Sunday, June 10, 2012

Feeling Precarious Today?

“The Precariat – the New, Dangerous Class,” by Guy Standing, 2011

Guy Standing is a former economist with the International Labour Organization (“ILO”) from 1975 to 2006, a mainstream U.N. sponsored labor organization connected to the AFL-CIO and many governments.  So it is with some distrust that I read a book written by a former 31-year professional ‘labourist,’ as even he would call himself.  The ILO, to my knowledge, other than analyzing the working classes of the world, has never had any role in building a real workers movement anywhere.  In fact, it has done its bit at times to degrade labor. 

Standing has discovered what he calls a 'new class' - the 'precariat.'  And Standing is definitely on to something here. Traditional Marxism has some possible categories for this ‘new class’  – the semi-proletariat, the lumpen-proletariat, the self-employed, the reserve army of the unemployed.   The precariat borrows from all 4 of these groups.  One of his problems is that his definition wanders all over the place – at times seeming to include the whole working class and at other times a more clearly defined group made up of workers who’s main status is contingent.  After all, every worker experiences ‘precariousness’ at times, and also shares some of the pressures of the precariat.  Many workers with stable jobs still have no union contract and work ‘at will,’ with almost no protection from layoffs or termination.  Accidents or sicknesses can throw a worker into poverty quickly.  Even union plants close, layoff or cut work time, no matter how long you’ve worked at them. Of course, this is not news. 

Standing’s present status as a tenured professor at Bath in the UK seems to make him somewhat distant from the realities of the actual working class.  Everything seems to be strained through statistics.  In the earlier part of the book, he seems to include in the precariat paralegals (and other para-professionals), social workers, administrative assistants (formerly called secretaries) and even auto workers.  That might surprise the admin who has to copy his papers and make appointments for him at the University of Bath.  None of these groups is by nature precarious.  He also pulls a large factual boner by claiming that U.S. workers need to be in a job for a year to qualify for unemployment benefits.  It is a half-year.

Along with the precariat, Standing has created two odd new classes along with the precariat – the ‘salariat’ and the ‘proficians.’  The former seems to mean lawyers/doctors/professors/engineers/managers and other professional, high level white-collar types and oddly, also evidently the more numerous white-collar working class.  The white-collar working class is otherwise invisible in his schema, but perhaps he has another place to hide it.  Standing is a member of the top end of the salariat, by the way, and has been his whole life.  His understanding of the vast numbers of the non-salaried white collar and service workers is low, given this verbal slight of hand. (The salariat here serves the same muddling purpose as the term ‘middle class,’ I think.)  He seems not to know that many white-collar workers are legally ‘non-exempt,’ meaning they get paid by time worked, not based on a set ‘salary.’  His focus on the ‘salaryman’ of Japan illustrates this method – or ‘the man in the grey flannel suit,’ as it was called in the 50s in the U.S.  In his view, the industrial working class is the only real working class, an odd point of view shared with David Harvey (See “Rebel Cities,” reviewed below.)

The latter group, the ‘proficians,’ are identified by Standing as professional contract technicians.  I.E. self-employed contract ‘experts’ who collect pretty good wages – when working.  Given this group fits in several other categories, but mainly the self –employed, I find it odd that he even creates a group like this.  Nor does Standing’s grasp the enormous growth of peddlers in almost every country – the ‘self-employed’ of the street. 

Standing, however, does highlight the enormous growth, under late world monopoly capitalism, of millions of contingent workers – the long-term unemployed, temporary employees, part-time employees, contract employees, migrants, the elderly retired, the criminalized, the periodically self-employed; welfare recipients and the disabled; exported workers, prison laborers, forced (slave) laborers, political, environmental and economic refugees, and those without papers, even as citizens of their own countries.  For instance, in China hundreds of millions of rural workers cannot legally move to the cities to stay.  He contends that China has seen the largest internal migration from rural to urban in history.  Standing thinks that world capitalism prefers a contingent workforce to a stable workforce, which is patently true.  And which is why conditions of ‘precariousness’ are filtering into every workplace.  World capital has in essence degraded working conditions for millions of especially young workers to such a point that even dull wage stability is a dream.  As Michael Yates cleverly put it in “In and Out of the Working Class,” (reviewed below), not every worker in the world gets dental. 

Standing does not include them, but I would add the vast increase of street peddlers to this precariat list, as they are living unstable lives that depend on their exploitation of themselves, and often are fronts for various businessmen.  Most street peddlers buy their goods or materials from someone else, and are merely street ‘salesmen,’ repairmen or cooks, working on their own or in small groups.  The precariat also merges into the lumpen-proletariat at a certain point - those who have given up on finding a job, and resort to various types of crime.  They live contingent lives, part criminal, part self-employed.  After all, selling drugs is a ‘sales’ job, if you want to look at it from a non-legal point of view.  So is prostitution, selling your sexual labor, and giving some of the money to a pimp or madam.  These jobs are victimless crimes and are only illegal because of a law.  Standing does not mention this group except by inference (‘the criminalized’).  Once having a criminal past, it hangs around the neck of the precariat like an albatross, inhibiting better employment for a lifetime.

Standing also infers repeatedly that youth do not want to be life-long wage slaves – and that there is something liberating in not doing so.  However, being a life-long 'non-wage' slave might be even worse.  Otherwise, why is he writing this book - to celebrate the rejection of the 9 to 5 job?  Which is, of course, why anyone who looks at the present wants to end wage-slavery itself – something Standing does not want to do.  Standing accepts the market economy and at one point, says he wants labour to be ‘fully commodified’ – while cursing every other kind of commodification.  As if that is going to happen under capital without a class struggle that actually overwhelms capital.

Standing uses the term ‘populist’ in an exclusively right-wing sense, never in a left-wing sense, which is standard Democrat Party/New Labour verbalism.   Notice that the sub-head of the book calls the ‘precariat’ dangerous – and not necessarily just to the ruling class.  His usage suggests that a section of what I would call the working class –is no longer historically progressive.  While one half of young precarians might lean to the left (like his graduate students?) he insists that the other half of the precariat can become fascist – defined as people who complain about Wall Street, inequality and job loss (!)  There is certainly evidence of precariousness leading to the right.  For many years the absence or difficulty of holding jobs in the Palestinian West Bank has swelled the ranks of Hamas, and depleted the Marxist organizations.  Hitler himself was an unemployed house painter.  Recently, one of the top leaders of the National Socialist Movement, Jeff Hall, an unemployed plumber, was killed by his abused 10-year-old son in California

Indeed, as a capper, he puts in the standard helpless liberal line in his book:  "To imagine sustained ... resistance" against globalization "is fanciful."  (Shades of Chris Hedges in ‘Death of the Liberal Class,’ reviewed below.)  How convenient.  Resistance is Futile!  Resistance is Futile!  You can just hear the government megaphones echoing this phrase down the streets.

The best parts of this book are really progressive sociology.  Standing has immense sympathy for the precariat, and stands up for them.  He carefully details the precariat’s addiction to the internet; the greater presence of surveillance, which is used to control them; government programs inspired by Libertarianism that blame unemployment on the unemployed;  the use of counseling and ‘therapy’ to qualify for benefits; and the massive amount of unpaid labor that goes into job hunting and benefits retention.  Standing supports international accreditation, and opposes means-tested government aid, which alienates the more stable part of the working class.  Standing, however, opposes ‘workfare’ programs, and then implicitly comes out against national work programs of any kind as well, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA and the Federal Art Project from the U.S. depression-era.  In his definitions, Standing supports non-alienated ‘work’ over alienated ‘jobs’ or ‘labour’ - echoing Marx.  Though how I might pay for my groceries through writing this blog, I’ll never know, and nor does he.

Standing calls the lack of voting, the ‘thinning of democracy,' which results in alienation of the precariat, and denounces its replacement by the 'commodification of politics.'  Standing understands that the European social-democratic parties and U.S. liberals abandoned any class point of view in their activities, adopting neo-liberal platforms when required to do so by finance capital.  Instead of real awards for his help to the working classes, Obama won an award in 2008 from the Association of National Advertisers as “Marketer of the Year”  for his successful 'change' campaign branding.  As a result of this failure, the harder right is able to capitalize on the dissatisfaction of the precariat.  Here in the U.S. Standing thinks that means the Tea Party, which he, like many impressionistic liberals, calls ‘neo-fascist.’  Of course, are the real supporters of the Tea Party in the precariat?  Standing has no evidence this is so.

So what is the real answer to the rise of a hard right?  An actual mass left.  The precariat might be the most radical part of the proletariat at this precise time, so building a hard left might begin in the precariat and spread from there.  I think that is Standing's most valuable insight.

Standing’s solution is ‘denizens of the world unite.’  'Denizen' is his term for someone who lives somewhere, but it not really fully integrated into society.  If you notice he tries to borrow from Marx.  Many angry ultra-liberals borrow from Marx because they have no real source of their own anymore.  What Standing is about is replacing the proletariat with a precariat, providing an alternative to that 'fuddy-duddy' proletariat.  He calls it a ‘class in the making,’ not yet a ‘class for itself.’  He does not make one suggestion on how to unite the two ‘classes’ – if indeed they are completely separate, which I don’t’ think is true.  Nor does he mention the proletariat except negatively.  I would say the precariat is intimately connected to the proletariat, its lower half, whether white or blue collar, and not some totally separate entity.  I'd even be willing to bet, though I'm not an expert, that some or much of the proletariat in Marx's day was also contingent.  Standing does advocate broader organizations than just unions, as he feels unions will only protect their members.  Standing is in essence a social-democratic idealist intent on tinkering with government policy in order to make the labour market work better for everyone.  The word ‘socialism’ is invisible.  Of course, mass collective action against globalization is also invisible.  'Tinkerers of the Universities unite; you have a world to win' - that might be his final slogan.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
June 10, 2012


Ravenmn said...

Read this online last month and came to similar solutions. Why is it that the only workers in precarious positions to get a new name for their "class" is when they are white and professional?

It reminds me of a cartoon I saw years go of two unemployment lines. One had only people of color and it was labelled "unemployment". The other image had a line of people with both people of color and white people with briefcases. It was labelled "unemployment crisis!"

Ravenmn said...

solutions = conclusions

AA said...

There is too much wrong with the book and I regret recommending it to the book club. The case for the precariat as a class is weak (if not non-existent). Furthermore Standing can't write worth a damn -- even sentences and paragraphs are poorly structured, so much so that were the chapters submitted as freshman compositions they would receive a failing grade.

Precariousness is a useful concept but i don't think a case can be made that the "precariat" constitutes a class. Indeed in each new chapter Standing seems to include new categories of people into the "precariat" on an ad hoc basis.

Richard Seymour has critically reviewed Standing's book here:

I started a thread at Working Democracy's Meetup discussion board on the precariat about five months ago here:

Red Frog said...

I'll read the comment thread. Don't beat yourself up! Standing has a good point about the vast increase in 'precarians' at least. As I sat around the table of my last left-wing meeting, most people at the table were in the precariat. And are they pissed.