Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
Almost all the ideas important to Simone Weil (with the exception of her spiritual acceptance of Christianity)—such as her intellectual adherence to the Marxist model of social existence based on the division of labor, her insistence on the necessity for individual action, her demand for justice as a sign of social progress—inform the basic premises of “Factory Journal.” Weil had studied the works of Karl Marx with great attention, but she found that Marxism, while tracing the cause of oppression to the division of labor, fails to answer why this division of labor should necessarily turn into oppression. In 1932, Weil had visited Germany and had witnessed the rise of militant nationalism under Adolf Hitler and the failure of the German Communist Party to prevent it; in 1933, she had taken part in the famous “March of the Miners” planned by the Confédération Générale du Travail (miners’ federation) to protest against unemployment and wage cuts. Thus in 1934 Weil was philosophically attuned to a life of committed activism. It is characteristic of Weil’s thinking that she should attempt to “improve” Marx; she does so by humanizing the affliction of humiliation that wounds the worker’s psyche. Humiliation works in a twofold manner: by alienating the worker from the machine and from the product and by the deliberate suppression of solidarity and critical thinking among workers by those in power.
Worker solidarity is one way to liberate workers; yet another way would be to re-create the relationship between the worker and the machine so that the worker still has a certain synthetic part to play in its operation, instead of being relegated to the mindless, repetitive movements that are characteristic of assembly-line production. In “Factory Journal,” as well as in a later essay entitled “Factory Work” (1946), Weil foresaw the worker’s alienation as the black hole into which both capitalist economic systems and technologically persuaded proletarian revolutions might fall. In the journal, she notes the void imposed on her thoughts by the automatic haste to “make the rate.” She reflects that revolt is impossible, because the worker is alone with her work, and to revolt against her work “would be to work badly, and therefore to starve.”
Weil observes that her coworkers advise a woman who has just been fired for “botching” several hundred pieces of washers with the truism that one has to be more conscientious when one has to make a living. Weil notes parenthetically that the woman in question had tuberculosis and worked on the evening shifts, when there was hardly any light. The workers are so haunted by the fear of getting fired or being allotted more jobs than they can handle that they dare not show sympathy to one who falls behind. Weil is always attentive to these struggles in the minds of her coworkers—of instinctual compassion transformed into callousness, as well as secret benefactions such as the collection taken up to pay for a pregnant worker’s abortion.
Similar to the anecdote about the tubercular woman is the one about the woman drill operator who had a clump of hair completely torn out by her machine, despite her hairnet; Weil records both incidents without comment. Weil has been accused of oversensitivity and exaggeration in her description of herself as a slave, but her characteristic style in “Factory Journal” is a combination of clinical attention to details, deep psychological introspection of exuberance and despair (mostly despair), and philosophical contemplation of the problem of “affliction,” which became a central concept in her later religious writing. In her conclusion to the journal, she articulates the deep humiliation that she experienced when her value as a human being was crushed by her “masters”; she theorizes that “the main fact isn’t the suffering, but the humiliation.” This humiliation makes slaves of free individuals and damages the internal as well as the external conditions of human life. Humiliation, for Weil, like “shame” for Homeric Greeks, thus has a private as well as social dimension to it; humiliation that afflicts human souls has a profound role to play in the total degradation of any society.
Any social system that humiliates its members to such an extent that one flinches from even thinking about that humiliation is an unjust system—such is Weil’s passionate indictment of the French factory system. Weil is a ruthless judge of her own psychological defenses, and she reminds herself in the journal not to lose the feeling that she possesses no rights whatsoever—not for a narcissistic sadness, it seems, but because the sharpness of despair might be an antidote to irresponsible pleasures.