Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
Guy Standing’s “The Precariat: Today’s Transformative Class?” is a concise, well-written, and well-structured paper with several valuable insights. Though I have a great deal of respect for Standing’s work, especially that concerning flexible work relations, the so-called precariat, and basic income, I have some reservations about his proposal. He reasonably puts a question mark at the end of his title, and I am very skeptical whether the “precariat,” as conceptualized by Standing and others, can be today’s transformative class.
To begin with, I don’t think a conceptualization of the “precariat” as an emerging mass class is a fruitful idea. Theory in general is an abstraction, and a theorization of class structure is equally an abstraction. Regarding capitalism, such an abstraction reasonably disregards the internal diversity of both the working class and the capitalist class. And while it is imperative to move away from a dogmatic approach of considering the working class ahistorically as a homogeneous class, it is equally important to consider all those factors (crisis, technological developments, class tensions, and institutional changes) which may determine and perhaps historically increase this diversity of the working class. It is ontologically much safer, however, to remain within the broad categories of Marxist political economy and consider the current class structure as largely determined by existing property relations, the capitalist possession of the means of production, and the need of the proletariat to offer its wage labor to survive, than to disregard these fundamental material conditions and theorize the emergence of the “precariat” as a class determined by conjunctural conditions and institutional relations in the labor market. Despite perhaps increased working-class diversity, the unifying factors of this class remain their lack of means of production and the fact that they are all subject to an exploitation of their wage labor. I would argue that the characteristics of the precariat, which are nicely described and analyzed by Standing (unstable labor, income uncertainty, erosion of rights, etc.), essentially concern the contemporary working class and especially some of its sections. The commonality of interests, the rising consciousness, willingness to organize, and the transformative potential that Standing attributes to the precariat concern the contemporary working class broadly conceived.
Standing has very good reasons to stress the importance and criticize the distributional implications of rentier capitalism. But apart from objecting to this characterization of modern capitalism, I would point out that rent is not an income deriving out of nothing. It is merely value or surplus value (produced in production) redistributed to and captured by certain sections of capital (or asset owners). The elimination of some of the excesses of rentier capitalism and the institutionalization of a basic income may be vehicles to address extreme income inequalities, but we should not forget that relations of distribution are always attendant to specific relations of production. Income redistribution or a basic income policy may not be a safe or sufficient route towards societal transformation. What we, more fundamentally, need is to revolutionize the mode of production itself. Moving beyond capitalism and establishing a common ownership of the means of production and a collective organization of production will imply a fair distribution of income, an increased social security, and a social solidarity expedient to a further transformation of society.
Standing is surely correct to emphasize the need for transformation, but his emphasis on the transformative potential of the so-called “precariat” is rather overrated and somehow misplaced, while it is not sufficiently clear in his presentation to where this transformative process should be heading. In other words, there is no clear strategic vision. We may, of course, debate the specific institutional configuration of the transitional period, but we should agree on the basic strategic goals of this transformation process. Stressing the significance of the commons indicates that Standing too has a communist vision without naming it as such. The strategic vision of communism—a historically unprecedented organization of society that will have nothing to do with the so-called “twentieth-century socialism”—should be clearly stated.
In my view, the primary agent of such a transformation cannot be other than the working class in its broad sense. The unprecedented exacerbation of socio-ecological crises makes it imperative that the working class, taking the revolutionary initiative for such a transformation, will have to start by subjecting all its past history to severe critique and contrive new innovative forms of association and organization, while setting the broad outlines of the new communist organization of society.