Work, Europe and Utopia – part seven by Henri Brugmans

7. Working Conditions

An old French revolutionary song proclaims that they had chased out the kings and won a set of new rights but when it came to work they were still labouring under a penal (punishable by law) system. Anyone who has experienced a working class environment knows how much this complaint reflects a general feeling.

For a long time the working class movement cherished the illusion that everything would change once business ceased (come to an end) to be private property and came under public ownerhsip.

But it has had to change its tune. At the present time a large number of factories are in the hands of a respective states. In certain countries, such as Austria, more so than elsewhere, but the change has occurred almost everywhere.
But this transfer of ownership, once thought to represent a climate of complete indifference. Who can now discern (distinguish, percieve, recognize) any essential difference between privately-owned Citroen and nationalised Renault? The former firm would be unable to take any important step without consulting the Minister, while the Managing Director of the latter spends his time conducting his business in exactly the same way as he would if he were accountable to a meeting of shareholders. Nothing resembles a state-owned factory more than a so-called “private” factory, and conditions of work are not essentially different in the “capitalist” West and the “socialist” East. There must be some lesson for us to learn from this disconcerting uniformity.

During the 1930s, Henri de Man, then Professor at the Frankfurt Worker’s Institute, conducted an enquiry into “job satisfaction”. In so doing he produced a seminal work. He too, in his Marxist youth, had believed that the true social problem was that of ownership and that once workers were working not to enrich a society with wealthy, but for “the community”, they would go to their jobs each morning with intense satisfaction. His research led him to doubt whether this was true. The feeling of “alienation” was an unquestionable fact, but nationalisation would not put an end to it. The real problem would be rather what George Friedmann went on later to describe, in the phrase “fragmentation of work”:that is to say, the dividing-up of tasks which prevented the worker from achieving a result he would call his own from his efforts.

In the inter-war years, a third writer considered the question. But n contrast to de Man and Friedmann this writer was a genuine worker who had experienced factory life, in France and with Ford in Detroit: his name was Hyacinthe Dubreuil. For him, the solution was to rediscover within the enterprise team spirit (The Team and the Ball was in fact the title of one of his work), in other words, creating a limited group responsible for a specific task. In this scheme even a gigantic enterprise should be organised along federal lines, from the grass roots upwards, or rather like the model of the ciculation of blood – the higher echelons would find their original direction by means of initiatives from below, and then would often receive corrections and redirections from below.

In America Dubreuil experienced Taylorism. In principle he was not opposed to a rational organisation of human work. But equally he understood that a scientific system geared exclusively towards productivity – and, at the end of the day, the profit of the employer – must of necessity lead to an overexploitation of the work force. “Rationalisation” ought certainly to occur, but who was better able to implement it than the employees themelves, for whom the work was their daily life? And “rationaisation” had also to mean gaining for all interested parties the maximum amount of satisfaction, that is to say of freedom in the organisation of work. To force human beings to work as if one was dealing with robots, was not an inevitable demand of technical progress, but simply a bad method, ignoring an essential factor.

Hyacinthe Dubreuil’s lot was that of many pioneers: he was scarcely listened to and even had abuse heaped upon him. However, here and there, people are beginning to put into practice some of his principles. Often, moreover, without even knowing his name. THis was notably the case with Volvo in Sweden, where it is evident that this sort of decentralisation not only was not harmful to productivity, but on the contrary, contributed to its increase. No doubt an increase equally occurred in profit, but what is wrong with that, if this increased profit indicated a more healthy enterprise?

There exists currently in France a Hyacinthe Dubreuil Association carrying out research into the practical applications of the insights of this former metal-worker. The Centre would do well to make contact with htis organisation and to bring together, and classify, all the data already available in htis area. Regrettably, much time has been lost in this area due to the excessive and fruitless fascination with the problem of ownership which has for too long dominated the thoughts of so many who claim to be socialists. It is true that Marx had already pointed to the division of labour as one of the sources of the alienation of the proletariat, but it is unfortunately true that his followers scarcely take up this point. The time is now ripe (developed to the point of readiness for harvesting and eating) for it to be systematically explored. If the end must be to deproletise the working class, this undoubtedly is at least one of the ways to be considered.

On the question of deproletarisation a former German worker and trade unionist, George Leber, who later became Minister of Transport, and then Minister of Defence, proposed yet another approach which, besides, in no way contradicts the one which we have just mentioned. What he suggested was a gradual particiaption of employees in both management and ownership of the enterprise. Undoubtedly the basic capital will remain in the hands of the original shareholders, but as this capital increases as a result of economic success, that is to say, through the contribution of all, a progressively more equal distribution of shares ought to follow. Capital ought to cease to be exclusively “them” and become to a great extend “us”.

This project was not greeted with spontaneous enthusiasm by the German working class movement. Did it not tend to link the worker too much to the enterprise, and did the enterprise not, consequently, tend to become a quasi-totalitarian “social environment”? It is an open question and a new one, almost unknown in the debates that used to take place. It is a matter of measuring the implications and the potential.


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