By Guy Standing
We are in the midst of a global transformation, the painful construction of a globalised market economy. It is a delicate moment, when growing inequalities and insecurities are threatening long-nurtured enlightenment values.
Workers are no longer sharing in the gains from economic growth. The economic strategy pursued since the Thatcher-Reagan days has resulted in a system of “rentier capitalism,” in which a rising share of income is going to capital but a more rapidly growing share is going to those who own physical, financial and intellectual property. These shifts leave less for those who rely on labour.
The income distribution system of the 20th century has broken down, and will not come back. This has generated a new global class structure. Every phase of development produces its unique class structure. Today’s is characterised by a plutocracy of multi-billionaires with absurd power, a shrinking “salariat” with employment security and a growing array of non-wage benefits, a shrinking industrial “proletariat” and a rapidly growing “precariat.”
As commentators and politicians are learning, the precariat is profoundly different, in experience and outlook, from the proletariat that long dominated their imagery. The outcome of globalisation, a technological revolution and reforms promoting “labour flexibility,” the precariat suffers from pervasive insecurity, which makes it a dangerous class.
In a book first published in 2011, I wrote that unless the precariat’s insecurities were addressed urgently, a “political monster” would emerge. For some it was a forewarning: since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I have received numerous emails saying “your political monster” has arrived. Insecure people tend to vote emotionally, not rationally in defence of enlightenment values.
The precariat has three dimensions. First, they face a distinctive work pattern. They are being habituated to a life of unstable, insecure labour. Casualisation, temping, on-call labour, platform cloud labour and so on are spreading. More importantly, they lack an occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives, or any organisational one.
They must do much work-for-labour, not counted in official statistics or political rhetoric, but which if not done can be costly, such as retraining, networking, refining résumés, filling forms and waiting around for jobs. And typically they obtain jobs below their education or qualifications, and have low mobility upwards. All this creates frustration, insecurity and stress.
Second, the precariat has a distinctive social income. They must rely almost entirely on money wages or earnings. They do not obtain non-wage benefits that even the proletariat obtained, such as paid holidays, medical leave and the prospect of a meaningful pension. While the salariat gain more benefits, the precariat lose even those they had. This means the growth of inequality exceeds what income statistics suggest.
Their real wages have stagnated or fallen, and have become more volatile, meaning more uninsurable uncertainty. This leads to a crucial aspect – living on the edge of unsustainable debt, knowing that one illness, accident or mistake could tip them into a financial abyss.
The third dimension is a distinctive relation to the state. The precariat is losing citizenship rights, often not realising until they need them. This is happening most cruelly to the growing number of migrants, but is also the lot of others, losing cultural, civil, social, economic and political rights. They feel excluded from communities that would give identity and solidarity; they cannot obtain due process if officials deny them benefits, they cannot practice what they are qualified to do, and do not see in the political spectrum leaders who represent their interests and needs.
This leads to what is the worst feature, being a supplicant, having to satisfy and ask bureaucrats, employers, relatives, friends or neighbours for help or a favourable decision.
All is not negative. Not everybody sees themselves as victims or failures. Many do not want long-term boring jobs. They are seeking work and leisure in new ways. But it is the insecurities that engenders the anger. (President Macron is the latest to show incomprehension of the dangers of mass insecurity. His labour reforms will worsen them.)
As with all emerging groups, there are internal divisions. Part of the precariat are “Atavists.” Having fallen from working-class communities, they feel they have a lost past. This group is relatively uneducated and listens to sirens of neo-fascist populism. They vote for Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Brexit and the far right in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
A second group is what I call “Nostalgics,” consisting of migrants and minorities who feel deprived of a present, a home. They are losing rights and are demonised. The danger is that a huge group is detached from society. Many are enraged.
The third group is the “Progressives,” mostly young, who went to college promised a “career,” only to emerge feeling deprived of a future. They are dangerous in a positive way. They do not want to return to a drab past, but do not see their aspirations articulated by mainstream politicians. They want to break the mould, revive the commons and restore security to the heart of social policy.
At this point, there is bad and good news. The bad is that many Nostalgics and Progressives withdrew from democratic politics in disillusion, leaving a vacuum for neo-fascist populists to be stronger than they should be. These groups see social democrats as “dead men walking.”
The good news is that a re-engagement is occurring and that the size of the Atavist group has peaked. They are ageing, a legacy of de-industrialisation. Meanwhile, the Nostalgics are finding their voice, and the Progressives are growing and mobilising in new movements. It takes time for new progressive politics to take shape, with some false dawns. The way forward, what the “politics of paradise” will look like, is for another occasion. But a reconfiguration of society is coming.
Guy Standing is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is author of the bestselling “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network and has advised international organizations and governments on labour and social policy.
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