‘From Artisan to Worker: Guilds, the French State, and the Organization of Labor, 1776-1821’ By Michael Fitzsimmons

Artisan to WorkerA caveat here: Fitzsimmons was one of my professors in college.

I had to get my reader card for the Library of Congress to find a copy of this book (it’s irritatingly difficult and expensive to get copies of academic works) and, of course, I had to read it in one of the Library’s reading rooms (not the cool one, but a smaller one, but closer to the stacks where this book was stored, so delivery was faster).

One of the less written about consequences of the French Revolution was the dissolution of the guilds and worker managed corporate entities (though, not all workers – just ‘masters,’ as opposed to apprentices). Without overromanticizing the guild structure, it’s hard not to view this as a loss for working people. He never uses the words, but in the titular move from ‘artisan’ to ‘worker,’ it’s hard not to think of Marx’s famous alienation of man from the product of his own work.

An early anecdote about a man who tried to get around the guild system in the expansion of his wallpaper manufacturing business is illustrative of what would be lost without guilds. Jean-Baptiste Reveillon wanted to streamline and unite all aspects of production, from papermaking to printing – and to do so outside of the guild structure. He succeeded, at least for a while, and at the height of his success, he used his wealth to push for a decrease in the daily minimum wage to something roughly equivalent to the cost of a loaf of bread.

A few little bits that struck me:

Paris is the center of France in a way that is not true of many of other countries’ capitals and largest cities. In my own experience, Bangkok might be an exception.

Even as early as the Bourbon Restoration, the Chamber of Commerce opposed the concept of organized workers.

For better or for worse, mechanization would proceed unimpeded by guilds or regulations, generating greater social injustice than the system of corporations had engendered…

Note: in this case, corporation is meant in a different sense than in modern English and refers to various guilds and professional/worker associations.

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