IN THE RADICAL PRESS / L’HUMANITE
Hike pay roll taxes and and a wage for life for all. Radical ideas to take French society beyond capitalism. Interview with Bernard Frio, communist sociologist and labour market expert
With over 10% unemployment in France, a labour market in crisis, you are advocating a ‘salaried wage revolution’, even while the salaried worker is considered by many as a state of alienation …
The salaried wage implies much more than subordination and purchasing power. Looking at it just in these terms prevents us from reading the anti-capitalist dimension conquered by wages between 1930 and 1970, namely the status acquired by people working in the public services and the social welfare contributions that have socialized 45% of wages. These conquests, won under the leadership CGT union and the Communists, were considerable leaps forward to a different definition of economic value and thus work. 40% of GDP is now generated in the context of public services and welfare by civil servants, pensioners, carers, parents and the unemployed.
There are so many people who are not in the (capitalist) labour market and who do not contribute to profits through the production of goods. That opens up a way to exit capitalism. By the salaried workers, the revolutionary class in the making, if they build on their gains by boldly affirming this alternative. An alternative to the labour market through a universal ‘wage for life’ in the public sector and for retirees. A universal application of social contributions is also an alternative to capitalist ownership and control, and to credit, one that can be used to fund investment and the common ownership of the means of production..Finally, we create that alternative by spreading across the workforce a single, national grid of pay scales, linked to skills and qualifications, that already exists in the France’s public sector.
Why put social contributions at the heart of this system?
Social contributions, the great revolutionary invention of the working class, does not puncture profit or the income of the labour force, these two institutions of capital. It replaces them in order to finance non-capitalist growth. The increase in payroll taxes has been a constant demand since the liberation of France at the end of the second world war through to the 1980s: they increased from 16% to 66% of gross salary. The increase in the contribution rates induces money creation that anticipates the economic value produced by people who are neither employers nor shareholders. The social contribution is the legitimacy that capital denies labour: the workers are the only producers of wealth. This must be recognized by the right to a salary attached to the person, and not to their job. In a workers’ contract, this wage, socialized 100%, will be guaranteed for life, from eighteen years of age until a worker’s death, on a scale for example, of 1,500 to 6,000 euros net monthly, depending on the worker’s skills and qualifications.
Social security contributions should be made universal. Wages will not be paid directly to the worker by the company but rather the company will contribute to a fund which, by pooling added value, will guarantee wages. Similarly, a economic contribution will finance investment and end profit-based ownership, giving way to common ownership for use by all employees. The investment funds and wages will be managed by employees, as were the social security funds in France until 1960. Social contributions thus substitute the labour market and profit. But if social security contributions continue to be wrongly presented as solidarity, it could quickly be threatened by the General Social Contribution (CSG) [a form of National Insurance introduced in France in 1991 and designed to lift the 'burden' on businesses and 'work'] and disappear.
But how exactly do we combat this rise of the CSG tax, including the current proposals to use it to fund pensions?
We must go back to basics, to Ambroise Croizat. In 1946 the communist Minister of Labour created the social security system. It was not created out of thin air, but used part of the social insurance funds in existence since the 1930s. His revolutionary act was to double the rate of contribution (16 to 32% of gross salary) and triple the amount of family allowances which were at the time at the heart of social security. That meant half the wages of working class families – blue and white collar – consisted of these benefits, indexed to wages. Did Ambroise Croizat dent capitalist wealth in order to finance the activities of parents? Not at all! The tremendous increase in the contribution rate meant that we assigned economic value to working parents. And it was a determining factor in economic growth. In the 1960s, the system was updated, with a considerable increase in ill-heath social contributions that supported the building of hospitals and the national health service. The trend continued in the 1970s, with rising contribution rates for pensions, which recognizes the economic value produced by retirees. By significantly expanding the CSG, taxing the financial income of business in order to fund pensions is to subscribe to a capitalist reading of social security as a useful institution, but not productive. This is something we really must avoid. Instead, we must increase pay roll taxes to fund pensions.
Is the new and brutal reform of pensions set for September an opportunity to promote other ideas?
Yes, this opportunity should be used to make the following demands: retire at age 55 [It is currently 62] with 100% of the best net salary, excluding annuities (or points). Funding will be provided on the one hand by higher wages and on the other by higher contribution rates (which must rise from 26% to at least 34% of gross wages): that should be the central part of the demand. If we are saying retire at age 55, it requires the explanation that retirees work, otherwise people will wonder, “Wait, he does not do anything at 55? ” Retirement becomes, not a demand for leisure after a long working life, this is a second career free from employment and the exploitation of capital. If we are arguing for 100% of the highest net wages we must explain that a pension is the continuation of a wage and not the result of past contributions, but rather pensions are payment for the current work of retirees. The worker must be defined by the wage as a political right, not by the labour market, nor by the shareholders.
In the worker’s contract you propose, you disconnect work from wages, you distinguish property for its use value from property for profit. Is this a way to guard against the excesses of some bosses?
It is a guarantee against any boss: we must be the owners of our tools. Property used for profit is totally parasitic, and we must be rid of it. Here, it is important to maintain as allies small business owners, as against the shareholders of financial markets who we will obviously never convince. Recently I was talking with a construction company boss. He was the fifth generation of bosses, he had to assume responsibility for this legacy, exploit his property…This ownership practice is outdated. It is the property that must condition the responsibility, which is why it must be distributed to all producers. Many owners will benefit from being freed from the obsession to find markets to pay wages, and released from the need to seek profits which often weighs over their future. They must become common owners of the company with other employees. The economic fabric of France is not the big companies on the stock market. It is the librarians, accountants, artisans, the small manufacturers, that need to become our allies. Of course, will still need to convince employees that they should be co-owners of their business.
Employees will no longer be, in essence, forced to work. How do you respond to criticism of an alleged widespread problem of idleness, something we hear sometimes on the subject of the unemployed?
This is an alienated discourse of those who have internalised the incredible loss of self that is the labour market. This starts from the sixth grade, we take our kids to the salons d’orientation [guidance on their future studies/careers advice] we gradually condition them, we offer help on doing CVs, confine their ambitions in this straitjacket. The impoverishment is caused by making them conform to the expectations of employers. More and more people in their thirties, forties reject the labour market and the value out on them by capital. They organise themselves in cooperatives, in initiatives on the Internet. Admittedly, this is still makeshift. And not always easy to live on, especially when using unemployment benefits to create alternative economic value. These experiments are still fragile, and lack a legal framework. Similarly, pensioners should be encouraged to produce economic value. Employees of companies threatened with relocation or closure must be supported in taking control of their means of production. When the labour movement, including the CGT and the Communist Party, of which I am a member, makes links with the people facing with these issues, it will be an improvement!
How do we create the trigger to exit capitalism?
By re-appropriating our history. The ruling class tries to convince us that the social security system is just a drain on capitalist value in order to finance solidarity. To the contrary, it’s capitalism that for a century has been significantly challenged by the socialisation of wages. I repeat, non-capitalist production represents 800 billion euros in France, or 40% of GDP. So we must reclaim these working class gains. Hundreds of thousands of activists took considerable risks in the past to create these springboards to exit capitalism. It is time for us to decide, in their wake, whether we want to make history. Facing us is a ruling class, it is organised, fighting all the time, because it is at bay. Without being able to direct the production of economic value positively, it has created a military and police apparatus, acclimatised the population to the questioning of civil liberties on the pretext of fighting against terrorism and economic warfare. As we do not explicitly claim leadership in the production of economic value and organise ourselves adequately for this ambition, we fight on the defensive. A return to the offensive implies that we build on the gains of the working class by pushing farther where there are social conflicts over pensions, plant closures …
We have discussed how to deal with this on the question of pensions, by making a lifetime wage universal, and the central goal of mobilising for higher wages and social contribution rates. There is also much to think about on how to promote the issue of common ownership of the means of production and of housing. Similarly, attacks against the public sector must be countered by proposing that all workers have a recognized qualification, against the employment practice where it is the post that is qualified or, today, the career path. On this point the ‘sécurisation des parcours professionnels’, backed by the government, and the CGT’s ‘sécurité sociale professionnelle‘ , projects which aim to support the rights, not of the job, but career, can help us advance towards a wage for life and the end of the labour market.
Bernard Friot is Emeritus Professor at the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre-La Défense.
Translation/edit by Revolting Europe