Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Tim Strangleman, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Precariat of the World Unite?

  1. pavla says:

    I think that problem wth books theorizing about working class conditions and ideas how to make them better or worse are always coming from middle class men, who never got sweaty, dirty and never manually worked, biting their lips with disgust of 8 hrs shift ahead. Manual work and labor should be less hours for more money, CEO should have 10 times more then people working for them, not 500 times more (did Plato said 6 times?) and there not suppose to be bad schools creating permanent poor. It is absolutely not a hard project to do, it is not done because there is no will to change the absurd status quo of perverted elite.

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  2. Jeffery Hermanson says:

    “In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”

    The “precariat” is not a “new class” but a growing segment of the proletariat. The development of technology has continuously revolutionized the specific characteristics of work and employment relations, from the putting-out system of the 18th century to the factory system of the 19th century to the Taylorized assembly line of the 20 century to the “virtual workplaces” of the 21st century. However, none of these transformations has altered the fundamental division of capitalist society into two basic classes, one owning and controlling the means of production, the other condemned to sell its labor power in order to live. The task of the social scientist, IMHO, is to analyze the specific characteristics of these two classes and their relationship as they develop through history, and (assuming one supports the emancipation of humanity from the regime of capitalist exploitation) find the ways to build the consciousness, unity and power of the proletariat. Talking about the “precariat” as a new class is confusing and unhelpful, when what is really at hand is a new form of capitalist domination of a section of the proletariat.

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  3. Pingback: Crossroads: American Labor, Freelancers Union, and Precarity | Working-Class Perspectives

  4. Pingback: Precariat of the World Unite? | CPFA Forum Blog

  5. Jack Labusch says:

    How can a longtime Libertarian voter, as I am, even think about an idea that includes some sort of guaranteed, unconditional basic annual income?

    Well, I don’t know much about Prof. Standing’s idea to begin with–just the headline stuff (Amazon and other reviews, Wikipedia, this blog, etc.) What I do know is there’s some unknown number of salary- and wage-earners in the full-time work force who do a lot less work than people imagine, and who bring fewer skills to the workplace than people imagine. Why should the hard-working, more skilled worker be unduly punished by unemployment without income because the boss wants to hire his lay-about cousin, or a less skilled but more pliant worker?

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    • “How can a longtime Libertarian voter, as I am, even think about an idea that includes some sort of guaranteed, unconditional basic annual income?”

      By growing some compassion, realizing that your Libertarian utopia is based on selfishness, and growing out of it.

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  6. Jack Labusch says:

    “Precariat” to me seems to have snap and pop; ditto Prof. Standing’s “proficians” and “salariat”. His ideas deserve a chance at wider public attention.
    “Denizens”, or maybe “subjects” or some other term. may be helpful in describing folks who’ve withdrawn or been withdrawn from some minimal citizen engagement.

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  7. Frances Williams says:

    I think this post is a misreading of Standing’s thesis. He makes clear in both books and in related articles that the precariat is NOT an underclass or lumpen group, but a class-in-the-making with the potential to change society if it can become a class-for-itself with Voice and agency. It includes young educated youth who are also now trapped in precarious lives. As for work, Standing argues for policies that allow people to combine “labour” (paid work that may or may not be fulfilling) with other types of work (care work, work in the community, growing vegetables etc) that they wish to do. The other point, which this post does not address, is that, increasingly, jobs in the rich world have ceased to be a route out of poverty or a vehicle for social mobility. So policies are needed that provide basic income security for all, whatever their employment status.

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