Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
It is good to see Guy Standing putting forth for debate his thesis on the precariat as a potential new class agent of social transformation. I will not discuss the first section on the nature of contemporary capitalism as it is relatively uncontroversial, nor the final section on the need for a new universal basic income, which is controversial but is a subject in its own right. What I will comment on is the precariat thesis itself from the perspective of a labor activist and analyst from the Global South. I will try to make two points, namely that the concept as presently articulated is Northern-centric and that it too hastily writes off the organized labor movement. But I will also argue that it is pointing to something real.
The issues addressed in the precariat debates are not new. The term has grown in popularity as a shorthand for the changes in the experience of work in the Global North resulting from new technology and new flexible working. But for me, it does not herald the arrival of a new social class, but rather a change in the experiences of Northern employees, particularly the middle classes and their children (the millennials), that has intensified since the global financial crisis and the austerity politics that have prevailed since.
What is most noticeable in the literature around the precariat is that it is almost totally Northern-centric in its theoretical frames and its empirical reference points.1
There is a Northern sensibility at play here, it seems, harking back to Britain in the 1950s as the model of economic and political development the precariat aspires to regain.
But in fact, Fordist factory work and the welfare state were always the exception to the rule from a global perspective. “Decent work,” as called for by the ILO, has never been the norm in the postcolonial world.
Rather, super-exploitation, accumulation through dispossession, and what might be called “permanent primitive accumulation” have, by and large, prevailed. From a Southern perspective, work has always already been precarious, a basic fact which unsettles the notion that something new has been discovered. While the precariat discourse exudes nostalgia for something which has passed (the Keynesian/Fordist/welfare state), it does not speak at all to a South which never experienced welfare state capitalism.
For me, the second main weakness of the precariat concept is the complete lack of understanding of contemporary labor or of the labor movement’s organizations and strategies. The organizations of the broad working class—national and transnational trade unions, social movement and grassroots organizations, etc.—have clearly begun to revive after the long neoliberal night, and can no longer be so easily dismissed as relics of “old labor.” Bringing organized labor back in to the debate on a way forward is now crucial to an understanding of the world of work and workers in the era of globalization, especially after the crisis of 2008-09 and the clear signs since that neoliberalism has lost its hegemonic position as global development ideology. The organized labor movement simply cannot be written off in a few lines.
As a union organizer, I clearly see labor as part of the solution for our current woes, although it can be a problem at times (as I would be the first to acknowledge). But even if we are pessimistic about the prospects that trade unions might restructure and re-energize to face the new challenges to labor, we need to acknowledge that they do make a difference for those in a precarious position in the labor market.2 Certainly, radical interventions in the broad labor movement, seeking the revival of social movement unionism, for example, seem to be more likely to render a positive outcome for social transformation in the era of globalization, than does trying to frighten the ruling order and liberal professionals with the specter of a monster precariat.
Finally, we might ask whether we are now seeing the emergence of a new incarnation of the global working class that can be called a global precariat which includes transnational migrant workers.3 Labor conditions once characteristic of the colonial and postcolonial world have now become generalized across the globe. The very particular historical and geographic settings of the Golden Era in the North Atlantic are now seen as an anomaly. This emerging global precariat is a precursor, I would posit, of a truly global working class that is the essential corollary of global capitalist development and its now nearly universal reach. It is not without its contradictions, between old and new working classes, women and men, North and South, but it is being unified by capitalism and by its own innate capacity to organize and resist. The global trade unions are very well aware of this emerging class of workers and are by no means irrelevant today, so long as they rediscover their roots as a social movement. Their own future depends on it, but so also does that of the global precariat which is only a "dangerous class" for capital and not for other workers.
1. See Ronaldo Munck, “The Precariat: A View from the South,” Third World Quarterly 34, no. 5 (June 2013): 747–762, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/263724631_The_Precariat_A_View_from_the_South.
2. See for example the role of the unions in McStrike movement: Rajeev Syal, "'McStrike': McDonald’s Workers Walk out over Zero-Hours Contracts," Guardian, May 1, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/may/01/mcstrike-mcdonalds-workers-walk-out-over-zero-hours-contracts.
3. Ronaldo Munck and Carl-Ulrik Schierup, “The Migration Crisis: What Can Labor Unions Do,” OUP Blog, January 18, 2016, https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/migration-global-trade-unions/.