Conceptions of labor and national cultures: diverging visions of freedom

  • Philippe d’IribarneEmail author
Original Article


Studies that relate cultural differences in specific fields of social life to broader cultural differences are wanting in cultural sociology. To show that this type of interlinking can prove fruitful, we focus on cross-country differences in labor relations, starting from the conceptions of wage labor in Britain and Germany that emerged from the late seventeenth century onwards. A first level of culture involves practices specific to a delimited sphere of action. In the British approach, a salaried worker is assimilated to an external supplier who delivers products and remains within a relationship tied to the provision of services without engaging his or her person. By contrast, in the German approach, the salaried worked is viewed as fully engaging his or her person in the company, while also being associated with the company’s overall functioning. Another level of culture involves societal life more broadly. This second level comes to light when exploring the conceptions of freedom inherited from the Enlightenment that are specific to Britain, on the one hand, and Germany, on the other. Moreover, in both countries, these conceptions of freedom were themselves inherited from the medieval conception of the free man.


National cultures Labor relations Britain Germany 


The notion of national culture, meaning the overarching conceptions of life in society, which derived from the idea of Volksgeist (the people’s spirit) (Herder 2004 [1774]), or national character (Weber 2001 [1905]), has been eschewed by sociology for several decades now. It has largely been abandoned to the field of social psychology (Hofstede 1980; Triandis 1995). In fact, the very existence of national cultures has been contested in the name of a refusal of “culturalism” (Friedland and Mohr 2004), for “fear of being labeled racists or essentialists” (Patterson 2014, p. 3). This has led to the development of views in which cultural frameworks are seen as transient and diversified realities within a single country (Zucker 1977; DiMaggio 1997; Peterson and Anand 2004; Goldberg 2011).

Correspondingly, the interest in cultures driven by cultural sociology (Alexander 2008) has basically focused on subjects of narrow scope. Hundreds of research studies have dealt with cultures specific to varyingly broad social groups, such as the Chicago dance musicians (Becker 1951) or the British working class (Thomson 1966), or have compared the cultures of different social groups within the same society (Bourdieu 1984). Some studies have shown interest in the national cultural dimension of specific institutional systems, such as railway regulation systems (Dobbin 1994) or capitalistic institutions (Hamilton and Biggart 1988). Some strands of research continue to explore national cultures within society as a whole (Sewell 1992; Alexander and Smith 1993; Somers 1995; Fischer 2010). What is lacking, however, are studies that precisely relate national cultural differences in specific fields of social life to these broader cultural differences.

In this article, we aim to show that this type of interlinking can prove fruitful. To do so, we will focus on cross-country differences with respect to labor relations. Various attempts to establish connections between these differences and broader national cultures were undertaken several decades ago (Crozier 1963; Abegglen 1973) but were subsequently abandoned (Crozier 1994). To deepen the understanding of this linkage, we bring together here three studies: the research of Biernacki (1995) on the conceptions of labor in Britain and Germany between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, my research on the diversity of the conceptions of freedom in European countries during the Age of Enlightenment (Iribarne 2003), and the study of Bloch (2014 [1939]) on the diversity of the conceptions of the free man during the Middle Ages. We show that the conceptions of labor found in England and Germany are closely tied to the conceptions of freedom during the Age of Enlightenment and that these, themselves, are an extension of the medieval conceptions of the free man.

The first section deals with the differences between the conceptions of labor relations in England and Germany. In the English conception, the worker is equated as far as possible, both in representation and practice, to an external supplier who delivers goods and does not engage his or her person. By contrast, in the German conception, the worker is seen as fully engaging his or her person in the company.

We shall see in the second section that the organization of labor relations in democratic societies was up against a major challenge: How was the condition of a worker dependent on an employer to be reconciled with the status of free citizen? The way in which this challenge was taken up is influenced by the conception of freedom prevailing in each country. The English conception of freedom that emerged during the Enlightenment was that of the independent proprietor, while the German conception was that of the member of a community who had the right to participate fully in the community’s decision-making. This difference is reflected in respective conceptions of labor of each of these two countries.

The third section shows how the conceptions of freedom that emerged in England and Germany during the Enlightenment derived from the medieval figures of the free man. In the Middle Ages, the search for an acceptable status for those whose activities in the service of the powerful endowed them with a degree of power and wealth hardly compatible with a servile condition foreshadows the search in modern times for an acceptable status giving the wage worker the dignity of citizenship. In both countries, the way of ensuring this reconciliation heralded the modern conception of labor that prevails in each.

The fourth section will lead into a discussion on the contributions and limits of this attempt.

Different conceptions of wage labor

Richard Biernacki’s (1995) book, The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 16401914, in the main sets out to analyze the differences in the conceptions of wage labor that emerged in England and Germany1 “in the long and difficult crossing from the feudal and corporate organization of work to a liberal commercial order” (p. 1). In this movement, “[i]n each country a different solution prevailed for determining just how the precious but subtle thing called labor could be calibrated and transferred from hired hands to the employer in the workshop” (p. 1). To explain this difference, Biernacki speaks of culture, by which he means a set of practices and a world of meaning associated with these practices. He sees this culture as country-specific and shared by the country’s different actors. Yet, he considers that this culture only concerns the world of work.

Diverging cultural definitions of labor as a commodity

Within the same country, the diverse actors—whatever their social status and regardless of whether they defend or critique the existing social order—shared the same representation of labor relations: “The conflicting expectations of the employers and workers arose from a foundation of cultural agreement, a shared understanding of labor as a commodity” (p. 378). This understanding was shared by workers’ organizations that were inspired by starkly contrasted ideological orientations (p. 486). Those who sought to transform society did not escape the vision of labor prevailing in their country: “Even when the spokespersons for the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century called for the suppression of capitalism, they did not question the particular form in which labor was designated as a commodity in their country; that form acted as a reference point for their nationally distinctive visions of socialist society” (p. 486).

In Britain, the wage worker was conceived as a supplier who remains external to the company and who produces a good or service for it. He is assimilated to a kind of company subcontractor. This vision was predominant among the various actors: “British owners and workers saw employment as the appropriation of worker’s materialized labor via its products” (p. 12). This view is also found among the theorists: “Even when Smith, as well as the British economists who followed him, took stock of the sale of labor by subordinate wage-earners rather than by independent craftspeople, they continued to imagine the transfer of labor as if it were handed over embodied in a product” (p. 41).

The equation of the position of a company worker with that of a producer of merchandise delivered to the company is based on the fact that both are involved in selling something: “Every person who sells his labor, Smith says, ‘becomes in some measure a merchant,’ a turn of speech that places the laborer and the tradesman (who merely deals with finished products) in similar roles” (p. 253). This reference also appears when it comes to the role of the employer, as shown by statements in the workers’ press such as (1832) “the mill owner who purchased a ‘stipulated quantity of labor’ from workers was comparable to a customer who bought finished cloth in a store” (p. 251). This assimilation was such that “British courts never drew a principled distinction in the nineteenth century between the offering of a service by an employee and the delivery of a product by a trader” (p. 77).

In Germany, on the other hand, the assimilation between the wage worker and the external supplier did not come about. “The assumption that workers put their person in the hands of their employer formed part of the popular understanding of the vending of labor as a commodity” (p. 271); thus, in the second half of the nineteenth century (Mangoldt 1871), we find wages defined as “the compensation for the use of one’s labor power which has been entrusted to another person” (Biernacki 1995, p. 90). This approach was characteristic of the whole of Germany. It was present east of the Elbe, where serfdom survived in the agricultural world until the early nineteenth century and feudal relations persisted into the early stages of industrialization. But it was also found in the Rhineland, where the ties of deep personal subordination between peasants and their masters gave way much sooner to what were basically economic relations (pp. 300–303).

The British conceptions differed to such an extent that they were not easily understood in Germany. The translators of Adam Smith struggled mightily to conceive labor, as did Smith, as being independent of the worker’s person, which led to considerable rephrasing: “Where Smith referred to ‘the demand for labor,’ his interpreters rendered it as ‘demand for laboring hands’ or ‘demand for workers’” (p. 265).

This opposition did not just affect the overall representations of labor relations. It was also present in “a meaningful constellation” of “manufacturing practices” (p. 12). These took on a pronounced national dimension. Thus, “in spite of differences in the timing of mechanization and in the labor and product market of the various branches of textile production within each country, the practices on the factory shop floor within each country tend to display similar traits” (p. 11). Generally speaking, the focus in Britain was on what each worker, seen as an external supplier, produced for the company, whereas in Germany, the focus was on the way in which the worker behaved as a company member who participated fully in the company’s life.

This was the case, for example, in the way that piece-rate scales were gauged in the weaving industry, a key component of industrial activity in the second half of the nineteenth century (pp. 43–73). The British approach, which was based on the result of labor and sidelines the way in which a product is made, prioritizes the length and density of the cloth obtained. The German approach, on the contrary, prioritized the worker’s activity and measured this by the number of shuttle shots the weaver performed (p. 48). This difference is found when the different types of cloth were taken into account (p. 57). It is also found with respect to the penalties imposed on workers for defective products (pp. 74–78). Thus, in Germany, it was less a question of the quality of the finished product than of the way the worker behaved: “The immediate issue was not whether the finished product was less perfect or had less than the full market value; the issue was whether the work has been executed negligently or recklessly” (p. 77).

The same opposition arises regarding the way worktime was taken into account for calculating wages. In Britain, it seemed normal to remunerate the time actually spent producing, thus directly linking this to the product. On the contrary, in Germany, the time during which the worker was at the employer’s disposition was given priority, whether or not this time was directly spent on producing (p. 375).

These differences did not affect simply the way work was organized but also what the workers expected from their employers and the kind of criticisms they made of the latter. In Britain, what was challenged were the conditions under which labor was exchanged for wages. “Fair exchange,” associated with “equal exchange,” is opposed to “deceitful exchange” (p. 398). In Germany, on the contrary, emphasis was laid on the role of the employer as the organizer of his workers’ lives through the “the administration of work” (p. 411). At the end of the nineteenth century, one leader of the labor movement “supposed that the capitalist made a profit by controlling, like a feudal lord, ‘the will and acts’ of workers under his authority” (p. 413).

A vision of culture and its sources

While Biernacki seeks to highlight cultures that, within the same society, are common to those with different social positions and ideological choices, he is reticent when it comes to the notion of national culture, in the sense of a culture involving the whole of societal life. He rejects the idea of “practices reaching across many institutional domains,” like that of “an overarching world view encompassing social conduct at large” (p. 36) or “an appeal to culture as the sum of beliefs or implicit background assumptions that together comprised ‘Britishness’ or ‘Germanness’” (p. 472). He sees culture as being linked to a constellation of practices specific to a given domain (p. 480), and the symbolic logic (pp. 474–475), which intellectuals do no more than formulate (p. 422), is seen as reflecting these practices.

The fact that these practices differ from one country to another is related to the fact that three transformations impacting economic life occurred at different times depending on the country: “The timing of the recognition of formally free markets in finished goods, the abolition of feudal dues in labor, and the breakdown of guilds supervision over urban labor” (p. 3).

The encounter between diverging conceptions of freedom

Is the contrast between the worlds of work in Britain and Germany simply linked to a history that is limited to labor relations and economic organization alone and which began in the seventeenth century? Or is it, more generally, the expression in the world of work of a broader and longer-lasting contrast between the conceptions of life in society characterizing the two countries? We shall see that this contrast goes further than the world of work and is linked to diverging conceptions of freedom.

At the time when democratic ideals emerged in Western Europe, the fact of working under permanent subjection to another’s authority was widely seen, whatever the work, as being placed in a situation akin to that of a servant subject to the permanent authority of a master. As such, this position was generally viewed as incompatible with the status of free citizen. At the same time, the demand for freedom was regarded as being attached to the human condition and not to any particular social position. Huge efforts were thus made in terms of representation and practice to construct both a conception and an organization of labor that rendered the condition of wage worker compatible with that of free citizen (Iribarne 2008). This movement came up against the fact that the conceptions of what characterized a free man differed substantially from one society to another (Iribarne 2003). The way in which wage labor was conceived and organized in each country was thus marked by the country’s prevailing vision of the free man.

Can one be a wage worker and a free man?

The question of compatibility between labor performed under another’s authority and the status of free man is long-standing. It contains “an antinomy that Roman law had clearly identified by declining to admit that a free man could remain free when he puts himself at the service of others” (Supiot 2015, p. 110). This antimony became problematic when societies based on the ideals of liberty and equality emerged in Western Europe and the United States. Generally, the condition of wage worker, in the context of long-term work for an employer, tended to be assimilated to that of servants at their master’s disposition, with no clear-cut limit being defined. When Blackstone, in his famous Commentaries on the Law of England (2004 [1753], Book 1, Chapter 14, “Of Master and Servant”), considers the “rights and duties in private economic relations,” he groups together all relationships except those of the family under the category of “master and servant.” Among these relationships, he first mentions the situation of servants, who are in a permanent state of dependence on a master—whether or not they have work to do. Contrary to those who provide a clearly defined good: “The first sort of servants, therefore, acknowledged by the laws of England, are menial servants; so called from being intra moenia [within the walls], or domestics.” Even those whose activities are very different from those of ordinary domestic servant are included, not without some difficulty, in the general category of “servant”: “There is yet a fourth species of servants, if they may be so called, being rather in a superior, a ministerial, capacity; such as stewards, factors, and bailiffs; whom, however, the law considers as servants pro tempore.” Commenting on one of Locke’s texts where the term “servant” is used, a modern day edition of the Two Treatises of Government notes: “‘Servants’ in this paragraph, we must not forget, covered many now classed as industrial or agricultural workers, and that Locke and all his contemporaries looked upon them as under domestic authority” (Locke 1960 [1690], p. 122).

The assimilation between the fact of working on a long-term basis for others and that of being in a master–servant relationship makes the situation of those who are not independent producers problematic when gauged against the ideals of liberty: “In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, wage labor was associated with servility and loss of liberty; only those who controlled their own labor could be regarded as fully free. British popular ballads and folk tales romanticized vagabonds, gypsies, highwaymen, even beggars as more free than those who worked for wages” (Foner 1998, p. 9). During the Putney debates in 1647, even the Levellers, although they opposed any kind of selective suffrage system, admitted that servants could be deprived of the right to vote insofar as they were too dependent on the will of other men (Rosanvallon 1992, p. 122).

In Germany, the linkage was also made between the fact of working for others and the inability to hold the status of a real citizen. Thus, for Kant, “The Apprentice of a Merchant or Tradesman, a Servant who is not in the employ of the State…and, generally, everyone who is compelled to maintain himself not according to his own industry, but as it is arranged by others (the State excepted), are without Civil Personality….The Woodcutter whom I employ on my estate; the Smith in India who carries his hammer, anvil, and bellows into the houses where he is engaged to work in iron, as distinguished from the European Carpenter or Smith, who can offer the independent products of his labor as wares for public sale; the resident Tutor as distinguished from the Schoolmaster; the Ploughman as distinguished from the Farmer and such like, illustrate the distinction in question. In all these cases, the former members of the contrast are distinguished from the latter by being mere subsidiaries of the Commonwealth and not active independent Members of it, because they are of necessity commanded and protected by others, and consequently possess no political Self-sufficiency in themselves” (Kant 1887 [1796], pp. 167–168).

At the same time, it was unacceptable to exclude part of the population from citizenship given the general promise of freedom. The evolution that came about was linked to a turnaround in reasoning. It was no longer a question of saying that a social state of dependence on a master resulted in the deprivation of full citizenship, but rather that the requirement of full citizenship for all demanded that states of dependence be done away with. From this perspective, the equation between the position of wage worker and the state of servitude was used to critique the way in which work was organized (Marx and Engels 1848, 2010, p. 18). It took a considerable amount of time, marked by intense social conflict and much trial and error, to build into the legislation and social mores labor relations deemed compatible with the status of free man (Foner 1998, p. 9). The form that this movement took in each country was impacted by the specific conception of free man that served it as reference.

Two contrasted visions of freedom

The British conception of freedom during the Enlightenment lays emphasis on the individual’s capacity to sovereignly decide all that concerns his person and to autonomously manage a sphere of life within which he is accountable to no one. Locke (1960 [1690]) is a privileged witness to this vision of freedom. For him, the State of Nature that “all men are naturally in” is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (§ 4). The only restriction that men encounter in this mythical state of nature is that they must remain “within the bounds of the Law of Nature,” that is, they must ensure that everyone enjoys protection against the interventions of others, which everyone is seeking: “No one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty or Possessions” (§ 87).

From this perspective, freedom in all its dimensions is the freedom of a proprietor, a freedom protected against any encroachment to which the proprietor would not have personally consented. It is the freedom to guard the use of his possessions as he sees fit—to entrust or surrender them within the limits that it is his sovereign right to set. Each individual is not only the proprietor of his goods, he is also owner of all that concerns him, including his own person: “By Property I must be understood here, as in other places, to mean that Property which Men have in their Persons as well as Goods” (§ 173). The outcome of this vision is that the exercise of freedom is akin to the use an owner might make of his property. Creating a society devoted to freedom means, by protecting property, preserving everyone from the intervention of others, whether this concerns oneself or one’s goods (§ 123). To achieve this, men consent to give up to a “Body Politick” the rights attached to their property, the exercise of which protects the latter (§ 88, 89, 129), while strictly conserving what they have not given up (§ 22).

In his Treatises, Locke adopts a distinctive political position. The fact of viewing freedom as a right possessed by all men arose from a position that was not yet shared—far from it—by all his English contemporaries. Conversely, the connection he made between freedom and property reveals a vision shared by political positions that are noticeably more radical and more conservative than Locke’s. Edmund Burke (1790), whose political stances are very far from Locke’s (contrary to Locke, he did not deem freedom to be a natural right but a specific heritage of the English people), associates freedom, as does Locke, to the image of the proprietor: “In the famous law of the 3rd year of Charles I., called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom,’… as a patrimony derived from their forefathers” (Burke 1909 [1790], p. 53).

In Germany, on the contrary, the free man is not seen as someone who decides sovereignly for himself in matters concerning his own person. In the Germanic version, the free man is someone who, within a community, has a voice when it comes to collective decisions that he is ready to submit to.

Kant is a privileged witness to this vision of freedom. His vision of freedom in the state of nature is very different to that found in Locke. Freedom in its natural state is a “wild freedom” (Kant 2006 [1784], p. 8) that needs civilizing in order to form “the nation from a horde of savages” (Kant 1795, p. 49). To achieve his humanity, man needs to be compelled by the constraints engendered through life among his peers to escape his evil tendencies and accede to the “development of all his dispositions.” Comparing humans to trees, Kant looks with horror at those trees “that live apart from others and sprout their branches freely,” and, consequently, “grow stunted, crooked, and bent,” while on the contrary, “in a forest,” trees, “by seeking to take air and light from all the others around them, compel each other to look for air and light above themselves and thus grow up straight and beautiful” (Kant 2006 [1784], p. 8).

In turn, Kant mistrusts individual will when it is not part of the will of the whole. “Hence it is only the united and consenting Will of all the People—in so far as Each of them determines the Same thing about all, and All determine the Same thing about each—that ought to have the power of enacting Law in the State” (Kant 1887 [1796], p. 166).

The civilizing mission entrusted to the whole works hand in hand with a very limited vision of the rights of the individual as a single individual. All private property is considered to be only a provisional dismemberment of a fundamentally collective property, the sovereign (the people taken as a whole) being the “supreme proprietor” of the nation (Kant 1887 [1796], p. 182).

In these circumstances, a form of submission to an authority is not deemed incompatible with the status of free man, providing this is not the authority of a master but rather the authority of a community to which one belongs. To be free means having a say in the directions taken by this community and thus being able to consider that one manages oneself; it is to have “abandoned his wild lawless Freedom wholly, in order to find all his proper Freedom again entire and undiminished, but in the form of a regulated order of dependence, that is, in a Civil state regulated by laws of Right” (Kant 1887 [1796], pp. 169–170).

The German vision of freedom is compatible with wildly varying concepts of the actual concrete manifestations of this community inside which the individual is called upon to be free. What is a consistent characteristic of this German idea of freedom is the place that the reference to a form of community holds within it. We can find this place among those who worship German uniqueness, the German identity, as well as among those who display the greatest mistrust of this uniqueness and easily view the Germans as regular human beings that nothing distinguishes from their fellow men. This vision is found in Fichte, who exalts the German identity, the German nation, much like Habermas, for whom the community of belonging is the whole of mankind.

Social struggles marked by the conceptions of freedom

The ways in which social struggles have enabled wage labor to become associated with freedom were characterized in both Britain and Germany by the figure of the free man that stood as a reference in each country. Those involved in these struggles—be it labor struggles within companies or political struggles related to the institutions managing labor relations—were driven by the determination not only to improve workers’ economic situation, but also to have workers escape servile dependence on a master. Their wish was for workers to be respected as true citizens of a democratic society. In this they were guided by the figures of the free man that prevailed in Great Britain, on the one hand, and in Germany, on the other. These figures were part of their imaginary and structured their perceptions. They gave meaning to what workers were living. It was their yardstick that gave the actors the awareness of a hiatus between the way that workers were treated and the idea they held of a respectful treatment of a citizen’s dignity. And this inspired their actions.

In Britain, labor relations needed to be organized so that they resembled, as far as possible, a relationship between independent proprietors. This supposed that wage workers, seen as the owners of their labor power, did not entrust this power wholly to their employer with an unlimited right to use it to organize production. A right of this nature would have evoked a situation of personal subservience rather than a relationship between independent proprietors. It was more appropriate to consider the worker as selling a well-defined service that could be clearly distinguished from his or her whole person, much like the independent producer selling a good that is clearly separate from his or her own self. It was essential to mark as great a difference as possible between the object of the contract and the worker’s own person (Supiot 2015).

An attachment to the precise terms of the contract delimiting what exactly individuals working for another person undertake—preventing them from engaging their whole person and allowing them to appear as an external contractor who provides nothing more than a clearly defined good—is present in Locke (1690, II § 85, 1960, p. 322): “A free man makes himself a Servant to another, by selling him for a certain time, the Service he undertakes to do, in exchange for Wages he is to receive; and though this commonly puts him into the Family of his Master, and under the ordinary Discipline thereof; yet it gives the Master but a Temporary Power over him, and no greater than what is contained in the Contract between 'em” By contrast, “there is another sort of Servant, which by a peculiar Name we call Slaves, who…are…subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters.”

In Germany, on the contrary, there was no risk that the overall engagement of a person would be obscured. Germany’s legal culture “captures work relations as a situation of personal belonging to a community” (Supiot 2015, p. 18). The concern to reconcile the position of wage worker with the condition of free man was no less present. And another way forward was there at hand, linked to the fact that in the German context the free man was someone who participated alongside his peers in the shared decisions governing the life of the community to which he agreed to submit.

In the German tradition, there is generally no incompatibility between a person’s overall commitment to serving another and the status of free man. Everything depends on the nature of the commitment made. Pre-industrial German law “recognized, alongside the servile work relationship, a contract of vassalage (Treudienstvertrag) whereby a free man (Gefolgsman) engaged in the service of another (Gefolgsherr), who in exchange gave him protection, help and representation. This contract created a personal bond of reciprocal loyalty akin to family ties, and meant that those it bound together participated in the same community of rights and duties” (Supiot 2015, p. 16). This vision was able to provide a framework for organizing wage labor that was compatible with the status of free man within this type of community of rights and duties. The crucial question was knowing to what extent workers were subject to an outside authority or, on the contrary, were members of a community that held authority. It was the search for this type of community that steered the demands of German wage workers.

Biernacki did not focus specifically on the conceptions of the free man prevailing in Britain and Germany. Yet, this does not rule out the fact that the data he uses confirm that the path taken to conceptualize wage labor was characterized in both countries by a resolve to render this labor compatible with the status of free man prevailing in each country.

He notes that wage workers in Britain could not be considered free men, as they had alienated of their own accord the ownership of their own selves. He writes, “People who sold their labor power for a wage lost their birthright and claim to freedom, as if they had permanently alienated a piece of land” (p. 223). This vision of things was shared by those who critiqued the old order: In the seventeenth century “the critics of the old order…sanctified only the free craftspeople. Their formulations…rested upon the proprietorship of one’s person and capacities that the dependent wage laborers, by contrast, had in the popular opinion forfeited once and for all” (p. 222). To find a way out of this situation, “the repressive yoking of wage labor in this era of transition shifted the commercial model to the independent producer as the celebrated, mythologized seller of labor products, the only free vendor of labor in a precociously founded market regime” (p. 258).

In Germany, on the other hand, no equation was made between the wage worker and the independent producer: “In German usage, the term Werker remained confined to the original context of handicraft production, marking the failure of craft work to provide the template for conceiving of capitalist wage labor. The generic term for worker that prevailed in Germany, Arbeiter, came from another domain, that of the serfs on feudal estates” (p. 291). At the same time, German demands set great importance on exercising authority in the organization of work. “The distinguishing features of German textile workers’ strike goals…all focused on the employer’s domination of workers by the exercise of authority at the point of production” (p. 460). The rules governing the way the company as a whole was run were challenged: “German textile workers included among their strike demands requests that employers reform their governance of the work activity. Strikers at a Chemnitz mill told their employer in 1889 he had to…allow workers to monitor the running of the engine” (p. 457). What appears in the demands is “regular consultation between representatives of management and workers” (p. 455). Here, we find a sharp difference from the demands prevailing in Britain, where it was more a matter of defending the autonomy of each individual rather than the participation of all in a system of collective management. As Biernacki notes, “British workers were no less concerned with authority than their German counterparts, but they focused on defending against encroachment rather than challenging the governance of production. British textile-factory workers did not propose changes to control the manager’s methods of administering production, as did their German counterparts” (p. 458).

The practical organization of production, along with all the procedures used, was itself affected. In fact, many of these procedures involve more than simply a practical dimension. They also stage the relations between superiors and subordinates. In each country it was thus expected that labor relations respect the workers’ recognized status of free citizen. This means that the image of what characterizes this status came into play. The English organization tended to prefer practices which show that the employee has a form of autonomy, vis-à-vis his employer, resembling that of an external contractor who is free to organize his work as he wishes and is judged solely on the product he delivers and, more generally, on the results of his action. The precise measurement of these results, which enables his rewards and sanctions to be fixed accordingly, was thus privileged. On the other hand, this reference to the external contractor was absent in Germany. This means that the judgment made about each employee could encompass a more general judgment about his person and that the employer’s authority could more broadly cover the organization of his work. The corresponding forms of organization did not appear shocking as long as the overall regulation of the company’s life gave enough room to the collective will of the workers.

Two cultures anchored in history

The existence of a linkage between the organization of labor relations and the conception of freedom at the time of the Enlightenment points us in the direction of national cultures that involve not only a specific field of social life, such as labor relations, but also social life more broadly. What remains to be seen is the extent to which these cultures are stable. In fact, the conceptions of freedom found in the works of Enlightenment philosophers were inherited from much older conceptions of the free man already present in medieval times and which foreshadowed labor relations regarding activities embodying a certain prestige.

Lasting visions of freedom

When the modern conception of freedom emerged, a vision specific to each society already existed of what it meant to be free. This did not involve defining the essence of freedom but rather distinguishing the different statuses, with the free man being opposed to the individual, such as the serf, who depended on a master. The modern conceptions of freedom that developed in England and Germany prolonged these visions, which can be traced back to medieval times (Bloch 2014 [1939]).

In the England of the Middle Ages, the status of free man was already linked to that of an autonomous individual. The free man did not really engage his person in the relationship with his lord. This could be terminated “without much difficulty” and free men could choose at will to “betake themselves to another lord” (as expressed in the Domesday Book and quoted by Bloch, p. 234). This precarious bond tended to have an economic aspect insofar as the relationship could be broken, provided that all obligations pertaining to the related exchange of goods and services be discharged (pp. 233–234). There was no necessary link between this exchange and the relationship of dependence on a lord, albeit only temporary (p. 234). Many estates were “granted in full ownership,” meaning they could not be taken back by the lord that granted them and were a real possession protected by royal courts (p. 234). This, accordingly, points to the emergence of the figure of the autonomous individual who does not surrender his person in a relationship of subordination and who merely commits to exchanges that are clearly delimited both in time and in the duties they imply.

This class of free men is contrasted with the large class of “personal and hereditary subjects” of a master. The former are engaged in a relationship of lasting dependence from which they cannot withdraw (Bloch 2014 [1939], p. 332). The burdens to which these subjects submitted largely depended on the arbitrary seigneurial will, especially given that royal courts did not intervene in disputes between them and their lord (p. 335). A lifelong commitment was thus closely tied to dependence with respect to the arbitrariness of a master and a state of servitude.

In medieval Germany, social relationships differed markedly from one region to another. Even setting aside the country’s peripheral areas (the colonized lands east of the river Elbe), the regions in the heartland of old Germany, from Bavaria and the left bank of the Rhine to Saxony and Friesland, were unevenly characterized by the presence of free peasants (Bloch 2014 [1939], p. 328). Nevertheless, “if we concentrate on fundamentals, certain genuinely national characteristics emerge clearly” (p. 328). The difference between the free man and the serf continues to be based on a criterion much like that characterizing barbarian Europe. Here, only free men, at least in theory, were “tried by courts composed of other free men and the trials were conducted by a representative of the king,” whereas “[o]ver the slaves the master exercised a power of decision” (p. 438). This criterion continued to be taken as a reference. Public jurisdictions of this type persisted, competing with seigneurial justice, and, as Bloch suggests, it is hardly surprising “that the idea should more or less obscurely survive that those men were free—and those alone—who sat in these public courts and were subject to their jurisdiction” (p. 329). This already shows a conception of the free man as he who participates in decisions that bind the community.

A medieval prefiguration of the modern differences between labor relations

These differences in the conception of the free man shaped the form taken by relationships of subordination in medieval times, which in some ways foreshadowed the labor relations that were to emerge centuries later. Certainly, it was not a matter of reconciling the state of dependence of those in long-term servitude and the dignity of the free citizen in a democratic state for the entire population. But the question did arise with respect to individuals serving the powerful, particularly sovereigns, and fulfilling functions that implied an elevated social rank.

These people found themselves in an ambiguous position. On the one hand, they were seen as belonging to the vast group of individuals who depended on a master, a group that also encompassed craftsmen and menial domestic servants. The language used to describe them grouped them into one and the same category (in Latin ministeriales, in French sergents, in German Dienstmänner). At the same time, they clearly formed a distinct group within this category of servants. As Marc Bloch points out, three features, “wealth, a share of authority, and the bearing of arms” elevated them “well above the small fry of petty rural serjeants, of the servants properly so called and the domestic craftsmen” (Bloch 2014 [1939], p. 412). They could be found sitting in law courts and councils alongside high-ranking figures (p. 413). Although their dependence on a master drew them towards a servile condition, these three characteristics brought them closer to the status of free man, like the vassals. Eventually, remedies to such inconsistencies were found everywhere, but the way in which they “finally evolved differed widely from country to country” (p. 415).

In England, personal dependence was so inherently debasing that it was barely compatible with the exercise of a position of authority. This meant that those in the ambiguous situation of being a dependent holding a function of authority were very few (Bloch 2014 [1939], pp. 415–416). Those who occupied such functions were, from the beginning of the period, sufficiently autonomous to be able to freely choose to leave those whom they served. Their relationship to their masters did not depend on the latter’s arbitrary will but on royal justice, and they were rewarded with a fee for the services they rendered, for the time these were given, in an economic-like relationship.

Contrariwise, those in Germany who exercised such functions often engaged their own person in a subordinate relationship with a master, especially as for many years a large number of them were legally designated as serfs. Unlike what was happening in England, a situation of personal dependence was not necessarily deemed so unworthy as to make it incompatible with a function of authority. Certainly they were “serfs living as knights” (Bloch 2014 [1939], p. 417), but they could not choose to terminate their subordination. They rose in the social ranks and were finally assimilated to the status of free knight. Yet this did not come about by their attaining the position of an autonomous individual who is free to break the commitments to which he is bound. It was achieved, rather, by being involved in judicial decisions and taking part in setting the community’s orientations, even ones involving imperial policy (p. 418). We find in Germany extreme cases (inconceivable in the English context) where the status of free man is constructed within a tightly dependent position: “Few men stand out so prominently as the uncouth figure of the seneschal Markward of Anweiler, who died regent of Sicily; he had only been enfranchised in 1197, on the day when his master invested him with the duchy of Ravenna and the marquisate of Ancona” (p. 418).


These analyses raise several questions: What confidence may we have that visions of freedom have influenced conceptions of labor in England and Germany? Can the result be generalized to a broader group of countries? Can other fields of social life be dealt with using the same type of approach? What conception of culture could we call on when seeking to understand what has been observed?

At the core of the phenomena we have examined, we find that, with the advent of democratic ideals, it was difficult to reconcile the status of a wage worker dependent on an employer with that of citizen. This phenomenon is well known to anyone interested in the social history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe or the United States, and the data presented in this article represent no more than a tiny sample of what could be cited in this sense. In light of this, that there is a correspondence between the forms of work organization making possible to achieve a certain social peace and the conceptions of freedom prevailing in each of the countries studied can hardly be seen as a mere coincidence. In fact, the actors of social struggles, like those who sought to defeat them, could not escape the impact of the conception of freedom specific to their society.

The period that Biernacki is dealing with stops at the beginning of the 20th century. But many other works, such as those by Sorge and Warner (1986), have shown the persistence of the differences he uncovered. On the other hand, the processes that led to a certain continuity between the medieval conceptions of the free man and the Enlightenment’s philosophical conceptions of freedom need to be clarified. It is not surprising that the philosophers who reflected on freedom could have been influenced by the conceptions of the free man prevailing in their respective countries. Yet, to our knowledge, there is still a lack of research on how this influence operated. Identifying an influence of the diverse conceptions of freedom in no way rules out the possibility that this diversity may itself be an effect of even more fundamental cultural differences, such as a peril feared above all else that characterizes existence in its entirety within a given culture (Iribarne 2008). This topic, however, is beyond the scope of this text.

Given the limits on the length of articles, we have chosen to focus on two countries, Britain and Germany. Further research will be needed if the approach is to encompass a broader group of countries. Some initial analyses already suggest that these two countries are not unique cases, as the linkage between the conception of freedom and the organization of work is found in the United States and France, if not further afield. In these two countries, serving others was viewed first and foremost—like in Britain and Germany—as incompatible with the status of free man and thus with full possession of citizens’ rights, which sparked the desire to reform the way labor relations were organized. The social struggles that in both countries led to an evolution of labor relations aimed to make these compatible with the conceptions of the free man prevailing in each nation.

In the United States, “The rhetoric of freedom flourished crystallized in the idea of ‘wage slavery’” (Foner 1998, p. 58). For Samuel Gompers, the founder and president of the American Federation of Labor, “Men and women cannot live during working hours under autocratic conditions and instantly become sons and daughters of freedom as they step outside the shop gates” (Foner 1998, p. 143). Moreover, we find, as in Britain, a close link between liberty and property. “A man,” declared James Madison at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “has a property…in the safety and liberty of his person.” A few years later, he spoke of “a citizen’s ‘property’ in his rights” (Foner 1998, p. 17). Correlatively, the reference to free negotiation between equals, which is the foundation of contract-based relations, holds a central place. This conception of the relations between masters and servants was already mentioned by Tocqueville in the first half of the 19th century: “Why then does one have the right to command, and what is it that compels the other to obey? A momentary free accord of their two wills. Neither one is inferior to the other by nature; inferiority is simply a temporary effect of a contract. Within the limits of that contract, one is the servant and the other the master. Outside those limits, they are two citizens, two men” (Tocqueville 2004, pp. 673–674). This conception has also shaped contemporary American management, with the place given to a vision of labor relations that regards the employee as a supplier who organizes himself freely to meet the objectives set by his superior, who is considered to be a customer (Iribarne 2008, pp. 37–41).

In France, for Condorcet, “[d]ependence, which makes it impossible to believe that an individual is subject to his own will, could doubtless be a legitimate motive for exclusion. But we did not believe it possible to suppose the existence of such a dependence in a truly free constitution….Social relations which presuppose such humiliation cannot continue among us, and should soon take another form” (Condorcet 1847 [1793], t. XII, p. 387). The predominant vision of freedom “was…bound up with the idea of exception and privilege” (Tocqueville 2012 [1856], L II, Ch. 9). When French people speak about their working lives, whether they are workers, managers, civil servants, employed by a company or have a self-employed activity, the reference to the specific position that one has in society, to what one “is,” is omnipresent, even if the words used differ somewhat depending on everyone’s activities. This link between the position that one has in society and what one must do is created by the fact that it is important to meet the requirements that are inherent to this position. To use vocabulary for which only the appearance is archaic, one must “tenir son rang” (maintain one’s position) (Iribarne 1989). One key yardstick is the fact of exercising a métier, along with its associated rights and duties (Castel 1995, p. 117).

The strength of the reference to the status of each individual is to be found in the labor legislation that gradually took shape in France. The reference to the specific position that each person occupies in society and to the specific rights associated with this position, plays a central role. For a whole host of issues—recruitment, dismissal, working hours, paid leave, salary, retirement, training, etc.—labor law, which has been built up little by little, has replaced the Civil Code. In all these fields, employee–employer relations are only very partially governed by an agreement between the parties. They are marked by the existence of rights inherent to the very condition of employee, whether this involves employees in general or a specific category of employee (Castel 1995).

In France, the role played by the specific rights and duties attached to the position that one has in society, to one’s rank, is so important that, remarkably, it has survived—in continuously renewed forms—the many diverse upheavals that have marked the nation’s history. Of course, it is sometimes tempting to cut loose from such a conception. For example, in a sweeping movement to abolish privileges, the Revolution suppressed corporations and established the freedom of entrepreneurship and entering into contract. Yet, in the light of experience, the economic dependence hidden behind the legal equality was decried. In the end, most of the progress in protecting employees from the severity of a strictly contractual relationship was achieved by building, or rather rebuilding, a status for them, step by step. Still, today, this conception of labor law is vigorously contested by those who advocate eradicating the specificities of the “French social model” in favor of more strictly contractual relationships. However, it is difficult for this objection to be translated into action.

The perimeter within which this link between the conceptions of work and the visions of freedom is found needs to be clearly delimited, as it is uncertain that it can be identified outside countries with a European culture. Thus, in India, a “rhetoric of love” between employer and employee makes it possible to combine the authority relationship with respect for the subordinate (Ray and Qayum 2009).

This attempt to find a relationship between the cultural differences specific to a given field of social life and more broadly based differences needs to be further developed through investigations in other fields. The data gathered by Frank Dobbin on railway regulation systems in the United States, Britain, and France (Dobbin 1994) provide a good starting point for this. The diverse forms of capitalism also need to be studied from this perspective. One point that merits investigation would be to explore how far the differences in conceptions of freedom, which influence differences in conceptions of labor, also intervene in other fields.

Like Richard Biernacki, Frank Dobbin lays emphasis on practices and sees meaning as being rooted in these practices: “In the history of railway policy, cultural meaning appears to be located squarely in tangible social practices” (p. 218); “extant policies shape what is culturally conceivable” (p. 228). He rules out the idea of a people’s collective spirit: “Meaning proved to be more institutional than Hegelian ideas about collective political sensibility suggest with terms like geist and weltanschauung” (p. 218). This did not stop him from referring to the idea of an overarching political culture: “Each nation developed an industrial ideology that was isomorphic to its political culture” (p. 225). This leads him to make a connection with the question of liberty: “Industrial policy paradigms became associated with policies designed to sustain political order and liberty” (p. 226).

As Germany is not within the scope of Dobbin’s investigation, his study makes no mention of liberty in Germany, but he clearly shows that in both Great Britain and the United States it is a question of protecting a liberty that is akin to that of proprietors. This protection is repeatedly mentioned: “The British polity located sovereignty in elite individuals by protecting them from their neighbors, the Crown, and the state bureaucracy” (p. 2); “the state did intervene…in the name of protecting Britain’s sovereign citizens from the excess of concentrated capitalism” (p. 25). Similarly, in the United States, the purpose of the policy pursued involved “guarding Americans’ economic liberties against the demon of concentrated economic power” (p. 24). Frank Dobbin does not evoke the conception of liberty with respect to France, but he does mention that it does not share the same British or American reading of a society of owners defending their interests. He asserts that, from a French point of view, “a cadre of expert technocrats can guide the economy better than a hodge-podge of self-interested capitalists and better than the invisible and unthinking hand of the market” (p. 4). He highlights the traditional role of the State and mentions the “state bureaucrats” (p. 24) and “state engineers” (p. 219). Unfortunately, he does not establish a connection between the role of these and the place given in France to those who have a métier, who are experts in their field and keenly aware of the social role that comes with the rights and duties of their function. The link between the form of organization adopted and the French vision of liberty is not clearly shown.

The identification of country-specific cultures that extensively affect life in society and which persist over several centuries leads one to wonder which theory of culture could account for this phenomenon. The theories currently dominant in sociology and centered on the continuity of practices—be they clearly defined practices (Giddens 1984) or a repertoire of practices (Swidler 1986)—fail to account for it, insofar as the practices studied are highly diverse and temporally changing and associated with strongly heterogeneous societies which are themselves marked by history. One major challenge for these theories of culture is how to account for the fact that a set of practices which at first glance appear unrelated within the same cultural area have, nevertheless, a lot in common. A second challenge is to account for the fact that practices involving a specific area of social life seem to be characterized by reinterpretations of older patterns. It is true that these patterns do not determine practices, but they do influence them. To respond to these challenges, it is not enough to focus on practices. The terms “national character” or the “minds of people,” which were formerly used to evoke general trends that might be compatible with very diverse practices, have been relegated to the prehistory of social sciences. But the questions to which these terms attempt to bring an answer remain, and herein lies the perspective of this article. To make further progress, it seems necessary to make a distinction between two levels of culture.

At a first level, we are dealing with practices specific to a clearly delimited sphere of action, such as labor relations. In each country this involves customary practices associated with what are perceived to be normal ways of acting in a particular domain, as well as with usages underpinned by representations that afford them. We can then speak of “national” cultures in a weak sense: i.e., although they involve all actors within a country, they only apply to a specific field of action, leaving room within the country for numerous other “national” cultures relating to other fields of action. As research makes headway, bringing these cultures to light constitutes a firm and indispensable bedrock. It is at the level of specific fields of action that a compelling link can be established between practices and the representations that give them meaning. These representations primarily concern the domain under study (for instance, the vision of labor relations that serves as a reference). They also involve more general questions that come into play in the domain concerned (for example, which implies being treated with dignity, not only in the domain studied but also more broadly).

At the same time, cultures specific to a particular field bear the trace of another more encompassing level of culture that concerns societal life more broadly. We thus move from national cultures in the “weak sense” to national cultures in the “strong sense.” The conceptions of liberty specific to the different countries belong to this broader level. Within a single country, the same conception of liberty is found in very distant historical periods and very different areas of social life. We have seen that this conception influences labor relations and political ideals. Further wide-sweeping research remains to be done in order to grasp the extent of this influence. However, the examination undertaken here, which already highlights the ways in which these conceptions influence areas of social life far removed from one another (e.g., as distant as railway regulation and labor relations), seems to open up a promising avenue of investigation.

This second level of culture corresponds to a largely unconscious framework of meaning (Vaisey 2009) within which practices specific to a given field take on meaning. We find social forms that structure the mind. These forms feed the common sense that orients the representations each individual builds of the world (Geertz 1973). The existence of such forms is sometimes mentioned in contemporary research. For Sewell, “deep structural schemas…are present in a relatively wide range of institutional spheres, practices, and discourses. They also tend to be relatively unconscious, in the sense that they are taken-for-granted mental assumptions or modes of procedure that actors normally apply without being aware that they are applying them” (Sewell 1992, p. 22). Much remains to be done in order to grasp what these are in each society and to precisely understand their effects. Conceptions of liberty are part of these patterns. Social actors are not aware that they are drawing on these when making judgments about the situations they encounter and then acting on this basis. Moreover, these conceptions come into play in practices, institutions, and discourses related to spheres that have already been shown to be diverse, even though we are a long way from having finished exploring them.


Starting from the differences between conceptions of wage labor in Britain and Germany that emerged from the late seventeenth century, we can see two levels of culture appear that are country specific.

The first level involves practices specific to a clearly delimited sphere of action, such as labor relations. In the English approach, a salaried worker is assimilated as far as possible to an external supplier who delivers products but remains within a relationship of a service provider without engaging his or her person. By contrast, in the German approach, the salaried worker is viewed as fully engaging his or her person in the company while also being associated with the company’s overall functioning.

These field-specific cultures relate to another level of culture that involves societal life more broadly. In the case of labor, this second level comes to light when exploring the conceptions of freedom inherited from the Enlightenment that are specific to Britain, on the one hand, and to Germany, on the other. In both countries, a close linkage exists between conceptions of labor and visions of freedom. In Britain, the figure of the free man is that of an autonomous individual, which fits well with the external supplier who does not engage his or her person in the company he works for. In Germany, the figure of the free man is that of the individual who participates in defining common orientations within the community he agrees to submit to. And a clear fit with this figure is the worker who is fully integrated into a work community and has his or her say in how it functions. Moreover, in both countries, the conception of freedom derived from the Enlightenment was itself inherited from the medieval conception of the free man. We can then talk of national culture, meaning a shared conception of life in society which extends beyond a sharply delimited sphere of social action and stands as an enduring reference.


  1. 1.

    The book uses the terms “Britain” and “England” alternately, which seems justified given that some of the observations that it draws on specifically concern England, but that the properties it brings to light are found more broadly in Great Britain. It also includes less in-depth analyses for France and northern Italy.



Thanks are due to my colleagues Sylvie Chevrier, Anda Djoehana, Geneviève Tréguer-Felten, Alain Henry, Emmanuelle Sauvage, and Jean-Pierre Segal for insightful discussions during the development of this article. Thanks also to Gill Gladstone for her skillful translation from French. For valuable readings of earlier drafts, I am indebted to Jeffery Alexander, Richard Biernacki, Alain d’Iribarne, Alain Supiot, and two anonymous referees.


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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gestion et SociétéBoulogne-BillancourtFrance

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