We don’t want full employment, we want full lives!

the original text from a leaflet

Instead of more work, Ken Knabb argues against the rationality of the whole capitalist system which causes mass unemployment at the same time as overwork and presents a series of texts and events from France related to this critique.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 6, 2007

If a household gets a washing machine, you never hear the family members who used to do the laundry by hand complain that this “puts them out of work.” But strangely enough, if a similar development occurs on a broader social scale it is seen as a serious problem — “unemployment” — which can only be solved by inventing more jobs for people to do.

Proposals to spread the work around by implementing a slightly shorter workweek seem at first sight to address the matter more rationally. But such proposals do not face the fundamental irrationality of the whole social system based on market relations. While reacting to one manifestation of this irrationality (the fact that some people work long hours while others are jobless), they tend at the same time to reinforce the illusion that most present-day work is normal and necessary, as if the only problem were that for some strange reason it is divided up unequally. The absurdity of 90% of existing jobs is never mentioned.

In a sane society, the elimination of all these absurd jobs (not only those that produce or market ridiculous and unnecessary commodities, but the far larger number directly or indirectly involved in promoting and protecting the whole commodity system) would reduce necessary tasks to such a trivial level (probably less than 10 hours per week) that they could easily be taken care of voluntarily and cooperatively, eliminating the need for the whole apparatus of economic incentives and state enforcement.1

Some recent actions in France (which as usual have been almost entirely unreported in the American media) present a refreshing contrast to the usual “progressive” appeals for equal wage slavery.

In December and January tens of thousands of jobless people demonstrated in dozens of French cities, in many cases occupying unemployment offices, welfare offices, utility companies and repossession agencies, invading posh stores and restaurants, and making collective raids on supermarkets. This movement, though far bolder than jobless actions in the United States, unfortunately remained largely under the control of the official unemployment associations (dominated by the leftist parties and labor unions). Many of the occupations, however, were carried out on the initiative of individuals who began bypassing the official spokespeople and speaking and acting for themselves.

This radical tendency came to the fore in mid-January when jobless people briefly occupied the Paris Trade Center and the elite École Normale Supérieure, and then, upon being forced out by the police, took over an amphitheater at the nearby Jussieu University. Though this latter occupation was also clearly illegal, the university authorities refrained from calling in the police, and daily assemblies of 100­200 people were held there over the next two or three months.

While most of the official movement’s occupations had been brief, bureaucratically controlled and purely symbolic (designed merely to pressure the government into passing certain reforms), the Jussieu occupiers wanted to create an ongoing forum for public debate. They opened up their assembly to everyone instead of limiting it to jobless people, and began seeking linkups with other terrains.

Two basic principles were generally agreed on by the participants: (1) that struggles should be carried on autonomously (parties, unions, and other hierarchical organizations were recognized as enemies of any truly radical struggle), and (2) that wage labor needs to be replaced by freely self-organized activity.

The Jussieu assembly did not claim to represent anyone; it simply served as a meeting place where people could discuss whatever they wanted to and then, if they were so inclined, join with others interested in carrying out this or that particular project. In some cases whole series of more or less impromptu actions were carried out by roving bands of a few dozen people, who might, for example, go downtown to disrupt a fashion show or toss rotten tomatoes at a repossession officer; then invade a supermarket and pressure the owners into “donating” a cartful of food; then hop the subway to another part of the city to hand out leaflets or spraypaint graffiti (”You never get back the time you’ve sold!” “We don’t want part of the cake, we want the bakery!”); and then make it back to Jussieu in the evening to report on the day’s adventures.

On the following pages we have translated excerpts from some of the leaflets and communiqués. We are circulating them because we think they may be useful and challenging to people in other countries faced with similar situations. Not (as so often happens with international “radical” reportage) in order to overwhelm people with a spectacle of exaggerated exotic events, giving the impression that revolution consists of nonstop earthshaking actions that can only be carried out by other people somewhere on the other side of the planet.

We don’t think France is on the verge of a revolution. The actions described here involved only a tiny minority of the population, and the movement already seems to have subsided (at last notice the Jussieu assembly was meeting only twice a week). But we do think that many of the participants have discovered that real life begins with personal experiments. And such experiments sometimes lead to bigger things.

April 1998

Something out of the ordinary is happening in this country. So much so that the media, the politicians and the unions have decided to maintain a total silence about it. Two months ago Jospin bluntly rejected the demands of the unemployed. Since that time the unions and the official unemployed associations have continued to urge jobless people to go home and leave things to them, the press has completely ignored them, and the police have hassled them, often for nothing more than handing out leaflets.

Yet almost everywhere in the country individuals have been coming together into bands, collectives and assemblies and have begun to talk to each other directly and freely.

We are among those who have been taking part in the assembly at Jussieu University. For the last month and a half a sort of ongoing, self-organized forum has been carried on every evening. We talk to each other and we listen to each other — “unemployed,” “precariously employed,” “workers,” “students,” “riffraff,” “militants,” “unionists,” “members” of this or that group, or “none of the above.” We put quotes around all these labels because, upon talking with each other, we came to realize that they only serve to close us off, to isolate us from each other and even to manipulate us into fighting each other; that despite our particular social roles we are all subject to the same history, to the same oppression, and animated by much the same needs, desires and questionings.

We set out to discuss EVERYTHING. Beginning with what ruins our lives: work and its pointlessness (upon taking stock we concluded that 90% of this society’s productions are useless bullshit), its miserable wages, its hierarchies, its daily horror; and the wretchedness and boredom of unemployment, which we came to realize is merely the flip side of work, a threat held over the heads of workers, forcing them to submit to the economic blackmail.

We also talked about money and commerce; and about health, and the food we eat and the air we have to breathe. And it soon became clear that from whatever angle you look at this society, you can’t change any detail without having to transform the whole thing; that everything is linked to money and profit, and that human beings are treated like any other commodities: paid more or less miserably, exploited, and then thrown away when there’s no more profit to be squeezed out of them. Having arrived at these conclusions, we decided to communicate them to others.

So we wrote leaflets. But feeling that direct contact was especially important, we also invited ourselves into the cafeterias of various businesses in order to talk with the workers, and invaded all sorts of other places (unemployment offices, welfare offices, newspaper offices, utility companies, restaurants, etc.) in order to tell everyone what we had been saying to each other in the assemblies. We met and expressed our complicity with illegal immigrants, with the wildcat-striking subway cleaners, and with the Farmers Confederation members opposing the use of bioengineered corn, because we realized that our particular grievances all stem from the same cause: money, cash, the bottom line!

We tried to get a better idea of the kind of society we wanted by some direct experiments: an ongoing open assembly; starting a collective garden where we could grow real food; giving lessons in generosity to storekeepers (those prime examples of social selfishness); trying out different types of interpersonal relations in games, roves, dinner parties. As one of us put it at an assembly: “For two months now I’ve had lots of friends, I haven’t been bored for a moment, and I no longer wait for my monthly check with the same anxiety.”

We also let some of those we consider enemies of humanity (repo men, bankers, merchants, administrators, journalists) know that once we overcome our isolation they can no longer carry on their despicable practices with impunity.

We’ve been repressed (the sole government response to our movement). We’ve struggled to free four imprisoned comrades. And we’ve continued to reflect and to criticize (including each other).

And we have concluded not only that there will never again be enough work for everyone (both because of machines and because of the neoslavery in the Third World), but that even if there were, we have no desire to work a single hour producing stupid, useless junk, and that all production needs to be reexamined from the standpoint of our real needs and desires. All the money in the world, even if it were divided equally among everyone, would bring about practically no real change in our lives. (We will naturally accept whatever money we can pressure them into giving us, but money is not what we are really lacking.)


These reflections have naturally made us realize that we need to create another form of society, one in which people will decide on their own activity and production rather than being slaves to the present production system. This is obviously a huge project. But since many of us are “unemployed,” we do have one invaluable treasure: TIME! And from now on we intend to use it, because the project of a really lived time is far more exciting than the empty time passed working or watching TV or waiting in line at the welfare office.

We know that millions of people share the same feelings and ideas, even if in many cases they’re buried somewhere inside them. It’s up to us to meet each other if we want to overcome our isolation and submission. We’re beginning to write and visit each other. Discussions are taking shape in Paris and around the country. Coordinations and joint actions are being organized.

For us, real wealth has nothing to do with money or commodities. We are discovering this richness in our encounters, in our collective schemes, and in our dreams and glimpses of another, truly human society — a society we invite you to join us in envisaging and creating.

[March 7]

* * *

We are occupying the École Normale Supérieure today for an immediate practical reason: we want to open up a forum where everything debatable can be debated. . . . The isolation of individuals has been the main weak point of past struggles and it remains the number-one weapon of the present system. It is this isolation that we have to break.

[ca. January 17]

* * *

We are occupying the national headquarters of the Socialist Party in response to [Socialist Prime Minister] Jospin’s televised address last night. . . . Far from concerning ourselves with special-interest demands, our movement aims to raise the question of the whole organization of work and other basic social issues that were so carefully evaded in Jospin’s speech. This is why we encourage everyone to organize themselves in order to continue and extend the struggle.

[January 22]

* * *

You don’t need an
employment agency to find an
O C C U P A T I O N !
Join us at the general assembly
at Jussieu University
every weekday at 6:00 pm.

* * *

Our “roves” are days of active encounter, days in which we play with the city and with life. We try not to let any fixed routine develop, but to find inspiration by encouraging the expression of everyone’s imagination. Some people consider our enthusiasm excessive. We don’t claim to be superior to others, but we do feel that our “get-togethers” contain a little seed of magic. Little by little new relations develop; we rediscover moments of freedom; the coming together of our dreams, and even of our frenzies, leads us to a reality that seems more vibrant than before. It’s been a long winter. Let spring flower!

* * *

The best way to abolish unemployment is to abolish the work and the money that are linked with it.

* * *

It’s absurd to demand the “creation of jobs.” Enough riches already exist to take care of everyone’s basic needs; they only need to be shared around. As for all the production that serves no real purpose, a social revolution will close more factories and eliminate more stupid jobs in twelve hours than capitalism does in twelve years. We will no longer have any reason to produce such things as food colorings, aircraft carriers or insurance contracts. We don’t want “full employment,” we want full lives!

* * *

It is both morally and strategically justified to make particular demands, such as for higher unemployment benefits or free public services. But a social movement should not limit itself to such demands. To do so amounts to asking for justice from the very forces that are based on injustice. The famous slogan: “BE REALISTIC, DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE!” is not a mere lyrical or provocative exaggeration, it is actually the most sound, sensible advice. . . . Whether we are workers, students or unemployed, what we all really need is the space and time to meet, to share dreams, to recreate our lives. We should demand full enjoyment, not full employment!

* * *

Up till now the specter of unemployment has been used by the capitalist system to terrorize people into accepting any job they can get, even the most absurd, under any conditions. . . . Isn’t it time we ask ourselves the point of all this production? What are we producing? For whom? How? At what social and ecological cost? . . . Let’s stop leaving things to the lying specialists who claim to speak in our name. It’s up to us to decide what is possible, what we want, and how to get it. It’s up to us to reclaim power over our own lives. It’s up to us to take back the material resources that the political, financial and media powers have stolen from us.

* * *

The unemployed are free to do nothing, since they are cut off from the means of production. . . . They become dangerous when they seek to do something significant with that freedom. . . . The real choice is not between wage labor and unemployment, but between free activity and alienated activity. . . .

Our movement could potentially serve as a platform for the articulation of all the partial, separate struggles that succeed in recognizing their commonality in the struggle against the whole commodity system. . . .

The basic contradiction within our movement is between the tendency limiting itself to demands for reforms, represented by the [official] unemployed associations, and the tendency calling for a radical overthrow of the system, which is being so freely expressed in the general assemblies at Jussieu. Insofar as they are reformist and bureaucratic organizations, the unemployed associations have particular, separate interests; the bureaucrats who control them can hardly seek a real end to unemployment because this would amount to putting themselves out of their own jobs. They have no other aim than to continue leading an absurd struggle that will never win and never end. The last thing they want is for the movement to spread and escape their control. . . .

One of the most urgent problems faced by our movement is how to get out of the ghetto of special-interest demands centered around the issue of unemployment; how to trigger a chain reaction among other sectors of the population and bring a halt to the tyrannical rhythm of production. The May 1968 revolt produced such an effect. . . . But the bureaucratic leftist organizations, which were so powerful at that time, predictably succeeded in sabotaging it. . . . But May 1968 also demonstrated the astonishing effectiveness of small groups of a few dozen people immediately implementing their own decisions. These groups liberated speech as well as action — because it is only when people have something to do together that they have something to say to each other.

* * *

The vast majority of the unemployed remain prisoners of their isolation. This struggle is now at the crossroads: either it will exhaust itself demanding impossible reforms of the welfare system that perpetuates the condition of the unemployed; or it will become aware of its essential basis and begin calling in question the commodity relations that have devastated everything human that there ever was in our society.

* * *

Certain sociologists have described us as “a sacrificed generation.” Well, we refuse to sacrifice our lives for their stock market, their government, their rigid politics. We are carrying on a daily struggle, autonomously organized. We don’t have any leaders. Our general assembly retains all power; its committees are subject to the collective. . . .

Fellow students, unless there is basic social and economic change we will be the future unemployed. We call on everyone to support the right of the jobless and the precariously employed to decent lives. You are the ones who will determine the future. Don’t let others decide it for you! Fight back!

[Highschoolers Action Committee]

* * *

”The wealth of the 358 billionaires — the 358 richest people on the planet — surpasses the annual income of the poorest 45% of the planet, i.e. 2.6 billion people” (Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 1997). . . . You have to be really naïve to count on well-intentioned politicians to satisfy the grievances of the poor. Politicians, regardless of their political label, are nothing but administrators in the service of the real masters of the world: the owners of the multinationals. . . .

We need to have the real spirit of “free enterprise” — the spirit to undertake the creation of a different society. . . . This is admittedly a more complex venture than cashing a check and going back to sleep, or waiting for political heroes to solve our problems for us. . . . But it’s that or submit. And this project does have one great advantage: it is one “occupation” that is really worthy of human beings!


* * *

On January 8, 1998, 200 members of the Farmers Confederation, reacting against the government decision to authorize the use of bioengineered corn in France, broke into the Novartis Seed Company warehouse in southwest France where this corn was stored, ”ripped open the sacks and drenched the corn with a fire hose, in order to call attention to the dangers posed to humanity by the agricultural use of bioengineering. According to the Farmers Confederation, the bioengineered corn risks transmitting to man a resistance to the effect of certain antibiotics.” (Le Monde, Jan. 19.)

The “unemployed movement” cannot fail to see a close connection between this exemplary act and its own actions. The market relations that are tending to exclude the majority of people from all power over their own lives are the same relations that are causing a constantly increasing degradation of the most basic conditions of survival by the blatant ravaging of nature and the widespread poisoning of the population. . . . Capitalism has become so suicidal that each new step in the direction of ”Progress” is another step toward catastrophe. The scale and range of disasters and the threat of their worsening make it a life-and-death matter to call in question the very nature of a society dominated by commodity relations. Merely to survive, we are ALL forced to undertake a radical transformation of this society. . . .

Three members of the Farmers Confederation have been indicted for their role in this action. We intend to support them with all the means at our disposal, beginning by taking part in the huge demonstration of solidarity and protest at the Agen courthouse where their trial begins on February 3.

— Jussieu general assembly (Jan. 21)

* * *

The techniques of domination are developing so rapidly — even more rapidly than the increases in profits and unemployment — that anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the ruling circles is confronted with the question: Is it still possible to make the truth heard when so many political and economic powers are in league to cover it up? How, amid a population that has been turned into deaf-mute spectators, can we thwart the schemes that the merchants and their lackeys feel free to hatch in broad daylight, knowing that, whether they are right or wrong, no one is in a position to contradict them? Under such conditions, how can we deal with emergencies?

Faced with Novartis’s bioengineered corn and the disgusting irresponsibility with which the French government authorized its sale and cultivation while lying about its own Safety Commission’s warning against it . . . my comrades and I felt it was urgent to act before it was too late. . . .

In joining us at this first ever public trial of a bioengineered plant, the joyous and resolute crowd of demonstrators outside, whose shouts could be heard even here in the courtroom this afternoon, clearly aims at the same time to put on trial a social order that doesn’t shrink from announcing that it considers it acceptable to risk poisoning humanity and the entire planet in the name of economic balances and free trade.

— René Riesel, “Statement to the Agen Court” (Feb. 3)

* * *

As we had hoped, the Farmers Confederation succeeded in transforming the trial of three of its members for having destroyed the stock of bioengineered corn into a trial of the corn itself and of the multinational agro-industry. Ten expert witnesses — scientists, farmers, ecologists and consumer advocates — testified that the government decision to authorize the cultivation of this corn was premature and dangerous. 1800 people gathered outside the courthouse to support the three defendants and to join them in demanding a moratorium on its sale and cultivation. 292 organizations from 24 countries expressed their support. . . . Whatever the outcome of the trial,2 it will mark an important stage in the international mobilization to defend ecological, farmer-oriented agriculture against the takeover efforts of the chemical and seed companies.

— Farmers Confederation (Feb. 3)

* * *
We Know What You Need To Do Better Than You Do,
Because We Are Specialists!

Ever since you elected us, we have thought of nothing but your happiness.

We are extremely concerned about the tragedy of unemployment. That’s why we have explored every possible solution to it. We want to spare you the torments of idleness (which as everyone knows is the devil’s workshop); to save you from the anxiety that people experience when they are allowed to decide what they’re going to do with their own lives.

After lengthy and costly calculations, our experts have discovered the solution capable of revitalizing the cycle of profits (which will, of course, be shared with everyone, as usual), namely the creation of a maximum number of jobs indispensable for human fulfillment, such as shoeshiner, door opener, supermarket bagger, or walker of the boss’s dog. We are confident that millions of unemployed people will be happy for this opportunity to play a useful role in society.

Certain disgruntled characters, always quick to criticize but never offering any constructive ideas on how to create a financially viable future for humanity, denounce this program (the only program capable of saving our civilization), contending that such jobs are useless and obnoxious. These criminal utopians want to put people above profits and thus deliver our country over to barbarism, as in the dark days of the French Revolution or the bloody outrages of the Paris Commune.

Well, we have learned the lessons of history. We have no intention of allowing our country — this wonderful country that assures well-being, freedom of expression, leisure activities and televised sports for all its citizens — to be handed over to drunken, uneducated proletarians. This is why, in our all-seeing wisdom and in order to ensure full employment and security for everyone, we have decided to offer jobs to hundreds of thousands of young people as auxiliary police, part-time watchmen, substitute ticket inspectors and apprentice informers.

Please continue to rely on us to think and act for you. Above all, do not go to the Jussieu assembly — that will accomplish nothing and will only hurt your own cause. And as you know, your cause is our cause.

— Your Government

These texts all appeared January-March 1998. Unless otherwise indicated, they are from Paris. Special thanks to Luc Mercier, who provided most of the texts and information.

Translated by Ken Knabb.

No copyright. Printed copies free on request.

Translations at the Bureau of Public Secrets [Original French] [Swedish] [Indonesian]

  • 1For a detailed examination of the problems and possibilities of such a society, and of the pros and cons of various tactics for getting there, see The Joy of Revolution in Ken Knabb’s recent book, Public Secrets.
  • 2The three farmers — José Bové, René Riesel, and Francis Roux — were given suspended sentences and ordered to pay $100,000 damages to the Novartis company. They have no intention of doing so. Meanwhile the issue has been far more widely reported and debated than before and the French government has felt obliged to set up an independent public “jury” to investigate the possible risks of the bioengineered corn. Further information can be obtained from: Confédération Paysanne, 81 Avenue de la République, 93170 Bagnolet, France (www.confederationpaysanne.fr).