In Theory Precariatans of all countries, unite!

Over the past thirty years, workers have been weakened and deprived of their ability to be, and act, united. In his latest 'In Theory' column, political theorist Andy Robinson takes a look at the concept of Precarity and the Precariat.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, March 18, 2011 0:00 - 12 Comments


By Andrew Robinson

The concept of precarity has been developed by theorists emerging from the autonomist tradition as a way to think about changes in capitalism since the 1970s (when the tradition first took shape).

‘Precarity’ refers to the current economy, deeming it to be characterised by precarious labour, in which the availability and conditions of work are unstable and welfare provision is unreliable. It is contrasted to the Fordist and Keynesian order which preceded it. The ‘precariat’, a combination of precarity and proletariat, is taken to be the new revolutionary subject in this situation. It is distinguished from the proletariat, which is unified by its labour conditions, in that it is fragmented and molecular. It encompasses a range of subjects of revolt, from higher-educated casual workers in the media and culture industries, to undocumented migrants and sex workers.

This vocabulary first emerged roundabout 2005 in Italian and later European social movements, before spreading into academic discussions. The terms are used both in terms of the imposed precariousness of labour conditions and the possibility of new forms of resistance. The precariat exists between a state of anxiety and insecurity, and a state of being frightening to the dominant order.

As a negative phenomenon, precarity involves insecurity in terms of basic needs. It functions to make life contingent on capital and its constant movements and shifting demands. The absence of guarantees means bosses can use fear to dominate workers. Workers increasingly sell their time in discrete packages, as freelancers or casual workers, rather than being hired into a permanent job. As a result, the wage no longer covers the cost of workers’ economic needs. Workers experience a sense of being constantly on call, subordinate to another’s timeframe. In addition, what is known as the ‘social wage’ – the welfare services and additional incomes available through redistribution – has been reduced.

Precarity can also be viewed in terms of ‘self-precarisation’, in which workers voluntarily seek to escape rigid forms of labour organisation. The rise of precarity is seen as a recuperation of the previous wave of revolt, in which ‘exodus’ and networks emerged as forms of resistance – people escaped from the confines of ‘stable’ factories and families and thus ended up outside capitalist control. This was known as the ‘refusal of work’, and took forms varying from workplace sabotage to the ‘slacker’ or ‘dropout’. Precarity brings the escaped people back inside the system by colonising the spaces they’ve created and imitating the ways in which they resisted.

Effects of precarity

Social effects of precarity include a disintegration of the sense of belonging to a national collective, because labour relations have been disconnected from citizenship. Birthrates go down because people become unwilling to have children when their social situation is insecure. People become psychologically over-aroused and find it difficult to relax because of the constant demands on attention. Surveys have also found that people are often miserable, despite it being a public secret: people feel it is taboo to discuss it. Precarious workers often undergo a breakdown of the ability to distinguish life from work.

Perhaps the biggest problem for precarity organising is the hopelessness which often accompanies marginality. People are often caught-up in the goal of creating a less-bad life, instead of overcoming precarious capitalism. Furthermore, the endlessness and misery of precarious labour can create a sense of despair which extends to politics. In losing track of time as days roll into one another, flexible workers can lose a sense of a distinct future which may be different from the present.

Precarity is talked about in different ways by different groups. It is still seen as aberrant in dominant narratives, with periodic moral panics about ‘neets’ (youths not in education or training). The precariat are portrayed as self-excluded, and demonised as a threat to social cohesion. Young people who find themselves in precarious jobs often see themselves as unsuccessful, or are seen as underperforming by parents who expected them to find lifelong careers. It is often overlooked that the change involved is structural, and precarious jobs are now perfectly normal. From a longer-term perspective, precarity has been the norm in capitalist history, and Fordism the exception, both historically and geographically.

Neoliberals tend to celebrate a certain type of freelance, educated precarian as the ‘creative class’ of the ‘New Economy’, in a way which contrasts with precarian workers’ actual work-conditions. Some autonomists reconstruct the precariat as a revolutionary subject in a way which risks simply inverting the neoliberal narrative. In practice, neoliberalism benefits from the denial of social rights to precarious workers.

The traditional left has generally tried to oppose precarity and restore Fordism, viewing precarity as a threat to working conditions. Its discourse overlaps dangerously with reactionary framings of the precariat as a social problem.

The precarity movement

In addition to being a theoretical concept, precarity has been a focus for political organising by social movements in Europe, such as Chainworkers, Intermittents du Spectacle and Precarias a la Deriva. These groups have organised a range of often attention-grabbing protests and actions, with their major mobilisation being the Euromayday movement. In Italy, they have created their own patron saint, “San Precario”, whose icons turn up on protests.

The idea of the precarity movement was to draw on the powers of resistance which remain operative among precarian workers. People are believed to create their own forms of living and social relationships, and precarity is also viewed as a basis for critiques of traditional assumptions, such as gender roles.

The concept is viewed as able to handle diverse perspectives. Sarrantonio uses the metaphor of a cracked looking-glass, with precarity describing the glass as a whole. It is also deemed to create space for thinking about alternative futures. Tsianos and Papadopoulos argue that the embodied experience of precarity produces new subjectivities which drift constantly away from their social determinants. They argue, however, that the precariat only poses a challenge to capital when it shows its frightening side, rather than its anxious side.

It is often observed that traditional organisational forms such as the party and trade union are inappropriate for the precariat, partly because of the problems of people ‘not having the time’ or not being able to commit to regular participation alongside irregular jobs. In practice, movements of precarians tend to operate through affinity-networks, social centres and e-lists rather than organisations.

The precarity movement was strongest in countries such as Italy where the stable job conditions of core workers were being corroded in the mid-2000s. It was criticised for the centrality assigned to young, non-migrant men with higher education, who were the new group affected by precarity – the people who had not expected it. It was argued by feminists and anti-racists that precarity had always been the norm for other groups of workers. In addition, the movement did not seem to spread to countries like Britain, where generalised precarity was a longer-term condition.

There have been periodic debates over whether knowledge-workers or migrants are the typical figure of precarity. Such debates are sometimes criticised for reproducing divide-and-rule strategies used by those in power to create divisions. It has also been argued, however, that precarity may cover too diverse a range of experiences to be useful as a concept. This difficulty is addressed to some degree by viewing precarity mobilisations in terms of translation and the creation of a new space, rather than in terms of a common reference-point. In some cases, the act of coming together is taken to combat fragmentation without undermining particular struggles.

The precariat tends to be theorised in a rather open way, with a strong emphasis on singularity, diversity, networks and translation. This does not entirely offset concerns that the concept subordinates difference to sameness, since the concept still assumes a certain degree of commonality, even if this commonality is loose or aspirational.

The precarity movement has, over time, changed the political meanings of precarity from purely negative connotations of insecurity to ideas of new rights such as ‘flexicurity’ (welfare security for precarious workers). Precarity is linked to issues such as free culture and knowledge (the abolition of copyright) and cheap housing and travel. The slogan of ‘stop precarity’ has gradually been replaced by positive connotations of the term.

In addition to the precarity movement itself, mobilisations such as the American migrant rights movement, ‘flash’ protests such as the Melbourne taxi drivers’ campaign and the rise of rave culture are sometimes discussed in terms of precarity. Rave culture for instance is taken to push the scripts of precarious labour to excess, producing exodus. Hardt and Negri think of the newest movements in terms of the ‘snake’ replacing the ‘mole’ – instant strikes replacing underground organising. Nielson and Rossiter, however, suggest that a pool of invisible discontent provides the basis for the snake-like flash protests. Precarity issues often intersect with migrant issues, and slogans around free movement and free communication are often combined.

Attention is also drawn to the feminisation of precarious labour. Many precarious jobs have appeared in sectors which substitute for previous functions of the nuclear family, for instance in fast food and childcare. Fordism was based on a dual labour market in which women were assigned to the subordinate sectors. As a result, precarity is not entirely negative. The Italian feminist group Prec@s did research which found that many young women do not seek a return to Fordist security, which carried along with it the imposition of unremunerated reproductive labour and subordination within the family. They were found to prefer creativity and autonomy to security.

Precarity movements commonly focus on the demand for a basic income or ‘flexicurity’. This demand is connected to the views, firstly that precarious workers’ social reproduction costs are not being met at present, and secondly that people are constantly doing unpaid productive activity which should count as labour (for instance, housework).

The realisation of such a demand would be a huge step forward, but its limits have also been criticised. Firstly, it is incompatible with the very regime to which it responds: the use of insecurity to frighten workers. It is debated whether it can be achieved within capitalism, since it disconnects income from work. Secondly, it tends to reinforce state power, at a time when the state’s stance as protector of ‘security’ is associated with insidious authoritarian discourses. Thirdly, it reforms capitalism, rather than moving beyond it. It seems to suggest an anxious precariat needing protection, rather than a precariat which is a threat to capitalism. Indeed, certain basic-income-like measures restricted to low-waged workers (such as Working Tax Credit) already exist.

The other alternative coming out of precarity movements returns to the approach of constructing autonomous spaces. These spaces will now have to be open and diffuse, to make allowances for people’s constant mobility. It is sometimes suggested that people can distance themselves from high-speed flows in small autonomous communities, or use the gaps in their work schedules to ‘tarry with time’ and question the primacy of work. The reconstruction of autonomous time, outside the constant availability to work or necessity to keep oneself ready for work, is now arguably as important as the construction of autonomous space.

Meanwhile, autonomous spaces continue to pop up in areas ‘left fallow’ by changes in capitalism, which have moved power and jobs towards ‘global cities’ such as London. The current configuration of power makes such ‘liberation’ of marginal spaces potentially easier than before, provided it is done away from the major centres of accumulation. One can imagine the centres being gradually besieged by a web of autonomous zones constructed around them, in the zones they leave empty. The construction of autonomous spaces may overlap with the revival of a subsistence perspective, as an overlapping alternative to precarious capitalism which provides ways of meeting basic needs outside of market dependence.

The transformation of everyday life is crucial to challenging the current composition of capitalism. Before the Fordist phase, and still today in much of the South, everyday networks and self-provision by marginal communities met many of the needs which are now the source of dependency in precarious capitalism. The restoration of such forms of provision, across fields ranging from food production to education, may be the key to recomposing a marginal counter-power, addressing the anxiety of the precariat in such a way as to bring its ‘frightening’ potential to the fore.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

Further reading

Aufheben (1999), ‘Dole Autonomy versus the Re-Imposition of Work: Analysis of the Current Tendency to Workfare in the UK’.
Available from:

Bove, A., E. Empson, G. Lovink, F. Schneider and S. Zehle (2003), Makeworlds Paper 3.
Available from:

Fantone, L. (2006), ‘A Different Precarity: Gender and Generational Conflicts in Contemporary Italy’.
Available from:

Federici, S. (2006), ‘Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint’.
Available from:

Foti, A. (2004), ‘Mayday! Mayday! Euro Flex Workers, Time to get a Move On!’
Available from:

Frassanito Network (2005), ‘Precarious, Precarization, Precariat?’.
Available from:

Gulli, B. (2010), ‘Immanent Singularities: An Interview with Bruno Gulli’.

Holmes, B. (2004), ‘The Spaces of a Cultural Question’.
Available from:

Lazzarato, M. (1996), ‘Immaterial Labour’.
Available from:

Lorey, I. (2010), ‘Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting’.
Available from:

Mezzadra, S. (2007), ‘Living in Transition: Toward a Heterolingual Theory of the Multitude’.
Available from:

Midnight Notes Collective (2010), ‘Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Capitalism’.
Available from:

Mitropoulos, A. (2005), ‘Precari-Us?’, Mute 29, pp. 88-92.
Available from:

Neilson, B. and N. Rossiter (n.d.), ‘From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks’.
Available from:

Neundlinger, K. (2004), ‘Fuzzy Production Logics: Experience and Reflection in the Laboratory of Insecurity’.
Available from:

Nowotny, S. (2004), ‘Precarious Residence: The Universal Embassy as a Site of Social Production’. Available from:

Paoli, G. (2004), ‘Demotivational Training: Anecdote on the Drop in Economic Optimism’.
Available from:

Precarias a la Deriva (2004), ‘Adrift through the Circuits of Feminized Precarious Work’.
Available from:

Raunig, G. (2004), ‘La Insecuridad Vencera: Anti-Precariousness Activism and Mayday Parades’. Available from:

Raunig, G. (2007), ‘The Monster Precariat’.
Available from:

Sarrantonio, T. (2008), ‘Cracking the Looking-Glass: Perception, Precarity, and Everyday Resistance’.
Available from:

Shukaitis, S. (2006), ‘Whose Precarity is it Anyway?’, Fifth Estate 41 no. 3.
Available from:

Tari, M. and I. Vanni (2005), ‘On The Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives’, Fibreculture Journal 5.
Available from:

Tsianos, V. and D. Papadopoulos (2006), ‘Precarity: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Embodied Capitalism’.
Available from:

van Veen, T.C. (2010), ‘Technics, Precarity and Exodus in Rave Culture’, Dancecult 1 no. 2.
Available from:

Vishmidt, M. (2005), ‘Precarious Straits’, Mute 29, pp. 93-5.
Available from:

Weber, B. (2004), ‘Everyday Crisis in the Empire’.
Available from:



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Mar 19, 2011 2:04

“This vocabulary first emerged roundabout 2005 in Italian and later European social movements, before spreading into academic discussions.”

It was present among Spanish social movements, particularly among people in the occupied social center milieu, in the 1990s.

Mar 20, 2011 16:21

OK, thanks for pointing that out :-) The articles all date it from 2005, but the Spanish scene seems to be less internationally visible than the Italian scene. Japan has the “Freeters’ Union” as well, which is a rather similar concept, and in Africa Ii’ve read that they use “youth” to refer to people in this stratum regardless of age.

Jacob Richter
Mar 26, 2011 6:18

I don’t like the term “precariatan,” which evokes too much the word “charlatan.” “Precarian” sounds better, and I’m sure it’s the term more used.

“It is often observed that traditional organisational forms such as the party and trade union are inappropriate for the precariat, partly because of the problems of people ‘not having the time’ or not being able to commit to regular participation alongside irregular jobs. In practice, movements of precarians tend to operate through affinity-networks, social centres and e-lists rather than organisations.”

In response to this, and to paraphrase Marx:

Considering, that against this combined power of the elite classes the primary producers or precariat cannot unite and act for itself except by constituting itself into a mass party-movement, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties and movements, that this constitution of the precariat into a mass party-movement is indispensable in order to ensure the emancipation of its labour power,

That such labour power can be emancipated only when, at minimum, the precariat is in collective possession of all means of societal production, all commons, etc., that there are only two forms under which all means of societal production, all commons, etc. can belong to them or return to community:

1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
2) The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;


That again this collective re-appropriation, or political and economic expropriation of the elite classes, can arise only from the direct action of the primary producers or precariat, organized in a distinct mass party-movement;

Such permanent organization must be pursued by all the means the precariat has at its disposal.


There are so many directions to take any analysis and conclusions on the “precariat” upon, and sorry for this being in note form:

1) Class vs. strata
- Always there? Revisiting “Ricardian” labour theory of price to describe unequal exchange and labour reproduction under-compensation? [Cockshott said Marx was "generous" in his LTV re. equal exchange and labour reproduction compensation before asserting that exploitation still exists.]
- Working poor only? Working-class students and pensioners? Unproductive work paid below living wage levels?
- Across classes? Back to “working classes” re. less differentiation from some poorer self-employed elements, such as freelancers?

EDIT: Tied to the first point is the question, “Iron Law of Precarity?”

2) “Organic links”
- Positive lessons of Labourism: some “organic links”? Precariat unions affiliating a la Labour’s unions?
- Japanese Communist Party’s rising support among working-class youth as connection to precariat?

3) Immediate program
- “Sliding Scale of Wages”: Cost of Living Adjustments and Living Wages
- Private-Sector Collective Bargaining Representation as a Free Legal Service
- Public Employer of Last Resort for Consumer Services
- Nationalizing temp/casual labour agencies? (no formal commentary yet)
- National-Democratization, Health-Industrial Complexes, and Workers Insurance
- Educational Training Income Beyond Zero Tuitions

Jacob Richter
Mar 26, 2011 7:38

“The realisation of such a demand would be a huge step forward, but its limits have also been criticised. Firstly, it is incompatible with the very regime to which it responds: the use of insecurity to frighten workers. It is debated whether it can be achieved within capitalism, since it disconnects income from work. Secondly, it tends to reinforce state power, at a time when the state’s stance as protector of ‘security’ is associated with insidious authoritarian discourses. Thirdly, it reforms capitalism, rather than moving beyond it. It seems to suggest an anxious precariat needing protection, rather than a precariat which is a threat to capitalism. Indeed, certain basic-income-like measures restricted to low-waged workers (such as Working Tax Credit) already exist.”

On a lesser subject discussed here, Universal Basic Income fails on these five counts:

1) Structural and cyclical unemployment (Hyman Minsky and his employer-of-last-resort program at living-wage levels)
2) Desire to work and avoid the stigma of not doing something
3) Inevitable downward pressure on wages as a result of implementation (Paul Cockshott)
4) Privatization of the social wage, with welfare being substituted (Milton Friedman)
5) Class origins of political advocacy and beneficiaries (working-class vs. lumpen)

I don’t see how compensation for housework as supposedly productive labour can make up for the desire to do something outside the house for decent compensation.

Mar 29, 2011 12:53

Blame the editors for “precariatan”, I put “precarian” in the main article ;)

Marx’s account of mass party formation in the proletariat was connected to a phase of capitalism when proletarians were very visibly and obviously brought together in factories, in working-class residential areas close to factories, and in conditions of life which were fairly homogeneous (albeit with variations) across the class. In these conditions it was very logical to propose mass organisation as an effective way of harnessing proletarian power. Today we’re talking about a situation where the precariat are fragmented between micro-workplaces (from call-centre carrells where no-one knows their neighbour, to working from home), between residential areas (ranging from young precarians living with their better-off parents in middle-class areas, to the special experiences of ethnic ‘ghettos’, to phenomena such as squatting), and between vastly different working conditions and pay-rates (from the high-status but casual ‘creative worker’ to migrant labour). Appeals to common conditions, interests etc aren’t going to get us very far in this situation, because people won’t easily see the parallels between their own situation and other precarians’. It also won’t get us very far because precarians live in widely separated areas, work irregular hours, are often overworked and tired, find it difficult to make stable life-plans – and hence won’t be consistently available for monthly subscriptions, weekly meetings, or conferences planned months in advance.

Your proposals sound to me like a rehash of social democracy. Most of these proposals would be steps forward, but very much relative steps forward, not steps beyond capitalism in the slightest. They seem to rely on the state acting as financer of measures which strengthen workers against capital, which runs against the fact that states today see themselves as competing in global markets and are allied very closely to capital. It is thus a strategic error to be framing the state as a solution to capitalism at this point. But the problem is as much political as strategic: there is no political will to provide measures of this kind. In fact, many of the problems of precarity in Europe could be addressed by simply restoring the welfare state as it was circa 1970 (there was an informal basic income via student grants and various benefits, free education, national insurance, benefits which could be claimed between jobs, unionisation of casual workers, etc). These conditions were corroded because they provided capital with insufficient coercive force against the precariat: people could, and did, drop out completely or engage only when they wanted to. This victory for precarian autonomy was hated by the bosses and rolled-back through cutbacks, workfare and the rest. This was done with full support from the state, and from the regime-supportive sectors of the included strata. This raises the question of how demands on ‘democratic’ states which go against the entire composition of ‘public opinion’ in a neoliberal society could even be articulated. There are political problems in that few seem to be demanding these kinds of things anymore, the agencies supporting such demands are massively weakened since the Fordist period, and national-level demands would come up against the immense power of transnational capital – which is one of the reasons such national-level ‘fixes’ have been corroded to begin with. The workaround I’d generally propose for such problems is to stop orienting to the state or the traditional agencies and instead focus on everyday networks, bands, affinity-groups, recomposition at a grassroots level, and focus on counterpower able to force changes and/or exodus able to create them as fait accompli, rather than on persuading the state or capital to do anything.

Your view of basic income seems worryingly work-compulsive to me. My critique is that the basic income doesn’t go far enough, because it leaves the state and capital intact. I’m having trouble deciphering your prose, but you seem to be objecting to the idea of basic income (as opposed to ‘employer of last resort’) on the grounds of disliking the idea of people making money for doing nothing (which is ‘lumpen’, fails to meet the need for worthwhile work, etc). This seems to me to involve internalising capitalist discipline.

You seem to be assuming a natural desire to work for money. Evidently no such desire exists universally, since it does not exist in subsistence economies, and the amount of time spent on ‘work’ in some hunter-gatherer bands is minuscule. The fact that most people will still want to work even with a basic income is actually an argument for basic income, since people would be better able to take on voluntary work or to work in areas paying less than a living wage. If people will feel stigma at receiving a basic income, they will also feel stigma for being hired to do make-work for the state; in fact, this would no doubt be more stigmatising since there would be lifestyle requirements for participating in it. I think, however, that stigma around a basic income only exists because of the cult of work; it would vanish the moment work ceased to be seen as the goal of life, much as the stigma of being unmarried is disappearing. In any case, if the basic income claimant is a precarian who is also doing paid work at below reproduction-cost, there would be no more stigma than that today of a worker who receives tax credits for being on a low income (which is to say, virtually none). In any case, I’ve known a few people who managed to get a basic income for awhile, and none of them had the slightest problem finding worthwhile, productive and fulfilling things to do with their time.

I can see how a basic income could generate downward wage pressure, but I suspect the average effect would be the opposite: the corrosion of benefit rights has certainly contributed to downward wage pressure in neoliberalism, as people forced off benefits are pushed into low-paid jobs they would formerly have rejected. A basic income would make it harder to charge for jobs which some people are prepared to do voluntarily provided they have the time, so some sectors would be squeezed (e.g. proprietary programming vs Open Source). However, it would push wages upwards in jobs which people are only prepared to do for money, as workers are empowered to hold out for more money, living off the basic income in the meantime.

The ‘working-class/lumpen’ distinction is a ‘moral’ split within the proletariat or precariat and not at all a real class-division; it’s the split between the worker as disciplined agent of capital and the spectre of the out-of-control working-class as disorderly figure beyond capital. Its continuation within Marxism is an effect of a certain modernist-disciplinary dogma which continues to idealise the repressed personalities produced by capitalism as somehow moral or mature (c.f. Bakunin’s critique of Marx). As to unpaid labour, housework is without question ‘productive’, since without it labour-power would not be reproduced, and men’s ability to do recognised productive work outside the home has always been conditioned on women’s performing such labour unrecognised and for free. Women’s increased ability to do labour for money outside the home has come at the expense of a ‘double shift’ (Hochschild) whereby women are continuing to do most of the housework and childcare in addition to working outside the home. Logically, women should be getting double-rate pay for this, but instead, are still earning less than men. I think these kinds of issues are very much relevant today.

Mar 29, 2011 13:10

Surely rhyming considerations matter? Proletarians/Precariatans etc
Hich, Editor-in-chief

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Steve Leigh
Feb 25, 2012 18:16

Interesting and useful explanation of the theory of the Precariat. Some weaknesses:

Underemphasizes the continuity of capitalism through history. The insight that “Fordism” was only a phase
in capitalism is underplayed. The power of the proletariat in general , precarious workers and others, is that
they produce the surplus value on which capitalism rests, whether they work in large collective groups or not. Their relationship to capital is collective. They are all exploited and all have an interest in opposing exploitation, oppression, alienation and the other horrible social, environmental effects.The obstacles placed in front of the “precariat” in organizing are of course formidable. However, the obstacles in front of the industrial proletariat in the 1800′s and early 1900′s were also formidable. In the late 1800′s in the U.S., craft workers often “employed” unskilled workers and therefore took on aspects of the petit bourgeoisie. One of the 3 militant strikes of 1934 that started the labor upsurge of the 30′s in the U.S. was the San Francisco General Strike. This originated among dock workers who were all casuals. Every day they had to go to the docks to beg and sometimes bribe their way to a job that day in a system called “shapeup”. Yet they came together and organized and turned themselves from “precarians” to more stereotypical proletarians with a strong union. One of the other strikes, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 was mainly among people who did their work alone, isolated in trucks—i.e. they were not all collected together in social labor. The workers who made the Russian Revolution in 1917 often worked 12 or 14 hours a day and lived in hovels. The most important aspect of the working class in terms of its potential for social transformation is that every member of it is part of a collective process of social production. It is collectively exploited, no matter whether the individual worker works in a factory with thousands of others or alone and on call. Every act of exploited labor by a ” precarian” contributes to the collective surplus value of the capitalist class. Therefore every laborer no matter their individual situation is part of the collective that is objectively opposed to capital. Every laborer has an interest in opposing capitalist exploitation and creating a society that is not based on exploitation but is instead based on human needs.
The argument that the “precariat” is less inclined to political parties than the 19th or 20th century proletariat is also flawed. In fact, those who have less continual immediate contact with co-workers may be MORE inclined to seek social and political connection outside the work place in political organizations that confront the collective exploitation of workers.
Another problem with the article is that it opposes the fight for reforms won by collective action against the state and capital. The debate on the effect of reforms on the fight for revolution is of course as old as socialism. The “solution” proposed by the author is of precarians providing for their own needs with their own resources instead of taking back the resources that the workers created and that the capitalists have appropriated. This solution of sharing poverty is inadequate. The fight for reforms can either stabilize the system , or it can lead to greater struggles and ultimately be part of a revolutionary
strategy.This depends on the economic situation at the time as well as the politics that are most influential in the reform movement. No revolution has ever broken out that was not first focused on immediate demands for changes within the system. As that fight radicalized, it became transformed into a fully revolutionary movement. To refuse to fight for reforms is to undercut this process.
The issues raised by the growth of the “precariat” are of course important and need to be addressed. They do not however call for an abandonment of Marx’s theory of the political and economic seizure of power by the working class, is as applicable today as ever—probably moreso!

Feb 26, 2012 5:38

Steve, you’re coming from what looks like an orthodox Marxist background, so your differences with my analysis go back to meta-theoretical issues. I’ve largely followed the strands of neo-Marxism which identify subordination into capitalism, rather than exploitation within capitalism, as the main issue. This follows from Marx’s theory of alienation, but takes it further than Marx does. You emphasise exploitation rather than alienation as the most relevant aspect of Marxism, and in my view this risks keeping subordination to production/work in place. The problem with capitalism is not simply that it exploits labour-power, it is that it represses human life by constraining it within the category of labour-power – the problem is work, not its exploitation. It is only by forcibly enclosing people and enforcing their separation from other means of survival that capitalism can force people into wage-labour; this process is inherently reversible. For this reason, liberation is necessarily an escape from capitalist structures – power exercised against work, not power seized by workers. But of course, in making this argument I’m also arguing with a range of Marxist claims that you don’t articulate. For instance, I don’t believe that history progresses through irreversible stages, or that capitalism is ultimately progressive, or that work arises because it is “socially necessary” at least at a certain point in time. Instead, I see a megamachine accumulating more and more power over time, by dispossessing and enslaving whoever it can – but this system is now fraying round the edges and potentially on the verge of collapse. I want to destroy the megamachine, or failing that, to survive its collapse; I don’t want to inherit and continue it, as Marxists so often seem to.

I also don’t subscribe to the Marxist claim that the power of the proletariat rests on producing the surplus value on which capitalism rests. As long as workers are subordinated, it is really irrelevant whether capital needs their labour or not – someone can be disempowered and still absolutely necessary. Assuming capitalists still require labour (which at some level they do), this need can be taken advantage of as much by exodus (withdrawing from capitalist control) as by struggle within the system.

You believe workers are part of a single great collective with unitary objective interests. I would question this for several reasons. Firstly, capitalism is no longer a unified oligopolistic structure integrated at the centre, it’s diffused throughout the pores of social life, and its impacts are more variable than ever. Secondly, the question arises as to why these people with shared interests haven’t already made revolutions a thousand times over. A question which neo-Marxists (from Gramsci to Reich to Adorno) have been grappling with for over a century – and which always requires them to modify the basic assumptions of polarised class interests and/or that people act on their interests. Since these objective interests aren’t apparent to workers themselves, I find their theoretical role rather dubious. You’re left having to tell people what their interests are, only to find that a lot of the time they don’t seem to care. You seem to be assuming that people do, or should, act on their material interests. It’s implausible that they do, and unethical to say that they should. If someone’s in need, should one ignore them simply because one has no “objective interest” in helping them? I’m concerned with where an emphasis on supposed common interests leads in political terms. It seems to lead to a vision of a future society which is just as intolerant of difference and desire as is capitalism. Ultimately people are subordinated to their “interests”, perhaps represented by the party or the majority. The collective functions as a Stirnerian spook, limiting what people can become. It therefore reproduces alienation. And how do we know that people really do have similar interests? Don’t the included workers have an economic interest in their own continued inclusion, at the expense of the continued exclusion of others?

Hence, I don’t see interest as a solid basis for an emancipatory politics. Instead, I emphasise difference, desire, and compassion. Capitalism is oppressive because it forces people into a homogenised mould, and excludes people who are different. It is existentially intolerable because it requires that people renounce their desires as a condition for social inclusion, and because it rests on role-conformity instead of compassion as the basis for interpersonal relations. All of this is very close to (early) Marx’s expressive view of humanity, though different in subtle ways.

I also find it implausible that capitalism actually needs the marginal labour of the vast strata of excluded and marginalised. We’re talking about a world in which entire regions are being forcibly delinked from the world economy, where some countries have less than 5% of the population in formal labour, where real unemployment is running at 20% even in the core countries. Perhaps capitalism needs a reserve army of labour. But does it really gain anything from having a reserve army billions strong? And does it really need the myriad ways in which people survive on its remnants or in its niches? It often seems that capitalism would much rather the poor simply die – as in fact it lets many millions die, whom it could easily save and “exploit”.

What you’re doing here is applying a theory derived from a particular moment in capitalism as if it is universal, without seeing its particular context. The Marxist analysis made sense in a conjuncture where most workers were employed in heavy industries which were both labour- and capital-intensive. Today most workers are employed in marginal sectors which capitalism can easily shed if needed. In any case, capitalism can now choose to be extremely selective about who it allows into the stratum of relatively-included workers, and on what terms. By this means, it ensures that only conformists get to be workers to begin with – which wrecks the power of workers.

I don’t know why you accuse me of opposing struggles for reforms. Though I suspect you’re misunderstanding the issue. Today we do not have struggles for reforms, we have last-ditch struggles to defend what’s already been won, and most of these struggles are failing, and have been for 30 years. This said, I’ve supported and continue to support movements such as the student resistance to fees and the struggle against benefit cuts. They’re noble struggles, but hard struggles to win because we just don’t have the structural power to be able to take control of the institutions which provide these things. We’re relying on politicians listening – and why should they? They want to maximise capital accumulation, and their strategies for doing so don’t depend on what students, claimants, or workers think. If we had the power to paralyse the system’s functioning then they’d have to listen. But we can’t have that power unless we could survive a prolonged system shutdown ourselves.

On the other hand, we can grasp and build and defend the kinds of things which can create local alternatives, and this in turn strengthens our hand in the reform struggles. Creating and defending squats, constructing urban farms and alternative education systems are things we can concretely do, which directly meet our needs and which don’t rely on the politicians listening to us. I guess I’m proposing exodus, or withdrawal of energies from the system, as an alternative to reform and revolution, as another means to bring about a different world. But I don’t see exodus as precluding either revolutions or reforms. For example, the establishment of social housing after World War 2 was a response to mass squatting. Similarly, studies of indigenous movements suggest that the most sustained movements are those which can hold an established land-base. The struggle for reforms is made more effective by the establishment of points from which struggle can be launched.

Your claim (revolutions start as demands for reforms and not as exodus) is not true in all cases. The East European revolutions of 1989 for instance started as mass migration, the Chinese revolution started as guerrilla war intersecting with local revolts, the Zapatista revolution started as a refusal of new forms of enclosure, the transformation of Bolivia started from indigenous subsistence economies besieging the centre, the Arab Spring started as an outpouring of anger by excluded youths in Sidi Bouzid with no apparent demands or organisation.

The binary “precarians providing for their own needs” versus “taking back the resources that the workers created” is a false binary. Squatting and autoreduction for instance provide for precarians’ needs while also taking back what workers created; land occupations and suchlike are taking back the things stripped from the oppressed through enclosure. In any case, the workers didn’t make these things of their own accord, they made them under capitalist command. In many cases we cannot use them since their functions are locked-in, in others we can only use them if we’re prepared to keep up the same drudgery as today. The point, however, is to stop putting in further labour to the system which will simply exploit it. The struggle occurs at the level of the construction of social subjects as “workers”, and the refusal to be reduced to a “worker”, to labour-power. By reconstructing other relations and other kinds of social activity, we can begin to concretely build other worlds.

In Theory Precariatans of all countries, unite! | Projeto Observatório do Precariado
May 26, 2014 18:59

[...] viaIn Theory Precariatans of all countries, unite!. [...]

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