Alex Foti, General Theory of the Precariat—Great Recession, Revolution, Reaction, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2017. (Free download)
“From the fast-food industry to the sharing economy, precarious work has become the norm in contemporary capitalism, like the anti-globalization movement predicted it would. . It investigates the political economy of precarity and the historical sociology of the precariat, and discusses movements of precarious youth against oligopoly and oligarchy in Europe, America, and East Asia. Foti covers the three fundamental dates of recent history: the financial crisis of 2008, the political revolutions of 2011, and the national-populist backlash of 2016, to presents his class theory of the precariat and the ideologies of left-populist movements. Building a theory of capitalist crisis to understand the aftermath of the Great Recession, he outlines political scenarios where the precariat can successfully fight for emancipation, and reverse inequality and environmental destruction. Written by the activist who put precarity on the map of radical thinking, this is the first work proposing a complete theory of the precariat in its actuality and potentiality.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/just-out-alex-fotis-general-theory-precariat-geert-lovink/)
Alex Foti is an editor, essayist and activist based in Milano. He was among the founders of ChainWorkers and EuroMayDay, early instances of the self-organization of precarious workers in Europe. Trained in economics, sociology, and history at Bocconi, the New School and Columbia, he has written several articles and books, including Anarchy in the EU: Grande Recessione e movi.menti pink, black, green in Europa (2009).
Precarious Labor and Autonomous Marxism
In a literal sense, the precariousness of labor has existed since the dawn of steam-powered, industrial capitalism. Karl Marx addresses the issue in the first volume of Das Kapital,38 when he discusses the reserve army of labor. He described how the wage demands of the factory-bound proletariat were kept in check by the precariousness of labor demand, due to the irregular, crisis-prone process of capital accumulation (i.e. investment). If laborers didn’t organize, unchecked exploitation and misery would befall those working in the mills and fields. However, below the proletariat in the socio-economic hierarchy was the lumpenproletariat, whom Marx wrongly despised (and Bakunin eulogized): thieves and other petty criminals, prostitutes, tramps, vagrants, etc. The lumpenproletariat made up a reserve army of potential replacement laborers, keeping those in the factories in line, and keeping wages low.
A temporary workforce is a permanent feature of certain industries, exemplified by seasonal workers in sweatshops, and laborers in commercial agriculture. In this respect, things have not changed much since the 19th century. Informal labor remains the norm in emergent and developing economies. However, the recent swelling of the precariat is a symptom of a troubling return to informal labor markets inside the relatively wealthy societies of advanced capitalism.
While contingent labor has always existed in capitalist societies, Italian Autonomous Marxism was the first to argue that precarious labor had moved from the peripheral position it occupied under keynesian, industrial capitalism, to a core position in neoliberal, informational capitalism. Negri and others argue that informational capitalism − the current technological and social paradigm, according to Manuel Castells’ seminal work of social theory The Information Age
is based on casual, affective, creative, immaterial, and precarious labor.
However, a theory of the precariat is not immediately able to slot into the world as understood by Autonomous Marxism. The precariat comprises of two categories of workers with very differ- ent levels of skill and education: pink-collars working in retail and low-end services (cashiers, cleaners, janitors, cooks, waiters, etc.) under constrictive but standardized employment norms, and the digital creative class (editors, graphic artists, programmers, etc.) who are temping, sometimes at high wage rates, in the information economy connecting the world’s major cities. Furthermore, the precariat is also a plurality of young people of different genders, different classes, and different ethnicities.
Aside from Autonomous Marxism, contemporary Marxist thought tends to discount the notion that this precarious plurality constitutes an analogue of the 20th century working class; there might be precarity, but there’s no precariat. At most, they make up a section of the working class. I deny this. The precariat is the successor of the working class, emerging from the new form of informational neoliberalism expanded and radicalized in the crucible of the Great Recession. The precariat is a generation becoming a class. It has become a new historical subject, and is the only subject capable of progressive collective agency; it’s the precariat that both performs general labor, and constitutes the general intellect (to use Marx’s terms). The precarious have their identity based on exclusion from social status, rather than on nationalist, or cultural norms. The centrality of the service precariat for 21st century capitalist accumulation is equivalent to the role played by the industrial proletariat in determining the fortunes of 20th century capitalism.
Autonomous Marxism, as elaborated by Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno and others, places the revolutionary agency of the exploited subject at the center of philosophical analysis. After the defeat of the 1968-1979 insurgency of the western working class,40 the theorists of operaismo (workerism) turned to focus on urban movements, as well as emerging forms of service and intellectual labor, as a new Post-Fordist, digital economy was consolidating out of the ashes of industrial Fordism. In the work of Negri especially, this position is made clear: the precariat must be radicalized, in order for the multitude to cast off the dominating weight of imperial structures. It is within the relative obscurity of this intellectual tradition that the radical theory of precarity was forged in the 00s, centered around Milan, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, and Liège.
To summarize my previous point differently: the new digital capitalist class is confronted by a multitude of young precarious workers. It is the precariat’s labor, communication, and distribution that is making internet billionaires rich beyond imagination. The oligopolists have long acted jointly to protect their class interests (low taxes, low wages, etc.). However, the time has come for the precarious to act as class, and work with their collective interest in mind. It is time to cut into profits and end income insecurity. Just as Henry Ford needed to be buried for Fordism to rise, not only Steve Jobs, but also his free-market ideology, needs to die for Jobsism to rise. Although in vastly different technosocial paradigms (industrialism and informationalism, respectively), the implications of the Fordist and Jobsian compromises are the same regarding regulation: let workers share the bounty of productivity, either individually in the form of wages, or socially in the form of welfare, else risk economic crisis and class warfare. If an egalitarian solution to capitalist crisis was found against National Socialism in the last century, it can also be found against national populism in this century. Capitalism can be reformed. It has been reformed before, during the Belle Époque, and again after World War Two. However, today we need a simultaneous revision of both social and ecological regulation of capitalism. Social regulation has been experimented before with success, yet ecological regulation has not. If we consider Piketty’s laws of capitalist motion valid, and I think any thinking left-leaning individual should, then growth must be restarted, so that it can jump above the profit rate, and reduce capital-labor disparity. However, this ‘red’ (social) objective is posed to clash with the ‘green’ (environmental) objective, since additional growth would lead to even greater carbon emissions, pushing the planet further towards environmental chaos.41
Of course, anti-capitalists of all tendencies will just question why we don’t simply ditch capitalism instead. My answer to them is that capitalism makes innovation and mate- rial progress possible in ways that state communism has been unable to deliver at any latitude, even under well-meaning leaderships like those of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. Communism simply doesn’t work as an eco- nomic system; look at what China accomplished when it switched from Mao Zedong’s communism to Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism. Immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s GDP was still larger than China’s, at exchange rates reflecting purchas- ing power parities. By 2016, China’s GDP was more than five times larger that Russia’s (536% larger), making the country the workshop of the world, pulling hundreds of mil- lions out of poverty. It is hard to argue with these facts. Although the Communist party officially retained power in spite of the Tiananmen Square student rebellion, the lives of over one billion people were drastically improved by market reform: the rate of extreme poverty in China went from almost 90% in 1980, to less than 2% in 2013 (World Bank data). China’s might be state-controlled capitalism, but it’s capitalism nonetheless. In light of this, I do not see a viable economic alternative that can replace firms and markets. To adopt an effective, populist strategy, the instinctive anti-capitalism of the precariat must be of the transformative kind: changing both the state, and market institutions, in order to achieve social and ecological regulation of capital, abolishing the dictatorship of global finance, and expanding the domain of commons-based peer production, as an alternative to both state and market production.
Michel Bauwens: (a very provisional evaluation after reading the first 40 pages, roughly ch. 1 and 2)
I’m currently reading the book, and there are some surprising aspects to it:
- the author sees the precariat as a ‘class in formation’
- the author advocates a reformist outcome within capitalism, i.e. a new regulation of capitalism but calls for growth to allow for redistribution, recognizing that this may class with green objectives
- he calls for an alliance of the precariat and the underclass against the traditional working class seen as allied to national-populism (he calls for social populism as an alternative)
- there is relative little connection to be seen in this book between the precariat and commoning/commons, though Foti calls for expanding commons-based peer production within a capitalist reformation process and with CBPP seen as distinct from market and state production.
Reading notes by Giorgos Anadiotis: “I found the book to be a step in the right direction, as it focuses on the class with the most potential of driving social change, and does so under the lens of class-conscious analysis, which is sorely needed. I have however also found some things i am skeptical about, and some others that i find clearly flawed.
To start with the positives, Foti’s background in economics and involvement in grass-roots politics shows. To his credit, unlike many of his counterparts his style makes the book both accessible and interesting. His analysis of modern capitalism and the strata of the precariat is to the point, as well as the critique on the traditional left and its unions.
However, some of the book’s premises, as well as the ending and conclusions were somewhat lacking to say the least.
I am extremely wary of approaches that border on identity politics. Foti himself has some words of warning against that, but he seems imo to cross that border too. He does for example mention queer and feminist movements as possible actors of change. While i am all for emancipation and sympathetic to such causes, i am yet to find elements of radicality in such movements. Liberal capitalism gladly embraces those.
Perhaps he knows something i don’t, but citing for example a Women’s Strike in March 2017 as a sign of mobilization and radicalization does not make sense. This was largely unnoticed and unaffective (never heard of it before), reported only by Vogue. I understand his point was mostly the trans-national nature of the organization, and we all need to see hope where we can, but this seems way far fetched.
His overall reformist and EU-centric views are also something i am not really comfortable with. While i do see their pragmatism and the need for broad alliances, i think these can only be used as stepping stones towards more radical approaches. History shows that ambivalence, half-baked attempts and the logic of “lesser evil” do not really serve well in the long run if left to their own devices.
Foti for example speaks of free trade as alternative to war, which is true to some extent. But he does in this context also speak of the invalidation of treaties such as NAFTA TTIP and the like by Trump as a setback, without a word of critique on the treaties themselves. If you know anything about the treaties or the way they are negotiated and enforced, this is deeply problematic.
As for the EU, i find his thesis of defending and preserving it problematic too, both from an ideological and a pragmatic POV. While the EU is certainly the most progressive-looking among state apparatuses today, you don’t have to dig too deep to find its true nature. That has justifiably got it a bad name, which the nationalist populists are riding on, and a movement that would associate itself with the EU has no chance of appealing to the disenfranchised.
While i am all for internationalism, a union of europeans would have to be reinvented and rebranded to stand any chance of success. Hoping to simply capture the deeply flawed and malfunctioning cross-state apparatus that is the EU and fix it from within, while not breaking with its practices and trademarks is a doomed strategy imho. Just look how that worked for Syriza – been trying to make that point forever, sorry to see it proven.
But the most serious flaw i see is the assesment of the precariat’s position and leverage as referred to in the final part of the book. The claim there is that the precariat owns the means of production (smartphones, laptops etc), therefore if it becomes a class per se and claims its role in the productive process it can interfere with it and influence things.
“In a networked information economy, it is the precarious, not the capitalists, that control the strategic means of production – the computing power of connected smartphones and PCs – and enable the production and distribution of information, culture, and knowledge, through networks which are making the age of mass media obsolete”.
Wishful thinking at best, but flawed and dangerous. This is hard to explain for someone who has otherwise been so diligent in his economic analysis and classification of different sub-layers of the precariat in previous parts of the book. It’s certainly not true for the service precariat or platform users. It’s not even worth analyzing how (most) Amazon or Wal-Mart workers have nothing to do with this.
Uber or Foodora drivers may be owners of their vehicles for example, but what really makes the wheels turn are the platforms (algorithms and data) and they have no access to those. That is not to say they are powerless and they should not unionize etc, but it’s an important distinction.
Similarly, social media users do not directly produce value for the platforms, they mainly act as a target audience for advertisers. Fleeing en masse would put pressure on the platforms, data sovereignity and control issues can and should be raised, but it makes no sense to classify this as a traditional employer – employee relationship and this heterogenous crowd has very little potential for common awareness and action.
The only part of the precariat for which this somewhat applies is the cognitive precariat. Software and data engineers, content creators, artists etc are indeed the owners of the means of production since in that case production is mostly cognitive and digital.
Even they however they have no ownership of the networks required to distribute and run their products en masse (cloud and web platforms) and they must either pay (both money and skills-time) to use them, or rely on one-off contracts without redistribution, hence non scalable.” (https://www.facebook.com/ganadiotis/posts/10159815548640322?)