If you’ve been puzzling over this whole #Occupy thing, Guy Standing’s latest book “The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class”(1) is essential reading. If you’re a unionist or center-left politician who’s been wondering where the hell your membership base went (and how to win it back), ditto.

If Standing(2) is correct, then we can expect movements like Occupy to evolve and grow. Unfortunately, we can also expect a continuing revival among the extreme right. Hence the word “dangerous” in the title of the book.

At the heart of Standing’s book is the contention that a new class is developing. Just as the rise of the “proletariat” (or industrial working class) changed the face of the 20th century, so is the rise of the “precariat”(3) affecting us today. The implications of this shift are no less radical. Unionists who ignore this change, or cling to hopes of a revival of the 20th century model, are already following in the footsteps of the Guilds.

Here’s a very brief summary of Standing’s argument, for those who can’t afford to buy a copy (at £UK20/$US30), or who just don’t read scholarly stuff. (If money is the only obstacle, you can also look at individual chapters here: http://goo.gl/Q8GcO).

The push for “labour market flexibility” began in earnest in the 1970s. It was a move designed to transfer an increasing share of business risk onto the backs of employees. Since then we have seen the rise and rise of the temp worker, the agency worker, the part-timer, the short-term contractor, the casual employee, the freelancer, the working retiree, the ‘trial period’ employee, the intern…

They have joined the ranks of migrant workers, domestic workers, volunteers and unpaid care workers. Together, these workers are “denizens” (or semi-citizens) in production and services. Their rights are limited by legislation, and their situation is manipulated to weaken and divide the labour movement. Taken together, this group of groups is growing as quickly as the influence of neo-liberals will allow.

This is no conspiracy theory. In his many years working for the ILO and subsequent research at the University of Bath(2), Standing has encountered enough evidence (government statistics, academic studies, first hand observations) to convince anybody who approaches the subject honestly. Perhaps more importantly, he presents these facts to the reader without any sense of righteousness or relish. Standing is not some ideologue trying to assert his beliefs. Rather, his views appear to have developed naturally out of the evidence. At least, that is how it seems. His arguments are all the more convincing because of this.

As we have seen elsewhere(4), precarious work has become “the new normal” since the financial crisis of 2008. It is a process of churn that looks set to continue for many years to come. Meanwhile, those with “permanent jobs” are finding their employment conditions eroded at every opportunity. People who change jobs are also being presented with ever-harsher terms of employment. Not only is “the traditional” job being superseded, it is being hollowed out from within.

There has been no comprehensive study measuring the levels of precarity in the global workforce, but it looks as if we are talking about 25% of the population, in rich countries at least. (My estimate, not Standing’s. See http://goo.gl/x6xtT). Whatever unions do or don’t do as a result, they should NOT regard this as some kind of seasonal anomaly. This is not some awkward stage that capitalism is going through. Most of the world’s population already lives and works without employment security. Most people in rich countries did as well, prior to the 20th century. As Standing shows, it is the secure employment model (known as “labourism”) that should be regarded as the anomaly.

By extension, it would be a strategic blunder for unions to continue building the foundations of unionism on the labourist model. They MUST start finding new ways of organizing to bring the precariat into their ranks.

This will not be easy, because the precariat does not yet see itself as a class. Nor did the early proletariat. In the industrial revolution, many different strands had to come together before the “class-in-the-making” became a “class-for-itself”. The equivalent revolution, this time round, is globalisation. (“The shift to temporary labour is part of global capitalism”. p33). Some are entering the precariat unconsciously, having never known anything else. Others have been forced to join through straitened circumstances. Still others have arrived without moving, simply because because their job or industry has changed around them.

Security, peace of mind and working conditions have not been the only casualties of this shift. Along the way, those who have joined the precariat have also lost their sense of social solidarity. One of the earliest casualties has been  union membership. To many, unionisation is not even a choice that merits consideration. As Richard Trumka noted in 2010, the younger ones see unions as  “a remnant of their parents’ economy” (5).

Not surprisingly, Standing thinks things will get worse. In the penultimate chapter, The Politics of Inferno, he shows us just how deeply these changes have been affecting society. In particular, marginalisation, demonisation, fear and anxiety are producing an explosive condition among a class of people who already have no particular allegiances. Since the book was published we have seen the rise of the Occupy movement. At the time of writing, neo-fascist groups like the British National Party, Japan’s Net Far Right and the U.S. Tea Party were more obvious examples.

Thankfully, Standing does not leave us there. The final chapter calls for a return to “a politics of paradise”. Like George Lakov, he argues that progressives should be arguing for a new vision, rather than simply responding to the agenda that has been imposed. “It is time to revisit the great trinity – freedom, fraternity and equality…”. This is a chapter you should read for yourself. You may agree; you may not. Put that aside. This is not a schedule of recommended demands, it is a prescription for a class-in-the-making to become a class-for-itself. The real work is up to them. What I find intriguing is that Standing’s prescription already reads like some prescient historical text.

Notes

Congratulations to Bloomsbury Academic for making the text free to all. The final chapter is available here: http://goo.gl/1wo28. Here’s a more recent article: http://goo.gl/QL2Pn.

 

(1) The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class, by Guy Standing. Bloomsbury Academic 2011.

(2) Dr Guy Standing is Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath in the UK. He has 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.

(3) The definition of “precariat” is complicated by its nascent quality. As we discuss above, many different strands are involved. Some have been born into precarity, others arrive there because their job or industry has changed around them. Still others have entered the precariat voluntarily. It is often discussed as if it were a subset of the working class, one which suffers from an extreme lack of employment security. However, as Standing argues: “It is not right to equate the precariat with the working poor or with just insecure employment, although these dimensions are correlated with it. The precariousness also implies a lack of secure work-based identity, whereas workers in some low-income jobs may be building a career.”  p9. See also pp10-11.

(4) See Precariat Meet’n’Greet, Peter Hall-Jones 2010, https://newunionism.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/precariat/

(5) Standing cites Trumka, p 78.

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