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The Soul of Man Under the Mixed Economy

Marion Cotillard runs the gauntlet of her co-workers in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night."

On the recommendation of TAC‘s own Eve Tushnet, I went to see “Two Days, One Night” this past week – and I heartily second her strong endorsement of the film, and of Marion Cotillard’s performance.

It’s interesting (if unsurprising, to me) that Tushnet focused as strongly as she did on the spiritual dimension of the film, reading it primarily as a story of overcoming depression. It certainly is that. But it’s also a fascinating study of the central principle of socialism, and how that principle operates – and fails to operate – in practice, in a country (Belgium) and an economic system where socialism is neither a dirty word nor a foundational ideology. That central principle is solidarity.

The film opens on Sandra (Cotillard) being notified on Friday afternoon by a colleague that she has lost her job as the result of a vote by her fellow workers. Management gave them a choice: the company could afford either to pay bonuses or to lay off one worker, and she was chosen for the axe (likely because she had already been absent from work for some time as she battled a severe depression). The vote was 14-to-16 in favor of getting bonuses.

A friendly co-worker convinces the manager that the original vote was tainted, and he agrees to a re-vote on Monday by secret ballot. The rest of the movie chronicles Sandra’s struggle – with her co-workers and with the lurking black cloud of her depression – to win enough votes to keep her job.

The whole thing is pretty inconceivable in an American context where hiring and firing decisions are either entirely at management discretion or are determined by the outcome of an adversarial contest between organized workers and management. In a purely capitalist framework, the obviously proper thing for the company to do is lay off one worker, whether Sandra or someone else. That makes the business more efficient, and decisions across the economy that improve enterprise efficiency make possible an increase in the overall output of the economy, which implies greater aggregate wealth. Sandra herself may struggle financially in the short term, but that struggle is part of a process that improves things for everyone. Not that such a conclusion will make Sandra feel any better about being laid off.

But in the film, that decision goes not to management, but to the workers themselves. Management simply presents the workers with the facts: the company faces increased competition from Asia; the company can hit its production targets with 16 rather than 17 workers; and by laying off one worker there is room to pay all the remainder more. The workers then have to decide, collectively, what to do. And the “right” decision – even if we take the principle of solidarity seriously – becomes much blurrier.

I say it becomes blurrier, rather than inverted, because I presume the facts are honestly presented. That is to say: I presume that the company really is facing competition and really can’t afford to raise wages without increasing productivity, which, in this case, means laying off one worker. More than one of Sandra’s colleagues expresses to her their fear that, if they vote to keep her, it’ll just mean that one of them will get laid off instead. This is not an idle fear.

The most compelling objection to socialism as an economic model, from Hayek on down, has been an information theory objection. It’s just not possible for a command and control model to process information remotely as efficiently as the price mechanism does. But this objection doesn’t pose the same problem for decentralized models of worker control, including the various varieties of distributism and syndicalism. Advocates of these models often assert that they will result in a more just social order not only because they will mean a fairer distribution of the returns to capital, but because worker-ownership as such will have positive social effects in terms of social cohesion – in terms of solidarity. I’ve made those kinds of arguments myself, in fact.

“Two Days, One Night” complicates that pleasant story – indeed, arguably refutes it. Workplace democracy, under conditions of scarcity and competition, doesn’t lead to solidarity and collective decision-making. Some workers put their personal relationships with Sandra above their economic self interest. Others do the opposite. The workers are divided, not united, and they are divided by the effects of need and sentiment, not by different views of the interests of the collective. (It doesn’t help that management, as we come to understand fairly quickly, is using collective decision-making as a passive-aggressive tool for manipulating the workers. But this is also a strike against the structure of the workplace more than it is against management – after all, what would you expect management to do?)

The film ends by when Sandra is given a choice, and she makes it, and feels good about it. On a spiritual level, and on the level of her human relationships, it’s clear she’s made a good choice, and, moreover, that she’s come to be able to make it because of the personal and social journey she went on over the weekend, with herself, her husband, and her co-workers. But on the level of political economy, the choice rejects the structure within which her workplace, and the film, has been operating. It is a rejection of the responsibility of collective decision-making, in favor of solidarity on a humane, personal level. And the alternative to collective decision-making is giving that job to the discretion of management.

So what might be the political implications of Sandra’s journey?

Over the past generation, labor and social democratic parties across Europe have earned credibility as stewards of the economic system partly by abandoning the idea that they specifically represent the interests of workers, and instead implementing neoliberal policies aimed at making their economies more efficient. In the wake of the financial crisis, there’s been something of a crisis on the left, over whether they sold their birthrights for a mess of pottage that wasn’t nearly as filling as promised. But this feeling actually pre-dates the crisis, and may have validity even if it could be determined that, in terms of policy and politics, the leaders of the left actually made the best decisions possible for their countries.

Those most-likely to receive a pink slip do, in fact, need solidarity, need someone who cares first and foremost about their interests. By definition, it is going to be harder to get that solidarity from someone who is also responsible for the interests of the collective. If solidarity really is the bedrock principle of socialism, then there may be something yet to be said for the adversarial model, over those that promise a more harmonious system of economic relations.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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