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Aims to understand the struggles that define our conjuncture, critically reconstruct radical history, and reinvent Marxism for our time.

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17.01.2023 à 23:07

On Method


If we sustain the distinction – as we try to throughout this book – between “politics” (understood as the battle for power) and the experiences in which processes of the production of sociability or values are at stake, we can distinguish then between the political militant (who founds their discourse on a certain set of certainties) and the militant researcher (who organizes their perspective on the basis of critical questions concerning these certainties).

The post On Method appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (5210 mots)
Alejandro Federico Fogazzi, Todos somos piqueteros, 2001.


Is a prologue internal or external to the text that it precedes? As we know, the prologue precedes from the end: although it opens the book, it is the last part to be written. It is not, then, a text that is internal to the book, nor is it completely external to it. It is, rather, both at the same time. It is external; yes, it is “post.” It speaks from “after” the book’s closing. It is a “second closure” that opens. But this new beginning – starting afterward – makes the main body of the text exist in another way: as if by being prefaced, it were projected and prolonged.

This extension is not a mere continuation, but rather an operation that reveals a form of work. This book is always already a prolongation: the prolongation of an encounter in a workshop, of one workshop into many others, of those workshops into an initial publication, that of the original dossier (Situaciones 4; Conversations with the MTD of Solano), from the dossier – already re-edited and out of print again – into this book that, in turn, will itself be prolonged in its readers, and becomes available for many other possible prolongations. [We might add that it is again prolonged, temporally, linguistically, geographically, in its translation many years later.]

The names of its authors – the Movimiento de Trabajaodores Desocupados (MTD) [Unemployed Workers’ Movement] of Solano and Colectivo Situaciones – could, somehow, appear excessive. This became clear to us when we wanted to legally register the publication. For the state institutions in charge of regulating and registering everything that has the shape of a book – be it anything capable of adopting this form – the author is a fact whose absence cannot be excused. If for any reason this name were not available, one would have to resort to a pseudonym (which always names the responsible person, either the author or the editor). One way or the other, the author must appear; someone must take responsibility for what is said.

We do not believe that we are amazingly original by reminding the reader that the “author” – authorship, from authority – has died. This book will therefore be what other forces, other becomings, are capable of doing with it. The death of the author is not only a fashionable phrase, it has concrete implications: it means that our intention as “authors” is not what counts here, that authorship is only a resource, an element, an item that is not worth spending time on.

This prologue, therefore, does not intend to promote a certain “appropriate” reading of the text – although, inevitably, it does suggest perspectives – nor does it anticipate conclusions that would be “suitable” to the intentions of those of us who participated in its making. Here prolongation does not mean the restriction of possible readings, but precisely the opposite: an offering, the act of delivering an object – that condenses encounters, thoughts – to the forces of new encounters and thoughts. [Similarly, this translation – one of many, and one that arises from specific encounters between the translators and the authors – does not purport to be the only possible translation but an opening up to many new translations and encounters.] Therefore, there is no “author,” but there is a work composed of rhythms, passions, forces, inspirations, thoughts, and affects. Those are what demand prolongations and epilogues. Those are what believe they can reveal something about themselves in what follows, while at the same time adding some clues about the figure of the research militant – an approximate word game to name the precarious existential equilibrium of a new form of commitment –.


Militant research, as we understand it, lacks an object. We are aware of the paradoxical nature of this statement – if one does research, one performs research on something; if there is nothing to do research on, how can we talk about research? – and, at the same time, we are convinced that it is exactly this nature that gives militant research its potencia.1 To investigate without objectifying, implies abandoning the conventional image of the researcher. And that is what the militant researcher aspires to do.

In fact, research can be a road to objectification (again, we are not being original by confirming this old knowledge, and, yet, this effect is one of the most serious limitations of the ususal subjectivity of the researcher). As Nietzsche reminds us, theoretical man (and woman) – which is something more complex than “the man (and woman) who reads” – is the one who perceives action from an entirely external point of view (that is to say, their subjectivity is constituted in a way that is completely independent with respect to that action). In this way, the theorist works by attributing an intention to the subject of the action. Let’s be clear: every attribution of this kind supposes, in relation to the protagonist of the observed action, an author and an intention; confers values and goals, and, in the end, produces “knowledge” about the action (and the actor).

Following this path, critical activity remains oblivious in regards to at least two essential moments. On the one hand, concerning the – external – subject who exercises the critique. Researchers do not need to investigate themselves. They can construct consistent knowledge about the situation to the extent – and, precisely, due to the fact – that they remain on the outside, at the prudent distance that, supposedly, guarantees a certain objectivity. And yes, this objectivity is authentic and efficacious to the same extent that it is nothing but the other side of the coin of the objectification – violence – of the situation on which the researcher works. [Meanwhile, the translator translates “neutrally” and “objectively,” always from a double outside.]

But there is yet a second aspect in which critical activity remains oblivious: the researcher – in their act of attribution – does nothing but adapt the resources that are available at the situation of their investigation to the unknowns presented by the object. The researcher, in this way, constitutes themself into a machine that confers meanings, values, interests, kinships, causes, influences, rationalities, intentions, and unconscious motives to their object.

Both blind spots, or perhaps the same blind spot in regards to two issues (concerning the subject who attributes and concerning the resources of attribution), come together in the configuration of a single operation: a machine that judges good and evil according to the set of available values.

This modality of knowledge production presents us with a clear dilemma. Traditional academic research – with its object, its method of attribution, and its conclusions – obtains, of course, valuable knowledge – that is mostly descriptive – in regard to the objects it investigates. But this descriptive operation in no way occurs after the object’s formation, because it itself produces that objectification. Thus academic research is much more effective when it best uses these objectifying powers. Thus science operates much more as separation – and reification – of the situations in which it participates than as an internal element in the creation of (both practical and theoretical) possible experiences.

The researcher offers themself as a subject of the synthesis of the experience. The researcher is the one who explains the rationality of what happens, and is preserved as such: as a necessary blind spot of that synthesis. The researcher, as the subject who gives meaning, remains exempted from any self-examination. That researcher and their resources – their values, their notions, their gaze – constitute themselves into the machine that classifies, gives coherence, inscribes, judges, discards and excommunicates. In the end, it is the intellectual who “does justice” regarding matters of truth, in terms of the administration – or adequateness – of what exists under the present horizon of rationality. 


We have mentioned commitment and militancy. Are we perhaps proposing the superiority of the political militant in opposition to the academic researcher?

We do not believe so. Political activism is also a practice with an object. As such, it has remained tied to a mode of instrumentality: one that connects to other experiences from an always already constituted subjectivity, with prior knowledge – the knowledges of strategy –, supplied with universally valid, purely ideological statements. It relates to others through utilitarianism: there is never affinity, always “agreement,” never encounter, always “tactics.” Political activism – especially that of the political party – can hardly constitute itself into an experience of authenticity. From the very beginning it gets stuck in transitivity: what it finds interesting in an experience is always “something other” than the experience itself. From this point of view, political militancy – and militants on the Left are no exception – is as external, judgmental, and objectifying as university research.

Let’s add the fact that the humanitarian activist – let’s say from an NGO – does not escape these manipulative mechanisms. Strictly speaking, the now globalized humanitarian ideology is constituted from an idealized image of an already made, unchangeable world. Faced with that world, the only remaining possibility is to dedicate efforts to those – more or less exceptional – places where misery and irrationality still reign. 

Not only do the mechanisms unleashed by humanitarian solidarity foreclose any possible creation, but they also naturalize – with the compassionate resources of beneficence and their language about exclusion – the victimizing objectification that separates each person from their subjective and productive possibilities. [While the humanitarian translator makes sure that those poor victims voices are heard, translated into the language of those with power.] 

If we refer to the commitment and the “militant” character of research, we do so in a precise sense, connected to four conditions: a) the motive underpinning research; b) the practical character of research (elaboration of practical situated hypotheses); c) the value of what is being investigated: the result of research can only be evaluated in its totality in situations that share the problematics being investigated, as well as the constellation of conditions and concerns; and d) its effective procedure: its process of development is already a result in and of itself, and its results lead to an immediate intensification of effective procedures.


In fact, every idealization strengthens this mechanism of objectification. This is an authentic problem for the militancy of research. Idealization – even when it falls on an object not consecrated to such effect – always results from a mechanism of attribution (even when it does not happen under the pretext of scientific or political pretensions). Because idealization – like any ideologization – expels everything from the constructed image that could cause it to lose its status as an ideal of coherence and completeness.

What happens, however, is that every ideal – contrary to what the idealist believes – is more on the side of death than on that of life. The ideal cuts reality off from life. The concrete – the living – is partial and irremediably inconceivable, incoherent, and contradictory. The living – to the extent that it persists in its capacities and potencias – does not need to adjust itself to an image that gives it meaning or justifies it. It is the other way around, living is in itself a creative source – not an object or repository – of values of justice. In fact, the entire idea of a pure or complete subject is nothing but the conservation of this ideal.

Idealization conceals an operation that is inadvertently conservative: behind the purity and vocation for justice that seem to be its origin, its foundation in dominant values is once again hidden. Thus the righteous appearance of the idealist: they want to do justice, in other words, their desire is to materialize, to make effective, the values that they hold as good. Idealists do nothing but project these values onto the idealized (this is the moment when what was multiple and complex turns into an object, corresponding to an ideal) without asking themselves about their own values; more importantly, without undergoing a subjective experience that transforms themselves.

This mechanism reveals itself as the most serious of obstacles for the militant researcher. Originating in subtle and almost unperceivable forms, idealization slowly produces an almost unbridgable chasm. To the extent that the militant researcher only manages to see their own projections on what appears to them as already complete.

That is why this activity cannot exist unless a very serious work on the research collective itself takes place; in other words, it cannot exist without doing serious research on itself, without changing itself, without reconfiguring itself through the experiences in which it takes part, without revising the ideals and values it holds dear, without constantly criticizing its own ideas and understandings, and in the end, without developing practices that expand in all possible directions.

This ethical dimension points to the complexity of militant research: the subjectifying work of deconstructing every inclination towards objectification. In other words: carrying out research without an object.

Like in genealogy, it is all about working at the level of the “criticism of values.” It is about penetrating and destroying “its statues,” as Nietzsche affirms. But this work that is oriented by – and towards – the creation of values is not done by mere “contemplation.” It requires a radical critique of the prevailing values. That is why it involves an effort to deconstruct the dominant forms of perception (interpretation, valorization). Therefore there is no creation of values without the production of a subjectivity capable of submitting itself to a radical critique.


One question becomes clear: is such an investigation possible without at the same time setting in motion a process of falling in love? How would the link between two experiences be possible without a strong feeling of love or friendship?

In fact, the experience of militant research resembles that of a person in love, on the condition that by love we understand what a certain long – materialist – philosophical tradition understands by it: that is, not as something that happens to someone in relation to the other, but a process that takes two or more; a process that transforms the “self” into the “common.” One participates in such a relationship of love. Such a process is not decided intellectually: it takes the existence of two or more. It is not an illusion, but an authentic experience of anti-utilitarianism. 

In love, in friendship, contrary to the mechanisms we describe above, there is neither objectivity nor instrumentalism. Nobody is spared from what the bond can do, nobody comes out from it uncontaminated. One does not experience love or friendship in an innocent way: we all leave them reconstituted. These potencias – love and friendship – have the power to constitute, qualify, and remake the subjects they catch. [And the translator, how could they not fall in love, how could they not be remade in the process of translating a text such as this? That is what makes translation an act of love.]

This love – or friendship – is constituted as a relationship that renders undefined what until that moment was preserved as individuality, composing an integrated figure made up of more than one individual body. And, at the same time, such a qualification of the individual bodies participating in this relationship causes the failure of all the mechanisms of abstraction – dispositifs that turn bodies into quantifiable, interchangeable objects –, as characteristic of the capitalist market as the other mechanisms of objectification we have mentioned.

Thus we consider this love a condition of militant research.

In this book we refer several times to this processes of friendship or falling in love, under the – less compromising – name of composition. Different from articulation, composition is not merely intellectual. It is neither based in interests nor in criteria of (political or another type of) convenience. In contrast to (strategic or tactic, partial or total) “agreements” or “alliances” founded on coincidences expressed in a text, composition is more or less inexplicable, and goes beyond everything one can say about it. In fact – at least while it lasts –, it is much more intense than any merely political or ideological compromise.Love and friendship tell us about the value of quality over quantity: the power of the collective body composed of other bodies does not increase according to the mere quantity of its individual components, but in relation to the intensity of the bond that unites them.


Love and friendship, then: the work of research militancy is not to be identified with the production of a party line. It works – necessarily – on another plane.

If we sustain the distinction – as we try to throughout this book – between “politics” (understood as the battle for power) and the experiences in which processes of the production of sociability or values are at stake, we can distinguish then between the political militant (who founds their discourse on a certain set of certainties) and the militant researcher (who organizes their perspective on the basis of critical questions concerning these certainties).

Yet, this distinction is often lost from sight, in the belief that what can be seen in the experience of the MTD of Solano – particularly following the Situaciones 4 pamphlet – is just one more party line.

In some way, then, some have thought they have seen the birth of a “situationist” line, as an idealized product of language – or even the jargon – of the publication and the image that – apparently – the pamphlet transmits – at least in some readings – of the experience.

Detractors and adherents to this new line have created a motive for disputes and conspiracies out of it. In this regard, all we can do is admit that out of all the possible outcomes of this encounter, these reactions are the ones that motivate us the least, both because of the manifest improducitivity that results from such repudiation and adhesion and because of how such idealizations (whether positive or negative) usually replace a more critical vision about those making them. Thus, a too closed position is rapidly adopted out of what is supposed to be an exercise of opening.

We have already admitted that we cannot control interpretations. But perhaps we did not think about a particular implication of this point of view. The death of the author turns the reader into the subject responsible for creating a meaning based on the text. And in this very operation, the reader-author is produced (one who does not preexist and will not endure beyond what they can do with the text). Thus, the supposed original author has lost their right to tell the reader what to do with their reading. What the “author” (as a talking corpse) can indeed do is read the understandings that have been made of their texts; in other words, intervene as reader. It is only in this character that we pronounce ourselves decidedly in open refusal of the purely political interpretation of the present text.


Let’s take another step in constructing the concept of research without an object. Interiority and immanence are not necessarily identical processes.

Inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, are categories of the dominant ideology (if we are allowed such an expression): they usually hide more than they reveal. That is, the experience of militant research is not one of being inside, but of working from immanence.

Let’s say that the difference can be presented in the following terms: the inside (and therefore the outside) defines a position organized from a certain boundary that is considered relevant. Inside and outside refer to the location of a body or element in relation to a disjunction or a border. To be inside is also – in this line – to share a common property, which makes us belong to a same set.

This system of references interrogates us about the place where we are situated: nationality, social class, or even the site where we choose to situate ourselves in regards to… the next elections, the military invasion of Colombia or cable television programming…

In the extreme, both “objective” belonging (that derives from the observation of a common property) and “subjective” belonging (that derives from choice in the face of) come together to the joy of the social sciences: if we are unemployed workers we can choose to join a piqueterx movement; if we are from the middle class we can choose to be part of a neighborhood assembly. Through determination –collective belonging to the same group, in this case social class – choice (the group of commons with which we will join) becomes possible – and desirable –.

In both cases being inside implies respecting a pre-existing boundary that distributes places and belonging in a more or less involuntary way. It is not about denying the possibilities that derive from the moment of choice – which can be, as in the case of these examples, highly subjectifying –, but distinguishing the mere “being” and its “inside” (or “outside,” it does not matter), from the mechanisms of subjective production that arise from disobeying those destinies. At the border, it is not as much about reacting in the face of already codified options as it is about producing the terms of the situation ourselves.

In this sense it is worth presenting the image of immanence as something other than merely being inside.

Immanence refers to a mode of inhabiting the situation and works from composition – love or friendship – in order to bring about new possible elements of this situation. Immanence is constituent co-belonging that traverses the representations of “inside” and “outside” transversally or diagonally. Where interiority demands a mode of being that is exhausted in belonging or adhesion, immanence implies inhabiting the experience, opening it to the possible potencias of composition. [Immanent translation expands this composition, in all directions at once, the translator is neither inside nor outside the situation, be actively composing, weaving, it together with new situations.]

Summing-up: immanence, situation, composition are notions that are internal to the experience of militant research. Useful names for the operations that organize a becoming common and, above all, constituent. If, in other experiences, they turn into the jargon of a new political line or categories of a fashionable philosophy – something that does not interest us at all – they will, for sure, obtain a new meaning based on those uses which are not ours.

In other words: the operational difference between the “inside” of representation (foundation of belonging and identity) and the connection of immanence (the constituent becoming) has to do with the greater openness that the latter form grants us for participating in new experiences.


It seems like we have arrived at the production of a difference between love-friendship and the forms of objectification against which the – precarious, we insist – figure of the militant researcher seeks to rebel.

Yet, we have not entered in the – fundamental – matter of the ideologization of confrontation.

Struggle activates capacities, resources, ideals, and solidarities. As such it speaks to us about a vital disposition, about dignity. In it, the risk of death is neither pursued nor desired. Thus the meaning of the dead comrades will never be complete, but rather, painful. This dramatic quality of struggle is, however, made banal when the confrontation is put in ideological terms, to the point that they are postulated as its exclusive meaning.

When this happens there is no room for research. As we know, both – ideology and investigation – have opposite structures: while the first is constituted from a set of certainties, the second only exists on the basis of a grammar of questions.

Yet, struggle – the necessary, noble struggle – does not in itself lead to the exaltation of confrontation as the dominant meaning of life. There is no doubt that the limit can appear very thin in the case of an organization in permanent struggle, like a piqueterx organization, and yet, to give up on this point would be to prejudge.

Unlike the militant subjectivity that is usually sustained through a meaning given by the extreme polarization of life – the ideologization of confrontation –, the experiences that seek to construct another type of sociability are very active in trying not to fall into the logic of confrontation, according to which the multiplicity of experience is reduced to this dominant signifier. 

Confrontation, on its own, does not create values. As such it does not go beyond the distribution of dominant values.

The result of a war shows us who will appropriate what exists. Who will have property rights over goods and existing values.

If struggle does not alter the “structure of meanings and values” we are only in the presence of a change of roles, which guarantees the survival of the structure itself.

Once we have arrived at this point, two completely different images of justice – because in the end that’s what this is about – are sketched out before us. On one side, the struggle is for the ability to use the judging machine. To make justice is to claim for oneself what is considered just. It is to interpret the distribution of existing values in another way. The other image suggests that it is about becoming creators of values, of experiences, of worlds.


This prologue affirms that the book it opens for us does not speak of a model experience. Moreover, it continues – insistently – to affirm that it is against the existence of such ideals. It will be said – and with reason – that it is one thing to utter this principle and something very different to achieve it in practice. One can also conclude – and here our doubts start – that in order for this noble purpose to become a reality it would be necessary for us to make “our criticisms” explicit (in this case, Colectivo Situaciones’s criticisms of the MTD of Solano). If we were to look at this demand closely, we would see how it asks us to save the model – now in a negative way – by comparing the real experience to the ideal model, a mechanism that is used by the social sciences to extract their “critical judgments.”As we can see, all these reflections on criticism and the production of knowledge are not minor issues, and that is because they concern forms of justice (and judgment is nothing but the judicial form of justice). This book can offer nothing that resembles a juridical event, nor does it provide resources to make judgments about other experiences. Rather, the opposite is the case: if we have tried to do something as “authors” – talking corpses that write – it has been to offer an image that is completely opposed to juridical justice, or, in other words, a justice founded on composition. What is it good for? There are no predetermined answers.

C.S., October 17th, 2002

– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

Thanks to Minor Compositions for allowing the publication of this excerpt from Hypothesis 891. Beyond the Roadblocks.


1 In Spanish, there are two words for “power”: “poder” and “potencia,” which derive from the Latin words “potestas” and “potentia.” Colectivo Situaciones’ understands power based on this distinction they take from Spinoza. While “potencia” has a dynamic, constituent dimension, “poder” is static, constituted. Potencia defines our power to do, to affect, and be affected, while the mechanism of representation that constitutes “poder” separates “potencia” from the bodies that are being represented. To preserve the emphasis of this distinction, the Spanish word “potencia” is used, where appropriate, throughout this book. – Trans.

The post On Method appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

17.01.2023 à 23:07

Living in Freedom: Notes on Colectivo Situaciones and MTD Solano’s Hypothesis 891


Today, when the term “militant research” is regularly used in academic articles and texts, it is worth returning to the question of the purpose and practice of research militancy. Ultimately, as Hipotesis 891 highlights, research militancy is not primarily about another way of doing research, or least research that assumes academia as its main site of enunciation. Rather, it is about another way of doing politics, that does not follow a predetermined line or presume to know the answers a priori, but that sees research as part of the political process itself. 

The post Living in Freedom: Notes on Colectivo Situaciones and MTD Solano’s <i>Hypothesis 891</i> appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (4497 mots)
Florencia Vespignano, Marcha, 2000.

Hypothesis 891 presents precisely that, a series of situated hypotheses (the number comes from the street address where those hypotheses were elaborated). It also showcases the process through which those hypotheses were proposed, discussed, tested, challenged, accepted or discarded. In other words, it does not present answers, but a way of asking questions. It is in this sense that it represents a process of “militant research” or “research militancy.” These texts were part of a series of workshops held with members of the militant research collective Colectivo Situaciones and members of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados [Unemployed Workers’ Movement, MTD] of Solano. At the time, Colectivo Situaciones consisted of a group of university students who had become frustrated both with the dominant forms of leftist activism and academic knowledge. In search of a form of knowledge immanent to struggles, that did not separate the object from the subject of knowledge production, they began working with the series of innovative social movements emerging in Argentina to collectively reflect on and theorize the moment, recognizing, in turn, that this knowledge is itself a productive force that intervenes in the situation at hand. The work presented here brings Colectivo Situaciones into dialogue with one of the most innovative movements of the unemployed at the time: the MTD of Solano. The MTD of Solano was already developing its own conceptions of autonomy, power, neighborhood organizing, alternative economies, the production of subjectivity, the meaning of freedom. The confluence between the two groups thus produced an immensely rich dialogue, which extended well beyond the production of this book.

The texts that make up this book include initial hypotheses, written by Colectivo Situaciones, edited transcripts of the conversations in the workshops discussing the hypotheses, and response pieces by both Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD of Solano. The book, as a whole, is the result of a process of collective thought and elaboration, both by each group on its own – Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD of Solano – and together through the workshop discussions where the words of members of each collective are woven together, to create new understandings and analyses that could not have emerged from either collective alone. The texts thus reflect tensions, both between and within the collectives, and also elaborations on those tensions as the thinking changes over time.

The workshops that provided the material for this book took place between September 2001 and August 2002, during which time Argentina saw one of the most important processes of resistance to neoliberal capitalism that the world had seen at that time, effectively overthrowing the neoliberal government in December 2001. That uprising was led by many of the movements and organizations discussed in this book – the movements of the unemployed, neighborhood assemblies, and barter networks – yet it also exceeded and went far beyond those existing forms of organizing. It drew all sorts of people into the streets, despite the state of emergency and curfew declared by the government. Those people, whether in organizations or not, protested, set up barricades and fought off the police and military, until the president, Fernando de la Rúa, abandoned his office. This led to a time of intense social experimentation, both in forms of political organization and in forms of researching and thinking, of which this book is a prime example.

“A movement of movements”: The Unemployed Workers’ Organizations

By the late 1990s, Argentina was experiencing a severe economic crisis: years of neoliberal structural adjustment, demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, had failed and poverty and unemployment were reaching record levels. It was in this context that the unemployed began organizing. At first derided and ignored by the major labor union federations and leftist parties alike, the unemployed began organizing autonomously, initially coming together around shared problems of social reproduction – unpayable electricity and gas bills, the rising cost of food, health care, and education – and mass job loss. In smaller cities in the interior of the country, such as Cultral-Co, whole communities came together after mass layoffs at the recently privatized oil company YPF. These uprisings – known as pueblazos for the way the whole community participated – were fundamental in bringing the issue of unemployment into the public agenda and popularizing the tactic of the roadblock (piquete). As the unemployed began organizing around the country, from those smaller cities to the urban peripheries of major metropolises such as Buenos Aires, La Plata, and Rosario, the tactic of the roadblock became the tool of choice for the unemployed. This is what led to the organized unemployed being baptized as piqueteros.1 Organizations of the unemployed – piqueterxs – thus started organizing roadblocks around the country, blockading major highways, bridges, and other key transit points, sometimes for weeks at a time. Those roadblocks brought the circulation of commodities to a halt and forced different levels of government to start responding to the piqueterxs demands for unemployment insurance, food aid, etc. The roadblocks, at least in some cases, were also a space for what the MTD of Solano refers to as the construction of a “new sociality,” producing new ways of living together that challenge the dominant capitalist subjectivity.

Despite this shared tactic and common problems, the different organizations of the unemployed that emerged in different territories were extremely diverse, with different compositions, adopting different ideological positions and organizational forms, and making different alliances. As the political power of the unemployed became clear, labor unions and leftist parties also started their own unemployed branches or tried to bring existing unemployed organizations into their fold. And yet other unemployed organizations remained “autonomous,” unaffiliated with any major unions, parties, or other social organizations. Those autonomous organizations generally took the name of Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados [Unemployed Workers’ Movement] of their given territory. The MTD of Solano, a locality in the southern part of Buenos Aires’ urban periphery, was one of these. The organization initially emerged from meetings at a local parish and then, after being evicted from the parish by the Bishop, expanded to bring together different neighborhood groups of the unemployed across the territory of Solano, ultimately encompassing hundreds of families. Despite remaining autonomous from political parties and trade unions, they did, at different times, join different political alliances and coordinating bodies, most importantly the Coordinadora de Trabajadores Desocupados Aníbal Verón (Aníbal Verón Unemployed Workers’ Coordination), which brought together many of the different autonomous unemployed workers’ organizations to organize actions together and support one another’s initiatives.

While the workshops focus on the specific experience of the MTD of Solano, the complex cartography of different organizations of the unemployed is referenced throughout the book. Frequent mentions are made of organizations such as the Federación Tierra y Vivienda (Land and Work Federation, FTV, lead by Luis d’Elía) linked to the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (Argentine Workers’ Central Union, CTA), the Corriente Clasista y Combativa (Class-based and Combative Current, CCC, affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist Party), the Polo Obrero (Workers’ Pole, affiliated with the Workers’ Party) and the Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez (Teresa Rodríguez Movement, MTR). Each of these organizations have their own histories, compositions, practices, and ideological and theoretical positions. It is in that sense that Colectivo Situaciones refers to the unemployed workers’ organizations as a whole as “a movement of movements.” These different organizations and movements would sometimes come together in specific actions or campaigns. Notably a couple of “National Piquetero Congresses” attempted to bring together organizations of the unemployed across this spectrum, however, without much lasting success. As the MTD of Solano recounts here, there were major differences in terms of how to relate to the state and forms of internal organization. For the MTD of Solano, many of these other groups represent ways of doing politics based on a way of thinking based on “globality,” thinking in terms of predefined concepts and understandings of power, rather than starting from the situation. That way of thinking, starting from the situation and insisting on the autonomy to define one’s own concepts and on the self-affirmation of one’s own project, is what sets the MTD of Solano apart from many of these other organizations of the unemployed.  

Another major sources of difference and tension among the organizations of the unemployed was their relationship to what in Argentina are colloquially known as “subsidies,” the complex array of welfare benefits packages offered to the poor and the unemployed. These subsidies were one of the primary demands of the movements in the roadblocks and other mobilizations. Eventually, they came to include a wide range of programs offered by different levels of government (from municipalities to the federal government). Originally proposed as individual welfare benefits to the poor and the unemployed, the movements demanded, and won, the right to collectively administer the programs. This meant that organizations would receive the money, distribute it to their members, deciding who was eligible based on their own criteria and, in cases of corresponding work requirements, determine what counted as “work” in order to subsequently receive benefits. Of course, this had mixed consequences. It led to a swelling of the ranks of the organizations of the unemployed, as people signed up in order to have access to those benefits. It also led to accusations of clientelism, of organizations essentially paying people to show up to their events or otherwise using the programs to the sole benefit of leaders. In other cases, it led to interesting experiments in collectivizing the benefits – pooling benefits to use them to use for common projects – and redefining what was considered work – valuing care and community labor above all else. 

Of course, the organizations of the unemployed were also part of a broader constellation of movements, organizations, and alternative economic practices during the crisis. These include the neighborhood assemblies of largely middle-class urban neighborhoods and the barter clubs which extended across the country, using alternative currencies and barter to trade for goods and services as the official economy collapsed. As the members of the MTD of Solano explain here, the movements of the unemployed had complicated and evolving relations with these other movements and practices, sometimes coming together across class differences and sometimes entering into irresolvable tension. Yet, as a whole, this complex constellation of movements was responsible for a unique moment of experimentation in terms of forms of life, ways of organizing economic and social relations, and of producing knowledge.

Twenty Years of 2001

A lot has changed in the twenty years since Hipotesis 891 was originally published. Ultimately, much of the energy of the revolt in 2001 was institutionalized, with the election of Nestor Kirchner in 2003 and then of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007. Their administrations not only increased the subsidies and other benefit packages available to the poor, and specifically to social movements and cooperatives, but also incorporated movement leaders into government positions and created programs directly designed to booster those alternative economic activities that had emerged in the crisis. The conversations with the MTD of Solano included in this book make it clear that there were already intense debates about the issue of institutionalization between different organizations of the unemployed. These tensions only increased Kirchner’s election as many organizations jumped on the opportunity to participate in official policies, while others began defining themselves precisely in opposition to that institutionalization and organized around explicitly fighting against the Kirchner governments, accusing them of co-opting and pacifying movements.

The position of the MTD of Solano can best be described in Raquel Gutierrez’s terms as non-state-centric. In Gutiérrez’s words, a non-state-centric politics “does not propose confrontation with the state as the central issue nor is it guided by building strategies for its ‘occupation’ or ‘takeover;’ but rather, it is strengthened by defense of the common, it displaces the state and capital’s capacity for command and imposition, and it pluralizes and amplifies multiple social capabilities for intervention and decision-making over public matters: it disperses power as it enables the reappropriation of collective decision-making and speech over matters that belong to everyone because they affect us all.”2 In that sense, the MTD of Solano always prioritized its own project: the project of creating new forms of life, new social relations, and new subjectivities in the neighborhoods where they worked. This never meant completely ignoring the realm of the state, and it often meant directly organizing forms of collective self-defense against state repression. Yet, they also continued occasionally receiving subsidies and grants from the state and other institutions, when they determined that doing so would further their organizational needs and not greatly sacrifice their autonomy. Most of members’ energy went into the group’s productive projects, from a bakery to community garden, their neighborhood health clinic, and popular education and pedagogical processes, and to maintaining the alliances and coalitions to support those projects. The MTD of Solano discusses this in terms of not letting their practice be defined by “the political conjuncture.” Instead, the organization’s project and needs, the project of creating new modes of life, were always prioritized over conflicts taking place at the level of state politics, no matter who was in the presidency.

The divisions which became present under Kirchner and Fernandez’s governments, in some sense, only intensified with the election of right-wing neoliberal Mauricio Macri in 2015. Macri represented a return to many of the neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s, but with a friendlier face, that sought to incorporate the popular sectors into the neoliberal project. In this sense, it sought to reestablish a neoliberal subjectivity at the base of society, individualizing welfare benefits and encouraging “entrepreneurship” at all levels of society.3 Macri’s administration was also responsible for taking out the largest IMF loan in the institution’s history, for cutting subsidies for utilities for the middle class, and undercutting unions in wage negotiations. In this context, many movements became further entrapped by the spatialities and temporalities of state politics, focusing their energy on electoral campaigns and influencing politicians in power, rather than the autonomous grassroots experiments that had characterized much of the 2001 uprising.

It was also a moment of new alliances and political strategies. Starting during Fernandez’s government, Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD of Solano focused much of their efforts on constructing new alliances and research initiatives with emerging subjectivities of struggle, particularly migrants, precarious workers, and, later, feminist organizations and collectives. This research also focused on shifts at the level of popular subjectivity – on forms of what some referred to as microfascisms – as increased competition, identitarianism, and authoritarian behavior were being enacted on the extremely local level. One of the clearest examples of this was the case of Parque Indoamericano, in which three thousand families, mostly Bolivian and Paraguayan migrants, occupied the park and set up a temporary encampment, only to be violently attacked by more middle-class neighborhood residents and state forces. Three migrants were killed in the police’s raid on the park, which was yet celebrated by many of the white middle and upper-class sectors of society.4 Members of Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD of Solano worked together with collectives of migrants and other urban researchers in the Hacer Ciudad (Making the City) workshop to investigate changes occurring in the city, and the subjectivities of its inhabitants, at multiple scales. This research, and the web of alliances that carried out it, was thus able to diagnose the Macri government in a novel way, emphasizing those shifts in subjectivity that accompanied a generalized precarization of life.

Living in Freedom: Resonances Today

Twenty years after its original publication, the debates and themes raised in Hipotesis 891 are more relevant than ever. Both the process from which the book emerged – research militancy – and the concepts proposed, such as counter-power, autonomy, horizontality, new forms of militant commitment, and new understandings of freedom, offer important insights for movements today. With this translation, we hope to contribute to the further circulation and dispersion of ideas and concepts, allowing them to travel to new territories, be transformed in the process, and contribute to the mutual contamination of struggles for our collective liberation.5 

The first of these themes, and that which has made the name Colectivo Situaciones well-known in the English-speaking world, is that of militant research or research militancy. The concept traveled broadly through different militant translations of Colectivo Situaciones’ work and their participation in movement encounters and events across Europe and North America, entering into dialogue with other concepts ranging from conricerca to participatory-action research. Hipotesis 891 does not offer theories of militant research, but rather demonstrates a process of militant research. As Colectivo Situaciones explains in the prologue, they understand militant research as both a critique of traditional forms of academic research as well as the politics of most leftist movements and non-governmental organizations that is based on already knowing the answers. Instead, the offer a politics that in itself involves research, questioning, and collectively constructing responses. Colectivo Situaciones maintains a commitment to the knowledge produced in struggle and also a commitment to the idea that knowledge can and must be used for struggle. Today, when the term “militant research” is regularly used in academic articles and texts, it is worth returning to the question of the purpose and practice of research militancy. Ultimately, as Hipotesis 891 highlights, research militancy is not primarily about another way of doing research, or least research that assumes academia as its main site of enunciation. Rather, it is about another way of doing politics, that does not follow a predetermined line or presume to know the answers a priori, but that sees research as part of the political process itself. 

Another key theme, which highlights the uniqueness of the MTD of Solano’s approach to politics and organizing, is their emphasis on the production of subjectivity. This emphasis highlights the fact that we are not fully formed subjects at the beginning of a political project and that politics takes place, among other levels, on the level of subjectivity. We see this emerge in two different ways in the MTD of Solano’s analysis here. First, it can be seen in their critique of capitalism as producing particular subjectivities and desires, particularly as they see that manifest in their neighborhoods in terms of cut throat competition and lack of solidarity between neighbors. Rather than condemn those neighbors, they seek to understand how those elements are a fundamental part of capitalism’s reproduction and expansion. The second element, involves asking how the movement can function as a space for the production of different subjectivities. Thus they ask what pedagogical practices are necessary, what forms of decision-making and internal discussion are helpful, for creating subjectivities that are not oriented by the logic of capitalism. Again, there is no predefined path for this, but it involves transforming all of those who participate in the project. As members of the MTD of Solano put,  “we have also proposed to recreate ourselves, to subject ourselves to change as well, as we have thrown all our certainties out the window.” This also means being willing to engage with comrades who make mistakes, recognizing how we have all internalized elements of the capitalist logic, and that we must be willing to work through that process of transformation together. Thus, instead of searching for the “right” subject to engage in revolutionary activity, whether determined by some sort of identity or class position, the MTD of Solano always understood their task to be that of producing a revolutionary subject.

Finally, the MTD of Solano always stood out, even in Argentina, for its understanding of power – and counter-power – and autonomy, moving beyond a state-centric politics. Counter-power, as posed by the MTD of Solano, is not in symmetrical opposition to power, the power of the state, the power of domination, power over. Rather, counter-power operates differently, on a different realm. Counter-power is the power of creation, the power to act, the power to affect and be affected by others. This commitment to counter-power lies at the heart of the MTD of Solano’s non-state-centric politics, which is not driven by a logic of confrontation with the state nor the desire to take state power. Here autonomy arises as a horizon, not a fixed state but a process through which and toward which the movement works. They attempt to progressively create more autonomy both in terms of the sustainability of their alternative economic projects that allow them to meet some part of their daily needs while relying increasingly less on state subsidies, and in terms of the autonomy of thought and language, proposing their own analyses, their own concepts, for understanding and creating the world in which they want to live. Counter-power ultimately manifests through enacting other ways of living together, ways of organizing work without a boss and managers, ways of living intimate relations beyond the heterosexual nuclear family, ways of cohabiting spaces without hierarchical governments. Or as the MTD proposes, “It is very important to recognize that it is not about transforming the municipal government, or the police force, among other things, but rather that these things exist today as things that we no longer want, we reject them, we negate them. We don’t want to substitute any part of that system, we want to build something different. And it is that new thing that we are envisioning, constructing. That is counter-power.” This is a project that ultimately proposes “a project of living in freedom,” understood as freedom from capitalist imperatives of how to live our lives and the collective creation of new forms of life that allow us to lives and our relations to each other in their fullness. 

Thanks to Minor Compositions for allowing the publication of this introduction and the corresponding excerpt from Hypothesis 891. Beyond the Roadblocks.


1 In the remainder of the text, we use the gender-neutral term piqueterxs, which has been widely taken up in recent years thanks to the mass feminist movement and that highlights the important role that women played in the movement as a whole, although it was often not recognized at the time. We opt to maintain the Spanish term rather than simply refer to “the unemployed,” because, as the MTD of Solano explains later in this book, piqueterx refers to a political identity, an identity based on action and resistance, while “the unemployed” merely refers to a sociological description, which is often depoliticized and cast in the position of a victim.
2 Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Horizonte Comunitario-Popular. Antagonismo y producción de lo común en América Latina. (Cochabamba: Sociedad Comunitaria de Estudios Estratégicas y Editorial Autodeterminación, 2015), 89.
3 For more on these shifts in subjectivity and the spread of a “neoliberalism from below” during both the late Kirchner period and the Macri’s government, see Verónica Gago’s Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies (Durham, NC: Duke Press, 2017) and Diego Sztulwark’s La ofensiva sensible: Neoliberalismo, populismo y el reverso de lo político (Buenos Aires: Caja Negra, 2019).
4 For a militant research process analyzing the Parque Indoamericano Case, in which Colectivo Situaciones was involved with migrant collectives, see Taller Hacer Ciudad, Vecinocracia: (Re)tomando la ciudad (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón and Editorial Retazos, 2011).
5 For more on dispersion and the work of the book, as it travels, in the construction of movements and struggles, see Magalí Rabasa, The Book in Movement: Autonomous Politics and the Lettered City Underground (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).

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05.12.2022 à 19:27

Robert Linhart and the Circuitous Paths of Inquiry


A dossier tracing Robert Linhart's approach and commitment to militant research through new translations of texts spanning the late 1970s to the 2000s.

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Texte intégral (938 mots)
Fabrication de plaques photographiques en verre chez Saint-Gobain à Aniche, 1927/1928.

Introduction to Robert Linhart: Concrete Analyses in the Spider’s Web of Production | Paul Rekret, Eoin O’Cearnaigh, and Patrick King

Consistent with his rejection of a romanticization of the working class, Linhart insists that workers’ knowledge is fragmented and partial, if also profound. The task of the inquiry is, thus, to collect via dialogue and participation, this disjointed state of collective memory and oral testimony in support of a systematic understanding of the whole.

Evolution of the Labor Process and Class Struggles (1978) | Robert Linhart

If we want to understand something, I think there’s nothing to do but go see it oneself and to patiently collect the most direct knowledge possible. Go see the sites of production, speak with workers and businesspeople, engineers, work where possible together with workers, participate directly in production. This patient work of identifying reality as concretely as possible is what I call “making inquiries.”

“Technology Transfer” and Its Contradictions: Some Aspects of Algerian Industrialization (1977) | Robert Linhart

The concrete functioning of those industries which have been “offshored” or set up by “transferred technology” in Third World countries has hardly been studied in a systematic way, and we only have scattered and disparate data on this subject. It is regarding this concrete process that we would like to make a few remarks. The contradictions at work in the process of industrialization in Algeria are far from having produced all their consequences.

The Labor Process and the Division of the Working Class (1978) | Robert Linhart

The development of outside firms permanently employed across the cluster effectively transforms the division of labor in a thoroughgoing manner, more or less insidiously changing the function of workers of the petrochemical enterprise, and in many cases coming to load the position of the working class in this sector with ambiguity – posing a problem (more or less assumed) to industrial and trade union action. 

This Concerns Everyone (1981) | Robert Linhart

In all capitalist countries, organizing work means dividing workers: exploring ever new “labor reserves,” just as one begins production on a new mining deposit, wearing down and laminating its dense cores. The organization of labor never stabilizes, even in periods where technology remains constant. Workers resist a mode of exploitation which seeks, limitlessly, to intensify work and make labor-power more lucrative and capitalism strives to detect and deepen weak points within worker resistance. 

Taylorism Between the Two Wars: Some Problems (1983) | Robert Linhart

In the concrete organization of labor existing in the field, we encounter a combination of different modes of workplace organization developed up to the present moment, a combination that is the result of employer policies, working-class practices and resistance, economic factors external to the internal organization of the labor process, and various elements of the class struggle in society. It is critical, then, to not be limited to a mode of workplace organization that, at each given moment, occupies the forefront of the ideological scene, but to take into account the totality of the real organization of labor, to the extent that one can grasp it or reconstruct it. 

Evolution of the Organization of Labor (1998) | Danièle Linhart and Robert Linhart

In the present context, what we are seeing does not really resemble the establishment of innovative organizations breaking with the Taylorist logic, but much more a mixture of genres where innovations are introduced but within a logic that remains fundamentally Taylorist. Management is engaged in a constant project to seek out another mode of control, domination, and coercion of employees before preparing the passage toward possible reforms of the organization of labor which could be rendered more compatible with the demands for responsiveness imposed by the market and new forms of competition.

The Time-Sick Hospital (2005) | Robert Linhart

In these very difficult workplace situations, all the agents interviewed indeed stressed the importance of the group. The existence of a genuinely solidaristic and very active work group functions as a shock absorber for those temporal tensions and multiple dilemmas that are the daily lot of full-time staff on the razor’s edge.

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05.12.2022 à 19:27

Taylorism Between the Two Wars: Some Problems (1983)


In the concrete organization of labor existing in the field, we encounter a combination of different modes of workplace organization developed up to the present moment, a combination that is the result of employer policies, working-class practices and resistance, economic factors external to the internal organization of the labor process, and various elements of the class struggle in society. It is critical, then, to not be limited to a mode of workplace organization that, at each given moment, occupies the forefront of the ideological scene, but to take into account the totality of the real organization of labor, to the extent that one can grasp it or reconstruct it. 

The post Taylorism Between the Two Wars: Some Problems (1983) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (6925 mots)
Diagram from Aleksei Gastev’s 1924 text, How to Work.

The following remarks do not stem from a strictly historical interest in the period under consideration. Rather, they throw a retrospective glance and interrogate some historical issues on the basis of investigations into the organization of labor across different industries. In light of these investigations, carried out in connection with workers and union organizations in automobile, petrochemical, steel, cement, and textile factories, we seek to examine the formation of present systems of industrial labor. How might this specific approach influence the very content of the analysis? It seems to lie in this fact: if we begin with texts and documents from the period in question, which is the most common way to do so in historical research, we are often implicitly led to adopt the dominant viewpoint, that of the capitalists and the organizers of work, quite simply because this viewpoint has left behind the most extensive written traces, is presented as a coherent system, articulated as such. An entire reality, experienced by the working class (a reality made up of the resistance to the capitalist organization of labor, of the mismatch between theoretical organization and actually implemented organization, and the parts of the productive system left in the dark by the official representations of industrial labor) has remained in the collective memory and oral tradition, without finding a systematic form that could act as a counterbalance to the organizers of work. If we adopt the viewpoint of the investigation among the agents of the production process, and the workers in the first instance, we find a grasp on the effective operation of the system of workplace organization, and not only on the always idealized and rationalized presentation provided by the organizers of capitalist production: we follow a contradictory concrete application, we discover the limits, failures, the whole complexity of relations of forces in motion. 

For this reason, before passing on to the analysis of texts from the interwar period, it is useful to offer a few general observations drawn from recent investigations in industrial facilities, which might help us in a critical reading of documents that mainly come to us from the organizers of the capitalist labor process. 

Some General Observations

First, the systems of workplace organization in capitalist industry do not succeed one another pure and simple: they are superimposed onto each other, as it were, the older systems surviving by combining with the new ones. One fairly often finds, in presentations of the capitalist organization of labor over the past century, a tendency to simplify its periodization into large homogeneous periods: pre-Taylor, Taylor and scientific management, human relations, job enrichment, autonomous groups, etc. But while it is true that we can perceive the succession of relatively distinct periods from the perspective of the “overall ideological tonality” concerning the organization of labor, on the other hand everything indicates that in the concrete organization of labor existing in the field, we encounter a combination of different modes of workplace organization developed up to the present moment, a combination that is the result of employer policies, working-class practices and resistance, economic factors external to the internal organization of the labor process, and various elements of the class struggle in society. It is critical, then, to not be limited to a mode of workplace organization that, at each given moment, occupies the forefront of the ideological scene, but to take into account the totality of the real organization of labor, to the extent that one can grasp it or reconstruct it. 

So, in the present period, sometimes a bit too quickly described as post-Taylorist, Taylorist standardization is in the process of taking root in certain sectors of industrial production (cleaning, maintenance in particular – the industrial cleaning sector, which is currently undergoing a phase of Taylorization in France, employs about 20,000 workers). In office and tertiary sector work, computerization has triggered a wave of Taylorist normalization that is now underway. 

In industries generally known for mainly implementing mechanisms of workplace organization which depend on a rather broad autonomy of groups of workers, some sectors remain very Taylorized: packing and shipping in the petrochemical and chemical industries, quarrying in the cement industries, for example.

We can go even further and argue that in general, the abandonment of the assembly line in favor of the various systems of “modules” or “job enrichment” in some parts of production in no way undermine, even in these parts, from the basic Taylorist principles: normalization of gestures and tools, strict time standards, the prior decomposition and preparation of work and tasks. 

Inversely, in industries that represented the advanced point of the Taylor system, some sectors have resisted complete absorption up to the present day. For example, in the auto industry, the maintenance sector (machine tools, electrical) have retained a resiliency and relative independence in the organization of tasks and time, which gives skilled workers a status that could be described as privileged in relation to semi-skilled [OS] workers (at least this is still primarily the case in the French auto industry, but signs of challenge to this autonomy are beginning to appear). At times, even the Taylorized sectors have burst open, which has created very heterogeneous situations: the same automobile firm that developed robots on the assembly line (soldering, painting, etc.) may also use so many seemingly archaic methods as the contracting-out to very small workshops or even domestic work for certain pieces. 

It is above all imperative to be careful of the optical illusion which pushes the most “modern” system of workplace organization to the foreground in the eyes of the employers and thousands of engineers, when it still only possesses a limited reach. In the lead-up to World War I, the Taylor system became the object of fierce debates. But, in that epoch, Taylorization in the strict sense only applied to a few tens of thousands of workers in the United States itself.1 

We are witnessing today, whether in “job enrichment” or “autonomous work groups,” a comparable ideological bloat of the ideological presentation in relation to the real development. 

The real development proceeds in a much more conflictual and contradictory manner than the idealized version of a linear development of the organization of labor as science lets on. This is what we want to attempt – briefly – to highlight in the interwar period which concerns us. 

Analysis of Interwar Texts

In 1927, the International Labour Office published, in Geneva, a report titled Scientific Management in Europe. Its author, Paul Devinat, who headed the ILO’s relations with employers’ organizations, had established close relationships with American industrial circles and obtained financing from the Twentieth Century Fund to conduct a study on the state of Scientific Management in different European countries, in order to generalize the “new methods.” This report is highly interesting for several reasons: 

– First of all, as an ideological case study. It indeed reflects the kind of “rationalizing” fever which took hold over manufacturing leadership circles in those years between 1925-1929, 1927 representing perhaps a high point. Taylorism is presented by Devinat as not only as an instrument of organization internal to firms, but as an overall view of economic life – we would be tempted to say a worldview. 

– Next, it gives some interesting indications (although they are to be taken with reservations, due to its propagandistic aspect, particularly toward the workers’ movement) on the attitude of different social forces participating in industrial production vis-a-vis scientific management. The vanguard role of engineers and technicians, as a social milieu, is clearly emphasized.(Recent studies confirm the role of engineers in the ideological advance of Taylorism. See, for France, the article by Aimée Moutet, “Les origines du système du Taylor en France: Le point de vue patronal (1907-1914),” Le Mouvement social 93 (October-December 1975): 15-49. For the United States, see the article by Alessandra Lorini, “Il passaggio del principio di efficienza dallo Scientific Management alle scienze sociali negli Stati Uniti (1890-1920), Testi e Contesti 1 (May 1979).))

– Lastly, it makes a clear assessment of the institutional situation of scientific management in various countries in Europe, including the Soviet Union, and indicates what he sees as the existing differences among them in the application of scientific management. 

If we analyze this balance sheet by relating it to the concrete situation of the epoch, we discern in Taylorism’s development not only the mere extension of the method invented by Frederick Winslow Taylor, but a complex process marked by the class struggle, through which the organization of labor takes form from crisis to crisis. 

– Taylor’s works were explicitly aimed at a general conception of class peace: “scientific” laws ruling over labor, its intensity, its remuneration, imposed on both bosses and workers, the transition to mass production opening at the same time an era of universal prosperity. The ideological struggle Taylor waged in the United States, the high point of which was his 1912 testimony before the Special Committee of the House of Representatives, led him to put an even sharper emphasis on this presentation. 

But the beginnings of the introduction of the Taylor system in Europe around 1910 appeared first as the narrow application of its most obviously coercive aspects, like timekeeping. This brutal introduction would give rise to fierce resistance from workers, especially the Renault strikes in 1912 and 1913. Throughout 1913 there were lively polemics in France around Taylorism.2

Also in 1913, on the other side of Europe, Lenin published his first, harshly critical, article on the Taylor system in Pravda: “A ‘Scientific’ System of Sweating,” following a conference on Taylorism at the Railway Engineering Institute in St. Petersburg. We witness in Europe too, right before the outbreak of World War I, an initial diffusion of the Taylor system, accompanied as it were by a fairly severe ideological “opening round” between workers and socialist and trade union milieus, on the one hand, and those introducing the system (capitalists or engineers) on the other. 

We know how the war, due to ideological mobilization, internal repression, and abrupt transplantations of producing populations (male workers to the front, women to the factory, etc.) enabled a breaking of these resistances in several sectors, particularly those most tied to wartime production (arsenals, munitions and gunpowder factories, armored vehicles, etc.). 

After the war and the great wave of workers’ struggles which immediately followed it, the problem raised its head anew. Business and government circles and the engineers at the forefront in the diffusion of scientific management drew lessons from the “opening round”: an entire ideological offensive now surrounded the uptake of the system, even if it meant adapting certain aspects, or combining it with other practices. You might say that at that time period, there was a transition from the introduction of schemes [recettes] to a deliberate drive toward “Americanization” writ large. 

This evolution is very clear-cut in the preface to Devinat’s report, written by Albert Thomas, a former Socialist minister of armament in the French Sacred Union government during WWI, who became president of the International Labor Office. In this text we find a critical tone toward the brutal Taylorization of the initial years, and also read a desire to go about it better in the future: 

If the writer of these few lines may be allowed to give his personal reminiscences, he would recall the initial attempts made in France during the years 1907-1908 to introduce time-study methods and Taylorism—attempts which were accompanied by errors and abuses, by an excessive imitation of American systems and inadequate preparation, by a violent commotion in the minds of the working classes, and by the whole struggle against what was called “systematised sweating.” […]

Later, during the war, it became essential in France to devise methods to ensure the fullest possible utilisation of the depleted staffs of the factories engaged in war work, and this led French factories to introduce, in many cases for the first time, methods of mechanical transport, to make the first attempt at “chain work”, and even, in certain powder mills, to undertake regular motion studies of women workers with a view to increasing output and reducing fatigue. 

An entirely new factor, however, and one that goes back only a few years, is the realisation by American business men of the enormous power which the systematic and rational practice of the new methods has given them. Intuition has told them that these are the methods required, not merely to reintroduce intimacy in the relations between workers and employers and to imbue industry with a fresh spirit of development, but also to reconstruct the older European society disorganised by the war, or, in a word, to promote the happiness and advancement of civilisation.3

What arguments does this ideological offensive concretely depend upon? With workers as the main resistance, we easily detect an overarching operation to try to surmount and circumvent the trade union organizations. Themes of worker protest: scientific management drains workers, scientific management leads to a rise in unemployment. Focus areas for the propaganda of the “new methods”: scientific management lessens fatigue, scientific management improves the overall functioning of the economy and makes it possible to reduce unemployment over the long term. 

These two focus areas of propaganda combined with research and practical initiatives which gave form to the Taylorism of the interwar period; 

– a reorientation toward psychology and psychotechnics [psychotechnique]: Taylorism must be supported by a better understanding of man at work; 

– a firm economistic interpretation: Taylorism must launch a “rationalization” of the whole economy. 

Evolution of the Psychological Content of Scientific Management

A new theme strongly emerges in Europe in the 1920s: scientific management reduces fatigue. Whence the importance accorded to everything having to do with the “psychological” and “psychotechnical” aspects of the study of labor in the ILO report. It is lamented that France remains an exception to the general tendency toward a “closer association between industrial psychology and industrial technique.”4 On the other hand, Weimar Germany is cited as a leading country in this domain: “Germany has made enormous progress in psycho-technology,” and that the applications of industrial concentration and standardization undoubtedly “pay more attention to the human factor than elsewhere.”5 Great Britain is included too. According to the examples provided, German “psychotechnics” seems more focused on vocational selection and “scientific employment,” the British application on fatigue. 

While at several points the report cites psychophysiology as one of the elements of scientific management capable of making it more acceptable to workers, it also resorts to psychology to support, in the broadest sense, the new order ushered in by Taylorism: 

To-day the man at the head of any undertaking must be primarily an organiser, a man that is to say who has been carefully trained for his work, not merely by technical education in particular subjects, but by a general instruction in economics and sociology and by a serious study of applied psychology, which last forms in fact the basis of the science of organisation, its real subject matter rightly understood being the functions in regard to production of all who are engaged in industry, from the worker to the manager. Its essential object is to secure the best possible contribution from each individual by putting him in his right place and securing universal harmony and collaboration.6

This is followed by praising of scientific management that guides all the elements of production to collaboration, and which “is the enemy just as much of routine and red tape as of irresponsibility and speculation.”7 Everyone in their place, in a natural order, from the supervisors to the manual operators: how can one not think of the themes of fascism (the equally physiological or “biological” claim), and more broadly, how can one not feel the simmering of an entire “social technology” which takes off in the first half of the 20th century? Is it by chance, for that matter, that the report further on, while describing the scientific management propaganda in different Europe countries, indicates that 

Institutions also exist in a number of countries for the sole or main object of securing publicity. The most typical institution from this point of view would appear to be the Italian national committee ENIOS established under the auspices of the Italian General Confederation of Industry—a powerful body owing its existence to the initiative of the employers.8 

The tightly-linked combination in the interwar period of Taylorism with a certain “psychology’ in order to confront workers’ resistance is in our eyes the nodal point of a series of fundamental questions: the movement in the methods of the capitalist organization of labor can be grasped. The ILO report is particularly explicit in this regard: 

The close connection between Taylorism and industrial psychophysiology was not at first realised; indeed, it frequently happened that the latter science supplied arguments against the introduction of Taylorism in the workshop…It is thus clear [today] that the two movements were destined to become complementary to each other so soon as the leaders of the scientific management movement, under pressure of social considerations and of the necessity for winning the support of the organised workers, provided adequate guarantees against abuses.9

And further: 

The definitive orientation of the scientific management movement in Europe appears to date from the coalescence of Taylorism and industrial psycho-physiology, of which the foundations were laid during this phase. The physiologists, who hitherto had specialised to an excessive extent…began to realise that the application of Taylor’s principles provided a means of turning the results of their studies to immediate use. On the other hand, the followers of Taylor were enabled to appeal to the results of experiments carried out for some time past in Europe in support of their advocacy of a system of overseas origin.

The effect of the agreement which thus came into being on the opinion of the workers was particularly fortunate.10 Once the physiologists abandoned their attitude of hostility to Taylor’s principles and realised the fundamental identity in the methods and object which both schools were pursuing, the workers automatically acquired a guarantee against the abuses.…Thus, in England, where the strength of the labour movement is considerable, scientific management methods were introduced to public opinion and defended before it by the industrial psychologists[.]11

It must be stressed that we see the implementation here of a system of pressure on labor-power, and in our present, we can inquire about the at times ambiguous roles played by ergonomics, occupational medicine, psychology, etc. Do not employer policies often combine the direct strengthening of exploitation and the intensification of labor with an array of operations [manipulations] that are dubbed “humane,” handled by specialists who, in principle, do not organize production? 

Does this psychological tendency correspond with a reorientation of Taylorism? Does it only develop some of the basic principles of Taylorism? Or does it rather constitute a crisis and important transformation of the Taylor system? A complicated question, which we simply want to aid in posing, not resolving. 

In the first place, the Taylor system presents itself from the start as an extremely tight grid around the producing population within the factory, accompanied by a much more intimate and systematic knowledge of each individual, each gesture, by the management than in the past. This control can be described as the bureaucratization of the labor process, which necessarily leads to the ideal situation that Taylor presented before the Special House Committee in 1912: 

The fourth of the principles of scientific management is perhaps the most difficult of all of the four principles of scientific management for the average man to understand. It consists of an almost equal division of the actual work of the establishment between the workmen, on the one hand, and the management, on the other hand…In a machine shop, again, under this new type of management there is hardly a single act or piece of work done by any workman in the shop which is not preceded and followed by some act on the part of one of the men in the management. All day long every workman’s acts are dovetailed in between corresponding acts of the management. First, the workman does something, and then a man on the management’s side does something; then the man on the management’s side does something, and then the workman does something; and under this intimate, close, personal cooperation between the two sides it becomes practically impossible to have a serious quarrel.12

A tight grid, but narrowly delimited in its object: it involves dividing the tasks of production between design functions and implementation functions. Everything takes place inside the labor process, and a distinct function of management over men has not yet emerged. Here is the first form of Taylorism, the first version of Taylorist control: Taylor imagined he could reduce workers to a mere physical capacity, by concentrating mental activity on the side of management. There is the famous retort calling for workers not to think, the comparison of pig-iron handlers with a trained gorilla, in short all the remarkable contempt for workers that oozes from the founder of scientific management’s body of work and which his successors were precisely unable to maintain in the face of the initial resistance from the workers’ movement. 

More profoundly, Taylor’s resolutely individualist hypothesis is upended by the reality of the class struggle in the factories during the interwar period. It is known that Taylor outright refused to treat workers as a group. One of his basic principles is that there must be a direct relationship between the management of the firm and each worker, with the mediation of unions or even work teams. We thus read in Scientific Management

As another illustration of the value of a scientific study of the motives which influence workmen in their daily work, the loss of ambition and initiative will be cited, which takes place in workmen when they are herded into gangs instead of being treated as separate individuals. A careful analysis had demonstrated the fact that when workmen are herded together in gangs, each man in the gang becomes far less efficient than when his personal ambition is stimulated[.]13 

This is in fact what Taylor calls a “psychological” analysis; and it is this strictly individualist psychological approach that is in crisis between the two world wars. The end of the 1920s and the 1930s are marked by the famous experiments conducted by Elton Mayo and his team (General Electric, etc.) that emphasized group effects, and opened the way to psychosociological practices (“human relations”) which continue to play a very important role in employer strategies of workplace management. Taylor’s whole hyper-rationalized conception of human behavior will subsequently be challenged, to the benefit of other forms of ideological offensive and, after World War II, theories and practices stemming from psychoanalysis.14

In any event, workers’ resistance to the introduction of Taylorism caused employers to mobilize “psychology” and the “human sciences,” which played an important role. The ILO’s report tends to present this new stage in an idealist fashion as the rapprochement of disciplines. It is not hard to read between the lines here to see a system of alliance of capital with many strata of the petty bourgeoisie. While the direct organizers of production (engineers, supervisors, monitors, timekeepers, etc.) played a key role in the initial phase of the implantation of Taylorism, new professions were rallied: doctors, psychologists, sociologists, etc. A second, more peripheral wave of bureaucratization of labor process came to superimpose itself upon the first. And, in a broader manner, the battle over production, which had become sharper at the level of society as a whole, was brought to the political level: the theme of the “third way,” reformist currents, fascism, preparation of the New Deal, etc.15

Toward the Crisis of the Taylorist Economy

Although in 1927, at the moment of the ILO’s report, the “psychological” narrow-mindedness of pure Taylorism was already outpaced by methods of the organization of labor, in contrast Taylorist economism was in full swing, even its peak. Two years later, the crisis will deal it a direct blow. And, before the Second World War broke out, the economic postulates of the first version of Taylorism will be seriously questioned, as its psychological postulates had been several years prior. The 1927 ILO report arrived between these two shocks that shook scientific management. It was still imbued with the idea that the generalization of Taylorism to the economy considered as a whole could only be a positive development: scientific management strengthens the system of production and allows for the growth of consumption; at the cost of temporary unemployment, it assured more stable employment for the future (one already recognizes here the persistent and widely used theme of capitalist governments’ austerity campaigns; it is difficult to disentangle in this language pure propaganda and system of belief: it is a whole overarching representation that is is formed in the management circles of the capitalist economy, which does not rule out the concealment of certain unforeseeable effects of the system for the purpose of public opinion). 

The 1927 report rests upon “purist” Taylorist positions, since this generalizing viewpoint can already be found in Taylor, albeit more at the level of general principles than concrete applications. Two examples are noted at length in the report: the overall rationalization in resource allocation and inter-industry organization in Germany; product standardization and the fight against waste in the United States. Two names: Rathenau, Hoover. It is striking to see all the hopes that a figure like Hoover still embodies in 1927, who would a few years later become essentially the symbol of the disastrous policy which worsened the 1929 crash. 

In the report’s appendix, there is an extract from an ILO memorandum on scientific management, presented to the “Preparatory Committee of the Economic Conference,” which is a fine rendition of scientism:

Scientific management is the science which studies the relations between the different factors in production […] Scientific management owes its existence as a separate science to the work of Frederick W. Taylor…Since his day scientific management has considerably evolved…From the time of Taylor to that of Hoover great progress has been made in America…Already there is in certain countries a tendency to call scientific management by the more appropriate name of rational organisation of production[.]16

Germany’s example follows. And further:

Another item in the scientific management programme, namely, the systematic elimination of waste, has, since the publication of Mr. Hoover’s celebrated report [Waste in Industry] in the United States, become a matter of general public interest. The utility from the national point of view of the elimination of waste is no longer disputed, and its partisans are already urging that the campaign should be carried into the international field.17

A simple idea: why not apply methods of standardization, selection, and compartmentalization that seemed to be so successful for the Taylorist reorganizers of determinate production facilities to the economy as a whole? This all fits into a strict Taylorist logic. But, the same was the case for “psychological” problems, with a kind of reductive narrow-mindedness. The entire economy becomes a massive firm to “Taylorize.” According to this perspective, there is a continuity and homology between the microeconomic and the macroeconomic: what is good for one firm is good for the totality of firms. In 1927, this was still believed among the leading circles of the capitalist economy. But after 1929? Was not the crisis precisely the weakness of this logic

Keynesian thought and the new practices of economic management that stemmed from it appeared as a break with the basic principles of the Taylorist economy and their systematization by Hoover. The micro could not be extrapolated from the macroeconomic: these are two systems obeying two different laws, sometimes even opposing laws. The economic policies and restrictions which drew on the Taylorization of workshops led to catastrophic results. At the level of the overall economy, it is imperative to know about spending, spillover. What could be more absurd, from a strictly orthodox Taylorist perspective, than those hypotheses which Keynes jokingly asserted: that in certain cases, it is useful to employ people to dig holes so that others could fill them up? These new principles, however, would influence the anti-crisis policies of the 1930s.

It is thus another strand of the Taylorist system of references that was buried with the great crisis, the New Deal, Keynesian theories. The very extension of the Taylor system burst open its contradictions.18 For there to be high wages, there must be low ones, and for there to be favorable yields, there must be other, unfavorable ones; if it is no longer so, it will be equalization from the bottom. Already in 1918, in a polemic with Bukharin, Lenin argued that the absolute monopolization of the capitalist economy is impossible: monopolies need smaller firms and basic forms of competition to preserve their differential rents. 

There is a whole debate to be had on this question of the crisis of initial Taylorism and its later trajectory. Several texts have recently appeared in France presenting Keynesianism as the logical development of Taylorism, everything culminating in a complete apparatus that would unify the control of production and consumption, for which the term “Fordist mode of production” has been proposed. It seems to me that this linear perspective on the organization of labor in the 20th century does not take into account the scope of the crises mentioned above, and underestimates the transformations that class struggles in the enterprises and societal contradictions have caused in the effective organization of labor. 

The organization of labor is precisely the result of these struggles and these contradictions, not the mere expression of a “science which would grow through its own laws.” Scientific management does not escape this feature, whatever the scientific pretensions it wraps itself in. 

Translated by Patrick King

This text first appeared in Travail et emploi 18 (1983): 9-15.

This article is part of a dossier entitledRobert Linhart and the Circuitous Paths of Inquiry.”


1 Lenin cited the figure of 60,000, drawn from American sources; see also the text by Aldo Lanza, scholar at the University of Turin, “Taylorismo, fordismo e movimento di riorganizzazione industriale negli USA, 1890–1920,” Testi e contesti: Quaderni di scienze storia e società 2 (1979): 93-114, building on the work of Daniel Nelson.
2 Émile Pouget, L’organisation du surmenage: le système Taylor (Paris : Rivière, 1914).
3 Paul Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, vi-vii.
4 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 78.
5 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 43.
6 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 43.
7 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 45.
8 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 62. Translator’s Note: The French version has propagande for “publicity.”
9 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 25-26.
10 TN: The French has “au point de vue ouvrier” for “opinion of the workers.”
11 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 34-35.
12 Frederick Winslow Taylor, “Taylor’s Testimony Before the Special House Committee,” in Scientific Management (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974 [1947]), 44-45.
13 Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 73.
14 See Frederick Herzberg, Work and the Nature of Man (London: Staples Press, 1968).
15 For an analysis of the internal contradictions of the pure Taylorist strategy (if every worker becomes the “best worker” in the Taylorist sense, the differential advantages of the system cancel themselves out: general implementation is impossible and crisis situations emerge with the extension of the system) and the birth of different strategies, we refer to the useful article by Andrew Friedman, “Responsible Autonomy Versus Direct Control Over the Labour Process,” Capital & Class 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1977): 43-57, esp. 50-52.
16 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 169-70.
17 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 40.
18 See on this subject the argument on the absurdity of generalizing the Taylor system to the entire economy in Friedman, “Responsible Autonomy Versus Direct Control Over the Labour Process.”

The post Taylorism Between the Two Wars: Some Problems (1983) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

05.12.2022 à 19:27

Evolution of the Labor Process and Class Struggles (1978)


If we want to understand something, I think there’s nothing to do but go see it oneself and to patiently collect the most direct knowledge possible. Go see the sites of production, speak with workers and businesspeople, engineers, work where possible together with workers, participate directly in production. This patient work of identifying reality as concretely as possible is what I call “making inquiries.”

The post Evolution of the Labor Process and Class Struggles (1978) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (11645 mots)
Reprise du travail aux usines Alsthom-Saint-Ouen, 1979. Fonds IHS-CGT.

Critique communiste: Robert Linhart, you led the Althusserian tendency within the Union of Communist Students (UEC), which went on to establish the Union of Communist Youth (Marxist-Leninist) (UJCML).1 In May 1968 we often clashed with the UJCML under your leadership. After your organization’s crisis and that of the Maoist current more generally, you didn’t follow the same path as a good number of former Maoist leaders recast today within the intellectual establishment of the academy and the “Nouvelle Philosophie.” When anti-Leninism was at the peak of fashion, you published a book that was incongruous with this trend: Lenin, the Peasants, Taylor.2 You’ve just published The Assembly Line with Minuit, a personal account we all read and appreciated at Critique Communiste.3 With hindsight, what is your assessment of your militant past? How do you understand your militancy now?

Robert Linhart: The critical moment in the collapse of so-called “Maoist” organizations can be situated around 1972. In any case, throughout their decade-long existence, from their birth inside UEC onwards, our successive organizations always existed in a state of crisis. Independently of all the external upheavals and contradictory pressures emanating from wider society, they contained an element of internal crisis: our attempt to break with a mode of action conceived solely as a form of primitive accumulation of a capital of militants. We seized upon the Chinese Cultural Revolution for forms of organization that were more contradictory and unstable than those previously bequeathed by the tradition of the communist movement. As Marxist-Leninists, we sought radical innovation in terms of the theory and practice of organization. We sought to establish a much more dialectical type of organization, one capable of calling itself into question, of destroying itself, of shifting itself from one social base to another, of recomposing itself. Against the orientation of our own “Marxist-Leninist” and then “Maoist” organizations, we launched “movements” that by their repetition and magnitude contributed to surprising growth and breakthroughs, and also provoked perpetual crises. The final crisis intervened between 1971 and 1973.

Certainly, other organizations born since have claimed Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought for themselves. But it seems to me that the overall situation in which they conduct their efforts and the relationship that they can have with the Chinese Revolution today are very different than those existing for previous waves. I will only speak, therefore, of the generation of Marxist-Leninist militants in which I participated, myself.

At the time of that final crisis, the problem we confronted, insofar as we were professional revolutionaries – passing from a single strike to the organization of a group of factory militants, from a movement among the armed forces to a prison uprising, from organizing a demonstration to writing magazine articles – can be easily formulated: how to reinsert ourselves back into society? No doubt, like me, you know the tremendous consequences of individuals operating enclosed within a politically confined world, where we only know people who share our own views, and where all information is passed through an incredibly rigid grid. A collective interpretation is almost always immediately arrived at and the world, deprived of its mysteries and of its complex hues, ends up reduced to a collection of stereotypes. We see schizophrenic behavior begin to develop. A dream-world and a dream-France, only distantly related to the real world and the real France, are constructed. The mechanics of this breakdown are easy to unpack. For a few hundred people between 1965 and 1972, France was only perceived through strikes, demonstrations, incidents that broke out at different points in society or in the state apparatus. These people never engaged in ordinary activity in a business, an office, an ordinary community, as we do every day (including the uneventful days!). The cross-section of society that we knew had no value for a representation of the whole, since we always chose places where things were happening. Elsewhere things were quite spectacularly not happening; an essential part of reality escaped from view, and a completely distorted view of reality resulted.

This always posed a problem and it took a particularly acute form in the end. When I worked for the press of the GP (Gauche prolétarienne) (J’Accuse and then la Cause du peuple-J’Accuse), two lines were vigorously opposed to each other. One sought to establish a relationship with reality that was not entirely disconnected – nor deceptive: if only 500 people attended a demonstration one would say that there were only 500 people; if a strike went badly, one would explain why it went badly. The other line could be called voluntarism or idealism but it also encompassed those forms that were most skeptical towards the will to power and careerism of petit-bourgeois intellectuals. This line consisted in saying: we represent the proletariat; if our comrades from the rank-and-file demand that we say that there were 10,000 people then we must say so, etc. Conflict of this sort occurred regularly and pushed us into a vicious cycle: voluntarist pressures cut us off from those we called “democrats” or people we could have formed links with, and this greatly reduced our ability to appreciate reality.

There’s one point I’d like to insist upon. I describe here what I knew directly. But, in my opinion, it’s a very general phenomenon. While certain so-called “Maoist” organizations took this capacity for schizophrenia to an extreme, it seems to me to be a property of all far-left organizations. No doubt, for other comrades it’s not actually exhibited in such a pathological form, but it is evident from reading their newspapers, or from listening to their interpretations of events, that the whole of social reality finds itself sifted through a very weak framework, with very few variations and where one can almost always predict in advance what will be said of one thing or another. By the way, this is what always makes reading the far left’s newspapers an absolute source of sadness. Moreover, far-left militants often see themselves as somehow sticking to reality by accepting the institutional form through which our society produces “news” (items reported or even constructed by the major newspapers and other journalistic outlets and indeed “political life” itself, as is seen these days with “anniversaries” and other such idiocies…). In bowing down before this artificial superstructure, they more often than not neglect to explore fields of reality that almost never appear on the news (since the news is a rigorously limited representation that society generates of itself). At the extreme, there is a curious conjunction of schizophrenia and conformism, which I believe would make a good subject for analysis. This mechanism, which we came to know in pathological form, continues to exist in a mode that could be described as more routine, more normal…

These problems about how to perceive the world and how to reinsert ourselves back into society have confronted us for a long time, including the whole period of our activity as professional revolutionaries. One can always evade the issue, until the moment comes when the organization collapses and everyone finds themselves at sea. Whether or not we want to, each of us then has to re-enter “ordinary” relations with society. Or, not quite always, to tell the truth. It’s a question of occupational and social activity as well as of one’s mentality. And, certain well-placed individuals find a loophole at a price – affordable enough to them apparently – of becoming spectacular turncoats. Fundamentally, the leading rhetoricians and other windbags of the nouvelle philosophie continue to follow the same old formula. They turn out any old sophistry from scraps of reality, which are then sorted through a rudimentary framework before being incorporated into an elaborate fantasy with delirious themes all of its own. This is quite artificial (since they are far from mad…). But only a handful of people who are full of hot air make a lot of noise. The overwhelming majority of militants have been scattered in numerous different directions.

From 1972 onwards, the strategies of people who had participated in our movement came to be abruptly individualized yet again. Everyone tried to find a way out, and there were lots of different routes. Some showed a panic-stricken fear of ordinary life, of the reality of finding stable work again, of having occupational responsibilities. They found for themselves a thousand and one reasons to continue the lifestyle of the militant free from the constraints of common social life, yet still tied to the cultural or intellectual order – all to avoid plunging into the fate faced by the majority of 53 million French people.

Others invested the abilities they had been able to acquire during their militant period in various sectors: campaigning, advertising, research, journalism, psychoanalysis, etc.

Others, for their part, have tried, despite brutal changes in conditions, to maintain continuity in their activity. To both find an occupation, a normal relationship with society, re-establishing a dialogue with people who think and live differently from themselves, while still continuing to fight in this altered universe for the same things: the birth of political forces linked to the working class; resistance to capitalist and imperialist oppression; the struggle against exploitation. Some became lawyers and continued to defend workers by specializing in employment law. Others were linked to the unions. Others even stayed on the shop floor and were said, therefore, to have become “naturalized” workers.

We have covered a very difficult period and I think it has been useful to let the dust settle. The ambitious ones who had bet, 10 or 15 years ago, on rapid revolutionary success to secure their place in the sun did not resist the backlash of the 1970s. Their renunciations multiplied as they threw themselves into the arms of the bourgeoisie. Good riddance. The others, the vast majority, I’m sure, will one day struggle once again, only with stronger convictions and vaster experience.

For my part, I took up the role of teacher and economist. I dedicated all of my work, inquiry, writing, research, teaching, to the question of production. That is to say, essentially, to everything that concerns the operation of industrial and agricultural production, to how goods are produced today: steel, petrol, automobiles, radio sets, knitwear, corn, Liège lace, hormone-laced veal, plates, etc., etc.

Underlying these choices, there is a simple idea. It seems to me that we have a very superficial and hazy understanding of the working class and production. More than a century after Capital, there remains a largely unexplored world to be discovered.

And often we hold on to ideas, definitions, and descriptions from that moment when Marxism was born and first encountered the working-class movement. Well, the world has changed since Marx’s epoch. And if it is true, as Marx said, that the relations of production are the heart of society, of the system of exploitation, it seems to me that it is difficult to form an opinion no matter the subject (ideology, the state, superstructure, international relations, the general tendencies of societies…) without researching relatively concrete (and up to date) knowledge of relations of production – of the real way men produce objects.

Principally, I do this with a method I have experimented with for quite a long time (since 1964), that of the inquiry in various forms. I think that it is indispensable to maintain and develop a direct relationship with the real world of production. Otherwise, no reading or documentary effort can suffice to yield more than barely adequate knowledge. My most recent works are: an inquiry on technology transfer in Algeria in 1974; participation in agrarian reforms in the south of Portugal in 1975 (where I worked for a time with teams from the Agrarian Reform Regional Centres which helped to expropriate the large landowners, and to form collective bargaining units managed by agricultural workers); and the establishment, along with French trade union organizations, of inquiries and courses intended for workers on the organization of labor (in the auto, petrochemical, and cement industries in particular). In addition, I teach at the University of Vincennes and, in intermittent fashion, for the personnel of INSEE.4 I hope that this overview of my current professional and political activity more-or-less addresses your question.

CC: With regards to questions of the production process, very important changes have occurred in the past ten years that are often ignored, under-appreciated, misunderstood. Could you outline these?

RL: I’d first like to comment on a point you raise that also seems important to me too: the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of these changes and, more generally, the difficult of acquiring knowledge of the production process. This might seem altogether strange, but if we suppose someone wanted to provide an audience interested in these issues (students for example) with an account of the way in which we produce, say, textiles in France (the scale and of units of production, the production process itself, how labor is broken-down and standardized, the division of labor between different enterprises and within each of them, the description of machinery and motion….), it couldn’t be done. I’ve had this problem myself and I’ve resolved it only imperfectly. It’s practically impossible to find works on large industries that are simple, descriptive, and (I insist on this point) global in scope; on the complete process by which we move from raw material to a finished product.

Evidently, an enormous literature exists on the “sociology of labor,” but it always lacks an overall analysis of the process of production (no doubt because we presume that other disciplines cover this: economics, technology… But economists don’t take into account the concrete reality of the production process while studies of technology are at once too specialized and too compartmentalized to provide an overview). 

What happens is that researchers overstate the significance of a certain number of specific job roles and situations at work on the basis of which we get descriptions, analyses, and arguments to the detriment of an overarching perspective and analysis of the labor force which contributes to a particular industry. Take the steel industry as an example of the ways changes have intervened in labor. Look at the rolling mill. We once fused metal bars by hand, with the help of pincers. This has since been automated. 

It is all computerized today. There have been three generations of rolling mill operators, etc. Fine, today a rolling mill operator generally works 3 x 8 shifts from a control room, running an enormous facility through labor that is in large part intellectual – or at least not based upon physical effort. Instead, we’re right to insist on mental exertion, on wear and tear, and the disruption that accompanies shift work, etc. But to suggest that we have here the overall transformation of manual labor and that “antiquated” forms of production based upon the hyper-exploitation of physical effort and the direct control of movements tend to be effaced within the most modern industries, is to become detached from the reality of a labor process that remains much more complex and unequal than we often imagine. You will find a number of studies, for example, on the shiftwork of rolling mill operators or the shiftwork of petrochemical workers, or various other types of manual labor. But most case studies of this sort have a ridiculous aspect if we do not take the prior precaution of verifying how the recomposition of the production process has produced other types of workers often relegated to unskilled labor, other satellites industries, other points at which labor-power is concentrated (construction sites, industrial zones, industrial port zones, enormous shipyards, etc.).

We cannot eschew a point of view of the whole if we want to perceive the real changes happening to manual labor. Often, the physical tasks from which one person has been relieved have surreptitiously been reallocated to someone else, but this is semi-obscured by subcontracting agreements or management contracts. The enormous steel mill rolls do not dismantle themselves; the giant distillation tanks and columns do not clean themselves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The push-button factory that we hear so much idle chat about is nothing but trompe d’œil, the emerging tip of an iceberg. To truly understand the production process, one must delve into the whole of enterprise, all the people, all the groups of workers that participate in the production of a product or a set of products. We then discover an increasingly complex system of production along with all its ramifications: subcontracting both nationally and internationally, service contractors, temporary work, the interpenetration of firms, capital investment, production plants. We discover that it is increasingly difficult to track a product and to delimit the frontiers of a determinate production process. This is the first obstacle, and it is a substantial one. Before even saying: “Alright, we’re going to study the transformations that have occurred in petrochemicals, in the steel industry, or the production of aluminum”, one must seek to delimit what that represents as a concrete field of inquiry. To do so is to assume that, to know how steel is produced, it is sufficient to have the list of job descriptions at Sacilor.5 But this is completely false. There are stacks of other companies that participate in steel production: AVS (“À votre service”), SOMAFER, SKF, SPIE Batignolles, both large and small firms, specialist companies, operations companies, companies not classified as steel producers but as mechanics, construction, metalwork, electronics, distribution, recruitment, engineering, etc. Dozens and dozens of enterprises.

Here lies the first difficulty. It rests with the increasingly complex character of the process of production. Moreover, to be rigorous one would need to take into account the entirety of operations taking place internationally: production, services, engineering. For example, if one wants to examine an oil empire, evidently, one must incorporate a vast distribution system.

Recent events revealed a fragment of this reality where the transportation of oil by fleets sailing under flags of convenience is concerned. Shipowners charter cargo for large multinationals on ships used to the point that, at times, one could describe them as “floating slums” where a sub-proletarian crew recruited in the Third World under draconian contracts work in shocking conditions. You have veritable slave traders who subcontract shipping for Shell, as was made evident in the Amoco Cadiz disaster.6 It’s as true for Exxon, BP, for the fleets of ore carriers and for all manner of distribution networks. Given there had been a disaster, the newspapers discussed it a bit in the case of Shell. When there isn’t a disaster, nobody speaks of it. This means that, in general, people retain a mythological view: Shell is a large company, with a workforce that is an aristocracy of labor, etc. But the miserable sailors from Hong Kong, from Formosa, or from Singapore, who are carted about upon immense floating tombs with cargos of 200,000 or 500,000 tonnes of oil contribute just as much to Shell’s profits as the migrant workers that work in very tough conditions in refineries and elsewhere and which go unmentioned in the public tours of refineries or in accounts of work in oil industry brochures. And moreover, such a system is equally thoroughly developed for distribution, for cleaning, maintenance, the production of byproducts, etc.

There’s a second challenge. Even supposing that we’ve succeeded in approximately delimiting the object of study adequately, the world of production is not easily penetrated. Those that hold the first-hand knowledge are people with vested interests. On the one hand, the capitalists, on the other hand, the workers. In addition, all those who assist in production: industrial engineers, management, etc.; all of these people have a direct relation to production. The management at Sacilor know approximately how steel is produced. They can define company strategy. They know which roles will be reorganized, the functions which will be outsourced from the company and placed with subcontractors, the evolution of personnel and procurement policies and the rhythm of production. They know where they’re going and they know where they’ve been. They confront Usinor, etc.7 But, as you know, this is an extremely impenetrable world. The CNPF,8 employers, the steel industry, iron masters9 all have a reputation for discretion. For instance, there’s global surveillance of steel unions through a system of police files, intelligence-sharing, and a close analysis of the evolving mindset of the workforce. Of course, all of this is done in secret.

Information circulates between employers and the upper echelons of management. The bosses travel, visit, and study what is being done in the United States, in Japan, or in the Scandinavian countries. They keep themselves up to date. They get into the details of the challenges or bottlenecks at Volvo or the successes at Toyota. But as a coherent system, all of this remains the exclusive domain of the employers. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of how this is applied at some point or other and we learn by chance of an innovation that is the fruit of such exchanges of experience. For example, at Radiotechnique de Rambouillet (part of Philips), a boss returned from Japan inspired by the local practice of giving badges to those workers deemed to be of “good quality”; those who commit errors below a given percentage limit and who achieve certain rates. The company in question produces car radios, with a predominantly female workforce, and with tasks strictly Taylorized. The workers have to attach components to circuits made in Taiwan or elsewhere and, in principle, the minimum [sic] threshold for errors is three in ten thousand operations. This demands an extraordinary visual effort. Now, workers who do not exceed three errors thus receive a badge and a small bonus. It’s a means of posing workers against one another. Naturally, one wouldn’t find a published study explaining that this company decided to apply Japanese methods. A whole body of analysis and information circulates among employers that workers perceive only through its application, and which people on the outside cannot become aware of unless they come into contact with those working in the company. Capitalists thus study the process of production and exchange knowledge among themselves, but this rarely leaves their milieu and even then only in the form of its practical applications.

And there is a further large category of people who have knowledge of the process of production, these are the workers. Their knowledge is naturally much more profound. (If 500 Philips engineers were assigned to production work at Radiotechnique this would yield nothing, certainly not radios!) But at the same time, it is far more fragmented. Workers are confined to one role without knowledge of what goes on elsewhere. Almost everywhere, employers can say to this or that group of workers that their case is “an exception”. It is difficult for them, the workers, to recompose the entirety of the process of production. Moreover, one hardly has the time for this when one works eight or ten hours per day. There is massive potential for knowledge that is practically unexplored, undeveloped. Of course, there are the trade unions. But when trade unionists get together they have so many problems to resolve that in general, they don’t find the time to address this one. On this subject, one must insist on the fact that, since 1968, employers increasingly suck trade unionists into negotiating mechanisms, in commissions, in consultations, training, etc., that eat up most of their time, such as facility time or days on call. This erosion of trade unionists’ time means that they often struggle to describe concretely what happens within corporations, not out of bad faith but due to this deliberate policy of upward absorption carried out by employers, which is a subtle policy for wearing them down. From the trade union side, then, there’s no systematic development of the fields of knowledge of the process of production. Inequalities in terms of trade union representation constitute further obstacles to forming a complete overview.

If we accept that people who are inside the process of production abstain for one reason or another from systematically reporting on production to those on the outside, or only communicate in snippets, where can this information come from? I know very well that all of this doesn’t prevent academics and those referred to as researchers from producing a mountain of texts on labor, production, and industry. But we can easily note that there is a cumulative process that nourishes itself on professional necessities. Each writes primarily about what others have written and books essentially devour and transform books, not experiences and direct knowledge. Hence there is a gigantic disproportion between the volume of works printed and the modest quantity of concrete information that circulates.

In brief, if we want to understand something, I think there’s nothing to do but go see it oneself and to patiently collect the most direct knowledge possible. Go see the sites of production, speak with workers and businesspeople, engineers, work where possible together with workers, participate directly in production. This patient work of identifying reality as concretely as possible is what I call “making inquiries.”

I would like to make a final remark on the urgency of this method. It seems to me that we’re entering a period where the concealment of the realities of production by the bourgeoisie’s propaganda and “information” systems has characteristics that are much more subtle and, hence, more efficient and more dangerous than in the past. Employers have been in the process, for a number of years now, of moving towards a policy of “openness” and “branding.”

Fifteeen or so years ago, factories amounted to a closed world and one had to seek out testimonies. Today, they feign opening up to some extent. Employers progressively arrived at the idea that it was more advantageous to have delegations or groups come and show them select things rather than imposing a wall of silence.

One therefore sees the development of a systematic policy of factory visits, more or less acknowledged publicity films (at times distributed under the guise of journalism, on television for example), exhibitions and various means of imagery that, for instance, today feed campaigns like that of Stoléru’s “revalorization of manual labor.”10 It’s a deliberate strategy that, far from putting an end to the internal absolutism or totalitarianism of the enterprise, only perfects it. In France the Citroën archipelago is a totalitarian police universe, whose outward representation is systematically framed and oriented by grossly deceptive propaganda. The CNPF has published a brochure on factory visits for the bosses themselves. It suggests how to organize visits, how to set them up, how to welcome visitors, and how to produce the desired effect the “right image.” It’s all very precise, down to the rhythm of the tour and the best type of itinerary. One amusing detail: it insists that the route for arriving at the factory be perfectly marked. Otherwise, we learn, visitors risk “erring” into streets such as “Maurice Thorez” or “Henri Barbusse” in inhospitable neighborhoods and which would certainly aggravate them…

We’re thus perhaps heading towards more clever methods of obscuring the labor process which will permit bosses to “show” the interior of the factory. Not all of them though. For instance, today one cannot visit Renault-Billancourt but one can visit Renault-Flins. It’s true that the tour is rushed and that it’s impossible to get a sense of the cadence of an assembly line when one traverses the shop floor in two minutes. In addition, we don’t get to visit the shopfloors of large-scale presses, foundries, paint shopsBut most of all, for a lot of industries, to show the large central enterprise is to offer a truncated view of the tangle of labors bearing on the final product. We’d visit a refinery control room but we’d never be brought for a tour of the small subcontractors’ plants, the managers, the slavers that furnish thousands of people to the enterprise. Just recently a grave accident occurred at the Rhône-Poulenc factory at Pont-de-Claix: the four hundred victims were immigrants, temporary workers. We have there the means by which the statistical rates of large industrial accidents are artificially reduced: the people doing manual labor within a facility are decreasingly employed directly by the enterprise and instead are subcontracted; the accidents affecting them will be strewn across diverse enterprises in transport, in construction, in metalwork, metallurgy.

It’s very important to have all this in mind to understand that no one today can accurately claim: “I will explain to you the labor process and production in steelmaking, automotive, textiles…” It’s really difficult. One is obliged to grope. One often follows circuitous paths.

I’m not saying this to dodge the question, but to try to show the limits and lacunae that accompany any answer. Given these reservations, it seems to me that on the whole we’re witnessing, along with a lot of inequalities and complex forms, a tendency born in the continual process industries…

CC: Which is to say?

RL: To produce an object on an industrial scale in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, men needed to get hold of raw materials, work it directly, passing discontinuously through the different stages of the division of labor. With the development of chemistry, organic chemistry, and the petrochemical and steel industries, we find ourselves faced with units of production that no longer correspond with this schema, which arose out of craft manufacturing and the ancient trades. These new types of units of production consist of the achievements of the laboratory expanded to the scale of an actual industrial sector. What is a chemical plant? It is the reproduction on an industrial scale of retorts, test tubes, mixtures. The reactions are the same, although we go from a few grams to thousands of tonnes. Once chemical experiments prove conclusive, we move on to the construction of these industrial installations.

What sort of work will this provide? Two types of work. First, the control and surveillance work by which laboratory processes are conducted and observed on an industrial scale and, it follows, maintenance work of the industrial infrastructure itself: making towers, tanks, pipelines, valves, electrical networks, metal infrastructure, etc. It is often forgotten, but the human hand is evidently never absent from an automated installation. Both types of work are equally indispensable.

Employers’ labor policies are highly differentiated for these two types of work. There is an ever-increasing tendency towards “outsourcing” everything from the business except “control” activities: cleaning always, transport almost always, and often maintenance and exploration. Employers have even attempted to “outsource” everything, that is to say using temporary workers for manufacturing. But, there was very firm trade-union resistance to this, and the attempts ended abruptly.

Employers claim that the division of these two types of employment – direct employment by the business for “the manufacturing process,” that is to say control, subcontracting for the rest – originate from technological constraints. This is false. Maintenance work can be planned and irregularities absorbed with stable employment. 

From a strategic perspective in relation to the class struggle, that would evidently offer significantly fewer advantages to management. But there is nothing to prevent us from thinking in terms of maintenance, cleaning and transport “pools” conducting operations in a flexible manner as part of the business’s permanent workforce, employed on the same basis as other staff. Elsewhere, in other systems of social production, the ordinary personnel of the refinery have responsibility for all these tasks. For example, this is one of the problems for technology transfer between Italy and Poland. When Italy sells a ready-to-use refinery to Poland, it can be difficult to replicate staffing levels and productivity because the Polish refinery’s personnel directly carry out all the tasks subcontracted out by the Italian management.

In our countries the capitalist policy towards these two types of workforces is very different. Employers endeavor to consolidate this differentiation by playing on divisions that are central to the working class. Towards the core working class, the permanent staff of the Sacilor steelworks or the Shell refinery, the capitalist strategy aims primarily towards a form of integration. This does not mean that management do not confront the working class and the unions. Manufacturing workers lead often intense struggles. But there is, nonetheless, a management policy that aims to integrate, to some extent, the stable workforce with the responsibilities of the business. From this point of view, an enormous ideological effort takes place that is not without results. In the refineries, one often hears talk of “craft” in a narrow sense. “We are refiners”; you hear a CEO insinuating to a control room worker, “we are neither transporters nor street sweepers; it’s normal to subcontract out all that.” Likewise, in a cement works it is said that “we are cement makers,” in a steel works that “we are steel workers…,” etc. It comes as no surprise that these expressions, used by senior management to justify dismantling everything, should then be taken up and internalized by the workers.

The problem is that we know very well what “production” means in these continual process industries. Let us take an example. There is a unit with capacity for 100,000 tonnes of ethylene. For one reason or another (lack of demand) this unit only produces 50,000 tonnes of ethylene. One fine day, someone says: “We must go up to 100,000 tonnes.” The guys turn a few knobs and, from one hour to the next, output reaches 100,000 tonnes. Evidently, this would not be possible with the automotive industry. Here, the fact that it is possible to no longer have a direct relationship between physical movement and the volume of output creates a particular relationship to production, which is different from that in the classical industries. Of course, there are maintenance tasks that are more proportionate in their dimensions. And yet, the mere fact of “outsourcing” these activities from the business further extends the gap between the volume of output and the activity of labor-power. Numerous complicated and physically fatiguing aspects of work are outsourced. If we want to grasp the relationship, which still remains close, between labor-power and the scale of production, the whole must be taken into account.

I have spoken about the integration of the “core” working class of these industries. You need not imagine that this happens easily. People continue to defend their own interests, which are not those of the employer. One of the major problems of control room work, for example, is that it is carried out in shifts, which are called “3 x 8.” Workers follow three constantly changing shift patterns, and we know this has terrible neurological and physiological consequences, the body being unable to adapt itself to incessantly changing sleep and meal times. (Stomach ulcers are a shift work illness.) This stirs up discontent and, just recently, there have been important waves of strikes in the continuous process industries against shift work. This is one reason that studies have been conducted here and there over the past twenty or thirty years into how to bring shift work to an end here.

For the moment, employers claim that it is a technological necessity to work continuously 24 hours a day in these industries. Therefore, there are conflicts with numerous points of contention (over pay, differentials, career paths, professional qualifications, security etc.). This “core” working class cannot be defined as a completely integrated aristocracy of labor, despite some aspects of its ideology (“the refiner’s trade,” “the steelworker’s trade”…). But, it shows certain aspects of an aristocracy of labor in one sense, by barely taking charge of the interests of other sections of the working class incorporated within the same process of production: the debris, outsourced and temporary, of the small subcontracting outfits. But, that is where the least favored and the most exploited sections of the working class – immigrants, women, students are compelled to work. The most dangerous work and the hardest repression are found there. Often, it is not possible to join a union, and working conditions seem to have come straight out of the nineteenth century. Having the means to stop production and impose new regulations, the core working class is the only actual force that could effectively defend the interests of these other sections. On the whole, we note that the core working class barely takes any account of these “peripheral” categories though. More often than not the “core” workers do not even know what happens in the world of subcontracting in their own plant. For them, it’s just another type of work, carried out by another sort of worker (often immigrants). It is difficult to take account of it precisely, to know who employs them. A large operation is carried out, cleaning or maintenance? Four hundred guys zoom in, of which three hundred and fifty are temporary. They stay there a month then disappear. What becomes of them next? No one knows.…

It is very disturbing that this policy, which is systematic in continual process industries, has a tendency to spread across all branches of industrial production. This differentiated management of the working class presents such advantages for management that it is now seen to develop in industry where it cannot even be justified on technological grounds. The same thing is also done in the textile and automobile industries etc. The Japanese example leads the way. A core working class incorporated into an intensely paternalistic system is in evidence. This is surrounded by a spider’s web of subcontracting, with Korean immigrants or others participating in production without existing socially. In any case, the exceptional development of this system in Japan explains to a large extent the record productivity figures that so fascinate Western employers. Toyota appears to employ two times fewer people than Renault to knock out the same number of cars. But in fact, if you include everyone within the subcontracting system, the productivity figures are much more comparable. Some of the glowing visions of Japan, based on this sort of optical illusion, should not be relied upon.

Take the experience of continual process industries abroad, for example in Japan. Tougher government policy regarding immigrants and temporary workers are also elements that encourage employers to adopt a policy of structural division between the relatively stable working class, with which one tries to come to an arrangement (creating “careers,” negotiating with unions) and a whole section of the population for whom the argument essentially remains one about being fired, clubbed with batons and, in the case of immigrants, deported. There are abundant examples of the policy. In the textile industry subcontracting has expanded enormously with some extreme examples: incredibly small clandestine workshops (twenty undocumented Yugoslavs or Turks working twelve-hour days in a cellar…) subcontracting work from major outfits. A policy operates to this end even in the major public sector firms (coal mining, EDF, PTT).11 Just recently a serious accident occurred on Avenue de Latour-Maubourg in central Paris. A group of workers were installing telephone lines underground without any retaining structures. A concrete block fell and two Portuguese workers died. These workers installed telephones, so they worked for PTT. Yet, PTT immediately said, “This wasn’t us, it’s a matter for the subcontractor.” Even Imagining that the CEO went to prison, which didn’t happen, PTT wouldn’t give a shit. And yet, the work of PTT evidently involves the installation of [telephone] lines. Likewise, in the mines coal cutting is subcontracted. Not long ago a Turkish worker died on the coal face, crushed by a block of coal. A subcontractor employed him; he was not considered to be a miner. Yet, what could be considered more like the work of a miner than hewing coal from the face of the mine?

That is how employers come to break the gains won by whole sections of the working class. The same thing happened at Renault: upholstery work begins to be subcontracted. What do the women employed in the upholstery workshops do? They work as sewing machinists. Why not make them do it for small regional outfits? This is what happens at Sandouville. The immediate result: the girls who are going to make car seat covers lose Renault’s benefit package and can be paid SMIC.12 That can go a long way. A lot of things can be subcontracted, completely dismantling factories and workshops. In Italy this seems to be systematic.

And so we see a differentiated management policy for the two principal sections of the working class developing well beyond what would lend itself to production for technological reasons. If we want to be comprehensive, it is necessary to take account of the fact that, according to the logic of employers, this does not just take place within national borders. Just as you can install sewing machines in the home, so you can make t-shirts in Hong Kong. When the senior managers of an employer have all the elements to hand, they choose the most advantageous system that could be at a global scale. This is a cascading system made up of interpretation, exchange and subcontracts, and by which a part of production takes place abroad.

In short, the production of a French product often involves the workers of the large core enterprise, all the peripheral workers in France itself, much less well known, and a whole cluster of industries scattered throughout the Third World with much more appalling working conditions. This is the case in Morocco, in Tunisia, in Singapore etc. It has every possibility of developing in other Third World countries in which the governments wish to attract assembly or garment plants with a cheap workforce. Hence, Egypt has a project to create a free zone for the Suez Canal to this end.

When one wants to have an idea of the whole of labor-power that really contributes to the production of surplus-value for a particular product, all of this must be taken into account. All this web of relations defines the actual form in which capitalist production is organized. 

PSA-Talbot-Poissy, grève de 1984, atelier B3. Eyeda/Keystone-France.

Two Remarks

The first is on the terms “core working class” and “peripheral working class.” I employ these for convenience, even though in many cases the “peripheral” working class is the majority. In reality, there is quite a lot of diversity between concrete situations. The stable core is far from having the same status everywhere. As for subcontracting, it is based on capitalist competition between all the small outfits that put themselves forward to work for a large firm. The more difficult the situation is for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), the more the large company is going to put pressure on the market. What will happen in the SME? It could become a sweatshop, specializing in undocumented migrant labor and a trafficked workforce. A tragic situation of repression, pure and simple, sometimes organized in coordination with the recruitment systems of large companies. In 1971, when a Black man contacted the recruitment department at Berliet, he was told: “No work for you here, but they’re hiring at ‘52 Skid Row.’” The next day he ends up in a sweatshop and, in fact, still finds himself working for Berliet, but at lower pay, with no rights, etc.

There is another possibility: a variety of paternalism adapted for SMEs with skilled labor. The employer calls together his 30 craftsmen and announces to them: “Here we are guys, Renault offered us some work as subcontractors. Since there is nothing else on the market, we have to take it, even if it means working for ten hours a day, but only getting paid for eight. If we don’t take it, we’re going under.” It is not unusual to see workers accept such a situation in a period of crisis and even making representations to larger outfits to find business. This second possibility leads to the same result: obtaining a workforce for a low price.

So, this is a complex system of exploitation, but one that essentially tallies with the relationships between SMEs and large companies. On top of this, the government has already announced its intention for a major initiative and that this will be central to its industrial policy. Without a doubt, this system of relations between large companies and SMEs is called for to achieve a very granular fragmentation of the working class by so-called economic means. No one will believe that a salary increase will threaten to weaken Renault. On the other hand, the guys from the small outfit are put on notice to either bow down or face bankruptcy. How can an SME of 150 subcontractors bring Dassault to its knees? This is not possible. Only if workers, even at Dassault, take on the problems of subcontractors.

The whole structures of trade-union and workers’ organization would have to be reviewed to re-establish units wherever employers achieve this division. Union branches would be needed at each site, organizations operating across different outfits etc. For the moment, I repeat, this is out of the question.

As a second remark, we remain too often caught up with the image of the factory as the basic unit of production. Yet, in my opinion actually, the factory is in the process of disappearing as a significant unit in production as a whole. It has already disappeared to a large extent from the continuous process industries, where we talk in terms of clusters. For petrochemicals, for continuous process production, the unit is the cluster. This presents itself as an interconnection of numerous production processes, of numerous businesses. Among the prospects for the automobile industry is subcontracting abroad, in particular to countries in the East. For example, Yugoslavia specializes in the production of Peugeot engines. A combine will be created to produce, it is said, 50,000 engines required for its own cars and another 150,000 to resell under a long-term deal to the parent company which can then progressively reduce its engine production.

This creates a relationship of dependency for the country that accepts this agreement, since it absolutely needs to shift a disproportionate proportion of its production. It also provides the benefits of an assured source of procurement for the parent company. In general, the more you subcontract the more you destroy the factory as a distinct unit of concentration of workers in the hands of any individual capitalist, producing in a given location.

It is surprising that this evolution, however visible, provides the object of so little inquiry and analysis. No doubt, a degree of ideological blockage enters into how much ignorance there generally is about this. It is with difficulty that we in France recognize how different subcategories of the population function as a subaltern proletariat. We struggle to see the relationship between discrimination – because of age, sex, or nationality – and the structure of the labor process itself. However, this is the reality. There is a dual labor market: some have the capacity to negotiate while others do not, some have rights and others do not. In the final analysis, the state guarantees the organization of all this, as do international relations by means of immigration. The whole system constantly produces subordinate workers to occupy subordinate positions in the process of production.

England is the only capitalist country, to my knowledge, where this is studied in a manner that is at all systematic. Sociologists and economists, principally from Bristol, have made inquiries, in liaison with the trade unions or independently of them, into the petrochemical, automobile, and cement industries. They have studied divisions within the working class in England and the modes of its segregations, as well as the ways in which these divisions are inscribed upon the labor process. You could cite Andrew Friedman, Theo Nichols, Huw Beynon, Peter Armstrong. These are Marxists, but ones who say that you won’t find out how to account for all of this by clinging on to the text of Capital and the schematic interpretations that have been applied to it subsequently. Without trying to create new Marxist tools to take account of it, you’re left with too general an assessment of reality, and you are unable to account for what they call the micro-realities of the working class. For example, they critique Braverman, who sees Taylorism as the only mode of control and organization of workers’ labor. They try to define a more complex game between two strategies that they name “responsible autonomy” and “direct control.”

CC: What is the likely political impact of this evolution of the labor process?

RL: This is the big problem. But, one cannot deal with it just by considering these two terms. There isn’t a direct relationship between the transformation of the labor process and the political system. If you want to turn to the political system, a whole range of contradictions have to be taken into account, both within a society and at an international level, particularly given how the imperialist system functions in relation to the Third World.

For France, the whole evolution of society has to be taken into account: the mechanisms of the state, administration, regional contradictions, and forms of cultural domination. It’s a common mistake to want to draw inferences directly from the evolution of the labor process to one form of political representation or another. Doing so considerably impoverishes one’s analysis.

The truth is that these tendencies in the labor process, which I have just described, clearly inscribe themselves in the evolution of how the state is managed, as observed over the past decade. Let’s say the turning point was 1967 to 1969, the social crisis of the Gaullist regime and the General’s departure. In this period and in the years that followed, we contributed to the relative failure of a very centralized and authoritarian mode of managing the state. This had proven its effectiveness in resolving certain problems, but was no longer able to control certain complex aspects of society’s evolution.

The Gaullist system, in the strictest sense, gave way to a much more refined framework,13 which adopted much more flexible administrative, ideological and cultural means, as well as government by divisions and by lobbyists. This was based on the management of sectoral crises, so as to maintain a general equilibrium in the interest of the bourgeoisie. 1968 was the pivotal moment of this turn.

1968? There were two clearly distinct phenomena. A deep movement of discontent and revolt against rising unemployment, stagnant pay, oppression in the factories, which burst into an immense strike by workers. And a petit-bourgeois “happening,” which has held the limelight for ideologues and the mass media ever since, and will be marked by this year’s grotesque anniversary. But the explosion of students and intellectuals was something secondary, which effectively functioned to signal on the part of large sections of the petit bourgeoisie to say: “we no longer want to live like this.” This gave an extremely disorderly appearance at some stages to changes that took place thereafter, which have effectively modified (and strengthened) many aspects of bourgeois power.

On the whole, the working class obtained very little from the movement. On the other hand, things went much better for the petit-bourgeoisie. Much has changed in terms of morality, education, family lives, sex lives, the scope for different sorts of sociologists and psychologists to go and exercise their talents in different spheres of government. We have helped to reframe society on a vast scale in terms of medicalization, “social work,” urban planning, lifelong learning, research, etc. At the same time, this has reinforced the system’s overall control over the working class and the productive population, multiplying the warning signs and points of intervention for “social prevention measures,” and providing professional and social openings for a whole mass of intellectuals of the “humanities and social sciences” whose discontent made so much noise in May 1968.

We have witnessed a massive expansion of capitalism, of the capitalist mode of production, in the structures of the university and of research, and in cultural production, which had up until then maintained certain archaic characteristics.

If you want a condensed evaluation of May 1968, you could describe it as a shock to society that demonstrated that the excessively rigid Gaullist state system no longer corresponded with what was needed. This system was simultaneously called into question by the working class and by the petit bourgeoisie, and even by the haute bourgeoisie, which has begun to lose faith in it. The first political consequence to unfold from it came the next year. De Gaulle sensed the need for intervention to mediate between an overly rigid regime and a diverse population. He aimed to achieve this through his regional policy. But, other needs, those of a more complex modern technocracy, came into play: the referendum was lost and De Gaulle left. In point of fact, a period of eleven clearly defined years, from 1958 to 1969, came to an end. In a sense, there was a return to certain aspects of what existed before 1958, while incorporating the gains of the Gaullist period and lessons from the crisis.

From the point of view of the political institutions, what collapsed in 1958? A very flexible governmental regime, constantly displaced and returned to equilibrium by the mechanism of proportionality, frequent governmental crises that allowed any pressure group to make representations and modify the relationship between political forces. The government could be brought down by the bouilleur de cru.14 Within the bourgeoisie, this constituted a regime that was democratic enough. The different factions of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie had their chance to impose this or that measure, but also to block this or that urgent reform.

This system of the Fourth Republic had its advantages except in the case of a severe crisis. However, France went through at least three major crises: the colonial crisis; the crisis of European competition (the Common Market treaty was signed in 1958 and there was fear of German competition); and the crisis of an aging economy, a bit like England now. France lost certain characteristics of an industrial country: agricultural production and primary materials made up too large a part of exports; there was a lack of major industrial facilities etc. At the most intense moment of this crisis, different sections of the bourgeoisie took fright and looked for a man sent by providence. In fact, from 1958 the Gaullist regime had largely settled these three problems. It pulled France out of the colonial trap and laid the foundations for a new form of French imperialism. It lay the groundwork for the conditions for European competition. It put in place a project of industrialization (under the aegis of Giscard d’Estaing, then Minister of Finance). In 1967 Stoléru’s “industrial imperative” appeared and this was the year of peak consolidation, of mergers, but also of weaknesses and unemployment. Thus a decade of tough politics to regulate major problems, one which involved treading on plenty of peoples’ toes. This tough policy only achieved its objectives by accumulating disaffection. Evidently, it did not provide a clear line of sight to steer between different strata of competing interests. In the end it blew up.

There is now a tendency towards a more flexible system with a supposedly “centrist” government and the possibility of overthrowing parliamentary alliances, but resting on an immense social framework principally put in place over the last ten years. The Fourth Republic has a certain number of characteristics inherited from the Fifth, but with a much stronger executive and the social framework developed since 1968, which was put in place with the help of a good part of the “anti-establishment” generation of intellectuals. (You see them in ministerial offices, the cultural sector, research departments: different systems of social management.) The Chaban-Delmas project laid its cards on the table shortly after 1968, and you hear talk of it again now.15 And I think, in effect, that this all merges well enough with the tendencies of the labor process and of production that I indicated: a politics of division, a highly differentiated management of workers’ labor-power. 

CC: In your opinion, what would be the best thing for the children of 1968, today’s far-left militants, to do?

RL: I don’t see myself as a child of 1968. I made my choice several years earlier, in the Algerian self-managed farms, then in the French and immigrant working class. I find justification for my adherence to Marxism in all that I have seen and lived over fifteen years, not in a supposed moment of unrest. 

That said, I don’t purport to have any overall claim to the truth or see myself in a position to hand out advice. All I simply have to say is that supposedly revolutionary or far-left forces are sorely lacking in concrete knowledge based on inquiries or connection to the productive system, which lies at the heart of society. This really seems tragically lacking to me.

As soon as a political problem arises (breakup of l’Union de la gauche on 22 September 1977,16 electoral setbacks, etc.), background analysis and investigation are cheerfully cast aside to instead reach a predictable, clearly defined position. Time after time you will see the same details come up, the same broad outline of events blown out of proportion. And yet, the PC, the PS, and the trade-union system, these are not easy things to know in depth, in terms of their evolution and how they function in our society today. And how many social forces and aspects of the system are purely and simply ignored!

It is extraordinary to see some people’s capacity to explain everything at any given moment, while often living on myths and essentially knowing nothing of political and social reality apart from what is fed to them by institutions of the media.

Afterward, they end up startled and surprised… 

If I could express one wish, I would really like French Marxists to go out and discover French society…

– Translated by Paul Rekret and Eoin O’Cearnaigh

This interview first appeared in Critique communiste no. 23 (May-June 1978): 105-130.

This article is part of a dossier entitled Robert Linhart and the Circuitous Paths of Inquiry.”


1 UEC is part of the first political youth organization of France, close to the French communist party. The UJCML was a Maoist organization founded in 1966 and banned by presidential decree in June 1968. Some members went on to found Gauche Proletarienne.
2 Robert Linhart, Lénine, les paysans, Taylor: Essai d’analyse matérialiste historique de la naissance du système productif soviétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1976).
3 Robert Linhart, The Assembly Line, trans. Margaret Crosland (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).
4 TN: The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, abbreviated INSEE, is the national statistics bureau of France.
5 TN: Sacilor is a now-defunct French steelmaking group.
6 TN: The Amoco Cadiz was an oil tanker that ran aground on the coast of Brittany in 1978. It was the largest oil spill of its kind up to that date.
7 TN: Another French steelmaking group, which later merged with Sacilor.
8 CNPF (Conseil Nationale du Patronat Francais) was a French employers’ organization, it has since been transformed into the MEDEF (Mouvement Des Entreprises de France).
9 TN: Maîtres de Forges, the term used by Linhart here, refers to the dynasties that dominated the nineteenth-century French metallurgical industry.
10 TN: A reference to a 1976 media campaign launched by Lionel Stoléru, the French economist and then-Secretary of State for Manual Labor in the Giscard d’Estaing government.
11 TN: EDF and PTT: nationalized industries generating electricity and providing postal and telecommunication services, respectively.
12 TN: SMIC, or the Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, refers to the French minimum wage.
13 TN: We have translated the French “quadrillage” imperfectly as “framework” throughout. The term refers to a spatial or visual grid or partitioning, but is also sometimes used, most famously by Michel Foucault, to imply a detailed, systematic examination of that space.
14 TN: Artisan distillers with certain historic legal privileges dating back to the Napoleonic period, i.e. quite a niche interest group.
15 TN: Jacques Chaban-Delmas was Prime Minister of France from 1969-1972.
16 TN: A political coalition, bound by joint agreement to the Common Program, between the French Socialist Party and the French Communist Party lasting from 1972 and 1977.

The post Evolution of the Labor Process and Class Struggles (1978) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

05.12.2022 à 19:26

The Labor Process and the Division of the Working Class (1978)


The development of outside firms permanently employed across the cluster effectively transforms the division of labor in a thoroughgoing manner, more or less insidiously changing the function of workers of the petrochemical enterprise, and in many cases coming to load the position of the working class in this sector with ambiguity – posing a problem (more or less assumed) to industrial and trade union action. 

The post The Labor Process and the Division of the Working Class (1978) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (5402 mots)
Petroleum facilities located around the Étang de Berre, circa 1968. Source: Archives de la chambre de commerce et d’industrie Aix-Marseille-Provence, L19/62/144, brochure commerciale sur le complexe de raffinage de l’étang de Berre, vers 1968.

This paper deals with the organization of work and the labor process in large complexes for oil refining and basic petrochemical production. It is precisely the similarity of labor processes (facilities for cracking or other methods, where a “process” is continuously operating, a set of chemical reactions triggered on a large scale and directed from control rooms) that leads us to expect this rapprochement. But it should be indicated that by doing so, we are pushing against the borders of the sectors or industries of production in the economic sense, as well as collective bargaining agreements (the petrochemical workers and oil workers are governed by separate contracts, even in cases where tasks and posts are strictly comparable). Moreover, at the global level of multinational companies, the relationship maintained between the price of oil and the income [la rente] of which it constitutes a significant portion is clearly inverse: the oil producers pocket an income that strikes the costs of basic petrochemicals. A higher price of naphtha puts the oil producers at an advantage and disadvantages the enterprises which use that naphtha to produce ammonia and ethylene. The situation is complicated because petrochemical subsidiaries of oil firms find their basic products being charged at full price by the parent company, representing a higher theoretical net cost at the subsidiary level, but an uptake [incorporation] of profit at the level of the group. 

There remains a related labor process for all of these complexes: the operators of an oil-cracking refinery and those of an ethylene steam cracker are in charge of similar facilities. We will thus draw together here, in order to analyze the organization of work, the production of gasoline, fuel, naphtha, ethylene, butadiene, propylene, etc. – in short, the fuels and basic chemical products derived from oil, and certain products downstream of intermediary substances that they are immediately subordinate to. 

The capitalists of the oil industry – and to a certain extent the petrochemical industry – are, as we know, masters of the art of obfuscation. Who is unaware of multiple examples of this in economic processes? Hidden apportioning of the market between the seven major companies of the cartel, the hiding of profits, dissimulation of the access price of crude oil, as well as the real costs of research and extraction, accounting juggling tricks between parent companies and subsidiaries beyond borders, etc. Fundamentally, the oil industry’s profits draw their source not from the usual mechanisms of the extraction and reallocation of surplus-value, but from the global distribution of the enormous oil rent. Rentier profits, first of all, with their parade of secret negotiations, relations of forces, arbitrariness, speculation. The petrochemical industry largely speculates on differential rents and rapid variations in the prices of products. 

But what is true for economic processes is also true for labor processes. Here too, obfuscation appears as one of the operative conditions of the system of production: to the degree that many workers or technicians when asked about the organization of labor in their petrochemical refinery or production facility responded that there was no organization of labor properly speaking. Of course, there is a hierarchy, an organizational chart, posts, but those all have a largely formal character: the organizational chart is not respected, everyone has to more or less “make do.” There is work organization in the plant, you would often hear, but not at ours. Moreover, a term like “work pace” hardly made sense there: to double production of the product, all you have to do is pull four levers – try doing the same on an automotive assembly line!

An illusion, indeed – and the workers expose it themselves insofar as they clarify the operation of the labor process: this lack of formalism has its laws and establishes a system of constraint all the more powerful since it is unarticulated – thereby providing less leverage for clear-cut resistance. Constraint conceals itself either under seemingly voluntary choices (induced by the atmosphere of risk and environment of collective responsibilities carefully maintained by management) or under the so-called inescapable “technical requirements” (technological alternatives obviously not being brought to the attention of the staff who may try, on the occasion of an accident or a strike, to figure some out: don’t other catalyzer models exist, less sensitive than the one used by the firm, which management has emphasized how dangerous it is to stop and restart?). In this way, the organization of work, internalized by the workers or incorporated into technology, systematically dissolved in the general conditions of the plant’s operations, avoids straightforward description. It has to be reconstructed through analysis, in its hidden principles and effective functioning. 

The very delimitation of the staff – the size of the workforce– contains its own share of mystery. Who is in the refinery and who is not? How many people must the firm have to produce 100,000 tons of ammonia? It might seem easy to answer this question for a determinate production facility, but that is in no way the case. The multiform development of outsourcing and contract work has allowed oil and petrochemical capitalists to “put out” [sortir] a growing number of activities to outside companies: routine or specialized maintenance, repairs, calibration, transportation, materials handling, or even some particular linked production. The staff of the petrochemical firm proper end up forming an organic nucleus [nuclei] around which gravitates a whole periphery of labor-powers highly varied in their skill (from manual laborer to researcher, by way of the highly specialized boilermaker) and status (from the stable employees of contracted firms or intermittent workers temporarily hired by a subcontractor), but who present the common feature of being excluded from the titular workforce of the production facility whose operation they nevertheless contribute to maintaining, often on an ongoing basis. The stable core of the petrochemical firm, whose staff size is easy to know, only forms a fraction, sometimes a minority fraction, of the overall labor-power [force de travail] implemented to ensure production. It even happens that workers from outside firms spend long periods in regular manufacturing posts – though this practice is generally limited by opposition from the workforce and unions. But these outside firms, with variable employee numbers, are not well known, including by the stable core of the petrochemical enterprise. However, the various types of laborers commingle daily in production sites [lieux de production]. But we will see that all measures are taken to maintain their separation. 

The production sites here present specific features which lend themselves to the highly differentiated management of labor-powers [forces de travail], and facilitate certain forms of compartmentalization. In the case of the petrochemical processing industry, the concept of the “cluster” [site], the entanglement of many firms and processes of production in complex relationships, is substituted for the concept of the factory, the industrial production facility common across the majority of industries, and which implies a relatively well-defined workforce and output. For lack of a multiform interconnection that is established with other, more or less geographically distant clusters (and this is most often the case), it becomes extremely difficult for a collective of workers to establish a precise relationship between their labor and a determinate production. Subjectively, a slippage takes place; the labor tends to be seen and described as management [gestion] – or surveillance – by a small group of workers from a fraction of the facilities where a flow of products, a certain number of transformations are maintained, whose nature is not always clear. In these conditions, the very idea of production is wrapped up in a degree of fuzziness [flou]. 

The Workers of the Petrochemical Firm vis-à-vis the Process and Their Control of the Facilities: What Kind of Knowledge? 

The production process seems to be governed by a dual system of knowledge. 

On the one hand, theoretical knowledge: the application of chemistry to a certain number of reactions that are triggered on an industrial scale. At the facility level, the engineers are in principle the assigned depositaries. This knowledge is listed in a series of guidelines/directives which define operations, describe the course of action, set the temperature conditions, pressure, etc., analyze the quantities and qualities of the products integrated into the process, and determine the expected result. The transmission of official orders of operation takes place via the classical hierarchical path, where the chief plays an important role (the daily supervisor makes assessments and transmits directives every 12 or 24 hours): the instructions culminate in their application by the unit group, the team of posted operators (head of post, operators, assistant operators, in varying numbers according to the size of the facilities and the complexity of the process: most often three to five persons in total). This transmission has a very formal character, and entails that it is regularly reported, usually in writing. 

On the other hand, practical knowledge, acquired empirically on the fly by manufacturing workers – operators and assistant operators, but also heads of post – a knowledge that they transmit verbally between each other, which does not moreover rule out specificities from job to job. This practical knowledge is first built upon a concrete knowledge of physical networks, of tubes, valves, connections, etc., and is expanded through a wider comprehension of the processes (or at least of the relevant sections of the process) that produces the repeated experiments of facility’s operation and the many incidents which might arise. It ends up structuring and taking the form of a set of recipes [recettes]: to obtain a particular outcome, send this type of product at this moment; avoid heating this particular component at this particular time; watch over the behavior of the steam at this place; to “not be bothered,” maintain that pressure or leave this valve in this position, etc. 

One might imagine that this practical knowledge boils down to a mere industry-specific explanation of theoretical knowledge. But that is not the case: there is a space of divergence. The two knowledges do not match: they are constituted on different bases and maintained by clearly distinguishable practices. There is a split [dédoublement] between the official operation of the production facility and its effective operation. In theory, it would proceed in a particular way stemming from the chemical theory of reaction. In practice, it proceeds differently, corresponding to the “expedient” [commode] operation fine-tuned through trial and error by manufacturing workers. 

The management of the firm is well aware of this split. It even encourages manufacturing workers to learn in a spontaneous process: for example, by assigning installation and preparatory tests to workers, who will then be called upon to work there in manufacturing – an occasion to locate connections, pipes, valves, gaskets, welds, and become aware of the initial difficulties and weak points, an awareness that the majority of engineers will never have. More systematically, it develops “multivalence” (rotation from one workstation to another) and “polyvalence” (the performance, by the same worker, of several manufacturing and maintenance jobs). 

Why is management so content with this autonomy of workers’ practical knowledge which could often come into conflict, to a certain extent, with the theoretical function of plants? Why does it not strive to obtain a stricter application of commands? Likely for several reasons. 

In the first place, this system seems to be the most effective for production. A petrochemical refinery is not merely an expanded laboratory instrument. Performed at an industrial scale, chemical reactions carry a whole aleatory aspect that only practical experience can progressively learn to control. Manufacturing workers’ knowledge of petroleum and petrochemical processing is complete but it is genuine knowledge [un vrai savoir], indispensable to production. The passage from theory to industrial application is not a given. We have seen procedures perfectly worked out in the laboratory unequivocally fail during the passage to industrial scale. A famous example is the failure of the Dow Chemical facilities in the Cubatao petrochemical complex in Brazil. It was discovered that procedures that functioned in the laboratory did not work out for actual production and the investment was lost. This is also a fairly common practice for multinational corporations or engineering companies to test their prototypes in Third World countries that, if necessary, will endure the initial problems, failures, and losses. The practical expertise of petrochemical facilities that manufacturing workers collectively acquire over time constitutes an important asset for the firm and it is de facto strengthened through the development of polyvalence and multivalence, as well as through the relatively lax attitude that management takes toward the labor process. But it ensures, as a result, the prolongation of the fiction of a strict apparatus of directives and procedures conforming to the theoretical course of reactions and instruments of production. 

A second advantage is drawn from this situation by management. In the case of incident or accident, responsibility is almost always diffuse and it is often easy to blame a worker who “did not follow the directives.” Better: the collective worker, continually operating in this atmosphere of illegality tolerated in relation to the formal description of the labor process, whose useful distinctions are endured so as to “not bother with it,” tends in many cases to “shut up” when an incident happens, internalizing a certain culpability. A kind of functional complicity, at the cost of snags and risks, is thus sought out and often won by the management. But there are times when this tacit complicity is broken when workers become aware of serious dangers, or in the aftermath of accidents, or in a general climate of industrial action. The system can then be turned around against the firm’s management, formally warned to respect its own safety regulations. Protest is all the more effective, then, since workers have a concrete knowledge of the effective operations of the facilities, their weak and dangerous points. Resistance can then take the form of “work-to-rule”: operating according to strict safety conditions and adhering to all regulatory procedures. 

Let us listen to the description by a cracking refinery attendant [pompiste] of this double system of knowledge (theoretical and practical) and the double labor process (official and real): 

The plant is so large, with so many details, that the supervisors can’t know all of them. Only someone who goes to that place daily can know what happens there. On the practical level, the one who goes there knows. The other might know the theory, but how that happens, that’s another story…

We have reached a point where the lead operator [chef de poste], who is worth their salt, winds up being more knowledgeable about the facility’s functioning, even when not comprehending the theory of petrochemistry, than the engineer who sometimes makes him do wrong things…And, ultimately, the chief operator is forced to do them knowing very well it’s a mistake. 

There is a tacit agreement between the engineer and the chief operator. The engineer gives an order. He knows quite well that his order will sometimes be interpreted differently; but the other person does not say it – the one who performs the task. And everyone gets away with it alright. The higher-up gives their order, the other interprets it, nobody says anything, and then everything works out like that.

The circumvention of instructions or absence of instructions, empirical know-how: a workers’ autonomy exists in the facility’s functioning. This autonomy factors into management strategy, on the one hand, as well as into trade-union demands. It presents contradictory features: an element of pressure in the case of conflict and argument to obtain material advantages, but also a factor of consensus and integration within the enterprise. 

Although the workers of the central hub of the petrochemical enterprise define themselves in relation to their hierarchy, to the “process,” to the instruments of production, they also define themselves in relation to the system of subcontracting [sous-traitance], if only because the parent company seeks to involve them as a stakeholder [partie prenante] in the organization of subordinate labor-powers and the vast subaltern proletariat employed across the cluster.1 The integration intensifies a mechanism of exclusion. And here, the systematic division maintained at the national level in the working class between those who have rights and those who do not (a division that today in the main intersects with the division established between national and immigrant workforces) plays a key role. It is to this mechanism that we now turn. 

Petrochemical Workers vis-à-vis Subcontracted Workers: A Feature of Labor Aristocracy? 

An overall analysis of the tendencies of the production and labor process in the petrol-based and petrochemical industry should take into account the set of factors that contribute to the growth of subcontracting: social strategies of the parcelization of labor-power, but also economic, fiscal, and technological strategies (some firms specializing in the maintenance and repair of complex equipment de facto function as technical pools for several refinery or chemical transformation companies, in which they sometimes have holdings). 

We can nevertheless immediately distinguish between two types of labor-power employed through subcontracting in the petrol-based and petrochemical industry: on the one hand, very skilled personnel in maintenance, research or clerical personnel, commercial personnel (the subcontracting of a part of commercial management and marketing). On the other hand, the mass of unskilled workers from outside firms, to whom the lowliest tasks, the most unsanitary, the hardest, and often the most dangerous labor was relegated. In this mass, immigrant workers generally made up the majority. Still, there were also other recruitment sources: particularly in Southwestern France (Bourdeaux, Lacq, Aquitaine), there often seems to be unskilled French workers fresh from the countryside, or even students who have taken a temporary job – or young educated unemployed people. And women everywhere play an important role in subcontracting and temporary office jobs, at lower levels. But beyond this diversity, it appears broadly that the development of outside firms permanently employed across the cluster effectively transforms the division of labor in a thoroughgoing manner, more or less insidiously changing the function of workers of the petrochemical enterprise, and in many cases coming to load the position of the working class in this sector with ambiguity – posing a problem (more or less assumed) to industrial and trade union action

For although on paper well-defined tasks are legally subcontracted, (cleaning, maintenance, shipping, etc.) in practice, one observes all over the place an extensive workforce, poorly protected, not directly employed by the refinery or plant, often composed mainly of immigrant workers, and which is responsible for the bulk of the work that is still manual. Where does maintenance end and manufacturing proper begin? In petroleum and petrochemical production, matters are far from clear. When manufacturing normally takes place, as we have already indicated, there are in principle few manual jobs to carry out. A slippage operates in this way: the manual tasks that are roughly tied to manufacturing are considered to be maintenance. A tendency arises to make the workers “from the enterprises” present in the complex – most often immigrants – do the largest number of manual jobs possible. In this regard, the French worker at the petrochemical refinery or plant will play in some cases the role of a de facto supervisor. 

It is important to emphasize that, even in large petroleum and petrochemical facilities, the permanent shop floor personnel are never completely disengaged from manual tasks and might at any moment find themselves abruptly submerged in multiple demanding physical tasks – in the case of an emergency stoppage, for example. There exists, moreover, a hierarchy of participation in manual tasks among the permanent workers: the lower the level of “occupation” (assistant operator for example) involves a greater presence in the “structure,” inspections of installations, etc. The most sought-after promotion was a place in the control room, without any obligation to outside jobs. But the distribution of manual tasks or the external supervision of the “structure” also depends on the consensus established within the work team. 

Here is how manufacturing workers of an important ethylene production facility describe their relationships with workers employed from outside firms in the cluster: 

– Until now, when there were repairs to do, manufacturing personnel did the following: if there was a repair on a section of piping, they isolated the entire part in question, degassed it, and when the apparatus was inert, no longer at risk of exploding or causing problems, they gave the green light to make the appropriate repairs. But they absolutely did not care whether it was this specific joint, if the tapping [piquage] was at this particular spot…But now, they tend to make us do that. To make us inspect and verify that it’s done right. But in principle, that’s not our job. Ultimately…it concerns us to the extent that if it is poorly done we will perhaps be embarrassed. But we shouldn’t be forced to go check if they made good seals or things like that (because in the end we are urged to do that). 

– What do you monitor there, the outside firms? 

– The outside firms. In any event, here, other than the maintenance of pumps and monitoring devices, everything is subcontracted to outside firms. 

– In sum, they want you to be both workers in the main enterprise and supervisors of others? 

– Ultimately, we no longer know if they are the ones who want it. What is serious is that, since everything is done on the fly, it becomes habit. [ça entre dans les mœurs]. 


– Here, if you like, it’s the labor aristocracy, so the guys, you just have to push them a bit…And then there are a lot of immigrants. 

– This gives a very precise content to the term labor aristocracy, if people are put in the position of monitoring the work of immigrants from outside facilities…

– And then, let’s say some things bring us into the circle. For example, there are safety jobs that are done: welding, machines like that. Okay. It’s clear that we are still closely affected by this. Insofar as we have a practical joker who walks around the facility with a blowtorch, there is a big risk: you can never say that there is never any gas in the facility. It is obvious that the guy (the manufacturing worker), when he goes to do a rotation in his sector, if he observes something that is out of the ordinary, he will instinctively flag it. It starts there and spreads further and further. 

As a point of departure, there is the feeling of ongoing risk and a certain collective responsibility toward the facility (it happens that one hears a worker say: “I was still entrusted with a thing worth so many tens of millions…”). As the worker says in the interview, it is the beginning of a “circle.” You inspect to make sure everything is alright. Then you inspect a little more quickly. The already existing idea of superiority among workers of the permanent core strengthens this position. Management adds to it, maintaining a strict difference in status between its personnel and workers from outside firms, even if it means wielding a racist atmosphere when subcontractors’ employees are largely immigrants. A trade unionist remarks with some sense of powerlessness: 

There are guys from the firms who work in appalling conditions, day and night, with no safety, without anything…But we can’t do anything about it [on n’a aucun moyen là-dessus]. At the level of the central enterprise and subcontracting plants, there is a safety committee. The unions have requested to participate in them, but that has been refused. They were told it didn’t concern them, it was not their enterprise…

You see a guy working in a location without a safety belt: if he goes down, he is going to crash down ten meters below. For some, obviously, this doesn’t raise any problems since “they are Arabs”…It should not be forgotten that as many of them are North Africans or immigrants, a problem of racism exists. 

The plant, or rather the complex, reproduces here in a caricatural fashion the mechanisms of civil society as a whole: a status takes on so much value that it operates as a mechanism of exclusion and the rejection of immigrants serves the integration of the stable workforce in the parent enterprise. 

What becomes clear is that Arabs are the only ones who do shit [faire des saloperies], what the people from this company won’t do…

We still have fairly good relationships with some Arabs because they’ve been there a long time and know the manufacturing people. But it’s always the relationship between a superior and a subordinate. It’s always that. They’re the guys who are there to do what we don’t do. What’s serious is that we feel that these people are afraid…He’s hurt, he feels bad, he’s going to take a dirty rag and wrap it around so it doesn’t bleed, and he’s going to trudge on so he doesn’t upset the crew chief…It’s perhaps logical, but we feel that they have a mentality of suffering, who suffer almost voluntarily in a sense, ultimately. Maybe it’s all the people around who do it, but in the end they suffer. When we cut ourselves, there’s no problem, we go see the shift supervisor, go to the infirmary. We’re divided about it: a piece of dust in the eye, you go to the infirmary. And they, on the other hand…a death, they’re taken away in the ambulance, it’s not a big deal, in any case, there will be another 150 or 200 who will enter. It’s appalling, ultimately. Like it or not, people in France are racist and that’s it. That happened to an Arab, so it’s no big deal.

We perceive through this disenchanted account the degree to which the system of segregation in the labor force, one of the functions of which is to strengthen the integration of permanently employed workers, thoroughly penetrates the personnel. 

To overcome these separations, the trade unions in the enterprise have to be re-examined and envisage organizations at the level of the cluster, open to all workers. Such a transformation – which is sometimes raised by oil and petrochemical workers – would entail a veritable ideological upheaval [bouleversement]. 

Is the systematic division located in the petrochemical industry specific to that sector, or does it also constitute one of the current tendencies of capitalist work organization? The mechanisms of subcontracting and satellite firms in steel works need to be analyzed. And are we not observing similar phenomena in light manufacturing, too? The garment industry, for example, is seeing outsourcing and home-based work develop massively, at times clandestinely. Outsourcing should also be approached comprehensively, including through its international aspects. 

An article by André Fontaine on Italy published in the March 6-7, 1977 edition of Le Monde discusses other forms of segregation in the labor force, through different routes, tending toward a dualist structure comparable to what we have encountered – a relatively protected core group and a peripheral mass with a subordinate status: 

In the face of state incapacity, already burdened by audacious social legislation with too many encumbrances of all kinds, addressing underemployment, instant solutions have emerged. Millions of Italians work today “off the books” [au noir] at extremely low wages, for semi-illicit [à moitié clandestins] employers, who do not pay taxes or social security payments. 

[In contrast to this sub-proletariat, there are the] “millions of workers in heavy industry, and more generally the workforce of the “protected” sector, benefiting from the sliding wage scale as much as the almost total guarantee of employment: the latter is such that we see employees who stop working sell their job post as elsewhere one might give up a ministerial officer position.2

The capitalist system of production reorganizes itself, as we know, through crises and the development of training mechanisms, and the transfer of surplus-value and profits, constantly traversed by class struggles. We often talk about the “new international division of labor”: would it not be appropriate to expand the analysis to all the modes of fragmentation of the production process, work, and labor-power, encompassing the labor force within the borders of a capitalist country? 

Translated by Patrick King

This text first appeared in Robert Linhart et al. (eds.), Division du travail: colloque de Dourdan, 9-11 mars 1977 (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1978), 21-32. 

The translator would like to thank Patrick Lyons for invaluable assistance with the translation draft.

This article is part of a dossier entitled Robert Linhart and the Circuitous Paths of Inquiry.”


1 Translators’ Note: “Sous-traitance” can mean outsourcing or subcontracting. I have chosen to use “subcontracting” when Linhart is dealing with the specific statuses among the workforce in the petrochemical cluster he is investigating, and “outsourcing” whe dealing with the more general employment strategy of hiring out third-party services.
2 André Fontaine, “‘Eppur, Si Muove…,’” Le Monde, March 7, 1977.

The post The Labor Process and the Division of the Working Class (1978) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

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