Robert Castel, 1933-2013

The sociologist has passed away at the age of seventy-nine. He was Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and author of the Metamorphoses of the social question marked sociology.

We publish here an interview which was conducted in February for the French newspaper L’Humanité and which Robert Castel has released to print a week before his death.
In your works you describe a “gradual transformation” of industrial capitalism to financial capitalism. Has this been completed?

Robert Castel: It is always a bit venturesome to predict the future. Sociologists are not prophets. They try to understand changes and, perhaps, to extrapolate the direction they are taking. Saying “things will be like this” is dangerous. It is no coincidence that my last but one book was called The Rise of Uncertainties. That’s a way of qualifying the great transformation that has been taking place over the last thirty years. Previously the idea was very widespread of thinking that tomorrow would be better. Only a minority of people share that sort of optimism today. Opinion polls show that many French people have a rather pessimistic view. For all that, things are uncertain and, fortunately, we cannot state with any certainty that “everything is going to the dogs”. The worst of the future remains uncertain.

Under industrial capitalism a compromise was established in social relations that you called the “wage earning society” based on “social property”.

In the 60s a relative balance was achieved. It was not all that wonderful. There has been a lot of hot air about the Thirty Glorious Years — a lot of inequalities persisted, there were some far from brilliant injustices and some inglorious episodes like the colonial wars. Nevertheless, a certain balance was found between, to put it simply, the interests of the market and those of labour. It was far from idyllic but it worked fairly well. This period that followed the Second World War allowed the development of labour laws, some social security and the economy. As from the 70s, however, there was talk about a crisis, at first considered temporary, pending a revival . . .

Today there is less social security, health and fewer social rights. What has happened to that compromise?

We should also distrust any hyper-catastrophic discourse. Industrial capitalism had started to be created in a savage way as far as the situation of the proletariat was concerned, at the beginning of the 19th century. The compromise is still in force. We are experiencing a degradation of the situation. The question is how far this degradation will go.

Taking the French Revolution of 1789 as an example you prefer to talk of “metamorphoses”?

The dynamics of change are extremely complex. History does not progress in a unilateral manner. Sociology is not a mathematics exercise. Words have their importance and are well defined. A metamorphosis is conciliation, a collision, a synthesis between “the same” and “the other”. It is not necessarily perfect or extremely precise but it is a moment when there is both some “same” and some “different”. History, which comes later, is something that sets a date, which marks a break. This leads to an innovation compared with the previous situation. We invent things, but we don’t invent everything. We don’t start from nothing — on the contrary, we take over.

This idea of “metamorphosis” justifies a stand of “social criticism” or “sociological criticism”. In what way can society be criticised?

We can have a critical point of view. I’ve just mentioned the proletariat of the 19th century when the spearhead of production died of alcoholism at the age of 35. We are no longer in that situation. The present forms of insecurity call for rethinking forms of social dissociation. They are not the same as two centuries ago but they have the same function of disintegrating solidarity and everything that makes up society.

You even talk about disaffiliation…

Disaffiliation is the end form of this process. I used this term to avoid a misuse of the term ‘exclusion’ regarding completely different situations. To describe a homeless person, a suburban youth, an unemployed executive as excluded does not mean that they are outside, in an “extra-social” situation. We need, rather, to understand the process that brought them there. Before arriving at that situation, one is vulnerable. These situations need to be analysed; they end up by being disconnected from relations with work, the network of family sociability, neighbourliness and territory . . .

Doesn’t this critique lead us to a social transformation? Change was wished for by a majority of French people. What progressive reforms must be undertaken to emerge from these uncertainties?

The crisis still seems to go even deeper. In 2008 it was possible to think that, faced with so a serious situation, people would become aware of the need for a radical change. Nothing of the sort happened. For my part, we can have a Left reformism. Obviously this remains to be proved and depends on a repositioning of rights. Having been considerably involved with social history, I have learnt that granting strong rights to labour has made workers’ conditions more secure and created a pretty great evolution as compared to that of the proletariat. Today we cannot rely on the exact terms of the compromise achieved in the 70s. Capitalism’s new regime is based on greater labour mobility. A worker will no longer hold onto one job all his life. He will go through alternating periods of work and no work. What is needed is the acceptance and control of this mobility. Above all, these transformations must not be accompanied by declaring him unemployable, nor lead to rejecting people and putting them into appalling situations. This issue of job security has been taken up by the trade unions. A labour lawyer, Alain Supiot, proposed giving workers a status. Proposals going in this direction could constitute a Left reformism, except that their real content remains questionable. The differences between the stand of the CGT and the CFDT are not slight matters of emphasis. Yet, whatever the differences between the unions, I hope that their differences are less than with the MEDEF (Association of French Enterprises).

According to you, “social insecurity” is the sum of the rights given up by labour to compensate for the logic of profitability imposed on it by capital. However, faced with financialisation, should we not conceive of a new form of “social appropriation”?

Yes, this could be one way of seeing things. Social property means that the worker is an owner of rights. He is on an equal footing with owners of private property. A certain number of rights are indisputable, such as health, retirement etc. Six or seven such rights could be declared, ensuring the worker his basic resources so that work continues to supply social and economic independence. Bernard Gazer had initiated “transitional markets” whereby work is increasingly set up in transitional forms. For his part, Yves Barel has shown that work remains the basis of social integration. Work, even if it is less substantial, is just as important. In this context, rights are needed for the real training of every worker. This is an essential factor to make the world of labour more secure.

What role do you attribute to trade unionism in these social “metamorphoses”?

The role of trade unionism and the revolutionary working class was very important but far from exclusive. Henri Harzfeld provided a good analysis of the components of social protection in his book From Pauperism to Social Security. He showed that, over a century of history, there has been no unity within the working class movement, mainly because of the reformist /revolutionary antagonism and that is a nebula of complex positions. Thus some of the employers also rallied round certain reformist positions for a time to advance productivity.

In the collective work Changes and Thoughts about Change[1], you accepted to enter discussion with about fifteen other researchers. You concluded with an admirable article dedicated to your maths teacher. Linking the “objective” and the “subjective”, social feelings and determinisms, Freud and Marx, this is a field of work that remains open.

I don’t know if this article is admirable, but it covers a deep conviction I have had since my research in philosophy and then in sociology. Contrary to liberal concepts, according to which the individual has choices and takes risks, I think that the individual is a social subject. We are all crisscrossed by history. It is not just part of our background. It deeply marks our choices, our loves, our sorrows. We all are indebted to history. Very young, I should never have gone on to higher education. I was in a technical secondary school. A teacher, nicknamed “Buchenwald”, a former deportee and probably a communist resistance activist, took me under his wing and encouraged me to go on to Lycée (high school). Thanks to him and through him I have done something that I ought not have done. I think that I have led my life remaining faithful to the system of values he bore. This is also what creates transmission and solidarity between human beings. This is the picture we can make of a completely different society than that of profit for the sake of profit. Social policies have not always taken the individual into account from this point of view. They have primarily taken care of members of groups collectively. In this recent period, mainly because of the crisis, a process is developing of placing individuals in a political context. This is a discourse that makes individuals responsible. Consequently they no longer grant unconditional rights in compensation. I tackle this question in The Future of Solidarity.[2]

As a citizen, you signed the Appeal of Appeals. Does this cover your questioning?

Yes. The Appeal of Appeals stresses the involvement of the individual, not to receive presents that will fall on him from the sky but in the context of a logic of rights. This recalls the first reference of the 1793 Constituent Assembly: the country has a duty to its weakest citizens. The right to assistance is the kernel of republican policy.


Interview conducted by Pierre Chaillan

Published in French by L’Humanité on 14 March, click here. 

[1] Changement et pensées du Changement (Changes and Thoughts about Change), a Collective managed with Claude Martin. Editions La Decouverte, 362 pages, 27 Euro
[2] L’Avenir de la Solidarité (The Future of Solidarity) with Nicolas Duvout La vie des idées. PUF, 103 pages, 8.50 Euro