I get carried away. I do. So when I say this is the greatest book ever about work (in all its forms), you probably need to apply a couple of filters. That said, I’d go one step further. Guy Standing’s new book “Work After Globalization: Building Occupational Citizenship” offers us the kind of foundation we need to launch a new social-democratic program. And let’s face it, the old one is long since dead. And starting to get a bit smelly. This review will attempt to summarise the book, but do yourself a favour, don’t take my word for it. You need to read this book for yourself. We’ve even arranged a 35% discount for you. Click here for details. And no, we aren’t taking a cut!   🙂

Dr Guy Standing

Dr Guy Standing is Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath in the UK. He has also served time as a senior official at the International Labour Organisation, where he worked from 1975 to 2006. During that time he was director of labour market policies, co-ordinator of labour market research, and director of the Central and Eastern European departments, following the collapse of the Berlin wall. He also directed the Socio-Economic Security Programme. In 1998-99, he was in the “transition team” set up by the ILO’s new Director-General to help restructure the organisation. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge and MA in labour economics and industrial relations from the University of Illinois. more bio.

Most activists and unionists wouldn’t read a book like this in a month of Sundays. It’s a pity, because Standing has done a great job keeping the academic language to a manageable level. Me, I’m no academic, but there were enough stories, ideas and personal experiences to keep me reading with a growing sense of enthusiasm. If you’re ever going to read a book about work, make it this one.


1]   Standing argues that work is made up of a number of elements. Some work is for an employer (ie ‘labour’), some for family, some for self, etc. Last century the former (labour) became the defining feature of our lives. “Labourism” led us to build policies and institutions of social protection, regulation and redistribution around an assumed standard model of paid employment. Care work and own-account work were marginalised in this process. “If you laboured for wages, you built up entitlements to sick leave, unemployment benefits, maternity leave, disability benefits and a pension. If not, you picked up the crumbs”. (p.7)  In a pretty deep sense, citizenship was predicated on labour.

2]   With globalization we have seen a general rise in insecurity. The “precariat” is emerging as a major new class (ie from precarious + proletariat: workers without security). This, combined with the economic crisis, means that our model of citizenship, based on labour, is under threat. Of the various alternatives we might consider, Standing argues for a new kind of citizenship based on occupation.  “People do jobs; people are occupations.” (p.13)  There are some major implications for union coverage and collective bargaining in this. I’ll let you ponder. Better still, did I suggest yet you should read the book?

3]   He then goes on to review “the Great Transformation” of society in the 20th century, looking at such things as the right to work, commodification, the rise of professions and the limitations of labour regulation. With regards to labour’s voice, he notes: “…employees were provided with dependent security in return for accepting the managerial ‘right to manage’ and the ‘right to acquire and retain profits’.” (p.46). The implications of this unsigned deal have shaped unionism as we know it today. “Unions became identified as a body of employees, and that is how labour law defined them, when for the first time in history workers were defined as those in employment.” (p.46)

4]   Then, in the 1970s, ‘neoliberalism’ arrived. Everything, but everything, became subject to the rigours of competition, be it at the level of production, distribution, consumption, the firm, the nation or the self. Soon afterwards we saw the unleashing of finance capital. “At the end of 2007, the notional value of outstanding swaps and derivatives contracts reached eleven times the value of world output.” (p.59). Business, capital and employment went global. The ex-Soviet bloc, China and India added about 1.5 billion workers to the globalized labour market, effectively doubling its size. In some countries, this led to deindustrialization, outsourcing and ‘social dumping’. In others it led to industrialization and urbanisation. Two of the consequences were mass migration and the rapid rise of the precariat. While this was happening privatization (and thus the dominance of competition) was extended into social policies, utilities and public services.  Effectively, this all meant that workers too were forced to become competitors. In many countries unions lost large chunks of their membership. Collective bargaining and labour regulation gave way to contracts, mediation and ‘soft law’.

5]   While insecurity and inequality were growing on one side of the coin, a global elite developed on the other. CEO pay grew and “…the top 50 financial institutions controlled about $US 50 trillion in assets, a third of the world’s total.” (p.103)  Huge changes also occurred within social classes.  “Roughly speaking the top three classes are detaching themselves from state-based social protection, the bottom three are being detached by disentitlement to state benefits and services.” (p.115).

6]   All kinds of care work, support, training and education have been turned into commodities for sale or exchange on the open market. Something similar has happened within the professions. Lawyers, academics, doctors, church leaders and even managers have all seen a general commodification of their services. “The global market in professional services is worth over $US 1 trillion and exports have grown o account for a quarter of the world’s exports of commercial services.” (citing UNCTAD, p.177). Most people would say that state regulation declined dramatically during this period of neoliberalism. The truth is more complex. The state has intervened, above all, on the side of competition. In order to ensure this… “Probably more labour regulations have been introduced since the 1970s than at any time in history.” (p.85) Occupations have also been heavily regulated, above all else to enforce a regime of competition. Such regulation is also being extended globally.

7]   We are left to inhabit a world in which even our happiness and unhappiness are commodified. “The fetish of happiness has been extended through a market in unreality.  … The final sphere is the commodification of the wounded mind.” (p.221-2) People have become competitors, and have politically disengaged. Debt is systemic, injustice is applied unjustly, and social surveillance has been extended to frightening levels. “The defining malaise of the global market society is encapsulated in the word stress”. Study after study, case after case… this is evidence-based work, not angry polemic. One of the highlights of this book, for me, was Standing’s discussion of the decline of altruism, the shift from career to careerism, the rise of unpaid labour, and the gradual breach between the precariat and the traditional parties of the left.

8]   But Standing is no merchant of doom. This book offers a way forward. “It must involve a reconstruction of work, escaping from a preoccupation with labour… and a reconstruction of the ideas of career and occupation.” Somehow (shame on us!) we allowed the right — Hayek and the neoliberals — to lay claim to the word ‘freedom’. By this, they meant: “coercion in favour of building a market society.” (p.242)  There are much more progressive forms of freedom than this, Standing argues. One of these is the Google model, which he calls: ‘corporate paternalism’. Then there is workplace democracy. But both of these are freedom along labourist lines. A deeper social model would centre around ‘occupational citizenship’.  This liberates our identity, our personal development, and can be applied to all of the various kinds of work (such as care work, etc). This means making a shift from labour rights to work rights. With globalization, we have reached an age which offers a promising future for associations based around occupation, coupled with ‘informal networks of practitioners and communities of colleagues’. “In sum, occupational citizenship will require a combination of international associations, national associations and informal networks.” (p.276)

As a unionist, this is where I found Standing’s book especially interesting. He speaks of ‘collaborative bargaining’, a form which develops around (and within) occupational networks and associations. In short, what would happen if (say) a public services union were to support a core group of members in setting up a network for (say) social workers? The tools of Web 2.0 make this simple and cheap. They could easily run it themselves. What would these social workers discuss, whom would they want to discuss it with, and what would they see as beyond their sphere of interest? One thing is for sure; you can bet they would go a long way beyond the traditional parameters of collective bargaining.

I once spent some time working with a focus group interviewing non-members and trying to find out on what it would take for them to join a union. Without going into too much detail, I would say that this model of an occupational network, built on top of existing structures, fits the bill very nicely indeed. It would also allow the new precariat an entry point into the general orbit of unionism, irrespective of whether they were between jobs, temps, apprentices, volunteers or retirees.

Labour analysts in the past have noted that the associational form seems to work well for unions. But collaborative bargaining could also work internally, between workers themselves (eg setting standards, providing mutual support, monitoring the application of resources, etc), and between one occupation and another (eg doctors and nurses). His experience at the ILO gives Standing a wealth of experience to draw on here, and what emerges is a compelling alternative social programme. The way we deliver the rights and duties of citizenship should be based around work, in the larger sense — not employment, ideology, competition or profit.

9]   From here Standing goes on to discuss the democratisation of economics itself. Freedom of association is vital, in fact necessary. But we also have to get beyond the idea of democracy, if all we mean by it is an occasional process of voting. Rather, it should be about people having a real voice, and being able to use that voice to deliberate properly. “The failure of progressives was that… all the protests were against events, rather than for a vision.” (p.286)  By way of showing how such a vision might develop, on the basis of occupational voice, he gives the following example:

“…left to themselves as individuals, fishers compete against each other and deplete fish stocks, since short term profits dictate what they do. …Collaborative bargaining would tend towards the preservation and reproduction of fish stocks and would promote professional standards that would act to constrain individualistic competition.” (p.279)

It is a useful example, because it shows us how this new social democratic agenda might deal with climate change. Producers know that the environment cannot be separated from economics. Only a society ruled by an imposed regime of market competition could produce such a warped and lethal delusion.

10]   In looking at how ‘non-standard’ workers might develop a voice in society, Standing discusses the examples of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India and the Freelancers’ Union in the United States. “The best option would be to draw the precariat into self-chosen occupational associations.” (p.292)

To what extent would these be linked into existing unions? I guess that is up to us to decide. But as he points out (and in my experience he’s right), traditionalist unions and employers may have a bit of trouble with this shift. “…labourism is resistant to legitimising non-standard work.” (p.293)  At this point, if I were a table thumpin’ man, I’d have to let rip. Globally speaking, what we have regarded as ‘the standard model’ never did apply to the majority. Far less so since the employers’ drive for flexibility began in earnest the 1970s. Less still with the precipitous rise of the precariat during this century. And even less in future, as the economic crisis morphs into a jobs crisis. Globally speaking, the standard model is the exception, not the rule. (thump!)  Deal with it.

11]  Standing is more polished in his articulation, but I get the sense he feels the same way. He does not waste time with qualifiers when he says: “Insecurity is the defining feature of globalization”. (p.293)

At this point he starts to draw all the threads of his argument together. I won’t try to summarise this, because without the logical argument it would just come across as a series of disembodied policy recommendations. This is the stuff that the left will want to engage around (and you can bet there’ll be some straw men immolated in the process!). Suffice it to say that Standing reckons we must move beyond the old model, which made “the performance of labour the locus for social rights”. Instead, we need to start building a more inclusive model based around occupation. This would revive society and economics in such a way that “…achieving a healthy balance of work, labour, leisure and play (will) …put the market in its proper place…” (p.323).

(thump!!!!   thump!!!!)
review by Peter Hall-Jones, November 09.

Interested in reading the book for yourself?

Work After Globalization: Building Occupational Citizenship retails for a budget-busting £89.95. However, we wrote to Mr S and he has kindly negotiated with his publishers (Edward Elgar Ltd) a 35% discount for members and supporters. You can download a special order form here. Alternatively, you could wait till the paperback comes out in March.