Too many jobs are now temporary and insecure: a new class, the ‘precariat’ is growing. Guy Standing has responded with an inspiring vision of a Good Society
At the Labour conference of 2005, Tony Blair made one of his most fascinating speeches as party leader and prime minister: a tribute to the cleansing hurricane of globalisation, from a man who had seen the future, but worried that the people assembled in front of him were stuck in the past. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition,” he said. “Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”
Perhaps thanks to the far-left roots of some New Labour insiders, there were shades here of the Communist Manifesto, and Marx and Engels’s description of the bourgeoisie, which had “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations”, “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ … and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms … set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.” Even if Blair rejoiced in capitalism whereas Marx and Engels decried it, their analyses prompted similar questions. What is it to live in such a stripped-down, pitiless reality? And if some succeed in being swift to adapt and slow to complain, what lies behind their name badges and stick-on smiles?
Guy Standing is a scholar at Soas, who was once a high-up at the UN’s International Labour Organisation. In his vocabulary, to be at the sharp end of modern capitalism is to be a member of the precariat: a split-off from the shrinking working class, and one which is growing in size, though not yet in influence. His 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class set out its story: the term was originally used in 1980s France to denote temporary and seasonal workers, but now, with labour insecurity a feature of most western economies, it is the perfect word for a great mass of people, “flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits”, who enjoy almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the 20th century. In Standing’s view, they increasingly resemble denizens rather than citizens: people with restricted rights, largely living towards the bottom of a “tiered membership” model of society, in which a plutocratic elite takes the single biggest share, while other classes – the salariat, free-ranging “proficians”, and what remains of the old working class – divide up most of what remains.
I say, “they”, but Standing’s contention is that the precariat will soon become “we”. It is increasing in size and range, and spanning no end of occupational categories, from the fluorescent-jacketed service workers who keep our cities running to ambitious graduates who take “jobs” in the digital world on the basis of bogus self-employment. Over time, these people will find a voice – and, as Standing sees it, the “labourist” political left will then have to radically alter its views not just of political economy, but of what it is to live. “Twentieth century spheres of labour protection … were constructed around the image of the firm, fixed workplaces, and fixed working days and work-weeks that apply only to a minority in today’s tertiary online society,” he points out. “While proletarian consciousness is linked to long-term security in a firm, mine, factory or office, the precariat’s consciousness is linked to a search for security outside the workplace.” This is fundamental: it shreds such sepia-tinted ideas as the “dignity of labour”, and the notion – shared by both the old left and its reformist successors – that to toil is to express one’s essential humanity. As Standing puts it: “The precariat can accept jobs and labour as instrumental … not as what defines or gives meaning to life. That is so hard for labourists to understand.” It certainly is.
For that reason, among others, politics has real problems with the precariat. In the UK, partly thanks to the Labour party’s panicked revival of interest in its working-class base, its condition has begun to intrude on national debate: MPs and ministers now at least talk about agency work and zero-hours contracts. But politicians of left and right still tend to think that the more forlorn elements of this new class are essentially there to be kicked around, which they believe plays well with the higher-up social groups who hold the key to electoral success. “The state treats theprecariat as necessary, but a group to be criticised, pitied, demonised, sanctioned or penalised in turn,” Standing says: the trick was pioneered by New Labour, and is used on an almost daily basis by the current government.
It is members of the precariat who pinball in and out of the benefits system thanks to short-term working arrangements, and who now form a large part of the demand for food banks. In response, the Westminster consensus insists that they should be subject to regimes that are not just cruel, but dysfunctional. In other words, it doesn’t actually matter if so-called welfare-to-work programmes actually help people, or just screw them up: the point is that they visibly punish them in pursuit of a political dividend. In that sense, the precariat is not only at the cutting edge of the economy, but at the receiving end of a postmodern politics that values the manipulation of appearances much more highly than reality.
This is obviously intolerable. Quite soon, Standing reckons, the precariat “will echo a slogan of ’68: ça suffit!” Its initial voice, he thinks, will come from “the educated and ‘wired’ part of the precariat, exploiting the potential of electronic communications”, but he claims that we have already felt its anger, in no end of civil disturbances. On this point, he gets carried away, giving far too much credit to the inchoate Occupy spasm of 2011, and projecting on to the English riots of 2011 a political motivation that simply wasn’t there.
But the best of what he goes on to advocate in a 27-article charter is inspiring: among other things, an end to the punitive aspects of the modern welfare state, and the creation of new organisations that are rooted outside any single workplace (and might follow the lead of the US’s International Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”, who were founded “to organise the workers, not the job”). By way of addressing security beyond the workplace, his most compelling suggestion is a basic citizen’s income, payable to all, which would increase the bargaining power of people at the low end, and by cutting across the orthodox benefit systems’ serial poverty traps, actually increase the incentive to work. This idea has been circulating for at least 40 years, and may take just as long to arrive in mainstream debate. But if it seems outlandish by contemporary standards, that actually only heightens its appeal: the same, after all, was once said of the most basic aspects of the welfare state; and even the weekend.
Some of Standing’s writing is uneven, caught between the slightly stunted vernacular of the academic and the fury of an op-ed polemicist. But as with his other books, A Precariat Charter is that rare thing: a text from the left that does not yearn for a lost past, but energetically embraces the future. It offers progressive politics a revived purpose: not a surrender to economic practices as if they were forces of nature, but the pursuit of a common security that would enhance our humanity – because, as he puts it, “knowing that your fellow citizen has the same rights as you do humanises us all”.