Contribution to GTI Roundtable Debating the Precariat

Azfar Khan

The “world of work” is changing, and we know what its manifestations are: rising poverty, growing inequality, and heightening insecurity for an ever increasing number of people. Yet I am surprised that many of the solutions proffered to tackle these concerns continue to abide by the imposed structural boundaries. It is clearly not working.

It is true that the working class has been in a precarious state for most of the history of capitalism. However, there is also a “precarious spectrum,” and people can be located at various points on this spectrum. In the present milieu in the wake of the policy-induced trend towards concentration of wealth and income, what we are witnessing is that (1) the numbers in the spectrum are increasing in absolute and proportional terms, and (2) the class distinctions of yesteryears are becoming blurred. We appear to be moving from a more differentiated social environment to a bipolar one. We are not there yet, but it would seem that the path we are treading is leading us back to the age of feudal vassalage, i.e., one where social distinctions are intrinsically shaped by the distribution of inherited and acquired wealth. This has implications for the working classes.

The development economist of the “dependencia” school, Oswaldo Sunkel, once remarked that it is the structure of the system that produces particular outcomes and the outcomes will only change if the structure undergoes a change. What Guy Standing has done here and throughout all his work is to show us how innovative thought and transformative energy can bring about a meaningful structural change to the benefit of all—well, almost all. Certainly the so-called 1% would have to cough up some of the privileges and part of their (ill-gotten) purses. However, I am surprised that he has not made more of a mention of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in this paper, which is an intrinsic part of this innovative thought, as an enabling strategy for the transformation envisaged.

UBI begs a rethink of our existing models of social security provision, which are clearly proving very ineffective in conveying relief to the sufferings of the working classes. In the developing world, where these standard systems of social security were imposed as imperative and intrinsic to modernization, they did not apply to the vast majority of the working populations, as many worked outside the sphere of “formal” activity for which these provisions were constructed in the first place. That situation has not changed much. In fact, one could argue that globalization, with its promotion of global supply chains, has made the situation of a majority of the workers worse. Liberalization of financial and capital markets and the privatization of social policy in economic environments where regulatory frameworks are weak have made their exploitation and misery a ubiquitous feature of “development.”

However, this need not be so. The success of the Indian UBI pilot has shown that giving people control over their lives can lead to a development of social solidarity and that providing them with a “voice” can counter the regressive forces which inhibit autonomous decision-making. It has also shown that a UBI would work better than any neoliberal social safety net and/or anti-poverty scheme in a developing country context.

On the other hand, in the developed world, social security played its part in addressing the inherent inequalities in the power structures and contributed credibly to the welfare of the working populace. But with the transition from “welfare” to “workfare” with the onset of the “Washington Consensus” directives, it has become clear that the conventional systems of public support are losing their relevance and cannot counter the trend towards growing social and economic insecurities. In fact, it could be argued—as many like Joseph Stiglitz, Tony Atkinson, and others have done—that in a socio-political environment where the control of the democratic institutions has been captured by a select few, the present social security system is actually being used to maintain the status quo. No wonder that many are looking to UBI as a rational alternative. Indeed, a couple of weeks back, I came across a testimony in the Guardian of a UBI recipient in Finland, who stated that although the UBI had not made him rich, it had certainly enriched his life. If that is anything to go by—and also the much acclaimed UBI experiment that was carried out in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, in the early/mid 1970s —then UBI is a viable and feasible solution to counter insecurity and/or poverty that grips the precariat.

A UBI will not be won without struggle, and although there are struggles being waged all over the world, I don’t see them coming together. This allows the powers that be to tolerate them and even empathize with the individual demands, and such appeasement often leads to a further fragmentation, which impedes the development of a larger movement.

The inaction is fed by the social and economic circumstances in which many in the precariat identify themselves. Witness the testimony of a worker in McDonald’s in Oregon:

The people I live with and work with and talk to work at McDonald’s or as security guards or on a road crew—they are high school graduates thinking only about paying their bills and have no idea about politics in this country. If you try to engage these people about the state of the economy, just in passing, they have no idea and they don’t care. They know bad things have happened to them, they know they can barely pay their bills. They are scared but they don’t know why things have gotten so bad and they don’t know how to find out anything. That’s what scares me—they don’t want to find out because they say knowing won’t change anything. They say what they know doesn’t matter because they can’t do anything about it.

In other words, the precariat has little idea of the reality and even less knowledge of the real reasons behind economic outcomes, and they are easily swayed by a mass media which is itself manipulated.

The lynchpin of UBI is “basic security.” Basic security matters because human freedom and dignity matter to all human beings. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that real freedom—which lies in the unimpeded capacity to establish one’s own ends; the capacity, time, and space to determine the way in which one will pursue those ends; and the capacity to engage in the pursuit—cannot exist unless a certain level of basic security exists. If basic security can be provided, collective action is not that far away.

Leon Trotsky stated in his History of the Russian Revolution that “[t]he history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” The UBI, although it does not encourage a revolution nor does it demand a forcible entrance, is first and foremost concerned with handing control to the “masses” over their own lives and moving away from the paternalism that permeates social discourse (i.e., the idea that because the precariat occupies a low social and economic position, it cannot decide for itself what is good and that decisions need to be made for them). Human beings, I believe, must be able to choose for themselves who they are, and who they will be. This is self-definition; it is the basis of a person’s sense of self, of self-worth.

Azfar Khan
Azfar Khan served with the International Labour Organization (ILO) for over two decades. He has written widely on social and labor issues.

Azfar Khan, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Debating the Precariat," Great Transition Initiative (October 2018),

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