Precarious or precariat?

The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.
–Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

DESPITE BEING written over 150 years ago at a time when capitalism and large-scale manufacturing were very much limited to England, Germany, Holland, and parts of France, the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels remain a central reference point for any discussion of revolutionary agency.

Workers, they argued, sold their labor as a commodity, but labor was unique in that it was a commodity that had the ability to produce value. Workers themselves produced the tremendous wealth created in our society, although this was obscured by the workings of the market and the ideological justifications of the ruling class. In rising up against their own conditions, workers had the potential to both overthrow their own exploitation and class society as a whole.

One of the strengths of Marx and Engels’s analysis was that it understood that the composition of the working class was constantly changing with the development of capitalism itself. The centrality of the working class did not rest on the type of work performed, the color of their collars, or even whether workers initially saw themselves as part of a united, self-conscious class. It was their relationship to capital and their own exploitation that placed them in a unique position in society and ultimately provoked them to fight back—initially in defense of their own immediate aims but also initiating a process that could lead to a wider identification with their interests as a class.

Marx and Engels distinguished between the working class as an objective empirical group (atomized individuals thrown together as part of capitalist production) and the working class as a subjective revolutionary agent (conscious of its own power and class aims), which they described as the difference between a “class-in-itself” and a “class-for-itself.” Class struggle was necessary not only as a means to defend the conditions of workers, but also as part of the process by which the working class would become conscious of itself as capable of changing society.

Any contemporary discussion about the nature of global capitalism is inevitably a discussion of revolutionary agency: how have structural changes in the world economy affected the prospects for radical or revolutionary change and what group or groups have the power to bring that change about?

The onslaught of the most recent global crisis and the proliferation of a series of mass movements from Tunisia to Egypt to Greece, and in the United States Occupy Wall Street has led to a number of attempts to come to grips with the nature of these movements and the larger implications they have on the project of social transformation. Some commentators on the left have identified the prominence of street demonstrations and occupations of public space and the relative lack of industrial militancy of workers as the defining features of these new movements. They tie this analysis to an argument that broader structural changes in capitalism have weakened the link between capital and labor, thereby displacing the revolutionary proletariat of Marx and Engels with a more atomized, fragmented, multitude whose relationship to work and production is much more tenuous. This new social force has been dubbed the “precariat.”

The precariat
Guy Standing is the writer most identified within the English-speaking world with popularizing the concept of the precariat. In his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, he lays out a popular overview of his more academic research into the impact of neoliberalism on labor relations and the emergence of what he sees as a new rising class.

Standing begins with the far-reaching changes to the global system of capitalist production that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism. Driven by the desire to open up the international circuits of production, trade, and investment, these neoliberals “disliked the state, which they equated with centralized government, with its planning and regulatory apparatus. They saw the world as an increasingly open place, where investment, employment and income would flow to where conditions were most welcoming.”1

As production became “de-territorialized,” Standing argues, so too did notions of stable, long-term employment. Stable jobs were replaced with offshoring, temporary contracts, casual labor, and peripheral and informal economies. What remains is not the traditional stand off between capital and class-conscious industrial workers that Marx described above, but a fluid, free-floating group whose relationship to production is tenuous at best and who lack a sense of clear class identification.

This fluidity makes it difficult to get a handle on exactly who is being described as the precariat. It is not, Standing admits, a homogenous group. It cannot be defined by its particular relationship to work, by a particular political outlook or aims:

The teenager who flits in and out of the internet café while surviving on fleeting jobs is not the same as the migrant who uses his wits to survive, networking feverishly while worrying about the police. Neither is similar to the single mother fretting where the money for next week’s food bills is coming from or the man in his 60s who takes casual jobs to help pay medical bills.2

Standing thus defines the precariat broadly as those who face a number of related and often overlapping insecurities: “labour market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security.”3

But even so, it is sometimes hard to understand the delimitations of this definition. In his section on defining the precariat, Standing examines the student labor force, temporary and contract workers, interns, elderly workers, migrants and immigrant workforces, women, incarcerated prisoners and those released from prison who continue to live under the shadow of past convictions, and even the millions of Chinese migrant workers, Standing admits, “who might fit the image of an industrial proletariat, but . . . are treated as a disposable itinerant labour force.”4

This difficulty in defining a common condition or outlook for the precariat means that for much of the book, the precariat is defined much more by what it is not, than by what it is—repeatedly counterposing it to Standing’s image of an industrial proletariat defined by stability and security:

The precariat was not part of the “working class” or the “proletariat.” The latter terms suggest a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.5

But it is striking here that a great deal of how one understands the precariat depends on how one defines the “proletariat.” The image above represents a very narrow picture of the working class. To the extent that it depicts the reality of working-class life, it is certainly limited to a particular strata of workers in the industrialized economies in the last generation, who as the result of the labor struggles of previous generations were able to attain a degree of security and advancement during the postwar boom. Prior to the 1940s, few of the attributes listed above would apply to workers even in the industrialized world. And even today, in much of the Global South, few would apply to even the most stereotypical image of the proletariat as industrial, blue-collar workers.

If our understanding of the working class is determined not by social status and class identification or the stability of employment, but rather by its relation to capital and the capitalist production process, we can view a working class that is constantly evolving, that includes large sections of the white-collar workforce, sections of the urban poor, and informal sectors. The increase in precariousness then is perhaps better understood not as the replacement of one class by another, but as a concerted assault on the part of capital to roll back the gains that a particular generation of workers was able to attain to reestablish a more unequal balance of class forces that favors capital over labor.

This may seem like a semantic question. The increasing precariousness faced by workers under neoliberalism is difficult to deny. Why focus on a defense of a definition of class and the working class that was developed over 150 years ago under very different circumstances?

It should be noted that Standing’s real target here is not an assault on the Marxist concept of the working class as revolutionary agent, but those traditional Social-Democratic parties that see “the answer to precarious labor in a return to the ‘labourist’ model they had been so instrumental in cementing in the mid-twentieth century—more stable jobs with long-term employment security and the benefit trappings that went with that.”6 And here, Standing is strongest in criticizing the idea that we can simply return to the labor-capital partnerships that dominated the industrialized economies during the long boom. The neoliberals have torn up those agreements. The unions and Social-Democratic parties that remain wedded to them with increasingly little to show for it both disarm their membership in their ability to fight and offer little in the way of hope to young workers who have little interest in being partners in the global capitalist system.

But Marx’s emphasis on defining the working class through its relationship to capital was important because Marx understood that a class couldn’t be defined by its outward trappings or immediate circumstances: its conditions of work, its level of consciousness, its clothing, habits, or its accent. These things were often related to class position, but couldn’t be reduced to it. It was the common position of workers vis-à-vis capital that created the potential for the development of class consciousness. Their common exploitation forced them to fight back; their production of surplus value gave them a unique power to both interrupt the making of profit and (in moments of intense class struggle) to reappropriate the production process under its own control. And finally, their lack of ownership of the means of production forced workers to fight back collectively and to see their interests in the end of class exploitation as a whole.

The emphasis on the working class was not meant to exclude other groups from Marx’s analysis or blind Marxists to other forms of oppression, but Marx and Engels did see the working class as central to uniting a broader, more diverse coalition of the oppressed and exploited around a project of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The point of singling out the working class was not to privilege it to the exclusion of other struggles, but to locate a revolutionary agent who in struggling for its own immediate interests had the potential to lead a struggle against class domination in general.

This points to an important limitation in looking to the precariat as a rising class. When looking at a list of demands that Standing proposes as a way of consolidating a political movement of the precariat (including, but not limited to, increased access to education, labor mobility across borders, increased access to ongoing employment, combatting workfare and conditionality) the attainment of any number of these would serve not to consolidate the precariat, but to move its members out of the precariat into a position that much more accurately resembles Standing’s earlier, more limited definitions of the working class.

As the radical French sociologist Loïc Wacquant has pointed out:

[T]he precariat is a sort of still-born group, whose gestation is necessarily unfinished since one can work to consolidate it only to help its members flee from it, either by finding a haven in stable wage labour or by escaping from the world of work altogether (through social redistribution and state protection). Contrary to the proletariat in the Marxist vision of history, which is called upon to abolish itself in the long term by uniting and universalizing itself, the precariat can only make itself to immediately unmake itself.”7

Even if we concede the assumption that the precariat is an independent class (and as noted above and in what follows there are several reasons for disputing this assumption), we are faced with a class whose rising power would increasingly lead to its own dissolution.

A new capitalism?
Kevin Doogan’s The New Capitalism?: The Transformation of Work was written two years before Standing’s book, but in many ways it serves as a direct rebuttal to the theories that underlie Standing’s theories and is an important challenge to the notion that capitalism has entered a qualitatively different phase marked by new labor relations that sever the bonds between labor and capital. One of Doogan’s criticisms is that much of the writing supporting this theory seems to actively frustrate both historical precedent and empirical challenge.

We are told that this new capitalism is without historical antecedent, a world unlike anything that came before. Alvin Toffler’s seminal 1970 book Future Shock made perhaps the most striking claim that the technology revolution was the greatest transformation ever seen by human civilization: “The present moment represents nothing less than the second great divide in human history, comparable in magnitude only with that first great break in historical continuity, the shift from barbarism to civilization.”viii At the same time these changes are often described in such a way as to make empirical verification impossible. One of Doogan’s goals, as he puts it, is to “re-materialize” the debate.

Doogan spends a great deal of time in the book presenting statistical evidence showing that casualization and the growth of part-time employment has not been the norm over the past forty years. He notes that part-time employment has never surpassed roughly 5 percent of the US workforce. For OECD countries as a whole, the rate of temporary employment is approximately 12 percent, a modest increase from just over 10 percent in 1985. Doogan notes that most of the available figures precede the onset of the latest global crisis. We can assume that rates have increased in recent years, but he argues that there is little statistical evidence that there has been a quantifiable transformation of the labor market towards casualization in the past forty years.

One of the many strengths of Doogan’s book is that in placing the argument in quantifiable terms, he also places the current debates within a historical context. He shows that there is a line of arguments about the rise of a postindustrial capitalism and the end of work that extends back through André Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1982) to Toffler (1970) to Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1974), and if you want to look further, to the originator of the term “postindustrial society,” Arthur Penty (1917). The arguments for a new capitalism have been with us for quite a while.

By tracing the history of the arguments, Doogan allows for some historical comparisons to be made. He notes that what was significant about the recession of 1989–91 and those that have followed was that they were the first recessions in which within OECD countries mass layoffs hit the white-collar workforce. The feeling of precariousness had been something long felt among manual workers: “The experience of employment insecurity for manual workers in the production industries has been a feature of life since the beginning of industrial capitalism,” writes Doogan, “as witnessed by Friedrich Engels’ writings on the conditions of the working class in Manchester in the middle of the nineteenth century.”9 But one reason for the increase in feelings of insecurity from 1990 onward was that for the first time, the threat of losing your job was being faced on a mass scale by those who had felt protected during earlier economic downturns. “A much broader sense of anxiety about employment prospects spread across occupational groups, which instilled a general mood of pessimism in the workforce.”10 It wasn’t so much the emergence of a delinked underclass that was leading to an increased feeling of insecurity, but the proletarianization of sections of the professional class.

Doogan also takes on the notion that changes in the capitalist production process are driving the shifts in labor relations. He points to an important contradiction in the “new capitalism” argument: the focus on the supposed declining role of production while arguing that it is the needs of production that are driving the shifts in the relations and conditions of the majority of the working class.

Doogan points out that in the developed world a minority of workers are directly involved in production. A large percentage are employed in areas that relate to the reproduction of the labor force—its education, health care, and welfare. While these workers are very much part of the working class and subject to oppression and exploitation, their conditions are not determined directly by their relation to the production process. He argues that the labor market has to be seen as responding both to changes in production, and, primarily, to the needs of the reproduction of labor.

From its inception, capitalism has faced a contradiction: the end of unfree labor released the exploiting class from the requirements of maintaining their labor force, but provided no clear means for reproducing future generations of laborers. Slaveowners had to feed and clothe their slaves and support children until they were old enough to work (although slaveowners managed to reduce all those things to the very bare minimum). Capitalists, on the other hand, are not responsible for the maintenance of their workforce; they simply pay wages in return for labor. As individual capitalists, the reproduction of that labor force is of no concern to them, but for the system as whole it is, and there has been a consistent struggle from the early days of capitalism about who would bear the cost of that reproduction. Would it be forced onto the private sphere of the family and disproportionally onto the labor of women in the home, or would it be socialized and borne as a public service?

The history of the struggles to define who would pay the cost of this reproduction could be a book in itself, but what is crucial for Doogan is to understand that a significant portion of the labor force is tied closely to the reproduction of the labor force, which has far more restrictions on its mobility and flexibility. Whatever the dreams of neoliberal ideologues, it is of little use to capitalism to off shore hospitals or schools to China or South Asia.

Instead of a shift away from long-term employment toward casualization, what Doogan sees happening is the recommodification of services that were once considered public (having become so after protracted social struggles of previous generations).

Overall, within the developed world (the Global South is noticeably absent from almost all the literature) there has not been a large statistical decline in long-term employment or a resulting increase in part-time/casual labor. Doogan provides overwhelming evidence that while there is variation across the OECD countries—countries with a large agricultural sector like Spain and Portugal have the highest numbers of part-time workers and more industrialized economies have the lowest percentages—in no case has there been an appreciable rise in casual labor. What is more, Doogan argues where part-time work has increased, it is often at the higher end of the labor market and is aimed less at driving down working conditions than retaining employees (especially women with children as the number of families with two working parents rises). Instead, some of the biggest shifts taking place within the labor market are the downward pressures on workers involved in the reproduction of labor: teachers, university professors, doctors, hospital staff, etc., and the emergence—as public education comes under a sustained assault—of a substantial student labor force.

All of this has created both new challenges and opportunities for the Left. Much of the talk of the declining working class comes from those who in the past accepted a stereotype of the working class as blue-collar (predominantly white, male) manufacturing workers. Today, new sites of struggle are emerging. Public education and public health have been the center of some of the most militant industrial struggles in recent years.

The working class today wears as many white collars as blue and is younger, more multiracial, and includes far more women than ever before (and this is even more true outside the OECD countries). Any attempt at building a class-based movement against inequality must put issues of racism, sexism, and sexual equality front and center. And it must seek to patiently foster a sense of class identity among groups of workers who until very recently saw themselves outside (and often above) the manual working class. But it also must not lose sight of the very real power that workers have. Doogan makes the important point that there are plenty of hostile class forces that already stress the fragmentation, atomization, and powerlessness of the working class as a means of disarming it. The role of the Left should be to highlight those moments that give a sense of class unity, solidarity, and power.

Precariat or precarious?
Doogan’s work is a significant challenge to any notion that we have entered a phase of capitalism in which work and the power of workers have lost their significance. But in arguing for a basic continuity in the development of contemporary capitalism, the book sometimes gives short shrift to the significant changes that are taking place. Doogan argues persuasively for the continued persistence of long-term work and the basic idea that “labor needs capital,” but in doing so he sometimes minimizes the significance of the very real restructuring that has taken place and the impact that has been felt on working-class lives.

Doogan has a tendency to treat the arguments about precarity simply as ideological justifications of the proponents of neoliberalism or as a means of increasing insecurity among workers. He cites Kate Bronfenbrenner’s important study that found that employers facing union drives were much more likely to raise the threat of offshoring. Yet of the cases studied, only 3 percent actually followed through on their threats.11 It is absolutely true that the threat of relocation and/or casualization has become an important ideological weapon for employers to use against their workforce, but the feeling of precarity is something real—something with material roots.

Within manufacturing, the restructuring that took place in the 1980s decimated working-class communities across the country. In the steel industry, for instance, between 1973 and 1989, 350,000 jobs were lost. Some may have been replaced by full-time service sector jobs, but not jobs with the same pay and benefits. Many of the steel jobs moved to the largely nonunion Southeast where “mini-mills” were opened with jobs that paid a fraction of the old union rates. The same drama has been replayed in auto, airlines, mining, and more. The effect on communities such as Detroit, Rochester, Toledo, and countless other rust-belt cities is undeniable. And while the recommodification of the public sector doesn’t entail the end of work, it does have a real effect on working conditions as we witness the stripping away of union protection for teachers and public employees, and the rise of nonunion, private competitors. The claims of a new capitalism (one in which the working class no longer plays a central role) may be overblown, but many of us do feel more precarious than ever before.

The reason the concept of the precariat has caught on, despite its empirical and theoretical weaknesses, is because it reflects something real: the feelings of insecurity, instability, and vulnerability that have accompanied the neoliberal assault on the working class. While Marxists should remain critical of some of the more far-reaching claims about the precariat representing a new revolutionary class, we should also seek to assist and strengthen attempts to organize among any section of the working class. Because as noted in the quote at the beginning of this article, feelings of precariousness can quickly lead to their opposite: a feeling of common oppression and the desire to fight.

  1. Standing, 5.
  2. Ibid., 13.
  3. Ibid., 10.
  4. Ibid., 28.
  5. Ibid., 6.
  6. Ibid., 1.
  7. Quoted in Richard Seymour’s excellent post in response to Standing’s criticisms of his “We Are All Precarious: On the Concept of the “Precariat” and its misuses. Seymour’s original article can be found here: Standing’s reply: And Seymour’s response:
  8. Quoted in Doogan, 26.
  9. Ibid., 198.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Quoted in Doogan, 76.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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