The precariat, a class-in-the-making, is the first mass class in history that has systematically been losing rights built up for citizens. So, why is it the new dangerous class and how is it differentiated from other class groups in the evolving global labour process?
Ways of looking at the world are rarely wholly right or wrong; they are more or less useful, depending on the images they convey and the questions they prompt. Much recent debate around the precariat has been overly dominated by claims from the far-left that it is not a class. Jan Breman, writing in the New Left Review, has argued this in strident terms in attacking the ideas in my book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. The editor of the Review refused me a right to reply: openDemocracy has offered me this space to clarify why it seems useful to use class images.
Judging by reactions to The Precariat around the world, many people do grasp the concept and identify themselves as being in the precariat.
As more people come to understand their situation in the precariat, recognition will translate into a common consciousness and become a force for change. Instead of despair, inadequacy or bewilderment, feelings could soon move through the gears, from passivity to resistance to active movement.
The precariat has class characteristics: it can be defined in relation to other groups and consists of people sharing three similar class features, all tendencies or trends. First, the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations. Unlike the norm for the proletariat, the precariat has insecure labour, flitting in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.
Of course, there has always been casual labour. This in itself does not distinguish the precariat. The key point is that the precariat is subjected to what I call precariatisation – habituation to expecting a life of unstable labour and unstable living. Breman claims I say men are experiencing precariatisation (although he misquotes the word) as loss of status. But precariatisation refers not to loss of status, but to the opposite of proletarianisation – an habituation to stable wage labour – a much-used concept deployed by historians in analysing what happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Precariatisation is about loss of control over time and the development and use of one’s capabilities.
In addition, the modal member of the precariat is unlike the old proletarian in having a level of formal schooling that is well above the level of the job he or she is expected to do. This is historically unique. Unlike the classic proletarian, who at best learned a craft or skill at an early age and if successful could rise from journeyman to artisan to master craftsman or supervisor, the precariat is expected to learn and relearn myriad tricks and develop social, emotional and communication skills that exceed anything demanded of the proletarian.
This is precariat skilling, fleeting, costly to acquire, easy to lose. It goes with lack of any occupational narrative members of the precariat can give to their working lives. Some do not have any occupational identity. Possibly even worse is the situation of those initially set on a course to acquire an occupational identity only to have it snatched away, again and again.
In Marxian terms, one can say that whereas the old proletariat tended to perform labour that was consistent with its labour power, the labour performed by members of the new precariat is well below their labour power, their capacities.
There is another aspect of the precariat’s distinctive relations of production, emphasised in the book and largely ignored by critics such as Breman. The precariat typically must do much more unpaid “work-for-labour” relative to paid labour than the proletariat ever did. The latter was exploited in the workplace, in paid working time. Today’s precariat must usually work off the job and outside remunerated hours or days as well as on them. They must also do a great deal of work outside their labour, in seeking jobs and in appeasing the state, by queuing, form filling, retraining, and so on.
These factors give the precariat its distinctive relations of production. For Breman and other critics such as Ronaldo Munck to say the precariat is simply the same as the proletariat is to miss all those differences and more.
A second defining feature is that the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution. This means its sources of income differ from those of other groups. As elaborated in The Precariat, it receives almost all income in the form of money wages; it does not receive the array of enterprise non-wage benefits that the salariat and proletariat have normally received and does not receive rights-based state benefits. Its reliance on money wages means the precariat cannot be equated with the “vast informal sectors” referred to by Breman, outside wage labour markets.
Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. This means that those in the precariat have fewer and weaker civil, cultural, social, political and economic rights than others in the pecking order of average income. The precariat is the first mass class in history that has systematically been losing rights built up for citizens.
Breman, not an expert on labour markets, makes a familiar social democratic assertion in saying that the pursuit of labour “flexibilisation” has created “jobless growth”. Globally, this is wrong. There are more jobs than at any time in history, defined as the number of people doing wage labour, both in OECD countries and in emerging market economies. Which country has lower employment today than at the beginning of the globalisation era?
The predicament is not jobless growth but almost the opposite, “growth-less jobs” – the spread of low productivity jobs with low wages and almost no non-wage benefits. As argued in The Precariat and elsewhere, the liberalisation of economies in the dis-embedded phase of the Global Transformation trebled the world’s labour supply to the open market economy. This is the single most important factor shaping the emerging class structure, for it fundamentally weakened the bargaining position of workers everywhere.
Anybody who has worked in countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, as I have, will know that the proliferation of labour market flexibility measures coincided with the largest expansion of jobs in the history of humanity. Breman’s perspective avoids coming to grips with the emergence of what is a global labour process, rather than, as he characterises it, a set of national “labour regimes”.
A pigeon-holing dead-end
Having worked for three decades in the International Labour Organisation (ILO), I feel confident in identifying a global convergence in labour regulations and policies. For instance, in the 1980s, I authored, co-authored or supervised assessments of trends in labour flexibility in nine European countries, including those supposedly as different as Sweden and Spain. Contrary to Breman’s claim that there was no push for flexibility in continental Europe at that time, the books show a continent in the throes of structural change.
Of course there were institutional differences, but similar trends occurred in every country. Breman’s intellectual preference for “national labour regimes” is reminiscent of the “welfare state regimes” proposed by Gøsta Esping-Andersen in a famous book of 1990, which cascaded into hybrids, confusing generations of students given the task of pigeonholing countries, and producing thousands of articles that led nowhere. No sooner had a country been identified as a particular regime than structural reforms changed it. Thus the Sweden of today, with nearly one quarter of its youth unemployed and with inequality rising faster than in any other OECD country, is profoundly different from the one it was in 1980.
As for the global trend towards flexible labour markets and practices, having conducted enterprise surveys in over 20 countries, I would suggest that the labour practices of firms around the world today have more in common with each other than with the labour practices of their national firms of 30 years ago. Be that as it may, I can say that in a survey of 3,000 industrial firms in Malaysia in the late 1980s it was evident they were changing to operate with flexible labour relations even then.
Indeed, it was that work and similar surveys in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia that first convinced me that the trend was a global one and that it had implications for the class fragmentation that was later presented in a series of books, notably Global Labour Flexibility (1999), Work after Globalization (2009) and The Precariat. For Breman and Munck to claim the conceptualisation derives solely from developments in the UK or “the North Atlantic” is quite wrong.
Then we come to Breman’s main tirade. He notes the vast number of people in developing countries who live in bad conditions in the “informal economy”, and claims: “In principle, Standing would like to consider these down-and-out masses as part of the precariat.” No, he would not.
As it happens, I have spent much of the past decade working in villages in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in India, notably working with SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India) in implementing a basic income pilot scheme covering thousands of villagers. The fact that they are extremely “poor”, lacking income and access to the most basic means of living, does not mean they are part of the precariat. But I do believe there is a growing precariat in India, notably in the 53 cities that already have over a million inhabitants, where there is a growing number of young people with university education scrambling for careers.
I have long argued that it makes no analytical sense to compress peasants, petty producers, street traders and casual labourers into a single notion of an informal sector.
Breman asserts that I talk about a “bad precariat” and a “good precariat”, terms I have never used. However, the precariat is still a class-in-the-making because it is internally divided into three groups, which for brevity might be called Atavists, Nostalgics and Progressives. The first consists of those falling out of old proletarian communities, whose parents had traditional manual jobs and lives. This group is alienated, anomic, anxious and angry because it cannot reproduce a past, and is inclined to listen to populist politicians blaming migrants or “skivers” for their situation.
The Nostalgics are classic denizens, being migrants or ethnic minorities, unable to relate to a lost home, without a present. They too are alienated, anomic, anxious and angry, but tend to keep their heads down politically, with occasional days of rage when they feel their space or freedoms are being excessively encroached.
The third and potentially most progressive group consists largely of educated people who feel denied a future, a sense that they can build their lives and careers, after being promised their qualifications would lead to that. They experience a sense of relative deprivation or status frustration. This is becoming a source of immense stress. For instance, according to the Economic Policy Institute, in the USA in 2012, 46% of those in low-wage jobs had university education, up from 17% in 1968, while the average wage in such jobs had fallen in real terms. Over three-quarters of all those in low-wage jobs had at least high-school diplomas.
Class consciousness and voice
The way this is put in a new book, is that the precariat must become enough of a class-for-itself in order to abolish itself. In other words, only when enough people in the precariat see themselves as part of a group facing similar challenges will they gain the social strength to demand a common set of changes. Roughly speaking, this was what happened to the proletariat in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In the development of national industrial capitalism, a wide range of types of people were subject to proletarianisation – that is, subject to the disciplines and dictates of stable wage labour, accepting the commands of industrial managers. Of course, not every worker was in stable jobs. But as industrial capitalism and the system of industrial citizenship took shape, the modal proletarian was an employee in a subordinated full-time job promised dependent security in return for the acceptance of the right of management to manage.
My contention since the 1980s has been that rather than rely on elaborate regulations to strengthen the seven forms of labour-related security, which was the agenda of labour unions and labour parties in the twentieth century, and which defined the social democratic tradition, now in the Global Transformation two meta needs or securities should be pursued – basic income security and strong representation security.
In other words, it is essential to strengthen the bargaining capacities of everyone vis-à-vis capital and the state. I do not downplay this aspect, as Bremen claims. Strong unions are needed to represent employees but, in addition, new forms of collective association are required to give the precariat Voice in all relevant forums, inside and outside workplaces, and above all in confronting the state.
The precariat is a new dangerous class partly because it rejects all the old mainstream political ideologies and because it is intuitively transformative. One of the most subversive pieces of graffiti that captures that point was daubed on a Madrid wall: “The worst thing would be to return to the old normal.”
Another way of putting it is that whereas the modal proletarian, and his representatives, aspired to stable full-time wage labour stretching into his future, the modal member of the precariat aspires to achieve an enriching array of work activities in building occupational freedom. There is a difference.
Guy Standing is Professor of Development Studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, and co-president of BIEN, an NGO set up in 1986 that promotes basic income as a right.
Read the full article here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/guy-standing/why-precariat-is-not-“bogus-concept”