Revolutionary France and the social republic that never was

After the 1830 revolution, French workers waited for the introduction of the republic into the heart of production. It never came. The struggle that ensued was to shape French politics during the Second Republic and after as republicans sought to reconcile work with the principle of non-domination.

Part one of a two-part piece on the history of republicanism and work.

In the republican tradition, work has not always enjoyed a very good reputation. Classical thinking relegated the economy to the domestic sphere, where man’s accomplishments as man did not have a place. The individual’s character as a citizen depended on interventions in the popular assembly or even military action to defend the city-state in its hour of danger. The opposition between the republic and work was inscribed into an elitist vision of the republic in which the radically non-inclusive category of citizenship left out foreigners, women, workers and slaves [1].

Moreover, this opposition was not unique to antiquity. It reemerged in the moment when political economy first arose as a political language (as a new discourse that aimed to be a substitute for traditional representations of the distribution of power) in the 18th century [2]. As Jessica Kimpell has charted in her earlier article in this debate, this was the period of tension between virtue and commerce, between republican language and political economic language [3]. There was, over the course of the 18th century, a growing chasm between the new economic activities characteristic of commercial societies and the traditional values espoused by republicanism. The characteristically modern liberal synthesis that arose privileged the protection of individuals, the promotion of their rights and the satisfaction of their needs, rather than the constitution of a community of equal citizens [4].

However, this first reading is complicated once we recognise another approach, developed on the ground by ordinary actors. The work of E.P. Thompson and, more recently, the essays of Christopher Lasch, show that in the 19th-century artisanal milieu – a universe essentially focused on work and production – there was an infusion of radical republican discourse [5]. This perspective expressed itself not as hostility towards work as such – the position of republican antiquity – but towards work as it was structured in industrial capitalism, as a critique of wage-labour.

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If the key idea of republicanism consists in a definition of liberty as non-domination, then to integrate work into the republican story we must identify the forms of domination it involves. We can distinguish at least three principal forms of work-related domination:

Personal domination: linked to the placing of production into a hierarchy and the    consequent subordination of workers to entrepreneurs, leaders, teachers, etc.; in short, work as subjection to the arbitrary exercise of power by other individuals.

Impersonal domination: linked to the very nature of work in nascent industrial capitalism, an unprecedented domination of work over time due to the fact that value, in the capitalist regime, is established on the basis of abstract social labour.

Inversion of values: a perception that the modern world has developed to the point of making work the dominant social activity, belittling other modes of self-experience. Work imposes itself as the primary social value.

Let us now explore how republican thinkers in 19th-century France thought about work in the light of concerns around these ‘dominations’. In Part 2 of this article we will then look at how contemporary republican political theory has responded to the challenge of work.

1830-1848: the moral republic of workers

We can begin with the 1830 revolution which saw the restored Bourbon monarchy replaced by the ‘citizen king’, Louis Philippe: the July Monarchy (1830-48).

As Jacques Rancière suggests in Proletarian Nights, workers perceived this revolution as a hint of a world about to disappear [6]. They waited for the introduction of the republic in the workshop, the establishment of a ‘moral republic’.  If the workers worked all day, they nevertheless didn’t identify exclusively with their work. They wanted to gain control over their own time and, through this control, generate the inspiration that would make their difficulties tolerable. This description is not far from what E.P. Thompson, over a century later, described in his essay, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’ [7].  In this essay, Thompson demonstrates the degree to which the resistance to the new industrial temporalities was strong in the first half of the 19th century in England and elsewhere in Europe, notably in France.  The rejection of the domination of work over existence itself is a trait shared on both sides of the Channel.

The workers’ ‘association’ is thought of here as a place of rediscovered control, not only over the work produced, but also over time and sociability. Work becomes a place of life, rather than being simply reduced for the worker to a place of work sans phrase, as Marx would say [8]. Thus, Rancière notes that the re-appropriation of the production process by the worker does not figure “in the relationship between his instruments and his product (instruments that are his at the master’s as much as [in the association]), but rather in the reversal of his relationship with time” [9].  This reversal also translates to the refusal to be guided solely by demands internal to the process of production.  Rancière gives the example of the piano makers, united in an association of which the primary benefit (far from being transformed into capital), leads to a banquet, “a fraternal meal that assembles women and children”.  Thus, as Rancière comments, “the moral Republic of workers is not exactly synonymous with the reign of productive work” [10].