We Are All Precarious - On the Concept of the ‘Precariat’ and its Misuses

by Richard Seymour

Introduction: Standing for the precariat

In its current formulation, the concept of ‘the precariat’ is unconvincing, impressionistic and certainly tinged with millennial Weltschmerz.  It is Guy Standing of Bath University who has done the most to popularise the concept and, at the same time, give it some added theoretical depth.  He argues that the ‘precariat’ is a class-in-becoming which, as it is consolidated, will represent a “new dangerous class”, a “monster”: “Action is needed before that monster comes to life.”  He warns that if ‘the precariat’ is not understood – or rather, does not understand itself, become a “class-for-itself” in language borrowed from Hegelian Marxism – it is taking us toward a “politics of the inferno”.  This inferno would be a reconfigured fascism, with precarious workers playing a role perhaps analogous (not too analogous, Standing insists) to that of the old, much maligned, lumpenproletariat.  This “dangerous class” needs a “Voice” to articulate its particular “bundle of insecurities”, lest it be led astray by the far right. 

Rhetorical extravagances to one side, this indicates that what is at stake in the concept of the ‘precariat’ is strategic.   The analysis of labour markets, work processes, sociality and class formation ultimately tends toward a political analysis of the kinds of agencies and alliances available for a transformative politics.  Standing looks to a “mildly utopian” politics which, rejecting traditional Labourism, would still work through a refashioned centre-left led by the Labour Party.  He argues that Labour must reject the ‘atavistic’ siren of ‘Blue Labour’, which appeals to a diminishing manual working class, and embrace a class-based progressive alliance, with the precariat and social movements at its centre.  To the precariously employed, it must offer forms of security that do not resemble the static, deferential modes of living that Standing says characterise the Labourism of old.

Much therefore rests on how theoretically and empirically robust this concept is.  I will argue that it is at present a totally unsatisfactory concept, failing to account for those phenomena that it rightly draws attention to, much less the wider situation in which those features emerge.  It is not merely empirically falsified, but theoretically underdeveloped.  Yet it cannot be dismissed: it clearly denotes something important.  A defensive cleaving to orthodoxy will thus not suffice, even if the critics are justified in many of their claims.  Even so, for ‘the precariat’ to become a useful concept - as opposed to a convenient short-hand for something which we all experience - it must be extricated from a chain of insupportable theoretical assumptions governing the interpretation of class and capitalism today.

In this article, I will argue that it is mistaken to treat the precariat as a class.  Attempts to make it into a class are theoretically incoherent, and the facts of precarious labour and social precarity are misunderstood if boxed into an ‘emerging class’ thesis.  This is important because class analyses underpin political strategies.  In the case of the concept’s chief populariser, Standing, the analysis is bound up with a particular set of political articulations and strategic orientations that are more ‘Big Society’ than ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’.  I will argue that precarity exerts effects right up the chain of class strata, throughout the working class and into sections of the middle class, especially the petty bourgeoisie.  The appellation ‘precariat’ thus works as a kind of populist interpellation, a claim I will explain in more detail in the conclusion.  This interpellation, this ‘naming’, operates on a real antagonism.  It is one that emerges between the ‘power bloc’ and the rest, particularly in the age of austerity.  The precarity built into financialized accumulation was always pushed downward as far as possible.  But it is affecting ever wider layers of people, such that only the capitalist class and a few sections of the middle class seem to be protected from it, their security purchased through our precarity.  We should embrace the concept of the 'precariat' in this sense, and use it to help found a new, radical majoritarian politics with a distinctly anticapitalist core.


Something old

“Dock labouring is at all times a precarious and uncertain mode of living”, a dock worker recounted in 1882.  “The supply of workmen in Liverpool always greatly exceeds the demand and the consequence is that the average earnings the year round do not exceed four days, or 18s per week.”  The agrarian proletariat of early modern England was just as vulnerable to fluctuating demand for labour, requiring constant intervention by the Tudor state to prevent a catastrophic population loss.  The cotton spinners of the early industrial age were regularly out of work, searching for errands to run, traders to serve, sundry items to sell: patching together a living from the flotsam of urban capitalism.  As old as capitalism, such insecurity has always characterised substantial margins of the economy, with women and the racially oppressed carrying out the bulk of precarious work.

A widespread intuition, however, is that we are in a qualitatively new phase of development, in which the marginal has become the core - encompassing, according to some estimates, perhaps as many as a quarter of workers.  Denoted by a family of terms such as ‘McJobs’, ‘junk jobs’, ‘flexiworking’, and so on, this adverts to the transformation of labour markets by the technological, spatial and organisational re-structuring of capitalism. 

In the Fordist model of capitalism pioneered in the early twentieth century, managers would use various mechanisms to retain a stable, well-regulated labour force.  ‘Scientific management’ along Taylorist lines would increase the productivity of workers, while ensuring their subordination to management, by breaking up work processes into a set of discrete, calculable tasks.  Skill was thus taken, as much as possible, off the ‘shop floor’, and hived off into managerial offices.  The expertise of the craft worker was replaced by the predictable, routinized tasks of the industrial worker.  This is the basis for the old division between mental and manual labour, which is really a division between executive and menial labour.  Just as importantly, firms would use a combination of material inducements, ideological appeals, bargaining mechanisms, and direct intervention in the family life of workers, to cultivate corporate loyalty and cohesion.  Ford himself pointed out that paying a relatively ‘high wage’ could save a great deal of money in the long term by reducing labour turnover and keeping productivity high.  Though initially hostile to unions, in the Cold War period Fordist producers learned to incorporate organised labour as a partner in constantly improving productivity.

The break-up of this corporatist system as a result of the long, turbulent crisis of the 1970s, resulted in a fundamental transformation of work.  Post-Fordist capitalism, it is argued, has increasingly dispensed with long-term employment, as managers and administrators have sought to make production more flexible.  Particularly in the service sector, from hotels and catering to cleaning and low grade office jobs, more and more tasks are ‘contracted out’ to firms which hire workers on a casual and temporary basis.  Positions once occupied by full-time workers are taken by temps for months at a time. 

This process is creating a dynamically expanding stratum of workers who, while often well educated, are insecure, lack prospects, and form transient modes of existence out of fragmentary work and social lives.  With little corporate loyalty, and only light group solidarity among themselves, this is a highly individualistic class-in-the-making.  Their sociality, at least in the core capitalist economies, takes the form of ‘networking’, predicated on social media, rather than the ‘communities’ of out-moded forms of working class life.  It is they who have rebelled, in the anticapitalist protests, the student protests, and the occupations.  Welcome to the ‘precariat’.


Something new

Many analysts working from an orthodox marxist perspective, with which I align myself, straightforwardly reject the term and its associated claims.  There is no new class emerging; job stability has not declined in the way that some theorists claim; and the long-term workforce has continued to expand, particularly in the most dynamic service sectors which theorists of the ‘precariat’ say is the main vicinity in which temporary work is expanding.  Kevin Doogan’s New Capitalism?: The Transformation of Work, represents the most empirically and theoretically robust statement of this view.  In it, he points out that the labour market theory which prioritises non-standard forms of employment – casual, part-time, temporary, etc. – in its explanatory agenda arranges into a single category a series of diverse types of labour purely on the basis of what they are not

Doogan goes on to elaborate the empirical basis of his refutation.  Between 1985 and 2004, temporary employment across OECD countries rose by a modest proportion, from 10% to 12%.  (In the UK, the focus of much of Standing’s argument, only 6.2% of workers are on temporary contracts).   This average obscures some extreme instances, such as Spain, where temporary employment doubled.  As importantly, the factors involved in the increase in temporary employment varied considerably.  In some cases, agency work rose sharply, in other cases it barely budged.  Job tenure varied considerably as well, with a sizeable minority of 42% working in the same firm for a year or more.  In some cases, as in the EU, employment protections covered both temporary and full-time workers, whereas in other cases it did not.  The point here would be that even restricting the focus to temporary labour, the changes are neither as epochal as some theorists would have it, nor are they uniform in their conditions or effects. 

Similarly, temporary work overlaps only weakly with other forms of non-standard employment such as part-time work.  Here again, conditions vary, with part-time workers earning anything 55% and 90% of full-time earnings.  Much part-time employment is a strategy undertaken to retain staff, rather than to casualize their staff.  Then again, ‘flexible’ employment manifests itself in very different patterns; it can be related to ‘family-friendly’ legislation, or to the need in certain industries for shift-work, or to the seasonal cycles in certain (especially agricultural) industries.  Much of this is based in very traditional sectors of the economy, rather than in the service sectors which supposedly epitomise post-Fordist production.  The effect of bundling these divergent forms of labour together into a single category is attribute “some false homogeneity to atypical employment”, whereas the approach ought to be to “deconstruct the periphery … in terms of specific employment patterns”.  All of this variation underlines an aspect of the notion of the ‘precariat’ to which we will return: in its present formulation, despite efforts to flesh it out, it remains at best a purely negative, critical concept.  It adverts to a loss, the loss of relative security, without really accounting for its effects.

Even so, it would be mistaken to simply deny the changes that are taking place.  First of all, the elephant in the room thus far is mass unemployment.  Having virtually disappeared in the post-war period, it has returned as a constant threat and punishment since the 1970s, tending to make employment in general more precarious.  This did not happen in an undifferentiated way.  In the decade following 1973-4, a number of leading capitalist societies (Austria, Japan, Norway) warded off unemployment far more successfully than others (UK, Netherlands, Canada).  The divergence was partially accounted for by institutional factors.  Those societies which did best had an institutionalised commitment to maintaining low unemployment that was not gainsayed by any other agenda, and which enabled them to ride out the deep recessions of the 1970s and 1980s.  Those societies which saw mass unemployment tended to be those which adopted harsh austerity measures, reflecting institutional commitments to low inflation and ‘sound money’.  In the UK, this was partially linked to the prioritisation of the City.  This is far from exhaustive, but the point is that precarity in this sense is an ensemble of concrete effects arising from consciously chosen class strategies within each capitalist formation.

Secondly, part-time work, while not necessarily insecure, has certainly been on the increase as part of a wider pattern of under-employment.  Then there is the student component of the ‘precariat’.  Doogan notes that the growth of a student labour market in advanced capitalist societies, especially the United States, is one of the most significant developments in recent decades.  Students work an average of 21 hours a week in the United States, and 16 hours a week in the United Kingdom.  This sort of low-wage, insecure labour has become central to the recruiting strategy for large sectors of business, especially supermarkets and telesales.  Insecurity in work is compounded by insecurity in finances.  The accrual of gargantuan debts by households in the years prior to the credit crunch was accompanied by the collapse in personal savings.  Further, as Standing points out, official figures can obscure the true extent of the use of precarious labour.  Black markets in labour, especially migrant labour, operate outside the direct surveillance of the state.

Globally, the trend is for migrant workers to become a vast pool of precarious labour.  This is one of the strongest points in Standing’s argument.  This is a result of politically created barriers to labour mobility, not just internationally but also domestically.  In one of the most rapidly growing capitalist states, the People’s Republic of China, rural migrants are not permitted to reside full-time in the cities.  As David McNally points out in his analysis of the Global Slump, fully three quarters of manufacturing workers in the country lack basic security of residence, access to social services and education.  Given that China’s workforce is currently larger than that of the OECD countries combined, this is no minor development.  Within the developed capitalist societies, migration controls comprise part of a wider repertoire of racialised barriers, forms of segregation, ghettoization, ‘workfare’ and ‘prisonfare’, which according to Bourdieu’s some time colleague Loïc Wacquant, is the truly novel feature of contemporary precarity.

The situation of precarity is, moreover, significantly concentrated outside of the main centres of capital accumulation, in those areas of the planet subject to episodes of plunder punctuated by ‘malign neglect’.  The waged and salaried comprise 84% of the employment total in the ‘developed countries’ (the EU, US, Japan, Canada, Australia, etc.), in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, where the waged and salaried comprise a mere 23%, with the largest chunk, 49%, being self-employed.  The latter are largely denied the forms of collective organisation that waged and salaried workers can muster in defence of jobs, pay and conditions.  Outside of the employment total, moreover, are growing numbers of unemployed or under-employed slum-dwellers, an effect of neoliberal urbanisation in developing capitalist economies. 

It is not the case that ‘precarity’ is a nonsense, therefore, nor even that there is nothing inherently novel about its present forms.  Precarity is built into neoliberal capitalism, in which growth is predicated on financial risk and indebtedness, in which labour markets are weakened and social protections rolled back, in which states construct barriers to deprive certain groups of workers of citizenship norms, and in which the drive for new zones of accumulation results in land enclosures, dispossession, and urbanization without employment.  Moreover, the described shift in production patterns is not completely without basis.  The accelerated shift from manufacturing to services in the United Kingdom in the 1980s was certainly bound up with a class conscious assault on the bastions of labour organisation, and thus on the protections that unions offered.  While in the OECD, the spread of temporary and casual labour would seem to be over-stated, the spread of these forms worldwide is significant.  The relocation of production facilities to the global South in some sectors has not been negligible, even if employers have tended to exaggerate the trends in order to produce a more yielding workforce.

However, the effects of precarity are distributed in ways not accounted for by the ‘precariat’ as presently understood.  This concept has it that due to post-Fordist accumulation patterns, elements of a previously secure ‘working class’ centred on manual labour have been shaken loose.  Alongside the similarly displaced elements of other classes such as the salariat, they are forming a new precarious class.  If this was true, precarity would be concentrated among a determinate, class-like layer of people in the most advanced capitalist formations.  In fact, precarity seems to affect people across different classes, in the agricultural and industrial sectors as much as the service sector, and on different levels (the job, the home, the bank account). The expanded ‘reserve army of labour’ has pertinent effects throughout the whole workforce, not just one stratum.  Many of the specific kinds of neoliberal precarity are, moreover, experienced in societies underdeveloped by capitalism and oppressed by imperialism, rather than in the frontiers of the ‘new economy’.  But the biggest difficulty with the concept is that its advocates want it to do far more than it is capable of doing – that is, naming, describing and explaining a developing social class.


A breviary on social classes

According to Standing, we need a new language of class to describe the new class relations of today.  This is why the notion of the ‘precariat’ is introduced.  Standing, taking Andre Gorz’s interment of the concept for granted, asserts that the ‘working class’ as conventionally understood is finished.  In place of the old classes (capitalists, workers, peasants, nobility, etc.), there is now a multi-tiered class system consisting of an elite, a salariat, the proficiat (professionals and technicians), manual employees, “the essence of the old ‘working class’”, and the ‘precariat’ itself, “flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits living off the dregs of society”.  Standing goes on to identify the “class characteristics” of the ‘precariat’:

“It consists of people who have minimal trust relationships with capital or the state, making it quite unlike the salariat. And it has none of the social contract relationships of the proletariat, whereby labour securities were provided in exchange for subordination and contingent loyalty, the unwritten deal underpinning welfare states. Without a bargain of trust or security in exchange for subordination, the precariat is distinctive in class terms.”

These characteristics, it might be noted, are entirely negative: the precariat is still defined by what it is not than what it positively is.  Still, if Standing asserts that the ‘precariat’ is not yet a class “in the Marxian sense”, he nonetheless claims that it possesses the characteristics of a class in formation.  It is one, moreover, whose interests diverge from the working class, a powerful fact that must transform political strategies in ways that we will come to.

To help evaluate this claim, and since Standing chooses to situate his argument in the terms of Marxism, I want to briefly revisit the Marxian understanding of class.  The starting point is that class is a relational, not simply empirical, concept.  Classes are formed only in relation to one another; they do not exist as empirical objects prior to being brought into relations with one another.  Secondly, these relations are antagonistic, characterised by a fundamental cleavage: they are thus relations of struggle, and struggle characterises the whole ensemble of practices which produce, and reproduce, the relations between these classes.  Thirdly, these relations are primarily organised around production and reproduction.  Class locations are determined by a matrix of practices related to the production of goods and capital, to the means of their production, and crucially to the reproduction of the system as a whole.   

It should be said that the determination of a class has nothing whatever to do with the ‘subjective’ position of its members.  Nicos Poulantzas made a useful distinction between ‘class determination’ and ‘class position’.  The former referred to the objective situation of class within productive relations.  The latter referred to the orientation of classes, or fractions, or members of a class, within the class struggle.  A member of one class may take up a class position contrary to her class interests (as defined by the horizon of possible gains that one class could make relative to contending classes in a given conjuncture), or aligned with the interests of an opposing class; but her class determination would not have altered as a result.

A simple schema of classes, as narrated from this perspective, would run as follows.  If you’re working class, you reproduce the system by selling your labour power as a commodity to a capitalist, someone who owns some means of production, and allowing them to extract a surplus from the exchange – a profit.  If you’re a capitalist, you reproduce the system by purchasing capital assets, bringing them together with labour which you also purchase, and taking the commodities thereby produced to sell on the market.  If you’re a successful capitalist, you’ll realise a greater share of the surplus produced than if you’re not; but as long as you are investing your money to return a surplus, you are a capitalist. 

Of course, things were never as simple as this binary representation would suggest.  To begin with, there have always been the remnants of pre-capitalist classes – peasants, nobility, etc. – in most social formations where capitalism has taken root.  There were also declassed fragments of different classes whom Marx called the ‘lumpenproletariat’.  More importantly, there have been layers who occupy a ‘middle’ position relative to these ‘fundamental’ classes.  In the early stages of capitalist development, these were largely occupied by professionals, traders and small businessmen, the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ of old.  But over time their ranks tended to thin, as capital was centralised, small traders driven out of business and professional occupations culled or proletarianized.  In the later stages, a new middle class has developed as part of capital’s response to industrial militancy in the 20th century.  This entailed the development of disciplinary and technical apparatuses, stationed by managers and technicians who organise the work process in such a way as to further the subordination of labour to capital.  This phalanx of junior and middle managers, IT specialists, ergonomics experts, human resources personnel, etc., is endowed with a measure of social power delegated by the owners of capital, and is usually rewarded with a small apportionment of profits in the form of enhanced wages and share options.

This is still too simple, for within each class are several further differentiations, along fractional lines (think of the divisions between financial and industrial capital, for instance), as well as sectional, national, racial, gender, religious and other lines.  I do not mean that any socially significant difference is therefore automatically a source of differentiation within classes.  But the unity of classes is not something that can be assumed; it must be painstakingly assembled, constantly negotiated, and generally speaking it is constructed at the level of politics.  I raise this simply as a caution against treating classes as genetic factors in progress, as historical subjects with pre-given interests independent of the strategic situation they are in, who merely await a “Voice” to explain to them what those interests are.

How, in relation to the above sketched analysis, is Standing’s ‘precariat’ situated?  First of all, none of the characteristics attributed by Standing to the ‘precariat’ are fundamental to class analysis “in the Marxian sense”.  They bear no direct connection to productive relations, and are not fundamental to the reproduction of the system as a whole.  Nor does Weberian class analysis, which Standing also cites in his support, rescue the concept.  The system of class categories that he uses is certainly Weberian in inspiration, but Weber’s approach to class stressed the ownership of property and the advantages it conferred in a competitive market.  The distinguishing hallmarks of the ‘precariat’ bear on the supposed lack of any social cement binding them to the elites (or one another) and thus assuring their subordination. 

Secondly, they are distinguished from the ‘old’ working class by not belonging to a social contract; but this implies an historically bowdlerised and Eurocentric conception of the working class, interpreted specifically through the body of a moribund Labourism.  In this sense, the working class is taken to coincide with a specific convocation and representation of said class in a relatively brief period in post-war European history.  This is no use, whether your approach to social class is Marxian or Weberian. 

Thirdly, Standing has a tendency to speak of the ‘precariat’ as a corporate subject, definable at least in part by its supposed ideological orientations.  Thus, he claims that the “precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labour community”.  One could say that, as with so many of his claims, he forgot to include the supporting data.  But more importantly, he forgot to explain in what sense this is both true, and determinant of the precariat’s formation as a class.  He infers that the precariat has separate interests from the working class – a sentiment that has not been heeded by the students and social movement activists who form major components of the precariat – but he is never clear about what those interests are, aside from their having nothing in common with the old, deferential culture of labourism.  (Parenthetically, this depiction alights on an important part of the truth about Labourism, but it is neither complete nor an adequate representation of the working class as such.  For a different perspective, see Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford.)  Its ‘wants’, a different matter, are given a thumbnail sketch – “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy”; “to see the future secured in an ecological way”; to “revive republican freedom” – but the relationship of these wants to class interests is not explained. 

Standing, for all the strengths of his argument, cannot justify his claim that the ‘precariat’ is a class in formation.   His attempt to do so is theoretically incoherent.  To chart some of the possible ways that we could purloin, reconfigure or otherwise reposition this concept, it will be useful to return to the problem of classes and political strategy.


Classes and Political Strategy

While grounding his rejection of the traditional working class, Andre Gorz appears to influence Standing’s strategic orientation toward the precarious and new social movements.  For Gorz’s farewell to the working class was not merely a sociological excursus on its supposed extinction, but a strategic re-appraisal of its relation to radical politics.  For him, the working class was immersed in the productivist logic of capital, and judged itself in relation to work rather than experiencing it as an “externally imposed obligation”.  It could thus be no part of a transformation aimed at overcoming the “realm of necessity” and freeing people from the burden of work.  Socialists of the future would have to look to the “supernumeraries” of capitalism, the unemployed and underemployed, precarious workers in alliance with the social movements.  This informs Standing’s approach.  And the political articulations that result are surprisingly anodyne: a combination of the Big Society, the Orange Book, and the Little Book of Calm.  Anyone anxiously thumbing toward the passages on the “politics of paradise”, expecting a 21st Century News From Nowhere, will be sorely disappointed.

For Standing, progressive strategy should rest on the understanding that the interests of the precariat are fundamentally divergent from the working class, and that the antagonism should be resolved on the side of the precariat.  For example, rejecting “the labourists” and their defence of welfare and other non-monetary benefits, Standing calls for the fullest possible marketization and commodification of labour.  Maternity pay for women is, he says, a “regressive” benefit which only helps the salariat at the expense of the precariat.  Rather than being extended to assist the most precarious and low paid, it should be taxed at a higher rate than taxes on income to even out the disparities between the precariat and other workers.  Forward to the full commodification of pregnant women!  (On the other hand, and to his credit, Professor Standing has no truck with the commodification of education, which must urgently be resisted by those “being processed to join the precariat”.)

Similarly, in attempting to solve the problem of the migrant precariat, he argues that those jobs created in the world economy should be opened up to all migrant workers on the basis of an international accreditation system.  This would allow workers of all backgrounds to flog their labour to employers on an open market, and pursue the job of their dreams: a sort of Work Idol.  Standing is quite right to oppose artificial restrictions on labour mobility.  Yet he constructs the argument in a way that scapegoats the working class, circumlocuting the central role of “labourists” (trade unions) in defending migrant rights.   He thus calls for a new rights system to manage antagonisms between different groups of workers, and iron out the relative advantages of labour and the salariat over the precariat.  He opposes job creation programmes as a useless burden on the planet, urging governments to incentivize socially useful voluntary work instead.  But if the kind of work that pays the bills is kept in short supply, and access is organised on the assumption of a fundamental cleavage among workers, then the result is to create the division it describes.  Standing’s ‘politics of paradise’, this other Eden, looks rather dystopian: a market-driven competitive struggle for a diminishing pool of jobs.

The idea of the precariat as a class in formation thus lends itself to a strategy of polarisation among workers, to policy recommendations that actually hurt workers, and to a ‘utopianism’ that is firmly ensconced within the general purview of market capitalism.  Finally, there is the question of who such a strategy could be devised for?   The oddity of Standing’s account, in which the imputed grievances of the ‘precariat’ are ventriloquized, is that it doesn’t seem to be addressed to them.  He enjoins the reader to look aghast at this new “dangerous class”, to fear it, to placate it before it unleashes the “monster”.  For all the humanistic tenor of his work, Standing’s authorial voice is distant and patronising toward his subject.  In the end, this seems to be a political strategy addressed to the paternal “labourists” and neoliberals whom he otherwise spends an awful lot of time cussing.  I would like to finish by proposing a strategy aimed at the precariat itself. 


Conclusion: We are all the precariat

The ‘precariat’ is not a class, and its widespread acceptance as a cultural meme in dissident, leftist cultures has nothing to do with the claim that it is.  Rather, it is a particular kind of populist interpellation which operates on a real, critical antagonism in today’s capitalism.  To explain the terminology a little: ‘interpellation’ refers to the way in which ideology constitutes one as a subject, a process of ‘subjectification’.  When one heeds the ‘call’ of the Christian faith, for example, one is ‘interpellated’ by it, becoming in the process a ‘believing subject’.  A populist interpellation involves popular-democratic ideology, subjectifying one as a member of ‘the people’ in opposition to the power bloc (however the latter is construed).

The antagonism on which this populist interpellation works arises over the forced precariousness of labour.  In its current form, precarity arises from conditions peculiar to the neoliberal phase of capitalist development.  In this phase, financial risk is a source of profit; the higher the risk, the greater the dividends.  More and more nonfinancial companies are dependent on such high-risk investments for their profits.  But this makes the system highly unstable, and constantly in need of state intervention.  While the rewards of investment are privatized, the costs of investment are socialised.  This means that the costs of precarity and instability are pushed progressively downward, and borne most by those least able to protect the diminishing bundles of rights and conditions which they have. 

In the age of austerity, the ranks of those suffering from this precarity are expanding dramatically.  In all the European states undergoing long-term structural adjustment, precarity is being thrust not just on migrants and the poorest, not just on women workers who become pregnant, not just on students and the young, not just on a shrinking manual workforce, but on public sector workers, from the bin men to the civil servants, from contract cleaners to health professionals.  This ruling class offensive is striking at the most organised centres of working class resistance, what Standing would call “bastions of labourism”, and this will have effects throughout the whole labour market.  Precarity is not experienced to the same extent and in the same way by all in these aforementioned occupations.  But the restructuring of the economy, and the long-term expansion of the ‘reserve army of labour’ that comes with it, will exert its disciplinary effects right up the chain of class strata, leaving only a minority – segments of the middle class, the ruling class – relatively secure.

Rather than outlining a utopian politics in response to this situation, I will confine myself to saying that we should work on this antagonism, as one of the many arising in the context of austerity politics.  Precarity cannot be the basis for political strategy in itself, but it can be part of a system of articulations unifying those affected by it in a struggle against the power bloc.  The working class, as that class most affected by precarity, and above all as that class most endowed with strategic disruptive capacity because of its role in reproducing the system, must take the lead in any such alliance.  But we must assume that other layers – elements of the petty bourgeoisie and professional middle class – will want to join the struggle.  The precariat is an interpellation that can help in forming a new, radical majoritarian politics with an anticapitalist core.

The precariat is not a dangerous, exotic, alien thing, not an incipient class to be patronised into existence.  It is all of us.  Every one of us who is not a member of the CBI, not a financial capitalist, not a government minister or senior civil servant, not a top cop or guest at a Murdoch dinner party, not a judge or news broadcaster – not a member, in other words, of the ‘power bloc’, the capitalist class in its fractions, and the penumbra of bourgeois academics and professionals that surrounds it.  We are all the precariat.  And if we are dangerous, it is because we are about the shatter the illusory security of our rulers. 


* CORRECTION: In the original version of this article, it was asserted that Pierre Bourdieu coined the term 'precariat'.  In fact, Bourdieu did not use this term, which was coined by Italian trade unionists and circulated among French labour organisations before being adopted by Guy Standing.  The author is suitably chastened.


Richard Seymour is the author of ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’‘The Meaning of David Cameron’ and, most recently, 'American Insurgents - A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism'. He blogs at Lenin’s Tomb.

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First published: 10 February, 2012

Category: Economy, Employment & Welfare, Labour movement, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

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16 Comments on "We Are All Precarious - On the Concept of the ‘Precariat’ and its Misuses"

By JamieSW, on 10 February 2012 - 10:15 |

Guy Standing has written for NLP. You can also read his book, ‘The Precariat’, online here.

By Ian Sinclair, on 10 February 2012 - 10:48 |

“In its current formulation, the concept of ‘the precariat’ is unconvincing, impressionistic and certainly tinged with millennial Weltschmerz.”
How many readers of this article have any idea what “millennial Weltschmerz” is? Very few, obviously. Which begs the question: why use the phrase in the first place?

By Richard Seymour, on 10 February 2012 - 13:55 |

“why use the phrase in the first place?”

Look it up.  It’s part of your Bildung.  (Look that up as well.)

By Ian Sinclair, on 10 February 2012 - 14:45 |

Hi Richard. As your snide reply seems to make clear your use of arcane and obscure language seems to be about making others feel inadequate/you look intelligent. I would have thought it all progressives would want to make their work as accessible as possible to the general public, no?

By Benjamin, on 10 February 2012 - 15:17 |

gerroff, Ian. you’re reading this on the internet, which means it takes less than three seconds to open another tab and find out what weltschmerz means. this is weighty stuff, an argument over the best use of terms to describe classes and dynamics in a complicated changing world. that means the language will have to be nuanced and precise, and we could all stand to learn a few more words in the process of studying it. rather than being defensive and taking umbrage where it is not intended, consider working WITH the people around you and taking their encouragement to learn more and do better as it IS intended.

By cmon, on 10 February 2012 - 16:03 |

I had to look up interpellation, so I did. It wasn’t hard and it didn’t make me feel all bad about myself. Put on your big-boy pants.

By tgb, on 10 February 2012 - 18:19 |

I’m not sure GCSE german counts as use of ‘arcane and obscure language’.

By JamieSW, on 10 February 2012 - 19:53 |

OK I’m going stop moderating through comments that focus solely on word-choices. I think various people have made various views on that clear enough (personally I think the piece is perfectly clear and where it uses jargon goes on to explain it - e.g. ‘interpellation’). There is an actual argument being made here, and it’d be nice to have some discussion of it.

By William, on 11 February 2012 - 11:42 |

There was a discussion of precariousness on Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed that might interest some people: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bm0pk

Bev Skeggs made the point that the experience of middle class graduates moving into the precariat was going to be different in the long term from the working class e.g. many could expect to inherit their parents’ houses.

By Jamie, on 11 February 2012 - 12:59 |

Thanks William. People might also be interested in the first issue of The New Inquiry mag, which is devoted to discussing precarity. http://thenewinquiry.com/publications/magazines/

By Jacob Richter, on 20 February 2012 - 01:19 |

“Class locations are determined by a matrix of practices related to the production of goods and capital, to the means of their production, and crucially to the reproduction of the system as a whole.”

Given the specific words like “matrix” being used, I wonder where Richard got his welcome and not one-dimensional definition of “class from.”  If it’s from certain online sources, I should point out that the order of relations and the first relation are questionable.

The reproduction of the system comes first, for only within it can the first two relations occur.  Another way of saying this is relationship to the official wage-labour system, for those outside belong to at least three underclasses: proper lumpenproletariat (prostitutes where prostitution is illegal, low-level gangsters), lumpenbourgeoisie (pimps, gang lords, and perhaps even hawkers / street vendors), and lumpen (the usual lifestyle beggar-homeless, plus also the masses in Saudi Arabia and a few other petroleum states who don’t work but instead receive “basic income” and similar welfare at the expense of guest workers).

As for why “production of goods and capital” is questionable, it doesn’t seem to hit upon debates on productive vs. unproductive labour properly.  Production of some goods can be quite unproductive (arms trade), while work in various services can be quite productive (public school teachers).

By Jacob Richter, on 20 February 2012 - 01:24 |

That part on Standing re. maternity pay is quite surprising.  Yet, given his basic income crusade, it shouldn’t, because rightist supporting basic income want to replace welfare with monetary payments.

By easytolo, on 15 March 2012 - 21:48 |

‘millennial Weltschmerz’ was so goddamn the perfect phrase there, ugh I hate commenters

By ronaldo munck, on 21 April 2012 - 20:21 |

This is a very fine contribution.
I was getting worried about the purchase of Guy Standing (though he did do a fine crititique of the ILO from the inside) and wanted to develop an alternative reading of the precariat from the left. Not quite sure if its an interpellation but yes we can work on those lines. Ronaldo Munck PS I also had to look up something like weltanschaung, no harm to learn new terms!

By Manuel Salgado, on 11 January 2013 - 19:25 |

Welcomed article. Nevertheless I’ve read a lot of althusserian marxism (Seymour elaborates on “interpellation” taking the concept from Althusser, and builds his argument on social classes from Poulantzas), I would like to point out that this is not the only way to think about social classes form a marxist perspective. Eventhough is the one i prefer, you should acknowledge Meiksins Wood formulations based on a Thompson interpretation. More importantly, how can you formulate a gramscian strategic politics that doesn`t buy the irrational myth of the 1% against all the others and the misguided perceptions on financial capitalism?

manuel salgado

By Maggie, on 08 March 2013 - 08:34 |

I thought the section on Marxian class and Standing’s attempt to describe the precariat as a class was great.  But am I right in thinking the final assessment of Standing does not mention the basic income proposal?  It is only in light of this policy suggestion that any of the others are at all appealing, so leaving it out seems unfair.

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