Contribution to a Roundtable: Debating the Precariat
William I. Robinson
Guy Standing has come to be associated with the concept of the precariat since the publication in 2011 of his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Standing has important things to say in his new essay for the Great Transition Initiative. In my reply, I want to focus on several interwoven points in which my own approach to these issues diverges from his.
First, Standing suggests that the precariat is a “new class,” and he sets it apart from the proletariat, or, more broadly conceived, from the working class. But I see no justification for this. Workers all around the world have been subject to new capital-labor relations characterized by what Standing and many others, myself included, have identified as unstable and deregulated labor relations, involving contract, part-time, temporary, outsourced, informal, non-unionized, and other forms of precarious work. Instead of prompting the formation of a “new class,” these conditions are becoming more and more generalized for all sorts of work and to all workers, including white- and blue-collar work, service work, and increasingly professional and managerial work. The precariat is part of the global working class that, as a whole, is being pushed into the conditions of precariousness. That is, the precariat is not a class but a condition—precariousness—imposed on increasing numbers of the global working class in the face of capitalist globalization and the transition underway for several decades now from Fordist to flexible accumulation. (In any event, Standing never actually defines what for him constitutes a class).
Second, and closely related, Standing suggests that the precariat is the potential new agent of transformation. Yet absent from his account is any discussion of what kind of a social change agent the precariat is. The notion of struggle is entirely missing. Near the end of the essay, he discusses the solution he envisions: a public fund based on taxing the commons. But how would this come about? By appealing to the powerful? By drawing up some rational blueprint? That is not how social change has ever come about. So what kind of agency should we expect from the precariat, or like to see the precariat engage in so as to force change on the system? Here, the article seems to simply skirt over the fact that there is not much of a commons left on our planet because it has been violently appropriated by rapacious transnational corporations, that is, by the transnational capitalist class and the states whose political and military machinery have facilitated the ongoing violent appropriation and privatization of the global commons for corporate plunder. Expropriating the global commons from the global corporate class and repressive state agents and restoring it to humanity will involve mass collective struggles—struggles that, in any event, are not hypothetical but have been taking place all over the world.
Third, after having separated those precariously employed and then defining them as a class separate from the proletariat or the global working class, Standing is silent on the actual struggles being waged by workers around the world and on the transformative agency of these workers. He states that “the proletariat, the epitome of the ‘working class’ in the European sense, the ‘middle class’ in the American sense….is dwindling everywhere and has lost progressive energy and direction.” Yet there are hundreds of millions of workers in China, South Africa, India, Mexico, and elsewhere who have been organizing and leading militant struggles. There is an explosion of literature on this working class and its struggles in the Global South (see, for example, Immanuel Ness’s 2015 book Southern Insurgency). The problem here is that Standing’s account is First World/Eurocentric, or what we could call “methodological Westernism.” But then, even in the former First World, we have militant worker struggles: witness, for instance, the struggle in the United States spearheaded by fast food workers for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Fourth, Standing suggests that a portion of the precariat has turned to right-wing and neo-fascist populism. While I share with him the fear of neo-fascism, I do not see any evidence that it is the precariat that forms the social base for current far-right and neo-fascist movements in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. To the contrary, it appears that the social base for such movements are professional and middle strata and better-off sectors of the working class who fear moving down into the ranks of the precariat and who identify the racially oppressed groups, immigrants, and religious minorities who disproportionately swell the ranks of the precariat as the cause of their insecurity. It is well known that in the United States the majority of support for the Trump candidacy in the 2016 presidential election came not from the lower-income and more precarious sectors of the working class but from those in the better-off strata whose incomes averaged above $70,000 annually. There is simply no evidence that the lower rungs of the working class that are disproportionally precariatized—and that, in Standing’s chauvinistic language, have “relatively little schooling or education in civics, or culture”—are the fodder of neo-fascist populism.
Finally, Standing does identify “rentier capitalism” as a problem. While I do not disagree with this, he does not develop any critique of the capitalist system, beyond the rentier dimensions it has acquired, as central to the story of the increasing precarious nature of work—as if curbing its rentier dimensions alone will solve the problem. The plutocracy that he mentions is not separate from the (transnational) capitalist class. It is that portion of the class that has accumulated astronomical levels of wealth. It is not just a problem of unequal distribution but the power of the transnational capitalist class, its near monopoly control over the planet’s resources, and the implacable drive of the capitalist system to generate and maximize profit over social need or any rational ordering of global society. Even if I believe it is a mistake on his part, I realize that Standing may prefer not to use language that he associates with Marxism. But I do not see how we can discuss the plight of the precariat without a systematic critique of capitalism beyond its recent rentier tendencies and—indeed—without a struggle against it.