Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
It seems that there are many of us out there moving along similar paths of thinking, and this gives me hope. In particular, and in agreement with some of the other commenters, I argued, in a piece this past spring, that the experiences of those workers in the core countries who are newly precarious are falling into line with what has been the ongoing experience of most workers in the world, whether those workers are found in the so-called informal sector, peasants, women doing unpaid labor, pieceworkers, and so on.1
This unity of experience actually opens up greater possibilities for solidarity and unity of action, if we can name and foreground the commonalities among all these exploited workers, who at this point are conceived of as differently exploited, or even as merely “oppressed,” rather than as exploited. Exposing and naming that unity of experience and exploitation is, I believe, our job right now as intellectuals and activists. A generalization of that insight of the unity of experience these workers share is the precondition for collective action.
Additionally, precarity itself as a facet of labor’s condition opens possibilities, as capitalists have at least partially retreated from organizing the labor process itself. To quote myself talking about formerly waged workers in the core countries:
As relations of labor return in our current time to slightly novel versions of the older piece work and putting out systems, now just using labels such as consulting, contracting, just-in-time, gigs, and a ‘results-only work environment’, once again the work day and the work process are under greater worker control. Only under a wage labor system, where the capitalist measures and owns the time of the worker, does the capitalist exert maximal control over the design and carrying-out of labor. In relations of production where the capitalist has given up direct control over worker time, he (as it is usually a man) simultaneously gives up control over the work process. Creative labor activists can certainly think of many ways in which greater responsibility for the production process may be translated into openings for struggle, starting perhaps with learning from the troubles that workers in older workplaces created for capitalism—troubles which inspired the drive towards the factory, the wage, and then the assembly line in the first place.2
Indeed, lessons from history can be useful if we conceptualize our current moment as having parallels with the pre-wage, pre-factory world of labor. Most commenters seemed to agree that the precarious forms of labor that we see today are widespread and not actually new, but rather revivals of either a kind of labor relation that was historically common, in the case of industrialized countries, or a kind of labor relation that has always been present in the capitalist era, in the case of the global South. How did workers in the older forms of precarious labor resist it? How do workers in the global South and here today push back against precarity, build solidarity in spite of it, construct independent subsistence outside of it?
Obviously these forms of resistance and rebellion have not been fully successful, or the modern world would not be what it is, but to me, the first order of business should be to learn from those who live or lived under these conditions so that we can apply, amplify, forward, support, etc., their strategies, and perhaps (with a lot of work and wisdom) we'll be able to supplement their strategies as well. Rather than wondering as outsiders whether these workers will bring about change, our task is to learn from them and then work with them to bring about that change they (and we) want to see.
Creating agendas for change that do not draw on the experience and power of what is probably the majority of people on the planet (precarious workers) is not going to yield much, but it takes humility to see that we need to learn from them, past and present, before we can act effectively.
1. Eva Swidler, “Invisible Exploitation: How Capital Extracts Value Beyond Wage Labor,” Monthly Review 69, no. 10 (March 2018), http://www.monthlyreview.org/2018/03/01/invisible-exploitation/.
2. Eva Swidler, “Marxism Beyond the Economy and Exploitation Beyond the Wage,” Capitalism Nature Socialism (March 2017): 1-18, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321271653_Marxism_Beyond_the_Economy_and_Exploitation_Beyond_the_Wage.