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Can one live from his work? Some considerations on the work of the « poor ». A reflection on wage labor over the centuries at the announced time of « the uberisation of the world ». 2/2

By Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2872168

This is the second part of a 2 parts post. If you haven’t read the 1st part yet, it can be found here.
After having discussed the wage forms over the centuries, let’s have a look at today, in a troubled social context (« food riots1 » part-time work, high unemployment rate), at the forms of sustenance of the individual, through the ages. Let’s discuss the issues of purchasing power, consumption and income.

   Since Antiquity, it becomes apparent that the salary of the worker is not enough nor for his sustenance, and, a fortiori causa, neither for the maintenance of a family.

   With the end of the Black Death, resulting in a significant demographic decline, wage negotiation become easier. Paradoxically, archival sources show that the poverty of wage income is sometimes coupled with a rise in the standard of living. What does that mean ? What are the real income of the worker?

   In rural areas, the organization of work is based around the family farm, the community lives at the rhythm of the seasons and the harvest mobilizes a lot of workers, if not the whole of the community. This seasonality of work, embodied by the reaper worker mobilized during the harvest, about two months, raises the question of the payment of seasonal employees and periods of inemployement. In urban areas, the situation differs, related to the qualification of employees who, although it ensures no continuity of work, reduces the increased risk in rurality, among others, by the meteorological variable.

   What is the minimum that an individual needs to live? A loaf of black bread, a clear broth or water, a clothing to protect itself from the cold, a shelter… Some workers struggle to afford this necessary : a world in which workers are little cogs that make it possible to run a system that confiscates the fruit of their labor and exhausts them, men, women and children included. What we find in Les Misérables d’Hugo, and Germinal de Zola, all reincarnating the « soupe en matière d’Arlequin » of the eighteenth century. If these great literary texts have become emblematic of the hunger of the poor worker, and more largely of his misery, in Western culture, the questions they raise are largely previous to the naturalistic and realistic European literary phenomenon.

   The historical case study of La Roncière on the city of Florence provides a picture of the situation in which the building and wool textile industry people are evolving, by taking the hospital menus as a basis for estimating this which is necessary for survival and exposing the main sources of the Ciompi uprising, the poorest workers of the Florentine textile industry, (excluded from corporations), in June-August 13782. The main demands relate to the abandonment of the legal procceding against rioters arrested by the riot police (a circumstantial claim), and more important issues about the subordination of their status and tax issues directly related to purchasing power and forced borrowing. The inadequacy of wages to the standard of living, generating indebtedness and lowering incomes below standard of living in times of crisis and worries about the employment situation form the basis of the movement, all the data studied highlighting « the mysterious ability of the poor to survive3« .

   From this comes the idea that wages are only part of the overall remuneration of the poor : charity, the gleaning, assistance allowances, work reserved for the community excluding extra-community, grain in barns forecasting distributions in case of scarcity4… are supplementing income from wages.

   Another example set up to reduce the impoverishment of part of the population, the conflict in Amiens in 1345 shows that in some cases the economic situation requires the establishment of a system of work sharing to restrict periods of unemployment and to prevent certain categories from living exclusively on assistance and redistribution5.

   These examples, chosen for their relevance, show how difficult / impossible it is for the poor worker to live from his salary, without supplementary income. If the salary does not cover all expenses, then its definition is that it fits into a larger set of institutions or social devices. They show us how competitive societies need a parallel system that increases the resources of the poor to survive cyclical and systemic crises. Expenditure related to the deterioration of health, related to both undernutrition and / or malnutrition and the intensification of work in France, or « bad habits » of consumption, especially the consumption of alcohol pointed out, ( for example, in the project of the “familistère de Guise”), for its devastating effects within the working class, shows their destructive effects during industrialization processes6.

   Far from being a past phenomenon, the social scourge of the hunger of the poor, even those who are working full-time, still threatens European societies7. At a time when European public spending on care is debated again, even as living conditions are becoming more difficult for the least qualified workers, the welfare state, which in reality subsidizes labor by supplementing the incomes of the poor worker in order to keep him above the poverty line, no longer finds the necessary resources. The current impoverishment is taking away part of its resources, by the smaller number of taxpayers, at the moment when it would need more money to do redistribution and establish its own bases. Historically, breakdowns of redistribution, too large concentrations of power, of financial capital, in very few hands have led to the emergence of large-scale crises.

   The Dominican preaching of Savonarola in Florence, developing in reaction to luxury and a relaxation of morals and politics, provoked a moral crisis of redefinition of the Republic as a system and to the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497 during which are burned luxurious representations8.

   The same debate, about luxury and idleness opposed to work, occured in France in the decades before 1789. The English and French revolutions, 1830, 1848, 1870, are, to different degrees, tax-revolution, egalitarian and libertarian uprisings, redefining the economic and political systems of their times.

   In the light of history, a fairer equity in the distribution of wealth, the establishment of forms of solidarity are no longer a « gift » to the poor, but an important piece of societal balance, essential to maintaining political systems. They protect society from health problems but also from social riots and crises of legitimacy of political representations. Solidarity and redistribution re-injecting a little social justice are not « negative externalities » inherent in competitive capitalist societies, but pillars, the system’s retaining walls in itself.

   What questions in this uberisation of the world, it is undoubtedly that it takes place within societies which had found an efficient shield to fight against the harshness of the economic system.

   What questions in this uberisation of the world, it is undoubtedly that it takes place within societies which had found an efficient “shield” to fight against the harshness of the economic system. This uberisation highligts a systemic shock, the tremor of the colossus with the feet of clay, a « paper tiger », a sick welfare state.

   The same goes for climate and energy issues that lead to the same consequences at the global level: development of inequalities, unemployment and low wages, debt development, slower growth… All these factors combine to endanger our socio-economic systems, which in turn lead to a breakdown of the institutions, in a vicious circle9. It seems necessary today, given the ecological imperatives, to think about a new balance between the exhaustion of resources, air pollution and labor wages… but not necessary the balance proposed by the theories of degrowth, supported by some political discourses. Why ? Because supporting a degrowth in Western societies such as those of today, could lead to condemn the poor to remain so… ad vitam aeternam10… while, reshuffling the cards between labor power and financial capital, empowering institutions could / should help to tackle the challenges of poverty and the climate challenge facing modern society.

   Multifactorial fragile equilibrium, tightrope walking, in a closed world where national borders and protectionism are blooming everywhere, at a time when the increase of the species decline should impose to put in place a global open policy, at world scale.

   Enabling the poor to live decently from his work (beyond naive talk and ideals of social and fiscal justice) is one of the keys to maintaining the socio-economic equilibrium that needs to be urgently redefined if we want to avoid a chain reaction escaping any possibility of control. It is a model of discipline at work which balances the society and perpetuates it, all the more in developed consumer societies. It is a way to reduce the ecological and economic « bad habits » of the most fragile workers, singled out in recent years in a phenomenon of « re-criminalization of the poor », already seen in the past : massive use of diesel, addictive behaviours… “bad habits” that burden the budgets of health insurance, behaviors already put forward by hygienists in the nineteenth century11. The fact that, in many institution, one asks again these questions about the possibility to the poor workers to live, or not, from their work, prove that their daily real situation it becomes more and more difficult12.

   The latest report of the OECD and ATD Fourth World, presented on May 10, 2019, after a long international work of participatory research, carried out in partnership with people in situation of poverty, researchers in Oxford social sciences and NGOs, highligths the hidden, multi-factorial, fragmented dimensions of poverty13 : the lack of decent work, insufficient ans insecure income, material and social deprivation, unrecognized contributions, institutional and social maltreatment…, all or part leading to a disempowerment, suffering in the body, mind an heart and in fine to struggle and resistance.

   You know what one say? If you want to change the « bad habits » of the most fragile workers, start by changing their lives by allowing them to live with dignity from their work, without stress without fear of tomorrow, the poorest forming the most precarious social category, in the inability to save money, the most prone to socio-economic hazards and the quickest to react and “ignite”. Welfare is to be considered an essential contribution by society to the sustenance of the working class, and spending reviews should be regarded as unsustainable policies to achieve balance-sheet nirvana.

2 La Roncière C.M., Prix et salaires à Florence au XIVe siècle (1280-1380), Rome, École Française de Rome, 1982.

3 Dyer, Standards of living in the later Middle Ages. Social change in England, c.1200-1520, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

4C.f., Liebart, Deborah, & Manca, Marco, (2017, November 27), La finance et le soin : gouvernance, systèmes mutualistes et répartition du risque (Version 3), Zenodo.

5 C.f., Ault, W., O. “Open-Field Husbandry and the Village Community: A Study of Agrarian By-Laws in Medieval England.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 55, no. 7, 1965, pp. 1–102.

6 C.f., Villermé, L.R., Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie : ouvrage entrepris par ordre… de l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques, par M. Villermé, Paris, 1840. / Fridenson, P., Reynaud, B., La France et le temps de travail ( 1814-2004), Paris, Odile Jacob, 2004.

7 Loopstra, R., Reeves, A., Tarasuk, V., « The rise of hunger among low-income households: an analysis of the risks of food insecurity between 2004 and 2016 in a population-based study of UK adults », J Epidemiol Community Health, Published Online First: 29 April 2019. doi: 10.1136/jech-2018-211194.