Elements of analysis

Submitted by Alias Recluse on January 12, 2013

The account of the strikes of May-June 1968 that we have just elaborated depicts an enormous strike movement, which arose in a very short period of time, in a situation where no one expected it, and which nonetheless ended without any significant victories. How do we analyze it, how do we define it? We may concentrate some elements of analysis around two themes that we have already mentioned: the reappearance of unemployment and the crisis of assembly line labor.

Starting in the mid-1960s, we witnessed a reduction in the rate of capital accumulation in most industrialized countries. We shall not examine the details of that which, while at first sight appearing to be a shift within the general trend, was in fact the end of an era. What was at first interpreted as a short-term cyclical oscillation was actually the turning point of a long cycle.1 This period witnessed the first signs of the entry into a long period of recession, whose inception is often dated to the so-called oil crisis of 1974, a recession that is still with us. The period that came to a close at the end of the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the thirty glorious years (1945-1975), began after the end of the war and was characterized by:

• An almost complete disappearance of unemployment;
• Steady growth of wages and buying power;
• A sustained rate of accumulation, thanks to large increases in productivity linked to the development of assembly line labor.

The collapse of these three pillars lies at the heart of the social crises of the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, and not only in France.

The end of full employment and the stagnation of buying power

For the sake of convenience, we shall examine the first two points together, and we shall focus only on the case of France.

Faced with the slowdown of post-war growth, which was already visible before 1968, the capitalists attempted to increase the rate of exploitation. This led to a resurgence of struggles, with very hard-fought strikes that could barely be controlled by the trade unions and violent demonstrations, especially in the provinces. The cause of these struggles was the attempt, on the part of the employers, to reduce wages, and to do this they most commonly utilized two methods:

1. On the one hand, there are various conflicts that broke out because the employers reduced the number of working hours without increasing the hourly pay of the workers who were paid by the hour. We have already seen an example such as that of the workers at Rhodiaceta in March 1967 and the example of the factory at Sud-Aviation in Bouguenais, near Nantes, in April 1968 (See Part One, Chapter 1). In April 1965, however, the same situation arose at Peugeot. The uncompensated reduction in working hours also constituted, in the latter case, the loss of a concession that had already been won in a previous struggle. Ever since 1955, a fund that was contributed by the employer compensated, at least in part, for the financial losses caused by the reductions in wages as a result of curtailments in working hours.2 Therefore, the new policy led on this occasion to a long conflict, with unplanned work stoppages and strikes in alternation. The management responded by firing 2,700 strikers, and the conflict ended with the defeat of the workers.

We also have information concerning the case of Saviem in Caen (5,000 employees, of whom 3,500 were specialized workers). In June 1967, the workweek was reduced from 47.3 hours to 45 hours with a corresponding reduction in the weekly wage. On January 23, 1968, the workers at the factory went on strike at the initiative of the CFDT; this strike spread to two nearby factories, Jaeger and Sonormel. On January 24, a demonstration culminated in very violent confrontations with the police. On January 26, a rally took place that was attended by 10,000 people, including students and teachers. The FEN was booed when it called for calm and dignity. The trade unions lost control of the situation and the demonstration that followed the rally ended with street clashes in the neighborhood of the City Hall. The young workers distinguished themselves by their aggressiveness. They broke windows, set fire to gasoline tanks and used slings and ball bearings as weapons. The battle lasted all night. On the 29th, the riot police invaded the factory. Work resumed on February 5; none of the demands of the Saviem workers had been satisfied. The workers at the other two factories obtained a partial satisfaction of their grievances.3

In these three examples (Peugeot, Saviem, Sud-Aviation) the violence of the workers’ reaction to a wage reduction that may seem minimal thirty years later, is indicative of an abrupt transformation in the environment of class relations. It was not a case of the workers being “objectively” unable to bear a reduction in their buying power. The following years unfortunately proved this. But what happened was that the concessions won during the period of growth were being attacked for the first time, and the workers’ reaction is a barometer of the workers’ shock.

2. On the other hand, the restructuring that was applied, in all sectors, for the inauguration of the Common Market, led to layoffs and shifts in job assignments that highlighted the end of full employment and the return of precarious conditions. Once again we refer to the case of Rhodiaceta. It is true that, in September 1967, when the company announced a reduction of the workweek from 44 to 40 hours, there was no reaction from the workers. When, however, in December the management announced a reduction in the Christmas bonus and 2,000 layoffs before the end of 1969, the reaction was violent and escaped the control of the trade unions. To no avail, however.

Another example: Pierre Viansson-Ponté4 recounts what happened on January 26, 1968 in Fougères (Ille-et-Vilaine). In this peaceful subprefecture, the trade unions organized a demonstration to protest the closings of enterprises that had been taking place for years. Once the demonstration reached city hall, it turned violent. Some youths broke windows, and knocked down the traffic signal posts. Then they climbed the walls of the city hall compound, tore down the tricolor flag and trampled it in the dirt. When the police tried to disperse them, the youths turned and fought. For that time, in the context of the provinces, their reaction seemed to be totally savage.

This same characteristic would typify other instances of the expression of the desire to “work in the country”, to live and work in the region where one was born, which was particularly strong in the west of France. This inclination would be the reason for the success of the events of May 8, 1968. On that day, all the personalities of the political and social life of the region, including the priests,5 gathered together to request action to bring jobs and economic activity back to the economy of the West. The movement was significant. In the demonstration at Angers, one could read slogans like, “Displace the factories, not the men” or “No to the Deportation of Labor”.6 This was a direct response to the concern of the employers and the government to take advantage of the geographical mobility of labor power.

In 1965, French capitalism entered into a period of rapid restructuring. A law passed in July 1965 provided impetus for this trend with beneficial tax breaks. With its planning, the government sought to take advantage of the potential of restructuring the principle sectors around one or two enterprises that could attempt, due to their size, to compete on an international level. For example, in the aeronautics sector, complicated maneuvers were undertaken to bring about the formation of the SNIAS.7 In 1965 the employers announced a planned reduction of the work force by 15,000 employees; that is, 15% of the jobs would be lost. One of the concerns of the government in this context was to make the labor market flexible in order to favor migration towards other industries due to the factory closures. It was with this goal in mind that the ANPE8 was created in 1967.

The unemployment rate in France (in percent, from 1962 to 1985)

[Graph would not reproduce in this format--Translator's Note]

With twenty years of hindsight, the unemployment rate of 1968 may seem rather insignificant, and this leads us to ask how and why it managed to arouse such anger. It is true that it had registered a strong increase, from 200,000 unemployed in 1964 to 300,000 in 1967. This is a very large increase, but the rate of unemployment was still low. The curve on the above graph might lead one to think that the alarming declarations about the growth of unemployment between 1966 and 1967 were hardly justified. To the contrary, they were totally justified. Since what appeared above all as a minor mathematical increase in the rate of unemployment was actually the appearance of a new kind of unemployment.

Starting in the late 1960s, unemployment ceased to be a momentary and exceptional lack of employment. It also became an instrument at the service of the modernization of French capitalism. According to André Gauron, demographic factors alone do not explain the growth of unemployment. The economy had created numerous jobs. But “between 1965 and 1970, the mobility registered for the various categories of labor showed a 50% increase over the period extending from 1959 to 1964”. It is this mobile labor power which, in search of other jobs due to the effects of restructuring, explains the growth of unemployment, and which caused wage levels to decline by replacing the older workers with young ones, and Parisians with provincials,9 men with women, French workers with immigrants. Gauron concludes that, “much more than the wage policy, the mobility of labor has been the primary weapon of a global devalorization of labor power…”10

The discussions to which Georges Pompidou, at that time prime minister of France, invited various social figures in 1967, pointed in the same direction. At the moment when the debate over the Social Security Laws was beginning to take shape, Pompidou proposed discussions to include the three parties—the government, the employers and the trade unions—that would address five points:

1. Increase in the unemployment insurance payments.
2. Creation of joint commissions to survey the restructuring and its consequences.
3. Establishment of a minimum period of advance notice for mass layoffs.
4. Special measures for mergers.
5. Compensation for partial unemployment.

The fact that a right wing government had proposed an increase in the unemployment insurance payment is an indication of the level of rigidity the labor market had attained after thirty years of accelerated accumulation. After that phase of full employment, this measure was necessary to buy a little flexibility from labor power. With this procedure, the capitalists utilized unemployment to announce the return of precarious conditions and to reassert the principle of the proletarians’ condition: to work, they have to sell their labor power. There is no right to work, but only a relation of forces between buyers and sellers of labor power, and the balance was tipping in favor of the capitalists. This process did, of course, take several years and, in the early 1970s, it would be significantly camouflaged by the ideological discourse concerning the recomposition of labor, which was allegedly destined to overcome the crisis of assembly line labor. Meanwhile, the workers almost immediately perceived the precariousness of their situation. The plans to cushion the social impact of unemployment did not pacify them, and the demand to work in the region where they grew up must be understood in connection with this trend.

The return to this fundamental truth, that the labor market is the arena of the precariousness of the proletariat, after the thirty glorious years, is, in my opinion, one of the basic elements that explain the power of the social movement of 1968. It is this factor that explains the anger of the workers at Sud-Aviation, their enraged rejection of a reduction of the workweek that was not fully compensated for by an increase in the hourly wage. These workers did not work on the assembly lines and their activism did not have its origin in the “anti-work” attitude of the specialized workers (we shall examine this issue below). Its origin is the insidious return of precariousness by way of part time work, restructuring and the relocation of the workplaces from the Paris region towards the provinces. It was not yet a situation, as it is now, characterized by the ubiquity of unemployment in society, but these developments did constitute perceptible signs of the advent of such a situation. For example, it was this same return of precariousness that explains the appearance of marginal proletarians (young hoodlums and juvenile delinquents and all kinds of people with nothing to do) who would constitute an active factor in the radicalization of the movement from the moment of the outbreak of the very first student demonstrations.

Of course, the end of full employment also had an impact on wages. Here, too, the complaints and grievances had been accumulating for years. The austerity plan implemented by the government in 1963 to control inflation did not prevent the buying power of wages from rising, although at a constantly diminishing rate. The buying power of the average wage rose 6% in 1960, and 5% in 1963. In 1967, it did not rise by more than 2%.11 Furthermore, this increase was distributed in an increasingly more unequal way between the high and low wage employees. The gap between them had been widening for years…. The difference between the average wage of a high-level executive and that of a worker grew by 6% between 1962 and 1967.12 But it was above all the difference between the minimum wage and the average wage that was most shocking in 1968. Between 1955 and 1967, the buying power of the average wage rose from 129 to 197 (1950=100), while that of the minimum wage had stagnated around 120. This widening of the wage gap was at the root of an egalitarian demand that was frequently expressed in May 1968. Wage increases by percentages were often rejected by the strikers in favor of across the board, flat rate increases that were equal for everyone. This demand was only partially satisfied, since the CGT took a strong stand in favor of the wage hierarchy and against egalitarianism.

To summarize, the slowing of accumulation at the end of the 1960s took us back to normal capitalism. The exception of the thirty glorious years had come to an end. Everywhere, but especially in France, where archaisms were more prevalent, the extraordinary profitability of capital of that era was being exhausted. This profitability was bound to the introduction of assembly line labor into a society in which, at the start of World War Two, Taylorism had not yet become generalized, and in which the reserves of potential productivity gains were therefore immense. They were so immense because they were based on “the profits from ‘classical’ Taylorist and Fordist principles added to the profits resulting from the utilization of industrial automation”.13 Immense but not inexhaustible; for the Fordist organization of labor seemed to be reaching its limits, too. This is the third characteristic element of this period.

The limits of assembly line labor

The scientific organization of labor (SOL) made its appearance at the end of the 19th century, first in the United States. The SOL analyzed the gestures of skilled workers, and broke down their skilled jobs into a succession of elementary tasks that required the smallest possible number of physical motions. Its goal was, quite clearly, to prevent the worker from using his knowledge as a shield to protect any attempt on his part to withhold or slow down his productive activity. At the same time, it also sought to increase productivity and raise the volume of production thanks to the massive utilization of cheap, unskilled workers—or workers who can be taught the requisite skills in a few days.

Shortly before the First World War, the Taylorized workers were linked together by a kind of transport system: they became assembly line workers. This procedure was first implemented by Ford, in the United States.14 It was not universally applied, however, until after the end of World War Two, especially in Europe and Japan. The difference between the assembly line and Taylorism lies in the fact that by using the assembly line the capitalist goes even further with regard to the elimination of down time or unproductive time and “shirking”. The assembly line eliminates a large part of the labor of supervision and above all it imposes its work rate on workers who each carry out an elementary operation on one piece that is moving past them. These are the unskilled workers, the specialized workers of the era of May 1968.

Taylorism and Fordism were thus two essential moments in the de-skilling of labor, of the second dispossession of labor. In the first dispossession, it lost all ownership of its means of production. In the second, it lost all skill: speed as a skill [in English in original—Translator’s Note], this is what the time study engineers were seeking to impose.

Starting in the mid-sixties, the exploitation of assembly line labor underwent a decline in effectiveness. The employers sought to compensate for this decline by reducing wages and making working conditions worse. We have seen how the conflicts that heralded May ’68 had features in common with the “revolt of the specialized workers” (particularly at Caen). In May-June 1968, the signs of the revolt of the specialized workers also appeared in the strike movement: at first with the activism of the young workers (Renault, especially), and above all at the end with the resistance to the return to work (Flins and Sochaux). This having been said, we must point out that the crisis of the “scientific organization of labor” which arose at that time was not a new phenomenon.

According to Georges Friedmann, “the Second World War played, in the history of the organization of labor, an almost revolutionary role by compelling American industry to abruptly reconvert its facilities, under the impact of urgent demands for armaments, to new production techniques, with labor power that was often unskilled”.15

The reconversion that Friedmann is talking about is not the introduction of the SOL, which had already been implemented in the United States before the war, but the overcoming of its limits. Wartime conditions were such that, during this period, one may speak of the limits of the assembly line. Friedmann insists on the fact that the questioning of the organization of labor according to the most advanced models of the era was never in response to a humanitarian intention to seek to alleviate the burden of the workers with regard to their many repetitive tasks, but exclusively for the purpose of responding to the needs of profitability and efficiency. Of course, the efficiency of labor presupposes a minimum of cooperation on the part of the workers, and it was around this question that factory managers and industrial psychologists would collaborate to define solutions that were supposed to generate this minimum of cooperation.

Georges Friedmann tells us about the tanks that were manufactured by Cadillac. Two factories, using the same machinery to make the same products, exhibited a significant difference in productivity. The first, entirely conceived in accordance with the canons of the SOL, was ultra-modern. The second, which was forced to improvise in unsuitable circumstances, was compelled to continuously resort to ingenuity. It was obviously the latter that was more efficient: it found a way to obtain the cooperation of the workers. He also cites a case of job enrichment16 applied at an IBM assembly line in 1943. The result was higher quality products, a more satisfied workforce (which, we must point out, received higher than average pay) and lower overhead costs.

These lessons learned from wartime conditions were to be extended and developed after the end of the war. They did not, however, spread so fast and so far that the problem of the limits of the SOL seemed new in the decade of the 1960s.

In fact, despite the enthusiasm he expresses for job enrichment and job rotation, Friedmann does not conceal the limits of the application of “job enrichment”. He admits that its future lies particularly in the development of the polyvalence of workers who will be the servants of automated machinery and that this latter situation cannot at all be described as an instance of “job enrichment”. And he reports that in 1950, in the United States, job enrichment in the classical (non-automated) Fordist industries could only be economically justified for 500,000 workers, despite the conclusive experiences of the war. According to his data, there were 11.7 million specialized workers and 3.8 million unskilled laborers. Since it is clear that the application and development of solutions that would replace the pure and simple SOL would not become a reality until the employers perceived benefits for themselves—including the issue of finding an effective response to workers resistance—it must be concluded that, given this limited spread of the “new SOL”, the latter was not really profitable.

Returning to our discussion, we have therefore established the fact that, during the late 1960s in France, the limits of the SOL were already evident. Nonetheless, there were still millions of workers who were performing the “impoverished” assembly line labor advocated by Taylor and Ford. Nothing better had yet been discovered to increase productivity.

In a crucial analysis of this moment of the technical-economic limits of assembly line labor and the decline of the accumulation of capital, Benjamín Coriat identifies two main reasons that explain why the SOL had encountered an objective limit:

“On the one hand, an over-developed division of labor increases the transport and transfer time between one work assignment and another, which is unproductive. Labor is subdivided in order to suppress down time generated by workers’ shirking, but this down time is multiplied by an endless extension of the assembly line. ‘And it turns out that after a certain level of “losses”, it becomes useful to ask oneself about just how much real economy of time has been achieved’.”17

“On the other hand, the more numerous the separate work assignments, the longer the assembly line and the more difficult and complicated it is to reach equilibrium. By equilibrium we mean the coordination of multiple individual tasks according to their order in the assembly line and the corresponding duration of their specific cycle of tasks.”

We shall therefore recall that after a certain level of the division of labor has been attained, problems of scale arise, and that a beneficial restructuring of tasks was supposed to solve these problems. To a large extent, this “logical” solution would not go beyond ideological discourse, emphasizing the value of certain concrete and pertinent experiences. Because at the end of the sixties, the predictions of the sociologists and other experts like Friedmann had been able to discover no other solution for the reduction of productivity gains than … speed-ups. The fact that this “solution” is no solution at all is proven by the revolts of the workers in the strikes of May 1968 and, above all, the struggles of the following years, in France as well as other countries. In May 1968, it is from this sector of the working class that a large part of the strike impulse arose (Cléon, Flins). It was in this sector that the most ferocious battles against the return to work ordered by the trade unions took place. These battles were the signal that would then open up a period that witnessed a temporary halt to the increasing rate of exploitation of assembly line labor. They formed the basis of what has been called the anti-work movement. The conditions of exploitation were such that the specialized workers (especially the young workers) refused to continue playing the game of forfeiting their lives in order to earn a living. The “rejection of work” was primarily characterized by the spread of absenteeism and high rates of job turn-over,18 [in English in the original—Translator’s Note] and more carelessness on the job, when not actual sabotage. All of which entailed higher and higher costs, and soon (after the beginning of the 1970s) the experts focused their attention on the problem of the assembly line, and on finding the solutions that were urgently required in order for both costs and productivity to reach levels that would allow for the general profitability of capital. They generally advocated the fragmentation of the assembly line by forming separate cells that would serve as shock absorbers, making the workers work in groups and/or re-combining the separate tasks that had been excessively fragmented by the SOL. These recommendations were not much more effective than those offered by Friedmann and company.

Benjamín Coriat rejects the idea of a “rejection of work” (in general)19 and thinks that the wage conditions of the specialized workers comprised the primary reason for their revolt. Referring to a report of the economists of the 6th Plan, he thinks that the objective basis of their dissatisfaction with manual labor was due to:

• The absence of a contract that covered these workers, who were not paid monthly.
• The level of their pay: with the exception of the Italian working class, the French working class was, according to him, the worst paid in Europe during this period.
• The excessive share represented by overtime pay in their incomes, which was often subject to temporary economic oscillations.

What he says is that the specialized workers would not have rebelled:

• If they did not live under such precarious conditions and if they had been paid on a monthly basis.
• If they had been paid more.
• And if their higher wages had been more regular.

It is true that the specialized workers of May 1968 had been demanding to be paid on a monthly basis, that they had been demanding wage increases and the integration of bonuses into the regular wage (which would have the same effect as stabilizing wages by including overtime). And it is possible that, if these demands had been conceded at Grenelle or afterwards, there would have been a peaceful return to work. But this does not obviate the fact that, historically, the “solution” of the problem of the specialized workers went in precisely the opposite direction of the demands of the specialized workers as well as the recommendations of the experts: more precariousness, less buying power and more flexibility with regard to both hours and wages. And, of course, in the short term what took place was a no less painful process, quite the contrary, for the jobs that had not yet been eliminated by the automation of certain assembly line operations. Comparing the situation of the workers in an auto factory after the passage of twenty years (1974 to 1994), Christophe Dejours was surprised to discover that the experts should have thought that there had been a radical transformation of the methods of work. According to him, “to the contrary, there is an indisputable similarity between yesterday and today … Labor, as activity (in the ergonomic sense of work), is ultimately not so very different than it was twenty years ago, [except] that down time has disappeared, that the ‘dedication rate’ (the time devoted to the direct tasks of manufacture, assembly or production, measured against the total time that the worker spends on the assembly line [that is, once you subtract the time spent getting to the line, meals and breaks]) is much more burdensome than it was in the past, and that now there is actually no way for the worker to use his wits to beat the rate of the assembly line….”.20 The question that arises is therefore why worse conditions than those of the past have not given rise to revolts on the part of today’s specialized workers. The explanation lies in the growth of unemployment.

The end of the decade of the 1960s was a turning point in a long cycle. Up until that time, capital appeared to possess an irresistible power of expansion; it seemed to have an insatiable need for fresh labor power. After crossing this threshold, the opposite took place: growth slowed, immigration became problematic, and unemployment increased without remission. It was the particular character of this turning point which caused the revolt of the specialized workers to be expressed with such clarity and violence: their revolt was based on a situation of relatively high wages and a labor market that still needed labor, which facilitated their protest against the first signs of a reversal of the tendency towards expansion—a slowdown in the automatic wage increases, an acceleration of the speed of the assembly lines and a deterioration of working conditions, and partial unemployment.

One issue must be clarified: was unemployment one of the causes of the strikes of May 1968? Could we even say that the end of full employment and the appearance of unemployment generated fear and caused the workers to be more likely to join the strike, and that the absence of massive unemployment allowed the specialized workers to go on strike without fear of losing their jobs? Yes, because unemployment had not yet appeared in a generalized form. It was more obvious in certain sectors that were threatened by the restructurings (mining, aeronautics…), and it was clearly less of a threat in the industries dominated by specialized workers. With reference to the automotive sector, Jacques Vincent even thinks that at the beginning of the 1970s it was getting more and more difficult to run the assembly lines with specialized workers.21 Between 1962 and 1969, French automobile production increased by 60% but the number of workers it employed only increased by 24%. The 6th Plan foresaw a 36% increase in the number of employees for the period 1970-1975. This represents 73,000 workers, of whom 56,000 are specialized workers. Thus, during this period the labor market was favorable for the specialized workers.

It would take several years before the strikes of the specialized workers would express all of their potential for revolt and contestation and would end in defeat due to the development of mass unemployment and automation.

May ’68 was just the beginning of this transition period between the end of the thirty glorious years and the start of the long recession of the end of the century. The specialized workers of 1968 rebelled against the fact that they were being forced to compensate for the reduced rate of profit with speed-ups and deteriorating working conditions. To protest against this imposition, they had a strong foundation: full employment and the fact that they were irreplaceable. In May 1968 and during the subsequent years, this was the power upon which their revolt was based. Capital therefore sought to undermine this foundation of their power by means of automation, precariousness, unemployment, illegal immigration, etc. Just how effective this effort was can be gauged by a comparison between the different factories of the Toyota group that are today run by the same management. The latter estimates that the French, Thai and Indonesian workers are 20% more productive than their American counterparts, since the latter “are rather well off and therefore do not want to work so hard”. In France, “there are many unemployed and [those who still have jobs] have a tendency to work harder”. The Japanese “slack off and dawdle” and do not work as hard as they used to. Japanese productivity is higher because they do not use certain machines outside of Japan in order to prevent their competitors from copying their designs.22 And J.-P. Durand observes, with regard to the automotive industry, that the conduct of the conscientious worker “is no longer compensated for as it was in the past (with a wage increase) […] [but instead] he matches the production quotas without getting anything in return, except for keeping his job”.23

The conditions leading to a non-insurrectional general strike

The return of unemployment and the slowdown in wage increases, the limitations of assembly line labor and the beginning of the revolt of the specialized workers: we have identified the principle manifestations of the decelerating tempo of capital accumulation at the end of the 1960s. They constitute the basis and are the deep-seated causes of the strikes of May-June 1968, whose proximate causes were probably the crisis of the universities and police repression. But what happened to these factors in the paradox of May ’68, during this generalized strike that only led to the most insignificant results? Our investigation has shed light on a massive, hard-fought strike—so massive that it necessarily entailed friction with the trade unions and the left wing parties. A bitterly contested strike, which had the energy to reject Grenelle and demand more, but which never broke, except occasionally, with its representatives, almost always allowing them to speak in its name; a strike that did not invent modalities of struggle that would have allowed it to achieve something significant with regard to wages and working conditions. It is this contrast between the massiveness of the strike and the negligible results it obtained, which makes it hard to define the movement. For the lack of anything better, I define it as a generalized non-insurrectional work stoppage. One would expect that 10 million striking workers would create an insurrectional climate. Is it possible to understand why this was not the case?

In Il va faloir attendre [We will have to wait], Gilles Dauvé and K. Nésic claim that “the proletarian assault will take place when a cycle of production reaches its peak and begins to enter into crisis. A dynamic proletariat presupposes a dynamic capitalism [….] After 1960, the worker could criticize work because he had the security of an almost permanent contract [….] It is by rejecting the wealth offered or promised and not imposed poverty that makes a social movement assume communist forms”.24 The reference to the crisis of work and the 1960s would lead one to think that this general observation is also applicable to May ’68. But this is not in fact the case, since at the end of their text, the authors point out that “1968 was not a revolutionary crisis for either of the two basic classes. In the developed countries, unlike what took place after 1917 [another peak of a cycle] a tacit agreement united the proletarians and the capitalists whereby each party agreed not to go too far”. Was this an exception? Dauvé and Nésic do not tell us whether it was or not. In any event, their discussion of the position of a social movement within the context of a cycle is interesting.

A brief historical examination of the uprisings of the proletariat shows us that such uprisings occur at various moments of the long cycles of capital accumulation.25 This leads one to think that the revolutionary crises of the history of the proletariat respond to numerous circumstantial factors that are not all cyclically bound. It is true that the German crisis of 1918-1919 took place at the culminating point of a cycle, but this was not the case with respect to the revolution of 1848, or the French Popular Front in 1936, or the Spanish Revolution (also in 1936). A detailed study of this topic has yet to be undertaken. But, in any case, “the communist affirmation of the proletariat”—assuming that by this term we must understand, in the absence of “communization” properly speaking, a critique in acts of the capitalist social relation26 —can only be realized under the effect of the “poverty imposed” by a major crisis, which, by interrupting immediate reproduction, could lead to a mass movement of the proletariat towards communism—such as it is defined in every period of the capitalist mode of production (CMP). This major crisis may take place during the peak of a cycle (the Commune, Germany in 1917), but due to very particular circumstances (military defeat and its consequences).

More comprehensible as an example, in the general “theoretical” model, of a working class crisis that occurred at the culminating point of a cycle, the May movement owed its limitations to the years of prosperity that preceded it and whose gains, taken as a whole, were still far from being threatened. The convergence of the slowdown in wage increases, the reappearance of unemployment and the problem of the specialized workers provoked the wave of demands, but did not generate a revolutionary situation. And there was no tacit agreement between the classes not to go too far. There was an explicit agreement between the employers, the trade unions and the government to manage as effectively as possible a situation that was undoubtedly difficult but also favorable for the resolution of the bottlenecks, with regard to concrete policies, that resulted from ten years of Guallism.

It was also the position of May ’68 at the culminating point of the cycle that allows us to understand a surprising and largely unexamined aspect of the strikes, that is, the very low rate of participation in the factory occupations. We have seen that in many cases the wage workers clearly displayed reluctance to linger at their occupied workplaces while the strike was being decided. Did they go on strike or did they let the other workers go on strike for them?

It is evident that the workers were effectively on strike, in the sense that they did not show up at their workplaces, thus forfeiting their wages. But they stayed home, and only a minority of them attended the general assemblies and the periodic demonstrations organized by the trade unions. This mass of “passive” individuals watched this historical moment unfold from the sidelines, living off their savings and uninterested in the day-to-day affairs of the strike. Their participation in the strike was minimal. They neither wanted nor made any attempt to follow the progress of the movement; we suppose they were waiting to be called upon to return to work, or to vote on going back to work, leaving to the trade unions the elaboration of what they were supposed to think about all of this and not at all interested in the alleged political dimension of the strike (the democratic alternative to Gaullism, popular government and communist revolution).

This absenteeism of the strikers has a dual significance:

• On the one hand it means that the workplace (factory or office) no longer had the central function, which it had in other times, with regard to the affirmation of the class. The life of the workers in the work process is not the locus of the affirmation of their identity. Even the specialized workers, who demonstrated at the end of the strike that important questions were at stake, did not occupy the factories. They fought, they even gave their lives, in order not to return to work defeated. At Sochaux, on the morning of June 11, those who arrived in the company buses to go back to work immediately proceeded to join the battle against the riot police together with those who had remained in the factory overnight and who were evicted by the cops. The enormity of the frustration of having to return to work without any gains worthy of the name was clear, as far as their demands were concerned. They did not think, however, even from the very beginning of the strike, that the occupation of the factory would increase their chances of achieving their demands. Similarly, the fiasco of Grenelle clearly demonstrated that the workers “wanted more”. But after Grenelle, the occupations did not gain reinforcements—quite the contrary;

• On the other hand, the absenteeism of the strikers, insofar as it was a manifestation of their withdrawal to private life instead of a struggle outside the workplace, displayed the existence of reserves, of a crisis situation that was not profound, of the possibility of hoping and having faith (more or less) in their representatives. We may contrast this situation with the struggle for survival during the recent crisis in Argentina, where the space outside the workplace was the scene of important struggles (neighborhood assemblies, blockading highways, looting supermarkets).

The low rate of participation in the occupation of the factories had the same basis as the anti-work attitudes of the specialized workers: work was no longer the basis of class identity, the factories and the offices were nothing but places where one earned money. This was a huge message that was sent by the strikers of May-June 1968, and one that has yet to be taken into account. We may assume that in a similar situation, if the workers were to engage in a mass strike today, they would once again display the same absenteeism. But this time, there would be less reserves, and the withdrawal to private life, already precarious before the strike, would be more difficult. Absenteeism would no longer be, or would only be with difficulty, the dispersion of individuals and the socialization of the strike, ultimately, will be more difficult than it would have been in May-June 1968.

Today, when we are in the midst of a downward phase of a long cycle, all the parameters for a revolt of the specialized and precarious workers (since this is what they have become) are present. Work is even more distressing than before, the pay is lower and does not lead to any kind of social “recognition” or prestige, such as Benjamín Coriat sought at the end of the 1960s when he called for monthly pay for the specialized workers. This revolt will therefore take place, if necessary, despite and against the threat of unemployment, without being able to rely on full employment or on private life. The workers and the unemployed will have to find within themselves the power, the foundation of support, which is no longer granted to them by capitalist socialization. This means that, if the revolt is to seek to go beyond the status of a brief riot, the strike activity will have to be much more imaginative than it was in May-June 1968. This also means that the game will be much more difficult for the trade unions.

  • 1Four long cycles of approximately fifty years each, known as “Kondratieff” waves, mark the rhythm of the history of capital since the end of the 19th century.
  • 2G. Lefranc, Le mouvement syndical, de la Libération aux événements de mai-juin 1968, Payot, 1969, p. 189.
  • 3P. Viansson-Ponté, op. cit., p. 421, and G. Lange, in 1968, Exploration du mai français, op. cit., p. 224.
  • 4Op. cit., p. 421.
  • 5“At best we are still just a few people who feel the underemployment and unemployment as … a kind of scandal”, declared the bishop of Angers. Quoted by Marc Bergère in Les Années 68, op. cit., p. 316.
  • 6Ibid.
  • 7The National Industrial Aerospace Corporation, usually known by the name of Aerospatiale after the 1970 merger of three other enterprises in this sector.
  • 8The National Employment Agency is a public institution under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Finances and Employment, which serves as a centralized bureau for the collection and organization of data concerning people looking for work and available jobs, maintains statistics on the number of job applicants and manages resources to help the latter. Together with the UNEDIC and other institutions, it forms part of the public services for employment.
  • 9The wage differential between the Paris region and the provinces was estimated to average 19% during this period.
  • 10A. Gauron, Histoire économique et sociale de la V République, p. 102.
  • 11See INSEE [National Institute for Economic Data and Statistics], Données sociales, 1987.
  • 12J.-F. Eck, Histoire de l’economie française depuis 1945, Paris, 1988, p. 139.
  • 13Benjamín Coriat, L’atelier et le chronometer, Bourgois, Paris, 1979, p. 219.
  • 14Hence the term, Fordism. In fact, it is likely that Henry Ford himself had copied procedures that he saw being used by the slaughterhouses in Chicago.
  • 15Friedmann, Le Travail en miettes, p. 91.
  • 16As opposed to repetitive labor, this “new” category of labor included other tasks that were not so repetitive, such as the supervision and maintenance of the machinery, which consequently implied an increase in the responsibilities of the worker.
  • 17Benjamín Coriat, op. cit., p. 205.
  • 18The rapid changing of jobs, which is the opposite of the traditional conception of a “job for life”.
  • 19It is true that he sees in the revolts of the specialized workers a “working class program … a working class perspective on the organization of labor in the factory of the future” [op. cit., p. 189], which tells us something about the limits of Coriat’s own perspective.
  • 20Christophe Dejours, La Souffrance en France, Paris, 1998, pp. 63 and 60.
  • 21Jacques Vincent, “Les problèmes de personnel dans l’industrie automobile a l’heure du 6 Plan” [Personnel problems in the automotive industry under the 6th Plan], in Le Mouvement social, No. 81, Oct.-Dec. 1972.
  • 22Financial Times, March 3, 2003.
  • 23J.-P. Durand, in L’Avenir du travail à la chaine, Paris, 1998, p. 35 et seq.
  • 24Gilles Dauvé and K. Nésic, Il va faloir attendre, p. 2. Arhedis, BP 20306, 60203 Compiègne Cedex.
  • 25See, for example, “Périodisation du MPC, Histoire du capital, histoire des crises et du communisme”, in Hic Salta, 1998, ADES, 7, Impasse du Jardin-des-plantes, 13004 Marseille.
  • 26The formation of the CUBs in Italy is one example for the period in question. The rejection of parliamentary elections would have been another in June 1968, had it taken place….