François Vatin

Work, Values and Performances[1]

A 1995 study by French sociologist Dominique Méda resonated with the public by asking the following question: is work “vanishing value”? [2] She chose a good moment to raise this issue. By then, France had known 20 years of persistent mass unemployment. The administration, which had supposedly done “all they could” to stop this situation (according to a 1993 statement by François Mitterand), finally concluded that reducing unemployment would be utopian; that joblessness was the result of a structural change in our societies toward a “postindustrial” era.

From this angle, the apparent “rarefaction” of labor was no longer considered dramatic; it could even turn out to be an opportunity if only its social dimension could be managed properly. Since the beginning of industrial society in the eighteenth century, people had been living under the alienating rule of “labor value,” this false sunshine of economy. Now, as work vanishes as a value, this rule can disappear. According to experts on the regression of “work value,” the time spent on professional activity, which had been dwindling gradually during the twentieth century, would continue dwindling in favor of truly enriching social activities: activities promoting culture, solidarity, and “togetherness.” “Economics,” which had been dominating the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would recede and abandon the central position in favor of “political thinking,” as a return to the ancient teachings of Greek philosophy, which had been absurdly forgotten in an era of adoration of the productivist golden calf.[3]

The policy of the “35-hour workweek” (the reduction of the legal weekly working time from 39 to 35 hours), which had been implemented under the presidency of Lionel Jospin after the 1997 victory of the left in the legislative elections, was giving substance to the ideology of the “obsolescence” of work as a value in favor of higher social values. The basic principle of that politics was to “share labor” enabling everyone to do just the necessary amount of work for the benefit of society and for adequate wages. But ten years later, in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s victorious election campaign as president was built on the rehabilitation of work as a value, which had been treated so badly by the left. The French right’s counterideology relied on a syllogism opposite to that of sharing labor: work is productive and, because of that, produces an income. Denouncing “labor value” would only convince people not to work; imposing the “35-hour workweek” would simply keep them away from work. Following that logic, the questioning of “labor value” and the 35-hour workweek policy that followed were supposedly the cause for the diminution of income so much resented by the lower and the middle classes. On the other hand, the rehabilitation of work as a value, as Sarkozy kept pounding out during his 2007 election campaign with the slogan “work more to earn more,” would increase the purchasing power of those prepared to work, of that “France that wakes up early,” as yet another slogan put it.

Yet neither Sarkozy’s policy (“work more to earn more”) nor that of Jospin, whose message amounted to “to work less gives work for more,” has been able to meet the electorate’s twofold expectation: to reduce unemployment and to increase buying power. Actually, both policies relied on the same fallacy: that of conceiving work as a quasi-physical dimension that could be redistributed (Jospin) or multiplied purposefully (Sarkozy).[4]

In this debate on “work value,” therefore, about its disappearance or its permanence, about its harmful or profitable nature, both the political right and left unwittingly reproduced the physical representation of work as “expense of force,” typical for the classical political economy of the first half of the nineteenth century and to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s notion of industrial organization in the early twentieth century. The canonical expression of this representation is that of “mechanical work” from nineteenth-century French engineering.[5] This concept – the product of a force and the displacement of its point of application – aimed at a common unit of measure for the productive action of men, animals and machines, and was anticipating the modern idea of energy. I shall return to this later, after a closer look at the concept of work value in economy.

Which Work Value?
At the very heart of the debates dominating French economic, social, and political life during the past decades, a strange note has been sounding with the word “value.” What is “value,” and why would work be a “value”? What is “labor value”? What is the relationship between the political and social philosophers’ notion of work as a “value” and the “labor value” of classical economy? These two concepts belong to two different, or even antagonistic, epistemological registers, even though they are semantically linked in the French language. Indeed, if the “work value” of political and social philosophers can be seen as the very foundation of the nineteenth-century industrial society, what better emblem for that society is there than the “labor value” of economy?
Talcott Parsons allegedly proposed a “treaty” with economists if they guaranteed “peace for the households” caught between economics and sociology, these two disciplines that have been in competition ever since Auguste Comte invented the term “sociology” in 1839 so he could build a positive science of society upon the ruins of the fake (metaphysical) science of economists. For Parsons, economists are concerned with “value” in the singular, whereas sociologists are concerned with “values” in the plural.[6] This strange separation of the singular and the plural repeats the Aristotelian epistemological separation of “quantity” and “quality” – to economists, the measurement of “value” by counting amounts of an homogeneous substance; to sociologists, the plurality of “values,” each of them within the incommensurability of Platonic absolutes. Accordingly, measuring “value” would sustain Max Weber’s unified instrumental rationality resting on a principle of comparison between costs and returns, while the plurality of “values” would allow the variability of rationalities according to their “value,” where the norm for action takes the shape of a Kantian categorical imperative. The variable motives of value-rational action would stand against the behavioral uniqueness of homo oeconomicus’s purposive-rational action. But the qualitative variability of value-rationality has incommensurability as its counterpart, a binary measure (presence versus absence), while the purposive-rationality offers the whole scale of numerical measurements.
In short, if work is a value in the Platonic sense of the term, it cannot be measured. But if it underlies a measurement scale, as seen by classical economics or by industrial mechanics, there can be more or less of it; it can be added up, redistributed, saved, accumulated, et cetera. In the first instance, work is a value; in the second, it is the basis of value. We must add that, contrary to common criticism, the second posture does not necessary imply “imperialism.” The choice of a measure (here work) does not imply its exclusivity. Measure can be raised to a fetish, but one may also keep in mind its relative nature. Classical economics, just like industrial mechanics, has always maintained a form of intellectual caution proper to the pragmatism of measurement. Uniqueness belongs to ideology, not to metrology.
The problem with the economist’s concept of “labor value” is an analytical, not an ideological one. Choosing this measure means conceiving production as a quantity of work. Inspired by David Ricardo, Karl Marx formulated this most clearly by defining “abstract work” as a “pure expense of force,” which cannot fail to remind us of industrial mechanics. For him, any product is a sum of expenses of force, partly “alive” (the newly added work) and partly “dead” (the work previously invested in raw materials, in instruments of production, et cetera). This view raises two serious theoretical issues. If interpreted formally, it first leads to an infinite regression back to the first carved stone. But mostly it requires the equivalence of work quantities separated in time. Ricardo was the first to raise the latter in simple terms: is the labor of 100 men done in one day economically equivalent to that of one man laboring 100 days? His answer was negative. In the first case, one has the product at the end of the day, while in the second one must wait the whole hundred days. If the present therefore has more “value” than the future (in the case of a “preference for the present,” as economists would say today), the two products are not equivalent. Industrial mechanics encountered exactly the same problem as soon as it was realized that calculating in units of “mechanical work” eliminated speed from all equations.
Reintroducing time, suppressed by the metric of “labor value,” therefore leads economists to theorize capital. But this means, in parallel, reintroducing activity, in the perspective of the sociology of work. Once taking into account the capital dimension of production, one can no longer simply add dead work to living labor, as Marx does in the first book of Capital.[7] Seen as an activity, work is never addable. What one adds up, in accounting practice for example, are the traces left by work, such as labor costs, what Marx calls “abstract labor,” as opposed to the “concrete labor” performed by workers. Here we again encounter Marx’s philosophy of labor, which goes further than his mechanist political economy inspired by Ricardo: work is always “living,” always in the present, hence always singular, specific, and “concrete.”

Back to Mechanics: Work Without Qualities[8]
At this point, we must return to the origins of the notion of “mechanical work.” This concept, as we said before, was designed by French polytechnicians in the early twentieth century to develop an understanding of machine activity in analogy to the activity of human beings. Machines, indeed, can produce (that is work) just as men do, but also, just as men, they can produce only at a cost (that is with fatigue). This conception has its origin in a study of an eighteenth-century French physicist, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, who sought a means to measure the working capacity of human workers. He was the first to insist on the ambiguity of the French word for work: “travail,” meaning “the result of using forces [human or animal] applied to machines, as well as the fatigue they experience doing so.” As a good metrologist, this semantic ambiguity left him unruffled. “Mechanical work” could provide an adequate measure for the product and also for its cost in terms of effort. This twofold dimension of work therefore led to the idea of efficiency: the ratio of production versus cost, both terms being measured in units of “work.”

What I want to stress here is the consequence of this model on the way human activity is conceived. Coulomb measures the daily production: in his primary model, this is the amount of timber raised to a certain height, which is indeed mechanical work (the product of a force, here that opposing gravity, and of a distance, here the height). In terms of the product, the two parameters, the height and the weight, mutually compensate for one another. Carrying half a load of timber will require making a double trip. This defines the unit of work: one kilogram raised to two meters is equivalent to two kilograms raised to one meter. “Mechanical work,” therefore, is a scalar product, which can be expressed as a cardinal number, added, divided, et cetera. A coherent concept of efficiency will require the same units for daily expense and daily production. This will require in turn that one assumes, as Coulomb does, that every working hour costs the same expenditure effort (while we know exactly the contrary, namely that fatigue increases with time).

To grasp work in the economic sense of the term, Coulomb reduces the productive effort to its average. Indeed, his aim is not to measure “peak achievements,” but the normal working units that can be delivered day to day. He seeks to make a distinction with his predecessors, who measured the capacity of men to deploy their strength in experiments more resembling sport than normal labor. These experiments were concerned more with “performance” than with “work.” A century later, Taylor will reason in a similar way. To define the “fair task” to be expected from men in the course of a day, he will adopt a normalized concept of work in an energetic mode. An engineer’s “mechanical labor,” Marx’s “abstract labor,” Taylor’s dividable labor, all these categories share the same metric, that of accountant, of engineering or of economics, which always reckon after the fact and use averages according to the law of large numbers.

Activity, work in the present, seems to have vanished from these models, which we generally use to represent modern work: a time devoid of qualities, alienated, trapped by money, by the metrology of capital. Hannah Arendt’s famous triad is often invoked in support of this representation[9]: the piece of work, associated with the traditional figure of the craftsman; the activity, in the political sense favored by Greek philosophy; and, finally, the labor, as a meaningless practice required by the physiological needs of existence, a time of sheer constraint devoid of singularity and creativity. But the philosophers and sociologists who adopt this latter perspective are seeing things from a bird’s-eye view. When they say work or labor, they mean its social framework, which in our societies mostly means wage labor. They neglect a fundamental dimension of work, without which the entire conception becomes meaningless: its productive dimension. But can one conceive of production in a world without creation?

Sports Performance and the Artist’s Work
Following Coulomb, I have contrasted work considered by its average, reproducible, and the peak achievement, the “performance” as a singular act – as the word is understood today also in the world of art. “Performance” is an Anglicism introduced into French in the early nineteenth century as a term coming from horse races. By the end of the century, it had penetrated the entire domain of sports, then spread into psychological and economic literature during the second half of the twentieth century. Performances or athletic records stand in opposition to the energetic-economic representations of average work from Coulomb through Taylor via Ricardo and Marx. Soviet Stakhanovism insisted on records, and was an aberration from the productivist point of view. It is often confused with Taylor’s thought, which does not in principle demand record achievements from workers, but seeks instead to obtain from them an “adequate” production as calculated “scientifically” by the expert engineer (right or wrong), using incentives. The logic of records, including their registration on a “roll of honor” in the Soviet way, is the result of a wrong transposition of the logic of sports to industrial work, which on the contrary requires uniform worker production and temporal regularity. Today, the idea of “performance” in work is reappearing in the capitalist production of the so-called “neoliberal” era, in many shapes. After “modernity” has succeeded in banning the models of the artist and of the sportsman from the professional world, “postmodernity” seems to want to restore them. A few illustrations should show that this new tendency may very well deserve a more systematic examination.

As early as 1991, Alain Ehrenberg denounced the “cult of performance” as a new myth degrading contemporary society.[10] According to him, the sports model has invaded the modern imagination, first of all in the world of enterprise. The emergence of coaching (borrowed from sports) within the professional world, clearly illustrates this.[11] Since the publication of Ehrenberg’s seminal work, abundant literature has denounced the progressive diffusion of the model of permanent self-improvement as a new style of engaging in professional activity, occurring from the top management down to the workforce. This new model of work would be the cause of new forms of “suffering at work,” an issue discussed today in France in terms of “psychosocial risks.” Under the pressure of a permanent imperative of self-improvement and compelled to surpass previous achievements, the individual would eventually collapse and suffer a burnout or even, in extreme cases, commit suicide.[12]

According to some authors, this state of moral tension constitutive of contemporary work could be directly related to a shift in management methods toward commercial norms at every level of a firm. This is an interesting concept, because it raises the issue of the very notion of a firm. According to twentieth-century economic theory, from Richard Coase to Oliver Williamson, a firm is an economic organization opposing the market. The coordination within the firm relies on organizational and partly hierarchical rather than on commercial channels.[13] The shifts within the firm and even within the public domain during the past several decades have shown tendencies to suppress the bureaucratic hindrances within these organizations, these being “inner” structures protecting themselves against all forms of “outer” aggression (such as commercial competition). The new method is to “mimic,” as it were, the market within the organization. This is the logic of the “profit centers” within the firm, for instance, and of the new French public accounting system (LOLF), which is supposed to develop a more appropriate measure of the administration’s production on behalf of the final user, seen as a sort of “client” of a firm facing commercial competition.

Step by step, this “cult of the result” would propagate commercial norms through the entire workforce down to the individual employee. This paradoxical recommercialization of work would achieve a strange historical comeback, after industrial organization had done all it could – as illustrated by Taylor’s effort – to “uncommercialize” work, to suppress the idea of the “worker selling his or her labor power,” which dominated pre-wage labor during the nineteenth century in France, as Bernard Mottez has shown.[14] The emblem of this new form of production is the “project-based organization.” The productive standard would no longer consist of executing a regular codified task, but in realizing a singular project, which would be the reference to measure the efficiency of productive effort: does the worker meet the assigned objectives? Each worker thus becomes his or her own entrepreneur.

In a suggestive fashion, Pierre-Michel Menger used the symbol of the artist to illustrate this new version of work, an emblem that combines strong individualism with an intense expectation of profit, which compensates for a reduced expectation of success.[15] The traditional wages granted by industrial capitalism may be seen as a promise to stabilize the resources at a low or even level to a poor level in return for submission to the organization, in the sense of the traditional saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In contrast, the new wage system offered by post-industrial (financial) capitalism might be compared to a lottery: a massive reduction of wages allowed by a call to initiative and independence in the manner of the vie d’artiste (“artist’s life”). As in a lottery, a particular logic is applied: two birds in the bush are henceforth worth more than a bird in the hand. Famous athletes, successful artists, just like traders and powerful businesspeople, represent these new employees enjoying “obscene” salaries as some say,[16] yet accepted by some because of the possibility for anyone to achieve economic success, an achievement carried out individually.

If, according to Menger, the artist provides the ideal type of the contemporary worker, Nicolas Dodier has shown, in a reverse rhetorical move, that the ordinary worker, often assimilated to the image of the factory worker offered by Taylor’s scientific management, also behaves, in his own way, according to the model of the artist.[17] His careful observations of the activity of workers in a metal barrel factory showed that their relationship to technique was not purely instrumental; it also involved an element of “performance,” a good deal of playing with materials, with the machines, with the risks of being part of an “arena of virtuosity,” which shapes reputations within the workforce’s internal hierarchy. Dodier therefore also sees performance present in their work. This performance is not at the core of the organization of industrial work, but at its periphery, in the interstices of productivism, very much in the manner of “traditional” societies (see below), as Daniel Roy also observed in his studies of ancient workmanship.[18]
However, after this quick review of performance in contemporary work activities, we might ask if what we’ve described there is really new. This is by no means certain. A worker under pressure of the cult of the result shows many similarities to his nineteenth-century colleague bound to a well-defined industrial task, still very much present at construction sites, but also in slaughterhouses, which continue to employ “piece workers” despite regulations. [19] Dodier’s arenas of virtuosity are reminiscent of the farming championships Marianne Lemaire described among the Senoufo farmers on the Ivory Coast.[20] All this only shows that the ideal type of a planned, safe industrial organization, with its fully codified, mechanical work process requiring no emotional commitment whatsoever, with its fixed wages and guaranteed careers, has never been much more than a myth. And that work still is – and always has been – much more than that.

The interesting thing when one considers this comeback of performance in work is therefore not so much the radical originality of the new configurations one finds, but the novel perception of these configurations, a perception full of paradoxes. If since the early nineteenth century the mechanical, impersonal forms of modern work were constantly denounced as mechanical, depersonalizing, devoid of any opportunity for “self-realization” through invention or initiative, today work is symmetrically denounced for over-personalization, pressure toward boundless commitment, and full mobilization of intellectual and emotional engagement beyond a purely physical automatism still allowing the free play of consciousness – all seen as new forms of “suffering at work.”

The comeback of the notion of performance in sociological discourse, therefore, has the advantage of raising the issue of work’s very nature. We return to the original meaning of “performance,” in the sense of the English “to perform,” which does not concern only the narrow domain of sports, as in French, but more generally accomplishment, realization, interpretation (as on the stage for a theatrical performance), hence its role in contemporary art and also the linguistic concept of “performativity” recently adopted by French sociologists, which expresses the passing of the idea into reality through language. But it would be mistaken to think that only language “performs” the world. “Performing” is proper to work, because the function of work, in whatever form, is to change the world “to make it better,” and this is called being productive. Work may use language – and it increasingly does – whether spoken or written, and that is how language is becoming “productive” and thus can be spoken “performative.”

The advantage of this redefinition of work as “performance,” in the broad sense of the word, is to remind us of its productive and hence creative function, against the formalist interpretations that see work as a “commodity,” as “suffering,” as “social value” without materiality, ignoring its power to change the world. According to Marx, if we seek a genuine concept of work, we must go back to “concrete labor,” which takes shape in a specific technique, directed toward its productive vocation. “Abstract labor,” the basis of wage labor, is nothing more than a theoretical abstraction, the reduction of reality to a metric norm that enables economic theory to grasp work, but only a part of it. In other words, to quote Yves Schwartz’s pertinent formula, work is always a “debate about norms.”[21] It can never be reduced – nor can its “value” – to an a priori universal codification, to a homogeneous metrology, to “abstract labor.”

Pierre Naville has stressed this point in his sociology of automation in a special way. As he shows, the more we produce “autonomous” mechanisms, the more we dissociate human work from the rhythm of machines. It is an error to think that automation tends to “automate” human activity, for human intervention is precisely required where the mechanism reveals gaps, failures, imperfections, breakdowns. “Interruptions on the classical assembly line immobilize first of all the men, while interruptions of the integrated line mobilizes them,” Naville wrote.[22] Behind the devices of codification, of normalization, “work” always involves singularity, reactions to unforeseen events, ingenuity and skillful actions on a large or a small scale; in other words “creation” in the widest sense of the term, a transformation of the world, which is able to produce what economists call “production of value,” even if only on a tiny scale.

Conclusion: Work and the Sociology of Measurement
Our developments here lead us to delineate a research program of a sociology of measurement. A return to the singularity of work in action and a focusing on its productive vocation, on its power to generate socially recognized values, means calling for a new articulation of the relationship of the “economic” and the “social.” Economic theory uses measurement as a logical preliminary to analysis, an a priori metric, along the lines of the exact sciences. Quite the opposite, a sociology of measurement seeks to understand, through investigation, origins of a particular measurement; how it becomes generalized and to what extent it fights with other forms of measurement and how it eventually imposes itself.[23]

This investigation should revolve around an analysis of work, since, as we saw, it is always work that performs reality in various shapes. To put it more simply, what does our working activity bring to the world? Asking this elementary question demands an approach to measurement as an integral part of the productive process. Work is a “debate about norms” and this debate always implicitly or explicitly requires measurements: what is the value, what is the cost? How should one measure and compare these? We perform these measurements and comparisons all the time, sometimes only implicitly, as a part of our very activity; at times explicitly, as a calculation preceding action.

We can then escape the great divide between the economic and social, between “value” and “values.” Values are always multiple, without being necessarily irremediably qualitative. We can grasp them by measurement; we can compare and contrast them with each other. This confrontation of measurements is permanently at work in social life, ranging from the level of micro-social relationships up to the level of major political decisions. In our society, money plays a prominent role in this complex interplay of measurements, that of a “universal equivalent” of exchange, as Marx expressed it. The fallacy of standard economics, relying on Léon Walras as a basic reference, is to see money as a logically coherent unit of measurement that could function independently of all others. According to those economics, the market is a self-sufficient institution automatically producing value. But from the perspective of the sociology of measurement, the market is only one among many other social instances producing and comparing measurements, and the source of each of these measurements is to be found in productive activity. The concept of performance, no longer reduced to its connotations derived from sports, refers instead to the experience of artistic work, and will enable us to better conceptualize productive dynamics. It takes into account the singularity of any action and the permanent correspondence and comparison of any action with other actions, within always open domains of evaluation.

[1] In French, valeur travail (work value) means both “labor value” and work as a value. The author argues here that if it certainly requires clarification, it is nonetheless a very fruitful tension at the heart of the French political and economic debates. To fully express that tension, and as there is no direct equivalent in English of the expression valeur travail, we chose to focus on the meaning and, consequently, to use different translations.

[2] Dominique Méda: Le travail. Une valeur en voie de disparition. Paris 1995.

[3] Hannah Arendt gave a contemporary formulation of this Greek tradition in The Human Condition (1958), Chicago 1998.

[4] François Vatin: Le travail et ses valeurs. Paris 2008 (conclusion).

[5] François Vatin: Le travail. Economie et physique, 1780–1830. Paris 1993.

[6] David Stark: The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life. Princeton 2009.

[7] Marx gave up this simplified metric in books 2 and 3 of Capital which he never completed.

[8] Le travail sans qualités […] (work without qualities) is the French title of Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York 1998.

[9] Hannah Arendt: op. cit.

[10] Alain Ehrenberg: Le culte de la performance. Paris 1991.

[11] Scarlett Salman: Une hygiène psychique au travail? Genèse et usages du coaching en entreprise en France. Université Paris Ouest, Ph.D diss., Paris 2013.

[12] François Vatin: “La question du ‘suicide de travail’,”in: Commentaire, no. 134 (2011), pp. 405–416.

[13] According to Oliver Williamson’s theory, an enterprise is a profitable organization as long as the organizational costs remain below the transactional costs imposed by the recourse to the market. See The Economic Institutions of Capitalism: Firms, Markets, Relational Contracting. New York 1985.

[14] Bernard Mottez: Système de salaire et politique patronale. Essai sur l'évolution des pratiques et des idéologies patronales. Paris 1966; Thierry Pillon, François Vatin: “Retour sur la question salariale,” in: François Vatin (ed): Le salariat. Théorie, histoire, formes. Paris 2007.

[15] Pierre-Michel Menger: Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur. Métamorphose du capitalisme, Paris 2002.

[16] Olivier Godechot: Working rich. Paris 2007; Philippe Steiner: Les rémunérations obscènes. Paris 2012.

[17] Nicolas Dodier: Les hommes et les machines. Paris 1995.

[18] Donald Roy: “‘Banana Time’. Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction,” in: Human Organization, no. 18 (1959), pp. 158–168.

[19] Sylvie Célerier: “Des travailleurs suspects. Tâcherons dans les abattoirs de volaille,” in: Communications, 89, no. 2 (2011), pp. 41–55.

[20] Marianne Lemaire: Les sillons de la souffrance. Représentation du travail en pays Senoufo (Côte d’Ivoire). Paris 2009.

[21] Yves Schwartz, Louis Durrive (ed.): L’activité en dialogues. Entretiens sur l’activité humaine. Toulouse 2009, p. 22.

[22] Pierre Naville, Vers l’automatisme social? Paris 1963, p. 99.

[23] François Vatin (ed.): Evaluer et valoriser. Une sociologie économique de la mesure. Toulouse 2013; François Vatin: “Valuation as Evaluating and Valorizing,” in: Valuation Studies, no. 1, 1 (2013), pp. 31–50.

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