“The globalisation era generated a class fragmentation that threatens democratic governance. At the top, in terms of income, above older representatives of capital, an elite of absurdly affluent figures emerged as global citizens, detached from any nation state but able to influence governments wherever they wished. Stretching from multi-billionaires in Silicon Valley to oligarchs in Russia, encompassing hedge-fund managers and property tycoons, the elite has dominated political discourse. No prospective prime minister or president has risked offending them. Occasionally, one of them falls foul of the law. Most ignore it with impunity. But curbing their collective political and economic power is vital for any meaningful democracy.
In terms of income, the group below the elite and other representatives of capital is the ‘salariat’, those with above average incomes, with an array of enterprise benefits and employment security. This group is shrinking, hit by the financial crisis, austerity packages and the extension of labour market flexibility, nowhere more so than in Greece.
Some of the salariat have joined the third group, ‘proficians’, those with bundles of technical and emotional skills that allow them to be self-selling entrepreneurs, living opportunistically on their wits and contacts. This group is growing but is relatively small; it tends to be socially liberal but economically conservative, since it wants low taxes and few obstacles to money making.
Below the salariat and proficians in terms of income is the old manual working class, the proletariat, which has been dissolving for decades. The democracy built in the twentieth century was designed to suit this class, as was the welfare state. Trades unions forged a labourist agenda and social democratic parties implemented it. That agenda has little legitimacy in the twenty-first century.
Below the proletariat is the rapidly growing ‘precariat’, a class-in-the-making. It is internally divided, just as the proletariat was. Its division is what makes it a dangerous class and why an understanding of it is so crucial to debates about democracy.
The precariat consists of millions with insecure jobs, housing and social entitlements. They have no occupational identity, and do not belong to any occupational community with a long-established social memory giving an anchor of ethical norms. Being urged to be ‘flexible’ and ‘employable’, they act opportunistically. They are denizens, not citizens, in that they have fewer rights than citizens.
There are three ‘varieties’ of precariat, all detached from old political democracy and unable to relate to twentieth-century industrial democracy or economic democracy. The first variety consists of those drifting from working-class backgrounds into precariousness, the second consists of those emerging from a schooling system over-credentialised for the flexi-job life on offer, and the third are migrants and others, such as the criminalised, in a status denying them the full rights of citizens. Each has a distinctive view on life and society.
The precariat is cut off from classic circuits of capital accumulation, and from the logic of collective bargaining between employers as capital and workers as providers of stable labour. It is not represented in any existing class-based political party and cannot relate to fixed workplaces, the pillar of twentieth-century industrial democracy.
The precariat is not an underclass. If it were, one might dismiss it as a fringe, consisting of misfits who can be treated as suffering from social illnesses, to be ‘re-integrated’ into society. Governments have been tempted to treat it this way. That may succeed in lessening disruptive behaviour for a while but not for long.
Nevertheless, part of the precariat is drifting into a lumpen precariat, unable to survive in a milieu of precarious jobs, many drifting into gangs, or becoming ‘bag ladies’ or addicts of some kind. But the precariat itself is desired by global capitalism. It is an integral part of the production system, with distinctive relations of production and consciousness of specific insecurities. This is why it makes sense to depict it in class terms. And it is a dangerous class precisely because all varieties are disengaged from twentieth-century political discourses. They are ready to listen to other voices.
In that context, if a re-embedding phase of the global transformation is to occur, a political strategy will be needed to provide new forms of regulation and social protection that favour the precariat, along with new mechanisms for redistributing the key assets of society. In all three respects, the neo-liberal cupboard is bare.”