Response: Misunderstanding The Precariat

by Guy Standing

Author of 'The Precariat' Guy Standing responds to a critique by Richard Seymour

First published: 15 March, 2012 | Category: Employment & Welfare, Labour movement, Philosophy and Theory

Last month we published an article by Richard Seymour, 'We are All Precarious - On the Concept of the "Precariat" and its Misuses', criticising conventional analyses of the precariat and arguing for its re-conceptualisation as a 'populist interpellation' arising from the conditions generated by neoliberal development. Seymour's article took issue with the analysis of the precariat offered by Guy Standing, one of the most prominent proponents of the concept. Below is Guy's response.


A Plea for Cool

There are two sensible approaches for a writer to take in response to a polemical attack such as Richard Seymour’s article on my recent book, The Precariat. One is to ignore it and hope that readers will read the original and make up their own mind. The second is to respond by taking up a few ideas that seem to merit further reflection.

A sad aspect of the ‘left’ in the decades of defeat has been the eagerness with which some purporting to come from that direction disparage the efforts of those trying to advance new ideas. This short rejoinder is an attempt to achieve a modicum of balance.

I cannot deal with all Seymour’s assertions without repeating the book. However, I should point out that it is derived from more than two decades of applied research. The arguments and supporting data that Seymour says I have “forgotten to include” (i.e., do not possess) were in four preceding books, the latest being Work after Globalization: Building Occupational Citizenship.   

Anyhow, let me begin by correcting a few of Seymour’s errors, mostly minor but indicative of prejudice rather than reflective engagement. First, in his opening paragraph, Seymour claims I say the precariat is a ‘class-in-becoming’. I never used that term. Second, he says I describe the precariat as “analogous to the lumpenproletariat” (although apparently “not too analogous”, whatever that means). I categorically reject any such analogy, stating repeatedly that the precariat is not that or an underclass, beginning on page 1. What more can one do?

I believe that capital wants a precariat as a central feature of the emerging model, and favours a process of precariatisation – habituating a majority to unstable labour and work – quite unlike the process of proletarianisation, which was a process of habituating a majority to stable labour. Whether that is right or wrong, it is a far cry from being an underclass.  

Third, Seymour asserts that the precariat is a “totally unsatisfactory concept” and that he “straightforwardly rejects the term”. Then, without giving any definition, he says he is “proposing a strategy for the precariat itself”. If a concept is unsatisfactory (and “incoherent”), how can one have a strategy for it? It is a matter of logic.

Fourth, Seymour says I reject “traditional Labourism” but “would still work through a refashioned centre-left led by the Labour Party”. The use of a capital letter for labourism suggests he has misunderstood the argument. The labourism rejected refers to the systemic equating of labour with work. The books are an attempt to lay out a progressive strategy for reviving a sense of work that goes beyond jobs, one that recognises that the human desire to work should not be reduced to a focus on wage labour. The left has erred in wanting as many people in alienated wage labour as possible.

As for the Labour Party, I did not argue for or against any such leadership.  Seymour says I rejected Blue Labour. That would have been hard, since it did not exist when the book went to press, and was not mentioned in it, unsurprisingly.  

Fifth – and here I apologise for expressing anger – Seymour misinterprets a section on enterprise benefits. He implies I favour “the full commodification of pregnant women!” This is trash. Having noted that maternity benefits go disproportionately to salaried women, I point out that they are in practice regressive, concluding (p.162), “The precariat should have the same benefits as everybody else. Universality does matter.” The chapter goes on to argue that, while “labour” as an activity should be commodified, people as “labour power” should be decommodified. This is a primary rationale for a universal basic income, as advocated in that chapter. 


The Class Dilemma

I was aware when writing The Precariat that the issue of whether or not the precariat could be characterised in class terms would be controversial. The book recognises the difficulties, highlighting that it is not a class-for-itself and stating repeatedly that at present there are “varieties” of precariat.

It is easy to criticise any class analysis, and I have often thought this may have been why Marx broke off in mid-sentence in Capital in his three-page chapter on the subject. However, Seymour is contradictory in his long section on “social classes”. He begins by asserting, incorrectly, that I propose that in place of old classes a new class system has arisen. And again he attributes to me a word (‘proficiat’) not used in the book. He also claims, wrongly, that I took “for granted” Andre Gorz’s argument that the working class is dead, adding that I assert that the precariat is not yet a class “in the Marxian sense”, sloppily leaving out the prior crucial two words “for itself”. 

He then says the precariat is defined in “entirely negative” terms. This misses not just my distinction between “Grinners” and “Groaners” but the radical transformative aspects emphasised in the book – a desire to escape from labourism and a search for a developmental space for work and leisure. And did not Marx define the proletariat in negative terms, in talking ironically of the two ‘freedoms’? That semantic point aside, what distinguishes the precariat is what sociologists call ‘status dissonance’, or what is called in the book “status frustration”, combined with unstable labour, systematic insecurity, a unique structure of social income – a concept used to define the precariat not mentioned by Seymour – and a high degree of work-for-labour, another concept not recognised.

With regard to the latter, the book tried to avoid difficulties with the Negri-Hardt perspective, but (and please bear in mind the need for brevity here) a distinctive aspect of the precariat is that much of the exploitation and oppression comes outside the direct labour relationship. This is a point about the work-for-labour discussed at length in chapter 5.

Seymour provides a primer (‘breviary’) on classes. The only source he cites is Nicos Poulantzas. Some of us recall wading through his turgid prose long ago. There are several ironies here. Poulantzas was a disciple of Althusser, who was subject to a withering polemic by E.P. Thompson, a founder of the original New Left. More strategically, while using un-Marxian notions himself (e.g., ‘professional middle class’, implying there must be at least four classes in his schema), Seymour oversimplifies in saying the class categories used in the book are “Weberian in inspiration”. Neither Marx nor Weber dissected the forms of labour security or the structure of social income. Whether right or wrong, the proposed categories are about relations of production distinctive from those of the industrial proletariat. This is potentially fruitful for political strategy and for understanding what is happening. Similarly, based on many discussions, I believe the progressive part of the precariat rejects labourism as a political strategy, recognising that labour is inherently alienating and antagonistic to the humanistic idea of work and its related liberating idea of leisure. This is why the book draws on the ancient Greek idea of schole, a concept of leisure relating to social reproduction and emancipatory participation in the life of the polis.

Here Seymour misses the prognosis underpinning the book. He makes no distinction between labour and work, and does not wrestle with the emergence of what is called tertiary time.  He adds, for some reason, that the book has no connection with News from Nowhere. This is a misreading. I quote William Morris approvingly and drew on his sense of craft work. Above all, in that book Morris was an early advocate of basic income, a policy The Precariat advocates as singularly appropriate in current circumstances. For the record, we have just celebrated the 25th anniversary of BIEN, the international network advocating basic income. Join us!

Morris belonged to a progressive stream of thinkers who understood that control over one’s work was essential for the Good Society. Another was John Ruskin who, whatever his personal failings, beautifully expressed similar thoughts in Unto The Last in 1860. In 1906, the first batch of Labour MPs was asked which book had most influenced them; a majority singled out that book. Sadly, in the subsequent decades the Labour Party was seduced by labourism, building a sexist, hierarchical ‘bread-winner’ model in which work that was not standard labour was disregarded.

This leads back to why it is useful to break out of the two-class imagery. The old ‘working class’, while never as united as some analysts like to depict, is structurally divided by global capitalism. One must understand the objective factors that divide the salariat from the old proletariat and both from the precariat, and from “proficians”. Each group is confronted by a distinctive set of insecurities, a distinctive social income structure and a distinctive set of controls over its existence.

One could give many examples, and the books have tried to do so. Let me just mention two aspects, because they are relatively easy to understand as undermining fanciful images of a united working class.

Consider job security and occupational regulation. Possibly the biggest shift in labour markets over recent decades has been the state re-regulation of occupations along with the increase in control over job design and restructuring by employers and competition authorities. There has been a shift from occupational guilds, operating a system of regulation for their members, to licensing by government boards. This has induced occupational splintering, in which there has been greater labour segmentation, with less mobility from lower to upper strata. Contrary to those who claim either that there has been no structural change or that there has been labour market de-regulation, the state has systematically weakened job security and employment security through new regulations.

In brief, occupational splintering has helped to expand the precariat, consisting of millions more trapped without opportunity to move up occupationally, socially or financially. Meanwhile, those in privileged groups have taken more monopoly rent, distancing themselves from those pushed into some “para” or “auxiliary” status. 

A second trend is also profound. As wage system flexibility gathered pace, the salariat and old core “working class”, or proletariat, have been receiving more of their income, and prospective income, from non-wage sources. In doing so, their interests have become not only different from the emerging precariat, who have no such income, but they have benefited from a shift from wages to profits. To highlight this, just consider that the number of European employees benefiting from employee-share schemes has more than doubled in the past decade or so. In the United States, perhaps a third of all employees receive a significant part of their income from shares. So, if firms relocate jobs to China or elsewhere, as they have been doing in a major way (especially since 2002), or if their firms lower the wages of the precariat around them, those insider employees will scarcely object, since that may increase their non-labour income.

These are class-based differences. The precariat has distinctive insecurities, and also distinctive interests and aspirations. It is what makes it dangerous to old mainstream politics of centre-left and centre-right.               


The Empirical Foundations

There is a problem for those claiming that little of substance has changed in the labour market since the onset of globalisation. If this were correct, it would mean that all the neo-liberal policies and institutional changes made in the past three decades have had no effect. And, if that were the case, why bother to attack them?

In this regard, Seymour makes some characteristically dismissive remarks in saying that nothing is ‘new’. He cites with approval Kevin Doogan’s book, without citing counter-arguments or evidence. I would like to alert readers to some difficulties. These include the fact that Doogan focuses on only one dimension of the insecurity thesis, employment tenure, and the fact that all his ten tables deal with the percentage share of employees with more than ten years of employment and refer to 1991 and 2002. Even if those tables were relevant, the world has changed in the past decade.  

There is also a conceptual problem that is vital to an understanding of the changing character of work and labour. Seymour, along with others including Doogan, mixes up “job stability” and employment security, and claims that “job stability has not declined”. The Precariat points out how job security is not the same as employment security, and how both have shrunk, supported by numerous data assembled in books to which reference is made.

Employment security refers to protection against dismissal from employment, through contracts, collective bargains, legislation and costs imposed on employers when making employees redundant. The growth of employment insecurity in the past three decades is not about ‘feeling’, fomented as ‘manufactured insecurity’ by those of us highlighting insecurity, as Doogan claims; it is about real structural change, embodied in legislation and institutions. Having been in the ILO during that period, I can attest that every European country weakened employment security during the past two decades. Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy are only the latest to accelerate the process.

By contrast with employment security, job security refers to having control over one’s tasks and a niche in which to have control over one’s occupational development. Job insecurity is linked to the curbing of union powers and to the state re-regulation of occupational life. Growth of job insecurity is also real, not a matter of ‘feelings’ or scare-mongering.

The Precariat, and the previous books, also emphasises five other forms of labour-related insecurity worsened by the labour flexibility strategy pursued since the 1980s by social democratic and ‘rightist’ parties everywhere. None of these are dealt with in Doogan’s book.

While challenging the insecurity thesis, Seymour claims that the UK is the focus of my argument. This is not true, although many British examples were given. Indeed, with respect to the one variable Seymour takes to refute the argument, the extent of “temporary labour”, the book explicitly states why one cannot use the UK as an example. More generally, the book suggests that the precariat has probably grown most in countries such as South Korea and Japan, while highlighting the origins of the term in France, Germany and Italy. But behind the book lies a long-term research programme that readers may care to consult.

This began with a comprehensive study of the growth of various forms of labour flexibility, leading to a detailed empirical book (Global Labour Flexibility) and eight country monographs, on Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and the UK. It evolved into a project on the growth of the seven forms of labour insecurity, leading to an empirically based book (Beyond the New Paternalism). Later, we built a large database on patterns and trends in labour market flexibility and socio-economic insecurity, generously funded by the Dutch government. Covering over 150 countries, it contained 787 variables. Complementing a macro-level database, large-scale enterprise surveys of labour practices and a complementary series of ‘worker’ surveys were conducted.

When the comprehensive ILO report was published, it attracted widespread media coverage around the world. I spent over five years working with a fantastic team of researchers in building that database. So, the reader may appreciate my reaction to Seymour’s sarcastic reference to lack of supporting data.

Let me add a caveat. After prolonged research, I am convinced that mainstream statistics distort many aspects of work and labour, and have said so. Conventional labour statistics are often misleading. Just to give one example, among many one could give: The statistics on temporary employment in Britain, cited by Seymour, are misleadingly low, partly because, under British labour law, firms do not need to put people into a temporary status. New hires are de facto temporary anyhow. In recent years, anybody employed for less than 12 months could be dismissed with impunity. Then in late 2011, in the middle of his speech to the Tory Conference, Osborne nonchalantly announced that employers could henceforth dismiss with impunity anybody employed for less than 24 months. In effect, he converted millions more into temporary employees. No change?

Similarly, much of the recorded growth in self-employment is actually a concealed form of temporary employment, with many short-term workers hired as ‘independent contractors’, rather than employees. We also know that, according to government statistics, the mean average employment tenure for men has fallen by two years in the past few decades, in spite of an ageing male labour force that should have implied a rising average if no change in practices had occurred.

Doogan, a political scientist, did not capture the dynamics either. In his book, welcomed by some on the left, he claimed that duration of employment had not declined, and to support this cited figures for 1991 and 2002 (and not a year beyond) to indicate that the share of employment consisting of those in their employment for ten years or more had been unchanged or had risen slightly. These were the only tables he provided.

Now, consider the evidence that there has been substantial outsourcing, sub-contracting and occupational splintering. What this has done is transfer many who were on short-term employment into ‘self-employment’ and bump others out of an industry or down from one profession to a lower one. (This is like the joke about the effect on a cricketer’s batting average of removing all innings when he was out for a duck.)  Each of those changes removes a disproportionate number of those with below-average employment tenure. This raises the percentage in the longer-term employment tenure group. In addition, Doogan’s figures refer to a period when there was significant ageing of the labour force. If the youth cohort is smaller, and the large baby boomer generation is ageing, there are two demographic reasons for expecting an increase in the long-term employment share. But even so, in 2002 only a minority of employees were in employment lasting more than ten years. That hardly refutes the existence of a fragmented labour force or the growth of a precariat.

Another factor that confuses interpretation of observed employment duration statistics on part-time employees is that some of those reporting their duration of employment may have shifted from full-time to part-time status in their 50s or 60s, either voluntarily or by firms phasing them out gradually.   

Doogan and others say that those claiming there has been a growth of labour insecurity believe there is an end to ‘jobs for life’ and so on. This is straw man stuff. While there is a trend away from long-term employment, a minority will continue to be in it. As suggested in The Precariat, that can often be a leaden cage.  

I have dwelt on the interpretation of employment tenure statistics to warn non-specialists that one can easily be misled. The task of interpretation is even more challenging if one tries to measure the growth of income insecurity. A long explanation is given in Work after Globalization; a shorter one intended for lay readers is given in The Precariat. I will conclude by highlighting one aspect that identifies a major change.

This is the regressive restructuring of social protection, involving state benefits, in which means-testing, behaviour-testing and workfare have generated severe precarity traps highlighted in the book. In the 1980s, in a series of articles, I warned that workfare would be the end-game of the flexibility strategy. It is here now. The restructuring that has taken place since the 1980s in all OECD countries has generated phenomena that all progressives should oppose with passion. In the process, the precariat have been wretchedly treated.        


A Reprise for Cool

If the New Left Project is to amount to something, it should avoid vituperative polemics. Tone matters. The Precariat suggests that a challenge for progressives in the immediate future is to recapture the language of political and policy discourse. This must come with an alteration of images that guide thinking.

In this regard, my conclusion (right or wrong), partly from listening to many groups, is that the old ‘socialist project’ does not resonate with those in or near the precariat, and it does not resonate with many others either. There are good reasons for that. It does not mean that a progressive politics is impractical. It means we must understand what it is that should be made the substance of a revival of the Great Trinity of liberty, fraternity and equality. In this, there must be a redistribution of the key assets of a tertiary market society. That is what The Precariat advocates. It is a shame the polemic failed to mention it.


Guy Standing is the author of ‘The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class’, ‘Work after Globalisation: Building Occupational Citizenship’, ‘Beyond the New Paternalism: Basic Security as Equality’ and ‘Global Labour Flexibility: Seeking Distributive Justice’.  

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?