Precarious Thought

Sometimes new crises have to be confronted with old vocabulary.

The Left could do with some fresh vocabulary. As an ex once told me, “Stop using ‘Menshevik’ as an insult — it’s weird.” And as the proud coiner of terms with dubious analytical value, I should welcome commentary announcing the rise of a new post-Fordist actor. Jacobin’s dictionary, however, will be kept free of the word “precariat.” Beyond misguided, it’s a disorienting concept.

Yet even Dissent, a gloomy bastion of social democratic orthodoxy, is speaking the new language. Its latest issue sports an essay on the Freelancers’ Union by Atossa Abrahamian and a review from John Schmitt that both engage with Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

Though it has only entered into wider circulation with that book’s release, “precariat” has been around for a while. It was coined by French sociologists in the eighties and, much like “hella,” got its biggest break when it was mentioned a decade later in the Socialist Register.

The precariat is a flexible workforce reliant on short-term employment. They’re temps, part-timers, seasonal laborers, freelancers, even interns — people without traditional unions to rely on. There is nothing below them, only the safety net’s tatters. “[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.”

Standing takes things further. He argues that the precariat, completely distinct from the proletariat, is the emerging class of our era and the key towards either our fall into a “politics of inferno” or ascent into a “politics of paradise” — presumably a mildly utopian future of free Cinemax and marshmallow fluff dispensing fountains.

Where did this class come from? The structural crisis of the 1970s looms large for precariat mongers. They correctly identify that labor has gotten more precarious over the past decades as inroads have been made into the welfare state. They, showing their affinity with Italian autonomism, call it “post-Fordism.” In her critical coverage of the Freelancers’ Union, Abrahamian quotes Charles Heckscher, the director of Rutgers’ Center for Workplace Transformation and a FU board member.

[Heckscher] likes to describe this shift in terms of “flexibility.” As the economy shifted away from manufacturing jobs and toward knowledge- and tech-based ones, he argues, “companies have clearly and widely moved away from taking responsibility for long-term careers. These certainly include crude cost-cutting considerations, but they also reflect the deeper economic changes…with skills and demand metamorphosing so rapidly in so many domains, it is often more effective to look for those with needed skills on the open market rather than developing them internally. Once companies begin to do that, they tend to break the whole pattern of expectations and commitments which grounded the classic system.”

This emphasis on technological shifts is shared by Standing. It’s a neat corollary to Antonio Negri and company’s fixation with immaterial labor. But technology (changes in the means of production) is just a veneer. Evolutions in the structure of work do not inherently lead to changes in the conditions of work (the relations of production). It’s an odd sort of determinism that says that new labor forms necessarily be more precarious than industrial employment.

Oddly mirroring the folly of neoliberals, these leftists have swapped the political in favor of the technical. Capital, after all, does not operate autonomously. Workers have agency and trends are not linear and irreversible. Labor has gotten weaker in relation to capital compared to the golden age of the welfare state. It’s not surprising that work has gotten more precarious.

Rather than a “post-Fordist” framework that sees the very real and dangerous shifts underway as the natural outgrowth of a new phase of capitalism, it might be helpful to consider the ways in which the current situation resembles a return to pre-Fordism. The class compromise that incubated social democracy didn’t create the working class. It existed during a specific period of capitalism, spurred by labor’s advance. Yet Standing’s account is quick to differentiate his new class from the “salariat” (with all these new bullshit terms you’d think that Standing was auditioning for column space next to David Brooks and Thomas Friedman) who hold steady full-time employment. A chunk of the proletariat, now the “salariat,” is redefined by the author based on conditions enjoyed for a sliver of the twentieth century by only a minority of permanent workers.

The end result is a ridiculous division of the working class on the basis of length of employment. Equally absurd is mixing graphic designers with seasonal farm workers in the “precariat.” Abrahamian’s Dissent piece attacks the Freelancers’ Union for many of the right reasons, but she not only accepts Standing’s framework, she fails to acknowledge that the petty bourgeoisie has never been able to organize like workers. If they want higher wages, workers have no choice other than to collectively bargain. It’s a result of their position in the production process. The same isn’t true of other social classes. The tepid middle class liberalism of the Freelancers’ Union might be forgiven if one recognizes that they are an advocacy group for squeezed tepidly liberal middle class people — a dying class, not an emerging one.

But there still is the real problem of organizing precariously employed members of the working class. At their best, that class’ institutions have never stopped at the shop floor. This is an important trait to remember at a time when the re-casualization of labor makes it harder to imagine how many can challenge their employers. Old forms will have to be adapted to the new environment. The pre-Fordist nineteenth century city central, the alliance between the employed and unemployed, and most often forgotten, the importance of a workers’ party, still the best vehicle for forcing universal concessions from the state and eventually transforming it along with the way we labor, may not seem especially lyrical, but sometimes new crises have to be confronted with old vocabulary.