ourEconomy: Opinion

Precarity: a political problem

'Free market' advocates claim that precarious work is an economic necessity. But it is a political problem with political solutions.

Vadim Kvachev
20 January 2020
Image: War on Want, CC by 2.0

The bygone decade is marked by a radical change in relations between employers and employees. According to recent research by the Bank of England, the labour share of income in the last thirty to forty years significantly fell in the USA and in other advanced economies as well. The decline of influence of labour as well as new technologies adopted by big corporations have led to new forms of employment: mostly flexible, low-payed, unstable jobs that are underregulated by labour legislation.

The state of things in capital-labour relations with constant redistribution of wealth and power to capital owners is without exaggeration class warfare (an expression, with a good reason, constantly used by Bernie Sanders). Ideology is ready as a powerful weapon in this class war. Media, internet, books and experts strive to persuade workers that this state of insecurity is necessary, normal or even desirable. And the defenders of flexible and unstable jobs claim that this is objective logic of economy which has nothing to do with political decision-making.

French philosopher Jacques Rancière in his work “On the Shores of Politics” wrote that depoliticization is the oldest political art. Perhaps this notion of depoliticization is one of the most accurate descriptions of what is going on today in the social sciences. Economics imperialism – applying principles of economics to non-economics fields of knowledge – has become mainstream common sense. Economics pretends to be a universal method, the Social Science, which can solve problems in any other social field: law, culture, education, social care etc. Once the best method – a free market – is found, other issues are no longer considered to be a matter of politics, therefore they are no longer subject to democratic choice. The decisions made at this level are technocratic and seem to be not a matter of voluntary acts of power, but a ‘forced’ solution, based on the impersonal necessity of the global free market. This is what famous political theorist Wendy Brown called neoliberal rationality.

The problem is not that some kind of evil capitalists or neoliberals have usurped the platforms of public discussion to impose on us this kind of propaganda, but rather that the neoliberal way of thinking has become a fundamental intellectual software, ultimate common sense. Neoliberal logic has consumed our consciousness, reason and mind. We as humankind are ready to pursue profit and efficiency even when this pursuit is self-destructive (for example, for decades, Shell severely exploited people and nature in Niger Delta while dodging responsibility).

This way of thinking pushed us towards the state of what Belgian philosopher Michel Feher called the neoliberal condition: economization and marketization of our social and personal life. Precarity, legitimized by neoliberal logic, is one of the signs of this condition resulting in ubiquitous expansion of short-term relations leading to vulnerability and insecurity in working and personal life. We can define precarity as the state of having an insecure life with lack of protection from social risks, unstable income and employment. Precarity comes from insecurity and instability of work and it influences the social, political, psychological, cultural life of an individual.

Precarity arose from the application of neoliberal logic to the understanding of human nature: in this perception, individuals are considered independent self-entrepreneurs, atomized from collectives of any kind and managing their own human capital. This human capital, consisting of knowledge, skills and abilities of an individual, could be managed just like any other form of capital: by investments, calculations of efficiency, rational choices and so on. This neoliberal logic turns humans into a kind of enterprise, which obeys the “natural” and “objective” laws of market. If this human enterprise succeeds, we should praise human capital theory – it leads an individual to increase its human capital; if a person fails into poverty, it is his or her own responsibility, because the market is severe but fair (just like nature).

In this view, any social support and protection is considered a burden to the free-will human enterprise. Thus, precarization mediated by neoliberalism becomes a preferable social policy for policy makers. Precarity has become a kind of trademark of late global capitalism that can be found everywhere: from labor contracts for a limited period for Western university professors to the risky working conditions of Chinese workers at the Foxconn factories. Individuals find themselves confronted with the fact that a precarious position in the labor market becomes the only opportunity to secure their livelihood. This can be manifested in an agreement to work under the worst working conditions, under the condition of temporary labor contracts or unofficially, to work under difficult or harmful conditions without special compensation, etc. This also may mean “free-will” (but in fact involuntary as there are much better jobs in other countries) labor migration abroad in search of work.

Precarity occurs when the needs of production and capital accumulation enter into conflict with the established system of regulating social-labor relations at the level of the national state. Social-labor relations being a result of decades of workers’ struggles to restrict the exploitation of the labor force through certain frameworks (such as the 8-hour working day, labor protections, minimum wage), are challenged by corporations and states. Global capital seeks to expand exploitation beyond existing social-labor relations, eventually extending it to the entire time and life of workers. Precarity of the labor market provokes the “domino effect”, giving an unstable and unreliable character to all economic and social connections of individuals.

Of course, precarity is a constructed condition, consciously supported for certain social groups in accordance with the interests of modern global capital. Outside the Western world and even in the West, there is complete or partial non-recognition of precarity as a political problem. From a legal point of view, this means maintaining formally rigid labor and social legislation with a consistent factual reduction of measures of social support and regulation of the labor market through the gradual moderate changes in the regulation. Policy makers often claim that we should develop human capital, promote education, or give more inclusive opportunities to vulnerable social groups. Of course, these are all necessary elements of good social policy but this is not enough. Precarity is a political problem rather than some kind of temporary technical mistake of capitalism. Precarity is not an occasional effect but rather a constructed system of neoexploitation.

We should start again from very beginning. We should rethink precarity and establish a clear vision that it is a risk imposed on us by neoliberal policy and economics imperialism. And we should again strive to repoliticize those issues that were excluded from politics, and expose political, power-related character of precarity. This will help open new debates and discussions and help break the neoliberal political consensus.

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