Progressives need to find ways to speak to the new global, insecure classes before the far right does
For the first time, the mainstream left in Britain and Europe has no progressive agenda. It has forgotten a basic principle. Every progressive movement has been built on the anger, needs and aspirations of the emerging major class. Today that is the precariat.
The protests spreading across the world are manifestations of the precariat taking shape, the latest example being in Spain – where the indignados reject mainstream political parties, while demanding what appears as a discordant bag of changes. Recently, in many European cities as well as Japan, the precariat mingled in EuroMayDay parades; in Milan, more than 30,000 participated. In the Middle East, the upheavals can be seen as the first precariat-led revolutions, when educated frustrated youth demanded a more secure and occupationally rewarding future. Greece is following, with its den plirono actions and prolonged mass protests. Today it is Spain that is the inspiration. Soon it may be London.
The global precariat is not yet a class in the Marxian sense, being internally divided and only united in fears and insecurities. But it is a class in the making, approaching a consciousness of common vulnerability. It consists not just of everybody in insecure jobs – though many are temps, part-timers, in call centres or in outsourced arrangements. The precariat consists of those who feel their lives and identities are made up of disjointed bits, in which they cannot construct a desirable narrative or build a career, combining forms of work and labour, play and leisure in a sustainable way.
Because of flexible labour markets, the precariat cannot draw on a social memory, a feeling of belonging to a community of pride, status, ethics and solidarity. Everything is fleeting. They realise that in their dealings with others there is no shadow of the future hanging over them, since they are unlikely to be dealing with those people tomorrow. The precariatised mind is one without anchors, flitting from subject to subject, in the extreme suffering from attention deficit disorder. But it is also nomadic in its dealings with other people.
Although the precariat does not consist simply of victims, since many in it challenge their parents’ labouring ethic, its growth has been accelerated by the neoliberalism of globalisation, which put faith in labour market flexibility, the commodification of everything and the restructuring of social protection.
In the UK, none did more to expand the precariat than the New Labour government. Its current leadership is tainted by association, but must now build a progressive strategy to appeal to the precariat. Time is short. We have seen across the industrialised world a growth of the far right. It was led by Silvio Berlusconi, who when re-elected announced that his objective was to defeat “the army of evil“, by which he meant migrants in the Italian precariat.
In doing so, he signalled why the precariat is the new dangerous class. Chronically insecure people easily lose their altruism, tolerance and respect for non-conformity. If they have no alternative on offer, they can be led to attribute their plight to strangers in their midst.
Neofascism is unlike its 1930s predecessor, in that today a global elite of the absurdly wealthy and influential is steering an ideology that wants a shrinking government, falling taxes on high incomes, and authoritarian control over recalcitrants, nonconformists, collective bodies and “losers” in the market society, including the disabled and young unemployed. Social democrats have fallen prey to the charms of the elite, just as much as centre-right parties have. It was not the Tories or Lib Dems who fought to block the EU directive intended to give temporary workers equal rights. It was New Labour.
The only way to arrest neofascism is to forge a new politics that offers the precariat what it aspires to build. A new progressive agenda, like all those throughout history, must be class-based, however it is packaged. It must look forward, not be atavistic. It must be egalitarian at its core and respond to the emerging class. The faddish “Blue Labour” openly looks back and rejects all this.
Progressives should dispense with notions of “the squeezed middle“. It suggests there is not a “squeezed bottom” and is another refusal by the lukewarm left to confront structures of inequality, in a way that would respect the traditions of generations of progressive thinkers. As the spectre of neofascism grows – in the US Tea Party, in the English Defence League, and around Europe’s far-right parties – progressives must risk being mildly utopian.
What is needed is a reinvention of the progressive trinity of equality, liberty and fraternity. A politics of paradise will be built on respect for principles of economic security and all forms of work and leisure, rather than the dour labourism of industrial society. The precariat understands that, and politicians on the left should listen.