The Commonplace of “Work as Freedom” and why the Left is so attached to its virtues

In recent years, there has been a growing political interest in the idea of a basic guaranteed revenue for all. In the 2017 French presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon in his political programme initially proposed a “universal revenue”, or basic income for all. But why such as hostile reaction from Left and Right alike?

The Commonplace of “Work as Freedom” and why the Left is so attached to the virtues of work

In recent years, there has been a growing political interest in the idea of a basic guaranteed revenue for all. In the current French presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon in his political programme initially proposed a “universal revenue”, or basic income for all. However, in the face of widespread dismay at the very idea of paying people not to work, even from within his own party, he has gradually whittled down his proposition to a means-tested allowance for those in or out of work for 18 to 25 year-olds with a revenue of less than 1.9 times the minimum wage.

What is interesting here is the vehemence of the socialist reaction to the idea of being paid without having to work, an attitude that illustrates the Left’s long-standing addiction to the originally bourgeois notion of the virtues and value of “work”.

In attempting to understand this politically global (left-wing and right-wing) attachment to the “virtue” of work, we may turn to Jacques Ellul’s work.  “Work as freedom” is one of the “commonplaces” that the late political theorist, ecological activist, protestant and anarchist, Jacques Ellul analysed in his 1966 book Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs [Exegesis of new commonplaces];new or nouveaux since the title alludes to the turn-of-the-century work Exégèses des lieux communs by the essayist and polemicist Léon Bloy (1846-1917).

But why ‘’commonplace’’? We must recall that Ellul is writing in 1966, and the Foucauldian notion of ‘’discourse’’ was not yet in vogue; in any case Ellul would never adopt the deconstructionist lexicography. But then why not simply employ the standard Marxist notion of ‘’ideology’’ to explain the commonplace? While Ellul was an avid reader of Marx, his non-Marxist, anarchist perspective afforded him a more open and complex vision of the workings and representations of society. Ellul’s appreciation of Marx was, at best, nuanced and sometimes, as we shall see in the case of Marx’s theorisation of the value of “work,” highly critical. Ellul also questioned how Marxism accounted for the commonplace. The standard Marxist analysis saw commonplaces as expressions of an ideology propagated by the ruling class and its media. But for Ellul “Marxism is mistaken in believing [the commonplace] is propagated by the ruling class, for our society as a whole has become much more totalitarian than it was a century ago [the century of the bourgeoisie] and everyone is engaged in a process of common evolution…. Our world has become one [total] in its activities and its expression, and this unity goes way beyond the cleavages, however serious they may be, of class or nation.” (p.18) Instead, for Ellul commonplaces constituted “a catalogue of collective illusions, unconsciously false representations of others, … an unconsciously promoted exaltation of ideals to which we are attached. […And these] collective beliefs depend on presuppositions accepted without discussion, and which are beyond question. The commonplace is genuinely common because it brooks no fundamental discussion. It serves everyone as a touch-stone, as a means of recognition.” (p.17) However, while shared by all, the commonplace does not stem from any sort of ahistorical popular wisdom but rather is created by bourgeois intellectuals, and only subsequently generalized to the whole of society. (p.19)

Indeed, Ellul describes in some detail the historical bourgeois origins and transformation of what he identifies as the commonplace of “Work as freedom” (Le travail, c’est la liberté). Before the bourgeois age, work was considered as suffering and the English word “travail” retains the original sense of work as a painful activity. The idea of work as noble only starts to emerge in the eighteenth century, and the celebrated thinkers of that era were instrumental in the making and the spreading of the commonplace of work as positive and virtuous. (p.151) Voltaire, “a progenitor of all sorts of commonplaces”, famously wrote “Force men to work and you make them morally good [honnêtes gens].” To which Ellul adds the acerbic codicil: “How did he not see that he was announcing the advent of the concentration camps?” Diderot too declared the moral benefits of work: “Work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” (p.151) Then, at the end of the eighteenth century the French Revolution also played its part in “completing the construction” of the commonplace that lauded work. Indeed, the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Begging declared work to be a devoir or duty for all, and those refusing to work were deemed “guilty” of indigence and were placed in detention centres for the idle; those who refused to mend their ways found themselves deported to Guyana. (p.152)

In the nineteenth century the bourgeoisie first promoted work as a virtue within their own class and created “an education oriented towards work” (p.152). Meaning was given to life through work.  As Ellul puts it: “All is forgiven the man who works, all the rest becomes mere minor peccadilloes. He can…exploit others, be hard, selfish, proud. What does it matter? He is hard-working!” (p.153)

Subsequently, the bourgeois applied this code outside his class, extending it to the working class.  The worker then found himself reduced to a condition of extreme work “through the explosion of industrialization and through bourgeois exploitation.” (p. 153) How could he tolerate it? Because the bourgeois sought to convince the worker that “work saves us. Work is a virtue.” And, “the worst thing was that the worker finally believed in this virtue.” (p. 153) In the working men’s associations and socialist circles at the end of the nineteenth century we find “most celebratory speeches concerning work. They had pulled it off. Bourgeois morality had become the worker’s morality.” (p.153)

“Of course, Karl Marx completed the task, by supplying the theoretical justification…,” writes Ellul. He continues the indictment thus:

He is truly a bourgeois thinker when he explains the entire history of humankind through work, when he formulates the entire relationship of humankind with world through work… and when he promotes work as the source of the creation of value. (p.154)

Marx then is depicted by Ellul as the interpreter and communicator of the bourgeois work myth who brought about its penetration into the working class. Thus, a bourgeois myth became a leftist myth, and the bourgeois and the worker have since shared this commonplace.

Finally, work having become first a duty, then a virtue, becomes emancipatory, (Arbeit macht frei), and heroic. “Work as freedom, is the ideal formulation of this commonplace.” (p.158) Indeed, in Marshall Pétain’s Vichy French motto that replaced the republic’s “Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité’’, work subsumes liberty to attain pre-eminent status in the fascist triptych “Travail, Patrie, Famille.”

 As for woman and work (and I have thus far deliberately used masculine prepositions throughout  since Ellul is specifically talking about men), Ellul evokes a further commonplace: “Woman finds her freedom (her dignity) in work”. As Ellul puts it:

This commonplace follows the previous one like the smell succeeds the skunk. Even in common places woman comes second to man.

Gregory B. Lee

11 march 2017-03-11

Lyon - St.Michel l’Observatoire





*Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs, Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1966; La Table Ronde, 1994.



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