Past Futures of Work
Interview with Michel Lallement
Michel Lallement is professor of sociology at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers in Paris. He was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in 2020/2021. His research focuses on the sociology of work from a comparative historical perspective. In his recent research he examines the concepts and practices of work in utopian communities in France and the United States in the nineteenth century. In this interview we discuss with Michel Lallement the role of the past in analyzing the future of work.
Interview conducted by Katrin Sold and edited by Sandra Engelbrecht
Interviewer: How does the issue of the future of work appear in your research? How do you address it?
ML: The issue of the future is very important in my research. I am interested in how real-life utopian communities can advance alternative forms of work. I investigate how such communities have experimented with new forms of work and collective ways of living and how they have sought to expand their practices to society as a whole. In so doing, I employ a certain theoretical and methodological approach. Theoretically, I draw on the work of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin who observed that history is never closed; there are always traces and clues of past utopias in today’s society and from which we can invent the future. Benjamin’s ideas and theories of history, and the links he makes between the past, present and future are very valuable for addressing the future of work. Methodologically, I use sociological tools for data collection which include interviews, observations and archival research to analyze societies in the spirit of Walter Benjamin. My research has always sought to combine history with an analysis of the contemporary world. In contrast to most research in this field, which adopts a macro-level approach toward social changes, my research is based on micro-level analyses. This is one of its distinctive features.
Interviewer: What kind of innovations did the “utopian communities” of the nineteenth century develop in the field of work?
ML: There are a range of innovations in the area of work that can be traced back to the utopian communities of the nineteenth century. In France the most original utopia was founded by Charles Fourier. Fourier proposed to organize work based on innovative principles such as the variation of tasks, mixing ages and sexes in “workshops,” and workers’ votes as a means of recognizing the merits of everyone involved. His model of work organization was applied in communities referred to as “phalansteries.” I have studied an attempt to apply this model in the case of the Familistère de Guise. In France the Familistère was one of the few – and most complete – attempts of workers and their families to live and work together in common buildings according to Fourierist precepts.The founder of the Familistère de Guise, Jean-Baptiste André Godin, came up with many innovations in the area of work. For instance Godin was the creator of what we nowadays refer to as industrial democracy. He also promoted equality at work between men and women. In my research I draw parallels between these communities in France and similar communities in other countries. During the same period in the United States, for instance, the big name was Edward Bellamy who authored the famous book Looking Backwards. In this book Bellamy proposed a new centralized model of work organization that would go on to achieve international success. The English response was William Morris’ News from Nowhere, which was an anarchist utopia. This anti-state utopia advocated the organization of work within local communities. What is very important to keep in mind concerning these writings and social experiments is that nineteenth-century utopias were less the product of great men’s imagination than that of ordinary people who also had the ability to experiment in new ways of working on a daily basis. Accordingly, I have a great interest in the role of ordinary people in advancing new ways of work. For instance I have identified a very interesting example in France, also in the nineteenth century, of a man named Louis Gabriel Gauny who was a worker who spent his nights writing and trying to imagine an alternative way of work. His writings were published and annotated by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. One of Gauny’s central ideas was not to consume too much. He encouraged people to be cautious in spending their money, since this was a way of resisting the capitalist system, of gaining more freedom and having another type of life.
To sum up what I have observed by studying different communities in France, the U. S. and other countries, I can point to some of my main findings. One important finding is that in these utopias of work the boundaries between work and non-work are different from those observed in the societies surrounding the utopian communities. For instance some communities, including the Familistère de Guisein Franceand theOneida Communityin America, believed that domestic work should be more greatly valued. In my view this is a way of challenging the invisibility of women’s work, which was and still is an issue of gender inequality. A similar approach was taken toward the different work tasks. Following egalitarian principles, each member of the Oneida Community was required to work the same number of hours per week regardless of the activity performed (including domestic work). In this way these communities tried to invent a system where workers were not paid with money: there was no wage and the working time was proportional to the difficulty of the task at hand. This was an alternative way of valuing the work and promoting the idea of equality of work. The Oneida Communityalso sought to conjoin work and pleasure by creating a “workshop” where people labored together at the same time as one of them read aloud from a book in order to make the work more pleasant. This is a kind of legacy that one can use nowadays in order to invent the future. Moreover, these communities also addressed the issue that we today refer to as flexible working time. In promoting freedom within work, including more autonomy for workers, these communities introduced a principle that was in complete contrast to the principles of work dominant in their surrounding societies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the present age, however, such values of freedom and autonomy are widely endorsed by management as a new way to increase productivity.
Interviewer: What can we learn from these utopias of the past for the future of work?
ML: As a very general statement we can say that the utopian ideas of yesterday are the truths of today about the future. In my view we have to take seriously and account for the ways in which people at different times – in the past and present – could and can imagine social alternatives. In doing so, we need to distinguish between innovations that capitalist firms recycle from past utopias and those innovations that entail imagining and creating another kind of society. While some ideas and innovations from the utopias of the past can be identified in our contemporary societies, I do not think that the dominant actors who try to advance new ways of organizing work in the present day – such as managers and politicians – are aware of the legacies of what they try to promote. Historical sociological research has taught us that when we think we have invented something new it is usually not so new. One of the tasks of sociologists and historians is to understand the mechanisms that link past innovations and ideas with cases that may be successful in advancing alternative forms of work in the future.
When it comes to imagining another kind of society and new ways of working, there are also valuable lessons to be drawn from contemporary intentional communities that I have studied. The intentional community of Twin Oaks Virginia, for instance, belongs to a network of communities whose common goal is to promote social change at the macro-level – that is to say, beyond their own communities. In striving toward this goal, these communities build relationships with the surrounding society. I have observed two types of such relationships. The first one is based on distancing oneself from the rules and values of the “big society” in order to promote other kinds of values like equality or non-violence. The idea is to promote the values of the community that are in contradiction to the values and practices of the surrounding society. For instance in the case of Twin Oaks, Virginia, many community members not only sought to promote change more generally but joined street protests that took place in the vicinity when the issues at stake were aligned with the values of their communities. A second type of relationship to the surrounding society occurs insofar as community members do not remain within their communities all their lives. Nowadays people stay within a community between five and eight years. Once they go back to the “big society,” they continue to promote the values that they shared within the community. This creates a kind of continuity between communities and society and can serve as an impulse for change.
Another lesson pertains to the longevity of these communities. Whereas the utopian communities of the nineteenth century only lasted a short time – typically between one and two years or sometimes up to four years – contemporary intentional communities have a longer lifespan. The community of Twin Oaks has existed for more than fifty years. I have identified some elements that contribute to the survival of such communities in the longer run. A central strategy is to have a turnover among community members and to recruit new members each year. This not only permits the community to survive by ensuring its member-base but new members also bring new ideas. Moreover, the founder of the community plays an important role. Max Weber spoke of charisma, and I do think that an open-minded and charismatic leader who has new ideas and the ability to convince people is very important. At the same time, we can learn from the history of nineteenth-century communities that such entities will survive longer if they do not depend solely on one person.
Interviewer: In general, how can looking at history help us to think about the present and develop models for the future?
ML: I do not consider past utopian communities to be minor historical parentheses that were later swallowed up by capitalism. Instead I am convinced that we have to take seriously the practices within these utopian communities in order to think about just how we can organize the future. For example, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the late 1980s, I was interested in how home-based work was organized during the nineteenth century. At that point in time, remote work was something completely new. As we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, this early research of mine in fact uncovered certain elements of what is the future of work today. Learning from history by drawing a clear line between past, present and future can help us invent a desirable future of work.