Monday, February 11, 2013

The precariat

The other day a panelist on a BBC Radio 4 program used a term I'd never heard before: "the precariat." He was the author of a book by that title about a new and, he says, dangerous social class.

[Side note: The Radio 4 web site makes some of its programs available for downloading. Lately I've taken to burning those that sound interesting onto CDs and listening in my car while commuting. In spite of the BBC's loathsome politics, many of their serious discussion programs are streets ahead of anything you can hear on NPR, let alone U.S. commercial broadcasting.]

The author, Guy Standing, believes that the modern economic system has created a large, permanent group of workers whom corporations treat as parts to be plugged in and tossed aside as needed. The workers have no job security, can't plan, and have no stake in the organization's esprit de corps (assuming any exists).

I haven't read The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, but this is not a book review, only talking about some of the ideas he raises based on the publisher's blurb and the reviews. Of course these may not accurately represent Standing's points.

From the publisher:
Neo-liberal policies and institutional changes have produced a huge and growing number of people with sufficiently common experiences to be called an emerging class. In this book Guy Standing introduces what he calls the Precariat - a growing number of people across the world living and working precariously, usually in a series of short-term jobs, without recourse to stable occupational identities, stable social protection or protective regulations relevant to them. They include migrant workers, but also locals. 
I don't have the shadow of a notion what "neo-liberal policies" are, but there is no doubt that the kind of people he describes have become numerous enough to constitute a social class -- maybe larger than the traditional notion of blue- or white-collar workers. Until about 10 years ago, I myself belonged to the precariat. Partly it was down to naive decisions on my part, such as choosing to live in the economic dead zones of Santa Fe and Tucson. Nobody had any serious complaint about the work I did, and they were generous with pats on the back, but it was a struggle to keep body and soul together. Precarious indeed.
Standing argues that this class of people could produce new instabilities in society. They are increasingly frustrated and dangerous because they have no voice, and hence they are vulnerable to the siren calls of extreme political parties. He outlines a new kind of good society, with more people actively involved in civil society and the precariat re-engaged. He goes on to consider one way to a new better society -- an unconditional basic wage for everyone, contributed by the state, which could be topped up through employment. 
The precariat is frustrated right enough, but unlikely to be dangerous. It doesn't have enough security or even time to be dangerous. Revolutions stem from the growing power of a class, such as the middle class in 18th century France and a well-to-do merchant class in the American colonies.

Then we get to the essence of the matter, re-integrating the precariat so that its members have more pride and feel that society values them. Would "an unconditional basis wage for everyone, contributed by the state, which could be topped up through employment" help?

Most economic conservatives would instantly dismiss such an idea, but it's worth considering.

Let's be honest: We already have a permanent welfare class that gets that sort of deal from society. The difference between the welfare class and the precariat is that most of the former lack ambition or job skills, while most of the latter would prefer to better themselves and play a role in the economy. Why should society subsidize the one but not the other?

There are those who oppose any form of state support, except for people who are physically or mentally unable to work. I can't agree. Unless modern technology and automation completely break down because of lack of resources or some other reason -- and God help us if so -- modern economies just plain don't need long-term careerists except at top management levels. For good or ill, the era of the employee who tightens bolts or shuffles papers for 40 years at one firm is gone, baby, gone.

I suppose there will always be routine jobs, but from the organization's viewpoint it doesn't matter whether they are filled at any given time by Joe, Jack, or Jill. And barring an economic cataclysm that wrecks the technological grid, there will never be enough such jobs for everyone. It doesn't matter how productive an economy is; arguably, needing fewer employees is one key to productivity in the modern world.

A guaranteed annual income with no strings attached -- paltry but enough to survive on -- could reduce the financial and psychological insecurity of those who inhabit Temp World.

You object to the state doling out money to individuals? Okay, it goes against the grain. But government transfer payments permeate our way of life. Besides its commitment to welfare, the state subsidizes (directly or indirectly) the defense industry, the infrastructure industry, the tax accounting industry, the social work establishment, law enforcement, and countless others. Why draw the line at giving the precariat a hand?

The main trouble I foresee with such a policy has to do with our balkanized, racially and ethnically fractured society. Today no government program can be free from the demands of competing identity groups to be more equal than others.

An reviewer called Diziet ("being alive is just so amazing I really don't see why anyone needs a religion," in the words of his or her bio note) writes:
This 'labour flexibility' has meant that the precariat is increasingly made up of women and older people. Both women and older people are cheaper - pushing down the real value of wages. Young people have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers. Faced with shortages of meaningful employment, many may stay in education - but here the process of commodification means not only that education is increasingly expensive but also that the range of courses on offer is dictated more by marketing and the need to attract fee paying customers than any desire to develop human potential.

Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants. The inclusion of this group illustrates the difficulty, not of defining the group, but of the class identifying itself as a class. So often migrants are used as scapegoats, accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist ...
Hold on. If the precariat has no bargaining rights as a whole, why is it "increasingly made up of women and older people"? Why are they cheaper than anyone else? If the precariat consists mainly of women and older people, why do young people "have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers"?

"Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants," says Diziet. Migrants meaning the constituents of the mass immigration Western governments have forced on their unwilling citizens -- population replacement. To people like Diziet, you simply can't talk about a disadvantaged class that consists of a country's indigenous inhabitants. You must include the Left's pets. "Precariat grows: Women, minorities hardest hit."

I do not understand what is meant by migrants "accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist ... ." He or she then quotes Standing:
Capital welcomes migration because it brings low cost malleable labour. The groups most vehemently opposed to migration are the old (white) working and lower middle class, squeezed by globalisation and falling into the precariat. 
So it seems that someone (who?) uses "migrants" as an "excuse" for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist; but Standing identifies the "old (white) working and lower middle class" as "vehemently opposed to migration," that is, racist by definition in the diversity cult.

Thus, under the Leftist Establishment, one step toward ameliorating the plight of the precariat must be followed by one step back, adding millions more "migrants" to the overstock of low-cost malleable labor.

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