Who will be a voice for the emerging precariat? Guy Standing | via Peter Waterman

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.

2 thoughts on “Who will be a voice for the emerging precariat? Guy Standing | via Peter Waterman

  1. The answer is given by the precariat as ‘ourselves’! If this is true, imo it is very close to be so, it would not be a nice surprise to industrial classical unions that are having difficulity to organise the youth. Or this can be a goed reason to accept the change. Our unions need to face with this question:
    “What if the youth do really not need us, especially our hierarchic and archaic structures to get them organised?”

  2. Guy Standing appears to see the precariat only as ‘a dangerous class’, rather than an ambiguous entity (like…umm…the unionised working class?). He seems to be addressing the old institutionalised and state-oriented Left, as well, at least implicitly, as policy-makers, to reduce their danger. He appeals, finally, to the trinity of the French Revolution – the fraternity of which was not only obviously masculine but historically that of citizens within the state-created nation. Some alternative ideas here:

    1. The very concept ‘precariat’ comes from a radical-democratic movement amongst this previously unnamed category itself. Such people are certainly amongst the indignados of South Europe. Of course the precarit can be or become racist, chauvinist, authoritarian. As have been, for example, the unionised of the USA at various historical moments. In any case, it has its own specialists, generalists, intellectuals and artists. It does not need to be led by states(wo)men or political parties.

    2. It is the institutionalised left (parties and unions), in subordinate partnership with policy-makers, that are at least co-responsible for the state (in both senses) we are in. Why on earth we should expect them to lead us out of it.

    3. Alongside the values of the French Revolution (even if the third is translated as Solidarity), we need the new radical-democratic values of the feminist, indigenous, ecological – the whole variety and global spread of social justice and solidarity movements – to empower us.

    4. Any analysis of the present structural crisis of capitalism which does not see it AS such, is complicit with capitalism. Moreover, the reforms Guy Standing seems to be favouring cannot be achieved by incrementalism. They could be achieved by thinking outside the box of capitalism and (social) liberalism, threatening capitalism with something much worse (i.e. better), and then understanding and using any concessions won for further undermining and surpassing of an increasingly brutal, life-destructive, dystopian and even suicidal system.

    5. Without the precariat (i.e. the overwhelming majority of the world’s working people), an emancipatory and empowering social movement is impossible.

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