Issue 11 / March 2016
Bénédicte Zimmermann, Permanent Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, is researching the transformation of work in its historical and transnational dimensions. This opens up unusual perspectives onto a number of current issues
For most people work takes up a large part of their lives. Nonetheless “work” as a subject of research fell out of fashion for some time. This was fundamentally changed by the swift economic changes that the world has been experiencing in recent years and is why there has been so much demand for the expertise of the French sociologist and historian Bénédicte Zimmermann, who has long been preoccupied with the theme. As early as 1996 she had written her doctoral dissertation on the history of unemployment in Germany. Together with her French colleague Michael Werner she developed the concept of a German-French histoire croisée – of an intertwined history of the two nations. Since 2007 she has been Directrice d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, and since 2015 she has also assumed the position of Permanent Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. In this interview she takes stock of her research and speaks of future projects.
Ralph Bollmann: Your most recent book bears the title What Working Means. That is truly a question of great magnitude. Is there even an answer to such a question?
Bénédicte Zimmermann: There is no single conclusive answer – and today less so than ever. The question can be posed, at the very least, at three different levels. What does work mean in a certain society, in a certain enterprise, and for individual persons? It is mostly the first or second level which is addressed. But of particular importance to me is how these three levels cohere. This requires that one apprehend just how individuals fabricate meaning in their lives and the manifold nature of such.
RB: Is work really a matter of meaning? Or is it simply about earning money?
BZ: It’s paradoxical. Someone who has no occupation and is in search of work sees it first and foremost as a way of making a living. But for people who earn a lot of money, this money is typically not the most important thing for them. They are in search of self-realization. What does work mean for an individual at a certain point in his or her life and what is the economic, financial and human purpose of work seen from the standpoint of society as a whole? There is no conclusive answer to these questions. The values and aims which humans connect with work can be very contrasting.
RB: What role does social recognition play?
BZ: A large one. And not only on the symbolic level but in a very concrete fashion. So as to be a beneficiary of social insurance in France and Germany, one must first be employed. Someone who is without work is dependent on poor relief and then later receives no pension. And in social representations the person receiving poor relief is deemed a citizen of the second order.
RB: Today we regard it as self-evident that work should play a central role in our lives. Pre-modern societies had another view of matters. Aristotle was even of the opinion that an individual could only live a truly free life if he had no need to work.
BZ: You’re right – that fundamentally changed in the modern era. In earlier centuries one’s standing in European societies was based on other assets, above all on one’s family origins and landholding. Today it is a matter of social property – which is created by work. This also holds in part for the elites. Social and political integration is closely linked with work in terms of our social image.
RB: Haven’t human beings always worked?
BZ: To some extent this has been an anthropological constant. But in the twentieth century we have privileged a certain form and meaning of work through wage labor. Today with digital capitalism the meaning of work is changing again. There is enormous pressure for greater autonomy in work and the working life. This pressure has both economic and social causes, which yield extremely dichotomous consequences.
RB: Don’t the new forms of work create new freedoms for those working in these areas?
BZ: Perhaps one can create something good from it. But the discourse of personal responsibility that is linked to the discourse on freedom is questionable. Often this places too great demands on individual potential. And not everyone has the necessary resources at their disposal. Being responsible entails not only individual resources but collective ones (and organizational ones as well if we take enterprises into account) and to which not everyone has the same access. How can responsibility for work quality be assigned to the worker when he is not equipped with the necessary technical, material and temporal means to achieve those objectives with which he has been entrusted? This even applies to managers when they don’t have sufficient personnel to properly complete their business objectives.
RB: The concept of unemployment is linked to the notion of wage labor. In the German language, as you have shown, the word Arbeitslosigkeit first emerged some hundred years ago. Why so late?
BZ: The French word for unemployment recalls the old conditions – chômage comes from chaumes, which are bales of straw that dried in the fields during summer. It was during this period of burning sun that the peasants had less to do. These forms of non-work were quite common in the pre-modern era. But that was something fundamentally different from our concept of unemployment which is closely linked to the notion of wage labor.
RB: What changed?
BZ: With industrialization people came to the cities and peasants became employees. They could no longer produce their own food. This created a new form of dependence not only from a legal standpoint with respect to their employer but economically speaking. And it generated a new social problem – whenever there was a lack of work the number of poor and hungry people grew through the number of workers who became unemployed. So as to grapple with this problem, in Imperial Germany the broad category of “poverty” was divided into subcategories according to the cause of that poverty. And under Bismarck the social insurance legislation was passed. It targeted those causes of poverty for which the workers were not held responsible.
RB: Unemployment insurance was first introduced into Germany in 1927 – why not earlier?
BZ: Because the issue of guilt was such a contentious one. It was a fairly clear matter when someone lost his arm at work. But when someone lost his job for economic reasons and the boss said he was lazy or behaved improperly then who was to be believed? It was only in the Weimar Republic that this issue was finally resolved. After the workers had fought in the First World War they became citizens like everyone else. These days the question of guilt and the suspicion that whoever has no work has no desire to work, is returning.
RB: In your research you deal with various countries, primarily Germany and France. What can be learned from this comparative international perspective?
BZ: If against growing resistance we wish to keep on building Europe then we require a new vantage point. It is insufficient to analyze only the differences or observe the reciprocal transfers. We must instead direct our gaze to those close interweavings for which my colleague Michael Werner and I have coined the phrase histoire croisée – intertwined history.
RB: Is this a return to those classic sociologists who still thought in historical terms?
BZ: Much of this is indirectly suggested by Georg Simmel. He regards society not only as a totality or from the standpoint of individuals but in their interaction with one another. He brings humans in relation to one another. And in his philosophy of money he seizes on the question of meaning. What is of value to humans? This cannot take the form of a decree from above. It is a matter of what the people themselves feel.
RB: One would imagine that in this age of globalization the notion of work in the various countries is becoming increasingly similar. Is this in fact the case?
BZ: There are still great differences. They are not only of an economic but a cultural nature. A few years ago there was a large-scale investigation into the values of Europeans with respect to work. The finding was that nowhere in Europe did work enjoy such high status as among the French.
RB: The cliché is that it is Germans who find work to be the most important thing.
BZ: Apparently not the case. At the same time the French lead the way in wanting to work less. At first glance that would seem like a paradox.
RB: Do you have an explanation for it?
BZ: Work relations in France are hierarchical; there is great pressure on employees, resulting in a range of psycho-social diseases. There is really no such thing as democracy within the enterprise. This is not the case in Germany. Even if it is democracy of a limited sort. There is a common goal and everyone acts in concert so as to achieve this goal. In a crisis people will work a little less for a bit less money because they know that things will later improve. That is a difficult attitude to cultivate in France – there is such mistrust between employer and employee that solidarity within an enterprise is very hard to achieve.
RB: At the Wissenschaftskolleg you want to grapple more intensively with this issue of work cultures. What exactly are your plans?
BZ: We have chosen six firms from Germany and France that have sites in both countries. Here is what we want to examine: How does the business policy of multinational enterprises operate at local sites? What effect does it have on the work relations and occupational careers of the employees? What about the trust and mistrust to be found in the workplace? What are the consequences of digitalization for co-working and home-work as well as classic work organizations? What is the latitude and what are the constraints that emerge from it for the employees and the enterprise? I expect much to come of this.
RB: The leading question of your research project is: “What kind of work for what kind of society?” What exactly does this mean and who decides such a question?
BZ: Because work is so important in the lives of most people, they should have a chance to voice their concerns and be heard. There remains much to do, in Germany as well. Work and politics are linked, but they are not necessarily thought of as interrelated. This linkage can be found at the micro-level of individuals as well as at the macro-level of political and economic organizations. These days multinational firms are extremely powerful. So long as they don’t take the political, social and ecological consequences of their economic decisions into account then very little will change. National political decisions are no longer sufficient in steering a society. The case of Greece is a paradigmatic example of this.
RB: Proponents of an unconditional basic income assert that if no one is compelled to work for sheer sake of subsistence then employees can determine their work conditions themselves. Do you believe in this?
BZ: No. If we say that work is a part of being human then we can’t exclude a portion of society from it. The danger would be instituting a two-class society – people with a mere basic income – and then the rest. If Simmel is right that power and its exercise is another anthropological constant of humanity then it is difficult to believe that a basic income by itself can solve all of society’s problems. Perhaps in connection with other measures. These are still to be devised and certainly not only at the national level. The close coupling of economics and politics creates a transnational challenge.
RB: What do you propose instead? More political regulation?
BZ: It is not a matter of regulating work from above but bringing democracy to the workplace. This does not contradict the transnational challenges. Human life plays out on a variety of levels at one and the same time. Individual workers should be able to have a say regarding the purpose of their work and how it ought to be organized – of course always with respect to success of the enterprise. It is not only a matter of working hours and conditions but the organization of work and the question as to what being successful actually means for a company. What are the yardsticks against which success should be measured? Only financial ones or human as well? We are experiencing a revolution in working conditions. The traditional rules no longer apply. The sole question is what will come next. If we regard work not only as a means but a constitutive dimension of society then not only managers and shareholders should be included in the decision-making process. The contributions of labor unions are insufficient here. The integration of individual voices and collective bargaining needs to be rethought – just as at the other end of things the interplay between national and transnational politics must be reconceived.
RB: There is presently a debate about whether computers and robots will someday perform the majority of jobs. Will we soon run out of work?
BZ: I don’t believe at all in this thesis. For me it is a matter of newly configuring and defining work, for example including family or volunteer work under the rubric. There will be new job descriptions with new qualifications. Work will change. A new balance between paid and unpaid work may arise. But we will not run out of it.
More on: Bénédicte Zimmermann
Images: © Maurice Weiss