We, the precariat

Unemployed, part-time, underpaid, zero-houred, redundant. An increasing proportion of Europeans live uncertain lives, battling against poverty and seething with anger at the political elite. If this precarious class is to avoid the siren song of right wing populisms, it must confront its own divisions and work to build a democratic conversation across national borders. 

Jamie Mackay
3 June 2014

I was initially skeptical about the term precariat. Neologisms about collective groups, and particularly suggestions of ‘new classes’, often place an academic cordon around important issues that while useful for evaluation purposes almost always prioritise esoteric canonical quarrels over popular debate or actual attempts at organization. Confronted with this audacious conflation of proletariat and precarious, I was reluctant to engage even on these narrow terms, discarding it as academically suspicious and politically impotent, the paradigm of a temporary fad, a precarious concept, perhaps, much like ‘netizens’, ‘assemblages’, or ‘the multitude’.

Since reading Guy Standing’s initial study, though, my perspective has shifted considerably. In just three years my life and the lives of those around me have been profoundly influenced by the forces described in his book; plans, friendships and relationships severed by the Homeric deities of the market. Friends of mine, “destined” for careers in academia now find themselves mired in debt, priced-out of doctoral research or unable to secure contracts. Others, who elected to fight it out in advertising, business or politics have found themselves struggling to break away from a culture of internships and part-time work. The rest, the ones that pursued a life of work outside the service-industry bubble, are unemployed or tied to zero-hour contracts, constantly waiting for occasional and underpaid work.

For personal and intellectual reasons, then, the thesis has begun to hit home. The precariat, which I first discarded as a necessary intervention in a pure academic space, has suddenly obtained an unexpected weight in my thinking, haunting my dreams and fuelling my hopes for the future. Not only does Standing’s term fit comfortably into historic critiques of labourism, expanding the classic arguments of Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class and the Italian autonomia, it possesses the rare capacity of managing to unite its abstract reflections with the everyday experience of contraction, fragmentation and dispersal. Bubbling with the energy of recent street movements yet grounded in the data of a lifetime’s commitment to radical economics, his ultimate hypothesis is convincing and provocative. While the precariat experiences life as atomized and individualistic, it is already behaving as a coherent (though divided) class and may yet take control of its own identity.

Three degrees of uncertainty

In the recently published sequel to The Precariat, the above argument, already put forward in the 2011 study, is condensed into a more refined thesis. Here the precariat is understood not simply as an inchoate mass with some embryonic characteristics of a class, but convincingly separated into three distinct factions. First is the old proletariat, severed from the security of occupational identities, career paths and permanent contracts. Once protected by numerous and arguably disempowering state benefits, this group is now remunerated for its labour almost entirely by wages (tied closely to debt). Second is the more complex array of subaltern and itinerant groups – travellers, ethnic minorities, poor migrants, asylum seekers - who live as ‘denizens’ in society. This group has little to no influence in policy and faces the constant threat of institutional and political abuse. Finally, and for Standing most importantly, is the growing phenomenon of overqualified youth, often living at the family home, struggling to find work with little or no welfare support. This group is overwhelmingly disengaged with electoral politics and, as a recent study by Ipsos Mori demonstrates, generally hostile to public institutions they get so little from.  

Group one, Standing argues, is quick to blame group two for its problems. Nostalgic for a golden age of employment security, it is likely to vote for right wing populisms such as UKIP or the Front National. While this should not be overstated (the support for such groups is indeed rife in salaried groups) the shift of alienated centre-left voters to the right is well documented. Group two, the main victim of this shift, is almost entirely removed from electoral politics, unable to speak on a level playing field with these groups, let alone defend itself or assert autonomy. Frequently demonized by the right-wing media, these groups’ very citizenship is precarious. Group three has strong emotive though few practical links with group two and tends to discard group one as a racist and irredeemable collection of street thugs – akin to their presentation in the liberal media - thereby reinforcing alienation within the class and reproducing older forms of left-right division.

It is certainly true that, across Europe, group one has been feeble in its opposition to right wing populisms, though it would be unwise to isolate this to them alone. Group three is also prone to deflecting its hostility to capitalism onto immigrants. The European elections saw a spike in support for UKIP among young people and, as the Five Star Movement have demonstrated in Italy, policies such as basic income and rent controls could easily be funded by ignoring the needs of group two. Those in group three are nonetheless uniquely placed to develop a counter-narrative, if only because they are, in general, the best educated, have the best links with the salariat and have access to useful resources including physical space (through friends in universities etc). Insofar as they are capable of articulating and communicating common grievances they are also, more tenuously, equipped to spearhead new spaces of cultural recognition. This should begin with a discussion of material conditions: all three groups live in a whirlwind of insecure jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment, spend their sporadic wages to pay for extortionate rents and see few ‘public’ benefits. Resisting these everyday conditions need not be seen as an act of pure self-interest, but the conditions of participation through which a democratic community could be formed.

While the precariat provides many problems for the left, and ultimately demands a politics that cannot be limited to state welfare and neo-Keynesian economics, its dilemma can usefully be expressed in Marxian terms as a ‘class-in-itself’ or, in other words, a class unaware of its shared characteristics. This sociological term is useful in demarking the site from which change might arise but cannot progress to its own implied aim of generating the cultural recognition necessary to the group to behave politically as a ‘class-for-itself’. This inherently fraught process is by no means inevitable, and, most importantly, is in no way tied to the political left. Indeed, romantic and rhetorical populism – such as that offered by Beppe Grillo or Russell Brand - is in the long term more likely to galvanise this group than idle promises about 10p off a gas bill, or technocratic tamperings with the median wage. Without greater support from the salaried and more established political organisations the precariat will become quickly disillusioned with these superficial populisms and be more likely to move towards insurrectionary politics.

The birth of a new class

If the return of historic street conflicts is to be avoided, or at least surpassed, a new precariat identity must distinguish itself from other forms of identity politics. The precariat is born from an extension of historic forms of labour insecurity, and its coordinates are inflected in important ways by questions of gender and race. Marx argued that a unified proletarian identity was key to the project of liberation if only so the class could abolish itself. Standing suggests the same is true of the precariat, though as identitarian struggles begin to converge, this will be increasingly tied to a more democratic social vision than that offered by orthodox communism. In contrast to the proletariat, the precariat, liberated from having to value itself entirely by its vocation, does not need to fight solely for labour rights and better conditions, but the actual possibility of escaping the frantic competition for undignified hierarchal jobs that profit the very few. For the precariat, wage contestation is subsequently less important than struggles over the renegotiation of social time, public space and the distribution of resources. In these terms, then, those who are fighting for such values should not be simply disregarded as a desperate underclass but valorised as a new avant-garde, uniquely placed to construct a future that is not about wealth and jobs alone.

Standing is optimistic about the possibility of a unified precarious movement emerging from these revolutionary roots. As he summarises, the parameters of resistance have gone beyond the status of “occasional acts by primitive rebels to lift the spirits” and now impact on “something close to a majority”. While this resonates around the developed world - take Japan, for example, where the cult of salary man is rapidly being transformed by the proliferation of flexible contracts  - there is a European dimension to this project that is particularly urgent. High levels of debt and unemployment are increasingly typical of young people in these nations. The response to these phenomena by new and old nationalisms, as the recent elections have shown, leave Europe at a crossroads where it is ultimately the precariat, and particularly these young members, who will determine the future. Currently, this class is being bargained over and manipulated by seemingly new forces as Northern populisms rally against ‘outsiders taking our jobs’ and the Southern nations search for ways to bring their educated and disenfranchised youth back home. Whatever the successes and failures of these movements, however, the material and cultural composition of this class, for better or worse, is altering the structures by which capital can be accumulated and power distributed. 

It is my belief that the task of understanding this process, if only in narrative terms, must be undertaken by a committed radical journalism and cannot be imagined in academia alone. This would require a specific engagement with the question of what professional writing is capable of doing with social movements and civil society groups without forfeiting its own autonomy. At the very least, however, this should mean a move away from top-down evaluations and a greater emphasis on participation and documentary. Later this year, I’ll be launching in a new project with writer and ex-OurKingdom editor Niki-Seth Smith and investigative journalist Yiannis Baboulias called Precarious Europe. The form will combine ‘on the ground’ observations with long-form journalism and multimedia content (primarily in the form of short documentaries) some of which will be published here. Through these various techniques we will be documenting the behaviour of this class, from its engagement with electoral politics and street activism to its lifestyle and culture. Our goal is to build a network of writers and readers across Europe, to establish links across borders and contribute to the self-valorisation of this fractured group.

My personal aim in undertaking this project, and in my future work with openDemocracy, is to unite this cool academic interest with the messier aspects of precarity I have experienced and continue to experience in my life. Specifically, I want to test the currency of Standing’s bold academic suggestions with those living and resisting their situation, to help develop his thesis further and identify where, inevitably, the class will fight back against the model. The Precariat has been a personal inspiration for its clear exposition of the problems, but its conclusions will no doubt be mutated in the chaos of emotive debate. I, for one, welcome this. By bringing these arguments to new audiences the aim of Precarious Europe is to build a space in which this might develop productively against the violence of the state, of capital and of the resurgent right. The real work, though, is the longer process of building democratic institutions among the precariat capable of unveiling and opposing simplistic alternatives on all sides of the debate. 

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