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Perspectives on the Familistère Godin

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Addressing public entrepreneurship issues through utopias: Are we short on visions for societies?[pic 1]

June 6th, 1886. Guise, France. Today is a big day for all the familistériens, the inhabitants of the Familistère, a “social palace” build by the French entrepreneur Jean-Baptiste André Godin. The community is celebrating for the twentieth time its “Labor Day”, during which the top workers of Godin’s company are awarded and the familistériens are celebrating the success of this very innovative initiative.

“Another Day in Paradise”

Established in Guise, in the Northern part of France since 1859, the Familistère accommodates workers who previously experienced the exhausting lives of factory worker at the beginning of Europe’s second industrial revolution, characterized by long hours – up to 16-17 hours per day, 6 days per week – a lack of health insurance and any sort of social protection, catastrophic hygiene conditions and a very limited access to education, since children were often required to work in modest families. This miserable environment resulted in rampant inequalities between the working class and the wealthier part of the population: workers’ life expectancy was 15 to 20 years below that of the ladder and workers’ children were on average 10 centimeters smaller by age 12[1].

This is based on those observations experienced by Jean-Baptiste Godin himself while touring in France as a poor locksmith journeyman in the early 1830s, that he decided, when he became an industrial entrepreneur, to offer to his employees a self-fulfilling, harmonious and comfortable environment in order to address the social question of the century. Very sensitive to the misery of the working class, Godin developed a strong personal interest for the theories of Charles Fourier, a philosopher that theorized a socialist utopia, the phalanstery, consisting in a building in which a community of 2,000 people would live together in social harmony. As Godin’s registered a very promising patent for cast-iron coal stoves in 1840 and started from it a very successful business, he decided to put in motion Fourier’s ideas and designed for his employees an environment strongly influenced by the phalanstery. Godin’s rationale was to provide access to well-being and dignity to his workers as well as rehabilitating the value of labor in an attempt to solve the significant social issues arising from rapid industrialization and build social unity and equality. To do so, Godin believed in the importance of the architecture of the place that would host the community, as he defined housing as the first issue to tackle[2]. He designed the Familistère, which is meant to be a “social palace”, where workers would live collectively and could access an unimaginable comfort for that time and innovative working conditions.

All the familistériens lives in two well-lit rooms apartments in one of the three buildings of the Familistère (Figure 1). They can enjoy there running water, modern closets and warm showers that are present at each of the four floors of the edifice. They also benefit from the central atrium cover by a glass roof and ventilated. The Familistère comprises a kinder garden, a free, mixed-gender and laic school for children up to 14 years old, a swimming pool, a theater, a free healthcare center and modern laundry facilities. While living in the urban complex that accommodates 1,500 familistériens is not compulsory for all the employees of the Godin’s smelter, all of them are covered by a health insurance, benefit a retirement plan that enabled all the workers to retire at 60 years old (while there was no retirement in the rest of the country) and working days are limited to 10 hours for everyone. Beyond those aspects that correspond to the bourgeois living standards of the 19th Century, Godin slowly ceased its ownership of the company to all the employees since he was influenced by Fourier and believed that employees should own the fruits of their work. Thus in 1886, the Godin’s smelter was managed by the “Association of Capital and Labor”, of which all the employees were members, and directly owned by the workers, who were in charge of taking the major strategic decision in full assembly in the theater of the Familistère.[pic 2][pic 3]

Beyond just a socialist initiative affecting a few thousands of people, the idea of Godin was to spread social change and shape the society of the future through a successful example of an institution where workers and managers lived together in harmony. Benefits from the Familistère applied indeed similarly to all the employees regardless of their status and Godin himself was occupying a two-rooms apartment in the ground floor of the central building. The entrepreneur hoped through this attempt to start a movement that would influence all industries and reinvent the social dynamics of its time. Based on his successful in Guise, he started a second Familistère in Laeken, Belgium, built exactly on the same format as the one in Guise, though of a smaller size. He indeed explained in Solutions sociales[3], the book he published in 1871, that scaling his initiative to transform the industrial society and provide freedom to workers through spreading collaborative values is absolutely critical.

A Fascinating example of a successful social entrepreneur?

Through its achievement, Godin stands out as a fascinating social entrepreneur. Not only he managed to implement a local – yet effective – solution to the social question through it stoves company, but he also doubled this commitment with a political career to spread his social visions beyond just the Guise’s and Laeken’s experiments. He indeed served as Member of Parliament for six years and vigorously defended social views, specifically on taxation and social institutions[4].

Four main factors are witnessing Godins’ success as a public entrepreneur to tackle the social question of his century:

  • The Familistère is in itself an extremely innovative building, relying on a lot of modern technologies, such as a drying system developed for cradles of the babies of the familistériens, the laundry facility reusing the heated water from the factory, or the double-table replacing the bench in schools, helping to redesign the classrooms and the circulation in it. It is an impressive example of a self-managed community enabled by Godin’s effort to support the education of not only the children (which benefited compulsory education in the Familistère unlike the rest of France) but also the employees of its shelter, through conferences in the theater but also a library. While many attempted to realize a functional version of Fourier’s phalanstery, Godin was the first and the only one in France to adapt the idea and concretize it.

  • Godin’s initiative has also been very impactful. His social utopia accommodated over 2,000 people and managed to rise from poverty and illiteracy thousands and thousands of people, at a time when the literacy rate was slightly above 50%[5]. The Familistère did experience only an extremely limited number of strikes at a time when they were common, and Godin’s employees even refused to for a labor union as they expressed strong satisfaction with the social conditions in the community.
  • On a financial standpoint, the company managed to expand internationally and became the world leader in heating stove, so that the social aspects of Godin’s project did not happen at the cost of profitability and innovation.
  • Finally, Godin, who died in 1888, did not only manage to expand its Familistère in Belgium but his initiative sustained for over a century, until 1968, when the company finally filled bankruptcy after an unsuccessful turnaround attempt.

Godin’s success has however not been immune to a few controversies and difficulties, as the Familistère has been blamed in the 20th century to have lost its inclusive spirit of the beginning and to have transformed the workers of the Godin’s shelter into a local aristocracy. In the 1950s not all the employees of the company were shareholders, and workers had to live in the Familistère for at least 5 years and to be elected in order to be part of the “Capita and Labor Association”. Moreover, the Familistère was not leaving much room for privacy has the architecture of the buildings forced a constant surveillance from the familistériens. Any moral misbehavior was publicly blamed so that Godin has often be painted as a paternalist entrepreneur.


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