The Precariat: the new dangerous class

The Precariat is infuriatingly interesting. Its author Guy Standing, a Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, has set out to explain the rise of a new class, “the precariat”, and explore the social/political implications of this ‘class-in-the-making’. The Precariat’s originality lies in the journey which Standing takes the reader on. Standing’s start point is simple enough; his understanding that we cannot return to a mythical Keynesian capitalist Golden Age where (nearly) everyone had a decent job. Although the journey can be challenging and takes some unexpected directions, Standing has written a book that is vital to understanding the workings of contemporary global economy.

Standing’s central argument is that neoliberal restructuring has shifted economic risk onto workers, and in turn created a new class – the precariat. It is a class which can expect neither stability nor security. It is a class which is angry and divided. As such it is a dangerous class susceptible to the influence of neo-fascist and/or authoritarian leaders. Only a new type of emancipatory politics which speaks to the needs and experiences of the precariat has chance of achieving any lasting positive change.

For Standing, the precariat is the Other of the working class. It is the growing class of workers (and their families) who cannot access the multifaceted forms of labour security built up during the 20th century by the union movement and social democratic parties. The creative dynamism of The Precariat, however, lies not in its identification of this new class but in mapping out the political implications of this fundamental economic shift. In the context of recent political developments such as the UK riots, Standing at times writes with an uncanny prescience:

   “Many in the precariat have lost (or fear losing) what little they had and are lashing out because they have no politics of paradise to draw them in better
    directions.”

Another interesting aspect of The Precariat is Standing’s resurrection of the ancient Greek differentiation between both work/labour and leisure/play. Standing sees work as being a “reproductive” activity necessary for the strengthening of the household as well as familial and social relationships. Work is the platform from which one can even begin to engage in paid labour. Leisure, in contrast to unthinking play, is “participation in public life” whether that is in the cultural, artistic or political sphere. For Standing, it is the higher value that Western society accords to labour over work, and play over leisure that informs the precariat’s malaise. Part of Standing’s motivation, in writing The Precariat, is “to rescue work that is not labour and leisure that is not play”.

With the marginalisation of true leisure comes the commodification of education. It may just be my own personal bias (with my enormous student debt), but one of the strongest aspects of The Precariat is how Standing describes how the commercialisation of higher education feeds “disappointment and anger”. Education has gone from being an intrinsic to a contingent good subservient to the process of profit-making. This means pushing through more students to graduation in any course where there is sufficient demand regardless of the underlying merits.

It is unsurprising then that further education is trumpeted as a source of hope in a market economy – an individual can invest in their skills and thereby receive a higher income over time. Education is thus seen as contemporary alchemy – the magical answer to being dealt a raw start in the birth lottery. Standing, however, hits this myth hard. He calculates that in the US alone “only a third of all new jobs will be available for young people who complete tertiary education.” The result is a generation of young graduates filling insecure and mindless jobs (if they’re lucky) burdened by the debt of a substandard education. As Standing highlights, the response of a contemporary graduate is almost akin to that of Soviet worker; “They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn”.

Curiously though what makes The Precariat so fascinating is that which makes it so frustrating – Standing threshing out the implications of the growth of the precariat. There were points in the book where I wanted to jump into the pages and start arguing with the author there and then. He writes of the need for the precariat to organise and have a collective voice in the public domain but he quickly considers and dismisses the utility of trade unions in this regard; “Progressives must stop expecting unions to become something contrary to their functions”.

At the heart of this dismissal of the union movement lies Standing’s positioning of the precariat as a new class with “interests [that] are not the same as those of…core employees”. In attempting to illuminate the novelty of the precariat Standing marginalises aspects of continuity. For example, he does not consider how perhaps the precariat is a novel way of keeping a reserve army of labour in labour – thereby maximising both productive activity and placing downward pressure on wages. After all, the rise of precariousness has had a negative impact on the welfare and income of the ‘old’ industrial working class. Perhaps this is because Standing conflates how capital has changed the way it disciplines and controls labour since the 1970s with the creation of a new, discrete class that is separate from the rest of the working class.

This in turn influences Standing’s treatment of the evidence he presents in The Precariat. Two examples are particularly jarring. Firstly, Standing writes that “more UK youth say they belong to the working class than think their parents belong to it.” Yet this claim is given no further consideration. I would have thought that an upswing in youth self-identifying as part of the working class would effect how to organise a generation. Secondly, Standing examines the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) 2010 inquiry into meat and poultry processing factories – contrasting the appalling documented conditions and practices in the industry (from 17-hour shifts to being unable to take toilet breaks) with the EHRC’s recommendation that “the industry should improve its practices voluntarily”. Yet Standing does not even ask why this inquiry started in the first place. The answer is that it was the State’s response to UK trade union Unite’s “Every Worker Counts” campaign – a campaign that was directed towards UK supermarket giant Tesco. The aim of the “Every Worker Counts” campaign was to pressure Tesco to alter its meat supply chain so that no worker was employed by precarious or unethical means. For Unite, complaining to the EHRC was but one component of a campaign that united (largely white) core employees and migrant agency workers.

This dismissal of the trade union movement then hampers the rest of Standing’s strategic thinking. In outlining a politics of paradise, Standing puts forward both worker cooperatives and the universal basic income as positive policy solutions for the precariat. In dismissing the trade union movement and then moving to worker cooperatives what Standing misses is how the interrelation and synthesis between the two movements could build a better future. As an example, US union the United Steelworkers and the giant Spanish group of cooperatives, Mondragon, are in partnership to establish and invest in union cooperatives in the US. While back in Australia, the Earthworker cooperative has launched (at the Victorian Trades Hall) a union and community campaign to gain enough investors to build a solar heater factory. As far as the universal basic income is concerned though, it’s hard to see how such a measure could become law without the support of organised labour. It can be no accident that Brazil, under the administration of the Workers Party (PT) President Lula da Silva (himself a former union leader) became the first nation of earth to pass a commitment to introduce a basic income into law in 2004.

Strategically what Standing does recognise though is that the precariat, as a class, cannot be organised in the same manner and with the same language as the 20th century industrial working class. The wider Australian progressive movement needs to propose more innovative solutions to growing precariousness than site rates for all workers or casual conversion clauses in Awards/enterprise agreements. I also found Standing’s proposed ‘paradise’ compelling; reconstructing dominant notions of ‘work’ so as to create a new economic system that (a) avoids the constraints of the industrial era, and (b) addresses the chronic and multifaceted insecurity of the fast declining neoliberal age.

Overall, The Precariat provides one of the more compelling structural explanations going around for a rise in right-wing populism through out the Western world. Buy it, read it, debate it.

This review originally appeared in Arena Magazine (October/November edition). See www.arena.org.au

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