Renaming as Praxis: the ‘Precariat’ and its (Mis)use

The term precariat is a portmanteau fusing together proletariat and – of course – precarious. Its roots can be traced back to French sociologists in the 1980s, though precariat has taken on a new essence in today’s globalized, neoliberal landscape. The term today is most commonly associated with the works of Guy Standing, Loïc Wacquant, and other contemporary sociologists who are grappling with the quickly changing social universe as globalization and neoliberal policy roll back the advances of the welfare state in the post-industrial world.  Perhaps the one to have written most exhaustively on this topic, Guy Standing has put forth a number of claims which merit a good deal of discussion. Among them – and perhaps the most provocative – is the notion that the precariat is a ‘class-in-the-making,’ ‘distinct in class terms’ – in other words: one that is ‘not part of the working class or the proletariat.’ [1]

The task of this paper will be to challenge the notion that a burgeoning precariat – as qualified by Standing – is indeed not a distinct class-in-the-making but a way of conceptualizing a changing proletariat or working class. Although there is much to critique of Standing’s precariat, there is also much to incorporate into an analysis of how working people – broadly speaking – experience the changing social landscape. However, what Standing’s analysis jeopardizes is a precise understanding of class’ relation to the capitalist productive mode; in fact, not only does it go so far as to obfuscate class, it caricaturizes the Marxist conception of capitalism by way of  implying that the proletarian/working class is an outdated conception – one defined by stability and security.

Before a successful engagement with Standing’s arguments can take place, a definition of the precariat is required. Standing’s approach is that the spread of globalization has fragmented the global class structure, with the precariat standing among the lowest of six other classes: the elite, the established middle class (salariat), the technical middle class (proficariat), new affluent workers, the traditional or (proletarian) working class, and emergent service workers.[2] From here on out, the definition of what constitutes the precariat is elusive. He does offer a number of qualifiers, however. ‘The precariat consists of people who lack the seven forms of labor-related security … that social-democrats, labor parties and trade unions pursued as their industrial citizenship agenda after the second World War:’ labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security and representation security.[3]

The above insecurities ensure that the precariat receives a fluctuating pattern of income, ‘impart[ing] a vulnerability going well beyond what would be conveyed by the money income received at a particular moment.’ Compounded with this is a lack of support in the form of ‘assured enterprises or state benefits’ that are often considered supplementary to money earnings. The above insecurities serve to dismantle any semblance of ‘work based identity’ for the average precarian, who is career-less, lacking in social memory and without an occupational community; ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community [intensifying] a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do.’[4]  Standing clarifies that by no means are the precariat homogeneous: some are interns, some take uptitled jobs, others can be called denizens or urban nomads, etc. The thread common to all precarians ‘is [in] seeing how people come to be doing insecure forms of labor that are unlikely to assist them to [in building] a desirable identity or a desirable career.’[5]

Thus far, I have laid out those characteristics Standing indicates as common to all precarians. And surely neoliberalism has advanced since the 1970s hand-in-hand with the rolling back of social safety nets, workers’ benefits, civil liberties, widening incarceration rates, and a decline in union density in the western capitalist world. The result – as Standing describes well – is a growing sense of uncertainty, precariousness, and dislocation from solidaristic communities among working people. Insofar as Standing describes the quality of life among those who work (predominantly those who earn less), I would argue he is mostly successful. Insofar as he shows that a proliferating ‘class-in-the-making’ is taking foot in the neoliberal world, I will argue he is unsuccessful.

Again, while Standing can assign to the precariat a variety of characteristics, the role of chapter 1 of his book (which seeks to define the precariat) seems to define this becoming class on terms of what it is not:[**]  the precariat is not yet ‘a class-for-itself;’[6] it is not analogous to the lumpenproletariat – ‘the jobless who have no hope of social integration;’ ‘it is not right to equate the precariat with the working poor or with just insecure unemployment, although these dimensions are correlated with it.[7] Standing states, ‘to assert that the precariat consists of people who have no control over their labor or work would be too restrictive … [though] aspects of control are relevant to an assessment of their predicament;’[8] the precariat is not featured by ‘the level of money wages or income earned;’ ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community;’[9] ‘not all those in the precariat should be regarded as victims;’[10] and – most provocatively:

‘the precariat is not part of the working class or the proletariat. The latter term suggests a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.’[11]

Indeed, the more we consider what the precariat is not, the more restrictive and – I would argue – imprecise the term becomes, a term which is intended to name a becoming-class. The source for this confusion rests on two errors:

(1)      Though Standing distinguishes between class (‘refer[ing] to social relations of production and a person’s position in the labor process’) and status (‘associated with a person’s occupation’), he largely defines the precariat in terms of status, while simultaneously arguing that it is a ‘class-in-the-making.’ This becomes problematic because Standing effectively collapses the two into the same category, invoking one or the other as he sees fit. This leads to analytical imprecision. Standing argues that the precariat has ‘class characteristics,’ in that ‘it consists of people who have minimal trust relationships with capital or the state.’ These can be characteristics of the proletariat, but neither having minimal trust relationships with capital nor with the state are sufficient or necessary characteristics of class, from a scientific perspective. Class is defined – as Standing acknowledges – by one’s position in the general productive mode, not in terms of its broad characteristics.[12] But what does it precisely mean to be positioned somewhere in the general productive mode? Weber’s own definitions were self-admittedly ambiguous. But he did state that a class is defined as some social group within a plurality that share a common

‘specific causal component of life chances insofar as this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income and is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets.’[13]

But this only outlines the social appearance of a class, not what a class technically is. Weber begs the question of what is class by way of answer. He thinks of classes as social groupings, which they undoubtedly are. But in stopping there, he simply captures the essence of class, rather than how classes relate to each other as well as the technical underpinnings that comprise the overall productive mode. He was aware of this predicament: ‘to treat class conceptually as being equivalent to [a] group leads to distortion.’[14] Standing has committed this distortion in his analysis, and we will get to why in a moment.

There are mainly two ways in which one can be organized within the capitalist productive mode: one can either reproduce herself by way of selling her capacity to work to an employer in exchange for a wage (worker); or one is an employer (capitalist) who extracts the surplus value created by her employees (profit), reinvesting that value into her business. Of course there are numerous groupings (such as the precariat, workers with salaries, etc.) that are distinct from one another in daily experience and status, but insofar as these groupings are different in experience and status, they are not distinct classes.

Both workers and capitalists are locked in an antagonistic relationship, established by the manner in which the capitalist productive mode induces them to possess opposed, objective and material interests. Simply: the capitalist needs to maximize profits – the worker needs higher wages. You cannot take away from one without inversely affecting the other.

A petit-bourgeoisie (small-capitalist) class fits into this schema. They ‘compete for a portion of [created value] against both big capital and the wage demands of workers.’[15]  Some are self-employed, others are salaried or waged while also possessing investable capital (perhaps inherited). The growth of precariousness in the neoliberal age has indeed changed the social landscape. It has expanded – to some extent – the petit bourgeoisie in the US, for example, since the 1970s. Opportunities for full time employment are shifting and ‘work previously done by full time employees is [now sometimes] contracted out, and the rise of information technology [has allowed for] decentralized small manufacturing.’[16] This is the extent to which precariousness has changed business as usual. Not at all does this imply that a precarious ‘class-in-the-making,’ wholly distinct from the proletariat, may soon indeed become a ‘class-for-itself.’

Moreover, to return to the discussion of appearances, Standing attempts to distinguish ‘proletariat’ from ‘precariat’ as a class by way of differentiating the precariat from an image of what he thinks the proletariat is:

[Proletariat] suggests a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.[17]

But one cannot define a term precisely by way of identifying what it ‘suggests!’ That is obfuscation and – frankly – poor social science. A botanist would be laughed at if he were asked by another botanist to define a tomato by stating that ‘a tomato suggests pizza or pasta sauce.’ This might seem drawn out, but it is the root of Standing’s analytical error.

Especially as it was taking hold in a newly industrializing Europe, the proletariat did not have ‘fixed hour jobs with established routes of advancement.’ Nor was it ‘subject to unionization and collective agreements with job titles.’ Marx discusses – in numerous places – not only the precariousness of proletarian work, but the precarianization of work as capital advanced:

‘The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.’[18]

And in Capital:

‘The higher the productiveness of labour, the greater is the pressure of the labourers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence, viz., the sale of their own labour power for the increasing of another’s wealth, or for the self-expansion of capital.’[19]

All of this is to say that Standing reinvents the wheel by claiming a new class is becoming, when really what ought to be meant by ‘precariat’ is this: a distinct group among the proletariat whose expansion has been conferred by neoliberal advance. Indeed, workers’ productivity rates have skyrocketed while their wages have remained static, bringing on a heightened degree of uncertainty and precariousness for especially lower wage earning workers. The world financial recession has made conditions for workers more austere, but a more austere working class does not a new class make.

(2)     Not only is there a remarkable sameness between the precariat and proletariat. We also find Standing’s restrictive idea of what constitutes proletariat frozen in time. But where – in time – has this static, stereotypical image of the proletariat been fossilized and why?

Standing puts forth that the working class enjoyed ‘stability’ and ‘established routes of advancement’ during the Fordist, pre-neoliberal period of capitalism (before the 1970s). This was a period in which the laborist model predominated – one including strong left-labor coalitions in parliament, strong welfare states, and a higher availability of social or de-commodified services. Standing acknowledges – rightly – that this has changed; the social landscape is always changing due to shifting political forces (this is the thrust of dialectics). The advance of neoliberalism has brought with it the systematic destruction of these sorts of services, a destruction wedged by a globalizing class of capitalists who have only further concentrated their wealth to record-breaking extents.

But why – then – has Standing not acknowledged that the proletariat has changed as well? Better yet, why does Standing insist that the proletariat is a thing of the past, existing today only in remnants? I think it has to do with the manner in which a collective ‘social memory’ has been demolished by the ideological advance that has gone hand in hand with the neoliberal. The cards have been dealt in the elite’s favor for the past forty years to such an extent that social scientists on the Left feel the need to found a ‘new vocabulary’ to qualify and quantify the conditions under which we find ourselves.[20] But as Standing knows: ‘no revolution comes from simple understanding.’[21]

But this level of reimagining or re-naming comes from a real problem, conferred by the advancing ideology and structures of neoliberalism: the destruction of once strong and resourceful solidaristic communities, ones which commanded their own common languages and political perspectives that could represent the interests and experiences of working people. Standing notes ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community, [thus intensifying] a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do. Actions and attitudes, derived from precariousness, drift towards opportunism.’[22] Unions – once a source for incubating solidarity – have now instrumentalized in this manner. In the United States, they have been nearly eviscerated, inducing bureaucracy and a rationalized way of assessing political questions. The organized left is in shambles and is compelled to be opportunistic in their political strategizing, given their low level of resources and the forces they face.

This lack of resources/organizational capacity not only affects the agency workers and the left have in realizing political outcomes, it affects their politics; it affects the manner in which they conceptualize revolutionary change. Marx wrote in The 18th Brumaire:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.[23]

Standing conjures up a spirit of the past – the antiquated proletariat, working in steady, fixed-income industrial jobs, unionized and relatively secure. But this is only an image – a fleeting memory, at best. And now that precarious labor has augmented, seemingly replacing stable careers and job security, we find it necessary to give new language to ‘new’ phenomena. Akin to ‘the beginner who has learned a new language [and] always translates it back into his mother tongue,’ Standing ‘assimilates the spirit of a new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old.’[24]

This is why his definition of ‘precariat’ relies so much on what precariat is not, namely – what it is not anymore: it is the case the world has changed since the 1970s. It is the case the social landscape has shifted beneath the feet of the working class. The fact remains – however – that the bedrock institution of modern society is waged labor. The fact remains that a working (proletarian) class works to produce surplus an elite class exploits and re-distributes on its own terms.

The stakes that are attached to this discussion are – in fact – quite high. Indeed one task of social science is to ascribe language to the world that is changing before our eyes. But Newton would be reluctant to relinquish the theory of gravity after his first flight. He would condition it, perhaps – but would not be convinced to leap from the aircraft.

Insofar as Standing’s contributions highlight modern conditions, the precariat is useful shorthand for the kind of labor with which segments of the proletariat are pained to engage. But the real test of a theory is to match its hypotheses to the conclusions it makes, and how observations of the material world mediate the process between hypothesis and conclusion.  But the precariat as a designated, distinct ‘class-in-becoming’ does not live up to this rigorous standard.

This is why Standing can amazingly state that ‘[lumpenproletariat] is not what will be meant [by precariat] in [his] book,’ yet devote an entire section asserting that the precariat encompasses ‘the large layer of people who have been criminalized, convicted; … temporary career-less workers, migrants, denizens, criminalized strugglers, welfare claimants,’ namely those whom the employment process designates as not ‘socially useful.’[25] This is why Standing can remove himself from the ‘technological determinist’ camp, yet assert that ‘the internet, the browsing habit, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and other social media are all operating to rewire the brain’ and that ‘digital living is damaging the long-term memory consolidation process that is the basis for what generations of humans have come to regard as intelligence.’[26] Is it really true that ‘the digitized world has no respect for contemplation or reflection’? Is it really true that the dawn of the digital millennium has claimed – as casualties – the literate mind and a society made up of ‘individuals with distinctive combinations of knowledge?’[27] Or are these the musings and ideations of every academic who received his BA in 1971? The short discussion of ‘some’ (who?) evolutionary biologists who claim that electronics are returning the human mind to its primitive state – that the scholarly mind is an historical aberration – is un-scientific, at best. That biological regression and its ‘evolutionary implications’ are given one iota of legitimacy with scant sourced material is outstanding.[28]

This is not a personal attack, but an attempt to draw out the idealism of Standing’s assertions and the fact that his conclusions do not match his starting points. It is a glaring contradiction to assert the precariatized mind is distinct in that it experiences ‘the four As,’ when segments of the proletariat have always done so since the dawn of capitalism. Entire swaths of the post-industrial labor force in the United States and the UK have been buried, never experiencing ‘ladders of mobility to climb.’[29]

All of this is to say that these conclusions and such a framework influence the manner in which Standing envisions the precariat moving forward for themselves. The hindrances which keep the precariat from becoming a ‘class-for-itself’ are: a lack of solidarity; a ‘fear of failure;’ the ‘disavowal of empathy;’ not being professionalized and thus withdrawn from a ‘community with ethical codes and mutual respect [strengthened by] long-established norms of behavior;’ a ‘lack of social memory;’ that it lacks job-commitment.[30]

These are all perhaps very true; the precarian consciousness is mired with self-competition, anomie, and alienation. But Standing does not discuss what transforms these plagues common to all segments of the working class, precarious or not. He gives the impression that these problems lend themselves to a ‘dangerous’ class, ‘conducive to intolerance.’[31]  In so concluding, Standing implies that the precariat has no agency in affecting change for itself, oddly omitting the question he mentions at the outset of his analysis: whether or not the precariat can become a ‘class-for-itself.’ The conclusion is messianistic and cautionary: ‘action is needed before that monster [the precariat] comes to life.’[32] It is not action-in-the-abstract that is needed, but self-action and self-activity. Marx was not the only political economist or social scientist to observe that the working class had a structural advantage in waging revolutionary change, by virtue of their contribution to the labor process. Such a possibility is not off the table by virtue of the fact that the social landscape has shifted. Neither should it be that what is ‘dangerous’ about the precariat is its presumed intolerance for economic affluence and progress.

There is a way and need for moving forward. This is becoming clearer as the oceans acidify. But we need to be clearer about the world around us and the forces against which all working people are up against. It is not enough as praxis to re-name. What is lacking here is a real political discussion of what it will take to realize an end to precariousness and where the precariat fits into this strategic equation. A concrete and political discussion of why a ‘politics of paradise’ is needed not just to ‘respond’ to the precariat’s fears, insecurities, and aspirations – but to fundamentally change those conditions which induce them, before our planet overheats, leaving us very little to change in the first place.


[1] Standing, 6-7

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 10-13

[4] Ibid, 12

[5] Ibid, 16

[6] Ibid, 7

[7] Ibid, 9

[8] Ibid, 10

[9] Ibid, 12

[10] Ibid, 13

[11] Ibid, 6

[12] Ibid, 8

[13] Longhofer, 274

[14] Ibid, 275

[15] Sharzer, 87

[16] Ibid, 88

[17] Standing, 6

[18] Marx, Manifesto CH 1

[19] Marx, Capital Vol 1

[20] Standing, 7

[21] Ibid, 2

[22] Ibid, 12

[23] Tucker, 595

[24] Ibid

[25] Standing, 9

[26] Ibid, 18

[27] Ibid, 19

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid, 20

[30] Ibid, 23-4

[31] Ibid, 25

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