There are many articles and books that have now been written about “the precariat.” According to Guy Standing, it is “below the proletariat where the precariat is growing.” He argues that the industrial working class, historically representative of the proletariat, are declining in numbers and importance as new class formations emerge. We should be cautious about this kind of argument because it is hard to generalize statistical patterns at a global level. Moreover, as Vivek Chibber argues, the industrial working class and its leverage over production is still central to resistance to capitalism. Nevertheless, there are useful comparative aspects of Standing’s argument that highlight new definitions of work in contemporary capitalism.
Marcel van der Linden draws out the dimensions of the precariat, focusing on the “standard employment” relationship as a bundle of features. According to van der Linden, there have been precarious forms of work since ancient times, but what defines the current trend is its structural character. In this sense, the 20th century model of good union jobs might prove to be an outlier. This comparison echoes Thomas Piketty’s argument that, except for a brief thirty-year period after World War II, inequality takes a “U-shaped” form in Western countries. Van der Linden helps us construct a taxonomy of different kinds of employment relationships, but there is still a normative sense that being confined to precarious work is unfair and unjust.
A Political Constituency
What is missing in the debate about precarity is the possibility of theorizing a distinctively US/Western class formation as a political constituency to fight for radical reforms. In the 1960s, critical theorist Herbert Marcuse famously claimed that students, not workers, are the new revolutionary vanguard. The shift away from class in the New Left exemplified a dangerous trend, however, that ultimately compounded the collapse of radicalism within the labor movement. If we are to try and understand the growing reserves of downwardly middle class members of society more open to radicalization, we must integrate this constituency with existing union and labor struggles.
The question though is, what should be the form of this integration? If we look back to previous labor struggles, the major detour of the labor movement was the shift from organizing and militancy to large, bureaucratic service-oriented unions that negotiated contracts with employers; victories which undermined shop floor control and created other avenues for capital to assault labor, including offshoring and downsizing. When labor wins on one level, capital strikes back on another. If a small, overwhelmingly white male segment of the working class managed to win wage gains during the mid-20th century, capital managed to counter-attack in the 1970s by undermining the idea of full employment and embracing concepts such as labor flexibility.
We should take the lesson from this history to recognize that simply fighting for more regulations or better contracts for precarious workers will not solve the inherent problem. In this sense, however, precariousness is also creating a class capable of long-term radical change; one which is not necessarily aiming to achieve “security,” but perhaps could directly challenge the capitalist system itself. What if those downwardly middle class folks realized that it is in their interest to build connections with working class and marginalized sections of society, as opposed to winning small concessions for slightly less precarious jobs?
Precariousness is also a category that encompasses many kinds of jobs and relationships; from driving an Uber in a “gig economy,” to freelance entertainment work, to informal workers in Southern countries. Precariousness can potentially conceal these divisions, but it could also point to convergence in a world that is being shaped by corporations with the tremendous power to undermine wages and living standards everywhere.
Proposals and Solutions
The question of interests and whether a small segment of the precariat is compatible with the long-term trends and dynamics of the capitalist system is yet to be resolved. Commentators obsessed with visions of the future such as automation, argue that if the “robots take the jobs,” we will need to invent solutions such as Universal Basic Income. Others criticize this argument, claiming it embraces a vision of techno-utopia that overlooks the structural power of workers at the point of production. Mike Beggs, for example, argues that demands should focus on generating full employment to increase labor’s bargaining power vis-à-vis capital. We can’t answer these questions immediately, but it is worth asking, should we conceive the precariat as a new working class in the making? A culturally apathetic group of millennials? Or a segment of the middle class that could potentially embrace new forms of solidarity with other classes?
As a comrade put it, who is a worker? Is the goal of labor organizing to create a union that negotiates collective bargaining agreements? Is the precariat inherently individualistic, inward-looking, and obsessed with winning the jobs lottery as a “solo-preneur”? Or is there an element of class consciousness and solidarity that could create unexpected alliances between downwardly middle class folks and people on the margins of society, such as undocumented workers? To unlock the possibilities of the precariat, we should see it not as a homogeneous class with an inherent set of tendencies, but as a critical perspective on the reconfiguration of work relationships in capitalism. The question, as always, is to what extent this category helps us organize toward the defeat of capitalism.