Friday, July 23, 2010

Flora Tristan's Union

Another rewrite of an early chapter of People without Borders

Flora Tristan and her Worker's Palaces

By John Taylor; 2010 July 23, Kalimat 10, 167 BE

In 1843 Flora Tristan (1804-1844) wrote "The Worker's Union," a plea for workers to unite in their own interest. An early feminist, Tristan hoped that self-governing co-operatives would finally create an atmosphere in which working men would be emancipated from their traditional thralldom to the bottle. At the same time, women would find in these co-ops, which she called "communities of human unity," an atmosphere conducive to improving their own lot.

Tristan perceived that much of the endemic poverty and iniquity was caused by an extreme imbalance between the sexes. From this arose an either/or mentality, leading to an artificial dichotomy between worker and owner. Even today artificial separation of identities seem inherent to human nature, but Tristan did not see it as natural or inevitable. She dreamed of human progress based upon economic cooperation, male temperance and conscious advancement of the lot of women.

This was Tristan's chain of reasoning: the rights guaranteed in France's 1830 Charter did not include the right to life. Workers at the time were all but destitute, so, she reasoned, they own nothing but their own hands. Thus, manual labour is all that keeps them alive. The right to life, then, must entail a right to work in order to gain a living, and from this fundamental right proceeds another right, that of workers to organize.

Unity, activity and organization are all that is needed, she asserted. If workers entered government and gained the same influence there that owners already had, they could promote their own interests through the natural fact that they are the majority. A peaceful democratic process is all that workers require to prevail -- although, strangely, she saw nothing wrong with unions openly purchasing votes! With great prescience, she anticipated the objections that would be raised against such a unification of workers,

"This demand, no matter how just and legal, will be considered an attack on property per se (land, houses and capital). And labor organization will be considered an attack on private enterprise. And, since those who lead the governmental machine are land and capital owners, it is obvious they will never agree to grant such rights to the working class." (Tristan, Flora, The Worker's Union, Translated by Beverly Livingston, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1983, p. 55)

To this day, a worker's constitution has yet to be adopted. Workplaces routinely exploit employees and bosses trample upon the rights of most workers with impunity. When workers' rights are bolstered -- from outside, by the state -- in one place, owners simply cross the border, taking jobs along with them. Meanwhile the property imbalance has, overall, worsened since Tristan's time. The basic right of all humans to own and manage the planet's resources has been occluded by the same, ever smaller ownership class. The lion's share of the world's wealth remains in their hands.

The reason for this sorry lack of progress since her era is that Flora Tristan's peaceful suggestion for a worker's union was appropriated immediately by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their extremist Communist Manifesto. All-too-typical males, they turned a plea for cooperative activism into an out-and-out declaration of war. The 1848 Manifesto stripped Tristan's religiously-inspired socialism of its essence, God, and transformed the worker's movement into a secular no-man's-land plunked right in the middle of a battleground between capital and government.

Instead of her plea that workers unite and cooperate actively, the communist manifesto declared, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" Instead of Christ's message of love as liberator, that "the truth shall set you free," the worker's movement from then on took inspiration from history's only successful slave revolt, which had taken place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) a few decades before.

This was an unfortunate model to adopt. The slave revolt in Haiti had already provoked a severe reaction by owners, who united to push the French government to incur a huge reparation payment to compensate for their "lost property." To this day Haiti is a pariah to capital, isolated, chaotic and corrupt. While technically independent, it remains enslaved to drugs, debt and corruption, one of the poorest places on the planet. This is hardly an auspicious model for the worker's movement to adopt! But such was the dominance of men, and the unpopularity of religion, that Marx prevailed over Tristan.

The radical and angry socialist movement that arose on this model after her death fought the revolutions of 1844-1847, all of which failed quicker and more miserably than did Haiti. Before, religion and the family had traditionally taken on important responsibility for social support. The existence of communism made worker and owner into enemies, permanently at each other's throats. Divorce between capital and labour created a power vacuum that proved a convenient opportunity for nationalists to seize power. From then on the role of nanny was left entirely in the hands of the state. Dictators like Louis Napoleon and his successors made themselves popular with workers by offering small concessions, while most power and wealth stayed in the hands of the minority.

Street Corner Palaces

Flora Tristan's dream was pacific. Workers' guilds of the time offered workers fraternal groups based on their trade, along with a chance to travel across France. However, they were plagued by bitter rivalries among trades that often ended in rioting in the street. Instead, her overall worker's union would set up the palace as an alternative model to both a slave revolt and a limited fraternity. Specifically, she proposed that workers in every county (department) in France deduct a portion from their salaries to build for themselves showpieces of their worth to society.

She calculated that by pooling resources in this way workers could -- even with the meagre wages of the time -- build up a "fund for the self-emancipation of labour." Just as kings and magnates build palaces to display power, wealth and prestige, workers could organize settlements for themselves that display their dignity as magnificently as any palace. She called this communally-owned institution the "Palace of the Worker's Union." Inside the palace workers would run their own hospital, home for the aged, school and center for study and research. Here,

"children of the working class will be instructed, intellectually and professionally, and ... working men and women who have been injured at their jobs, and those who are infirm or aged, will be cared for." (Flora Tristan, "A Passage From Flora Tristan's l'Union Ouvriere," Translated by Doris and Paul Beik,

A palace's institutions would also "recognize, in principle, the legal equality of men and women as being the only means of constituting the unity of humanity." Flora Tristan perceived that cooperative institutions are structurally more friendly to the social skills and inclinations of girls and women. Co-ops can advance the lot of women quicker and allow for much greater equality than the hierarchical structures of large corporations. Again, events in the centuries that have passed since her death proved her correct.

Unlike state-run socialism, whose supports are given reluctantly and received in shame, Tristan's palaces are centrally located, proud declarations of the dignity of work. Being self-financed and organized by workers themselves, they would be badges of honour. As cooperatives, they would gently spread wealth around, gradually eliminating the vast gulf between worker, manager and owner. This ultimate "worker's union" would resolve the war between rich and poor by gradually distributing ownership of the means of production into the hands of all who work at and use a factory or service.

If this vision had caught the public imagination, everyone would become a worker. Rich and poor would be trained in a trade at a palace school, taught by local journey-persons from early adolescence. Those who show an ability to enter a profession would continue their education and gain that calling as a supplement to their original trade. This leaves no need for rebellion or forced equalization -- basic characteristics of communism. There would be no more no-man's-land because there would be no war. Everyone would be on the same side, each both worker and owner of a share of whatever workplace they serve.


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