Review: 'The Precariat Charter' - building an alternative

Labour and social democratic parties in general are succumbing weakly to the demands of global capital and neo-liberal policies.  Stuart Weir hails a bold new initiative, a transformational Magna Carta for our times.

Stuart Weir
16 May 2014

Precariat Charter:  from Denizens to Citizens, by Guy Standing.  Bloomsbury, paperback £16.99 


Guy Standing cites an Indignado graffito on a wall in Madrid as a symbol of a new progressive transformation which he believes is struggling to take shape: “The worst thing would be to return to the old normal.”  Actually, what he compellingly demonstrates is that global corporate power is transforming the ‘old normal’ into a grotesquely unequal and dehumanising ‘new normal’ which has left social democracy and labourism adrift.

Standing is the author of  The Precariat, which described the emergence across the world of a new class of workers, characterised by chronic insecurity, detached from the old norms of labour and the working class and hard put to mobilise civil, social and economic rights. His A Precariat Charter is a bold mixture of new thinking, well in advance of social democracy’s weak response to the ‘new normal’ challenge of the globalised labour market; detailed and dense analysis of capital’s hegemony;  anger at the political class’s indifference to the inequity and inequality in which the precariat lives and Labour’s complicity in neo-liberal  ‘flexible’ labour and reduced labour and social security protection; and a rare human empathy with the people who live and work in the precariat.

The result is nothing less than an attempt to formulate an agenda for the precariat, based loosely on the model of Magna Carta, with 29 Articles that might constitute a modern-day Charter (to which others may add their own ideas).  His hope is that this book and charter “could be the basis of a political movement, based not upon an utilitarian appeal to the majority, but on a vision of what constitutes a Good Society”. In doing so, Standing raises a multiplicity of issues and ideas that deserve notice, but I am going to set aside my notes to take a broad-brush, rather reductive, approach in this review.

Standing argues that globalisation has generated a new class structure, comprising of a super elite; a salariat; proficians; a proletariat (or ‘core’ working class); a precariat; the unemployed and a lumpen-precariat (or ‘underclass’).  His elite is far smaller than the 1 per cent of the Occupy movement.  The salariat comprises corporate or occupational citizens who benefit from generous tax subsidies of housing, pensions, etc.  Proficians are  mobile self-entrepreneurs.  The shrinking proletariat are largely wage-earning workers who have been traditionally represented by communist and social democrat parties and trade unions.

Standing’s precariat consists of people living through insecure jobs and intermittent worklessness, subjected to the labour instability which is central to global capitalism. They experience uncertain access to housing and public resources, none of the “occupational identity” from which employees have traditionally drawn their moorings in their lives, no access to non-wage benefits  (paid holidays, medical leave, company pensions, etc) and no access to income from profits or rent. They are also distinguished from the proletariat by their habituation “to unstable labour”, whereas the proletariat were essentially habituated to stable labour.  However, Standing finds a “potentially liberating” force in their detachment from labour: “Do not say my job must be satisfying or a route to ‘happiness’. I do it for money. I will find my life and develop outside it.”

Standing delineates three varieties of the precariat: people “bumped out of working class communities and families”, and presumably out of traditional jobs; migrants, Roma, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers in limbo; and “the educated, plunged into a precariat existence after being promised the opposite, a bright career”.  He takes issue with marxist assertions that the precariat is not a class.  This isn’t just a doctrinal quibble.  Standing’s argument is that the political transformation he looks for depends essentially on a class base to drive it.  He finds in the ferment of political protest of recent years evidence of a class-in-the-making that must become enough of a class-for-itself in order to seek ways of abolishing itself. This makes it transformative, unlike other existing classes, which want to reproduce themselves in a stronger way.”

He acknowledges that his three varieties do not make a homogeneous class. He looks to “the educated”, the wired part of the precariat, to spark the tinder of transformation:

“Because of their education, and awareness of the drabness or absurdity of the labour they are expected to accept, they are well-placed to appreciate the delusion of labourism, and the need for a  new progressive vision … Perhaps the biggest challenge for this part of the precariat is to induce the other varieties to share a common vision. There is no reason why that cannot happen, just as craftsmen and intellectuals acted as educators and leaders of the ‘working class’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

For the moment, however, the precariat remains a class-in-the-making, lacking a common consciousness or “a common view of what to do about precarity”.  Yet for him it is a “dangerous class” whose interests are opposed to the neo-liberalism of the right and “the labourism of social democracy”.  All three varieties are aware of what they are against, he says ( though perhaps it should also be what they are up against?) -   insecurity, impoverishment, debt, and multiple inequalities. He also acknowledges that it could be dangerous for other reasons, because it is at war with itself and vulnerable to populist demagoguery; because of the social ills and criminality that stress and economic frustration might engender; and simply because it is confronted by a “strident divisive state”.

A central theme in the book is Standing’s insistence on the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘labour’ and the confusion that the difference makes to the concept of the ‘right to work’, which is meaningful, he says, only if all forms of work are treated with equal respect. It seems to me that this is a vital distinction because the false postwar ‘full employment’ was never actually ‘full’ and so cannot return in the developing era of ‘flexible’ –i.e., low paid and insecure – labour in the globalised labour market.

Yet mainstream political debate turns on the obsolete goal of full waged employment. The coalition’s electoral strategy rests in part on the lie that they are reviving this form of labour when in fact the employment figures rest on under-employed and part-time workers, ‘crowd-labour’, zero-hours contracts and desperate self-employment. But Labour’s response is to ape the coalition’s deceitful goal – even to the extent of aping the absurd and divisive mantra of ‘hard-working families’ – and to assert its own commitment to the same goal. Standing says contemptuously, “Only work done for  bosses, in subservience, in master-servant relations . . .  counts in [Miliband’s] vision of society” and he excoriates him for falling into the labourist trap and justifying workfare.

Thus work must be rescued from labour in Standing’s “Good Society”.  The Articles of the Precariat Charter envisage a rights-based deliberative democracy, characterised by due process, associational freedoms and activity, equality and social solidarity, and freed from poverty traps on one level and tax-break subsidies for the rich and corporations at another. Among various other proposals he would regulate flexible labour and share capital via sovereign wealth funds.

But at the heart of his Charter is a move towards universal basic income, a modest monthly cash benefit paid, as of right, to every individual – man, woman and child -  in society.  He argues that basic income could redress the uncertainties and inequalities of the global market economy, balancing the unequal returns from wages, rental income and capital. It would constitute a new form of social protection as the basis for education and a right to work that recognises and values all forms of work -  reproductive, caring, voluntary and ‘own account’ -  and creates a work-life balance that opens the way towards a genuinely deliberative democracy.

I have believed in the idea of a universal basic income since the 1970s,  but I thought then that it was politically unrealistic.  I now think that it is unrealistic not to pursue it and seek to change society for the good.  We know that it has worked in pilot schemes in, for example, Canada, India, Namibia. The idea is simmering across Europe, South America and most of the world, below the surface of conventional political thinking and policy-making. The alternatives on offer to ordinary citizens and denizens from parties of the right and the social democrat left are realistic only in the terms of an obsolete world view that is blind to the profound damage that growing inequality is doing to society and the environment.

The precariat is growing too.  And there would be allies for a charter that would benefit them and the rest of society.  Standing is confident. He quotes from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy:

Rise like lions after slumber,

In unvanquishable number;

Shake your chains to earth like dew,

Which in sleep had fallen on you.

Ye are many – they are few.


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