rapports sociaux. [pour une présentation succincte de ce concept, voir encadré à la fin de cet article] Etablir ce lien se justifie notamment parce que « le monde d’avant » était déjà marqué par une crise des subjectivités et notamment de l’individualisme possessif. Je fais donc l’hypothèse que la pandémie, en tant que manifestation de la crise écologique, et « produit dérivé » de la crise systémique du capitalisme, est également un accélérateur d’une crise généralisée des rapports sociaux.

Le fétichisme de la marchandise apparaît de plus en plus pour ce qu’il est, à savoir un ersatz de bonheur. Le fétichisme du travail et du productivisme sont également mis à mal : le travail reproductif est essentiel mais sans être reconnu comme tel. Lorsque le travail est reconnu car productif, il est bien souvent aliénant voire toxique sur le plan psychique et destructeur de l’écosystème. Le fétichisme de l’état-nation est certes moins mis en cause mais pour combien de temps ? La société a besoin d’institutions mais la gouvernance étatique est défaillante… Les problèmes sont mondiaux mais les frontières semblent apporter une réponse. Le fétichisme du moi commence à être perçu comme illusoire puisque tant la pandémie que le confinement fournissent aux individus (même les plus solipsistes) la preuve qu’il ne sert à rien de se penser comme la seule réalité dont on peut être certain. Le fétichisme techno-scientiste est sans doute moins fragilisé que d’autres – les vaccins entretiennent l’espoir de pouvoir se débarrasser du virus une fois pour toutes – mais le succès croissant des thèses complotistes reflète bien le rejet de l’idéologie de progrès, ce qui peut également nourrir une orientation réactionnaire voire « néo-obscurantiste ».

On ne peut exclure l’éventualité que la crise des fétichismes restera sous contrôle, tant le désir d’un retour « à la normale » est puissant. En même temps, lorsque les fétichismes ne fonctionnent plus, il leur devient difficile de ne pas apparaître sous leur vrai visage, en tant que représentation tronqué de la réalité. En effet, plus la praxis capitaliste réifie les rapports sociaux en leur conférant opacité, froideur et impersonnalité, moins ceux-ci peuvent apparaître aux individus comme les résultats de leurs propres interactions. Plus les fétichismes saisissent nos interactions sociales, moins ils sont capables de capter les désirs humains et de fournir des repères et des supports identificatoires et moins ils seront capables de donner sens à l’existence.

Déjà, au cours des dernières décennies du vingtième siècle, certains auteurs formulaient l’hypothèse d’une crise rampante des rapports sociaux. Parmi eux, Alain Bihr écrivait : « Dans la mesure où il est impossible de vivre sans donner sens à son existence et au monde, il s’ensuit une recherche éperdue, dans toutes les directions et à n’importe quel prix du sens perdu…» (Du Grand Soir à l’alternative. Le mouvement ouvrier européen en crise, p.177). En temps « normal », lorsque le mouvement perpétuel d’accumulation du capital se prolonge sans beaucoup de perturbations et qu’il dispose d’une assise sociale, la crise des rapports sociaux que le fétichisme alimente se traduit avant tout par des conduites de fuite en avant. Pensons par exemple aux cultures narcissiques, à l’utilitarisme combiné à la sélectivité dans les investissements affectifs, aux stratégies d’évitement de l’ennui ou encore à la recherche de compensations affectives, sexuelles ou spirituelles permettant de contenir les sentiments d’angoisse, de déréalisation ou d’absurdité[17]. Mais qu’en est-il aujourd’hui, un an après le début de la pandémie ? On pourrait penser que la pandémie a provoqué une panne sèche tant du côté des automatismes sociaux (les pratiques routinisées de la vie quotidienne) que des « tactiques de contention » déployées par les individus pour contenir ou sublimer le mal-être déjà présent ?

L’injonction à la résilience comme arme de dépolitisation

Face à la dégradation de la santé mentale, la réponse mainstream consiste à appeler la population à développer sa résilience. Toute une panoplie d’ouvrages et d’articles offrent un mode d’emploi pour réussir dans cette voie[18]. Citons pêle-mêle la nécessité de changer la narration « intérieure » et cesser de ruminer à propos de son mal-être ; de tenir un journal de bord (puisque l’écriture permet d’ordonner ses idées et de mieux identifier les aspects positifs de l’existence) ; de se confronter à la peur par petites doses afin de mieux contrôler celle-ci ; d’accepter la souffrance en passant par des moments d’auto-compassion pour ensuite fermer la parenthèse et favoriser une vision « positive » de la réalité ; de s’organiser des séances de mindfullness en cherchant à se convaincre qu’on se porte bien mieux ; d’expulser les émotions de ressentiment et de colère au travers de séances de méditation comme le yoga. La liste est longue et on voit bien comment l’action thérapeutique sur soi peut certainement aider à tenir, mais comment cela exprime aussi un non-questionnement des causes plus profondes des sentiments de mal-être et de dépression.

Certes, prendre soin de soi ou se faire soigner est tout sauf critiquable, d’autant que le modèle existentiel dominant rejette tout ce qui ressemble de près ou de loin à la faiblesse. La dimension thérapeutique a son importance mais force est de constater que la résilience a surtout envahi le discours politique et c’est là que le bât blesse. A l’origine, le terme désignait la capacité d’un matériau d’absorber les chocs. Il fut ensuite repris et popularisé par la psychologie, notamment par Boris Cyrulnik pour désigner la « capacité de rebond » des individus face à des épreuves d’ordre divers (deuils, divorce, maladie, etc). Ce recyclage sémantique a été critiqué par d’autres psychologues mais sans pour autant le considérer comme nocif[19]. Pendant des millénaires, les croyances religieuses ont permis aux êtres humains de se préserver et de se reconstruire psychologiquement face aux épreuves de la vie. Tant mieux si certains savoirs énoncés par des psychologues le permettent aussi…

En revanche, lorsque la résilience est transposée dans le champ politique, elle joue un rôle beaucoup plus pernicieux. D’abord parce qu’elle permet de faire peser sur les individus la responsabilité de répondre de façon adéquate aux chocs subis. Cela suppose qu’une catastrophe, qu’elle soit de nature économique, politique ou climatique, pourrait se comparer à un traumatisme affectif et qu’il est possible de le dépasser grâce aux ressources psychiques des individus.

On retrouve ainsi la notion en situation d’attentat mais aussi par rapport aux crises économiques et, bien évidemment, en temps de pandémie. Dès le printemps 2020, Emmanuel Macron a lancé une opération « résilience » avec des chief resilience officers. Inspiré par Judith Rodin de la Fondation Rockefeller et auteure de The Resilience Dividend. Being Strong in a World Where Things go Wrong (soit « Le Dividende de la résilience. Être fort dans un monde où les choses peuvent mal tourner »), l’appel à la résilience sert avant tout à combler l’absence d’analyse et d’explication d’un évènement-catastrophe aussi impromptu qu’inattendu. Quand j’écris « inattendu », je fais référence au détenteurs de pouvoir et non pas aux scientifiques car, rappelons-le, depuis le Sars-Cov-1 de 2003, les virologues ne cessent d’alerter les décideurs sur la forte probabilité d’une pandémie aux effets dévastateurs.

Pour Thierry Ribault, auteur de Contre la résilience. A Fukushima ou ailleurs (2021), la résilience est présentée pour rendre compte d’un pêle-mêle d’expériences douloureuses – cancer, sida, perte d’un proche, captivité, catastrophe naturelle et industrielle, attentat, … –, autant d’épreuves que les êtres humains sont censés supporter à condition de leur trouver un sens, de conserver leur dignité morale et le respect de soi. Il ne s’agit donc pas seulement d’un simple effet de mode mais d’une véritable technologie politique : « Ce qui immunise la résilience contre toute véritable attaque, écrit ainsi le chercheur, c’est de ne pas être appréhendée pour ce qu’elle est, à savoir une technologie, c’est-à-dire à la fois un discours tenu sur la technique, et une technique elle-même. ». Pour l’auteur, par-delà les utilisations mensongères ou excessives de la notion, il faut avant tout comprendre les liens structurels avec le néolibéralisme et le fait qu’elle donne priorité à l’adaptation permanente du sujet. La résilience est, à ses yeux, « macabre, indécente, indéfendable (…), une funeste chimère promue au rang de technique thérapeutique face aux désastres en cours », érigeant « leurs victimes en cogestionnaires de la dévastation ».

Quid de la jeunesse ?

La jeunesse n’est qu’un mot. Elle est hétérogène suivant les clivages de classe, de genre,  et d’origine culturelle. Pour exister en tant que groupe social, il lui faut devenir une génération, non seulement éprouver des évènements structurants mais également développer une vision et une identité partagée. Je partirai de l’hypothèse que la pandémie est en train de fabriquer une génération, non pas comme une cohorte d’âge ce qui conduit, comme le font les études marketing, à distinguer la génération X  (1980), Y (1990) ou Z (2000-2010), mais plutôt comme une génération historique en devenir[20].

Plusieurs raisons invitent en tout cas à travailler cette hypothèse. Pour ce qui concerne le vécu de la pandémie, on peut entendre les professionnels de la santé mentale présenter la jeunesse comme particulièrement exposée aux phénomènes de dépression, d’anxiété. Le nombre de suicides est également en augmentation de façon très significative (source). Cela n’a rien d’étonnant au vu de l’importance que représente une sociabilité ouverte et libre ou encore une libre expérience de la sexualité dans la construction de l’identité sociale.

A coup sûr, pour la tranche d’âge des 12-25 ans, la pandémie coïncide avec une brutale atrophie de l’existence. Si la peur d’être contaminé et malade est moins présente, la conscience de pouvoir contaminer parents et grands-parents a favorisé des conduites respectueuse des protocoles sanitaires. Certes, la prolongation de la pandémie et les incohérences des politiques sanitaires ont fini par donner lieu à quelques irruptions de révolte festive et on voit bien se développer des pratiques « déviantes » (fêtes clandestines, lieu de sociabilité irréguliers)[21].

Mais derrière ces aspects plus directement liés à la pandémie et aux politiques sanitaires se cachent aussi d’autres aspects qui participent à la « fabrique » générationnelle. En effet, la pandémie n’est pas seulement une mise à l’épreuve de la sociabilité ordinaire mais aussi un évènement qui obscurcit l’horizon temporel et rend très difficile la projection de soi dans un avenir.

On peut se souvenir du tag Demain est annulé !, devenu entretemps le titre d’un film, illustrant l’indifférence omniprésente que seul un évènement majeur pouvait briser. Et bien, nous y sommes, et depuis plus d’un ! Forcément, quand « demain est annulé », il n’y a plus d’horizon de vie et la vie au jour le jour change également de nature puisque sans lendemain chaque jour se répète. On comprend donc aisément pourquoi Le jour de la marmotte défraie de nouveau la chronique…

Bien sûr, tout le monde n’a pas le même lendemain ; les positionnements sur l’échelle sociale, la trajectoire sociale intergénérationnelle et les marqueurs de genre ou d’origine ethnoculturelle restent donc déterminants.

Pour ces secteurs de la jeunesse qui caressaient l’espoir d’une ascension sociale grâce aux études, la pandémie rime avec No Future. La crainte de subir une dévalorisation des diplômes gagne du terrain et ce d’autant plus que le diplôme devait fournir un accès à l’ascenseur social. Il en découle une misérabilisation du présent à venir, puisque le statut social auquel on espérait accéder – ou que l’on espérait préserver – devient absolument incertain.

Il est certain que la peur du « déclassement social » peut nourrir un conformisme et une docilité à l’égard des instances d’autorité. Elle ne signifie pas forcément adhésion. Il suffit de regarder un documentaire comme l’Epoque (2019). On y retrouve des jeunes exprimant leur difficulté à « habiter » cette époque ou encore des étudiants en HEC expliquer qu’il ne croient pas vraiment à leur études – même si ils réussissent – et disent leur difficulté de se conformer au modèle de réussite sociale que leur parents ont tenté de leur inculquer. Il font semblant d’y croire, parce que c’est le plus confortable…

La situation économique et sociale se dégradant, le faire semblant va devenir plus difficile et le le « double jeu » va perdre sa raison d’être. La compétition interindividuelle, la lutte des places s’intensifiant, il faudra y croire vraiment pour s’affronter aux autres et continuer à surmonter des échecs. Pour les perdants, devenant de plus en plus nombreux, le jeu social en lui-même pour devenir l’objet d’un critique ce qui peut favoriser une orientation collective et solidaire.

Déjà avant la pandémie, on pouvait observer l’existence de « contre-cultures » en rupture avec le modèle culturel capitaliste. Dans le lexique de sociologie culturaliste britannique des années 1970-1980, celle de Raymond Williams et de Stuart Hall, on évoquait l’existence de youth subcultures[22]. Aujourd’hui, ce terme me semble tout à fait approprié lorsqu’un groupe social commence à se distinguer sur le plan vestimentaire, au niveau des goûts musicaux, qu’il élabore ses propres rituels et codes sociaux, tout en ayant une inclinaison du côté anticapitaliste, écologique et féministe. Pour celles et ceux qui s’identifient à cette contreculture, la pandémie incarne en quelque sorte la preuve définitive que ce monde est pourri. Sans trop savoir comment  se débarrasser du « vieux monde », on tente d’inventer et d’élargir des expériences préfiguratives d’autres rapports sociaux[23]

Du côté de la jeunesse des quartiers populaires, issue des cohortes de travailleurs immigrés et/ou originaire des colonies, la contre-culture urbaine a également gagnée en radicalité. Depuis longtemps, elle exprimait une critique du racisme systémique et de certaines institutions (police, école) mais sans forcément remettre en cause le capitalisme[24]. De façon désabusé ou fascinée, le rap raconte le monde tel qu’il est, avec une sorte de réalisme capitaliste (Mark Fisher). Or, depuis quelques années, on voit apparaître des sous-genres musicaux qui n’hésitent plus à critiquer les injustices sociales ni à prendre la logique capitaliste pour cible ( ex. le genre Grime …). Lorsqu’elle entre sur le marché du travail (au bas de l’échelle), on voit cette jeunesse des quartiers populaires trouver le chemin de l’action syndicale jusqu’à jouer un rôle d’avant plan dans certains combats. Quelque chose est donc en train de changer de ce côté-là aussi, comme en témoigne aussi le soutien massif aux manifestations de Black Lives Matter.

Si la dépression et le malaise est le plus répandu du côté de la jeunesse, c’est aussi de ce côté que l’adhésion au capitalisme – et au modèle culturel auquel il est adossé – est en train de reculer. Reste à savoir si la génération en cours de fabrication va basculer du côté du rejet de la globalisation du capitalisme pandémique ou pas. La centralité de la crise écologique va certainement agir en ce sens, mais cela n’élimine pas la tentation du localisme et de la « rétrotopie » (cfr. Zygmunt Bauman) qui nourrissent les projets réactionnaires et néofascistes.

Mark Fisher [aka – K-Punk]
Pour conclure provisoirement

Qui n’a pas rêvé de retrouver sa vie d’avant ? Sortir, discuter, danser, embrasser, … Pour l’écrivaine indo-pakistanaise Arundhati Roy, la pandémie est une porte qui s’ouvre et le monde d’après ne sera jamais plus comme celui d’avant. Pour beaucoup de gens, prendre conscience de cette réalité est déjà une épreuve en soi. La vie s’apparente désormais à une marche forcée : de confinement en confinement, sans lieux de sociabilité réelle, avec des espaces culturels fermés – mais des supermarchés ouverts – et surtout l’obligation de travailler à la maison ou à l’extérieur, alors que les relations affectives au sein de la famille sont pressurisés. Toutes les institutions sociales (famille, travail, école, … ) ont été bouleversés par la pandémie et sont entrées en crise.

L’évènement pandémique est devenu omniprésent, à l’échelle micro-sociale comme à l’échelle planétaire. Cet évènement, d’abord « exogène » a fini par été « endogénéisé » puisqu’il a fini par «contaminer», tel le virus lui-même, l’ensemble des rapports sociaux. Ces derniers, déjà sous tension depuis bon nombre d’années, sont en cours de recomposition. A l’évidence, nos sociétés ont besoin de nouvelles normes sociales existentielles, en rupture avec le modèle consumériste, utilitariste et prédateur, qui épuise tout autant les ressources naturelles que nos propres ressources vitales. Dit autrement, cesser l’utilisation mortifère de soi contre soi-même, et renouer avec la vie, avec un autre rapport à soi, aux autres et à l’environnement.

Beaucoup continuent à espérer que la pandémie se termine d’ici peu. Les discours « rassuristes » annoncent sa fin pour le printemps 2022. Je reste très sceptique. L’apartheid vaccinal fera qu’elle va se prolonger dans des pays du sud global. L’évolution virale est loin d’avoir épuisée le nombre de mutations génomiques possibles. Plus le virus se réplique, y compris sous une pression immunitaire renforcée, plus il évolue. Les variants et autres mutants recombinés circulent déjà, parfois abondamment, ce qui ouvre le risque de voir celles et ceux déjà infectés ou vaccinés d’éprouver à nouveau le processus d’une contamination symptomatique. Certains variants tendent à être plus virulents, plus résistants aux réponses immunitaires, ce qui risque de provoquer ici et là de nouvelles épidémies dans une pandémie qui s’étire dans le temps. Pour prévenir cela, faudra actualiser les vaccins, rajouter une troisième piqure, organiser des campagnes de vaccinations saisonnières…

Excepté les pays asiatiques, rompus à cette menace, la plupart des pays semblent faiblement armés en termes de prévention de nouvelles pandémies de zoonoses. Celles-ci sont des menaces concrètes, non seulement dans les régions tropicales exposés à la déforestation, mais aussi dans les pays du nord, où l’élevage intensif de bétail a continué à se développer[25].

Il est vain d’attendre le retour d’un « lendemain qui chante », du type « après la crise, on change tout ! ». L’urgence se situe dans l’effort de compréhension du moment présent comme expression d’une crise systémique. Franchir ce pas est seulement utile pour rester en bonne santé mentalement mais surtout indispensable pour ouvrir des perspectives de politisation et de mobilisation.




Qu’est-ce que le fétichisme ?

Le fétichisme se retrouve dans les formes de religion de type animiste dans laquelle on attribue un caractère sacré à certains objets. Marx mobilise le concept de fétichisme à propos de la marchandise (et donc de la monnaie et du capital) pour mettre en évidence comment s’opère une réification des rapports sociaux combinée à une personnification des choses sociales. Tout fétichisme résulte d’un double processus, objectif et subjectif, inextricablement mêlés. La réification des rapports sociaux renvoie au fait que tout rapport social est à tel point extériorisé dans son fonctionnement qu’il apparaît avec la consistance (l’objectivité) d’une chose existant en et par elle-même. La personnification de ce rapport réifié fait que la réalité sociale en apparence substantielle fait l’objet d’investissements libidinaux (désirs inconscients) et de projections fantasmatiques qui les font apparaître comme des personnes, des sujets doués de volonté et de désirs (ce qui n’est pas le cas). Il en résulte une situation où le fétiche apparaît, pratiquement et imaginairement, comme une puissance transcendante, à la fois inconnue et mystérieuse. Les principaux fétichismes constitutifs de la praxis sociale dans un environnement capitaliste sont le fétichisme économique (de la valeur, de la marchandise) et dans son prolongement, les fétichismes du travail abstrait et du productivisme. Le premier correspond au travail qui n’a plus de sens que par le fait qu’il est moyen d’engendrer et d’accumuler la richesse abstraite qu’est la valeur ; le second correspond à la fétichisation des forces productives censées assurer le progrès matériel et moral. Viennent ensuite le fétichisme juridico-étatique et le fétichisme de la nation, qui apparaissent comme seules garants d’un salut collectif, tant pour les individus que les groupes ou classes qu’elle contient. Il y a ensuite le fétichisme du moi, qui correspond pour les individus à se penser, à vouloir agir en tant que unités autonomes de décision et d’action. Last but not least, nous retrouvons le fétichisme de la rationalité instrumentale qui correspond à une figure particulière et déformée de la raison, qui oriente la pensée et les actions humaines vers la recherche d’efficacité, et qui culmine dans le scientisme, la croyance que les sciences et les techniques sont en mesure de résoudre les problèmes de l’humanité.

Pour un exposé plus exhaustif, voir Alain Bihr (1991), Du Grand Soir à l’alternative. Le mouvement ouvrier européen en crise,  pp. 172-178.


Références bibliographiques

Artous, Antoine (2006), Marx et le fétichisme : le marxisme comme théorie critique, Syllepse, 205 p.

Baumann, Zymunt (2019), Retrotopia, Paris, Premier Parallèle, 248p.

Bihr, Alain, (1991), Du Grand Soir à l’alternative. Le mouvement ouvrier européen en crise, Editions de l’Atelier, 298p.

Diel, Paul (2004) La peur et l’angoisse, Paris, Payot, 288 p. (éd. orig 1966).

Fisher, Mark (2009), Capitalist realism. Is there no Alternative ?, Londres, Zero Books,166p .

Galland, Olivier (2011), Sociologie de la jeunesse, Paris, Armand Colin, 256 p.

Hall, Stuart et Jefferson Tony (2006), Resistance through rituals : youth subcultures in post-war Britain, Routledge, London.

Jameson, Frederick (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,  Duke University Press, Durham, 461 p.

Granovetter, Mark S. (1973), The Strength of Weak Ties, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May, 1973), pp. 1360-1380

Ribault, Thierry (2021), Contre la résilience. A Fukushima ou ailleurs, Paris, édition l’Echappée, 368 p.

Selye, Hans (1976), The Stress of Life, New York, Mc Graw -Hill, 544 p.

Spielberger, Charles (1979), Understanding stress and anxiety, NY Harper & Row, 138p.

Williams, Raymond (2010), Culture et matérialisme, Paris, Prairies ordinaires, 256 p.


[1] Le sondage réalisé auprès de 2000 personnes est centré sur la question du suicide, ce qui à mon avis est très réducteur. Pour les résultats complets, et la présentation

[2]. En considérant l’organisation du travail comme « toxique », le harcèlement un mode de management et le manque de soutien de la part de collègues comme un facteur favorisant le burn out.

[3] - Le questionnaire de bien-être est basé sur le WEMWBS (Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scales) qui permet d’évaluer le bien-être psychologique des individus, selon ces deux dimensions à savoir le bien-être « hédoniste (état de bonheur et de satisfaction de vie), et le bien-être « eudémoniste » (fonctionnement psychologique positif, relations sociales satisfaisantes et sentiment de réalisation et d’acceptation de soi). Le WEMWBS comprend 14 items : – Je me sens optimiste quant à l’avenir ; utile ; détendu(e) ; intéressé(e) par les autres ; J’ai de l’énergie à dépenser ; J’ai bien résolu les problèmes auxquels j’ai été confronté(e) ; Mes pensées sont claires ; J’ai eu une bonne image de moi ; Je me sens proche des autres ; Je me sens confiant(e) ; Je suis  capable de prendre mes propres décisions ; Je me sens aimé(e) ; Je suis intéressé(e) par de nouvelles choses ; Je me sens joyeux (se). Chaque item reçoit une note selon l’échelle suivante : 1, jamais ; 2, rarement ; 3, quelquefois ; 4, souvent ; 5, tout le temps. Il n’existe pas de score seuil (minimal ou maximal) mais plus le score est élevé, plus le bien-être psychologique est fort, la cotation s’étend donc de 14 à 70.

[4] Nicolas Franck et Frédéric Haesebaert, du Centre ressource de réhabilitation psychosociale (Centre hospitalier Le Vinatier et université Lyon 1) ; voir notamment  ainsi que

[5] Cerveau & Psycho, n°129 ; février 2021.

[6] Pour la France,  ; Belgique =>



[9] Sont répertoriés dans la catégorie “travailleurs essentiels” les employés de commerce, chauffeurs-livreurs en contact avec le public, les soignants et les éboueurs.

[10] Le baromètre Kaiser Family Foundation - Harvard School of Public Health est basé sur un survey par questionnaire auprès d’un panel de 1313 répondants dont les réponses sont redressées en fonction de la sous- ou sur-représentativité du sexe, âge, marquer racial, diplôme et revenu ; la marge d’erreur est de 3%.

[11] The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use Nirmita PanchalRabah Kamaland Rachel Garfield, KFF report, 10 février 2021 ;

[12] Hans Selye (1976), The Stress of Life; New York, Mc Graw -Hill, 544p.; voir aussi Charles Spielberger (1979), Understanding stress and anxiety, NY Harper & Row, 138p.

[13] Coronavirus: the pandemic is changing our brains – here are the remedies, Voir

[14] Dans son étude, M. Granovetter se demandait si la force des liens a une incidence sur la recherche d’un emploi. Selon lui, au sein d’un réseau de liens forts, les personnes ayant des liens faibles en dehors du réseau principal disposent de passerelles vers d’autres réseaux, ce qui leur donne accès à des informations nouvelles et uniques - comme les offres d’emploi - par rapport aux autres membres du réseau qui n’ont que des liens forts.. En particulier, Granovetter a démontré que les personnes ayant des liens faibles trouvent non seulement des emplois que le reste du réseau rapproché ne peut pas voir. Cela est particulièrement vrai pour les salariés qualifiés et ayant un niveau d’instruction élevé. Étant donné que plus de 40 % des emplois sont trouvés grâce à des recommandations, la compréhension des liens faibles est un facteur important tant pour les demandeurs d'emploi que pour les recruteurs. Voir Mark S. Granovetter, The Strength of Weak Ties, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May, 1973), pp. 1360-1380.  Voir

[15] Il n’est pas rassurant d’entendre dire les neuroscientifiques que l’isolement social augmente la probabilité d’une mort prématurée de 30% environ (voir le blog de la neuropsychologue Julianne Holt-Lungstad). Ce chiffre ne dit rien des dispositions des uns et des autres à affronter l’isolement. Pour les personnes âgées, le confinement sur ce surajoute en quelque sorte à un isolement social qui était déjà. Les catégories d’âge intermédiaires sont probablement moins éprouvés par le vécu de l’isolement que la jeunesse étudiante.

[16]  Voir ses analyses disponibles sur

[17]. Contrairement aux travaux de Raymond Williams et de Frederic Jameson, une certaine sociologie des modes de vie Lipovetsky observe les symptômes de la crise des rapports sociaux, sans toutefois mettre à nu les racines sociales et les logiques systémiques, privilégiant alors des explications de type culturaliste tel que la crise de la culture hédoniste et de l’individualisme narcissique.

[18] Une illustration

[19] Ionescu, S. & Jourdan-Ionescu, C. (2010), Entre enthousiasme et rejet : l'ambivalence suscitée par le concept de résilience. Bulletin de psychologie, 6(6), 401-403.

[20] . L’approche de générationnelle classique a été élaborée par William Strauss et Neil How; elle est avant tout cyclique et mécaniste, tournée vers des figures archétypiques. Elle a été critiquée pour son caractère mécaniste et élitiste. Pour ma part, je pense une génération historique comme la résultante d’une combinaison entre 3 facteurs à savoir 1). les réalités et situations vécues, le “passé présent”;  2). des évènements structurants de longe portée (guerre, famine, etc.) ce qui correspond au “devenir-histoire” et 3). une conscience partagée et le “devenir-acteur”. Cette approche, en cours d’élaboration, prolonge celle François Dubet, pour qui une génération est le produit d’une rencontre entre le vécu des acteurs, dans ce cas-ci une classe d’âge, et les contraintes du système.

[21] Je précise ici que la notion de « déviance » me semble peu approprié puisque ces pratiques relèvent plutôt de tactiques d’accommodement ou de survie (psychique).

[22] Hall et Jefferson évoquaient des subcultures (les teddy boys, mods, skins, rastas etc.) pas toujours oppositionnels au modèle culturel dominant, même si on y retrouve les caractéristiques prolétariennes.

[23] Ce qui conduit certains à y voir des communes en devenir, à la fois exode et lutte. Voir  ainsi que les thèses défendues par Alain Damasio (


[25] L’éradication de plusieurs millions de visons au Danemark pour cause de zoonose inversée (corona-humain => corona-vison + mutation => corona-humain-variant) est un indicateur des risques bio-viraux actuellement présents dans nos sociétés.

[26] Voir Antoine Artous, Marx et le fétichisme : le marxisme comme théorie critique, Syllepse, 2006, 205 p.

Comment les gens ordinaires font face au désastre

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell. The extraordinary communities that arise from disaster, Pinguin Books, 2010, 368p.

Immanuel Wallerstein disait de notre époque que « beaucoup imaginent plus aisément la fin du monde que la fin du système social capitaliste ». En effet, de nombreux films de sciences fiction se situent dans une temporalité post-apocalyptique où la lutte pour la vie est devenu le lot quotidien de quelques survivants. Les dystopies sont légion et il est loin le temps où la science fiction proposait un imaginaire utopique, à la manière de la romancière libertaire Ursula Le Guin. Bien souvent, les survivants du cataclysme nucléaire ou d’une pandémie ont presque tous perdu leur humanité et la condition humaine subit un « ensauvagement» inéluctable. En résumant, quand il faudra survivre, chacun tend à devenir monstrueux… Aujourd’hui, cette représentation, à la fois très anxiogène et pessimiste, trouve un écho grandissant et c’est bien la raison pourquoi A Paradise Built in Hell est un livre important qui mériterait d’être traduit en français.

Rebecca Solnit prend à contre-pied le sens commun catastrophiste de notre avenir et ce à partir d’une étude des conduites humaines dans un contexte de désastres. L’enquête, essentiellement menée à partir de sources de seconde main, comprend les évènements du 11 septembre, les bombardements de Londres durant la seconde guerre mondiale, l’inondation de la Nouvelle Orléans après le passage de l’ouragan Katrina, l’explosion d’un navire à munition à Halifax ou encore les tremblements de terre de San Francisco et de la ville de Mexico. Dans toutes ces situations catastrophiques, A Paradise Built in Hell nous montre que la plupart des gens réagissent autrement que ce que le sens commun suggère. Dans l’ensemble, les gens ne paniquent pas, ne perdent pas leur humanité – bien au contraire – et dès qu’ils ou elles le peuvent, s’engagent dans le secours mutuel, avec courage et désintérêt, et ce quelque ce soit l’ampleur de la catastrophe. Lire la suite

La défense du travail vivant est un combat écologique en soi

Depuis 1996, le 28 avril de chaque année, le mouvement syndical mondial rend hommage aux victimes des accidents et des maladies du travail. C’est en 2003 que le Bureau International du Travail a entrepris d’observer une « journée mondiale pour la sécurité et la santé au travail »[1] en mettant l’accent sur la prévention des accidents du travail et des maladies professionnelles. Mis à part un reportage sur France Inter et quelques entrefilets dans la presse quotidienne, la question est largement passée sous silence par les grands médias et les pouvoirs publics en cette année 2019.

Et pourtant… Un récent article sur Mediapart évoque l’hommage à un gilet jaune, David Beaujouan, chauffeur routier décédé pendant son travail d’un arrêt cardiaque, à 36 ans ! Il venait de rencontrer sa nouvelle compagne, Laure, 42 ans, mère célibataire de deux adolescents. Laure fut agent d’entretien pendant quinze ans, travaillant chaque matin de 5 heures à 13 heures en nettoyant les bureaux à Orléans, jusqu’à ce que ses épaules et ses genoux ne la tiennent plus : « Je faisais les mêmes tâches depuis quinze ans. J’ai été déclarée inapte au travail il y a un an puis reconnue handicapée. Mais je ne supportais pas l’idée de n’être plus bonne à rien, alors je me suis jetée dans le mouvement des gilets jaunes ». Cette histoire n’a rien d’anecdotique, tout comme celle racontée par Edouard Louis dans « Qui a tué mon père » (livre publié aux éditions du Seuil en 2018 et monté sur scène par Stanislas Nordey en 2019). Aujourd’hui, le travail « réellement existant » est une activité contrainte qui tend à épuiser les esprits, user et blesser les corps et va parfois jusqu’à prendre la vie. Selon l’étude récente de l’OIT (avril 2019)[2], chaque année, près de 2,5 millions de travailleurs meurent dans le monde à cause d’accidents de travail ou de maladies professionnelles. Même si cela est moins spectaculaire et moins médiatisé, les maladies cardiovasculaires (31%), cancers (26%), atteintes aux voies respiratoires sont les premières causes de mortalité, bien avant les accidents. La cohorte annuelle des travailleurs blessés, meurtris par des lésions et parfois handicapés à vie compte plus de 350 millions de personnes par an ! Dans les pays de l’OCDE, le burn out (évoqué par le philosophe Éric Fiat dans son ouvrage Ode à la fatigue qu’il a présenté lors du séminaire du CPN du 17 mai dernier) semble devenir une épidémie. L’absence de définition médicale qui fasse consensus complique la récolte de données. Suivant une acception élargie, ne prenant pas seulement en compte les travailleurs en situation de burn out déclaré mais aussi celles et ceux qui sont en train de développer de façon « silencieuse » cette pathologie, près de 40% des actifs souffriraient ou auraient souffert d’un burn out. On sait que « le suicide au travail » provoquerait chaque année en France la mort de 300 à 400 personnes (estimation évidemment très complexe à chiffrer).

Il faut dire que le néolibéralisme n’aime pas beaucoup le « travail vivant », sauf pour en extraire de la valeur, avec ou sans consentement. Selon les enquêtes de la DARES (service d’animation de la recherche du ministère du Travail) ou encore la Fondation Européenne pour l’Amélioration des Conditions de vie et de Travail (dite de « Dublin », composée de façon paritaire), on observe depuis la crise financière de 2008 une nette dégradation des conditions de vie et de travail. Cela corrobore les analyses du BIT qui voient l’exposition à des produits toxiques (particules fines, produits chimiques, exception faite de l’amiante) augmenter tandis l’activité de travail s’apparente de plus en plus à du labeur nocif pour le corps et l’esprit. Que ce soit au niveau des douleurs lombaires, des sciatiques, des TMS ou encore du syndrome d’épuisement psychique, les indicateurs sont globalement à la hausse d’environ 15%.

L’intensité au travail augmente aussi. En France, de 1984 à 2016, la part de salariés qui déclarent que leur rythme de travail est imposé par le déplacement automatique d’un produit ou d’une pièce est passée de 2,6% à 18%. Le travail à la chaîne et le flux tendu atteignent le secteur des services, des supermarchés à la logistique. La proportion de salariés qui répètent continuellement une même série de gestes ou d’opérations est passée de 27,5% en 2005 à 42,7% en 2016. La part de salariés déclarant avoir un rythme de travail imposé par un contrôle ou un suivi informatisé est passé de 25% en 2005 à 35% en 2016.

La proportion de salariés qui disent « devoir fréquemment abandonner une tâche pour une autre tâche non prévue » est passée de 48,1% en 1991 à 65,4% en 2016. La part des salariés qui déclarent « un rythme de travail imposé par une demande extérieure obligeant à une réponse immédiate » a plus que doublé passant de 28% en 1984 à 58% en 2016. La part des salariés qui déclarent recevoir des ordres contradictoires est passée de 41,7 en 2005 à 44,7% en 2016. Les solutions qu’il faut forcément trouver face à ces difficultés, sont souvent bricolées, individuelles et clandestines alors que l’erreur se paie cher. En effet, 63% des répondants estiment qu’une simple erreur au travail pourrait entraîner « des sanctions », ce chiffre était inférieur de 12 points en 1996. [3]

La flexibilité continue à se diffuser dans les entreprises, les secteurs et les métiers. Même si la norme de l’emploi typique demeure le CDI à temps complet, le temps de travail effectif varie suivant les aléas du carnet de commande tandis que les temps contraints (astreinte, transport, etc.) augmentent. Le cumul de ces deux tendances contribue à la dislocation des rythmes collectifs (famille, liens sociaux, loisirs) et à un envahissement par le travail de la sphère « hors travail ». Les objets nomades (smartphones et ordinateurs portables) contribuent à ce que cela ne s’arrête jamais…

« Ne pas perdre sa vie à la gagner » fut un des slogans phares des années 1970. S’il ne résonne plus tellement aujourd’hui, c’est parce qu’il faut ne pas perdre pied au boulot si l’on veut garder sa place et échapper au chômage. Chacun est incité à viser une petite augmentation voire une promotion, de manière a se maintenir à flot financièrement, à rembourser les dettes contractées pour l’achat d’un pavillon ou d’une voiture. Parfois, pour « rester dans le match », il est préférable de s’y donner à cœur joie, ou de prendre des produits dopants. Là aussi, les indicateurs grimpent depuis quelques années. Déjà bien avant « la décennie perdue » 2008-2018, le travail avait été réhabilité comme « la première des vertus ». S’impliquer rend le travail plus passionnant, cela donne du sens et puis, cela donne droit à une reconnaissance… Pour les métiers créatifs, ingénieurs ou techniciens, l’amour du travail bien fait est un puissant moteur.

Or, le « régime économique de réalité » – expression empruntée à Danilo Martuccelli [4] – finit par perdre sa pertinence aux yeux des salarié.e.s au vu des réalités vécues. Quand les gilets jaunes entonnent leur hymne « On est là – On est là – Pour l’honneur des travailleurs et une vie meilleure … », ils expriment avec force ce qui fonde et rend légitime leur révolte sociale: le droit à l’existence, à une vie digne, surtout quand on travaille. Parce qu’au cœur de ce combat, il y a l’expérience maintes fois éprouvée que le travail, qu’on l’aime ou pas, ne le permet plus. À bien y réfléchir, le slogan écologiste « nous ne défendons pas la nature – nous sommes la nature qui se défend » s’applique non seulement à l’action en faveur de la santé et la sécurité au travail mais plus largement à celui qui revendique le droit d’avoir une vie digne.

L’être humain est un métabolisme vivant qui fait partie intégrante de la nature. Nier cela, comme le fait le dualisme homme / nature (prolongeant d’une certaine manière la vision chrétienne sur l’homme) se fonde sur la négation de notre existence en tant qu’être naturel. Or, il existe une unité dialectique entre l’humain et la nature qui s’applique également au travail humain et à la condition laborieuse. Ce que Karl Marx avait bien compris lorsqu’il tentait de briser le code source du capital : « Le travail est d’abord un procès qui se passe entre l’homme et la nature, un procès dans lequel l’homme règle et contrôle son métabolisme avec la nature, par la médiation de sa propre action. Il se présente face à la matière naturelle comme une puissance naturelle lui-même. Il met en mouvement les forces naturelles de sa personne physique, ses bras et ses jambes, sa tête et ses mains, pour s’approprier la matière naturelle sous une forme utile à sa propre vie. Mais, en agissant sur la nature extérieure et en la modifiant par ce mouvement, il modifie aussi sa propre nature. (…) Le procès de travail est la condition naturelle éternelle de la vie des hommes » (Marx, Le Capital, Livre 1, PUF, 2014, p. 199). L’actuel capitalisme néolibéral est un système prédateur qui épuise non seulement les sols et les océans, pollue l’atmosphère, détruit la biodiversité mais qui en fait autant avec l’humain, en assujettissant et en épuisant ce dernier en tant que « ressource humaine ». Revendiquer le droit à l’existence et agir pour préserver l’équilibre de l’écosystème ne forment donc qu’un seul et même engagement tout aussi écologique que social.




[2] Organisation internationale du Travail, La sécurité et la santé au coeur de l’avenir du travail. Genève, BIT, avril 2019. En ligne :–en/index.htm


[4] Martuccelli D. Les sociétés et l’impossible. Les limites imaginaires de la réalité, Paris, Armand Colin, 2014.


Towards Global Democracy: 21st Century Internationalism, Emancipatory Struggles and Self-Governance

We are now two decades into the 21st century. On a world scale, humanity is already facing the consequences of ecological disasters driven by climate change, massive air pollution and exhaustion of natural resources and shrinking biodiversity. Following some, this ecological crisis is the result of productivism, consumerism and anthropocentred relation towards nature. These affirmations certainly contains truth but we should also acknowledge the fundamental responsibility of a social system that is equally blind towards nature as humankind and only consider profit making as the unique ‘regime of truth’. This social system bears a name: a capitalist world-system.

But humanity is not only facing its own possible disappearance through a ‘run away scenario’ of that ecological crisis. It is also confronted to the growing inequalities on a world scale, to frequent religious and ethnic cleansing, to the on-going oppression of women and the deprivation of basic human needs like access to water, education care or housing. This dramatic situation of a majority of the human condition reflects the fact that this capitalist world system is beyond the end of its capacities to develop humanity. Even more, we should say clearly that this social system is an obstacle in the development of humanity. The more this system survives in decadence, the more we can see all kinds of barbarism spreading on all continents.

The fact that fascism is finding again support on large scale in many countries show we are engaged in a speed race. Emancipatory movements are now in front of that reality and this should strengthen our commitment to develop a real alternative to the present situation of a rotten system. Some sections of the population in some countries may think they can protect their relative wealth by excluding and rejecting many others. But this will only lead to more suffering, conflicts and dehumanisation of the most vulnerable, the new damned of the earth.

What does history teach us? More than 150 years ago, the newly born workers movement opened the horizon for international emancipation of all oppressed and exploited. The central idea was ‘workers of the world, unite’ since workers have no fatherland and world socialism was called to be the next step in the development of humanity.

But quite rapidly, the awareness grew that freeing people form capitalist exploitation was not enough. It became clear that oppression was also an immediate goal for those that where exposed to chauvinism, alienation of their culture and repression of their spiritual beliefs.

Divide and rule was of course a ‘trade mark’ of many empires that where still ruling large parts of the earth at that time. For a very long-time, Irish Catholics (or Welsh and Scottisch communities) where opposed in between or to English Anglicans. Divide and rule made it possible for the feudal ruling class to rule Britannia as well as the seven seas of the world. But the peasants and labouring classes united themselves and found a way to struggle shoulder on shoulder in the same unions. Still the national question remained unsolved, specially regarding the Irish people.

But a the periphery of the world system, even early 19th century, and thanks to certain ideas of the Enlightment like democratic sovereignty, in countries such as in Latin America, the idea of freedom became linked with independence and produced a kind of progressive nationalism. Above all because Simon Bolivar wanted not only independence on a statist national basis but also on a continental scale.

In Eastern Europe, several empires (Tzarist Russia, Autro-Hungarian) perpetrated or let pogroms happen because racism was useful to control populations while ethnic hierarchical stratification helped to foreclose the access to the feudal elite to a tiny – like an elite among the elites. The struggle for emancipation was therefore very quickly confronted to the question how to deal with the question of nationalities.

The bourgeoisie, as upcoming class of merchants and industrial entrepreneurs, was ready to contest the autocratic or feudal rule and she needed a popular basis to gain a majority. In many cases, this bourgeoisie made an appeal to ‘the nation’ to find that popular support.  But once the nation-state was formed, the democratization stopped half way since it was better for this new ruling elite not to deal with social justice… Also, the newly formed nation-state institutions tended to use borders to guarantee a new class domination while it used patriotism and nationalism as way to develop class collaboration. In many cases, it also searched to enlarge the territory of the nation-state, in order to find new markets, which lead to the first world was, when imperialist nation states waged a bloody war against each other scarifying the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Some of the progressive forces (mainly social-democrats) tended to cope quite rapidly with the new institutions and their borders, considering that any greater scale on political and economical level was automatically progressive. This was the case of Rosa Luxemburg considering separatism or independence would be a ‘regression in any case’. Following her, the right of self-governance and independence is only a hollow aim. Austro-Marxists like Otto Bauer advocated national-cultural autonomy but one that recognize rights to persons of different cultural communities, independently from the territory they live upon. Following Lenin, the position of the Austro-Marxists was inconsistent because it made it possible to avoid to campaign against the Austrian Empire of the Habsburgers. Lenin made a distinction between oppressed nations and oppressing nations and following him, the question of nationalities is far from resolved since the bourgeoisie is not capable anymore to carry out this democratic battle.  Lenin was opposed to abstract internationalism but also against patriotism and chauvinism. From 1913, he advocated the right to self-determination of the people. At the same time, socialism is always started at a local and national level but can only prevail at an international level. Forming a (con)federation of socialist states could open the possibility to organise centralisation on a higher level as long as social justice, democracy and equal treatment between all nationalities is respected. If Lenin and the Bolsheviks hadn’t endorsed the call for the right of self-determination (including the right to form a separate state) straight on from February 1913, the Russian Revolution would have been limited to Petrograd and Moscow….

Thanks to the inclusion of this right of self-determination, the Russian revolution became the first anti-imperialist revolution ‘from within’. This is also linked to the multinational character of the laboring classes and plebeian masses while Tzarist Russia was at the same time imperialist and feudal-capitalist regime. In the aftermath of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks held a conference of the eastern oppressed people in Baku (Azerbaijan). This conference took place in 1920 and was attended by about 2000 representatives of India, South-East Asia, China, Central Asia and Middle-Eastern countries. It paved the way for an alliance between the 3rd international communist party’s with nationalist-democratic leaders and organisations. It opened also the way for the anti-colonial struggles of the second half of the 20th century, and was based upon the firm position of the ‘right of self-determination of all people’. But, from the thirties on, a new kind of ‘panslavism’ came back on the forefront and translated itself into Russification of all channels of power, specially in the peripheral republics with many displaced minorities or even attempts of genocide.

Through the 20th century, after two world wars and a death toll of tens of millions, state rule grow on a world scale. Still, thanks to the cold war as well as the anti-colonial revolution, an important number of regions and countries escaped for a certain time from imperialist domination. In Western Europe, the fear for revolution pushed the ruling class to accept compromise and let social democracy to enter the game, even at the cost of accepting a large based universal social security and recognising trade unions. For the ruling elite, this was meant to domesticate the revolting masses while for social-democratic leaders, it was a way to gain power and to win positions in order to change gradually society. Unfortunately, this change stopped half way and in the late 1970, the counter-offensive began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both inspired by the neoliberal policies applied with shock therapy in Chile after the coup against Pinochet. When it comes to keep masses out of the real power,  all means are useful like a coup, bonapartism or rampant fascism. Or tension strategy like in Italy in the same period.

Of course, 1989 was a turning point. The fall of the Berlin wall and short after that the crumbling of the USSR as well as the slow conversion to capitalism of the ruling caste of Popular China (or Vietnam) let all social movements and struggles alone in their fight against capitalist despotism. Algeria became more and more state-capitalist while Yugoslavia was turned apart by war and internal ethnical conflicts

It is clear that the neoliberal globalisation represents the political expression of a counter-offensive of the world ruling classes. It has the purpose to eliminate any obstacle in the process of capital accumulation and profit making at a moment that profit rate and markets was stagnating since the early seventies. Even if the present day global capitalism still need state system to regulate and support accumulation, it also need supranational regulations and for a to obtain agreements around conflictual issues. Multinationals and financial oligarchies submit the statist (national) democratic spheres. But since globalisation is not resulting in harmonic growth but in widening gap between countries, inside every country, the ideology of it sooner or later start to lack legitimacy.

Even if the neoliberal ideology of globalisation uses local /particular identities (like all the exotic tastes of the food industry), it also violates national, local or specific cultural traditions. Also because everybody is asked to sell itself on that global world market, the impossibility of that fosters a kind of neo-nationalism, most of the time it is reactionary but sometimes it contains progressive aspirations. The reactionary trends move towards racialisation, purity, the will of closing borders and exclusion of the ‘other’. In case of progressive aspirations, it expresses the aim to win sovereignty, self rule or self-governance. Such as ‘we, ‘the people’ need to be able to decide again about our common future, both on political, economical as cultural level’.

Of course, ‘socialism in one country’ is even more nonsense today as 80 years ago. Still we have to answer the question how do we combine struggles at local/regional levels with possibilities of small advances with an internationalist and global perspective?

I think it must be said that the writings of Abdullah Ocalan contribute very importantly to ask oneself the good question and therefore to find a way to develop both on a theoretical as on a practical way the solutions to crisis humanity is confronted with. The key issue is to understand that power relations always come first. This is true regarding patriarchy and state despotism as much as the oppression of many cultures and national identities as well as the surplus extraction of work by capital. Power is also the first and last issue when it comes to emancipation: will power be shared and controlled from below or monopolised by a party that will rule in name or on behalf of the people. Ocalan succeeded to articulate a balance sheet of the 20th century with the tasks we face in this 21st century. He was inspired by social ecology of Murray Bookchin and the traditions of communalism and direct democracy. Still, Abdullah Ocalan also recognizes the importance of the struggle against patriarchy and that is why women, still ‘the niggers of the world’ and their emancipatory struggle has to be put at the very centre of all struggles.

From the moment democracy – meant as a way to decide through collective deliberation, about our fate and our future, and this on all levels, from the neighborhood up to cities regions or on a higher continental or global level, the need to develop a confederalist approach becomes evident. This is also why ‘democratic confederalism’, not of states but of communities, ready to self-organise their daily lives represents a major programmatic and strategic contribution to our present struggles.

This answer for example lacked completely in the debates held during the World Social Forum (started in Porto Allegre in 2002). Unfortunately, after a few years of promising gatherings, this dynamics seem to be limited to NGO’s, avoiding any discussion about tasks, campaigns and active support of each other. So we only have that archipelago of front and struggles. The reason why the NGO-isation became problematic is quite easy to see: being dependent on state subventions, in many countries, this galaxy of structures tended to disconnect itself from their social basis and social struggles. This can also be said of international trade movement, but at the very lowest level of the shop-floor, the reality of class struggle still exist and lead new generation to engage, in renewed ways, into that fight, as it is the case against privatisations, social cuts, austerity, precarization and so on.

Today, the need for international and global solidarity and is urgent: the fight against war and state terrorism of which both Palestinian and Kurdish people are suffering; the  and struggle of indigenous peoples; women struggles around the world for their ful sovereignty over their life and body; the peasants fighting against land grabbing; urban communities fighting to maintain water as common good against the commercialisation and marketization; fight against criminal warlord capitalism in the neighborhoods of metropolitan cities etc.

But developing links, solidarity networks between social movements is very important, it does not suffices. These connections can only lead to concrete results if they are underpinned by the goal that the people should decide about their future instead of the ‘Moloch’ of the capitalist state system. Aiming for democracy is in fact a fight to reclaim sovereignty, power and the collective capacity of self-rule (on all levels of social life, both individual as collective) to eradicate oppression and to change the relation with nature in a non destructive way.

Personally, I still think present day Internationalism should be founded upon a systemic alternative of a post-capitalist society. Do we have to call that system socialist or even eco-socialist? For the answer is yes but if I want to have a dialogue with all those that also want to fight this system but that do not recognize themselves in the terminology of state socialism or something like authoritarian communism, I must broaden the discussion. Other wise, I will only discuss with representatives of those currents of the 20th century and engage in polemics that belong to the past.

In the present times with the systemic crisis we are facing, humankind is emerging and coming together ‘thanks’ to climate crisis and threats of survival imposed by capitalist system. All fundamental problems of humanity are caused directly and indirectly by this system. Of course, we should be ready to support the striving of independence or self-rule. But this has to be linked with a content based upon the interests of the social majority (working classes, plebeian sectors, oppressed categories such a women, migrants, youth). We have to reject ethnocentrism and propose an horizon for society that is emancipatory, radically democratic and based upon social justice.

Solidarity and developing cooperation at a higher level should always be part of the political methodology: autonomy or devolution can go hand in hand with cooperation upon a higher level like a confederation of cantons, republics with a common social contract or constitution.

The need to break with present institutional order is very important to me. With the present institutions, struggles are tied and integrated or domesticated. The state is a separate from society, weights above and upon society. It has a social nature, which mean that it is not neutral and one can’t use it to implement social justice for example. The recent experience of progressive governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia) have demonstrated that even being in government with new constitutions does not eliminate the ‘deep state’ and the oligarchy and her capacity to organise sabotage and to corrupt massively those progressive forces.

It is very difficult at the present time to formulate an institutional answer, specially because the balance of forces is far from good. Still, since capitalist world system is floating upon an ocean of hug debts. Since profit making and growth is hiking behind the further increase of even more debts, we know the financial system will find itself dragged into a new huge crisis. One of the ways these crises are solved is through war, the impoverishment of middle classes and the starvation of large sections of the world population. This eventuality, together with the underlying ecological crisis will lead the most conscious sectors of humanity to search post-capitalist solutions. This scenario, in combination with very illegitimate global and national statist institutions can bring emancipatory social movements to be in charge of responding to human needs as never before. This can lead to partially liberated or ‘abandoned’ territories, to cities or regions where self-rule can develop as long as social movements, activists, scholars and technical skilled people are able to grasp these tasks of the moment. The only way to connect all these struggles, experiences and advances is with the aim of global democracy. We should be prepared.


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