Contribution to GTI Roundtable Debating the Precariat

Nancy Folbre

Although I do not think the precariat is the transformative class, it can be and must be an important political actor in any great transition. The word itself contributes to a broader definition of class than one based purely on the capital/labor binary, and that is certainly a good thing. However, I find the discussion insufficiently attentive to forms of distributional conflict that are not based on class.

Take, for instance, citizenship. If basic incomes are implemented on the national level, huge disparities between affluent nations and poor nations will persist. Indeed, citizens of affluent nations will have even more reason than they do now to defend their national economic interests. Do the Norwegians or Alaskans really want to share their fossil fuel windfall income with the rest of the world? Perhaps we could persuade them to do so—but not if we simply ignore the issue.

For another example, consider unpaid care work. If everyone gets the same basic income, regardless of their contribution to unpaid care of families, friends, and neighbors, this will reproduce gender inequality. Of course, dependents, including children, will be assigned a basic income allowance as well. But how is this basic income allowance to be divvied up between mothers, fathers, and other caregivers? On the basis of work performed, responsibility assumed, or biological kinship? To be more specific, who will actually get the check? Again, this is not an insuperable objection. But it needs to be discussed.

Yes, we need new rules for the global economy. These rules have to go beyond the allocation of income between capital and labor.

Don’t they?

Nancy Folbre
Nancy Folbre, a feminist theorist and political economist, is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of several well-known books, including Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas; The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values; and Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family.

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

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