Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
I highly appreciate the work of Guy Standing, and his essay is an important contribution to the discussion of how to transform society toward a more sustainable modus operandi. While I agree with much of what he says, I would like to present a slight spin on its logic from a Central European degrowth perspective.
A transition to a socially more just and ecologically more sustainable economy demands a completely new narrative of work itself. If we are to move away from excessive material consumption in order to decrease our environmental burden, we will have to redefine well-being, needs, and work. In such a scenario, work will no longer be equated to the more-or-less 40-hour labor that we do generally for one employer (what we now tend to label as “job security”). In a convivial world, work is something we do for our own self-development, for our family, for our community, and for society as a whole. Besides paid work, it could also include housework, care work, learning, participation in community and political decision-making, and many other tasks that we currently do not include in the concepts of work. This would entail many different forms of employment, some paid and some unpaid. This type of redefinition could support a transition to a society where work is no longer the sole means to subsistence but a source of well-being.
Together with the technological trends that we face today, these divergent forms of work would probably resemble the type of “portfolio work” that Guy Standing is describing in his essay as something unstable and highly stressful. However, it is not the form of employment that we need to demonize but the instability and the existential threat that comes with it in the current economic system. People who currently work like that may actually be the ones who will be best prepared for such a transition.
This is where basic income comes in handy. Such a redefinition of work is only possible if we provide some kind of solution for how such a transition can be supported, such as a universal basic income (I much prefer talking about a universal basic allowance that not only includes money but also provides for many types of freedoms and capabilities). UBI can be a great tool (and never an aim in itself without new narratives) to support social transitions to a more equal and sustainable society, and it enables us to start thinking of work as something much more than paid labor.
I would like to end with one more short note. Having been raised in a socialist country, I know how badly arguments based on class structures sell in a debate on necessary transitions. Having been educated in the UK, I also know that it is a hard selling point there as well. However, in order to be able to steer societies into transitions, we need to be able to provide an agreeable narrative to many. Even if we set aside the questions of how appealing the narrative is, I also believe that such class-based arguments risk reinforcing exactly those perceived social structures that we would want to transcend in such a transition.