The Precarious Work Economy

Living as the remains of society

Globalization is characterized by the mobility of capital, employees and goods. The neo-liberal principles of Reagan and Thatcher and their followers, Clinton and Blair, have had a great impact on labour relations contributing to the shrinkage of trade unions. With these principles, trade unionists have been presented as corrupt and state social care has been reduced and privatized. State intervention in labor market through subsidization of job positions, reduction of weekly working hours, employee training etc, has also been reduced since it is thought that labor market is inflexible, reduces competitiveness and profit margins causing increased inflation.

The School of Regulation argues that the 1970’s Fordism crisis (Fordism model was based on product standardization, mechanization of processes, scientific organization of labor and production chain) has lead to a meta- Fordian model where steady salaried labour is discouraged and flexible working relationships are emerging.

With this, employers arose as clear winners with decreased wages to pay out and reduced labor rights to contend with. They have also institutionalized flexible work policies transferring risk and insecurity to workers. Nicos Poulantzas, the Greek political philosopher, has been proved correct. In his book “State, Power, Socialism” he wrote about the role of the state as a central power acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie. With the state on capital’s side, enterprises has been given free reign, allowed to operate as a single social force dominating labour.

Precarious academics

Even for highly qualified workers, economic and social mobility is limited. Alexandre Afonso, in his related article “How Academia resembles a Drug Gang”, reflects on the current academic life of young PhDs and argues that the academic labor market is structured in many ways as a drug gang, where low level drug dealers risk their lives and exchange their current income for an uncertain future enrichment; similarly, young PhDs agree to work under precarious terms as “external” associates of university departments, assuming a part of the tasks of the “core of the initiates”, especially teaching, and under increasing pressure of research and publications, in order to secure a permanent position in the future. This “incentive” system benefits universities at an international level as they base their work to a certain extent on the ever-growing “reserve army” of academics working with occasional contracts.

Precariousness is the non-self-defining insecurity in all areas of life and work. People in a precarious position are afraid for their survival, and this fear becomes a tool of manipulation by employers, aiming at, according to Pierre Felix Bourdieu (French sociologist and philosopher who was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society), forcing employees to obey and accept their own exploitation .

Employees are forced to adapt to these new work frameworks, otherwise, they are marginalized. This marginalization is also related to the concept of the Henri Lefebvre (a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist) region where social regions are created, e.g. the women whom central authority marginalizes (among other groups) and isolates them in mental, social and geographic areas. Nowadays, the employee suffers the “hell of no guarantees” as Guattari and Negri wrote in their book “Communists like us”. Work is purchased and sold as separate time packages and salary does not cover all human needs but only the price of the package.

The refusal of the state to protect its citizens in favour of the principles of neo- liberalism is hidden behind the demonization of whole peoples where the concept of collective responsibility is cultivated to persuade people to consent to the forced austerity.

The concept of individual responsibility is also used against the poor as poverty is not seen as a consequence of social class. According to Milton Friedman, the unemployed are unemployed because of “individual behaviors determined by these erroneous assessments of economic reality and erroneous expectations for its evolution”.

Precarious work is not something modern but something old that was theorized by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:

“The interests and living conditions of the proletariat are more equalized by the fact that the machine increasingly extinguishes discrimination in the workplace and pushes almost everywhere wages at an equally low level. The increasing competition among the bourgeoisie and the trade crises provoked by this competition makes workers’ salary increasingly unstable. Uninterrupted and faster machine perfections makes their position increasingly precarious. Conflicts between the individual worker and the individual bourgeois are increasingly taking the feature of clashes between the two classes.”

The “precariat” in the post-industrialist society is what proletariat was in the industrial era.

Does precarious work signify a new social class?

Those in precarious work do not constitute a separate social class, they remain part of the labor class. Guy Standing supports that it is not a new social class but a class to be. In Latin America the class of occasional workers, unemployed or self –employed was called “first-proletariat”.

Karl Marx named the unemployed “industrial back-up army”: “This overpopulation of labor is an available industrial back-up army, which belongs to the capital as thoroughly as if the capital had done it at its own expense. It creates for the alternating needs of its exploitation the ever-ready exploitable material, regardless of the limits of the real population growth.”

Guy Standing has written that “the working class”, the “workers” and the “proletariat” have been terms embodied in our spiritual and social culture for several centuries. People could define themselves in terms of social class. In addition, on these terms, other people could recognize them, depending on how they were dressed, how they talked and how they were acting. Today, these are just more than labels that bring to mind things of the past.

He considers class stratification as being more complex than in Marx’s era: “While the old social classes still exist in some parts of the world, we can now identify four groups. At the top is an elite, which consists of a small number of irrationally wealthy world-wide citizens that dominate the planet … Under this elite is the class of the permanent and well-paid salaried employee of the “white collar” , those who still enjoy stable and full employment … At the same time, in interaction with this salaried class, there is the (at present) smaller group of proficians. This term combines the traditional terms of “professional” and “technician” … Under the proficians … there is a shrinking “core” of manual workers, in fact, they are the old “working class”. Under these four groups, there is the ever-growing “precariat”, framed by an army of unemployed and by a disconnected group of socially weak, unadjusted, living by the “remains of society”.

Standing follows a Weberian approach to the classes where classes are determined by the social status beyond their relationship to the productive process.

However, the “precariat” arepart of the working class, a working class that no longer has control over the production as stated by Gorz : “Marx was mistaken … Automation and later on IT abolish and initiation abilities and replace, what is left from workers and skilled employees with a new type of skilled workers. The rise of professional workers, their strength in the factory, their anarcho-syndicalist perspective will be only a parenthesis that will be closed by Taylorism and then the “scientific organization of work” and at the end, information technology and robotics.”

The “precariat” is characterized by the precariousness of work, but precariousness does not separate it from the rest of the working class with which it has no conflicting interests. As Jean Claude Michea stated : “… that happens precisely because the “proletarian” - the term belongs to Sismondi — has only, theoretically, its “working power” (in other words, deprived, as wrote by Engels, “from the last remnants of an independent activity”), drew on his face and existence all the inhuman effects of totalitarian uprooting (“job insecurity”is one of the possible names of this absolute deprivation)”.

Precariat’s work is characterized by the sense of “urgency”. This is supported by the inclusion of the precariat in the working class because, according to the viewpoint of the situationalists, the working class contains all those who can not control their daily life in the time-spatial organization of society.

Everyone can be a “precarian”

Despite the fact that at first precarious work concerned primarily younger people, older people become part of it, but also those who previously belonged to the middle socio-economic class of the population. As mentioned by Hardt & Negri : “A new form of poor emerges, that does not only include the unemployed and precarious part-time workers, but also the stable salaried employees and the bankrupted strata of the so-called middle class.”

The professional environment of the precariat is characterized by “labor flexibility” with corresponding “flexibility” in the worker’s behavior. This “flexibility” is praised as a solution to the problem of unemployment and adaptation to the demands of the new era. According to Bourdieu “flexibility” or “precariousness” nowadays prevails everywhere.

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