Can Europe Make It?

Political precariat

The concept of the precariat has explanatory power day-to-day and transformative potential in the socio-political world. For a just and honorable life, we need the political precariat.

Alphan Telek
9 May 2018

Workers Day protests in Tehran, Iran. May 1, 2018. Wikicommons/Armin Karami. Some rights reserved.The groundbreaking concept ‘precariat’, coined by British economist Guy Standing, reflects the emergence of a new social class by identifying a 40-year long precaritisation process under neoliberal capitalism, due to changing relations of production and distribution. However, the concept has come under some concerted criticism from social scientists.

Firstly, it is criticized for enshrining a ‘Global North’ point of view. According to this critique, the concept cannot be deemed a global phenomenon in that it does not appropriately cover the different labor conditions of the Global South. Secondly it is argued that rather than pointing to the situating of a new social class, the concept in fact describes a particular ‘condition’ of labour relations around the world.

Where reviewers of Standing’s theory accept that the precaritisation of labour has taken place, they reject the assertion of a different global class structure under neoliberal capitalism. According to them, post-1980 labour conditions constitute just one historical phase of the proletariat under late capitalism. In short, for them, the formation of a new global class structure, whose main component is the precariat, is out of question.

But academics perhaps do not see the potential strength of this concept. Its power comes from its explanatory relationship to daily life and its transformative potential in socio-political life.

Moreover, this debate about the precariat is closely linked to current debates in socialist and progressive thinking. Progressive thought cannot afford to disregard a rapidly changing daily life and it cannot stop thinking about how to transform these new – unjust and unequal – relations into political energy to topple the fusion of plutocracy and political castes around the world. The criticisms – done mostly on behalf of socialist and Marxist thought – display something of a stagnant position in the face of this new world. Gradually, they fall out of touch with daily life and people’s experiences, willingly or unwillingly confining themselves to narrow identity issues. 

Against this, I would like to defend the explanatory power of the precariat with regard to daily life and its potential transformative power in socio-political life. If we properly define daily life (the relations of production) in today’s capitalism, we can help the least advantaged segments of society (workers, immigrants, poor employees, women and young people who think that they have no future under this system, but who simultaneously have problems with the narratives offered them by emerging authoritarian populist regimes) to gain their social power, making them a stronger player in this chaotic world. 

Therefore, the concept ‘precariat’ provides key insights into daily life under today’s capitalism. However, only if we can build on these a political programme for the precariat, can the concept fully realize its potentially transformative power in socio-political life. This is where the approach of left-transformation (as outlined by my colleague Seren Selvin Korkmaz and myself in a series of articles on openDemocracy) may provide some of these new terms, so that we may begin to think, for example about the need for ‘transformers’ both against plutocracy and populism. This new political program, crucially, will keep all the different identities, whether north-north or north-south, together in the same ranking, and recognizing their common struggle. This is precisely how the strategy of left-transformation can make the precariat a ‘political’ force for change.

Explanatory power of precariat: a new form of daily life

Karl Marx’s influence is largely due to his theory’s explanatory power regarding daily life among workers of the nineteenth century. ‘Scientific socialism’ could explain rather well the relations of production at the time. In connection with this, he and Friedrich Engels depicted political discourses and targets for the workers, whom they wanted to empower socially. Had the working class of the nineteenth century had enough social power, the class could have challenged the capitalist relations of production and in Marx’s vision, it could have built its own, socialist society. Methodologically speaking, the fusion in comprehending daily life and cultivating the political adaptability required for the success of nineteenth century Marxism is what we need again today.

However, today there are few enough glimpses of a similarly effective strain of progressive thought. Today’s progressive thinking has clearly confined itself to some narrow and ineffective academic confines (passive journals, trade unions, academic conferences etc.) far away from the daily lives of people. Few persons today can understand what intellectuals (and socialist intellectuals) say, let alone the larger part of the population, workers, immigrants and others. The relationship between Marxist theory and daily life (let us say ‘society’) has for a long time been broken, for a lot of reasons.

Amongst these, we find one reason, which also explains the emergence of the precariat: i.e. 40 years of technological innovation and politico-economic decisions, which have made a different, new world possible. 

The basic guiding doctrine of this new world is an overarching neoliberalism, with varying mutations in different geographies. The sought after relations of production and its affects have always been same through all these mutations, so that increasingly, most of the people around the world share a common, class life-style (that of the precariat). This puts them into a relationship of class solidarity in the making that remains unrealised. In this regard, there is no separation line between Global North and South. Common experiences, sufferings, expectations, fears, life-styles make them the members of an identical class.

Guy Standing’s evaluations of a new social class structure (and the precariat) take root right here. As he puts it, the new class structure is shaped according to new relations of production, relations of distribution, relations to the state and class-consciousness. If we understand these factors, the daily life of the precariat can be properly explained. Then we can build a political program on the basis of its real needs and future desires, unveiling the potential social power of the precariat in political life.

New relations of production: socio-economic insecurities

Guy Standing asserts that the relations of production under neoliberal capitalism are shaped according to the existence or non-existence of seven socio-economic sources of security.[i] Insofar as people’s social and individual experience suffer from a lack of these socio-economic goods, they share the features of the precariat. Economic insecurities push them to say, “We do not have a future”. And this sense of deprivation of a future is clearly seen in the push factor in what is called economic migration as well as in the recent street protests in Iran and Tunisia, deemed as Global South countries.

The common experiences of the precariat life-style emerge alongside the lack of labor market security.[ii] People have tremendous difficulties finding a job and in most cases, the unemployment rates only ever rise. This makes people vulnerable, forcing them to accept any precarious and short-term job. Secondly, the forms of employment security that include protection against arbitrary dismissal have been directly targeted by neoliberal regulations both in the Global North and the South. Today, only a tiny proportion of employees have this employment security. Thirdly, the supportive character of the workplace in a secure job once offered a person prospects in terms of a career and guarantees against skill dilution. Nobody today can say that workplaces do justice to employees in terms of this security. 

Fourthly, Standing claims that work security covers health regulations and protections against workplace accidents etc. It should be underlined that the main difference between Global North and South countries is the distribution of such safety nets. Most of the time, Global South countries experience more workplace accidents than Global North countries. However, the basis for this type of security is under the constant threat of being dismantled in the Global North as well, as in the struggles to defend welfare and health services in the workplace. 

It is also very well known that the further security that lies in representation (the trade union’s collective voice as a protection in the workplace) has long been targeted by neoliberal regulations. The skydiving numbers of trade union members after 1980 are not a secret for both Global North and South. Lastly, there is no income security that can sustain a minimum wage for an honorable life.  All these economic insecurities are real in the lives of people both from Global North and South countries. 

New relations of distribution and class-consciousness

Moreover, the relations of distribution have also been shaped under neoliberal capitalism. The members of the precariat, in most cases, depend solely on money wages. As Standing claims, the precariat does not have a social income that can relieve his or her condition. Depending on a money wage, the precariat feels trapped by the desires and demands of employers since he or she can be fired anytime and find himself or herself in a desperate situation of sheer survival. It all shows the precariat that they do not have an exit strategy or an alternative. The relations of production and distribution under neoliberal capitalism destroy the social power of large segments of the population.

Standing argues that as a result of these daily inflictions, people become more isolated, angry and stressed. Though they share in this precariat life style, they feel as if they are on their own, if not against, still one person alone in relation to the other. For Standing, this is an essential element in the make up of this particular class-consciousness. I can add that I have also observed these feelings during my field interviews with bank employees in Turkey. Though they earn a much better salary than other employees in different sectors, they feel isolated and under stress due to lack of guarantees (social income), performance pressures, and a deprivation of the sense of solidarity with their colleagues. I think these feelings are common for people who live under neoliberal capitalism since it has sucked out all the social power from large parts of our societies.

Now most people are far away from being taken into consideration by their fellow employees and/or their superiors. In this way, they have been socially weakened and their demands have been pushed off the radar. The explanatory power of the precariat detects these common experiences and sufferings of people.

Yet by dint of the same factors, the concept also has the potential for power in our socio-political lives. It is clear that the members of precariat should know each other and that they should articulate this shared class-consciousness, which can strengthen them considerably in their daily lives. I think the precariat is in need of a political movement like that fostered among the working class by Marxists and socialists in the nineteenth century. If properly established, the precariat has a huge political potential for transforming this world of injustices, inequalities, scapegoating and social suffering. In this regard, the concept of left-transformation may provide just what the precariat needs.

Transformative potential of the precariat in left-transformation

Against its critics, the precariat is a concept and a social force, a class, that has the most potential for transforming the world. Who else can do it? Is there any strong or potentially strong group or identity that can struggle against plutocrats and populists without falling into the trap of neoliberalised identity issues? Who can still believe that this role is confined to the proletariat? That belonged to an old world, and was a key part of what is nevertheless an old struggle. Now, we need a new set of ‘transformers’, with new symbols and new programmes.

If we want to empower people socially against financial institutions, governments, bureaucracies, populists and plutocrats, the precariat has to be political. This will bring back the social power with which they can acclaim their political, social, economic and cultural rights (like the working class before 1980). If social and economic sufferings are common around the world, then the response of the precariat should be a common one. A new political programme, new solidarities and new discourses, that correspond to this commonality, can provide what the precariat needs. Briefly, for a just and honorable life, we need the political precariat. Can the idea of left-transformation help this new political programme into existence? 

Left-transformation is an idea trying to fuse the daily experiences of the precariat with a political programme. It demands political and social justice for the precariat. It calls for political justice because we have witnessed that governments have been captured by political castes following their own interests rather than those of the people they pretend to serve. These castes, ruling on behalf of the precariat, have excluded people from all decision-making processes. They have ruined the world with wars, corruption and exclusionary political practices. They have implicitly or explicitly supported racism, anger and hatred towards others since only in that situation can they continue to maintain and even increase the hold of their power among the people. They have implicitly or explicitly supported racism, anger and hatred towards others since only in that situation can they continue to maintain and even increase the hold of their power among the people.

In addition to this, the precariat in non-western countries such as in Turkey, Iran, China, Russia, India etc. has witnessed an unrelenting violation of basic rights like freedom of expression. Against all these, political justice requires new constitutions and autonomous, accountable decision-making processes in politics. It also wants to guarantee the full protection of basic rights. These basic rights cannot be touched unless there is a crime against humanity (destroying people’s social and economic rights are also crimes against humanity).

Political justice demands that we learn our lessons from the experiences of social movements and try to apply these successful models and examples experienced in small communities and on the local scale. There needs to be a productive relationship between social movements and the national and supra national governance of the world.

On the other hand, social justice demands social and economic rights for all people, including the precariat as we argued here:

Furthermore, the idea of social justice requires strengthening people economically: giving them economic rights[iii] such as universal basic income, job security, and democracy at the workplace, levying taxes on riches, wealth and rentier benefits etc. The underlying principle in the economic field is to make people economically robust so that they are not affected by the flows of market and rents. For a decent life, people must have a right to free education, free health services, social protection and service of child-caring etc. However, strengthening people in relations of production by giving them some kind of security is not enough. The distribution of wealth is not fair also. There should be new mechanisms and concepts to cope with this situation. Housing policies, wealth transfers, limits on inheritance, taxes on rentier benefits are some mechanisms of the transformative movements to curb the deepening inequalities in the society. Without a new economic system – relations of production and distribution - initiating these policies, it is impossible to ensure social justice.[iv]

The transformative potential of the precariat is much higher than we expected. The rise of recent political movements, which emphasizes political and social justice against plutocracy and political castes, are clear examples. Recent large-scale street protests in Tunisia and Iran, the formation of new political movements such as France Insoumise, Diem25 in the EU, MeRa in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Razem in Poland, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum in England, Bernie Sanders in the United States, the harsh criticisms levelled by Kevin Kühnert and the young German social democrats against the German SPD, elements of the Five Star Movement, the social justice emphasis of Iceland’s new Prime Minister, recent street protests in Armenia against corruption and nepotism, all indicate the common ground of political precariat. These are the first moves. There are many more political movements taking up the support of the precariat and on the way.

In a nutshell, the concept of the precariat has basically two sources of strength: the explanatory power of daily life and its transformative potential in the socio-political world. However, we need a political precariat in order for it to realize its transformative role. The idea of left-transformation with its ‘justice’ politics corresponding to the desires, demands and senses of a rising precariat, can pave the way to the necessary political programme. Last but not least, progressive thought for today needs this class-based push or else it will continue to lurk in the wings.

[i] Guy Standing, “Precariat The New Dangerous Class”, p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Guy Standing, accessible from here.

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