In Beyond Employment, the 1999 report on work that you chaired for the European Commission, you sketched the foundations for what might have become a genuinely universal social policy for the EU, as well as making concrete proposals for labour law reform.footnote1 What is your retrospective assessment of that collective undertaking, and of the European ‘agenda’ as it has developed since then?

The report, Beyond Employment, has had a paradoxical fate. On the one hand, it received a certain amount of publicity and helped to free debates on employment from the mental straitjacket in which they had become trapped in the 1990s. But European institutions did not take up the simple idea it embodied: that there is no wealth other than human beings, and that an economy which ill-treats them has no future. The new conceptual frameworks we outlined with regard to professional status or to ‘social drawing rights’ all flowed from this basic idea. But of course this ran directly counter to the credo that holds sway in Brussels, according to which the problem is not that of adapting the economy to the needs of human beings, but rather the reverse—adapting human beings to the needs of markets, and especially to the needs of financial markets, which supposedly create harmony by making self-interest the basis for all human activity. This credo ensured eu officials were deaf to the warnings of those such as Jean-Luc Gréau, who diagnosed capitalism’s sickness as a financial one a decade ago.footnote2

At a time when the priority should have been to establish order in the financial markets, Brussels had only one slogan: ‘Reform the labour markets’—in the sense of fitting people into the ‘permanent recomposition of the productive fabric’, to maximize ‘value creation’ for the players in an economy that had become little more than a casino. Hence the denunciations of rigidities inherent in labour protection, repeated parrot-fashion in the European Commission’s recent publications. The 2006 Green Paper on modernizing labour law or the Communication on ‘flexicurity’ from 2007 spin out the pre-packaged thinking current among the elites of all the member-states, regardless of their political sensibilities—couched in a newspeak of which the Commission is a master.

To conceptualize labour ‘beyond employment’ naturally does not imply the disappearance of employment, any more than thinking of labour ‘beyond France’ implies the disappearance of France; it remains an essential part of labour’s status. But formal employment no longer provides (if it ever did) a normative framework that can ensure that everyone on the planet has decent work. The crisis of the Fordist industrial model ought to be used as an opportunity to improve the lot of the majority, instead of leading to the dismantling of social security provisions attached to work and a return to the unbridled exploitation of the weakest. This, of course, in the name of individual liberty: the freedom to be paid less than the standard rate, to do a 15-hour day, to work on Sundays instead of spending the day with one’s children, postpone retirement, renounce any attempt to assert one’s legal rights and so on. A programme to which the Right has had no trouble at all in winning over a ‘social’ Left which has lost interest in workers’ conditions.

Contrary to the slogan, ‘There Is No Alternative’, the crisis of the industrial employment model confronts us with a choice. The problem is that this choice is not expressed in the political arena. In order to understand its terms, we need to return to the ‘invention’ of employment, the product of a historic compromise. This process was memorably described (and criticized) by the Italian trade-union leader Bruno Trentin, in his La città del lavoro—sadly never translated into French, or English.footnote3 On the one hand, trade unions and left parties came to accept that, in both the socialist and capitalist worlds, workers should be subjected to a scientific organization of labour responding exclusively to the imperatives of efficiency, not of justice. On the other, big business eventually internalized the idea that improving the incomes and economic security of their employees was not only a legitimate goal but brought increased efficiency in terms of productivity and market openings.