Standing’s Precariat

By | June 19, 2014

The term ‘precariat’ has been much used and abused of late. It was Guy Standing who precipitated this in 2011 with the publication of his The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London; Bloomsbury). Since then, earlier this year (2014), he has refined his concept and both extended his analysis and ventured a manifesto entitled A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (London; Bloomsbury).

In this blog I consider the rationale for and Standing’s explication of the notion of the precariat and append a comment or two of my own. I draw in particular on his A Precariat Charter.

Standing distinguishes between ‘work’ and ‘labour’. The Greeks, Standing contends, despite their gendered and slave-based system, had a better understanding of work than was current throughout the 20th century. For them, labour was not done by citizens but by slaves. Work was what the citizen and his family did around the home; ‘it was reproductive activity done in civic friendship’. Play was for recuperation and balance in life. This distinction between labour and work has significant ramifications, as feminists have long argued. As Pigou famously commented, if he were to hire a housekeeper or cook, national income and employment would go up; but if he were to marry her and she continued to do the same work, national income and employment would go down. (Standing: ‘this folly persists, in policy and statistics.’) Continuing in this vein, Standing writes:

‘ … we should define ‘the right to work’ as the right to pursue an occupation of one’s choice, where occupation comprises a combination of work, labour, leisure and recuperation that corresponds to one’s abilities and aspirations. While that will never be fully realized, policies and institutional changes should be judged by whether they move towards or away from it for the most deprived in the community.’

Standing maintains that ‘globalization’ has since the 1980s generated a class structure, superimposed on earlier structures, comprising : an elite, a salariat, proficians, an old ‘core’ working class (proletariat), a precariat, the unemployed, and a lumpen-precariat (or underclass). Interestingly, Standing regards the scheme resulting from the Great British Class Survey as a ‘variant’ rather than a bastard offspring.

So how does Standing define his classes? The elite or plutocracy comprises the far-less-than-1% of ‘super citizens’ who lack national allegiance. They include corporations: in one study of corporate networks, 147 entities (mostly financial groups run by the elite) were found to control 40% of the value of the world’s multinationals, and 737 controlled 80%.

The elite and salariat overlap to a degree. The latter consists of those in long-term employment or with contacts that promise permanency as long as they adhere to appropriate conventions. They receive extensive non-wage benefits and enjoy security of labour. It is the salariat who benefitted most from social democracy in the 20th century:

‘What puts them in a distinctive class position is that they receive much of their income from profits and shares, often indirectly through company or private pension plans, and benefit from generous tax breaks (subsidies) on their spending – housing, insurance, pensions, charitable donations and so on. This inclines them to support a market society and neo-liberalism …’

The proficians are an expanding number of, often ‘youthful’, mobile self-entrepreneurs. Wary of salaried labour they move constantly between projects and occupational titles. Some are aiming for elite status and pay can be high, but most are stressed and liable to burnout.

The proletariat sits below the salariat and proficians. Here Standing is understandably cautious:

‘The proletariat still exists, but it is not a majority anywhere and is shrinking. It was never a homogeneous class. But it could be defined by several modal characteristics, notably by its ‘relations of production’ and its ‘relations of distribution’. The working class was expected to supply stable labour, even if its members were subject to unemployment. The term that characterized their working lives was proletarianization, habituation to stable full-time labour. Even their representatives, trade unions and labour parties, preached a doctrine of disciplined labour.’

The proletariat ‘was’ defined, Standing contends, by its reliance on mass labour and wage income, plus ‘absence of control or ownership of the means of production, and habituation to stable labour that corresponded to its skills’.

The precariat, the focus of this blog, requires a fuller definition. It is defined by 10 features, so here goes.

First, re-relations of production, it consists of people living through insecure jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment. Access to housing and other resources is uncertain. Labour instability, Standing adds, is central to global capitalism. The precariat ‘is being habituated to unstable labour’. The precariat is neither a ‘proto-proletariat’ nor an ‘underclass’.

Second, the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution and remuneration. Standing rejects the division of income into capital versus wage labour to promote a notion of ‘social income’ (= all forms of income). Members if the precariat are in the business of collating all forms of income.

Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. Its members are ‘denizens’ rather than ‘citizens’, supplicants without rights.

Fourth, those in the precariat lack the trajectory, identity and biographical narrative long associated with occupational status.

Fifth, those comprising the precariat must engage in a lot of work outside of paid labour. The clear division between work and rest or recreation is lost to a requirement to be permanently available (e.g. zero-hours contracts).

Sixth, the precariat is less committed to, and more alienated from, labour than were past wage-labourers, which is largely a function of their lived-experience of insecurity.

Seventh, the precariat has a very low probability of social mobility; and the longer people are in it, the lower the probability.

Eighth, the precariat is ‘over-qualified’ for the labour available: ‘credentialism rules’. What increasingly matters is connections (cultural capital).

Ninth, the precariat is subject to a ‘peculiar combination of forms of insecurity’: it faces ‘unknown unknowns’. This is not calculable risk, but novel uncertainty.

And finally, the precariat is subject to a ‘combination of poverty traps’, a ‘tsunami of adversity’. In a post-welfare-state, workfare society, its members are trapped between a rock and a hard place, pushed into taking low-paid work that renders them worse off.

Standing in his own words:

‘In sum, the precariat is defined by ten features. Not all are unique to it. But taken together, the elements define a social group, and for that reason we may call the precariat a class-in-the-making. Critics may claim that the notion is too vague, as if that were not true of ‘the working class’ or ‘the middle class’. However two questions remain. Is the precariat a single group? And is the new class dangerous’

In his earlier book Standing distinguished between ‘grinners’ and ‘groaners’ within the precariat (that is, people inclined to accept their lot and people who felt ‘frustrated, angry and desperate’). He argued for a level of heterogeneity, going on to discern three ‘varieties’. The first group are those ‘bumped out’ of working-class communities and left feeling bereft and hopeless. The second consists of traditional denizens – migrants, Roma, ethnic minorities – who exist in limbo; some of the ‘disabled’, ex-cons and ex-servicemen may fall into this category. And the third are those who were educated but have found themselves frustrated and excluded.

‘In sum, we can say that the first part of the precariat experiences deprivation relative to a real or imagined past, the second relative to an absent present, an absent ‘home’, and the third relates to a feeling of having no future.’

Standing sees the precariat not only as class-in-the-making but as a potential driver of social change. Is he right on either count? I would suggest a no to the first and a yes to the second.

This blog is already over-long (for me) so I will not stop to comment on either the unemployed or the putative underclass, but just pose a question or two.

There are classes and there are groupings, maybe just potential groupings. Is the precariat even a ‘group-in-series’? The difficulty I have with the Standing, and much more so with the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), is the departure from well-theorized and hard-won ‘classical’ concepts of class. The GBCS, it seems to me, imprudently conflates the material and the social/cultural. Standing is more circumspect, but does he identity a genuine class-in-the-making? My sense is that the political salience of his publications (see my ‘permanent reform’ agenda) trumps his social science.

I favour a concept and theory of class and class struggle built on Marxist foundations. Accordingly I remain suspect about contemporary diversions. If you want to depart from classical notions of class, then devise a new frame: make a case for moving on and pioneer a novel post-class terminology that circumvents simplistic accounts of the ‘death of class’. I suspect Standing, as well as Savage and co, are betwixt and between.



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