Coupe du monde. Quand la surexploitation, les pétrodollars et le grand spectacle font bon ménage

Le coup d’envoi a été donné. Plus d’un million de supporters sont attendus pour assister aux matchs de l’édition 2022 de la Coupe du monde. Des centaines de vols sont programmés chaque jour. Tous ces supporters résideront dans des hôtels flambant neufs et prendront place dans des stades entièrement climatisés, construits par des centaines de milliers de travailleurs migrants.

En 2010, la Fifa a décidé, par un vote de 14 voix contre 8, d’attribuer au Qatar l’organisation de la Coupe du monde de football 2022. Cette décision – que l’ancien dirigeant de la Fifa Sepp Blatter regrette – a été arrachée grâce à une opération de corruption de grande envergure. En 2011, Jack Warner, vice-président de la Fifa, a publié des preuves que le Qatar avait versé 5 millions de dollars à des dirigeants de la Fifa, en échange de leur soutien à la candidature de Doha. Le média Qatari Al Jazeera aurait fait don de 880 millions de dollars à la Fifa.

 Les médias ont amplement commenté l’impact écologique désastreux, les stades air-conditionnés les pelouses arrosées avec de l’eau désalinisée (10 000 litres par terrain par jour), sans oublier les centaines de vols quotidien, les millions de mettre cube de béton et d’hectolitres de gasoil utilisés pour ériger les infrastructures. Que le Qatar soit un pays notoirement répressif à l’égard des droits des femmes, des LGBTQ+ ou tout simplement des droits syndicaux est également dénoncé à juste titre. Mais le coût social et humain de cette coupe de monde est sans commune mesure.

L’enfer du travail forcé

Depuis plusieurs années, le Qatar est au centre d’une polémique à propos de la maltraitance des travailleurs migrants. Si les conditions de travail sont déplorables et les salaires misérables, ce sont surtout les 6 500 décès, un chiffre absolument ahurissant, qui fait scandale.

Sept nouveaux stades ont été construits, ainsi qu’un nouvel aéroport, plusieurs lignes de métro, un système routier et plus d’une centaine d’hôtels. En réalité, c’est une ville entièrement nouvelle qui a été édifiée de toutes pièces en quelques années. Le coût de l’opération dépasse les 200 milliards de dollars, là où la Coupe du monde en Russie (2018) avait coûté 18 milliards de dollars et celle du Brésil, 19 milliards de dollars.

Pour organiser cette Coupe du monde, il fallait bien construire des infrastructures capables d’accueillir, pour quelques semaines, plusieurs centaines de milliers de personnes. Or le Qatar, qui est un petit pays (11 600 km2), ne compte que 350 000 habitants mais près de 3 millions d’étrangers, essentiellement des travailleurs migrants. Parmi eux, plus d’un million a travaillé dans le secteur du bâtiment et environ 200 000 sont à l’œuvre comme travailleuses domestiques.

La plupart des travailleurs migrants sont originaires du Bangladesh, du Népal, de l’Inde ainsi que du Kenya et des Philippines. Selon une enquête publiée par The Guardian (21/02/2021) au moins 6 500 travailleurs y sont décédés au cours des dix dernières années, soit une moyenne de 12 morts par semaine[1]. Ces chiffres sont basés sur les décès répertoriés par les ambassades des principaux pays pourvoyeurs de main-d’œuvre. Plusieurs ambassades, dont celle du Kenya et des Philippines, ont refusé de transmettre des informations, ce qui suggère que le nombre de décès serait certainement supérieur…

Le Bureau international du travail (BIT) et la Confédération européenne des syndicats (CES) indiquaient que, en 2021, plus de 50 travailleurs sont décédés et plus de 30 000 ont été blessés au cours d’accidents survenus pendant leur travail. Pour le gouvernement qatari, seuls 34 travailleurs seraient morts sur les chantiers. C’est possible, mais les chiffres officiels n’intègrent ni les décès par infarctus, ni les suicides, ni ceux liés aux conditions de vie. La vague de travailleurs qui se sont suicidés une fois qu’ils ont constaté qu’il leur était impossible d’envoyer de l’argent à leur famille reste hors champ. Pour obtenir une place sur un chantier au Qatar, les travailleurs doivent soudoyer les recruteurs et verser de 2 000 à 4 000 dollars. Après leur arrivée au Qatar, leur maigre salaire est réduit de moitié par les recruteurs qui remboursent le prêt concédé aux candidats. On a relevé également plusieurs incendies dans les dortoirs ayant entraîné la mort par asphyxie. Dans un autre cas, des pluies torrentielles ont provoqué des inondations et l’électrocution des résidants. En Inde, des familles de défunts ont formé des collectifs pour éclaircir les raisons du décès des membres de leur famille.

Citons un cas emblématique : Madhu Bollapally, 43 ans, a laissé sa femme Latha et son fils Rajesh, 13 ans, en Inde, pour un emploi au Qatar en 2013. Ils ne l’ont jamais revu. Une nuit de fin 2019, lorsque son colocataire est rentré dans le dortoir, il a trouvé le corps de Bollapally sur le sol. Comme des milliers d’autres décès soudains et inexpliqués, son décès a été enregistré comme étant dû à une insuffisance cardiaque pour causes naturelles. Bien qu’il ait travaillé pour son employeur pendant six ans, sa femme et son fils n’ont reçu que 114 000 roupies (1 120 livres sterling) en compensation et en salaire non versé. Rajesh n’a aucune idée de la raison du décès de son père. « Il n’avait aucun problème de santé, a-t-il déclaré. Il n’y avait rien d’anormal chez lui. » (The Guardian, 21/02/2021.)

Selon les données obtenues par l’équipe de journalistes, 69 % des décès des travailleurs indiens, népalais et bangladais sont classés comme naturels. Chez les travailleurs Indiens, ce taux atteint 80 %. En 2016, une enquête d’Amnesty International[2] révélait que des centaines de milliers de travailleurs continuaient à travailler dans des conditions extrêmes : 10 heures par jour même à 45 °C à l’ombre, sans nécessairement être pourvus de façon suffisante en eau potable. A la suite de ces divulgations, le gouvernement a décidé d’interdire le travail en extérieur de 11 h 30 à 15 h pendant les mois de juin à août. Mais cela n’empêchait nullement la poursuite du travail à l’intérieur, avec des températures toujours très élevées [3].

Faut-il s’étonner que les décès par infarctus, considérés comme « naturels », frappent des jeunes travailleurs de moins de 30 ans ? Selon l’OMS, le seuil maximal de WGBT (wet-bulb globe temperature, indice tenant compte de l’humidité et de la température de l’air) serait de 28 °C. Au-delà de ce seuil, le corps humain est sévèrement menacé par un stress thermique lorsque les durées d’exposition dépassent 15 minutes toutes les heures.

Même si le Qatar a ratifié les six conventions de base du BIT, comme l’interdiction du travail forcé et l’obligation de mettre en place un service d’inspection du travail, la réalité est toute autre. Jusqu’en 2020, les travailleurs avaient besoin d’une autorisation de leur employeur pour pouvoir quitter le pays ou changer d’employeur. A l’instar d’autres pays du golfe Persique, le Qatar appliquait jusqu’il y a très récemment le système kafala. La « kafala » rend l’employeur « responsable » du travailleur étranger recruté (suprême ironie, il est considéré comme son « parrain »). C’est donc l’employeur qui détermine les entrées et sorties du territoire, qui garde le passeport et qui assure la fourniture d’un logement pour lequel il est autorisé à retenir des frais d’entretien.

En 2020, l’ONG Human Right Watch publiait un rapport d’enquête sur les conditions de travail du pays. Autour de Doha, des centaines de milliers de travailleurs migrants ont vécu dans des baraquements sans isolation, avec la possibilité de prendre seulement deux douches par semaine, en travaillant 6 jours sur 7, en général 12 heures par jour. Attirés par la promesse d’être payés 350 dollars par mois, en réalité ils n’en touchent que 250, après déduction des frais d’entretien que l’employeur avance.

« Les conclusions de ce rapport montrent que dans tout le Qatar, les employeurs, ainsi que les sociétés pourvoyeuses de main-d’œuvre, retardent, retiennent ou déduisent arbitrairement les salaires des travailleurs. Les employeurs retiennent souvent le paiement des heures supplémentaires garanties par contrat et les indemnités de fin de service, et ils violent régulièrement leurs contrats avec les travailleurs migrants en toute impunité. Dans les cas les plus graves, les travailleurs ont confié à Human Rights Watch que les employeurs avaient tout simplement cessé de leur verser leur salaire, et qu’ils avaient alors du mal à se nourrir. Traduire les employeurs et leurs entreprises devant le les comités de résolution des conflits du travail [mis sur pied en 2018, NDLR] est difficile, coûteux, long, inefficace et peut souvent entraîner des représailles. Les travailleurs décrivent l’action en justice comme un ‘catch 22’, – un dilemme car ils seront endettés qu’ils introduisent une procédure ou pas. »

Plus de 18 millions de travailleurs migrants des pays du Golfe seraient encore soumis au système Kafala. A la suite de résolutions votées au Parlement européen, des missions d’enquête de la Commission des droits de l’homme de l’ONU, le Qatar a néanmoins commencé à modifier ses réglementations en matière de droit du travail[4]. Mais procéder ainsi au moment où les chantiers s’achèvent relève avant tout d’une grande hypocrisie.

Ainsi, depuis 2021, les travailleurs ont théoriquement le droit d’adhérer à un syndicat, sauf qu’il n’en existe pas. Lorsqu’ils quittent leur employeur au cours de la première année après leur recrutement, l’employeur suivant a l’obligation de rembourser les frais de formation au précédent. Fait unique dans le golfe Persique, le Qatar a introduit un salaire minimal de 1 000 riyals (274 dollars), une somme dérisoire quand on sait qu’un grand nombre de travailleurs migrants financent leur recrutement, et qu’il leur faut au minimum un an pour rembourser les sommes dues. De fait, la fixation contrainte de la main-d’œuvre demeure la norme en vigueur. Ce régime de travail forcé s’appuie également sur le système de « dortoirs » tandis que le retard systématiquement dans les arriérés de paiement des salaires permet de d’enfermer les travailleurs dans la servitude.

Les pétrodollars ont trouvé leur paradis artificiel

 Faut-il le rappeler, le foot est un business qui rapporte tellement d’argent que le nombre de clubs rachetés par des investisseurs du golfe Persique, des oligarques (avant la guerre en Ukraine) ou des multimillionnaires se comptent désormais par dizaines en Europe.

Pour le Qatar, la Coupe du monde est une bénédiction qui ne peut que consolider les sommes astronomiques investies dans le secteur du football. Outre le PSG et le FB Barcelone, propriété de la famille Qatari Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, il ne faut pas oublier le Manchester City, Newcastle, Aston Villa et Sheffield qui sont tombés dans l’escarcelle d’investisseurs d’Arabie saoudite, des Émirats arabes unis ou d’Égypte.

En dépit d’une perte totale des recettes de la vente de places pour les matchs de la saison 2020-2021, le marché européen du football a connu une croissance de 10 % de ses recettes et atteint désormais la somme astronomique de 27,6 milliards d’euros. Dans son rapport annuel sur les finances du foot, Deloitte observe que, au cours de la saison 2020-2021, malgré la fermeture des stades, le revenu moyen par club de Premier League a dépassé, pour la quatrième fois, le montant de l’année précédente. Avec un chiffre d’affaires total de 5 milliards de livres sterling, en hausse de plus de 2 400 % par rapport à la moyenne des années 1990, le foot est un business qui coûte peu par rapport à ce qu’il rapporte. Et les perspectives sont radieuses puisque les revenus des clubs de Premier League devraient dépasser les 6 milliards de livres sterling lors de la saison 2022-2023, notamment grâce aux nouveaux accords de diffusion et au retour à des stades complets.

Le football féminin commence à peine à se développer et suscite déjà un engouement du côté des investisseurs. Les prévisions pour la Coupe du monde sont tout aussi mirobolantes. Elle devrait rapporter au minimum 5 milliards de dollars, dont 3 milliards rien qu’en de droits de retransmission. Le solde devrait être pourvu grâce aux revenus publicitaires et à la vente des billets d’entrée. Il faut savoir qu’une place sur les gradins à l’arrière coûte déjà 250 euros tandis que qu’une place pour la finale vaut près du triple. Faites le calcul vous-même : 32 matchs avec une assistance moyenne de 40 000 spectateurs multipliés par 250 euros…

Le sport-spectacle, quintessence de l’aliénation ?

Il est n’est sans doute pas inutile d’opérer un retour aux sources de la critique du sport comme phénomène politique, idéologique et économique. Sur ce plan, on peut difficilement laisser de côté la contribution de Jean-Marie Brohm, sociologue émérite de l’université de Montpellier. Pour Brohm, le sport-spectacle est à la fois une arme idéologique, un mode de gouvernance politique et une activité extrêmement profitable sur le plan économique. Au niveau idéologique, le sport permet de reconstituer le corps sur des bases capitalistes : en travaillant les gestes, les mouvements, l’agilité et la dextérité, le sport mobilise les corps et les esprits dans une logique compétitive, en valorisant l’excellence, par l’entraînement, le renoncement. Quelle que soit la discipline sportive, la compétition devient le mode de sélection et de hiérarchisation, du local au global. Pour Brohm, le sport-spectacle capitaliste se représente comme un « apaiseur social », comme un « intégrateur social » qui réduirait la violence et canaliserait les pulsions sexuelles alors qu’en réalité, il exacerbe le culte de la performance. Sur le plan politique, le sport de masse est devenu un outil d’encadrement et de mobilisation des ferveurs et des passions, une source d’identification nationale et un exutoire des frustrations sociales. Last but not least, le sport de masse que le football incarne de la manière la plus complète, est un spectacle qui mobilise des « foules solitaires » qui permettent une accumulation capitalistique absolument disproportionnée par rapport à son utilité sociale réelle.

Il est indéniable que cette critique du sport capitaliste va jusqu’à la racine des choses. En même temps, elle me semble aussi très élitiste et beaucoup trop fonctionnaliste. A l’origine, le football était cette « religion laïque du prolétariat » comme le disait l’historien marxiste Eric Hobsbawn. Pour Albert Camus, « tout ce que je sais avec certitude à propos de la moralité et des obligations, je le dois au football… ». Quant à Antonio Gramsci, dans un court article de 1918 publié dans Avanti, il considérait que « le football incarne un modèle de société individualiste qui exige l’initiative, la compétition et le conflit. Mais il est également régulé par la règle non écrite du fair-play. Paysage ouvert, libre circulation de l’air, poumons sains, muscles forts, toujours tendus vers l’action. (…). »

Certes, ces points de vue datent et depuis les années 1990, la marchandisation et la commercialisation ont dénaturé le football, les championnats européens et bien sûr les coupes du monde. Depuis l’arrêt Bosman (1995), le nombre de joueurs étrangers n’est plus limités, ce qui a démultiplié les transferts et accru les montants qui les accompagnent. La starification et les paris ont accompagné un accroissement continu des droits de retransmission qui ont à leur tour généré des revenus exorbitants.

Mais à l’origine, le football n’était rien d’autre qu’une activité sportive ludique, un loisir ouvrier au même titre que la course cycliste. Il s’agit aussi d’un sport collectif au demeurant, à l’inverse de l’athlétisme, du tennis ou du golf. Au début de la professionnalisation, un joueur ne pouvait gagner plus de deux fois le salaire d’un ouvrier…

Même si le football s’est « gentrifié », massifié, globalisé et qu’il est devenu une activité extrêmement lucrative pour les investisseurs, un grand nombre de clubs sportifs gardent une identité classiste, avec des clubs de supporters marqués à l’extrême gauche, parfois protagonistes dans les choix de gestion du club. Il suffit de penser aux clubs tels que FC Livourne, le Borussia Dortmund, Standard de Liège, Sankt Pauli Hambourg, Celtic Glasgow, Liverpool, Beşiktaş d’Istambul, Hapeol de Tel Aviv ou l’AEK d’Athènes. Les ultras de ces clubs se manifestent comme syndicalistes, pro-accueil des réfugiés, opposés au sexisme à l’homophobie, antiracistes, propalestiniens, favorables au boycott de la coupe du monde et prennent parfois la défense de manifestants contre la répression policière, …  Comme aliénation, il y a pire… Mais ce sont aussi des réalités minoritaires. Assister à un match de première ligue est devenu un passe-temps très onéreux. Au Royaume-Uni, le prix moyen d’un billet dans les tribunes de clubs comme Manchester United ou Liverpool a connu augmentation de 750% ou 1 100 % depuis les années 1990. Ne parlons pas des déplacements ou de la participation à des tournois. De ce point de vue-là, il n’y a aucun doute : excepté les noyaux durs d’inconditionnels, les supporters de football qui assistent au match n’appartiennent que marginalement au monde ouvrier et populaire…

Dans l’ombre des stars, le « footballeriat » des travailleurs sportifs

Dans l’histoire du football, l’ascension du club de foot de Göteborg est assez singulière et révélatrice que le documentaire « Les derniers prolétaires du foot » raconte avec brio. Göteborg est un club amateur qui connait une ascension en première ligue dans les années 1970. Formé par des amateurs, tous ouvriers (plombiers, cuisiniers, soudeurs, chaudronniers, mécaniciens) et syndicalistes, le FC Göteborg perce en coupe en d’Europe et gagne en 1982 la finale de l’UEFA contre Hambourg par 3 – 0. En 1986, Göteborg joue la demi-finale contre le FC Barcelone et gagne à nouveau par 3 – 0 à domicile. Lors du match retour, l’arbitrage aurait été des plus injuste et après avoir gagné par 3-0, les tirs au but donnent le Barça le ticket pour la finale de l’UEFA.

Depuis lors, le monde du foot a bien changé. Les montants drainés par les retransmissions dépassent les milliards d’euros dans chaque pays. Le mercato mobilise chaque année des sommes astronomiques : 900 millions rien qu’en Angleterre, 650 millions en Espagne et 300 à 500 millions en Italie, Allemagne ou en France. Les rémunérations des joueurs brassent également des centaines de millions d’euros, tout comme les recettes publicitaires, qui, de la marque des crampons aux maillots des joueurs, dépassent les millions aussi.

Avec une massification des retransmissions à l’échelle mondiale, seuls quelques championnats attirent les gros investisseurs, laissant dans l’ombre et l’oubli les compétitions dans les pays périphériques ou les ligues de deuxième ou de troisième division. Cela signifie aussi que dans l’ombre des stars qui ramassent des millions à la seconde errent des dizaines de milliers de joueurs qui se forment dès le plus jeune âge, qui s’entraînent, sacrifient leur vie de famille dans l’espoir d’entrer un jour dans le panthéon des joueurs multimillionaires.

Pour le sociologue et ancien joueur de football Pierre-Cédric Tia, il y a lieu de parler d’un « footballeriat » comme espace social à la fois objectif et subjectif où évoluent les ex-apprentis, des joueurs forgés par une persévérance vocationnelle, portant en bandoulière un ethos sportif qui proscrit tout abandon[5]. Même si 90 % des apprentis ne seront jamais des joueurs professionnels, ils continuent « à y croire » pendant des années, en supportant la précarité et l’incertitude quant à leur destin sportif. De ce point de vue-là, on peut dire que le marché des travailleurs sportifs est une sorte de modèle idéal-typique du marché du travail tout court où la précarité est souvent vécue et acceptée comme un mal nécessaire avant la rédemption par l’ascension sociale. Celle-ci n’est qu’une illusion puisque seul une infime minorité finira par entrer dans le cercle restreint des stars. De ce point de vue-là, on peut dire aussi que le « footballeriat » est un prolétariat qui s’ignore. Ce qui n’est pas forcément le cas de ceux qui ont construit les stades où de celles qui nettoient les chambres d’hôtel…

 

Références

  • Brohm, J-M (1992), Sociologie politique du sport, 1976, deuxième édition, Presses Universitaires de Nancy.
  • Lire ici un entretien avec J-M. Brohm 
  •  Tia, Pierre-Cédric (2019), « Les paradoxes de l’excellence : enquête sociologique dans le footballariat hexagonal », Thèse de doctorat en Sociologie, sous la direction de Stephen Bouquin, Soutenue le 02-12-2019, à l’Université Paris-Saclay

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35931031

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/oct/02/revealed-hundreds-of-migrant-workers-dying-of-heat-stress-in-qatar-each-year

[4] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/24/qatar-significant-labor-and-kafala-reforms

[5] voire aussi Pierre-Cédric Tia, « Rebondir après « l’échec » en centre de formation : analyse séquentielle des trajectoires socioprofessionnelles d’ex-apprentis footballeurs », in Temporalités [En ligne], 25 | 2017, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 novembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/temporalites/3702 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/temporalites.3702 et  https://www.liberation.fr/sports/2019/08/12/le-football-ne-suspend-que-temporairement-les-inegalites-sociales_1744971

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.

 

Stephen BOUQUIN

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

References

  • Bellanger, Jacques et Thuderoz, Christian, « Le répertoire de l’opposition au travail », in Revue Française de Sociologie, 51 (3), juillet-sept. 2010, pp. 427-460.
  • Bertrand, Mathilde, Crowley Cornelius, Labica Thierry (2016), Ici notre défaite a commencé. La grève des mineurs britanniques (1984-1985), éd. Syllepse.
  • Bouquin, Stephen (2020), Les résistances au travail en temps de crise et d’hégémonie managériale, in  Daniel Mercure (coord.), Les transformations contemporaines du rapport au travail, Presses de l’Université de Laval, p.177-198.
  • Cant, Callum (2019), Riding for Deliveroo. Resistance in the New Economy, Polity, London, 140p.
  • Carré, Jacques (1997), La Grande-Bretagne au 19ème siècle, Paris, 160 p.
  • Cini, Lorenzo (2022), « Resisting algorithmic control: understanding the rise and variety of platform worker mobilisations », in New Technology, Work and Employment, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ntwe.12257
  • Darlington Ralph & Lyddon, Dave, (2001), Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972, Bookmarks Publications, London.
  • Dobb, Maurice M.A (1946), Wages, Cambridge Economic Handbooks, Londres, 223p.
  • Gandini, Alessandro (2018), « Labour process theory and the gig economy », in Human Relations, n° 72. 001872671879000. 10.1177/0018726718790002.
  • Kelly, John (1998), Rethinking Industrial Relations : Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves, Routlegde, Londres, 177 p.
  • Kleinkecht, Alan ; Mandel, Ernest et Wallerstein, Immanuel (1992), New Findings in Long Wave research, London, macMillan
  • Lenormand, Marc (2017), « 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, https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.1683
  • Lyddon, Dave (2007), “From strike wave to strike drought: the United Kingdom, 1968-2005.” (pp.339-365), in Vandervelden, Sjaak; Dribbush, Heiner; Lyddon, Dave; Vandaele, Kurt (2007), Strikes Around the World, 1968-2005, Aksant Academic Publishers, Amsterdam.
  • Lyddon, Dave (2015), “The changing pattern of UK strikes, 1964-2014”, Employee Relations, Vol. 37 No. 6, pp. 733-745. https://doi.org/10.1108/ER-05-2015-0084
  • Mandel, Ernest (1995), Long Waves of Capitalist Development : A Marxist interpretation, Verso, 184p.
  • Milkman, Ruth; Bloom Joshua; Narro, Victor (2010), Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy, Cornell University press, 312p.
  • Ravier, Jean-Pierre (1981), Les syndicats britanniques sous les gouvernements travaillistes (1945-1970), Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 278p.
  • Segrestin, Denis (1980), “Les communautés pertinentes de l’action collective : canevas pour l’étude des fondements sociaux des conflits du travail en France », in Revue française de sociologie, Année 1980, n°21-2, pp. 171-202
  • Silver, Beverly J. (1991), « De klassenstrijd en de kondratieff », in Vlaams Marxistisch Tijdschrijft, 25ème année, n°1, pp. 42-66.
  • Sumption, Madeleine ; Forde, Chris ; Alberti, Gabriella & Walsh, Peter (2022), How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK?, The Migration Observatory COMPAS (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society), University of Oxford.
  • Thompson, Edward Palmer (1980) The Making of the English Working Class London: Victor Gollancz (1963); third edition.
  • Woodcock, Jamie (2021), The Fight Against Platform Capitalism: An Inquiry into the Global Struggles of the Gig Economy, University of Westminster Press, London, 126p.

 

Footnotes

[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, https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.1683

[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 www.managers.org

[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 https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2022/research/fuel-poverty-uk/  

[9] https://aslef.org.uk/

[10] Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, https://www.tssa.org.uk/  

[11] 71% of the workforce took part in the vote and of those, 89% were in favor of strike action. https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-declares-overwhelming-mandate-for-national-strike-action-on/    

[12] See in particular https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/uk-news/mick-lynch-rmt-rail-strike-poll-b2113181.html   

[13] https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-on-opinium-poll/  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 https://www.newstatesman.com/chart-of-the-day/2022/07/public-opinion-stand-on-rail-strikes

[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 https://www.internationaldistributionsservices.com/media/11687/royal-mail-plc-fy-2021-22-results-19-5-22.pdf   

[18] See Jacobin, 10 June 2022, https://jacobin.com/2022/10/mick-lynch-profile-rmt-general-secretary-strikes )

[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.

[20] https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/latest-research

[21] Ilias Leanos, Cedefop, Skills forecast United Kingdom, see https://www.cedefop.europa.eu/files/cedefop_skills_forecast_2018_-_united_kingdom_0.pdf

As well as the more global analysis of the post-pandemic labour market https://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/news/baby-boomers-retiring-wake-pandemic

[22] https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/reports/how-is-the-end-of-free-movement-affecting-the-low-wage-labour-force-in-the-uk/

[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).

[25] https://scesolicitors.co.uk/news/update-on-gig-economy-case-law-and-developments

[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 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/19/uber-drivers-workers-uk-supreme-court-rules-rights  

[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 =>

ConflictBeyondLaw-Bouquin-ILPC-Padua

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

desocialisation

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
High

6%

7%

Rather high

9%

8%

Rather weak

11%

13%

Weak

17%

15%

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 (www.lesmondesdutravail.net) 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: http://journals.openedition.org/nrt/3501; 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. https://doi.org/10.3406/arss.1996.3206 ; www.persee.fr/doc/arss_0335-5322_1996_num_115_1_3206

[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 https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/dares-etudes-et-statistiques/statistiques-de-a-a-z/article/les-contraintes- physical-and-intensity-of-work

[49]https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_publication/field_ef_document/ef1634en.pdf

[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]https://www.additra.fr/crbst_6.html . About the congress, see https://congresadditra.fr/; 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 https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and- 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. http://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/.

[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, https://jean-jaures.org/sites/default/files/redac/commun/productions/2020/0511/117599_-_rapport.pdf et la présentation

https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/suicide-l-autre-vague-a-venir-de-la-covid

[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  https://centre-ressource-rehabilitation.org/etude-en-ligneimpact-du-confinement-sur-la-sante-mentale  ainsi que https://centre-ressource-rehabilitation.org/prendre-soin-de-sasante-mentale-des-ressources-proposees-par-les

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

[6] Pour la France, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/sante/maladie/coronavirus/covid-19-des-medecins-preconisent-d-autres-reconfinements-locaux-d-autres-alertent-sur-la-sante-mentale-des-francais_4312447.html  ; Belgique => https://www.lecho.be/dossiers/coronavirus/les-medecins-alertent-sur-l-etat-mental-de-leurs-patients/10286012.html

[7] https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/140321/dans-l-ombre-du-covid-les-etats-unis-affrontent-une-crise-inedite-de-la-sante-mentale

[8] https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html

[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 ; https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

[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 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-the-pandemic-is-changing-our-brains-here-are-the-remedies-144451

[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 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2776392

[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 https://julianneholtlunstad.byu.edu/ 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 https://julianneholtlunstad.byu.edu/covid-19

[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 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_science_backed_strategies_to_build_resilience

[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.  https://doi.org/10.3917/bupsy.510.0401

[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 https://lundi.am/Nouvelles-figures-du-partisan  ainsi que les thèses défendues par Alain Damasio (https://www.bastamag.net/Alain-Damasio-Les-Furtifs-La-Volte-ultra-liberalisme-ZAD-pouvoir-alienation

[24] https://leparterre.fr/2019/06/12/les-rappeurs-sont-ils-des-suppots-du-capitalisme/

[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.

 

 

[1]https://www.journee-mondiale.com/145/journeemondiale-sur-la-securite-et-la-sante-au-travail.htm

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

[3] https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_publication/field_ef_document/ef1634en.pdf

[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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Bouquin (2014), « Resistance to work and at the workplace : a Blind Spot for French Sociology of Work », in Rawlinson M., (ed.), Labor and global justice. Essays on the ethics of Labor Practices under Globalization, ed. Lexington Books, pp. 165-178.

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