General Theory of the Precariat is essential reading for all commoners that want to think through the right strategy for social change. It squarely places itself from the point of few of the new social groups (or classes in formation, as its author, Alex Foti would have it) that have grown under the conditions of neoliberalism and its decline — or in other words, under the emergence of cognitive capitalism or ‘informationalism’. These key groups are the various constituent parts of the precariat: all the people who can no longer work with dependable classic labor contracts and the steady income and protection deriving from them.
This book should be read through to its end, i.e. chapter five, because its first four chapters on the precariat are only set in a more complex geopolitical context in that final chapter. To be honest, I was quite reactive at times during the reading of the first four chapters, because two very important structural elements were missing in Foti’s analysis. First is the commons itself, the other side of the antagonistic struggles of the precariat; and second is the ecological crisis, the very material conditions under which this struggle must occur today. Foti indeed calls for economic and monetary growth, and sounds like an unabashed neo-Keynesian, but only in the last chapter does he stress that this growth should be thermodynamically sound (i.e. he calls for monetary growth, but not growth in material services). Foti also almost completely ignores the role of the commons and ‘commonalism’ in the first four chapters, only acknowledging in a few parts of chapter 5, that it is a vital, constituent part of the precarious condition. If you don’t read chapter 5, you could mistakenly see Foti’s analysis as an exercise in re-imagining the class dynamics and compromises of the New Deal and post-WWII European welfare states, simply replacing working class with precariat, working class parties with social populism, and the New Deal with a social compact for green capitalism. For example, it would have really helped to know from the beginning that Foti realizes that material growth is impossible, something not clear in his language until the last chapter.
So, the fact that this is a remarkably well thought-out book about contemporary strategy for social change should be tempered by a few paradoxes that the author has not completely resolved.
Indeed, at the heart of the book also lies an enduring paradox: Foti calls for the most radical forms of conflict, and identifies with the more radical cultural minorities, acknowledging their anticapitalist and anarchist ethos, yet calls for mere reformism as a focus and outcome. This is, therefore, not a book about transforming our societies to post-capitalist logics; this is a book about a new reformism. This is a book against neoliberalism, not against capitalism. At times, it is plain ‘capitalist realism’, as Foti explicitly acknowledges that he sees no dynamic value creation outside of capitalism. For Foti, it is clear that if sufficient conflict and precariat self-organisation can occur, then a new regulation of capitalism can occur. He justifies this by a detailed analysis of the different regulatory modes of capitalism (Smith-ism, Fordism, jobs-ism) and how they relate to the Kondratieff economic cycles, drawing on the insights of Carlota Perez and others. Foti distinguishes crises of demand, where there is too much accumulation of capital, and not enough distribution. These crises, he says, are essentially reformist crises as people mobilize to restore balance in the redistribution, but not against the system per se. The crisis of the 30s and the crisis after 2008 are such crises, he convincingly argues. Other crises are caused by a failing supply, due to over-regulation of capital and falling profit rates, such as the crisis of the 70s, and these crises, which are inflationary, are revolutionary. This distinction between crises of accumulation and crises of regulation is, in my opinion, very insightful and true. This recognition may, of course, be troubling, but if true, we must take serious stock of it. We simply are not in revolutionary times right now, but rather in a struggle between national populism and social populism. From this analysis, Foti then argues that the first priority is for the precariat to re-regulate for a distribution of wealth, much like the old working class achieved after WWII.
But even if we acknowledge this conjuncture, I would argue that Foti insufficiently balances his outlook between reforming capitalism and constructing post-capitalism, between antagonistic conflict and positive construction of the new. He argues that without income, there can be no such construction. This is very likely true, so we need to rebalance redistribution in a way that income growth can lead to immaterial growth compatible with the ecological limits of our planet, and use these surpluses to transform societal structures. Foti calls for social (or ‘eco’ populist) movements and coalitions as the political means to that end, pointing to Podemos and En Comu, and perhaps Sanders and Corbyn, as such forces, supported by to-be created Precariat Syndicates. He also puts forward the thesis that the enemy is national populism, an alliance between retrograde fossil fuel capitalism and the salariat. On the other side, we find a possible alliance of green capitalism (a real effort, not a marketing ploy) with the precariat, with the former fighting for top-down coalition and the second for bottom-up regulation. This division of the working class is, in my view, far too stark and perhaps even defeatist. I would very strongly argue to seek alliances and develop policies that can give hope to the salariat. The thrust of our work for the Commons Transition aims at precisely that. (Elsewhere in the book, Foti does call for an alliance with progressive middle classes, but if these are not the workers with jobs, where then are these?)
Foti correctly critiques, in my view, people like Mason and Rifkin for failing to problematize the post-capitalist transition. They make it seem like an inexorable process if not affirming that we are already post-capitalist, as some others do, but in my view, Foti himself fails to pay proper attention to this transition. What if the re-regulation of capitalism doesn’t work, for example? Then at some point, say in about 30 years, as Kondratieff cycles would indicate, we would still face a crisis of over-regulation, and a more revolutionary moment. For Foti, we have to take it on faith that green capitalism will be a successful new regulatory mode of capitalism. What if it turns out to be a unworkable compromise and that more drastic action is needed? But Foti has no faith in alternatives to capitalism, which means that the only alternatives would then be eco-fascism as a new feudalism with only consumption for the rich, lifeboat eco-hacking, a situation akin to that of medieval communes, or dictatorial eco-maoism — say, Cuba on a global scale.
Contra this ‘capitalist realism’, our contention at the P2P Foundation is that post-capitalism is both necessary and possible, even if we recognize that today is possibly a reformist moment in that evolution/transformation. In that context, the construction of seed forms, the recognition of other forms of value creation (which can be monetized!), of other forms of self-organization, are absolutely a vital side of the coin in the dialectic of construction and conflict. Foti seems to forget that the traditional working class did not simply ‘fight’, but constructed cooperatives (both consumer coops and producer coops), unions, parties, mutualities and many fraternal/sororal organizations. The very generalization of the welfare system was an extension, by means of the state, of the solidarity mechanisms of the working class, which had taken decades to develop. But vitally, the identity of the working class itself was always more than a mere reaction to capitalism: this was a movement toward another type of society, whether expressed through socialism, social-democracy, anarchism, and other variants. When that hope was all but lost, that was also the end of the strength and identity of working class movements. There can be no offensive social strategy without a strong social imaginary, and reformist designs alone won’t do. So commonalism (Foti’s term for what we’d call “commoning”) is not just something that we do when we come home from work, or tired from our conflictual organizing against an enemy from whom we want mere redistribution. On the contrary, it is vital part of the class formation and identity. This is why we stress our identity as not just precariat, which is a negative formulation that characterizes us as the weaker victims of the capitalist class, but as commoners, the multitude of co-constructors of viable futures that correspond to contemporary, emancipatory desires. We cannot simply trust green capitalism; we vitally need to build thermodynamically sound and mutualized provisioning systems as commons, even if we have to compromise with capitalism. Post-capitalism should not be essentialized as something occuring ‘after the revolution’, but as an ongoing process, dynamically inter-linked with political self-organizing and conflict. In this book, Foti is only really good at conflict. Even if we look at conflict, I would argue that the strength of the reformist compromise after WWII was very much linked to the fear of the flawed alternative that existed, and that the forms of compromise were the result of decades of invention of new forms.
If we take that view, then I believe the contradiction in Foti’s book can be resolved. In that case, we do not have to ask the radical precariat to give up its values for a reformist compromise, but to productively combine them with a radically transformative post-capitalist practice.
There is another issue with Foti’s book. He strongly stresses the superdiversity of the precariat, and the key role of gender and race/migration unity in their struggles. He also mentions en passe the need for a potential Eurasian alignment between Europe and China, now that the Atlantic unity has been broken by Trump. But, at the same time, this is really a very Eurocentric book, calling for a new compromise in Europe and ‘advanced western states’. Obviously, since in the Global South it is the salariat and proletariat which are growing, there is a theoretical difficulty here. But what if, as we contend at the P2P Foundation, a thermodynamically sound economy would require a cosmo-localization of our global economy combining global sharing of knowledge with substantial relocalization of physical production (as even big bank reports now recognize)? Only if we acknowledge this, can we actually have a new global view of solidarity, as both elements benefit workers, salaried and precarious, in the whole world.
In conclusion, I find Foti’s book to be an excellent first half of a book, which would have been much better and sound if it had more extensively struggled with the commons equation of the precariat. The commons is not something we do ‘afterwards’, after a successful New Green Deal; it is something that is as ongoing and vital. Theoretically, in a few paragraphs at the end of the book, Foti seems to recognize this but does not integrate it in his strategic vision, or only marginally.
Readers who miss this aspect could look at the ten years of research and analysis the P2P Foundation has conducted on that other half of the equation. However, we may suffer from the other weakness. We have intentionally not focused on the conflict part — the natural inclination of the left, which needs no help. Instead, we focus on showing how the self-organization and construction of commons (which inevitably comes with conflict) is just as essential a part of the programmatic alternatives of the precariat. Not only as proposals of electoral parties and syndicates, but as expressions of actual practice. Our orientation is to try to achieve a greater understanding by emancipatory forces — of the salariat, the precariat, and progressive entrepreneurial groups — of the importance of integrating the commons as a programmatic element in their struggles and proposals. We will probably retain our bias towards the constructive side of the equation, fully aware that this alone is insufficient, and requires the kind of understanding of struggle and its attendant strategies as provided by Foti.
In conclusion, Foti’s enduring quality is to have systematically worked out what the conflict part of the equation entails, and that is a very important achievement. Bearing in mind what we think is missing in this book, there is nonetheless much to be learned. I believe that among the different perspectives and weaknesses in the approaches of people like Foti and the commons-centric approaches of the P2P Foundation (and others), there is ample room for convergence and mutual enrichment.