Tag Archives: class

Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 2)

10 Dec

Part 1 here.

Louis-Napoléon caricatured by Honoré Daumier.

Louis-Napoléon caricatured by Honoré Daumier.

After the events of 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte I and a one-time revolutionary who had twice tried to stage a Bonapartiste coup against Louis-Phillippe (for which he spent some time in prison and considerable time in exile), was elected as President of the Republic. He had strong support from the provinces, as well as the advantage of not having participated on either side in 1848. When he got into a stalemate with the National Assembly in 1851, he staged a coup d’état confirmed with a 92 percent “yes” plebiscite (Wright 1987), thus inaugurating the 2nd Empire.

Under Louis-Napoléon, French industry and commerce took on a recognizably modern élan: industrial production doubled between 1852 – 1870, foreign trade tripled, the use of steam power multiplied by five and the use of railways by six (Ibid.). This was largely made possible by Louis-Napoléon’s policies, which included high protective tariffs to provide a domestic enclave for growth, low taxes, non-interference in industry by government, concession and guarantees for business, and a doubling of governmental expenditure on public works (Ibid.). Given this acceleration, it is no surprise that there were, early on, some self-identified working-class groups with revolutionary principles. Communist Étienne Cabet and socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for instance, were both active organizers. As early as 1848, in fact, Cabet’s newspaper Le Populaire had a circulation of more than 5000 Parisian workers, and his communist movement had a substantial following. However, rebuffed in his efforts to build solidarity with the progressive bourgeoisie, and rejecting the inevitability (or even perhaps the ontology) of class conflict, he and many followers abandoned France for America to start a small-scale commune called Icaria. In this case, there was a failure to convincingly stake out the boundaries of his purview, which it seems would be a prerequisite for solidarity and social action. Things might have turned out differently had there been an existing, clearly-defined group to which he could lash his programme.

At the time, however, there simply wasn’t a stable and distinct working class or, at least, one that recognized itself as such. Harvey notes that Paris in mid-century was France’s most important and diversified manufacturing centre; in 1866, 58 percent of its 1.8 million people depended on industry for their livelihood (against the slim 13 percent that relied on commerce). Despite this concentration, however, the conditions of life and work weren’t amenable to connection across firms or trades. In 1847, more than half of Parisian enterprises had fewer than two employees, only 11 percent had more than 10, and no more than 425 had more than 500. Over time, this fragmentation increased. Between 1848 and 1871, the clothing industry had 10 percent more enterprises but 20 percent fewer workers, and the chemical industry had 45 percent more firms but 5 percent fewer workers. Within these numerous firms, it was very often hard to distinguish between owners and workers, both because they worked closely together and thus developed sympathy for and cooperation with each other, and because of ascent (through marriage or promotion) or descent (by financial failure). Further, it is hard to distinguish between manufacture and commerce at mid-century because workshops and boutiques were often in the same building with the same owner. While this might have led to some vertical connections, based for instance on these “lower” groups’ resentment of high-level financiers and the increasing commercial monopoly, there was no clear and close enemy against whom they could consolidate. This would result in commiseration, not class consciousness.

Craft-workers, who in 1848 constituted 40 percent of the Parisian workforce, are often held to be the exception. Harvey notes that, in the first half of the 1800s, craft workers had their own hierarchies and organizations, as well as centralized labour markets, which allowed them to make coherent demands as a body and thus negotiate collectively over wages and working conditions. However, their enduring tradition of medieval fraternities, or compagnonnages, as described by Wright, involved rituals, secret meetings and rivalries. This meant they were likely an obstacle to inter-trade solidarity (and in fact their residue as late as the 20th century complicated the formation of trade unions); they certainly excluded the bulk of specialized and unskilled workers. But in the last half of the 1800s, this latter group was growing substantially and absorbing many craft-workers who had been bypassed by changing labour processes. By 1870, even their collective labour market, based on common hiring locations to which potential employers had to gingerly tread, had disappeared entirely.

As rent prices in the city soared, many large industries moved to the periphery, but in their place small specialty producers mushroomed (Harvey 2003). Rather than balancing out the effects of heavy industry’s dispersal, however, these smaller firms tended to rely on subcontracting, along with the hyper-specialization and deskilling of tasks, lowering their overhead and pushing the costs of rent and materials onto the workers. This both degraded the position of craft-workers, who no longer had a privileged place in most work-flows, but also furthered worker fragmentation and lowered wages through increased individual-level competition. (For precisely this reason, subcontracting had been outlawed during the brief period in 1848 when workers had leverage; it was quickly legalized again in 1852.)

The deskilling of labour also allowed for the use of unskilled immigrant workers from the provinces, who flooded into Paris after 1860 (Stovall 1990), as well as women and children. Worker scarcity from 1852 until the 1860s had given labourers a small degree of bargaining power regarding wages; the use of women and children offset this, and nominal wages stagnated while inflation rose. Only some workers stayed ahead of inflation, such as carpenters and mechanics, while the rest sunk into penury, thus polarizing an already fractured work-force (Harvey 2003). The privileged few were still able to take off “Saint Monday,” the informal holiday reserved for the nurturing of Sunday-excursion hangovers. The rest were working up to 14 hours a day in small sweatshops, with single men making just enough money to survive and working women having to marry just to stay afloat (Ibid.)

As Haussmann cleared away old housing in the center of the city and rents rose, workers moved away from the increasingly-consolidated rich quarters in the west – in which they had once lived under the same roofs as their employers – and into more homogenously working-class neighbourhoods closer to the periphery, generally into the north-eastern 19th and 20th and the south-eastern 13th arrondissements (Stovall 1990). The large public works projects attracted a flood of immigrants from the poorer provinces. The Parisian population was growing, but not reproducing itself (the rate of births over deaths wasn’t higher than 1 percent in any year between 1860 and 1900), and the unskilled new arrivals were amassing in the densely-populated outer quarters: against the inner arrondissements (the 1st through the 10th), which grew by 7.1 percent from 1861 to 1896, the 11th through 20th grew by 103 percent, resulting in severe overcrowding, with rates as high as 64.2, 65.5 and 66 percent for the residents of the 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, respectively (compared to a city-wide average of 14.9 percent) (Ibid.).

This concentration, as well as increased separation between those living at different economic levels, led to regional solidarities, as workers from different trades and traditions were brought into close proximity. This was particularly so in the neighbourhood cafes and cabarets, which became centres for political agitation and organization (Harvey 2003). However, there was little means of connecting across these regional solidarities to forge class identity based on shared interest rather than shared living quarters. Efforts to match the bourgeois mastery of space, for instance by creating a working-class, city-wide press, or voting in an independent political candidate to serve as a lightning rod for otherwise diffuse working-class energies, were quashed by Republicans (Ibid.).

This fragmentation didn’t necessarily prevent collective action, as the working class was at least minimally defined (though in negative) by pressures from above and, if not uniformly shared, at least significantly overlapping conditions of labour. Falling wages, the dismantling of welfare in favour of unstable public works projects by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (prefect of the Seine département and urban planner who overhauled the Parisian centre), repressive laws against workers’ organizations before 1867, including a law against association dating from 1852, and totalitarian surveillance all affected workers as a group (though not them exclusively). However, Harvey notes, “[If] Paris had a rather more conventional sort of proletariat in 1870 than it did in 1848, the working classes were still highly differentiated” (2003: 233). During Louis-Napoléon’s “liberal” period after 1859, though, a number of changes would open channels of solidarity between these groups, and a class consciousness seems gradually to have emerged despite this differentiation.


Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 1)

10 Dec

I talk a lot about work. Between participation in our Teaching Assistants’ union, courses on labour and distribution, and more-or-less heated-or-tipsy conversations with friends, it seems to come up a lot. Yes, work is changing, always, and our situation now is marked by precariousness, contract-work, the privatization and individualization of the security net, uncertain futures, fluid and unpredictable financial foundations, etc., etc. No, we’re not sure how to act within this new space, and so we talk about mobilization, aesthetics, demand, collectivity, and on. But seldom do we tackle class. Perhaps we’ve unthinkingly capitulated to the powerful (and erroneous) discourse that tells us class left with factory work – presumably to the “3rd World” – and that we’re united now by our more comfortable and modern Canadian concerns, which range from leisurely stabs at Rob Ford (oaf! Atwood!) to murmurings of ISP-masked revolution re: our nation’s neutered Netflix catalogue.

As though our own working futures weren’t dismal. Or our cities weren’t ringed by suburbs of (to the one side) distant and affluent 905ers and (to the other) geographically isolated and under-serviced migrant enclaves. Or our province wasn’t attacking one of the few remaining bastions of collective worker sentiment, the public employees. Or our council wasn’t debating a 5-cent “plastic bag fee” while our country’s “4th world” native citizens mobilize marches just to have their basic rights and needs recognized.

I think class is still a useful optic because there are many here who are still structurally, materially excluded and collected. Yet we don’t talk about it when we plan or dream; at least, my friends and I don’t, despite all our chat about work and the world.

As a humble first step towards us knowing how to recognize where we’re at, I’ll be posting a series of writings about class consolidation in Paris during the 1800s. This is meant to be a case study of loose contemporary relevance. Working-class struggle there and then was brutal, bloody, and urgent, and to this day is a source of pride to those many that still remember. Knowing how “class” came into their lives as a way of seeing themselves and recognizing others is important, I think, and might help us consider the details of our own confusion today.

This will likely spread across a few days of posts, and works cited will come at the end when I’m able to collect them all.



On the far side of this history is the revolution and violent counter-revolution of 1848, in which 1 500 – 3 000 workers were killed and 12 000 arrested, with many sent to Algeria as punishment (Wright 1987). According to Wright’s history, workers before 1848 lived in horrid abjection, working 15 or more hours a day for wages so low that many people depended on charity to supplement their income, ate meat once or twice a year and spent 30 – 50 percent of their wage on bread. Prompted by these conditions and united with Republicans who opposed the hyper-conservative Bourbon king Charles X, workers participated in the July Revolution of 1830, the “Three Glorious Days” that ousted the king and brought in the relatively more liberal monarch Louis-Phillippe, the Duc d’Orléans. Under his rule, however, dissatisfaction in the lower quarters persisted, as the upper 5 percent had 75.8 percent of the inherited wealth and the bottom 75 percent had only 0.6 percent (Harvey 2003). This inequality, as well as his heightening conservatism, led to resentment that condensed into barricades on February 22, 1848, resulting in his abdication.

The resulting provisional government included both moderate and radical Republicans, and responded to the workers’ plight with a study of potential reforms and the setting up of National Workshops, which organized work for the surplus labour force. Due to a collapse in Parisian industry and an influx of provincial migrants, enrollment in these Workshops increased from 14 000 to 117 000 between March and June (Harvey 2003). Some pro-labour laws were put into effect, including a 10-hour limit to the work day and a prohibition on subcontracted, piece-rate labour. An Executive Commission was also created and sent to Luxembourg to work, in relative isolation, on a comprehensive labour plan (Marx 1959 [1850]). However, on April 23, elections gave control of the National Assembly to conservative forces, who were fearful of losing their grip on workers and so used the National Workshops, unpopular with peasants who paid the bills but saw no benefit, as a leverage point for aggressive attack. They began to make access to the workshops more difficult, making it piece-rate work rather than paying by daily wage, exiling non-Paris-born workers to miserable earthworks projects in Sologne, and eventually even excluding all unmarried workers (Ibid.). On June 22, the day after this latter expulsion was declared, a second insurrection erupted, the “June Days” in which 1 500 – 3 000 rebels (workers and sympathetic radical Republicans) were killed in clashes with the largely bourgeois National Guard. A further 12 000 were arrested, with many exiled to Algeria (Wright 1987). The compromised leaders of the radical Republicans were removed from the playing board. And though the conservatives had secured their position, their betrayal of those who had helped them oust the monarch would long suppurate beneath the surface of the relative peace that followed.

While clearly an uprising against the consolidating power of the conservative faction in the National Assembly, any class lines drawn around the insurrection’s participants can be very easily blurred, despite Marx’s celebrations of it as a distinctly working-class rebellion (1959 [1850]). Craft-workers were certainly key to its organization as well as the bloody fighting that ensued (Harvey 2003). Alongside them was a motley host of less skilled workers, with whom the craft-workers could agitate but probably not identify as being of the same class (as discussed below). Complicating the picture is the presence of the “lumpen-proletariat,” those lowest-class members of the “vile multitude.” Denigrated from above and below, they were considered by Marx (1959 [1850]) to be the main weapon of the counter-revolutionary forces, enrolled by the conservatives into their Mobile Guard. Later academics have since revised this history, noting that the Mobile Guard was in fact indistinguishable from the workers, apart from their having been isolated and given an esprit de corps (Hayes 1993). At any rate, due to the insecurity of labour, the distinction between the “productive” and “non-productive” lower classes was porous to the point of dissolve. Similarly, the petty bourgeoisie, supposed by Marx to have been unequalled in their fanatical fight “for the salvation of property and the restoration of credit” (1959 [1850]: 311) were in fact integrated on both sides of the struggle. Even apart from the close-knit relations many of the workers and owners had with each other, and the sympathies that would result, a portion of the bourgeoisie had economic motivations for participating. Having been indebted by France’s disastrous war against Prussia, many wanted to see the end of the 3rd Republic that had, one week before, enacted a law enforcing repayment of all late debts (Hayes 1993).

Marx describes the 1848 struggle as “the first great battle… fought between the two classes that split modern society” (1959 [1850]: 304). With the exception perhaps of that small minority of those involved who had ingested the radical social theories that had begun to circulate (more on this below), I suspect the participants would recognize little of their experience in this stark binary. Indeed, while brought together in common cause, there is little reason to suppose that even those working men of the same neighbourhood, unless they were part of the same craft guild or workshop, would have thought of each other as being part of the same group. This was most likely a multitude, heterogeneous in background and interest, brought together against a shared enemy.