The precariat – the making of a new class


My name is Federica di Lascio, and just like a lot of people today, I am part of the precariat, those precarious people who jump from one temporary job to another. I have moved from one city to another since I was a student at University in Turin – always working in more and more short term, and less and less secure, jobs.

So, I live it, I experience it.  But I wanted to understand the conditions and the challenges of precarity better.   As we can see from movements and demonstrations around the world, it is surely one of the most pressing issues today.

I had a conversation with Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat, the new dangerous class” (published by Bloomsbury in 2011) and the upcoming book “A Precariat charter: Denizens to Citizens”.  I started by asking him what contribution his books had made to studies about the precariat….

guystandingGuy Standing:  The term “precariat” has been used in German, French and Italian, and in various ways. But what my book did, for the first time, was to give a specific definition with particular elements to it, that put it in a class structure.  You have to understand the precariat from the perspective of globalisation and the pursuit of more flexible labour markets, which have gradually reduced old forms of security provided to the proletariat in the 20th century.

I define the classes in the emerging class structure.  First there is the plutocracy at the top with ridiculous incomes and also powers, then a salariat of people with long-term employment security and high incomes and access to benefits and so on, alongside a group who I call the proficians people who are project-oriented, they have good qualifications, they don’t want long-term employment security, but they’re earning very high incomes and living very intensively. Below those groups the old proletariat, the old working class, has been shrinking and shrinking, but underneath that group is the emerging precariat, but underneath the that precariat is a “lumpen” precariat, an underclass.  It is very important for everybody who is looking at the precariat phenomenon to understand that global capitalism and the state want a precariat, it’s not something that is an accidental outcome of the economic system.

F di L  Who are the members of the Precariat, and what are their main common features?

GS:  The precariat consists of people who are insecure in term of access to jobs, they don’t have any form of income security or employment protection. That is the most obvious part of the definition.   But in my view that is not the most important part.  The most important part is that people in the precariat do not have an occupational identity, they do not have a narrative they can give to their lives – so that they have a sense of developing their capabilities, developing their skills and developing their status.  And the second important part is that they are what I call “supplicants”.

The Precariat bookThe original definition of precarious was a sort of begging – having to beg for entitlements, begging for benefits in society, rather than having them as guaranteed rights under the law or under the economic system.   That is why it’s important to think of the precariat as denizens, not citizens. A denizen is somebody who has fewer rights than a citizen in the same country.  What you find is that people in the precariat do not have access to civil rights, they’re not having access to political rights, they’re not having access to economic rights, they’re not having access to social rights, and in many respects they’re not having access to cultural rights. So the five types of rights are all weakened for the precariat.   So that’s a very important part of the precariat,  that they are denizens.

Another important aspect is that for the first time in history we have a mass class of people in our society whose qualifications are systematically greater than the labour, the jobs, they’re expected to perform. And this creates a real problem of what I call “status frustration” and alienation from the labour they’re expected to undertake. And that status frustration is part of the crisis of the precariat, particularly among young people who are emerging from university and colleges.

Why do you define the Precariat as a “class in the making”?

In the book I talk about the precariat as a ‘class in the making’ not yet a class for itself.    These Marxist terms, and what it means is that at the moment a lot of people who are in the precariat know what they’re against, they know they’re against all the insecurity, the begging  they’re expected to undertake, but at the same time they don’t know, as a group, what they want instead. Well I think we’ve just seen this with Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement in the election in February where he was able to mobilise different parts of the precariat against the state, against the social-democrats, against Berlusconi, but there’s a disunity in what it stands for that rejection.

The precariat consists of three groups. The first group is made up of people falling out of working class communities, old working class communities. They don’t have a lot of education but they’re confused, they’re angry. They’ve lost a lot of things that their parents had, and they are listening to populists, neo-fascists and the far right, they are becoming anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-this, anti-that, they become all confused.

The second group consists of migrants and minorities who are part of the precariat, a major are part of the precariat, but they are politically detached, they’re politically quiet because they’re in a very weak situation, wherever they are.

And the third group of the precariat is the young educated, no doubt people like yourself, Federica, who are very frustrated. They don’t want to go back, they don’t want to go back to the labourism of their parents’ generation, that’s not an attractive option, and they’re looking for a utopian future. This part of the precariat is looking for a new progressive politics and it is where the most exciting developments are taking place today.

Q: How did we reach this situation, and what’s happened over the last 50 years?

G: The last 50 years, the last 30 years really, saw the collapse of the old labourist social-democratic model in the 1970s, and that led to the new liberal emergence in the early 1980s with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and all the new liberal economists around the Chicago School. They launched a globalisation strategy based on free markets, on dismantling all the institutions of social solidarity and not putting in place any alternatives.  They went for a highly individualised system of competitiveness, modifying all  aspects of life. And because of the emergence of China and India and other emerging market economies, the global labour supply trebled, putting downward pressures on wages and benefits in the rich industrialised countries like Italy, Britain and the  United States.  In response, the governments of those countries have tried to make their labour markets much more flexible, pushing down wages, pushing down benefits and so on.  For a while, while they were doing that, they gave welfare benefits, cheap credit, cheap subsidies, tax credits, anything to allow consumption to remain high while wages were falling and opportunities were falling and in that process they produced this debt crisis that led to the financial crash of 2008.

Post 2008 what has happened is that governments through their austerity policies have increased enormously the number of people being pushed into the precariat.  Millions of people everywhere have been losing state benefits, losing enterprise benefits, losing all form of security and experiencing incredible levels of unemployment and underemployment in this period. So what you’ve now got is a much, much greater precariat in 2013, than you had in 2008. And at the moment we are seeing a set of governments that are continuing to push the size of the precariat up and are trying to appeal to their salariats, their middle class, their more elderly secure people, to obtain enough votes to be re-elected. But I don’t think that will continue for long because the size of the precariat has now become almost a majority  – it’s at that point that we’ll see the sort of things that we have seen in Italy this year happening in a lot of countries. Centre-left and centre-right governments will be thrown out because they’ve lost the legitimacy of the precariat. It will be an interesting phase over the next two or three years as the precariat becomes more politicized and active in the global economy.

Q: Do you think the precariat is represented publicly?

G: No, of course not. They are treated as victims, as the cause of their own problems. You can see that in this coalition government in Great Britain. They are trying to paint young people as “scroungers”, as idle, as living off benefits without wanting to work, without wanting to be active, without wanting to improve themselves. This is a parody, is completely untrue.  But they’ve managed to make people in the media and a lot of public opinion think that out there a lot of people in the precariat are lazy, irresponsible. The words being thrown at people in the precariat are lies, but at the moment the middle ground of politics is still using those expressions.  I don’t think it’s going to be very successful for very long, but right now in places like Britain, it still has some support particularly from the rich and from salaried people.

Q: At this point, what is the short-term solution?

G: I’m just writing a follow-up book to my The Precariat, it’s called A Precariat Charter, and the charter is basically starting from the principle that we are in the midst of a global transformation crisis. We are at the moment in the midst of a global transformation: the painful construction of a global market system. When a transformation is half way through, when all inequalities and insecurities have grown and grown, there is a crisis – there is something like a financial shock to the system.  At that point society either goes to the far right, or you can have a new progressive politics emerging.  I think that we are at that point now.

We are seeing the possibility, and I’m not predicting it, but the possibility of a shift to the far right.  It will be resisted only if a new progressive ‘politics of paradise’  – that is what I call it in the book – a politics of paradise emerges.  For that to happen, three principles have to be remembered.  That is what is happening at the moment.

The first principle is that you only get a new progressive movement when the needs and aspirations of the emerging mass class are defined and identified. The second great principle is that the new forward march towards more equality, towards more security for people always involves new forms of collective social action, new forms that are not the same as the last transformation.  So, it will not be old-style trade-unions that will lead the new collective movement, it will be other forms of collective action. And the third principle is that every transformation involves three overlapping struggles: the first struggle is the struggle for recognition, and what I mean by recognition is a sense of identity, a sense of pride in belonging to a social group that you can identify with. I think that the 2011 movements (the Occupy movement in the UK and US, the “indignados” in Spain, the “precari” in Italy, the “Den Plirono” in Greece, the Arab spring and so on, were collectively a huge moment. Suddenly millions of people around the world felt that they had a sense of recognition, of having a lot of fellow people just like them. And that sense of recognition is what is crystallizing in the precariat.  Many, many people now are not ashamed, indeed they are proud, to say “I am part of the precariat, I’m not ashamed to say it”, and that sense of suddenly feeling a common identity is a vital stage in forging a new movement, because unless you have a sense of common identity, you will not be able to develop a collective vision for a future.

The second struggle is the struggle for representation.  Here we must understand that in 2013 we are still not very advanced in developing a sense of representation of the precariat in all state institutions, in the agencies of government and institutions of  society. The precariat is not part of the system of governance – governance, not government – so it is not there on the occupational boards, it’s not in social agencies dealing with state benefits, it’s not in any of the political parties and so on.  So the struggle this year and next will be to strengthen that sense of representation and turn the precariat from being objects, treated as objects, to being subjects, having a sense of agency –  a sense of voice, in the Hirschmann sense of that term – in all organs of the state.

The third great struggle is the struggle for redistribution.  In the book, I describe this as a new form of redistribution, a new form of equality, because what the precariat wants is quite different from what the old proletariat was struggling for a century ago. In the days of the proletariat growing, they were wanting control over the means of production, over the factories, the mines, the great estates, and were wanting access to the profits of industrial capitalism. Today, that agenda doesn’t really attract most of the progressive parts of the precariat. What they want is a redistribution of control over their time, they want redistribution of security, so that everybody has security, equal security. They also want redistribution of access to quality public spaces, so they’re fighting for the commons, the great spaces, the ecological parts of our living which is chronically unequally distributed at the moment. We also want a redistribution of things like financial knowledge and other forms of knowledge, so the precariat is not just treated as going to universities and colleges in order to learn to be better breadwinners and job holders – rather, they want a real liberating education, and that means redistributing control over education away from the élites and commercial interests towards the precariat.

But how do you translate all that into specific policies? I think you can see that what defines the transformation ahead is one that is going to be led by the interests and needs of the growing precariat and particularly that third part of the precariat, the progressive part, which is dominated largely by younger people.

Q: It’s very difficult to understand how to represent precarious workers publicly and how to develop the right policies.   It’s very interesting this point about solutions as political solutions, but I consider the precariat to be too weak and diverse within; with a lot of differences amongst workers. Surely in the past the working class had similar needs […] .

G: If you look back historically, you will see that when the Industrial Revolution was taking place, when the great transformation was tacking place, the working class was certainly not united, it did not have a single common identity.  There were many different types, they were craftworkers who didn’t have the same interests as their laborers, they were all different groups; some looking back, some looking forward, some looking the far right, some to the far left, there equally heterogeneous characteristics of the proletariat and the working class.  I don’t buy the argument that because there are differences within the precariat,  they won’t have enough in common to create a new progressive politics.

One of the challenges ahead will be to say: “Look, certain parts of the atavistic first variety of the precariat do not have to go to the far right, if they can be induced to understand that the real enemy is the nature of inequality, where that the plutocracy and the salariat are gaining all the benefits of society and they are losing out”.  That in itself would lead to their wanting to support a progressive redistribution policy. At the same time,  it is important to realise that a lot of people in the salariat are facing a situation in which their own children are in the precariat  – so suddenly they’re not just thinking about their own interests, they’re also thinking of the next generation’s interests and therefore they are likely to say: “I want to support the movement of the precariat”. So I think what you’re going to see is a gradual solidifying of a progressive agenda around the progressive part of the precariat.

Q: Sometimes we are accused of being idealistic…

G: This is the nature of the intergenerational debate throughout history. Every older generation tells the newer generation that they’re being idealistic and unrealistic. Then, 50 years later, all that the young were struggling for have become reality. Then it is they who tell the next generation that they’re being idealistic in imagining things changing from that stage.  It’s the normal thing that the older generation tends to be conservative and to resist some changes.  But actually what I have found in the last three or four years as I’ve gone around the world talking about the precariat, is that a lot of young people understand and a lot of older people too. A lot of older people have written to me, have spoken to me, and have said: “Yes, I can see what is happening, and I’m worried about the next generation, so we have to be open to change ourselves.”  That’s very healthy.

So, of course, you have some resistance from old people who are set in their ways.  But I think you’ll find that there is a lot more openness to the debates around the precariat because we can see that millions and millions of people are suffering from the insecurities,  the impoverishment and the denial of the opportunity to develop themselves in their ordinary lives.  There is a coming together across the generations for a progressive struggle, and that the anger out there is growing.  Perhaps you should join BIN Italia, which is the Basic Income Network. There are some great people in it. The international movement for a basic income is an important part of the progressive agenda for the Precariat!