Build A Precariat Strategy

Our guest author today is Guy Standing, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

All forward marches towards more freedom and equality are led by and for the emerging mass class, not by and for yesterday’s. Today, the political left in America and Europe is in disarray because they have not taken heed of that historical lesson. Trump is one nightmarish outcome of that failure.

Today’s mass class is the precariat, not the old industrial proletariat. It is scarcely news to say we are in the eye of the storm of the Global Transformation, the painful construction of a global market system. The crisis, analogous to the crisis moment of the Great Transformation that preceded it, is epitomised by the aggressive populism of Trump, playing on the fears, deprivations and insecurities that had been allowed to grow in the preceding three decades.

But the left needs to step back from entering the vortex of the storm Trump is generating, to reflect on a strategic response, to build a new vision of a Good Society that responds to the insecurities and aspirations of the precariat.

The neo-liberal economics that underpinned the first phase of globalization has been combined with the construction of a system of rentier capitalism and an ongoing technological revolution to produce not only a second Gilded Age but also grotesque inequalities that have ushered in a new global class structure. Rentier capitalism is a corruption, because those building and supporting the institutional architecture over the past thirty years have been telling a great lie, that they favor and support free markets. In the process, they have created the most unfree market ever (Standing 2016). One result is that the 20th century income distribution system has broken down irretrievably.

As elaborated in a trilogy of books, a tiny plutocracy has emerged, earning most of their fabulous income and wealth from various forms of property – physical, financial and “intellectual.” Below them is an elite of multi-millionaires serving the plutocrats and the plutocratic corporations. A long way below them is a salariat, a shrinking share of the adult population in salaried positions with employment security, occupational pensions, paid holidays and the like. Alongside them is a group of proficians, making pots of money as consultants and the like.

A long way below them is the old proletariat, for whom labor unions and social democratic political parties and the welfare states were built. That is shrinking everywhere, and has neither the energy nor vision to form the basis of a sensible progressive strategy. That is not to say those in it should be disregarded. But, if the left and unions continue to focus on that group, and use the language and tactics suited to it, they will continue to alienate the emerging, already larger group beneath them in terms of average incomes.

This is where the precariat is located. Before considering how to define it, note that there is an under-class beneath it, consisting of all the social victims of the economic system, dying prematurely in the streets, literally as well as metaphorically.

The precariat can be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive work relations. Those in it are being forced to accept unstable labor of various forms, with crowd labor on the horizon, threatening to transform labor markets. This is not the most important aspect of the precariat, but it is the one that casual commentators stress. Much more important is that those in the precariat have no occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives, nor any corporate narrative. And they have to do a lot of what I call “work-for-labor,” work that is not recognised statistically or politically but which they must do or pay a price for not doing so. Unlike the old proletariat, they are exploited off workplaces and outside paid labor time, as well as on and in them. Finally, as far as work is concerned, those in the precariat typically have a level of formal “education” (schooling) above what is required in the jobs they usually can obtain.

The second dimension is that the precariat has a distinctive form of income. Those in it must rely almost entirely on money wages, without access to non-wage benefits, such as paid holidays, paid medical leave, or the prospect of an employer-based pension. And the real value of those wages has been declining and become increasingly volatile. This means they are living on the edge of unsustainable debt, where one accident or spell of ill-health, or just a bad decision, could lead them into financial ruin. They also do not have access to rights-based social protection, or informal networks of social support, in times of distress. This puts them in horrible poverty traps, undermining the incentive to take low-wage jobs.

The third dimension, to my mind, is the worst of all in the longer-term. The precariat has been losing all forms of rights – civil, cultural, social, economic, and political. I have documented this trend in the second book (Standing 2015). The bottom line is that the precariat are being reduced to being supplicants, having to ask for favours, for charity, for help that is given discretionally.    

This combination of characteristics is unprecedented. The precariat is today’s dangerous class, in that it is still internally divided and its more progressive parts reject the old social democratic agenda and vocabulary. The first faction in the precariat I have called the Atavists, those who have fallen out of old working-class communities or families. They look back to “better times,” and, having relatively little civic education, they will continue to vote for populist neo-fascists, who offer a toxic mix of neo-nationalism, evangelical codswallop, barely concealed racism and misogyny, and machismo. They will only be wheeled away from that course when an attractive alternative strategy takes shape and is articulated coherently in a new vocabulary.

Fortunately, there is also a progressive faction in the precariat, those who feel they are being denied a Future, a progressive politics. When it comes, they will have the energy and motivation to lead the next forward march.

In Europe and in some parts of south-east Asia a precariat politics is taking shape. The unions in the U.S. must engage in building a strategy oriented to the needs and aspirations of the precariat. If they did so, working with nascent precariat movements across the country, it would revive the union movement and help develop a progressive response to the vulgar politics of Trump and his court. There is genuinely a fantastic opportunity to develop a new progressive strategy. We must stop complaining and using up energy fighting yesterday’s battles.