The Left in Europe and the United States has recently undertaken a decisive shift leftwards by waging a war on wealth inequality. This move is based on a grave diagnostic error, Albena Azmanova argues in her new book Capitalism on Edge. Economic insecurity, not inequality, is afflicting the 99 per cent. This creates an opportunity for the Left to place the fight for economic stability at the centre of its social agenda, instead of resurrecting the growth-and-redistribution formula that has proven so toxic for the environment. What follows is excerpted from Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020).
Given all the destitution that the recent economic crisis has created, calls for equality seem to be somewhat petty and falling short of the mark. The accumulation of obscene wealth is a curious phenomenon and the juxtaposition of vast wealth and poverty is offensive, but the real injustice is that of poverty, not inequality. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt remarks in Inequality (2015), our preoccupation with inequality is out of place. We should instead be concerned with poverty: the poor suffer because they don’t have enough, not because others have more and some far too much. We are therefore morally obligated not to achieve equality or reduce inequality, but to eliminate poverty.
Are our current concerns with growing material inequality perhaps a sign that the whole ethos of capitalist democracies has shifted considerably from the original rejection of social privilege to an open endorsement of the value of equal wealth? Or is the language of equality expressing an entirely different concern?
The changing nature of capitalism gives us reasons to read into these recent calls a concern that goes beyond inequality – a concern with a new form of social injustice – massive precarity, that is being mistakenly politicized in the easily available, familiar terms of inequality.
Since at least the turn of the new century, we have inhabited a political economy marked by three peculiarities. First, the economy does not produce enough jobs: from well before the 2008 economic meltdown until a decade after it, western societies experienced jobless growth due to the automation of work and job outsourcing to areas with cheaper labour. Second, labour market liberalization has reduced the security of employment – the so-called uberization of jobs. Thus, even when it is available, employment is no longer a reliable source of livelihood. This rather recent development has increased economic insecurity to unprecedented levels and afflicted almost all sectors of the economy, cutting across the capital-labour divide. The situation is aggravated by a third feature: public authority has been cutting social spending and thinning out the social safety net, a practice that predates the 2008 meltdown, but has intensified under post-crisis pressures to balance national budgets. Overall, this has engendered unprecedented economic uncertainty. The social question of our time is not growing inequality; it is the massification of precarity.
The social question of our time is not growing inequality; it is the massification of precarity.
The destabilization of sources of livelihood and the increased competitive pressure on almost all preceded the financial crisis of 2008, and the situation has not improved with the post-crisis recovery. At this point the precariat has become the 99 percent. Our age is not that of a precarious class, but of a precarious multitude. Surveys indicate that a growing number of people across the capital-labour divide are frustrated with the intensified performance pressures and the employment uncertainty that the so-called structural adjustment policies have generated. These respondents declare that they would prefer a much better work-life balance, including discretionary time beyond family obligations, thus indicating a desire for autonomy from the productivist pressures of both the workplace and the family. This resentment of job-related pressures combines with unprecedentedly broad awareness that the way we produce and live our lives is toxic for the environment and increases the risks of life-threatening natural disasters.
Beyond networked antagonism
This understanding of the nature of social discontent and its sources allows us to discern a trajectory of change behind the thicket of seemingly disparate grievances and beyond the networked antagonism that pervades global capitalism. The spreading dynamic of social precariousness that afflicts almost all people fosters the formation of a very broad alliance of forces who share the desire (rather than a latent, unarticulated interest) to alter significantly the economic and political parameters of their societies. This suggests that the possibility for a radical, if not revolutionary, change is now more obtainable than ever.
A potent social force is gathering behind the idea of overcoming the noxious competitive pressures of capitalism.
Every idea is only as strong as the social forces behind it. A potent social force is gathering behind the idea of overcoming the noxious competitive pressures of capitalism. These strange bedfellows include the proud “rednecks” of West Virginia, the IT engineers of Silicon Valley, the corporate lawyers of the City of London, and environmental activists in Brussels. We have come to a point in the development of democratic capitalism when the grievances voiced by a variety of social groups have to do with the systemic logic of capitalism – with the manner in which the competitive production of profit affects our lives – not simply with the unfair distribution of wealth. This gives us a chance to press for a radical transformation of the system even though, by all appearances, capitalism is doing very well. Capitalism may be in rude health, but we do not need a crisis to embark on profound changes.