The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Across the world, more and more people realize they are in the precariat – or may be soon – and that they are not alone. That is bringing a change of mood, from being defeated and dispirited to being defiant and demanding. Old sociologists may be bewildered, but precariat groups are moving from mass occupations to political re-engagement. They know there is no unified working class and do not want to go back in search of a phoney unity. We need an alternative progressive future, forged for and by the precariat.

Most fundamentally, the 20th century income distribution system has collapsed. The share of income going to profits has rocketed and will continue to rise, the share going to rent will rise even more. Real wages will continue to stagnate.

In pursuit of competitiveness, governments have implemented policies of labor flexibility, making labor more insecure, leaving millions without health care, pensions or other benefits. Governments have turned to means-tested social assistance and to workfare. The welfare state has withered.

Meanwhile, a global class structure has been taking shape, superimposed on national structures. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds. Their economic and political power is awesome; they have no responsibility to any nation state.

Below them is an elite who also gain from capital, some from what Thomas Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. Below them is a salariat, with employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks. They are what American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s expected to become the norm. But although a salariat will persist, it is shrinking.

Alongside it is what I call proficians, project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security. Many work frenetically, but suffer from burn-out sooner or later. They too are uninterested in defending wages. They obtain their money elsewhere.

Then comes the old proletariat, for which welfare states as well as labor relations and regulations were constructed. The proletariat was oriented to a lifetime of stable full-time labor, in which entitlements, ‘labor rights,’ were built up. But it is dwindling, along with its capacity, and even desire, to defend welfare institutions. Its achievements should not be romanticized. The proletariat favored and benefited from a sexist, often racist hierarchical laborism. Its labor unions epitomised that. There have been few more reactionary figures in American history, for example, than the old leaders of the AFL-CIO.

It is below the proletariat where the precariat is growing. It is not an under-class. That is the lumpen-precariat, victims eking out an existence in the streets, sad souls going to an early death. The precariat, by contrast, is regarded by global capital as pivotal, and the neo-liberal state is shaping it. Recent estimates suggest that the precariat makes up about 40% of the adult population in Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Sweden, still seen as the nirvana of social democracy. The biggest precariat is in China.

Defining the Precariat

The precariat should be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive relations of production. Those in it have unstable labor, in ‘flexible’ contracts, working as temps, casuals, ‘freelance,’ part-time, or intermittently for employment agencies. The most rapidly growing form of unstable labor is “crowd work.” Many commentators wrongly presume insecure labor is all that defines the precariat, and then dismiss it as nothing new.

There was always unstable labor. But today it is becoming the norm. Just as historians analyzed the process of proletarianisation as disciplining workers to the norms of stable labor, internalizing that as a duty, a compact with capital, so the precariat is being habituated to unstable labor.

Crucially, the precariat has no secure occupational identity, no narrative to give to their lives. And they have to do a lot of work that does not count and is not paid. They are exploited off the workplace as well as on it, outside working hours as well as in them. This is also the first working class in history expected to have more education than their jobs require.

Second, the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution. It relies on money wages, without pensions, paid holidays, retrenchment benefits or medical coverage. It has been losing those benefits, which is why conventional statistics understate growing inequality.

The precariat also lacks rights-based state benefits. That was heralded in Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that he was ending “welfare as we know it.” The punitive Wisconsin workfare model has since gone global. Meanwhile, with wages volatile and falling, the precariat lives on the edge of unsustainable debt. Debt has become a systematic mechanism of exploitation, as people struggle to maintain yesterday’s standard of living.

Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. Those in it are losing rights granted to citizens, becoming denizens without civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights. Increasingly, they are supplicants, pleading for benefits or services, relying on discretionary decisions of bureaucrats making moralistic judgments on whether their behavior or attitude is deserving.

These three dimensions produce a consciousness of relative deprivation, a combination of anxiety, anomie (despair of escape), alienation (having to do what they do not wish to do while being unable to do what they are capable of doing), and anger.

Varieties of Precariat

At present, the precariat consists of three factions, which is why it is a class-in-the-making, not yet a class-for-itself. The first faction consists of those falling into the precariat from working-class communities. They lack schooling and feel deprived by reference to a lost past. Their predecessors had employment security, pensions and so on. They want that past. Many listen to populists and neo-fascists attributing their insecurity to migrants and minorities. Across Europe and elsewhere, many are voting for nationalistic, xenophobic, and racist agendas.

The second faction consists of migrants and minorities, who feel denied a home, a viable present. Mostly, they keep their heads down, concentrating on survival. But when policies threaten even that, they rebel in days of rage (as in Stockholm in 2013) or join some fundamentalist cause. They are the ultimate denizens, denied rights everywhere.

The third group consists of the educated, mostly young. They suffer relative deprivation by being denied a future, a life of dignity and fulfilment. But they do not listen to neo-fascists; they look to recover a future, aspiring to create a good society based on equality, freedom, and ecological sustainability.

The Emerging Struggles

Fortunately, partly due to the mass protests in and since 2011, more people have come to recognize that they belong to the precariat, which is an essential starting point for a counter-movement. Among the third group, a feeling is growing that they are not just victims but can fight back. This part of the precariat wants to struggle for a transformative agenda designed to abolish itself through overcoming the conditions that define it.

However, the precariat is the new dangerous class because all in it reject mainstream political establishments. Many have not been voting. This does not mean they are politically apathetic, merely that mainstream parties and politicians have not understood their needs or aspirations.

The protests since 2011 have been mostly the actions of what historians call primitive rebels, symbolizing a time when the emerging class is more united around what it is against than around what it wants instead. But the protests are helping the precariat move closer to being a class-for-itself. It is ready to move to a struggle for Representation and Redistribution.

Unlike the old socialist project, the struggle will be for a redistribution of resources needed for personal development in an ecologically sustainable society: security, control over time, quality space (including the commons), liberating education, financial knowledge, and capital. All are more unequally distributed than income. The precariat has no security, no control over time, is crowded into impoverishing space and is losing the commons (cause of the Geci Park occupation), is subject to commodifying schooling, lacks financial knowledge, and is denied access to capital.

A counter-movement is taking shape. The precariat is re-engaging in democratic politics. After the neo-liberal dystopia, the Future is back on the agenda. The precariat must be the vanguard of a new progressive era.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London. He will present his new book, A Precariat Charter, at CUNY (November 4), the New School (November 5), and Cornell (November 7).

This entry was posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

  1. Pingback: Crowdwork pitfalls may need a (block)chain reaction - 360

  2. Davey Skell says:

    Old proletariat “dwindling”, but still worth sticking the boot in to give them a kicking! Can’t they be rehabilitated like other sections? Has Guy got a beef with someone? Let’s forget about a class that has stability and throw our lots in with a quasi-class that is self evidently unstable and incendiary! Good luck with that one, Guy.


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  23. This piece is clear and accurate.

    I think the divergence from the steady wages to fuel consumption model cannot be propped up. The freelance economy is inevitable given the the onward rush to automation by traditional avenues of employment, so the question becomes how does one remove the insecurity from low grade self employment? There are clearly any number of policy initiatives which could address this, national paid holidays or guaranteed basic incomes, universal health care, etc.

    We also live in society in which anything which is done is predicated upon the belief that it ultimately needs to fuel economic growth. If a science project is proposed there is an immediate need to justify it for the payback it will generate, it isn’t enough to simply pay people for the good they may be doing. This of course assumes that something like expanding knowledge is a social benefit.

    I think it is beneficial to try to envision how humans would be living in 500,000 years. We are clearly pursuing a path with little future if one takes the very long view. Stable societies existed before the industrial revolution, many clearly had problems in terms of social and economic justice, yet they still may have lessons to teach us in terms of how humans might live satisfying lives, generation after generation.


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  27. Reblogged this on anicebusinesstodopeoplewith and commented:
    Things are adding up, and making sense. I now know why I feel the way I do, and at long last can start to see some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. It feels like the beginning of something worthwhile.


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  33. pavla koudelkova says:

    Despotism of private owners, manifesting itself in uncontrolled greed and perversity is commented in this article only as “will rise”, but not a word about mechanism which allowed this. And that is the most importnant: who is behind this uncontrolled unhuman unnatural system where CEOs have 500 times more than those working for them, not 6 times as Plato suggested.


  34. markjnewton says:

    Reblogged this on markjnewton and commented:
    In our uncertain political landscape, there will be many who can currently identify with Standing’s insights. Well worth a read.


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  43. Mitdasein says:

    The original proletariat of Marx was itself radically misrepresented by Lenin (to include the Russian peasantry and labourers) and most Marxists that followed. Marx specifically distinguished the new proletariat from the peasantry and from traditional labour in that the proletariat were either responsible for the creation of the means of production or responsible for their proper operation. In other words, they were in modern terms the “technically literate”.

    Reality, as a social construct, was more and more being shaped and determined by technological production (Hegel’s term ‘aufhebung’, usually translated as ‘sublation’, in fact is close in meaning to production, specifically technological production), and as the originators of such production the proletariat had a better understanding of the reality it produced than either the traditional lower classes, capitalists or the feudal gentry. As such this new class had a right to to the ownership of the means of production and a right to a dictatorship over the resulting social reality. For Marx, it was inevitable that the new class would eventually recognise this and appropriate the technology they alone could produce, maintain and operate, along with the power it made possible.

    The educated portion of the “precariat” corresponds precisely to Marx’s notion of the proletariat, and continues to be the most dangerous part of society to those with established power, since more and more power depends on something the establishment has little to no grasp of. The establishment has a massive vested interest in maintaining that group in as precarious a position as possible precisely because they are dependent on them. Any withholding of their abilities would quickly result in the collapse of the basis of modern technological society. The fear of the establishment that opposes things like a guaranteed annual income is the fear that the technically literate would no longer ‘have’ to support the establishment in order to survive, and could simply withhold their expertise until the establishment is brought to their knees.

    In pragmatic terms, if every developer and sysadmin decided they’d had enough of living in precarious circumstances and walked away, even were it limited to only those that support the financial sector, the global financial system would be unlikely to last a month, and replacing it would be close to impossible since it would require the agreement of too many people with opposed interests. Without the global financial system, the wealth of the wealthy and the power it confers would be instantaneously worthless and powerless.

    Liked by 1 person

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  45. Jack Labusch says:

    “Clerisy” and “new Oligarchs” are terms used by Leftish writer Joel Kotkin in his book, “The New Class Conflict”, reports conservative George F. Will in a recent newspaper essay. A longtime Libertarian voter, I’ve used “Council of 25,000” informally for the corporate lobbies that use Congress and other nominally representative institutions (e. g., bogus grassroots organizations) as their proxies to create faux legitimacy.

    So, Prof. Standing isn’t the only one to use fresh terms to describe collectivities that haven’t yet been fully recognized, or are still in the making.


  46. Jack Labusch says:

    Why should American conservatives consider Prof. Standing’s universal basic income? Efficiency and clarity, I think. A pilot UBI program in India is said to have cut through corruption and bureaucratic cumbersomeness in existing transfer payment programs there. Plus, it’ll be worthwhile asking whether unemployment compensation, welfare, Social Security, etc. are outmoded responses to changed circumstances.

    The “de-incentivization” of work is probably a stock objection to UBI that would need addressed.

    Economist Milton Friedman, a very libertarian guy, occasionally championed a negative income tax, a sort of UBI, so Prof. Standing’s ideas seem to me to be worth a fair shake.


  47. “Recent estimates suggest that the precariat makes up about 40% of the adult population in Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Sweden, still seen as the nirvana of social democracy.”

    Whose recent estimates? Links, please. You don’t have them.

    And, per the first commenter, better definitions, please.

    As for 2011? Here in the US, at least, the new-left thinkers of the Occupy movement thought they had transcended traditional mass-organizing tactics.


  48. Jeff Hermanson says:

    “Precariat” is the flavor of the month for sociologists, it seems. However, before we get too carried away with this “new” class, let’s recall that the proletariat is a broad social category that includes all those with “nothing to sell but their labor power” who therefore have “nothing to lose but their chains.” Certainly this would include those described by the author as the “precariat”, as well as the “old proletariat” of workers with stable employment, who the author denigrates for their attachment to their jobs and discounts as a potential source of revolutionary agency. What distinguishes this new class from the proletariat, according to the author, is their unstable labor, lack of employment-based and state-based benefits, and a loss of the rights of citizenship. He identifies three “factions,” those “falling into the precariat from working-class communities” who he describes as uneducated and prone to xenophobia and racism, “migrants and minorities” subject to “days of rage” and “fundamentalism,” and educated youth “denied a future” who, unlike the first faction, “do not listen to the neo-fascists.”

    What we have here is an academic slander on the working class and a middle-class fantasy about a “new dangerous class” of educated youth. There is nothing new about a fraction of the working class lacking stable employment, lacking benefits, denied the rights of citizenship, “migrants and minorities” or alienated educated youth. Has the author ever been to the industrializing countries of Asia or Latin America? Has he been to the Middle East with its millions of Asian migrant laborers? Has he been to China with over 100 million internal migrants? Has he ever read about the Great Depression and the legions of “tramps, hobos and bums”? Did he miss the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement and the hippies?

    As Guy Standing fantasizes about a Gezi Park revolution, led by a “vanguard” of educated youth, hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Mexican and Indonesian workers toil away sixty to seventy hours a week at “stable jobs” producing riches for American, European and Japanese corporate elites. The author would have us write these millions of workers off as the “old proletariat,” instead of seeing in their struggle to organize and fight for decent wages and working conditions, in their fight against repression, the real source of revolutionary agency. In the US and other “advanced” countries, the “old proletariat” the author characterizes as sexist and racist, is under attack. The corporate elite, under the pressure of economic stagnation and financial crisis, is quickly withdrawing the concessions once made to labor to blunt the drive to organize and struggle. The US labor movement, hardly led by the “most reactionary figures” in US society, is searching for how to link the struggles of organized workers, “migrants and minorities” and alienated youth, how to build international working class solidarity and fight back against the corporate ruling class. This is where the power will come from to remake the world.


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  50. Jack Labusch says:

    “At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds.” Sounds intemperate, right? A conservative and wealthy mainstream writer has slammed in his weekly column corrupt Russian oligarchs, the Greek government “kleptocracy”, and Qatar’s multinationals-enabled ruling Thani family as crooks who bankroll terrorists so they can enjoy a guilt-free debauched Western lifestyle.

    The foreword of Harry Markopolos’s “No One Would Listen” has an investment banker saying he personally knew that the SEC was actually protecting the corrupt practices of large investment houses. Markopolos, a stock analyst, attempted to alert authorities to the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

    Thanks, Prof. Standing.


  51. Marissa says:

    The Precariat is a burgeoning class denied civil and labor liberties as their incessant toil increasingly serves their masters. Their identity has been usurped by the means they perform, violating even the most basic principles of Kantian ethics. Through squelching the middle class and virtually enslaving the poor working class to toil without rest and work without reward, the plutocracy has become increasingly powerful, reigning in dictatorial fashion, denying healthcare, paid vacation, and a living wage to those who labor upon the capital which the wrongly feel they own, further defining them as the masters and the workers the slaves. The working class must not only unite, but demand rights in old labor movement fashion to rise from the shackles of capital. Furthermore, the precariat must become informed as to his or her position quickly before the fiasco in Detroit spreads across the country.


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