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 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).