Nabobs Or Pariahs
THE day after the new government came into office, those who set out for work found a surprise awaiting them. At the major points of entry to each city, hundreds of bicycles and mopeds were assembled for use by the public, and long lines of police cars and army vans supplemented the buses. On this morning, no tickets were being sold or required on the buses or suburban trains.
At noon, the government announced that it had reached the decision to institute free public transportation throughout the country, and to phase out, over the next 12 months, the use of private automobiles in the most congested urban areas.
That evening, the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister went on nation-wide television to explain the larger design behind these measures.
The President reminded his listeners of the period, no so distant, when the standard of living of Americans seemed an impossible dream to French men and women. Only ten years ago, he recalled, liberal politicians were saying that once the French worker began earning American wages, that would be the end of revolutionary protests and anticapitalist movements. They had been, however, profoundly mistaken.
‘On the contrary. For in France, as in the United States, the people find themselves having to pay more and more to maintain an increasingly dubious kind of well-being. We are experiencing increasing costs for decreasing satisfactions. Economic growth has brought us neither greater equity nor greater social harmony and appreciation of life. I believe we have followed the wrong path and must now seek a new course.
• We shall work less.’ Until now, the purpose of economic activity was to amass capital in order to increase production and sales, and to create profits which, reinvested, would permit the accumulation of more capital, and so on. But this process must inevitably reach an impasse. Beyond a certain point, it could not continue unless it destroyed the surplus which it had created.
‘It is, in fact, only by wasting our labour and our resources that we have managed in the past to create a semblance of the full employment of people and productive capacities,’
In the future, therefore, it was necessary to consider working less, more effectively, and in new ways. He argued that once the productive machinery reaches the level of technical efficiency where a fraction of the available workforce can supply the needs of the entire population, it is no longer possible to make the right to a full income dependent on having a full-time job. ‘We have earned,’ the President concluded, ‘the right to free work and to free time.’
• ‘We must consume better.’ Until now, products had been designed to produce the greatest profit for the firms selling them. ‘Henceforth,’ the President said, ’they will be designed to produce the greatest satisfaction for those who use them as well as for those who produce them.’
To this end, the dominant firms in each sector would become the property of society. The task of the great firms would be to produce, in each area, a restricted number of standardized products, of equal quality and in sufficient amounts, to satisfy the needs of all. The design of these products would be based on four fundamental criteria: durability, ease of repair, pleasantness of manufacture, and absence of polluting effects.
• ‘We must re-integrate culture into the everyday’ life of all.’ Until now, the extension of education had gone hand in hand with that of generalized incompetence.
Thus, said the President, we unlearned how to raise our own children, how to cook our own meals and make our own music. Paid technicians now provide our food, our music, and our ideas in prepackaged form.
It had become urgent, the President said, for individuals and communities to regain control over the organization of their existence, over their relationships and their environment.
To translate these principles into practice. the Prime Minister said it was necessary to rely on the workers themselves. The workers should allow themselves a month, the Prime Minister estimated, to define, with the assistance of outside advisers and consumer groups, a reduced range of product models and new sets of quality’ standards and production targets.
During this first month, said the Prime Minister, production work should be done only in the afternoons, the mornings being reserved for collective discussion. The workers should set as their goal the organizing of the productive process to meet the demands for essential goods, while at the same time reducing their average worktime to 24 hours a week. The number of workers would evidently have to be increased. There would, he promised, be no shortage of Z women and men ready to take these jobs.
The Prime Minister further remarked that the workers would be free to organize themselves in such a way’ that each individual could, for certain periods, work more or less than the standard 24 hours for the same firm. They would be free to have two or three part-time jobs, or, for example, to work on construction during the spring and in agriculture towards the end of the summer— in short, to learn and practice a variety of skills and occupations. To facilitate this process, the workers themselves would be helped to set up a system of job exchanges.
The government’s economic aim, the Prime Minister stated, was to gradually eliminate commodity production and exchange by decentralizing and scaling down in such a way that each community was able to meet at least half of its needs. The source of the waste and frustration of modern life, the Prime Minister noted, was that ‘no one consumes what he or she produces and no-one produces what he or she consumes.’
As a first step in the new direction, the government had negotiated with the bicycle industry an immediate 30 per cent increase in production, but with at least half of all the bicycles being provided as kits to be put together by the users themselves.
The Prime Minister voiced the hope that in the future local communities would develop this kind of initiative themselves: each neighbourhood, each town, indeed each apartment block, should set up studios and workshops for free creative work and production; places where, during their free time, people could produce whatever they wished thanks to the increasingly sophisticated array of tools which they would find at their disposal.
The 24-hour week and the fact that income would no longer depend on holding a job would permit people to organize so as to create neighbourhood services (caring for children, helping the old and the sick, teaching each other new skills) on a co-operative or mutual-aid basis, and to install convenient neighbourhood facilities and equipment.
The cornerstone of the new society, the Prime Minister continued, was the rethinking of education. It was essential that, as part of their schooling, all young people learn to cultivate the soil, to work with metal, wood, fabrics, and stone, and that they learn history, science, mathematics, and literature in conjunction with these activities.
After completing compulsory education, the Prime Minister went on, each individual would be required to put in 20 hours of work each week (for which he or she would earn a full salary), in addition to continuing with whatever studies or training he or she desired. The required social labour would be done in one or more of the four main sectors: agriculture; mining and steelworks; construction, public works, and public hygiene: care of the sick, of the aged, and of children. The Prime Minister specified that no student-worker would, however, have to perform the most disagreeable jobs, (such as collecting garbage, being a nurse’s aide, or doing maintenance work) for more than three months at a time, Conversely, everyone up to the age of 45 would be expected to perform these tasks for an average of 12 days a year (12 days a year could mean one day per month or one hour per week).
‘There will be neither nabobs nor pariahs in this country any more,’ he remarked.
In a matter of two years, 600 multi-disciplinary centres of self-learning and self-teaching, open day and night, would be put within easy reach of everyone, even of people living in rural areas, so that no one would be imprisoned in a menial occupation against his or her choice.
‘Defending our territory,’ the Prime Minister said, ‘requires first of all that we occupy it. National sovereignty depends first of all on our capacity to grow our own food.’ For this reason the government would do everything possible to encourage a 100,000 people a year to establish themselves in the depopulated regions of the country, and to reintroduce and improve organic farming methods and other ‘soft’ technologies. All necessary scientific and technical assistance would be provided free for five years to newly established rural communities. This would do more to overcome world hunger, he added, than the export of nuclear power stations or insecticide factories. . .
Excerpted with permission from Ecology as Politics, André Gorz. 1980 see Worth Reading p, 27.